James Ishmael Ford

Embracing the Inconceivable: Interspiritual Practice of Zen and Christianity

Ellen Birx
Orbis Books, Maryknoll, 2020

I’ve now read Embracing the Inconceivable three times. The first read was fast, the old graduate school read out of a request from the publisher for an endorsement. That read led me to write how “Embracing the Inconceivable opens doors to the mysteries of our hearts and invites us in. Ellen Birx is a gentle and wise guide to something as ancient as our dreams and as immediate as this very next breath. This book introduces us to a Zen Christianity as something that can heal the world’s wounds. It’s that important.”

And that’s why I felt I needed to revisit it. Although it took a while to get around to it. A couple of years after publication I gave it a more relaxed read, allowing some savoring. And then, this week I’ve returned to it a third time, attempting to capture some of the points that felt particularly significant for me on my own spiritual journey. And I realized it could be of use to others on the intimate way, and so was something wanted to share.

Ellen Birx is a nurse and nursing professor, a Zen master, a dharma successor to the renowned Jesuit Zen teacher Father Robert Kennedy. She is the author of Healing Zen: Awakening to a Life of Wholeness and Compassion While Healing Yourself and Others, and Selfless Love: Beyond the Boundaries of Self and Other. She is also co-author with her husband Charles, a Roman Catholic permanent deacon and also an authorized Zen teacher, of Waking Up Together: Intimate Partnership on the Spiritual Path, which I had the unique in my life opportunity to co-endorse with my spouse Jan, who also walks the intimate way.

Ellen and Charles Birx are also co-teachers at the New River Zen Community in Blacksburg, Virginia.

In Embracing the Inconceivable, Ellen invites us to a discipline of interspiritual practice, which for her leads to a nondual Christianity. In our times with the decline of religions, I feel this invitation into interspiritual practice critical. It can go in any number of directions, as we follow our hearts.

For me, personally, as a birthright Christian who has spent the greater part of my adult life as a person on the Zen way, but in my dotage finding tugs of that natal tradition, Ellen shines a light on feelings that have been bubbling within. And, more, she shows me some of who I am as an inheritor of the wisdom traditions of Jesus and the Buddha. More, she invites me into some of the how of this inheritance.

I suspect I am not the only person who can be enriched by Ellen’s wisdom.

Her approach to this book draws upon an equally deep familiarity with Zen Buddhist teachings, and especially the koan tradition of medieval China, and Christian traditions, and especially the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. At moments the breadth as well as depth of her insight is breath taking. And always it feels integrated and mature.

The foundation for her as she writes this book, and the invitation for all of us, is “not knowing;” bringing a profound humility to the project. It runs through every page of the book. This not knowing opens the heart and mind. What I feel she offers with her own humility and not knowing, is a way to set aside the rough literalisms of both traditions. Although I think the greater problem in literalism tends to lie with how so many approach the Christian tradition. But, that’s my read. For herself, as I read her, shile not engaging these matters literally, Ellen opens ways for us to engage these traditions seriously. How can I emphasize this adequately? She takes all of this as seriously as a heart attack.

Her approach to Christianity is humble. But it is also open, and it invites that nonliteralist but deeply serious engagement. “Most Christian believe that Jesus died on the cross to save us from our sins. He was innocent, but he made the ultimate sacrifice to redeem his people. Some Christians believe that Jesus saved us by his loving-example of how to live according to God’s values, rather than by his suffering and death.” (p. 65) She repeatedly shows the more literal read and invites a more open hearted engagement.

She doesn’t use the term, but it seems to me she describes a way not too dissimilar from the Orthdox call to theosis, deification, or union. Here we find the inspiration out of which Meister Eckhart sang “The eye with which I see God is the eye with which God sees me.” Here we are describing the fruits of our practices, of our insights. Here we begin to enter the mystery. What I love about this approach is even this is not a once and forever thing. We may indeed have moments of amazing clarity. Great break throughs. And we may not. And, even the great breakthroughs are not once and forever. They leave a trace, that can indeed inform us, and never be lost. But, that moment is itself a moment.

Taking the Christian story seriously, and as a continuing pointer into the deep, she tells us, “The cross takes on new meaning when viewed as Jesus suffering because he stood up for the people to bring them justice and liberation. Jesus – as a manifestation of God, hanging on the cross – shows that God suffers. Whenever his people suffer, God suffers.” (pp. 66-67)

With this Ellen tells us how “Buddha sitting in meditation and Jesus hanging on the cross both provide ways to alleviate the suffering that comes from viewing yourself as a limited, separate self.” (p. 67) Something I’ve felt. Similarly, from a profoundly serious but not literal engagement she first notes “The story of the resurrection is told differently in the various books of the New Testament, leaving this event open to interpretation.” (p. 68) And then “From the Zen perspective, eternal life does not mean endless time, but rather the transcending of time altogether.” (p. 70)

This is all rooted in an understanding of nonduality. Nonduality is a term found mostly in Hinduism and Buddhism. But, once one finds an alignment with nonduality, we can see it in other traditions. As Ellen tells us “The word nondual simply means ‘not two.’ It refers to the physical and spiritual aspects of life being not two. They are not separate. They are two aspects of seeing beyond your sense of a separate self to experience that you are not separate from ultimate reality, the universe, other people, or life itself.” (p. 3-4)

From this she turns to that complex word, God. And what it might mean in the light of nonduality. She notes “God is large. God can be called by many names, or by no name, and can be experienced in innumerable ways.” (p. 6) And how “Zen dissolves even the faintest concept of God, and the living, breathing God comes forth here and now. Zen practice and the direct experience of nonduality continuously open me to new dimensions of the infinite, inconceivable God.” (p. 7)

“This Zen awakening experience did not negate my previous Christian awakening to God’s love; it expanded it. Now it was not me loving God, or God loving me, but one infinite love, God’s love, with no separation whatsoever. I now experienced myself as a manifestation of God. Infinite ultimate reality, which I call God, is greater than me – immanent in me, others, and the world – but also transcendent, inconceivable, and inexhaustible.” (p. 17)

This becomes the world of nondual Christianity. Writers like Cynthia Bourgeault and Richard Rohr come to mind. Rich in their invitations, but Ellen Birx takes it a bit further along the line out of her deep Zen life.

Ellen quoted Dongshan (in Cook translation): p. 23)

Avoid seeking Him in someone else
Or you will be far apart from the self.
Solitary now am I, and independent,
But I meet Him everywhere.
He now is surely me,
But I am not Him.
Understanding it this way,
You will directly be one with thusness.”

For me that line opens me up, and invites questions. What is nonduality? What is it not? And what does it mean for us as spiritual practitioners, as people walking the intimate way?

For Reiho Masunaga the line goes: “You are not him; he is actually you.” For William F Powell the line goes: “You are not him, but he is clearly you.” For Thomas Cleary the line goes: “You are not it; It is you.” And the official Soto translation: “You are not it, but in truth it is you.”

On the spiritual way, at least as it is taught within the Zen schools, and captured in the ten Ox Herding Pictures, we come to the loss of all our ideas about ourselves and the world. We tumble into the great empty. Then we find a reconstruction, a rebirth. It manifests first as nature itself, just the world, or rather the worlds, and stars, and all the great mess of the universe. Then we return as a part of this great play of things. But we are old and we are new. We are the same as we’ve always been. Caught up in our wounds and longings. But the healing is also found. Found as nothing other than the being we are. That is you. That is me.

It is you. Voltaire once said “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” That. This. You are not God. But, in truth, in truth, God is you.

One of the important ways we can find the truth of this invitation is how “Interspiritual practice creates bridges between religious traditions that help transform divisiveness into inclusivity, mutual enrichment, and warm welcome.” (p. 62) So, with that she can say “Zazen is moment by moment death and resurrection.” (p. 70) I get it. I hear it. I feel it. It speaks a truth to me that is healing and inviting.

Ellen tells us “Interspiritual practice frees people to be nurtured and enriched by the wisdom and practices of more than one tradition. Interspiritual practice does not erase boundaries. It respects and appreciates differences among traditions while building bridges that enable us to work across religious boundaries for the common good.” (p. 92)

Much of the book is an invitation into the life of prayer and engagement, totally Christian, and completely Zen. As a birthright Christian I am especially interested in the rise of a nondual Christianity. Looking at those old stories and traditions without assuming dualism, an ultimate gap between the holy, God, and this world, and specifically, us; is enriching.  And it is a two-way street. There is no absolute truth, we all get a little angle on it, it is always, always through a glass darkly. And with that and within these encounters, Buddhism is currently being enriched, as well.

The world of form, this body, this world, is empty, is endless potential, is divine. And the divine, God, the holy, the boundless, is nothing other than our lives, lived. Here with new ears I can hear the scriptures, especially the teachings of Jesus. I can hear the sorrow and the fear of life as it is lived, particularly now in this time of plague. And, and this is so important: I can hear a secret joy, and a true comfort. While we, you and I are as passing as a child’s breath, we are also the stuff of the divine. We are God’s eyes, we are God’s heart, and we are God’s hands.

And our comfort, and our joy, and our lives are contained within the warm embrace of the holy. Along with, I hope, the hard realities. Within the mysteries of not one, not two, we are all of us responsible.

And. But. Also. Importantly, importantly. In moments like these, how can we not look to the deep? How can we not allow the sadness and the fear their place? And, how can we not open ourselves to the embrace of the holy? Even as we walk through the valley of the shadow.

Ellen cites Kuie-feng Tsung-mi’s famous five categories of Zen practice and concludes how “A person sitting silently in zazen as a form of Christian contemplation of Christian meditation might be considered an example of Gedo Zen, which is meditation with a religious motivation, but one that lies outside the context of Buddha’s insight and teachings.

“On the other hand, a Christian practicing Zen with knowledge of both Christian teachings and Buddha’s insight and teachings; sitting silently in zazen beyond thoughts, concepts, and images; and open to breaking through the illusion of a separate self and experiencing ultimate reality for the benefit of all beings is an example of the fourth or fifth category of Zen. This practice is consistent with Buddha’s highest teachings and with Jesus’s highest teachings, which I call nondual Christianity.” (p. 117)

I feel invited.

I feel challenged.

I feel comforted.

Something true and healing has been offered in this book.

I recommend it with all my heart.

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