To Live With Gratitude, an Interview with Robert Kennedy, S.J., Roshi

Robert-Kennedy

“We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote the Catholic poet T.S. Eliot. “And the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” Father Robert Kennedy has explored the world since he was ordained as a priest in 1965. He joined the Jesuits straight out of Xavier High School in New York City, vowing to remain for life, and he has.

The tall, kindly Kennedy, who describes himself as conservative by temperament, was serving the Church in conservative Japan as Vatican II was dismantling the Catholic culture he had known and loved since he was a boy. The shock of returning home and finding it transformed led him to Zen.

As a Jesuit, Kennedy was naturally interested in studying other religions but he was also seeking a way to be Catholic that didn’t depend on outer forms. After completing doctoral studies in theology and preparing for psychoanalytic training on this continent, he returned to Japan in 1976, to study with Yamada Roshi in Kamakura. The Zen master assured the Christian priest several times that he did not want to make him a Buddhist but to empty him “in imitation of ‘Christ your Lord’.’’

Kennedy went on to study with Maezumi Roshi in Los Angeles, and with Bernard Glassman Roshi in New York. Glassman made Kennedy a teacher or sensei in 1991, and conferred Inka, or a final seal of approval, in 1997, making Kennedy a Zen roshi or master.

Through Zen, Kennedy arrived where he started, with God. In one form of true Christian contemplation, he affirms, there are no words, no knowledge of any subject or object. He came to see what Meister Eckhart, Thomas Merton, and other contemporary contemplatives described: At the end of our striving we are meant not only to follow Christ but to be Him. Our true identity is one with God.

Parabola joined Kennedy for lunch and conversation in the Jesuit living quarters of St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, New Jersey, where he teaches theology and Japanese.

—Tracy Cochran

PARABOLA: Can you talk about those times when God seems to be silent, about what the Christian tradition regards as the darkness of faith?
ROBERT KENNEDY: In the beginning, faith can be very easy. It’s like being a child who naturally loves to hear stories. Some people carry that beautiful childlike faith their whole lives. But for some people, the religious stories and liturgy and symbols can suddenly collapse. This can be very painful. Jesus himself seemed to experience the disappearance of God, the disappearance of consolation as a human being, in Gethesame, on the cross. “My God, why have you forsaken me?” For some people this silence or darkness must be endured so that they can have own voice, so that they can truly be themselves. God doesn’t change; our perception of God often changes through life. We project onto God our highest aspirations, and of course this is not God. The time comes to stand on our own feet, carry our own cross, die our own death. In the Christian tradition, the goal is to become Christ ourselves. There is a Zen koan, “How do you greet someone without words or silence?” In Zen, silence is also emphasized but it should be productive and fruitful, even if it is experienced as patient waiting. It does not mean lacking energy or having a quiet disposition.

P: In our culture, it’s very difficult for people to bear silence.
RK: The culture is against being alone, or being quiet, or enduring loneliness without distraction. I was talking to some diocesan priests, who remembered how the holy hour, when they were just supposed to be silent and prayerful in church, was sometimes so difficult, so painful. Their whole lives were geared for work and for service. How hard it was to be still.

P: There’s no Sabbath anymore.
RK: I think we Christians have lost a lot when we lost the Sabbath. I guess there’s no going back, but the idea of giving a whole day to thoughtfulness and quiet is a wonderful thing. The Jews speak of welcoming the Sabbath like a bride. They hold it in great reverence. I think it’s a great gift that we’ve lost. Going to mass for an hour often doesn’t do it.

P: In your book Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, you quote an Emily Dickinson poem that sums up this movement of faith: “Finding is the first Act/The second, loss,/Third, Expedition for/The “Golden Fleece”/Fourth, no Discovery/Fifth, no crew/Finally, no Golden Fleece/Jason—sham—too.”
RK: All her spiritual life is in that poem, I think. Finding happiness, then loss, then charging around the world looking for the truth, then discovering what we weren’t looking for.

P: Is there a point at which the demarcation between meditation and prayer disappears?
RK: I think Zen has great resonance with Christianity at the point where Christians realize that all images of God are just our projections, really. We imagine the most beautiful and the best things we can think of, and that of course is not God. Meister Eckhart says, leave God for God. It’s a mistake to talk too quickly about love. The danger is that we imagine what Jesus is, say, and then we try to fall in love with what we’ve just imagined. It’s not a very solid foundation for our life. It’s not only a question of love but of attention, of being present without the distractions of these images, putting ourselves in the presence of a reality that we do not know, being silent but not drifting, trying to be wide awake, not in a “spiritual” world, but in this world. Can we be awake to where we are, where we sit, without giving it a name, or a judgement about it? Zen says do not judge by any standards. And that is a wonderful place. But there’s another step too, when we realize that this eternal truth, in whose presence we are sitting, is not an object in front of our gaze but experienced as our very self. The faithful practitioner must finally stop hero-worshipping and act out of a center of confidence—and live that way, becoming useful. Silence can be tremendously fruitful in bringing us to these different stages of life.

P: You write in your book of inner poverty, that stage when a person stops hoping for God.
RK: I think the first experience of that is when we give up thinking of God as a gift-giver, separate from ourselves. We discover the great gift of God’s own Self to us. This is one meaning of the Incarnation, the unity of the divine and the human. It doesn’t just apply just to Jesus, it applies to all of us. We are one with this Absolute, one with Christ who was one with the Father. And everything is given to us. At the moment of Creation, everything is poured out. God doesn’t have to tinker with His creation. It is perfect, and it plays itself out in our lives, as we experience it. Everything is a gift. Stop asking for this or that. We have God’s own spirit. Why would we ask for toys or trinkets? And something follows from this: We have no virtue, no merit. Virtue and merit are given to us.

Paul-Elie Ranson [1864-1909], "Christ and Buddha," 1890

Paul-Elie Ranson [1864-1909], Christ and Buddha, 1890

P: If I work hard at my spiritual practice, sit every day, and so on, doesn’t that gain me merit?
RK: Not a bit of it.

P: How can that be true?
RK: Faith demands the destruction of what faith built. We’re not asked to give up the worst in ourselves, but the very best. The things that made us what we are. The things we were proud of, on which we based our confidence. We must see them as gifts, not a private possessions. This can be frightening, if we counted on getting into heaven only because of our good works. But it’s also immensely freeing. I have just to act in this world.

P: So what can be done?
RK: Be quiet for a while, and let our limitations gradually drip away. Someone once said that the spiritual life is just being hung out to dry for ten or twenty years, to drip away in the sunshine. An intent of silence to let ourselves grow until we see that Jason is a sham too, and we’re all Jason, restlessly searching the world. Stop looking for the Golden Fleece, and realize that it’s all given, acted out quite simply in the circumstances of our life. We don’t have to climb the highest mountain. The Zen koans are filled with this and it has such resonance in Catholic faith.

P: When God says “Be still, and know that I am God,” is that what He means?
RK: I would think so, but I would come back to poverty. It is the poverty of realizing that we have no virtue, we have no merit. It is all given. Everything is a gift. There is no bargaining with God, in the Christian view. There are no deals.

P: Life gives most of us glimpses of this. But we forget.
RK: Yes, we do. And that’s our life. The practice is to keep coming back to practice, to keep paying attention, and to use those things that help us to pay attention, like good posture, gentle breathing, a quiet place. And certainly not to be demanding, or complaining. I think the basic attitude in all religions is gratitude, to live with gratitude.

P: When Catholics speak of “the still, small voice within,” what does that mean?
RK: Well I think in the Christian world, the primary meaning of revelation is the experience that we are touched somehow by God. Again, words fail. Spoken to by God, or God somehow revealing something to us—something about God Himself, or something about ourselves, something about our path in life, what we should do—and people usually feel very strongly about that in the Semitic religions, that God not only exists but can speak. I love the story of the young rabbi who couldn’t get on with his studies because he would break down in tears just reading the words, “God said.” Zen has nothing to do with revelation of course. It deals with our experience in the present moment.

P: You really are Catholic in the sense that you live in a global world.
RK: Jesuits are especially taught to love the other as other—not to tolerate the other, but to walk in their shoes and experience what they experience, their share of the truth that we all have. This isn’t relativism, it’s decency, in dealing with another person. You never dismiss someone else. I love that in Buddhism especially. You can never say “I am not that.” We always imagine truth is on the other side but it’s right here, it’s ourselves. And I think that is one meaning of the Incarnation: It is our very selves. When St. Augustine used to give Communion in North Africa, he’d say, “Receive what you are.” Not what you may become. You are the Body of Christ. So is your neighbor. So of course you should love your neighbor as yourself. What is your neighbor but yourself? If people see this in a different way, that’s okay. One might say, “I love my neighbor because my neighbor is Christ.” Another might say, “My neighbor is my very self.”  They’re saying the same things in different ways.

P: You seem to be saying that there are words, and then there is silence, the reality.
RK: Both words and silence are reality. In the end, Christians and Buddhists meet at the begging bowl. For Christians, there is a reality that transcends us and calls us. In Zen, the experience of emptiness leads us forward. But whatever you say about Zen, you can say the exact opposite. Zen would say that we should come to zazen with absolute confidence, that weakness is
not helpful. Zen would say “Come to the meditation like a champion about to run his course.” This can be done, and we can do it. I remember Maezumi Roshi said that to me that poverty is not a virtue for the Buddhist. He said that Christians seem to make a virtue of poverty, and Buddhists didn’t. He stressed confidence, appreciation of our own capacities—in a sense, riches.”

P: Do people call you Father or Roshi?
RK: My fellow Jesuits and friends just call me “Bob.” In the school, usually it’s professor, in the parish it’s Father, in the zendo it’s Roshi.

P: And when you sit down in stillness, how do you know yourself?
RK: I just sit until the self falls off. No Roshi, no Father, no Bob. When we first experience this emptiness, it can
be frightening. It seems a very lonely place. But this is a temporary stage. Finally, it’s not that we’ve lost everything, but that we’ve gained everything. All that we see is our very selves. And there is no final step. There couldn’t be a final step in Zen. Zen is life, and it’s always opening up.

P: Zen is particularly good at letting you know that there’s nowhere to get to, nothing to get.
RK: Zen strips away that whole sense of holiness. One Chinese Zen teacher told me, “Its so hard to deal with Catholics, because they love their spiritual life. “ And Zen is trying to show them that there is no “spiritual life.” There’s just one life, with different aspects. I was always touched by that.

P: Do you have a way of being Zen that is your own?
RK: I was a Jesuit priest before I came to Zen, so I feel that my own path is to try to introduce Zen to the Catholic people. I think it would be a great gift to bring to so many people who are trying to learn to live and to pray, honestly. And I think we can learn from the whole world as Catholics, and certainly from Zen. That they are not our enemies, even though intellectually they are different—that difference can be enriching and lead to light and to friendship and to common work with like-minded people.

P: I believe the word Catholic means universal.
RK: Absolutely. In the wonderful words of St. Paul, whatever is true, whatever is lovely and beautiful, do that. Go from truth to truth, without getting stuck. Look at all we learned from the Greeks. All we learned from the Jews. We can learn from everyone.♦

From Parabola, Vol. 33, No. 1, Spring 2008: Silence. This issue is available to purchase here. If you have enjoyed this piece, consider subscribing.