17 November 2007

Christian Practive of Centering Prayer and the Buddhist Practice of Zazen

Centering Prayer is a method of prayer, which prepares us to receive the gift of God's presence. It emphasizes prayer as a personal relationship with God. At the same time, it is a discipline to foster and serve this relationship by a regular, daily practice of prayer. Centering Prayer is drawn from ancient prayer practices of the Christian contemplative heritage, notably the Fathers and Mothers of the Desert, Lectio Divina, (praying the scriptures), The Cloud of Unknowing, St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila.. It was distilled into a simple method of prayer in the 1970's by three Trappists (this is another name for Cistercians, a subset of the Benedictines) monks, Fr. William Meninger, Fr. Basil Pennington and Abbot Thomas Keating at the Trappist St. Joseph's Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts. The following method of Centering Prayer is drawn from the writings of Father Thomas Keating.
  1. Choose a sacred word as a symbol of your openness to being changed within. (Examples: Jesus, Abba, peace, grace, trust, love)

  2. Sit in moderate comfort, eyes closed, back straight, chest fully open.

  3. Settle briefly, and silently introduce the sacred word.

  4. When you become aware of thoughts, return gently to the sacred word

  5. At the end of the prayer period, remain in silence with eyes closed for a couple of minutes.

  6. Expect to experience distracting thoughts, including bodily and emotional feelings, perceptions, images, memories, reflections, insights, and commentaries. Remain detached from both pleasant and difficult distractions. They will go away. Expect casual thoughts, flashy ideas, psychic phenomena, reflection on the quality of your prayer, theological or psychic breakthroughs, and emotionally charged thoughts. Let them go gently past, and return to the sacred word.. Thoughts, even highly charged ones, are normal. Don't repress or become attracted. Simply return to the sacred word.

Of Zen or other Buddhist practice, here is a little background and some resources for those who wish to explore further. The following is the barest outline of Zen practice, and I urge those interested in this practice to seek out one of several Zen centers.

Outwardly, the practice of Zazen (sitting meditation) and Christian contemplative practice have much in common. Thomas Merton found during his trip to Asia that, while those concerned with theology of Zen and Christianity could find little common ground immediately, the actual practice of the monks was remarkably compatible. This has been my experience as well. The differences between Christian and Zen thought and practice emerge most clearly in the absence or unimportance of a deity in most (but not all) Buddhist thought.

Central to Zen practice is the practice of Zazen, or sitting meditation. Some teachers of Zen recommend the detached observation of the thoughts during Zazen. Others suggest counting the breath to 10, starting over when the attention wanders or when 10 is reached. Buddhist sects other than Zen teach meditation techniques that include chanting and visualization.
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