A Journey with Zen


  by Father Gordon Williams.

  I was ordained to the priesthood in 1984 at the Franciscan  Study Centre in Canterbury. I am often asked about my interest in Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism and what part this has played in my vocation.

 My Zen journey began many years ago when I was a teenager living in London.   For me this was a time of unrest and spiritual soul searching. I particularly remember being in Oxford Street watching the Hare Krishna followers process up the street, chanting and singing with drums and cymbals. This strange bunch bemused a lot of people but their shaven heads and little ponytails fascinated me. They seemed to me such a gentle people in a somewhat unspiritual environment. This period of my life marked the beginning  of an interest in eastern religions. I became particularly drawn to Buddhism and Zen, though I struggled to understand either! But this period gradually faded and I became more focused on the Christian Faith and Catholicism in particular. At the age of nineteen I became a Catholic, drawn as I was by its deep contemplative theology and rich liturgy.

 My journey was not to end there. By the age of twenty-five I had joined the Franciscan Order and became a priest six years later. St Francis had a wonderful appeal. It could be said that he was a practitioner of Zen because he was so in touch with the natural world. St Francis spoke of 'Brother Sun and Sister Moon'! This is pure Zen.

 While I was training for the priesthood my love for Zen re-emerged and became my spiritual companion during my studies. It was much later that I began any serious practice of Zen meditation.

I am quite often asked  how this fits into my personal prayer life. The answer to that is that it is my prayer life! What is often not understood is that Zen meditation can be practiced by anyone of any faith, or no faith! It is something  you do rather than something  you believe. Anyone can meditate. In this sense Zen meditation is surprisingly practical. It’s understandable that some think it's strange to sit and do nothing for half an  hour. But of course, that's far from what is happening in meditation. In meditation  your senses are very awake; it is a serious mental activity. Zen meditation is basically about awareness. Being aware of yourself on  a deep level and being aware of the world around  you and of our relationship with everything!

There are many reasons why people take up meditation.  Some seek to cope with stress; others are looking for mental abilities. Whatever the reasons, it comes down to a desire to change the way we relate to the world, to others and to ourselves. A great attraction for me is that the practice of Zen is so deeply rooted in  our ordinary lives! There is nothing strange or weird about it at all! It's about seeing things deeply. Realising that there is so much of life that just passes us by. This is what is meant by 'mindfulness', a word often used in Zen.

People sometimes ask whether Zen is a religion. The answer to this is not in the usual sense of the word 'religion'. There are no dogmas in Zen and very little structures except some of the rituals of Zen monks. I understand Zen as a way of life that opens up greater depth to my own religious tradition as a Catholic and a priest. It is sometimes said that Zen is a 'Godless religion', which is why many are very suspicious of it. It seems to me that Zen is only 'Godless' in that there are no ways of speaking of God. But it's not out of  place to equate Nirvana with the Kingdom of Heaven. Many practitioners of Zen would be happy with this.

The heart  of Zen is the present moment that is living truly In the present moment. So many of us (including me) live so much of our lives worrying about the future or dwelling in the past. To live in the present moment is to enjoy life to the full! It is  only the present moment that we have!