Thomas Keating talks about his experience with East-West interfaith dialogue and the relationship of Zen and Christianity.
Q: You are well known for participating in East-West religious dialogue. How did you start these conversations?
A: A lot of the young people who came to the guest house at St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts, were doing Transcendental Meditation or were involved in Hinduism with various swamis, like Satchidananda. I also had a lot of contact with the Tibetan Buddhists, and we lived just down the road from Barre where the Vipassana people [the Insight Meditation Society] are. I knew some of the great masters that came to teach there like Achaan Chah and Mahasi Sayadaw. They would come down to Spencer just to see what it was like. I had a chance to talk with them and many other outstanding teachers. A Zen master, Roshi Sasaki, stopped by on his own initiative to see what we were up to. He gave us a number of sesshin, maybe twice a year for about eight or ten years while I was abbot there. Not all the monks went, but those who were interested--a significant number--went.
Q: What is sesshin?
A: Sesshin is seven or eight days of mostly sitting [in meditation] interspersed with teish, a presentation by the roshi on a particular text or theme, and dokusan, a private interview with the roshi. The private interview focuses on a koan, an unanswerable question, that frustrates the intellect so that you have to answer not with reason but with the body, a gesture, or with words that show that you have understood the particular experience the koan is designed to awaken. If you don't, the roshi rings the bell and you get out. It is very simple. The question is really how much are you willing to change.
Q: Did you also participate?
A: I did because I had great admiration for the roshi's spiritual attainment and wisdom. The teish's were wonderful; [they provided] a whole different perspective on ultimate reality, truth, and the false-self system. I learned a great deal from the roshi especially how dependent on the intellect we are in the West. Zen really begins where the intellect ends. Not that it despises the intellect but Zen recognizes its limitations and deliberately works on developing the intuitive faculties and moving to a union with all reality. Certain experiences of that unity can't be expressed in words but only in koans, poetry, or symbol.
Q: Did your experience with Zen inform your own Christian faith?
A: Yes, Zen enriched it. Roshi Sasaki thought that Zen could help Christians become better Christians. He saw--and I would certainly adhere to his insight--that there is a certain Zen quality in all religions. It is a fundamental religious attitude. Centering prayer is very rich but quite diffuse and tends to put the emphasis on grace in a way that perhaps needs to be balanced by the Zen attitude that is that we have to do something too. St. Ignatius expressed it well when he said, "Act as if everything depended on you and trust as if everything depended on God."
Q: Well, how do you do that?
A: That is a koan. You could spend a lifetime trying to figure out how to do that.