A Practice For Everyone

By John R. DeGrace

April 2004


March 27th saw an unusual and enlightening encounter at St. Michael and All Angels Church, between Christian and Buddhist meditation paths. Intended as a day of exploration of traditions, and attended in about equal numbers by interested people from both parties.  The day offered a rich tapestry of practices and ritual, within which the common thread being that of attention. As the saying has it, "Only what mindfulness contemplates can wisdom understand."

It is the natural tendency of the mind to wander and, whatever the tradition, the act of meditation is the act of returning to the present moment so that it can be investigated fully. If we were always and fully in this moment, meditation practice would not be necessary. We would also, of course, live in a very different world.

The morning session began with opening remarks from the Rev. Peter Zimmer followed by Holy Communion which, as Peter pointed out, lays emphasis on our common ground and on community, and invites attention to the centre of our being.

John DeGrace then gave background and instruction in Samatha/Vipassana meditation, which is one of the oldest practices in the Buddhist tradition, and emphasized Samatha (usually translated as "calm abiding" or "serene reflection") - using the sensation of the breath entering and leaving the body - as the object of meditation. When the mind wanders, the instruction is simply to notice what has drawn the attention away, and then return the attention to the object. In Vipassana meditation the practice is to place full and undivided attention on whatever presents itself most strongly to awareness, with no particular agenda, coming eventually to understand the impermanence and lack of self in all conditioned phenomena.

John offered parallel instruction in Christian meditation as taught by Fr. John Main. Fr. Main was a Benedictine monk who, in his younger years, traveled to India where he encountered a meditation master. He learned the practice and, when he returned to England, continued privately until his Abbot suggested to him that this was not a Christian practice and should be dropped. Main could not accept that a practice which seemed to healthy could be "unChristian," so be began to research the ancient writings – beginning with John Cassian and including St. John of the Cross and the anonymous English author of the Cloud of Unknowing. He discovered that meditation very similar to that which he had learned in India was important in the early Church, and had been central to monastic life until the reformation. Fr. Main then began to teach, and founded a meditation community that is worldwide in scope, with dozens of teachers and hundreds of sitting groups in Canada alone.

The parallels between Main's practice and the Buddhist practice of Samatha are noteworthy. Whereas in Samatha the sensation of the breath is chosen as the object of attention, in Christian meditation the practice is to direct the attention to a mantra – a word repeated to oneself silently and with great care and attention. Main recommended the Aramaic phrase "maranatha," with each syllable ma-ra-na-tha repeated slowly and with equal emphasis, over and over. As with the Buddhist practice, when the attention is drawn away from the mantra, the instruction is to notice this and to return the attention to the object.

The importance of ritual, repetitive words and action, as well as the use of ritualistic objects in the Christian context was emphasized by Peter Zimmer and echoed by Mary Cosman in her introduction to Vajryjana (Tibetan) Buddhism and its rich liturgical tradition. This collection of practices lays emphasis on compassion and generosity, and to the core meditation practice adds visualization of the guru, symbolic offerings, and the dedication of the practice to the benefit of "all sentient beings" as supportive practices.

The noon meal was taken in silence punctuated only by readings supportive of the practice, by Ken Bilski and Peter Zimmer, taken from both major traditions. This is a practice common in Christian monastic traditions.

After lunch the afternoon's activities were begun by Fr. Peron of St. Mary's Catholic Church, who led an abbreviated Taize Service, the same form as that held on the last Sunday of each month at St. Michael's. In Taize the attention is drawn to, and focused upon, simple repetitive chants that punctuate intervals of silent meditation. Founded in 1940 as a Protestant community in France, Taize practice has become a worldwide movement.

Finally, the Zen chapter within the Buddhist Meditation Society led the group in an exploration of Zen practice, beginning with a rhythmic chanting of Affirming Faith Mind:  "...what is is not what is not is if this is not clear to you you're still far from the inner truth one thing is all all things are one if this is only realized perfection will not worry you...". These statements do not lend themselves to analysis, but must be "solved" intuitively; and over time come to frame the meditation practice. Silent sitting and walking meditation (in walking meditation attention is paid to the sensations of walking rather than to the breath) was followed by a formal tea ceremony. This exercise in sharing and fellowship offered an interesting counterpoint to the communion service that opened the day.

Whatever our spiritual tradition or meditative practice, the basic inner experience of all people is very much the same. We all walk the same territory. The mind is prone to wander, and it is the errant mind that makes most of the mistakes that return to haunt us in life. The several practices that were explored in this encounter can be taken as alternative maps of that common experience, and their exercise has the effect of helping us to stay on the path to awakening, of helping us to gain genuine insight into our experience. The opportunity on this day to "compare maps" was valued greatly by all participants.