St Francis Xavier Meets a Zen Master

St Francis Xavier Meets a Zen Master March 12, 2023

St Francis Xavier Meets a Zen Master

James Ishmael Ford

It was on this day, the 12th of March, in 1622 that the Roman church declared Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier saints. They were two of the seven men who took the founding vows creating the Jesuit order in 1534.

Xavier spent some years attempting to evangelize India, and also spent time in Japan. I believe he is the first European to write a moderately accurate report of Zen in a European language.

Father Xavier appears to have actually cultivated a genuine friendship with Abbot Ninshitsu of Fukushoji in Kagoshima. They spent many hours together and talked of many things. Heinrich Dumoulin gives a delightful accounting of Xavier’s inquiry into Zen’s meditation and the abbot’s response.

In a stroll through the temple grounds the two friends came across monks seated in meditation. Deeply impressed by the modesty, the concentration, and the repose they displayed, Xavier asked the abbot, “What are these monks doing?” The abbot laughed and said, “Some are calculating the contributions received from their followers during the past months. Others are thinking about how they might get better clothing and personal care. Still others are thinking of vacation and pastimes. In short, no one is thinking of anything important.

I really, really like Ninshitsu Roshi.

I don’t believe the good father quite got the point.

But he did listen.

For a bit deeper digging into this, I recommend a posting by my friend Ken Ireland.

One thing we do know is how in the years that followed these first meetings, many Jesuits would continue to find Zen very interesting.

For instance, as one of many possible examples, Robert Kennedy, SJ:

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