The First Encounter Between a Jesuit and a Zen Master

The First Encounter Between a Jesuit and a Zen Master December 3, 2023

Francis Xavier
(by Jean Leclerc)







The 3rd of December has been declared a feast or saint’s day for Francis Xavier. He was one of the first Jesuits. And eventually a Catholic missionary to Japan.

While fervently hostile to nonChristian religions, and with that, if indirectly, there’s some blood on his hands.

I also believe he is also the first Westerner to write a moderately accurate report of Zen in a European language. Which I find endlessly fascinating.

Born in the Kingdom of Navarre, today a part of Spain, in 1506. In 1534 the good father was one of the first seven men to undertake vows of the Jesuit order. He spent some years attempting to evangelize India, with that stain on his memory, and then off to Japan.

There 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, translated or paraphrased, I don’t know how loosely, from Xavier’s “famous” “great letter.”

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. Zen can be elusive for someone too subtle in their thinking. Which is kind of a hallmark of the Jesuits.

But he did listen, and whether he got the point, he did try hard to accurately recount what happened.

And in the ensuing years many Jesuits would also find Zen very interesting.

About James Ishmael Ford
James Ishmael Ford's sixth book, the Intimate Way of Zen, will be available from Shambhala Publications in July, 2024. It is currently available for pre-order from Amazon. You can read more about the author here.
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