How Zen Contemplation Relates to Centering Prayer


Q: I’ve been practicing Zen meditation with a Christian group for 18 years. What is your view with respect to how Zen contemplation relates to Centering Prayer? The principles seem to be very similar. I ask because I’m trying to figure out the best next step for me to continue deepening in my contemplative prayer life.

A: This is a deeply rich question. I can give a response that can begin to touch on some of the issues, but ultimately the answer will come from your own experience, from your own heart. A little about my own background: before beginning to practice Centering Prayer I practiced Chan meditation, a form of Zen, and then after many years began practicing contemplative meditation in a Christian setting for several years. Then I officially trained in Centering Prayer with Father Carl Arico in 2008. Our experiences and teachers may have been different, but I can offer at least a start with some ideas on your question.

The first aspect that comes to my mind, in considering the difference between Zen contemplation and Centering Prayer, is intention. In sitting down to Centering Prayer the basic instruction is to offer our sacred word, breath, or glance as a symbol of our intention to consent to the presence and action of God. As anything comes up during the practice time that diverts us from this intention–thoughts, emotions, visions, etc., — we silently and gently re-introduce the sacred symbol; not to get rid of the distractions but to renew the intention. Centering Prayer is a relationship between the pray-er and God, developing a deeper trust and faith over time. We slowly open to a new way of seeing from the heart as an integrated way of being; an actual organ of spiritual perception. We might not notice the fruits of this, but others in our lives may notice that we tend to be more gentle, accepting, or non-judgmental, for example.

As practice deepens over time often people might let go even of the sacred symbol, and their views of God may change; the relationship may change from “God and me” to something more like the interwoven mutuality Jesus describes in John 14:20: “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.” In our practice we continue to relax and let go the Presence, the Web of Mercy and Compassion that permeates all. We are not letting go to anything outside of ourselves. As Thomas Keating said in That We May Be One, a video recorded in 2016:

“Love is a form of non-duality that has a personal quality. We belong to the human family and are developing and growing in breadth of perspective and in relationship to God. Christian non-duality then is this increasing merging of all our interests of body, soul, and emotions into the Body of Christ, the New Creation, who through the Spirit has given us the guidance of the Fruits and Gifts of the Spirit. We remain a unique creation, but the limitations of a self at different levels of consciousness disappear into ever greater Oneness, but without rejecting the relationships [with God] that we had before. In other words, we are building on previous relationships that were real, but inadequate compared to what transforming union and unity consciousness might be.”

Keating’s beautiful poetry collection in The Secret Embrace (2018, by a Rising Tide of Silence, LLC) also echoes this Oneness.

You could say that Centering Prayer is a practice of surrender, of letting go so deeply that it makes room for the divine to express itself more deeply through our body, soul, and emotions, as Keating says, and our lives. Many types of Buddhist meditation may focus more on awareness rather than on surrender, but my own Chan teacher always encouraged us to do less in our practice, and to let go of ruminations and identifications, however subtle. Any good Zen teacher will remind you that the ordinary ‘you’ has no idea how to do it yourself.

The type of transformation described by Thomas Keating is not unique to Centering Prayer. Father Thomas Hand, who practiced Zen in Japan while remaining firmly anchored in Christianity, also noticed that his view of God changed with contemplative practice. In Always a Pilgrim: Walking the Zen Christian Path (2004, published by the Mercy Center Meditation Program) he wrote:

“The fact that this change in my attitude toward God began along with my Zen initiation is, I feel, illuminating. Some people say that there is no God in Buddhism. I do not accept that idea at all. Once my mind was cleared of attachment to the purely Western notions of God, my experience of Buddhism was able to teach me God in a wonderful way. It brought me to experience God. So, again, I propose to employ the insights I’ve received in Zen to expound my experience and understanding of Divine Being.”

With both Centering Prayer and Zen, we learn that these contemplative practices are not just for ourselves, for our own personal transformation, but are part of the arc of transformation of what it means to be human, to be part of the growing Kingdom of Heaven on earth.

So, returning to your question I wonder what has brought this up in your heart at this time, and what you feel your relationship with God to be. Perhaps you are called to a deeper way of letting go, to being with God. You might be drawn to a more personal relationship with God, for example, through Centering Prayer. I did find the emphasis on that relationship extremely helpful at the time I took up Centering Prayer. It helped me to gradually release more and more of my own self-willfulness, my desire to perfect myself and to make something happen, and to relax more deeply into what we are as human beings in a loving field of Mercy. And the deepening relationship with God has been a source of joy in my life. In your case, if you really feel drawn to experience the difference perhaps you might give it a try: give it at least  a year or two to work within you, and decide for yourself. Either way, the field of Mercy, or Oneness, or God, if you prefer that language, sustains you and loves you, and you will find what you need.

Blessings on your journey,

Joy Andrews Hayter