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The Gospel Isn’t Zen

One of the most popular images of spirituality and enlightenment is that of the zen practitioner, sitting calmly in the lotus position. Deep breaths. Long silences. Peaceful surroundings.

Zen meditation is useful. I’ve practiced it many times, and I’d recommend it to anybody. Recollecting the mind and body to this present moment is a valuable skill. The rested calm and equanimity associated with meditation is laudable.

Yet, for those of us who seek to follow the God of Israel, we cannot be satisfied with inner peace. While there’s no doubt that Jesus spent a lot of time in quiet meditation, his path is not one of silent retreat and self-improvement. Jesus reveals a God who both rejoices and cries, who demonstrates great tenderness and furious anger. This is a God revealed not in stoic calm, but in passionate engagement with everyone around us.

The way of discipleship is not a race to become “perfect” by human measures. A cheerful disposition is not a requirement to follow Jesus. The saints of God can be – and are! – just as grouchy, introverted, or melancholy as anyone else. In fact, many of the most faithful servants of God have been among the most afflicted, emotionally unstable people in their societies.

The gospel isn’t about having good manners or being easy to get along with. Friendship with Jesus isn’t about taking deep breaths and smiling. The way of the Holy Spirit is a life of love, expressed through compassion and justice. If that comes across as cranky, so be it. If your disposition is a shy one, God will work through that, too. God is ready to use each of us, just as we are. You don’t have to be a polished image of enlightenment to be a saint.

Have confidence that God created you with a purpose. Even your flaws are there for a reason. Embrace yourself, as God has already embraced you. If you’re stubborn, angry, or cry easily – remember that we follow a savior who demonstrated all of these traits in the course of his ministry. Jesus lost his composure on a regular basis; certainly we can, too!

Zen is great. But it’s not the gospel. The gospel is love – real love that flips over tables, stands with the powerless, cries for the dead, and fights like hell for the living.

Related Posts:

You Have No Time But This Present Time

What Is Christianity?

  • flofflach

    I’ve found Buddhist Dharma talks a real help in relationship to my Quaker path, especially on non-violence. I don’t think meditation/Buddhism practiced fully is a denial of emotions, it is an acceptance of them, but seeking to perhaps not act in an extreme way. But not to confuse that with NOT acting. The eightfold path including: right speech, right livelihood, right action…these things are like faith in action.

  • broschultz

    There’s peace and then there’s PEACE. What I have noticed is that my relationship with God through Jesus gives me an inner peace that doesn’t depend on quieting my body or the size of the waves I’m walking on.

  • Susan Chast

    Great! An important message. Getting ruffled is often the first sign of God leading.

  • Keith Saylor

    I’m so thankful that, by the power of the direct and unmediated inshining Light illuminating my conscious and informing my conscience, I do not depend upon the outward characterizations of Jesus’ behavior from outward scripture to inform my actions in daily life. Many of us know the Presence of Christ, unmediated by and through the outward characterizations of people and scripture, in our daily actions. We know the living Gospel directly, and in that knowing, we often experience a transformation of our very behavior; so that, no longer does, for example, anger or even joy overshadow the inshining Light itself in itself that illuminates and guides action. This inshining (not inner) Peace of the God of Israel is action in itself and has nothing to do with “self-improvement.” Inshining Peace in itself is the very transformation of the foundation of the conscious and conscience by the power of the inshining (the movement of the Spirit of Christ upon human being) itself is the source of salvation and reconciliation.

  • sdpdx

    I love this post. I wanted to share it
    on my facebook, but the pic attached to it was the portrait of you! I didn’t really want to share that.

  • While there are important differences between Christianity and Zen Buddhism, Zen in this post is kind of a straw man: more associated with popularized American Zen than Zen Buddhism. The points still stand if referring to the worst of American Zen.

    • You’re right, Jeremy. “Zen” in this post is actually referring to popular conceptions about eastern spirituality, not the Zen Buddhism of serious and grounded practitioners. I didn’t feel able to easily draw out this nuance in such a short post, but it’s worth acknowledging.

  • Jeffrey Miles

    I would think you would be able to make your case for whatever flavor of Christianity you’re proposing without making a straw-man argument about another spiritual path. And before you start making that argument, perhaps you ought to look at the impact of the two spiritual views. Buddhism, which has pretty much remained true to its roots, and Christianity, which has a history of beginning and supporting wars, being in the pocket of the state and the rich, and oppressing other religions. The two-thousand years of Christian love and charity has just about done some of us in.