A Zen meditation group that meets at York Minster, a Gothic cathedral in the center of England’s City of York, will cease activities there this fall. Meditation gatherings are currently held in the Old Palace building, which also houses the cathedral’s library. The Zen group is led by the Reverend Christopher Ryushin Collingwood, canon chancelor of York Minster and Zen teacher in the Zen White Plum Asanga.
The meditation group had come under scrutiny from conservative Christian evangelicals in 2016 but was permitted to stay.* Vivienne Faull, who was then dean of York Minster (formally the Cathedral and Metropolitical Church of Saint Peter in York), said the Zen meditation group offered “an opportunity for Christians and others to come together and learn about and explore Zen meditation practices and the congruence of Zen with the Christian faith.” (The Guardian)
Responding to the criticisms in 2016, Collingwood said: “I’m sure there are those who think I’m an out-and-out heretic, but it seems to me that perhaps Zen poses fewer problems because it doesn’t claim to be a system of doctrine or belief.” (The Telegraph)
Speaking this week about plans to leave York Minster, Collingwood stated: “The Old Palace is a lovely and in many ways very convenient location, but its lack of full accessibility up to the first floor has always been a problem. An ongoing program of maintenance work is to begin soon and is likely to make the space unavailable for some time, which would mean that the group would potentially have to cease meeting temporarily.” He continued: “I’ve decided, therefore, that this actually provides us with an opportunity to find a more accessible alternative space in the city centre, so that the group can continue to flourish and grow without interruption.” (The Guardian)
Collingwood, who describes himself as “religiously bilingual,” is a Zen teacher for Britain’s Wild Goose Sangha under the leadership of Roshi Patrick Kundo Eastman, a Roman Catholic priest and Zen teacher who himself was given transmission by another Roman Catholic priest and Zen teacher, Rev. Robert Jinsen Kennedy. In May, Collingwood published a book titled, Zen Wisdom for Christians (Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2019), which cronicles the long history of often contentious dialogue between Zen and Catholicism.
That dialogue began in Japan with Catholic missionaries, depicted in part by Shusako Endo’s novel Silence (Peter Owen 1969), which was later made into the 2015 film of the same name by Martin Scorsese. More recently, in the 1950s, the Second Vatican Council urged greater engagement and understanding of other religions.
In the last 60 or so years of Buddhist-Christian encounter, according to Collingwood, “. . . what Roman Catholic missionaries discovered was that it resonated with the Christian contemplative and mystical tradition. With figures like St. John of the Cross [the 16th century Spanish mystic] you have got a praying without words, beyond concepts, beyond images. When people are meditating in Zen who are Christian I think the focusing on the breath coincides with the idea of the Holy Spirit.” He continued, “In the Bible, the word, both in the Hebrew and Greek, can be translated as ‘breath,’ ‘spirit,’ or ‘wind.’ There is a very deep connection there—that breath is the Spirit within us.” (The Telegraph)
The scholar Paul O. Ingram divides Buddhist-Christian dialogue into three areas: conceptual dialogue, socially engaged dialogue, and interior dialogue. The first of these involves discussions around philosophical ideas such as the nature of ultimate reality, the causes of our suffering, and human nature. Socially engaged dialogue involves drawing resources from each tradition to environmental, economic, racial, and gender-based injusticies and inequalities. Interior dialogue, the kind found in Zen meditation group at York Minster and in similar settings, emphasizes religious development found in prayer and meditation.
* Zen Meditation Class at England’s York Minster Draws Ire of Conservative Christians (Buddhistdoor Global)
York Minster brings in Zen Buddhism, quietly (The Telegraph)
Zen group to stop York Minster meetings after religious row (The Guardian)
York Minster criticised for allowing Buddhist meditation (The Guardian)
History of Buddhist–Christian Dialogue (Oxford Scholarship)