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The enlightenment of Zen Buddhism and the Hesychastic vision of the divine light.

My intention here is to present the religious phenomena of Zen and Hesychasm, analyzing similarities within the mechanism of prayer and movements within the respective faiths. There is a common way that the transcendent light is exposed in Zen Buddhism and Hesychasm, but at the same time there is conflict between traditional Eastern Christian ideas on the communion with God and the Western approaches to God that are manifest in the Eastern and Western understanding of God.

The divine light in the Christian tradition and enlightenment in the Oriental religions are two different experiences. The common characteristics of the breathing exercises in Hesychasm and Zen make the study of these common religious phenomena interesting. Byzantine monks in the East were free persons and at the same time obedient to traditional authority. The bishops were elected from the monastic community. The Byzantine society respected monks who were completely devoted to God and who engaged in unceasing prayer, fasting, and restraint. This unceasing prayer was very important for the monks, who adopted a variety of techniques and theories developed in relation to it. Traditionally, there are two schools of thought on the matter within Christianity: (1) The school of Evagrios of Pontos (Asia Minor), which is based on Platonism, with an epistemological approach to purify the "mind" and unite with the divine spirit; and (2) the school of Makarios, leading toward Neoplatonism, with an approach of purifying the heart.

The monks of the fourteenth century leaned toward the Makarian school of thought. They emphasized that the human being is body, heart, and spirit that participate in the blessed vision of the uncreated light and especially in prayer. In this way the whole human being is transformed and deified, a process known as "theosis." The purpose of the monks in prayer is literally to attain communion with God.

The "light" is a universal symbol of God and God's Reign, in contrast to darkness and its misery. The symbol of God as "light" was commonly used in Greek philosophy and religious tradition in the mystery religions ("enlightenment": as vision of god or goddess); this was also true in Gnosticism, in the heretical sects of Judaism and Christianity. In the Christian creed Jesus Christ is the Son of God, viewed as "Light of Light," and the entire Christian theology, ethics, and liturgies are imbued by this symbolism of "light." It is true that some Eastern writers speak of God in apophatic terms and symbolism. This is true only in a few neoplatonic theologians who speak of God in an absolute apophatic way. For them, God is beyond, as described in the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, Maximus the Confessor, and others. However, according to the claim of the apophatic way, "God is light" more than darkness.

Especially within the Christian life and theory, it is in the "Uncreated light" that the symbols of the "light" are manifest in the created world. This is also evident from the Hebrew Bible. This transcendent light is manifested in Jesus Christ, through his whole life and teaching, and especially in the Transfiguration on Mount Tabor and his Resurrection. In this light, all the faithful participants in their daily life will participate in the eschaton, in the End of Days. The hesychasts of the Holy Mountain make every effort to attain exactly this type of life. This type of theological language concerning God and communion with God always had a real and symbolic taste of the transcendent now, as well as the hope for a more complete taste and fulfillment of God in the future. The hesychasts introduced an intensive realism and a time of completeness in relation with the divine light and filled with God; this fulfillment was realized in their own practice of prayer and in their expectation that during prayer they participate in true uncreated light and are therefore transfigured by the light of the holy transfiguration.

This is the point that we need to make the connection to Zen Buddhism. Zen developed around the seventh century C.E., from Mahayana Buddhism. Within Mahayana Buddhism, new practices that led to the Buddhist enlightenment were developed. The yoga of Indian Buddhism moved into a new cultural setting of China and Japan, with the transmission of these practices to those regions. The Indian philosophical practices of yoga were rooted deeply within the people of China and Japan. The historical details of the integration of yoga in the culture of China and Japan are beyond the scope of the present study. (1) It should be emphasized that Zen in all its traditional forms tends to be an apophatic transcendent reality, which goes beyond acceptance and apopheticism, beyond all rational dualistic thought, as "viewed in our true nature." This is the idea of "seeing is nonseeing, knowledge is nonknowledge, reason is nonreason." All the expressions of faith in Zen practice, even the most negative, must be understood metaphysically.

We will touch on additional points of the relation to Zen to attain perfection of the mind within this framework. A branch of Zen, northern Zen, believed in gradual attainment. However, within the southern, dominant school of Zen, it was the goal of sudden enlightenment in which the focus was on emptiness and nothingness, and the extent that nothing exists was emphasized. This truly was not symbolic of nothingness but actually the certainty of the supreme reality that exists beyond all categories and concepts.

The practical method and enlightenment are not connected as cause and effect, but most likely as an equivalent. Meditation--that is, some type of programmed method--is not a necessary means to attain enlightenment. Spiritual guidance, however, is necessary and contributes to aid in proceeding toward the revelation of the light. One who proceeds in this process must therefore have a teacher (guru) to whom one must give complete and blind obedience. There are, however, people who cannot reach this absolute dedication; this does not mean that those people will never attain enlightenment but that they will not do so within this lifetime. Last but not least significantly, enlightenment is attained not only once but numerous times.

The above--stated method for achieving enlightenment gives some indications of the similarities of the practices of Zen monasticism and the Eastern Orthodox eschatological tradition of prayer. In the hesychasts of the Holy Mountain we find prayer closely related with the practice of purification and enlightenment. Their theology is apophatic, a series of negatives that ultimately lead to communion with the divine grace, a supreme positive. They identify the practice with the vision of the divine light. They also have a teacher (guide) to whom they give absolute, blind obedience. Enlightenment for them was in practice a religious life, a taste of the truth of God and God's promise. This was not experienced by all, but it seems that the hesychasts did not condemn the rest of the monks or people who did not practice "Hesychasm."

The Zen that is practiced in monasteries is usually under the supervision of an experienced spiritual teacher in an atmosphere of worship in the presence of the icon of Buddha, fasting and reading the scriptures, and spending many hours during the day doing "zazen." (2) This is the attainment of the proper physical position of the "yogi" and the control of breath, which demands much time and long hours of practice. Zazen has a triple purpose: the search to concentrate energy; the experience of the supreme truth as united with the universe that is expressed in warm enthusiasm and the resulting freedom and joy, very often with miraculous events; and the experience of the highest way in all our existence and in our daily life, especially in showing sympathy and love for all living things.

The attainment of all these goals is not an easy task. To attain them, one goes through numerous negative experiences such as doubt, hopelessness, psychological pressures, tears, pain, visions, and hallucinations--visions from the devil. The victors over these anxieties and nervous exhaustion attain an inner stillness, peace, and physical tranquility. Breath control is directly connected with the abdominal muscles. The goal of the ascetic is to dominate the mind. How can this be done? Control of the mind can be attained by the position of the body and a certain way of breathing. The breathing muscles contract, and the entire body and muscles stretch in the way that the diaphragm dominates all of the body. The great intensity of the breathing muscles regulates its development, which is significant. This regulation of time is determined by the developed intensity of the diaphragm. (3)

There are many signs evident in the liberation experience of Zen, such as ecstatic joy and exaltation and strong emotions; the world seems to flood from the transcendent light, and superior and wonderful phenomena occur. To assist the concentration of the mind from the bodily position and breath control, often they repeat the enigmatic word "miou," the revelation of which leads to enlightenment.

Regarding the details of the practice of enlightenment in the hesychasts we have limited information, as the sources do not have many details. Gregory Palamas wrote nine treatises defending the practice of the monks against the serious criticism of Barlaam of Calabria, who attacked the hesychasts' psychosomatic method of prayer. That is the idea that through prayer and control of breath the monk concentrated on the navel to attain a vision of the energies of God. For Barlaam, God is known through symbols from the created world, instead of experiencing the divine energies. He called the hesychasts by the derogatory name, "omphaloskopoi." The works of Palamas are theological defenses of the hesychastic practices.

The monks of Athos in their practice of the vision of the divine light do not repeat an enigmatic word as in Zen Buddhism but, rather, "the prayer of Jesus": Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me." That is the expression of repentance and also the attainment of the goal--the vision of the divine light is possible through the assistance of the "Lord." Therefore the conflict between Palamas and Barlaam is the criterion of truth. For Palamas, the criterion for truth is the holy tradition, that is, the Eastern Christian ascetical practices and the interpretation of the scriptures. For Barlaam, knowledge of creation from studies of nature and scientific studies and practicing the commandments of God and reading of scriptures are sufficient to open the way to God. Truth is something different from each of those. For Palamas, truth is the communion with God, and Barlaam believed that ignorance did not promote but was actually a setback in religious knowledge and communion with God. Philosophy for him was necessary for the understanding of God, taught by nature and the scriptures.

Palamas understood the divine light and the communion of the divine in terms of symbolic expressions of God and the communion with God as the response of the soul to the plans of God. For Palamas the divine light was not symbolic but "real, for it defined the human person (Triad 1.3.23). All the revealed visions of the Bible are interpreted as visions of God with the physical eyes, which are elevated with God's grace to a high plane. For this reason, Palamas logically concluded the uncreated grace of God." The Divine essence is ineffable and beyond any conception, for divine energies that flow from God's essence are in immediate communion with the human person through the Holy Spirit. Barlaam accused Palamas for the expression of two divinities (Triads 3.1.4) or polytheism (Triad 3.2.9). Palamas did not go into detail regarding the "definition of man" (Triad 3.1.28), nor did he articulate what is (theosis) "deification" because of the nature of the topic (Triad 3.1.33). For Barlaam, all these were blasphemies.

A Christian Response to Yoga

Next, I would like to examine some points of incompatibility in the essential teachings of Christianity and yoga. Professor Gregory Ziakas has pointed out that the understanding of the human person is different within Christianity and Buddhism. Christian biblical teaching on the human person is unique and unrepeatable in the history of the world--it is not "transmigrated" as taught within Hinduism and Buddhism. Humans were created by God in God's "image" and "likeness"--terms that refer to the rational and volitional attributes--and were destined to be unique and unrepeatable persons for all eternity (Gen. 1:26). Contrary to this, for the Buddhist and Hindu believer, both human being and world are tied to the veil of the eternal cycle of reincarnation and repetition of human and world. The constant concern of Buddhists and Hindus is to be "liberated" from this cycle of "genesis" and corruption, known as "Samsara." (5)

In contrasting Zen with Christianity, one may ask if are there signs of similarity between Christianity and Buddhism that are to be engaged in the dialogue of love and peace in the world. At first hand, there are certainly numerous differences that are negative, but there are also many interesting similarities that can be the subject of creative dialogue. The Buddhist is willing to discuss issues of religion in dialogue.

The negative aspects that are not discussable from the Christian point of view are the fundamental teachings of the Christian doctrine of the person. The center of the Christian view of revelation is the completion and salvation of the human person. According to scriptural teaching, humans are unique persons, "unrepeatable" in the history of the world, and therefore not under the law of "transmigration" as Buddhism teaches. Humankind was created, according to Christian doctrine, "in the image" and "likeness" of God. These terms extend to the "rational" and "irrational" elements of the human person, who is destined as a unique and unrepeatable person in all eternity (Gen. 1:26). The biblical teaching from the beginning with the creation of the world is a linear and unrepeatable history that leads the world to a definite end that God determined. God is the beginning, the middle, and the end. Christ said "I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last" (Rev. 1:8). God is, in essence, the "Pantocrator."

In Buddhism, by contrast, the origins of the human person and the world have no meaning. Both are tied to the wheel of the eternal cycle of repetition. They do not have a stable-constant existence. That which constantly occupies the Buddhist and the Hindu is the flight from the pain of the eternal cycle of birth and corruption known as "Samsara "

There is a similarity between Christianity and Buddhism in that both seek liberation, but, there are great differences. In Christianity after the fall of humankind, that is, after the ancestral disobedience, the human person is inclined to evil and sin. The Buddhist believes that this world is entirely deception. The Christian also believes that the enslavement of the human being to the world gives pain that is de rived from afflictions of sin. However, the Christian does not accept that all of life is pain. Jesus Christ stated, "I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world" (Jn. 16:33). The curse of affliction is not the world but the personal misfortunes of the rational being, that is, the human. The great seventh-century theologian Maximos the Confessor said that we must not fight nature, which God created, but the disorderly and unnatural movements and energies that come from our inner being. (6) For this reason the Christian never denies the world or the nature of pain and does not seek increasing happiness outside the world. Christians may live in the world or as monastics, but all lift the cross of pain in remembrance of the example set forth by Christ. For Christians, even though pain is the product of sin, it is not always evil. It also could be a blessing from God, something that is used by God as a teaching tool. For the Buddhist the constant persistence in the world is without purpose and a vain pursuit. Salvation for Buddhism is flight and liberation from the world of pain. That is the end of anxiety and pain.

Enlightenment is the ideal goal for the Buddhist. This is also true for the Orthodox Christian. However, for the latter, enlightenment or the vision of the divine light or theosis is not only the product of moral perfection but also the ontological removal of the whole human person. For the Buddhist, enlightenment is to extinguish all that is personal. Enlightenment for the Buddhist is the knowledge of the mechanism that causes human wretchedness, the pain in this corrupt world. This enlightenment means the complete liberation of humankind from all space and time and the conscious state where the "ego" is negated in the infinity of the absolute other--in the timeless and vast, which is indescribable. A prominent Hindu philosopher wrote: "One of the fundamental conditions of attaining it is the complete elevation of the moral life, including the absolute control of all passions and desires, the abandonment of worldly ambitions and hopes, and the attainment of an unruffled peace of mind." Furthermore, he said that "there is a state in which the five senses, thought, intellect, and mind all cease to operate, and this highest stage of absolute sense-restraint is called 'Yoga,' or spiritual union." (7)

For Orthodoxy the purpose of enlightenment is not the flight of the soul but the moral and ontological removal of the whole human person, which is not lost in the cosmic infinity of nirvana but unites--is in communion--as a perfected person with the personal God and other human beings.

The Orthodox approach to the vision of divine light takes two forms: the positive (cataphatic), and the negative (apophatic). The integration of both the apophatic way and the cataphatic way is the best method of attaining the true vision of the divine light. In the cataphatic way, consisting of a ladder of hierarchies of theophanies, we see God's wisdom as manifested in the created world. The apophatic method is the negation of all material concepts from the inner life or essence of God. In our human experience we enter into the inner mysteries of the divine, uncreated energies, and, in the vision of the divine light, we participate and commune with the divine gifts. This avoids the heresy of becoming one with the essence of God, because, in Orthodoxy, the "likeness" is the theosis (glorification), which is salvation by grace--freely given to the hesychast by God. This way to the vision of God's energies is not attained with philosophical, intellectual exercises but solely with the experience of God's grace in the heart.

The Mystical Theology of Orthodoxy and Buddhist Transcendental Meditation

While Orthodox mystical theology and Buddhist transcendental meditation have many phenomena in common, they are not the same. Though we find many phenomenological parallels, there are different contexts in the teaching and interpretation of each religion. In the Orthodox Christian East there always has been a close relationship between cataphatic and apophatic mystical experience. In this, the mystical theology of the Orthodox Church describes apophatically the mystical experience--in what is known as the apophatic way--or via negativa. This means the Orthodox East does not describe the divine in any form. There are two ways of theology, the positive and negative; St. Dionysios the Areopagite suggested approaching the mystery of God "through gnoseos kai agnosias." (8) According to the mystical theology of the Eastern Church, the meeting of God is in the spiritual life and experience. It is impossible for humans to conceive of the mysterious God with meditation of the mind or rational contemplation. For Orthodoxy, "God is light within light" and at the same time absolute darkness--the "divine cloud."

The unknowable nature of God is taken up by the early Fathers--that God is absolutely other, unknown, and inconceivable. To arrive at the inconceivable nature of God humans need to follow the apophatic way of mystical theology. This method points not to what God is but to what God is not. (10) Gregory the Theologian said, "The Father is infinite essence and without description." (11) Dionysios the Areopogite insisted that it is impossible to describe God, because God is ineffable. The only thing that can be said is that God has nothing in common with sensible or rational beings. God is not being or nonbeing but beyond all being. (12) Here lies a parallel with Zen that denies speaking of the metaphysical reality of God.

In Hesychasm, we find certain phenomenological parallels. Prayer often follows the rhythm of breathing. Such an enlightenment in the effort of self-concentration in certain bodily positions (yoga) to the rhythm of breathing and silent contemplation is present in all manifestations of Buddhism. The later Fathers of the church defined the precise content of mystical theology. The great mystic Maximos the Confessor (558-662), who preoccupied himself in a systematic way with the content of mystical theology, said that God has a moving love toward the world. In this act of moving love God reveals something of Godself that he called "amethektos," or incommunicable. He spoke of God as taking part in God's activity but not partaking in God's essence. The whole world is the result of God's creative life. The world was created by God's love and from this love is preserved and is in the end reunited with God (theosis) and thereby saved. God is the only living reality that is continuously moving toward humankind, and humans are continually moving toward God. For God, love is a way of existence.

Simeon the New Theologian (975-1035) had an integration of the mystical theology of both Maximos the Confessor and the Divine Ascent in John of Sinai (526-605). The Ladder of Ascent is a spiritual method that guides the believer in a gradual ascent to perfection. This work is still a significant guide today in Orthodox monasteries in which the core is the vision of the "uncreated light. According to Simeon, the believer can unite with God to see the divine and uncreated light in one's heart. Union with God is attained through the thematic nature of Christ, the second person of the Holy Trinity. For this reason the believer is not absorbed in the divine essence but is in union with God as a perfect person and has a vision of the light in God's glory. (13)

The most significant phenomenological expression of Eastern Orthodox mystical theology that has some parallels with Hindu and Buddhist practices is Hesychasm. The dominant figure of Hesychasm is St. Gregory Palamas, Archbishop of Thessaloniki. The hesychasts believed that the intellect (nous) concentrated in the heart, and by noetic unceasing prayer the believer could attain enlightenment and the vision of the "divine light" as it was manifested in the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor. The hesychast usually sits cross-legged and with a bowed head, and the prayer follows the rhythm of one's breathing.

A similar method is approached in Yoga. Patafijali spoke of focusing and concentrating on an object to help the mind center in the heart. This is a meditational aid in which the posture must be "steady and comfortable." (14) Patanjali spoke of breath control, "the cutting-off of the flow of inhalation and exhalation." (15)

The vision of divine light is practiced today in Orthodox monastic life. Unceasing prayer cleanses the heart and causes the mind to descend to the heart. Unceasing prayer cannot be deformed to "Christian yoga" and to transcendental meditation. In seeing phenomenological similarities in the methods of external manifestations and even in linguistic expression, this does not mean that these are essentially the same. Similar external phenomena may be similar, but fundamentally different, in context. Yoga in the West became a fashion, whereas in India and China within Hinduism and Buddhism these issues are a matter of life. In the West, this fashion is preferred as a matter of seeking the mysterious. In the East, if one examines the religious life and social fabric, one would be moved by some topics, but all of these are not necessaiy for revelation. (16)

Yoga is based on the philosophical system of Sakhya. Though Yoga believes in God, yet this God, Isvara, according to Patanjali, is not the creator God. God is an ideal soul, which always possesses true knowledge and therefore does not submit to the eternal cycle and transmigration. The aim of the yogi is "liberation," that is, the state that helps the soul to separate matter completely. Only through moral cleansing and the right path of life and the systematic ascesis of the body and the instruments of emotion can the yogi attain this high aim. Their views seem phenomenologically to be similar to Hesychasm, yet they are completely different. For example, God is not an ideal soul or spirit but a personal God. In Hinduism the personal God is inconceivable. "Liberation" from the eternal cycle is not compatible with the Christian faith, so Hesychasm seeks "liberation" as freedom from sin and the devil.

The vision of uncreated light is practiced today by the monks of the Orthodox Church. This prayer is the invocation of the name of Christ, said in one of the following ways: (1) Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me a sinner; (2) Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me; or (3) Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on us and your world.

This prayer cannot be changed to a so-called Christian yoga or to some form of Buddhist transcendental meditation--a term introduced to the West by the new religious cults that were derived from Hinduism or Buddhism. Every religion and civilization has its own way of expression of the mysterious and the infinite. There are some similarities in the methods and phenomenal (external) appearances or even in the language, though this does not mean they are essentially the same thing, for these methods differ completely in their content.

(1) For a fuller study on Zen, see Heinrich Dumoulin, Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning tr John C. Maraldo (New York and Tokyo: Westerhill, 1979 [orig.: Der Erleuchtungsweg des Zen im Buddhismus (Frankfurt a/M: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1976)]).

(2) "Zazeri" is the Zen practice of sitting in meditation.

(3) See Aarom Hoopas, Zen Yoga: A Path to Enlightenment through Breathing, Movements, and Meditation (Tokyo, New York, and London: Kodensha International, 2007), pp. 36-45. See also Alain Danielson, Yoga: Method and Reinterpretation (London: Christopher Johnson, 1949), pp. 19-48; and Katsuki Sekida, Zen Training: Methods and Philosophy, ed. A. V. Crimsove, tr. A. V. Namyolos (New York: Weatherhill, 1983 [orig., 1975]), pp. 44-89.

(4) A "koan" is a fundamental part of the history and lore of Zen Buddhism. It consists of a story, dialogue, question, statement, or single word, the meaning of which cannot be understood by rational thinking but may be accessible through intuition, thus leading into enlightenment.

(5) Gregory D. Ziakas, "Dialogue between Christianity and Buddhism from an Orthodox Christian Perspective," Epistemonike Epeterida Theologikes Scholes (Thessalonike: Aristotelian University of Thessalonike, 1998), pp. 155-181.

(6) Maximos the Confessor, Letter to Thalasios, J. P. Migne, PG 91, 489 B.

(7) S. N. Dasgupta, Lecture III: Yoga Mysticism," in his Hindu Mysticism (Six Lectures] (New York' Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1959 [orig., 1927]), pp. 61 and 62.

(8) Dionysios the Areopagite, On the Divine Names, PG 3, 872 A.

(9) Moses entered in the divine cloud of the unknown; see Exodus 20-21. See Clement of Alexandria, Strondler's 5, 12 PG 3, 10 33 B; Gregory of Nyssa, Life of Moses, PG 44, 377 A mar 316B, 773B; and Dionysius the Areopagite, On Mystical Theology', PG. 3, 1033 B, 773 B.

(10) Clement of Alexandria. Stromates 5, 11 PG 90 1117 C.

(11) Discourses on Theophany, 38.

(12) The Mystical Theology 4 PG 3, 1043 A-1048 B.

(13) "Symeon le nouveau theologien, Hymnes 1-15, intro., text, and notes Johannes Koder tr. Joseph Paramelle, Sources Chretiennes 156 (Paris: Cerf, 1969).

(14) Georg Feuerstein, The Yoga-Sutra of Patahjali; A New Translation and Commentary (Folkstone, Kent, U.K.: William Dawson and Sons, 1979), p 90

(15) Ibid., p. 92.

(16) See Gregory Ziakas Christianity and Buddhism," in Epistemonike Epeterida Theologikes Scholes, New Series, Tmema Theologias Festschrift in honor of Professor Antonis-Aimilios Tachiaios, vol. 1 (Thessalonike: Aristotelian University of Thessalonike, 1998), pp. 178-197.
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Author:Papademetriou, George C.
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Date:Jan 1, 2015
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