Christianity With A Side of Zen: Six Zen Teachings Christianity Should Re-Learn

The other day I found myself under a great deal of stress. A storm on monday had rained down some baseball sized hail on my old car that I was just about to sale. My windows are all cracked, my exterior is dented, and my roof has a hole in it… It was not a great way to kick off the week.  On top of that my frantic mind was already having to deal with the pressures that come from handling school, work, ministry, and social pressures.  I’m the type of guy who has a mini-panic attack at least once a week, usually over things that are entirely out of my control. It’s a problem, and I’ve gotten a lot better at it than I was in the past.

Anyways I just happened to stumble upon a book about Zen on this most stressful day. I typically don’t care much for Eastern philosophy (I find it too circular and vague) but while reading I started to draw some connections to my faith. Some of the things proposed in this book could easily be translated into Christianity, and some of them when I really thought about it, were already a part of my faith. I had simply forgotten about them or failed to see them on first glance.

Now I’m not trying to suggest (as some have) that Jesus was somehow influenced by Buddhist teachings. I’m also not advocating “Zen-Christianity” which downplays Christ to a mere wisdom teacher who was no more “divine” than Joe the Plumber. What I am doing is simply bringing to light some often forgotten Christian teachings, and doing so through Zen.

1) Just Look at What’s There:

“Shoshin” is the Buddhist concept of the beginners mind. This is a mental attitude that allows for one to be open and eager to learn. If a person has a beginner’s mind then they will not come in with a bunch of preconceived notions or beliefs already set. In this way they will get a richer and fuller experience since they are not stumbling over how to make everything fit into the worldview they have already adopted. I think if one really wants to experience Christ it would be wise to leave as much theological baggage behind as possible.

Have you ever noticed that people tend to be able to twist the Bible to say just about anything they want it to say? I once knew a guy who was very big into gun’s and after many searches he had compiled a list of scriptures that he believed proved that the Bible followed his anti-gun control political beliefs. Now I really don’t have much an opinion about this gun control debate, but I’m pretty confident that the authors of the Bible weren’t writing with the intention of having some guy thousands of years down the road quote them to defend his right to own a boom-stick.  This is a silly example, but far too often Christians (myself included) will approach scripture already knowing what we want it to say. We want Jesus, or Paul, or Moses, to agree with us and we’ll nit pick up a storm to try to make them. The problem here is that in doing so we are not worshiping God or letting the words of scripture penetrate us and grow us, instead we are molding the Bible into our own image and worshiping it as our own.Wrong-way-to-read-the-Bible

If the way we read the Bible always backs up what we already believe we aren’t going to grow at all. Jesus’ teachings aren’t really going to help you if all you do is try to figure out how to turn him into a puppet that sides with you. There are so many doctrines, ideas, beliefs, and desires blocking our view when we read scripture that sometimes it can be hard to see what the authors might actually be saying. I can tell you with complete confidence that Jesus was not a Calvinist or an Armenianist, nor was he Catholic or Protestant. Jesus wasn’t any of these things because these are all lenses through which we view Christ. We have so much theological baggage tied to us that we have a hard time putting it all aside and seeing the Christ for who he was.

Christ was not amazed by our theological exegetical or hermeneutical skills, in fact what he really wanted from his followers was nothing more than a simple child like faith:

“And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

– Matthew 18:2-4

How often we tend to forget that the savior of the world spent his time with simple shepherds, fishermen, and street people. In trying to rationalize, compartmentalized, dissect, and study Christ we must be very careful that we don’t miss Christ in the process. This is not an attack on academics or Biblical studies, as much as it is a call not to miss the big picture.

Let Jesus be Jesus and try to experience him and his words with new eyes. Let him teach you, mold you, and make you into the person he wants you to be instead of the other way around.

2) Meditate (Spend Time Experiencing God)

Meditation is something most people attribute to Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, but taking some time out of your day to escape the world and sit in silence is something I think most Christians would benefit from. Before I go any further I’d like for you to take a moment and consider when the last time you actually just walked with God. I’m not talking about your “Christian walk” but a more literal walk. When is the last time you opened up some time in your day to let God speak to you. Maybe it’s been a while. Don’t worry if you can’t remember the last time you did this, sitting in silence is not something that a lot of Christians make a regular practice of.

urlBy proposing this I am not really trying to come up with some East meets West hybrid religion, instead I’m just suggesting we open ourselves up more to experiencing God in the silence. In the 46th Psalm we are told to “Be still and know that I am God” and when Elijah was in the mountains he learned that God was not found in the fire, the wind, nor the earthquakes, but rather the silence. One of the first things Jesus does in Mark 1:35 is go off to be alone with God and frequently we get the image of Christ finding a nice quiet place to be with the Father. Finding God in the stillness isn’t something that is new, but it is something that I think Christianity could use some more of.

Consider your prayer life, do you make time for God in your every day life?  When you pray do you set aside time to let God move in you and speak to you, or do you spout off a list of requests before bed each night and before meals? There’s nothing wrong with bringing concerns before God, but I think we would all benefit if we, like those before us, took time away from our distracting and busy lives every day to just be with God and enjoy his presence.

3) Keep It Simple

Zen teachings are not very complicated, though many people could easily make them out to be. Simplicity is a term that could not often be applied to Christian theology. We ask a lot of complicated questions and we want very detailed answers. We aren’t just satisfied with “abstain from sexual sin” because we want a very detailed list of what we can and cannot do. We aren’t satisfied with “turn the other cheek” because we want to know every loophole and exception that exists. When we really get down to it we want Law, and Christ instead gave us freedom. We have been freed from the bounds of sin and law by Christ, but we still want to have a legalistic system of do’s and dont’s. In the gospels people tried constantly to trick Jesus into legalistic loopholes, condemning him for healing on the sabbath or for letting his disciples eat wheat when it was not the proper time. Jesus dismissed these trivialities and brought about a new perspective, one that focuses on the heart.

One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

– Matthew 22:36-40

Let’s be clear that the Bible doesn’t spell everything out for us. There’s no passage that’s
going to directly address birth control, stem cell research, cloning, nuclear bombs, high-fructose corn syrup, internet piracy, or tax evasion. But we have a pretty simple way of formulating Christian opinions about just about anything. Are we Loving God and Loving people? Are you seeking to honor God in the way you act and treat others, or are you trying to get away with as much as possible while still not breaking any rules?For those of us who have been forgiven and made clean through Christ, we have the Holy spirit as our guide to help us make difficult calls. What really makes a different is a heart change. If your heart’s end goal is

still self-centered and seeking to get away with as much as possible then I think it is time to re-examine yourself. If your heat is truly focused on loving God and others before yourself then he will make your path straight. You don’t have to logic yourself in or out of every situation, God will guide you if you let him. Coming into proper relationship with God and allowing Christ to be your center puts you in a much greater state to make moral judgements than memorizing a strict list of do’s and dont’s. Paul in Romans 3:19-20 states that laws and moral codes cannot make a man righteous, but instead they can only make him aware of his own shortcomings. Righteousness comes through Christ and we now belong to a new covenant based in forgiveness, mercy, grace, and love. Let us live as if we truly believe this.  Let us stop waving around complex moral codes as weapons like the Pharisees of old used to do, build themselves up and taring others down. Let us love God and Love people and let the scriptures guide us and help us as we seek to do this.

4) Be Mindful (Take Time To Appreciate God’s Gifts) 

url-3When is the last time you were truly grateful for all the wonderful things God has blessed you with? Have you ever stopped and thought about how your very existence makes you extremely fortunate. Consider how many parings of people it took throughout history to make sure you were born. Consider how many different children could had there been a different combination of seed and egg? The overwhelming number of people that could have been, were never born. Yet here you are, reading these words I type. Your won the lottery a million times over simply by the fact that you have been born. You get the privilege of experiencing the wonder of life and all that it has in store, the good and bad. How blessed you are.

Today is an amazing gift that you have been given and there are any number of beautiful and wonderful things all around you. Every day is a new beginning and a new opportunity to experience so many wonderful things. There is a world full of amazing, unique, and beautiful people that are only here for a short while, and yet you get to live with them and love with them. There are millions of things to do, to see, to study, to learn, and to achieve. There is new music to listen to, new friends to make, new foods to try, new places to wander, new things to discover, and new mysteries to uncover. Your mind itself is an amazing place to wander. You can study yourself, create art, think big new thoughts, or most amazingly of all have a chat with your maker.

This world is so vast, so massive, so beautiful, and so full that I often wonder how anyone ever finds the time to be bored. Gifts are everywhere and yet we refuse to see them. Try to cultivate an attitude of gratefulness and take some time to be mindful of what is around you. Realize all that you have, all that you are,  all that you could be, and all that you have been given.  Be grateful.

5) Be Open (Don’t Let Doctrine Imprison You)

url-1The other day I was speaking with one of my professors about the nature of miracles. He was of the opinion that the “miracles” of the Bible (if they occurred at all) could all be naturally explained. This professor is very strongly involved in the sciences, specifically physics and chemistry. Because my professor saw such beauty in the natural laws of the universe he was of the opinion that a perfect God would not violate the laws he set up just to prove a point to us. This debate was really just a friendly discussion, but at the end the professor told me that “In order to hold to what I believe is true, I just can’t accept your arguments.”

At the time I saw nothing wrong with this. The professor knew what he believed and he respected what I believed. He was considerate enough to entertain the notion that I could be right, but he ultimately rejected my doctrine to remain consistent. The problem here that I didn’t realize until just now is that the professor is imprisoned to his own doctrine so much that he is willing to reject what is out there for the sake of consistency.

Granted I’m sure I have been guilty of this as well. I am not exactly an open mind who is willing to turn on a dime, but perhaps when dealing with God we shouldn’t be so slow to consider possibilities. God is much bigger than I think any of us could possibly give him credit for, and I feel utterly confident that I am somehow so special that I have a perfect and complete understanding of God.

Now I firmly believe God is good. I believe God is not unknowable and that he does reveal himself and his nature through his creation and through Christ and the Holy Spirit. I’m mot advocating an unknowable God, but I am advocating a God that is a lot bigger than the human brain can fathom.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,”
declares the Lord.
 “As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

– Isaiah 55:8-9

I truly believe we can have a relationship with the creator of the universe. I believe God is love and that the scriptures in the Bible do reveal parts of his loving nature and character. I also think we will never be able to fully encapsulate God in our doctrines. Doctrines are our human endeavor to find consistency and Theology is merely just human logic being applied to the almost impossible task of wrapping our brains around God. We shouldn’t, however get so caught up in our doctrines and theology that we put limitations on God and start dictating what we believe he can and cannot do. Let’s try to remember that we worship a God who is much bigger than we can imagine. If we are worshiping a God that is small enough to be fully grasped by the human mind is a God that mankind could have easily made up. Why do you think God requires faith? It’s not because he gets a kick out of making people put their logic aside, but rather it is because human logic has it’s limits. Be open and be in wonder of God, don’t try to force him to live in your tiny doctrines of human comprehension. Don’t let your theology become your idol.

6) Get A Sense Of Humor 

I have a pretty dry sense of humor, so maybe this won’t seem as funny to you guys as it is to me, but one time I was teaching a lesson on Hosea and I came across this image:

Hosea 2

I thought it was hilarious. It’s a clever little joke about one of the book’s major themes (Hosea’s cheating wife was like Israel’s abandonment of God) and so I worked it into my lesson. No one thought it was funny. It wasn’t a matter of the joke falling flat, but rather that no one thought I should be making fun of Hosea’s situation. I wasn’t trying to make any real statement here, I just wanted to bring some humor into the study.

Maybe this is predominately a Baptist problem, but I get the feeling that I’m not alone in saying that Christians could learn to laugh at ourselves a little better. Being in ministry, two of my favorite Church jokes are:

Q: “If you take a Baptist fishing, how do you keep him from drinking all your beer?”

A: “Bring another Baptist.”

Q: “How many Baptists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”

A: “One to change the light bulb, and three committees to approve the change and decide who brings the potato salad.”

Would you believe that I offended people with these jokes? You don’t get much more tame than that. Now I know I’m cheesy as all get out, but I’d never have thought before I got into Ministry just how easily offended people in churches can get. Have you ever heard of a Buddhist getting offended? When was the last time Buddhists boycotted a business or got angry and went on the news to fuss about how offended they were about something. I can’t think of a time.


This is actually Budai, not Buddha.

Buddhists and Zen religions seem to have a good sense of humor about things. I’m pretty sure when most people think of the Buddha they think of the laughing fat man. While this isn’t really accurate, it does say something about humor.

Look at icons in Christian art and see how long it takes for you to find a picture of someone smiling. Christians don’t smile much in their art and honestly I’d like to see this change. Christianity deals a lot in suffering, which is reflected a lot in our art, but it also deals in joy and happiness.

We don’t have to take everything so seriously, and perhaps a part of turning the other cheek could involve maybe not getting so up tight about every little joke that comes our way. The Christian life is a joyous and fun existence. I think it might be a good idea to develop a sense of humor to show this. The passage that comes to my mind is at the end of Paul’s letter to the Philippians which reads:

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God,which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.

– Philippians 4:4-8

Basically, lets focus on the positive and lighten up a bit. There are times to be serious, but there are also times for thanksgiving and laughter. I’m pretty sure God didn’t create laughter so that we could squirm uneasily at jokes and become offended whenever we happen to be the butt of one.

As the author of Proverbs said, “A joyful heart is good medicine.”


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