Ruben Habito, a former Jesuit priest, is the founder and teacher in residence at the Maria-Kannon Zen Center in Dallas. He was born in the Philippines in 1947. His father was a university professor, and, as a young man, Ruben was aware of his family’s privilege. “I did not suffer the hunger or the deprivation or the discrimination or illness or the things that many of the people in my country had to – and still have to – undergo.”
He questioned how God could allow the suffering of so many innocent hardworking people and spare others. “There is so much injustice in the world, so much unfairness and so much suffering. And how can this be allowed if God is all-powerful and all-loving and so on. And so the basic question of whether God did exist or not became very acute for me.”
“Did you ever resolve those questions?” I ask.
“Uh . . . I’d say the jury’s still out on that one,” he tells me with a smile.
The questioning eventually led him to enter the Jesuit novitiate. And while studying there, he had a chance encounter with an American missionary returning from Japan to the United States in order to complete his final year of formation. The young priest was Robert Kennedy, who – by his own admission – had had no interest in Zen during his posting to Japan, although years later he would later become a student of Koun Yamada Roshi and eventually a Dharma Heir of Bernie Glassman.
“He gave a talk to the novices about how Japan was a very challenging place for Christians because they were less than 1% of the population – half of them Catholic, half spread among different Protestant denominations – and that it was a country that was gradually becoming secularized and losing it spiritual heritage.”
The talk inspired Ruben to apply to be assigned to Japan.
His first task was to learn the language. “I was in the language school in Kamakura and our spiritual director happened to be Father Thomas Hand who had already started practicing Zen for some years before I arrived. And he advised me, ‘To deepen your spiritual life and also to really deepen your knowledge of Japanese culture, why don’t you come with me and join me in sitting in Zen with this group.’” The group was Yamada’s Zendo. “There were several Jesuits who were practicing Zen and integrating it with Jesuit spirituality.
“So when I came to Zen practice in my early 20s, we were just given simple instructions on the basic principles of taking a proper seated posture conducive to stillness and then of being aware of the breath, then allowing the mind to be calm and focused in the here and now. And so I found that very nourishing and direct. And I discovered it was a way of really arriving at the very place that St. Ignatius leads an exercitant who goes through his Spiritual Exercises. Spelled out briefly, in the Jesuit exercises we go through the first week meditating, using the discursive intellect to consider human sinfulness with a view to experientially realize the problematic nature of the human condition and be able to see clearly all of those things that need to be straightened out in our human way of living. This is the stage of purification.
“Then, in the next phase, the second week, we begin to set aside the discursive mind and are led to a more simple contemplative practice. We are now instructed to just ‘behold’ the words and actions of Jesus, to contemplate this looming figure of Jesus with a view to ‘putting on the mind of Christ’ in one’s own life and way of being. The point of this second week – a state of Illumination – is to become one with Jesus through listening to his words, watching his actions, and absorbing all of that into one’s own being. In going through the contemplative exercises of this second week, one comes to understand that to follow Jesus does not simply mean ‘imitating Jesus’ in a way that one looks at a model of behavior from a distance. Rather, all this leads one to embody the mind and heart of Jesus in one’s own life, to become an ‘alter Christus’ in all the dimensions of one’s own human life, infused with divine grace of course.
“The third week is a stage that involves a death to one’s own egoistic self, to die with Jesus on the cross as it were. This – and the fourth week – is the stage wherein one experiences the newness of life in the Risen Christ. To be one with Jesus in the risen life is to behold the divine glory permeating the entire universe. The third and fourth weeks are referred to as the stage of union, wherein one’s life is seen in the full light of divine grace and is lived in union with the divine will. So that final stage – the summit of the exercises, called the Contemplation on Divine Love – consists in simply resting in divine love, beholding everything in the light of this love.
“Now that is exactly what I found most directly and intimately in this practice of Zen. It is simply a practice of just sitting there, breathing in and breathing out, without any need for any kind of discursive or mental efforts, but a practice of just allowing that unconditional love to permeate through one’s entire being. It is allowing oneself to be immersed in that unconditional love, sitting there opening one’s entire being to allow that to happen. That’s where I found the point of convergence between Zen and the Spiritual Exercises.”
Cypress Trees in the Garden: 134, 150, 474
Catholicism and Zen: 14, 63-73, 75, 101, 107, 130, 134, 143, 148, 195
The Story of Zen: 258, 410-13
Zen Conversations: 83-84; 127