Filed in Zen (Chan)

Other Fingers Pointing to the Moon

An interview with Zen master and former priest Ruben L. F. Habito

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Ruben L. F. Habito is a master in the Sanbo Zen lineage, the founding teacher of Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas, Texas, and a professor of world religions at Southern Methodist University’s Perkins School of Theology. He is also a former Jesuit priest, and as a young ecclesiastic was sent from his native Philippines to Japan, where he encountered Zen and entered formal training under Yamada Koun Roshi, with whom he studied for 18 years. Discovering Zen was epiphanic for Habito (“it pointed to a realm beyond language”), and koan study became for him a profound foil to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, a set of meditations and devotional practices for Jesuits that Habito had been practicing since entering the order. During his time in Kamakura, the seat of Sanbo Zen, a fusion of Rinzai and Soto traditions formerly called Sanbo Kyodan, Habito met Maria Reis, who became his wife and mother of their two sons. (Habito left the Jesuits but continues a deep engagement with the religion.)

In 1989 Habito and Reis moved to Dallas, where Habito founded Maria Kannon, named for the Virgin Mary and Kwan Yin [Guanyin], the bodhisattva of compassion (Kannon in Japanese), two figures who became inexorably linked in 17th- and 18th-century Japan, when Christianity was banned; Christian practitioners found a worthy manifestation of Mary in the veneration of the bodhisattva, who became known as Maria Kannon. Habito is the author of several books on the relationship between Christianity and Zen practice, among them Healing Breath: Zen for Christians and Buddhists in a Wounded World and Living Zen, Loving God, both from Wisdom Books.

I first met Ruben in 1990, just one year after he arrived in Dallas from Japan. I was a student at Perkins School of Theology, and in the discernment process for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of West Texas. Ruben had me from the moment he began his required class, “Religion in Global Perspective,” with a few minutes of silence. For the duration of the semester, I was part of a small group that met in Ruben’s office and breathed, and we visited the place he and his students were using as a zendo and breathed some more.

It was nearly a decade later that my own practice began shifting from a focus on passage meditation to attention to the breath and pure silence. But I was floating around without any guidance. So I made an appointment to see Ruben, and when we met, in the middle of the public gathering area of the Annual Meeting of the American Academy of Religion, he gave me the koan “Mu” while we sat at a plastic table, surrounded by academics and religious scholars of all stripes. Over time, working with Ruben has radically altered how I imagine Jesus guiding his disciples. I hear the parables as koans now, solved not by reason but by action. A Samaritan cares for an injured man: “Show me that!” The first will be last, and the last will be first: “Show me that!”

True to form, Ruben took the lead in commencing our interview, first by asking that “we take a few minutes of silence together,” and then by saying, “So we can begin. Ask me questions that will open our conversation.”

—Jane Lancaster Patterson

How did it all start? What led you to Zen when you were living in Japan as a young seminarian? My Jesuit spiritual director then, Fr. Thomas Hand, was studying Zen with a master in Kamakura, and he encouraged me to check it out. I just plunged right in and found it very nourishing and very resonant with what I had learned from my Jesuit spiritual formation. It emphasized the more contemplative aspects rather than the discursive and meditative kinds of things that the Ignatian Exercises, which I had been practicing for six or seven years, are known for. Zen became a way for me to come back to that place of silence, no words, and just find a sense of belonging to the universe. 

What kind of training did you receive from your teacher, Yamada Roshi? Yamada gave me the basic guideline on just sitting in a very simple way, but it didn’t stop at that. There is a whole program of koan training in our Sanbo Zen tradition that guides a person deeper and deeper into the intricacies of the spiritual path. Yamada Roshi gave me the confidence that I could remain within my Christian context and practice and at the same time really enter into Zen with full commitment. 

So he was open to students from other religious traditions? Yes. His teacher, Yasutani Hakuun Roshi, had a different view of Christians coming to Zen. He said you have to check your religion at the door and really come with an open and empty mind to be able to receive the benefits of Zen.

My teacher, Yamada Koun, instead of telling Christians to “check your religion at the door,” said, “Just come and sit and be still and follow the guidelines of Zen.” He realized that it was not so much the religious tradition that needed to be put aside but the concepts that people with a religious background are attached to. He felt there were certain terms in the Christian tradition like God, Holy Spirit, and so on that had enough power in them to point to an experience that is beyond concepts. 

Was there any conflict for you in bringing the two practices together in your own life?...

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