Prayer: Interview with Robert Jinsen Kennedy Roshi

Kennedy Roshi was ordained as a Catholic priest in Japan in 1965 and installed as a Zen teacher in 1991 and given the title Roshi in 1997 by Bernie Glassman Roshi. He is chair of the Theology Department, St. Peter’s College, Jersey City, New Jersey, where he teaches Theology and Japanese language.

How do you understand prayer as a Catholic?

Prayer is a vague word. Some pray by reciting the psalms or by the liturgy or by private personal devotions or by silence. Paying attention is the foundation of any form of prayer, and that is why zazen can be a wonderful form of prayer for those who are temperamentally inclined to it. Paying attention is a reverent, grateful presence to reality and that can certainly be prayer. We need not use the words or images when we pray, but attention is essential.

Is zazen as prayer problematic for a Christian who believes in a deity?

Zazen is paying attention to the reality right here in front of you now. It does not involve a philosophy of either theism or atheism. Also, Christians do not necessarily have to think of God as apart from them. Many do, and that’s all right. As C. S. Lewis said, “No one was ever hurt believing that God the father has a beard.” The Sistine Chapel has a wonderful image of a venerable, old God. This image is helpful to many, but it is not necessary. There is a long tradition of Christian prayer going back to the Greek fathers of the church that insists that no image of God is necessary; and since God cannot be compared to any created thing it is perhaps better to say, in that sense, God does not exist.

What do you do on a daily basis?

It depends on the circumstances. I sit zazen every day with the Zen students in our zendo here at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City. And I celebrate the liturgy - the Catholic mass - with students at the college where I teach and also in nearby parishes. One form of prayer does not exclude the other. You also try to pray in the way that the people in front of you pray. If they expect the liturgy, I celebrate the liturgy. If they want zazen, I sit zazen with them. I respond to the form of faith of the people right in front of me.

What are the biggest misconceptions that Zen practitioners and Christians hold about each other’s concept of prayer?

Some Catholics are not trained in contemplative prayer, and sometimes they think they must use words and images. I think it’s a question of ongoing education for them that they experience different types of prayer. On the Buddhist side, many Buddhists believe that Catholics are dualists. Catholics are not Buddhists, but we are not dualists either. It is also true that the highest point of Christian contemplative prayer is not that I know Christ or that I love Christ, but that Christ lives in me. As Zen says, “The Buddha wiggles his toes in my shoes.” This is not dualism.

Is your prayer today different from prayer before your interest in Zen?

Zazen is Catholic prayer for me. Anyone can pay attention. We all must pay attention.

Robert Jinsen Kennedy Roshi is a practicing psychotherapist in New York City, a NGO representative at the United Nations, and author of Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit. He studied Zen with Yamada Roshi in Japan, Maezumi Roshi in Los Angeles, and Bernie Glassman Roshi in New York.

 

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