Hardcore Zen:

Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth about Reality

© 2003 by Brad Warner
Published by: Wisdom Publications 206 pp.

not your grandmother’s zen book

Hardcore Zen cover

You won’t find Hardcore Zen at the bookstore by looking for a cover with a pretty “Zen” picture. This one is about showing us what we don’t want to see; in keeping with that spirit, the cover features a toilet. Brad Warner uses many expressions of the kind which Captain Kirk described as “colorful metaphors” in Star Trek IV, some of which are really striking, “like a pit bull [on] a postman’s ass,” to quote Brad. This ain’t your grandma’s Zen book.

A friend asked me a couple of years ago what I found so valuable about Buddhism, and I replied that Buddhism seemed obsessed with reality. Brad seems to agree, and the difference between reality and “religion” is a running theme throughout the book.

Brad is a married American Zen priest living and teaching in Tokyo, whose day job is making Ultraman monster movies. In keeping with that theme of learning from reality, Brad teaches Zen from his own life, and the book is about one-third autobiography, and two-thirds hard-hitting Zen lessons. He discovered Zen while a punk-rock musician studying at Kent State University (at the same time I was there, BTW). From there he went to Japan, and found employment in making cheesy monster movies, a Soto Zen master, and a wife. Hmm, did I say hard-hitting? Isn’t Zen supposed to be something like a spacious room covered with floor cushions, perfumed with incense, New Age music rippling through the air, and a copy of The Art of Tea on the coffee table? No, it isn’t; It’s about discovering your true nature, and Brad’s mission is to shock us into realizing how desperately we avoid our reality, even with most of what we consider “spirituality.”

Hardcore Zen is does have some flaws. Sometimes Brad seems to condemn whatever awakening experiences and traditions which are not like the Zen ideal. My suspicion is that although enlightenment is only one thing, all who experience it do so differently, and will use different terms to describe it.

a brilliant introduction

But if you can take an occasional jibe to your tradition, you’ll find that Warner Roshi is an excellent teacher. His explication of the Heart Sutra is the best I’ve ever read, and his chapter on the “The World of Demons” by itself is worth much more than the price of the entire book. Brad explains how practicing zazen lifts the lid on the things we’ve tried to hide from ourselves, and often reveals what we didn’t want to see: makyo (our psychological demons). This extremely helpful chapter gives excellent advice on how to cope when we start seeing ourselves as we really are instead of how we’ve told ourselves we are. Beyond that, this chapter also has the most lucid explanation of the “no-self” concept in Zen, which can be helpful even to those who have been practicing Zen for years.

The next chapter, “In My Next Life, I Want to Come Back as a Pair of Lucy Liu’s Panties” (I wonder what his wife thinks of that title!) follows, with the clearest explanation I’ve ever seen on how the Buddhist concept of rebirth differs significantly from the general idea of reincarnation. Brad shows how our concepts of the afterlife are usually far off the mark because we don’t understand this present life, which happens in the present moment.

No Sex with Cantaloupes” (great chapter titles, huh?) is a delightful perspective on personal and social Buddhist morality through the ten training precepts, with an emphasis on its importance: “There are nitwits out there who’ll tell you Buddhism, particularly Zen Buddhism, isn’t concerned with morality, that it’s enlightenment that really counts. They’re wrong. Enlightenment is crap. Living morally and ethically is what really matters.”

That leads into another “hardcore” message: the waste of searching for “enlightenment.” Soon after I realized that enlightenment is real, and there actually are people who maintain a constant awareness of non-duality, I succumbed to the disease of enlightenment-seeking, and from which my own teacher had been trying to cure me. Something clicked in me when reading this:

Zazen isn’t about blissing out or going into an alpha brain-wave trance. It’s about facing who and what you really are, every single goddamn moment. And you aren’t bliss, I’ll tell you that right now. You’re a mess. We all are. But here’s the thing. That mess is itself enlightenment. You’ll eventually see that the “you” that’s a mess isn’t really “you” at all. But whether you notice your own enlightenment or not is entirely inconsequential. Whether you think of yourself as enlightened or not has nothing to do with the real state of affairs.

This is an extremely important point which all the thousands of enlightenment seekers in the world would do well to take to heart. The bottom line, Brad says, is that reality is real. Enlightenment isn’t escaping from it, but going into it, and finding the treasure inside every part and every moment. Hardcore Zen ends with a compelling appeal to practice zazen, the concentrated practice of looking at reality. Zazen can change us, and the world, from within, by destroying the self-interest that comes with the myth of self. He closes with some clear, simple instructions for beginning Zen meditation, written with the confidence of a master who has himself been transformed by this practice.

Brad also has a website with some wonderful pages written in his inimitable style, at Sit Down and Shut Up!»

Update, December 5, 2004. Brad has now moved back to the US, and is living in Hollywood, California. I’ve also updated the link above with his new URL

Buddha

by Karen Armstrong,
© 2001 by Karen Armstrong
Published by Penguin Books 205 pp.

an insightful biography

book cover

Karen Armstrong, the author of the best-sellers A History of God, The Battle for God, and Islam: A Short History, is known for her reputation as a lucid and insightful historian of Western religions, with a particular expertise on Islam. Leaving the interplay of monotheistic history might seem like a departure for her, but it really isn’t. Even in A History of God, Armstrong referred often to happenings in the Buddhist world to give an even wider perspective to Western religious history. Apparently, she has an inside connection; she dedicates this book to Lindsey Armstrong, her Buddhist sister.

There are many excellent biographies of the Buddha available, especially coming from a faith perspective, such as Thich Nhat Hahn’s Old Path, White Clouds. However, Armstrong predictably applies her historian’s ability to capture the sense of the time and presents Siddhatta Gotama (aka Siddhartha Gautama; Armstrong uses Pali forms consistently in this book) in the context of his time and culture. She begins with a frank assessment of the difficulty of a historian’s work in capturing Gotama’s life. Although the massive Pali canon bursts at the seams with his conversations and accounts of events in his life, they are conspicuously stylized for recitation, and they deliberately avoid revealing his personality. Furthermore, they were not committed to writing until hundreds of years after his death, so a historian must use them judiciously. Nevertheless, Armstrong dives into the accounts, separating the oldest accounts from later ones, and embellishments from history. Her style might seem somewhat repetitive to someone familiar with Buddhism, but she wants to build a clear understanding with a reader who knows nothing on the subject. Generally, her style is clear and fresh, only occasionally does her perspective get in the way, for instance, in psychologizing Mara the tempter’s appearance as Buddha’s subconscious “shadow.”

looking around the buddha

Armstrong’s greatest accomplishment here is in looking around the Buddha to give the reader a sense of the social and political situation in upper Ganges basin, the family life of a prince of a major tribe, and the interweaving threads of his family and companions throughout his life. For instance, we find that becoming a sanyasin, a renunciate monk, was not at all uncommon. Armstrong shows us that thousands of young people throughout the region were sick of the structure of their society and resolved to “go forth” as renunciates, rebelling against a world-system that seemed evil and meaningless by dedicating themselves to finding the key to total liberation from it. For them, total liberation meant never having to return to this realm where ultimately sickness and death prevail. So pervasive was the dissatisfaction with the state of things, that Armstrong says these mendicant monks were seen as “heroic pioneers” and were “honored as rebels” by society as a whole.

The account of the six years between Gotama’s “going forth” to becoming the enlightened one is particularly fascinating. We learn surprisingly specific information of the teachers he had, the philosophies they upheld, the disciplines he practiced, and why he ultimately found all of them lacking. From there, we learn of his dedication to the practice of mindfulness, the discovery of the Eightfold Path, and his enlightenment.

Much Buddhist writing is simply dreary. Unenlightened Buddhists not only lack the experience which they seek, but they may not have the environment of joyous enlightenment around them to fuel their quest with joy. Non-Buddhists who write on Buddhism routinely misinterpret vital but difficult concepts such as nirvanaanicca, and anatta, sometimes even believing them to signify a quest for annihilation! (Amazing the persistence of such ignorance.) Armstrong is the first writer I’ve come across who successfully communicates the incredible joy the Buddha radiated, which drew tens of thousands of people to his radical way of life. People saw something passionate and compelling in him! In short, this book will certainly give readers new insight into the Buddha, and might give many new insight into Buddhism itself.

The Coming of the Cosmic Christ

the healing of mother earth and the birth of a global renaissance

©1988 by Matthew Fox
Published by: HarperCollins, 278 pp.

tying it all together

When I encountered this book in the late 80s, I knew that God was leading me to a different kind of faith than I had encountered in my churches. I had read several other books which began pointing me into this wonderful direction of the Wild Things of God. Walking on Water, by Madeleine L’Engle, was the book that let me know that there was a more holistic, deeper way of being Christian, The Mustard Seed Conspiracy by Tom Sine showed me that it was something which involved action and justice, and Richard Foster’s The Celebration of Discipline revealed that it had been growing throughout Church history. But this one tied it all together, and gave a name to the thing which had been tugging at my soul for several years: mysticism.

When I say this book “ties it all together,” I’m making an understatement. It’s almost easier to describe what The Coming of the Cosmic Christ is not about, for Fox relates this cosmic Christian perspective to everything. Fox, a Dominican Catholic priest at the time of its writing (now Episcopalian), became uniquely prepared to write this book through his previous works. His earlier books ranged from his translations and commentaries on the wild mysticism of Meister Eckhart (Passion for Creation) and St. Thomas Aquinas (Sheer Joy) to his revelation of compassion as the central theme of Biblical Christianity (A Spirituality Named Compassion), and his treatment of the four essential paths of Christian mysticism in Original Blessing. Passion for Creation (originally titled Breakthrough) was called “the most important book on mysticism in 500 years,” by one writer, and few who have read this groundbreaking work would quickly disagree. Yet The Coming of the Cosmic Christ is the one almost certainly to be remembered as his masterpiece.

the death of compassion

Fox divides the book into five sections, beginning with a vivid image which came to him in a dream: “Your mother is dying.” Using this image, he examines how Compassion is dying as seen by all contemporary crises throughout the world: Mother Earth is dying, hope is dying, the youth are dying, and native peoples, cultures, religions, and wisdom are dying. The news is sobering. Fox pulls no punches on summarizing the world-wide extent of social decay, environmental destruction, political oppression, the devastating tolls of wars and million-dollar-a-minute military spending, religious intolerance, and increasing despair. However, he reminds us that although compassion may be dying, it is not dead! There is still hope, and it is ours to bring to the world.

the answer of authentic mysticism

In the second section he examines what mysticism is, and what it isn’t. Fox shows mysticism as something cosmological, showing the place of the person within all creation, and believes that when true cosmology, true awareness of one’s place in the Universe is absent, persons and cultures will often substitute “pseudo-mysticisms” to fill the void, such as fundamentalisms (of any religion or ideology), militarism, alcoholism, and the brain-numbing worship of popular celebrities. He further shows how Jesus embodies all the characteristics of a true mystic, and is the founder of Christian mysticism.

The third section, titled “The Quest for the Cosmic Christ,” is an inspirational survey of the mystical tradition from the Bible, through Christ and the apostles, through the Church Fathers, the medieval mystics, up to modern-day mystics. This “Cosmic Christ” is not “another Christ,” but simply the living Christ, the compassionate Word, rooted in Jesus, and living today.

The fourth section shows the suffering of Christ continuing in the suffering of the poor, the victims of war and greed, and the sufferings of Mother Earth. They too are Christ, since Christ is the One “in whom all things hold together,” and Jesus identifies himself with “the least of these” on earth.

a vision of the second coming

The fifth and final section is by far the longest. Titled “A Vision of the Second Coming: The Healing of Mother Earth and the Birth of a Global Renaissance,” this is a manifesto of social mysticism. Fox believes that true mysticism is not, and cannot be, a private affair. It is by nature redemptive, as Christ is, and so we must become Christ, enacting the resurrection of the living Cosmic Christ in our beings and then our actions, to transform society and bring healing to all its suffering, broken parts through love, imagination, peacemaking, and environmental, moral, and social justice. Fox shows, with conviction and enthusiasm, how restoring the mystical mind of compassion (the Christian work of love) can bring a global renaissance to the entire world, including every aspect of society, from religion to sexuality, from peace-making and disarmament to mentoring the young. Remaking the world will require unparalleled creativity. Fox says: “The living cosmology ushered in by the Cosmic Christ will do more than redeem creativity itself; it will propose creativity as a moral virtue—indeed as the most important moral virtue of the upcoming civilization“. Fox urges us to begin a great work, the same great work that Jesus challenged us to 2000 years ago: to live and build the divine Kingdom.

This book is almost certainly the most comprehensive on what a modern mystical Christian worldview can be, and one of the most comprehensive books I’ve seen on anything, period. There are plenty of books on the trends of evil in this world system, plenty of calls for peacemaking, plenty of appeals for spiritual renewal, but Cosmic Christ addresses all these issues and more, with information, insight, and inspiration.

That said, this really isn’t an introduction to the mystical path. For one thing, it’s not an introductory book, but a scholarly examination (with hundreds of footnotes) of the need for a radical change through the world. Secondly, Fox never discusses the personal entrance into the mystic adventure. Too often, he makes it sound like mysticism is another world-view, rather than the transformative encounter with divine Reality. He never mentions meditation or contemplation, and he is quite vague on how exactly to be changed in order to change the world. But this is a different kind of mystical writing: shouting like a prophet for us to embrace a social, global mysticism through action and love. Fox’s courage and genius in proclaiming the urgency of following Jesus’ teachings and building his Kingdom of compassion is beyond inspirational. Simply put, this book changed my life.

Centering Prayer:

Renewing an Ancient Christian Prayer Form

by M. Basil Pennington, O.C.S.O.
©1980 by Cistercian Abbey of Spencer, Inc.
An Image Book, published by Doubleday, 254 pp.

an introduction and guide

Father Pennington builds upon the spiritual practice of The Cloud of Unknowing, and makes it not only perfectly understandable, but irresistible. He starts off from a place to which none of the other classics (at least which I’ve read) on contemplative prayer ever went, a historical overview on contemplation. He briefly recounts how strains of silent prayer, or contemplative prayer, developed and intermingled from the “Desert Fathers,” the earliest Christian monastic tradition, the lectio-meditatio-oratio-contemplatio tradition of later Western monasteries, the “Jesus Prayer” and hesychast traditions of Eastern Christianity, the Cloud of Unknowing, up to the Carmelite saints of prayer, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. He also gives an overview of how these traditions continued into modern times, and how growing awareness of Eastern methods of meditation increased interest in Christian meditation to the Christian laity everywhere. This of course, is all preliminary, but interesting.

Next is the presentation of “Centering Prayer,” what he calls a new “packaging” of contemplative prayer. It’s the approach of The Cloud of Unknowing, but distilled into three simple “rules.”

Rule One: At the beginning of the Prayer, we take a minute or two to quiet down and then move in faith to God dwelling in our depths; and at the end of the prayer we take several minutes to come out, mentally praying the “Our Father” or some other prayer.

Rule Two: After resting for a bit in the center in faith-full love, we take a single, simple word that expresses this response and begin to let it repeat itself within.

Rule Three: Whenever in the course of the Prayer we become aware of anything else, we simply gently return to the Presence by use of the prayer word.

Pennington’s rules for centering prayer are helpful and brief. I found that I was soon doing centering prayer, rather than just thinking about doing it. Nevertheless, there are many challenges: distracting thoughts, consistency of practice, fitting centering prayer into the larger whole of one’s day-to-day living, service, and the larger whole of one’s spiritual life, for instance. The majority of the pages here are about these concerns—this is a how-to book for busy Christian laypeople, and Pennington beautifully addresses all of these items and more.

Fr. Pennington writes from the perspective of having given workshops and retreats on centering prayer for several years, with experience of helping thousands of people overcome these obstacles. Furthermore, he also brings his perspective as a religious priest, with years of ongoing training in daily deep prayer. The result is a how-to book, describing a practical method for the most elusive of all spiritual disciplines.

ancient and modern voices

Yet on my second reading of Centering Prayer, I find I prefer The Cloud for its emphasis that the true method of contemplation is essentially love, far more than it is a prayer word. There is an analytical tone to the book, which is helpful in some respects, but it seems to me now to quench the infectiously loving and passionate spirit of contemplation as exemplified by the author of The CloudThe Cloud is far more open, far more passionate, far more joyful, and at least after a decent time of becoming familiar with this “contemplative work of love,” more helpful. And as one continues on the path, Privy Counseling may well become the most treasured of all three of these works.

However, I’d urge anyone interested in Christian meditation to read both modern books like Centering Prayer or Open Mind, Open Heart, and classics such as The Cloud and Privy Counsel. Also, check out the Centering Prayer website at http://www.centeringprayer.com.

Saffron Days in L. A.

Tales of a Buddhist Monk in America

© 2001 by Bhante Walpola Piyananda
Foreword by the Dalai Lama, Published by: Shambhala Publications, 187 pp.

adventures in america

What’s too often missing in the whole field of religious writing, is something that goes beyond the “belief systems” into conveying what it is like, really, to be a passionate Christian / Muslim / Buddhist / Jedi or whatever, and explain it so that others can understand. Saffron Days in L. A. is an excellent book on Buddhism for Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike since it has everything—humor, humanity, love, life stories, and yep, a pretty clear explanation about beliefs.

Bhante [the Sri Lankan title for Buddhist monks] Walpola Piyananda came to the United States on July 4, 1976, the very day of the Bicentennial celebrations. He established the first Theravada Buddhist temple in the Los Angeles area, and this book is a collection of memoirs of his experiences in the US. What great experiences they are, too! In the opening chapter, he tells about a young American convert who became a monk and soon found it unbearable to endure the constant harassment and taunts he received for wearing the traditional saffron-colored robe. Piyananda encouraged him by sharing his own difficulties wearing the Theravadin robe in L. A. including the hilarious story of waiting to meet someone in an office building and needing to make an adjustment to his robe (see sidebar).

the power of love

What strikes me most about Piyananda’s ministry is his gift for communicating gently but persuasively, with almost anyone, in almost any circumstances. One very funny story concerns how he and a friend were cornered by a threatening gang of punks on a pier. Piyananda not only turned the situation around, but had all five members of the gang asking him questions for the rest of the afternoon. Three of them later began studying Buddhism with him, and one even became a monk.

excerpt

Donning the robe is a reflection of the philosophy of dhamma, and an art in itself. Every crease and every fold has a meaning and a purpose. Carefully, I rolled one corner of the outer fold of the cloth and shaped it into a robe. While doing so, I spread the other fold of the cloth over my head, which completely covered my face. Then I wrapped the rolled fold of the robe around my neck before bringing the fold covering my head and face down over my shoulders. While my face was still covered, I saw the shadow of the woman on the couch rush past me to the elevator.

No sooner had I finished arranging my robe than I heard the fire sirens approaching around the corner. Within seconds, police cruisers and an ambulance pulled up in front of the lobby. The policemen and paramedics came running and as they approached I could see looks of utter astonishment on their faces. One officer stepped forward and ask me brusquely what I was trying to do. I was totally confused by then, and I asked the group of would-be rescuers if someone would please explain what was going on.

The first police officer said, ‘A woman called nine-one-one and reported an attempted suicide in the lobby. She told the dispatcher that an Indian guru was trying to suffocate himself with his long dress!

Saffron Days in L. A., pp.5-6

In a more serious situation, Piyananda received a phone call one night from a woman being held at gunpoint by her husband who was threatening to kill her and their children in a fit of jealous rage. Piyananda talked him into letting his wife go, got his children to safety before he could do them harm, and furthermore talked him into meeting him at the temple, surrendering his gun, and letting go of his rage. The incident ended not only without violence, but even without police involvement! A year later the man and his children were happily building new lives for themselves.

Other stories relate the challenges of helping a prostitute escape her profession and move on to a better life, the frustrations of constantly being mistaken for a Hari Krishna, explaining the Buddhist position to Christian fellow-students at Northwestern University, counseling junior monks, and the always-fun task of talking thugs out of killing him.

Piyananda uses his flair for story-telling to teach at every possible opportunity, and many a more serious student of Buddhism will find valuable information as he addresses popular misconceptions. For instance, the well-known story of the Buddha abandoning his family to live as an ascetic turns out to be false, a romanticized detail of the Buddha’s life added by Buddhaghosa in the fourth century, AD. Numerous earlier writings show that the Buddha left his family with their permission. Piyananda is not only a great storyteller, but an distinguished scholar who holds doctorates from both UCLA and the College of Buddhist Studies in Los Angeles.

Piyananda’s example is also likely to shatter the false notion which some non-Buddhists hold of Buddhism as lacking an ethic of service and social involvement. Piyananda lives a life of compassionate service, helping new immigrants from Southeast Asia, curing an alcoholic man by chanting with him nightly, and urging non-violence and forgiveness even after terrible tragedy (he delivered the eulogy for the funeral service of nine people killed in a massacre at a temple in Arizona). Piyananda’s renunciation of attachments and pleasures in order to freely give his love to all reminds me of no one so much as St. Francis of Assisi, the one who grew rich in having nothing but the blessings of God himself. Indeed, Franciscans are often attracted to Buddhism, and for good reason—the Buddha’s life and Francis’ are full of parallels. Furthermore, Jesus’ and Buddha’s life also have many parallels.

Whether you are Christian, Buddhist, both, or other, and whether you have never read about the faith before or have been practicing it for years, read Saffron Days. It will make you laugh, teach you, and inspire you.

The Book of Privy Counseling

(Back to Page 1: The Cloud of Unknowing)

book cover

Although not even mentioned on the cover or spine, the greatest advantage of Johnston’s edition over others is its inclusion of another work by this nameless abbot, The Book of Privy Counsel. (Strangely, its title is altered here to The Book of Privy Counseling.) To me, this lesser-known, later work is if anything, even more valuable. Johnston’s decision to include it in with this translation of the Cloud was a stroke of genius and love. With only twenty-one micro-chapters versus the Cloud’s seventy-five, Privy Counseling is shorter and pithier. Radiating an even more mature and transcendent faith, it dispenses with apologetics for contemplation and descriptions of errors, and simply presents sound advice on doing “the contemplative work.” Also gone is the feeling of any halfway or introductory steps; for instance, the author here does not even mention the use of a prayer word as in The Cloud, nor does he forbid the use of words when praying. He simply cautions, “do not pray with words unless you are really moved to this,” and gives the soul its freedom to respond to the Spirit as it will. And while not specifically recommending it as a prayer word, he extols the singularity of the word is:

There is no name, no experience, and no insight so akin to the everlastingness of God than what you can possess, perceive, and actually experience in the blind loving awareness of this word, is. Describe him as you will: good, fair Lord, sweet, merciful, righteous, wise, all-knowing, strong one, almighty; as knowledge, wisdom, might, strength, love, or charity, and you will find them all hidden and contained in this little word, is. (p. 158)

contemplation as the awareness of isness

Perhaps it was this passage which inspired Meister Eckhart, the mystic genius to use the word “Isness” for God. Privy Counseling’s technique is quite different from the Cloud’s. No doubt from both his own growing intimacy with God, and his studies of Pseudo-Dionysius (St. Denis) whom he quotes, the author relies simply on a calm certainty of God’s panentheistic Presence as the “Ground of Being.” The method can be summarized as follows:

  • Become aware of your own being, “do not think what you are, but that you are.” (p.152) Do this not with thoughts, but just the “blind, general awareness of your being.” (p. 156) (This point is striking in its similarity to the Buddhist technique of vipassana, non-judging awareness on one’s being in the present moment.)
  • Knowing that God is “the ground of being,” that “he exists in all things as their being,” that “he is your being,” (p.150) offer your being to him “in words or desire” thus:

That which I am, I offer to you,
O Lord, for you are it entirely. (p.151)

The pure offering of your being to God’s being is considered the most effectual supplication, as it imitates Christ who gave “himself without reserve that all men might be united to his Father as effectively as he was himself.” (p.157) “Conceived in an undivided heart, [it] will satisfy your present need, further your growth, and bring all mankind closer to perfection.” (p. 157)

  • As your practice develops, let your will long “to experience only God…. as he is in himself.” (p. 172)

the work of rest

 Is it difficult? It truly seems easier for me than the methods of Centering Prayer and the Cloud, but Centering Prayer is certainly easier for a newcomer to contemplation to understand. This is an advanced practice, intended for someone with at least a bit of meditative experience under his belt, who doesn’t need an explanation to know the importance of embracing God within the self. It’s contemplation, and contemplation is far from easy. In the final chapter, the abbot addresses the situation with an honesty that will surely make every contemplative and meditator smile:

You may say, “All I feel is toil and pain, not rest. . . . On the one hand, my faculties hound me to give up this work and I will not. On the other, I long to lose the experience of myself and I cannot. . . . If this is rest, I think it is a rather odd kind of rest!”

Yes, I know it is painful and toilsome. And yet I call it rest. . . . Persevere in it with humility and great desire, for it is a work which begins here on earth, but will go on without end into eternity. (p. 188)

Indeed it will. Although I have given a lengthy summary here, please don’t depend on my sketch. Get all the insights of this wonderful teacher for yourself, and let it guide you into the wonder of touching God in this deepest of prayers. It will likely become one of your most valued books, one of the few which may truly change your life.

(Back to Page 1: The Cloud of Unknowing)

The Cloud of Unknowing

two historic jewels of christian mysticism

This translation by William Johnston contains not one, but two of the great books in the literature of contemplation, , the well-known classic The Cloud of Unknowing, and its lesser-known sequel, The Book of Privy Counsel(ing). These 14th century classics by an unknown English abbot have long been among the most respected and beloved texts on the subject, and had a profound influence upon St. John of the Cross’ writings on contemplative prayer. It has received renewed attention in the last few decades as interest in meditation and contemplation has skyrocketed.

Fr. Johnston’s superb translation makes these 700-year-old manuals feel almost contemporary. There are no anachronisms, no words that make you run to the dictionary, nothing that takes you from out of your living room to medieval England. You feel almost as if a living person is teaching you about this wonderful method of prayer. The Cloud is far more readable than other contemplative works I have read, such as Teresa of Ávila’s The Interior Castle, and Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross.

the cloud: meditation as concentrated love

Yet it is every bit as passionate. The title comes from the author’s metaphor of contemplative prayer as struggling to get beyond a “cloud of unknowing” which separates us from experiencing God’s presence. He dismisses the idea of using understanding as a means of reaching God, since God is unfathomable; instead, he suggests, we embrace God with our love. Having established that love is the means of going through “the cloud,” the author urges the reader to “beat upon the cloud of unknowing with the hammer of your love,” and to “pierce the cloud of unknowing with the arrow of your love.” The author’s passion for God is contagious, and his prose is inspirational. The Frimster could easily find a year’s worth of profound and moving quotes for the home page here!

As for technique, the author urges the reader to dispense with meditations (visualizations), petitions, and so forth during the time of contemplation, in order to be present to God alone, not God and meditations, etc. He suggests the use of a short word like “God” or “love” to bring one back to being alone with God whenever distracting thoughts intrude, which is central to the Centering Prayer method.

There is a dull middle zone of around twenty short sections dealing with errors to avoid, which will not speak effectively to most modern readers. Nonetheless, upon reading The Cloud again, I’ve understood and appreciated it far more than I did upon my first reading. Its method really comes down to one word: Love. Over and over, the author describes the quiet prayer as love: “this contemplative work of love,” “lift up your heart with a blind stirring of love,” and “each one, in a different way, can grasp him fully through love.”

There are few books which radiate such a powerful and infectious love of God. The author really is driving home one thing: Love is the beginning, end, and means of deep prayer. Nothing else is necessary, but a willingness to spend time alone with God in love.

Go to page 2: The Book of Privy Counseling.

Saint Francis

an amazing encounter with the “alter christus”

It’s always best to drop your baggage and approach each book you read with a fresh, expectant state of mind, but undoubtedly, many people will find that difficult with Saint Francis, as I did, with an aversion to wordy translations. No matter. By the time I was fifty pages into the book, that “baggage” was history, and I was entranced by Kazantzakis’ incredible retelling of this man’s story, the man whose life was so radically distinctive in purity, poverty, and peace, that he created one of the most lasting and far-reaching reforms in Church history.

Saint Francis starts slowly, with Francis’ companion Brother Leo mourning the death of his friend and bemoaning the years of self-denial he suffered in following Francis and his life of self-imposed deprivations. He begins to write of the life of Francis, at first erratically, and then, chronologically, remembering how he met him, and how God began changing Francis. From this point on, (about the fifty-page point) Leo’s recollection becomes a seamless chronological narrative, inevitably progressing from fascinating to gripping to utterly captivating. I read the last seventy or so pages in one sitting, and felt I was not in this time or space, but with Francis himself at the incredible close of the earthly phase of his life.

Unlike The Last Temptation of Christ, Saint Francis is much more biography than fiction. The main fiction Kazantzakis uses is making Brother Leo the constant companion to Saint Francis, and thus an eyewitness to all the miracles in his ministry. (In reality, although Leo was one of his first brothers and biographers, he did not accompany him on all the journeys.) Leo also conveys the irresistible charisma of Francis, and the contagiousness of his vision of abandoning all worldly desires to pursue and serve Jesus through boundless love for not just every person, but everything, with determined peace, and perfect simplicity.

This book is dangerous, in the same way the Gospel is dangerous:If you are satisfied with your spiritual life and want no challenges, don’t read this book, because it might blow you away.

Am I exaggerating? Soon after I began read Saint Francis, I seriously began to consider formally becoming a Franciscan. While I’ve since realized that I don’t have a Franciscan vocation, something of the spirit of St. Francis has stayed with me to this day, years after encountering this wonderful book.

Don’t read this book at all, unless you want to fall more deeply and passionately in love with Jesus Christ. But if you do, run to a rare bookstore or library and get it! And as Francis would say, may Peace and Good rain upon you.

The Alchemist

a spiritual gem

Book cover

With nearly two million copies sold around the world, this wonderful fable is becoming recognized for what it is—one of the truly great charmers of the late twentieth century. It’s like a surprisingly cool sea breeze coming over the desert in the evening. The innocence and charm of this fable are comparable to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, but The Alchemist is more humorous, more spiritual, and wiser. This is the story of Santiago, a wanderlust shepherd boy in Spain, who decides to act upon a dream he has one night—of discovering a buried treasure at the Pyramids of Egypt.

Santiago’s journey is not easy, but his humility, faith, and simplicity are simply unshakable. In fact, he is so naïve (in the best way possible) that it does not seem to occur to him that he could be shaken. Reading it, I was reminded of something Søren Kierkegaard wrote regarding spiritual warfare:

One thing there is which all Satan’s cunning and all the snares of temptation cannot take by surprise, and that is simplicity.

After Santiago has his dream, he is soon visited by Melchizedek, the mysterious King of Salem, who tells him that soon after someone embarks upon the path of their destiny, all the Universe conspires to help them, but only for a little while. Soon after embarking upon a trip to Africa, his money is gone and he must struggle, as almost all of us do, with precariously balancing his material needs against not losing sight of his dream and his destiny. I don’t want to give too much away, but Santiago does a much better job than most of us. He never confuses the good for the best, in spite of all temptations to fear, anger, hardships, contentment, pride in achievements, and other distractions that successfully derail most of us from pursuing our callings. Santiago’s weapons are not “determination,” but trust, not willpower, but fascination, and not strength, but wonder.

One of most poignant passages comes after Santiago leaves a comfortable oasis in Egypt, (and his new love) to attend to his dream once more. As he pauses in the desert, a horseman dressed in black rushes him, with a scimitar raised to kill. Instead of fleeing or or attempting to fight, Santiago bows his head for the blow, ready to accept even death as a gift of the adventure. His steadiness has become what St. Francis of Assisi called “perfect joy,” a joy that is totally independent of any kind of circumstance on earth, being rooted so strongly in faith.

The Alchemist is profoundly spiritual without being preachy in any way. Anyone who reads it will be impressed that this is a spiritual metaphor, an extended parable about searching for our true heart’s desire, the gold that lies buried within our own souls. It is interesting to compare this book with the more popular Celestine Prophecy. I see Coelho’s little gem as being everything the latter book should have been, but wasn’t.