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Some personal notes by a Chan Catholic on discovering DDMBA NJ

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Some personal notes by a Chan Catholic on discovering DDMBA NJ

by Gregory J. Millman

I began to meditate at DDMBA NJ in February 2016, a few months after suffering what physicians euphemistically described as “a life-changing experience”. Like most euphemisms, that phrase is vague and conceals more than it communicates. From the context in which doctors used it, the phrase seems to mean an experience that could, maybe even should, have been fatal, but instead left one breathing, albeit suddenly deprived of capabilities previously taken for granted as part of who one is. During the long bed-ridden days in hospital and rehabilitation centers, what I had previously taken for granted and had now lost was a source of regret, as were other memories of wasted or misspent time and opportunities in the past. Exacerbating regret for the past was anxiety about the future. What was life going to be now?

However, even in the hospital, I remembered my experience on an intensive Chan retreat more than a decade before. Almost uninterrupted meditation during that retreat had left me with unprecedented clarity and focus, but unluckily without the ability to sustain and deepen those. As soon as I was able, I began to search for Chan, Japanese Zen, Korean Son, Tibetan or other meditation instruction. I discovered with some surprise that New Jersey has numerous temples and sanghas practicing according to these various traditions. I was referred to DDMBA by members of another Temple, who claimed Chan descent but told me that they did not practice meditation.

Because I am a Catholic, I would of course attend Mass beforehand, often the Saturday night vigil, which left me free to attend the 9:00 AM meditations at DDMBA NJ, but I knew that, while sitting in meditation and learning from Buddhism, I was following in the footsteps of some of the greatest theologians and spiritual writers in the Catholic tradition during the 20th century. William Johnston, Author of “The Still Point: Reflections on Zen and Christian Mysticism” mentions that even St. John of the Cross, the great Renaissance Carmelite Doctor of the Church, had been accused of being a “Buddhist” by his less appreciative readers. While living in Taiwan during the late 1970s, I had been seeking opportunities to meditate, and spent some time with Taoists, but was then (it seems contrary to the spirit of Chan to say at this point what I feel: “regrettably”) unable to make contact with DDMBA or Master Sheng Yen. I believe that if I had been able to begin meditation practice then, it might have been a much more positive kind of “life-changing experience.” The community at the DDMBA NJ has extended a warm welcome and made me feel “at home” from the start.

In May of this year, after having heard the charismatic Jimmy Yu (Guo Gu) speak at DDMBA NJ, and after a subsequent exchange of emails with him, I “took the precepts” at the Dharma drum retreat center in upstate New York. For me, this meant for the most part reaffirming the commitment I have made at least annually when I have renewed my Catholic Baptismal vows during the Easter liturgy. Repentance also received a great deal of emphasis during the Precept rituals, and as a Catholic who has made a practice of frequent sacramental confession and of the liturgy of the Mass, which all but begins with a prayer of repentance, I found this most appropriate. In fact, hearing the dharma talks that emphasized one’s karmic debt for offenses committed in past lives, perhaps thousands of years ago, I found myself reflecting on Catholic teaching about the sacrifice made by Jesus on the cross, during which He took on Himself all of our sins. I do not think I have ever felt so moved with gratitude for that sacrifice and for the Catholic tradition. I know, of course, that this is not “Buddhist teaching”, but Christianity is ultimately about only one thing: love, and there seems to be no conflict with Chan on this point. Indeed, in my practice, I often remember a comment of Jesuit father Robert Kennedy, a Zen roshi whose master told him that through the practice of Zen, he would learn to empty himself in imitation of Jesus Christ, of whom St. Paul wrote, “He emptied Himself, coming in the form of a slave… He Humbled Himself.” Chan practice does appear to me another way of approaching that same objective of pouring out oneself, an approach that is the duty of every Christian and, based on what I have learned of the Dharma so far, of every Buddhist.