Zen Buddhism and other forms of Buddhism such as vipassana that emphasize meditation practice are becoming increasingly popular in our culture. Zen is appealing to Westerners in part because as a non-theistic tradition it does not have God imagery that conflicts with Western God imagery. It is often described as a philosophy rather than a religion, and its meditation practices can easily be adapted by those of other faiths.
I was raised as an Episcopalian, but for many years I felt that there was something missing in my Christian faith: I dearly wanted to do what Jesus said, to love my neighbor as myself, but I didn’t know how and nothing I learned in church seemed to provide the answer. When I began practicing Zen meditation about twenty years ago, it seemed to provide a missing piece of the puzzle. I began to feel myself changing in ways that I didn't fully understand until after they had occurred. At a week-long silent meditation retreat, I found myself able to be intimate with other people in a way that had not been possible before. I began to see myself more clearly and understand how I had been getting in the way of my desire to become more loving.
Zen asked me to focus on my breath, letting go of all thoughts. Thoughts of course did arise, and I was asked to accept their presence and let them go. In accepting these unwanted thoughts, I slowly learned to accept all of myself, including troubling thoughts and emotions, qualities that were not in keeping with my self-image, and my own limitations. Parts of myself that I previously rejected began to be integrated and I started to feel the same tenderness towards my own weaknesses that I might feel for the weaknesses of a child. In this atmosphere, it became easier to stop looking for "the answer" and just be who I am.
As I began to accept the contradictions that seem to exist within myself, allowing doubts and conflicting beliefs to co-exist, I also became better able to accept new ideas from outside myself, to allow the thoughts of others that were not immediately reconcilable to my own to live within me. I became able to hold more and more difficult and unresolvable material and was more ready to enter into dialogue.
Before I began to meditate, Christianity seemed to be about moral precepts representing far-away, unattainable ideals. I thought I needed to become someone who was only half of myself, the good without the bad. In my Zen practice, I learned to look at myself with a clearer view, seeing my own behavior with all its eccentricities, yet also accepting it more thoroughly. As I accepted my own "bad" parts, I realized that it was not just the good in myself that allowed me to love others, it was the parts of myself that felt failed and defective that allowed me to identify and connect with the aspects of others that were less than perfect. As I became more accepting and less judgmental towards both myself and others, loving behavior arose out of me more organically.
Practicing within the Zen tradition where there were no images of God enabled me to gain a new perspective on my own tradition. Slowly I discovered that, because I felt judgmental towards myself, without realizing it I believed in a judgmental God. As I became more accepting of myself, it became easier for me to experience God as a loving, merciful presence. Even though the Zen tradition doesn’t mention God, God was always present to me in the meditation, and after practicing Zen for about seven years, I began to feel the need to practice with others who shared my belief in God. I embraced the practice of centering prayer, a silent, contemplative practice based on ancient Christian tradition.
Zen meditation provided me with a silent, healing place where I learned to accept myself more deeply. It is a profound practice that is available to anyone who would like to develop spiritually regardless of their belief or lack of belief in God.