One of the reasons I believe in jazz is that the oneness of man can come through the rhythm of your heart. It’s the same any place in the world, that heartbeat. It’s the first thing you hear when you’re born — or before you’re born — and it’s the last thing you hear. — Dave Brubeck

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

"Finding God in All Things"

January 20th, 2012

Bonnie Johnson Shurman
Jan. 20, 1944-June 2, 2011

Bonnie Johnson would have been 68 today. I am among the many people who loved her and miss her kind and warm presence. She was an extremely generous woman and expressed her love as wife and mother,  daughter, grandmother and friend, in a way you could count on. 

More than a decade ago, when she was first diagnosed with leukemia, her husband Daniel Shurman told me that she was interested in doing the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius, and asked if I could suggest a book that she could use. She did the Exercises and I was blessed to be her guide. But it was her enormous spiritual gift that allowed her truly embody the Teaching of Jesus, and then to share it with others, just as the Lord asks us.

During the years that her cancer remained in remission, she continued to explore the path that her Lord, through Ignatius, opened. She continued to live her life in prayer, exploring and digging further, following her own inspiration and gifts. This mystical bent was always balanced by the consummate professional, a scholar with common sense. 

She found a link between Ignatius and Julian of Norwich via an informal association of seekers who called themselves “the Friends of God.” She wrote about Julian, Ignatius and the Friends of God when she was studying at the Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It is dated March 8, 2005. 

Thank you, Daniel for being the kind of husband who inspires, and for introducing me to Bonnie, To thank Bonnie for the gift of friendship, I am going to post the paper, “Finding God in All Things,” here.

We miss you, Bonnie. and your gentle presence. We are enormously grateful for the gifts you gave us. May you sing with the angels.

I have given this paper the same title as William Barry’s book: Finding God In All Things, A Companion To The Spiritual Exercises Of St. Ignatius (Barry 1991). I was reading the book when Julian of Norwich was assigned in class. The similarities between Julian’s writings and Ignatius’s were striking to me. Both Julian and Ignatius write of multiple sensory experiences with God occasioned by life-threatening illness. Before I understood that Julian was born 150 years before Ignatius, I considered that her visions, like mine[1], might have been delirious manifestations engendered by Ignatian-style guided meditations. When I realized that she lived long before Ignatius, I abandoned the paper I was writing on the general topic of asceticism to delve deeper into parallels, coincidences, and possible connections between these two late medieval mystics.

The theological proposition of this paper is that the writings of Julian in circa 1400 and the writings of Ignatius circa 1525 are representative of a distinct spirituality: God as Friend. God as Friend is a paradigm shift from the dominant spirituality from the 4th century: Deity of Christ; it is distinct though related to two paradigms which were soon to emerge in the reformation: Salvation by Faith Alone and Incarnational Participation. At the end of this paper I will argue that the paradigm of God as Friend is finding new relevance in our time, hence bringing a renewed interest in both Julian and Ignatius.

In my search for a “social network” connecting Julian and Ignatius, I learned about an informal group called “Friends of God” from one of the many websites devoted to Julian. The name for this “association of pious persons, both ecclesiastical and lay [also men and women], alludes no doubt to John 15:14-15[2] … Friends of God appears to have had its origin in Basle between the years 1339 and 1343, and to have thence extended down the Rhine even as far as the Netherlands” (Walsh 1909). I am skeptical that Julian herself had any direct connection with the informal network of German mystics, but there is indirect evidence at least that many of them had access to her writing. One version of Julian’s Short Text (the so-called “Amherst Manuscript”) also contains writings of Friends’ mystics Marguerite Poerete, Henry Suso, and Jan van Ruusbroec (Holloway 1997). The manuscript had been in the Brigittine Syon Abbey; it was owned by the Lowe family and through them found its way to the Low Countries and Rouen (Holloway 1996). While there is no direct evidence of who might have read it and when, there is enough indirect evidence to conclude that Julian’s ideas were circulating among German mystics following her death circa 1425. The German mystics influenced Ignatius through the Carhusian and former Dominican monk, Ludolf of Saxony (Gieraths 1986). Ignatius is known to have read and re-read a four volume Spanish translation of Ludolf’s Life of Christ and to have been profoundly influenced, even converted, by what he read there (Ignatius 2000, p. xiv; Loyola 2000, p. xiv).

The references to Julian’s writing in this paper come from a “Long Text” version translated from the manuscript found in the British Museum. As I read Revelations of Divine Love (Julian 2002), I noted about sixty passages expressing ideas similar to those found the Spiritual Exercises, far too many passages to discuss here.[3] I am concentrating on five concepts that point parallel notions of God as friend; in particular, I am limiting myself to the best examples that reveal similarities in their views of how people carry on friendship with God various media/modes. I use quotations from the work of each to document my argument that friendship with God is created and maintained through intimate communications which take at least five different forms: imagery, senses, colloquy, consolation/ desolation, and prayer. In the conclusion of the paper, I also point similarities in how they describe the nature of this friendship in their discussions of sin, love, goodness, choice, and the indwelling of God in our nature.

Communication is the sine qua non of any friendship. To have a concept of friendship with God, therefore requires that there be some form of media which constitutes that communication. For both Julian and Ignatius, imagery is the most important media and the Passion is the most important topic of that imagery. In examining Julian and Ignatius’s imagery of Jesus’ Passion, such in the illustrative passages below, it is easy to dismiss their perspective on friendship. After all “Body of Christ” imagery was a common theme of medieval piety yet friendship with God was not. I have little knowledge of other writers in the “Body of Christ” genre, so I cannot say that the friendship imagery of Julian and Ignatius is unique. What I observe in their imagery, however, is its intimacy. Both show intimacy with Jesus’ body; this use of imagery signals closeness, friendship.

… All the precious blood was bled out of the sweet body that might pass therefore, yet there dwelled a moisture in the sweet flesh of Christ as it was shewed (Julian 2002, p.). 

… Blood of Christ, inebriate me. Water from the side of Christ, wash me. Passion of Christ, strengthen me. O good Jesus hear me. Within Thy wounds hid me (Ignatius 2000, p. xlv).

Simply imagining another in a prayerful way can also create a close relationship with the one imagined with the need for conversation as we typically understand that term. A few months ago my husband and I were contacted by a friend to provide direction to on-line medical information for a friend of his with a rare bone marrow disease. We started to email with both Jim and his wife about Jim’s illness and potential resources in Palo Alto. Mostly we prayed intensely for Jim and also for his wife; we never spoke with them even by phone. When Jim died unexpectedly from a heart attack, both Daniel and I were devastated; we still cry at the thought of Jim. We had lost a dear friend, one whom we knew only through imagery, email, and prayer. It was a dramatic Julian-Ignatian lesson for me: I felt so close to this person and that closeness was entirely the product of my imagining his circumstances and my daily prayers for him. Knowing Jim in this way helped me to experience God in a fresh way; I learned how I can know God without human encounters just as I had known Jim without these encounters.

Imagery in Julian and Ignatius is not only visual, it is also multi-sensory.

I HAD, in part, touching, sight, and feeling in three properties of God, in which the strength and effect of all the Revelation standeth (Julian 2002, p. 197). And then shall we, with His sweet grace, in our own meek continuant prayer come unto Him now in this life by many privy touchings of sweet spiritual sights and feeling, measured to us as our simpleness may bear it (Julian 2002, p. 90). 

The Fifth contemplation will consist in applying the five senses to the matter. … seeing in imagination the persons, in contemplating and mediating in detail the circumstances in which they are… hear what they are saying… smell the infinite fragrance and taste the infinite sweetness of the divinity … touch, for example by embracing and kissing the place where the persons stand (Ignatius 2000, p. 45).

Communicating with one’s Godfriend goes beyond merely experiencing God through ones imagination and senses; both Julian and Ignatius converse directly with God. Throughout the Julian text, she is posing questions to God, and God is answering her, for example: “AND thus our good Lord answered to all the questions and doubts that I might make, saying full comfortably: I may make all thing well, I can make all thing well, I will make all thing well…”(Julian 2002, p. 61); the result of this is conversational. Ignatius uses the term “colloquy” to refer to conversations with God (and also with Jesus, Mary, and the Holy Spirit on occasions): “The colloquy is made by speaking exactly as one friend speaks to another” (Ignatius 2000, p. 24). These two examples exemplify a pattern of “shewing” vs “exercise” that I find over and over as a distinction between these two books: Julian shows her communication with God; Ignatius instructs the maker of the exercises to perform these same kinds of communications. Thus, “revelation” in Julian becomes “exercise” in Ignatius.

God has special kinds of communication with Julian that I would call, following Ignatius, “consolations” and “desolations.” In Ignatian spirituality, consolidations and desolations are the movements of the spirit—“internal movements” by which we can discern God’s will in our lives. Those making the exercises are taught how to listen or feel for these movements and thereby to guide their lives in accord with God’s will. Again, we see that Julian experiences these interior movements but makes no methodical use of them. Ignatius’s biography describes how he initially experienced them much as Julian did and then learned to put them to use in his own communications with God.

AND after this He shewed a sovereign ghostly pleasance in my soul. I was fulfilled with the everlasting sureness, mightily sustained without any painful dread. This feeling was so glad and so ghostly that I was in all peace and in rest, that there was nothing in earth that should have grieved me. …This lasted but a while, and I was turned and left to myself in heaviness, and weariness of my life that scarcely I could have patience to live. This Vision was shewed me, according to mine understanding, sometime to be in comfort, and sometime to fail and to be left to themselves. God willeth that we know that He keepeth us even alike secure in woe and in weal. And for profit of man’s soul, a man is sometime left to himself (Julian 2002). 

God alone can give consolation to the soul without any previous cause. It belongs solely to the Creator to come into a soul, to leave it, to act upon it, to draw it wholly to the love of His Divine Majesty (Ignatius 2000, p. 119 section 330). ...When one is in desolation, he should be mindful that God has left him to his natural powers to resist the different agitations and temptations of the enemy in order to try him. For though God has taken from him the abundance of fervor and overflowing love and the intensity of His favors, nevertheless, he has sufficient grace for eternal salvation (Ignatius 2000, p. 116, section 320).

On the topic of prayer, Julian and Ignatius could not be more similar. Yet, it is not as simple to point to parallel passages as with the preceding topics. For them, prayer is not just a “doing” – not just a message we send to God, in the form of a petition, for example. Rather, prayer is a way of being in which ones very foundation, ones “ground” is God and therefore prayer is fitting ourselves to that Ground of our being. Julian puts it this way:

OUR Lord God willeth that we have true understanding, and specially in three things that belong to our prayer. The first is: by whom and how that our prayer springeth. By whom, He sheweth when He saith: I am [the] Ground; and how, by His Goodness: for He saith first: It is my will. The second is: in what manner and how we should use our prayer; and that is that our will be turned unto the will of our Lord, enjoying: and so meaneth He when He saith: I make thee to will it. The third is that we should know the fruit and the end of our prayers: that is, that we be oned and like to our Lord in all things; and to this intent and for this end was all this lovely lesson shewed. And He will help us, and we shall make it so as He saith Himself; Blessed may He be! For this is our Lord’s will, that our prayer and our trust be both alike large. For if we trust not as much as we pray, we do not full worship to our Lord in our prayer, and also we tarry and pain our self (Julian 2002).

“Grounded in God” has several implications. First, that prayer is about the will of God and our place in that will. From this the next implication, only implicit in the statement above, that God is eternally present and has already “answered” our prayers in our very existence, our salvation, and in all that we enjoy: “The first is our noble and excellent making; the second, our precious and dearworthy again-buying; the third, all-thing that He hath made beneath us, [He hath made] to serve us, and for our love keepeth it. Then signifieth He thus, as if He said: Behold and see that I have done all this before thy prayers; and now thou art, and prayest me” (Julian 2002). Julian cautions us not to go looking for this or that way that God might have answered our small petitions, but to understand that God is answering even the prayers we have not yet asked. So how then should we pray? We should pray that “our will be turned unto the will of our Lord.” The true end of our petitions is that we become like God, indeed that we are at one with God.

William Barry describes the same understanding in Ignatius in his chapter entitled, “Grounded in God: The Principle and Foundation” (Ignatius 2000, pp. 33ff.). God is up to one action; we can experience the creative action of God which is always at work (Barry 1991, p. 39); Ignatius draws out the implications of our place in God’s one action in the Principle and Foundation: “We must make ourselves indifferent to all created things… Consequently, as far as we are concerned, we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a short life. … Our one desire and choice should be what is conductive to the end for which we are created (Ignatius 2000, p. 12, section 23). In other words, it is about God’s will; our prayer is our participation in that will. We are engaged in the world of God’s creating and God is already answering the prayers we have not yet made.

We have seen in both of these late medieval mystics a central concern with our relationship with God and how that relationship is continuously created through various media. The relationship is one of love. While both mystics write extensively on sin, theirs is not the sin of the medieval church or of Jonathan Edwards. Indeed, Julian comes as close as one might in her day to saying that her Church is misguided in its notion of sin and salvation (Julian 2002, p. 104). Ignatius’ first week of the Exercises is devoted to examining one’s sin, but the point is not to berate or belittle the maker of the Exercises. Rather, the grace of the first week is the experience of love. “Ignatius expects that God will reveal our sins in such a way that we will actually be consoled. We are to have an increase of faith, hope, and love, be moved to tears of sorrow for our sin, but also to tears of love for a God who has been so good to us” (Barry 1991, p. 51). The heart of the message from both Julian and Ignatius is the goodness of God, the love of God, and the freedom which God gives us in the hope that we will choose to put God at the center of our lives, and participate in God’s mission.

Both mystics are saying that we must look in the world and in ourselves to find God. Their piety is finding God in all things, starting with finding ourselves IN God. “For our Soul is so deep-grounded in God, and so endlessly treasured, that we may not come to the knowing thereof till we have first knowing of God, which is the Maker, to whom it is oned” (Julian 2002, p. 133). This is such a contemporary message; it is not surprising that both mystics are being read more in our time than in any time of the past, including their own.

I have argued here that both Julian and Ignatius provide us with kataphatic paths to relationship with God as friend, one in which we are constantly called to God’s mission, but never coerced or threatened. We are called to examine our own sins, not the sins of others; we communicate with God who already God loves us and forgives us already. This is a contemporary theme. These are mystics for our time.


1 Since this is not a “personal reflection paper,” I will not discuss further my own experiences. Suffice to say that the parallels I find in Julian’s writings to my own experiences were the motivation for my choosing this topic.

2 “You are my friends if you do what I command you. I do not call you servants any longer, because I have made known to you everything I have heard from my father.”

3 References to “Pages” in Julian are to the original manuscript pages; references to Ignatius are to pages in the Vintage-Random House version with section numbers referring to Ignatius original sections.


Barry, W. A. (1991). Finding God In All Things A Companion To The Spiritual Exercises Of St. Ignatius. Notre Dame, IL, Ave Maria Press.

Gieraths, G. M. (1986). "Life in Abundance: Meister Eckhart and the German Dominican Mystics of the 14th Century." Spirituality Today 38 (August): Supplementary Book.

Holloway, J. B. (1996) The Westminster Cathedral/Abbey Manuscript of Julian of Norwich's Showing of Love.

Holloway, J. B. (1997) Godfriends: The Continental Medieval Mystics.

Ignatius (2000). The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. New York, Random House.

Julian (2002). Revelations of Divine Love. Grand Rapids, MI, Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

Walsh, R. (1909). Friends of God. The Catholic Encyclopedia. Online Edition, K. Knight. 6.

Friday, March 27, 2020

Nanso no Ho practice or “soft-ointment meditation”

Nanso No Ho, or “soft-ointment meditation,” is a 'naikan' (transformation) practice originally taught by Zen master Hakuin Zenji (1689-1768) as he describes it in Yasen Kanna [translation by Norman Waddell]

"Imagine that a lump of soft butter, pure in color and fragrance and the size and shape of a duck egg, is suddenly placed on the top of your head. As it begins to slowly melt, it imparts an exquisite sensation, moistening and saturating your head within and without. It continues to ooze down, moistening your shoulders, elbows, and chest; permeating lungs, diaphragm, liver, stomach, and bowels; moving down the spine through the hips, pelvis, and buttocks. At that point, all the congestions that have accumulated within the five organs and six viscera, all the aches and pains in the abdomen and other affected parts, will follow the heart as it sinks downward into the lower body. As it does, you will distinctly hear a sound like that of water trickling from a higher to a lower place. It will move lower down through the lower body, suffusing the legs with beneficial warmth, until it reaches the soles of the feet, where it stops.

"The student should then repeat the contemplation. As his vital energy flows downward, it gradually fills the lower region of the body, suffusing it with penetrating warmth, making him feel as if he were sitting up to his navel in a hot bath filled with a decoction of rare and fragrant medicinal herbs that have been gathered and infused by a skilled physician.

"Inasmuch as all things are created by the mind, when you engage in this contemplation, the nose will actually smell the marvelous scent of pure, soft butter; your body will feel the exquisite sensation of its melting touch. Your body and mind will be in perfect peace and harmony. You will feel better and enjoy greater health than you did as a youth of twenty or thirty. At this time, all the undesirable accumulations in your vital organs and viscera will melt away. Stomach and bowels will function perfectly. Before you know it, your skin will glow with health.

"If you continue to practice the contemplation with diligence, there is no illness that cannot be cured, no virtue that cannot be acquired, no level of sage hood that cannot be reached, no religious practice that cannot be mastered. Whether such results appear swiftly or slowly depends only upon how scrupulously you apply yourself."

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Buddha,S.J., Francis Xavier meets a Zen Roshi

A personal investigation of the first recorded encounter between a Christian and a Zen adept.

The case that I am going to discuss is the first recorded* encounter between Christians and Zen Buddhists, a Jesuit saint and a roshi. It was written down in Latin by one of the first seven Jesuits, Francis Xavier, more than 450 years ago, sent on an uncertain journey from Japan to Lisbon aboard a Portuguese caravel, then carried onto Rome, and delivered into the hands of Ignatius Loyola. 

For me the conversations were so familiar, I could have been a fly on the wall. Sometimes the hair on the back of my neck stood up—the words, the phrasing, even the jokes seemed to be right out of conversations that I’ve had with my own Zen teachers. The tones were so familiar I thought I was remembering them, not hearing them for the first time. I had to restrain myself from finishing sentences.

When Xavier, who was for some reason known as a master of debate, shifts the conversation with the Zen master towards polemical argument, I’m embarrassed—he’s so prickly. But I also realized how much I had missed when I first set out to become a Zen student. I heard echoes from my Jesuit training in my responses to my Zen teachers. 55 years ago when I entered the Society of Jesus, carefully formulated points of doctrine designed to stem the tide of the Reformation were taught in the curriculum, and for better or worse tended to form a rather rigid collective zeitgeist, It also created an easy target to rebel against.

Xavier records his conversations with “Ninxit,” Ninjitsu, who was the abbot of the Zen Temple, Kinryu-zan Fukushoji. “I spoke many times with some of the most learned of these [Zen monks], especially one to whom all in these parts are greatly attached, both because of his learning, life and the dignity which he has, and because of his great age, since he is nearly eighty years old; and he is called Ninxit, which means ‘Heart of Truth’ in the language of Japan. He is like a bishop among them, and if he were conformed to his name, he would be blessed. In the many conversations which we had, I found him doubtful and unable to decide whether our soul is immortal or whether it dies together with the body; sometimes he agreed with me, and at other times he did not. I am afraid that the other scholars are of the same mind. This Ninxit is such a good friend of mine that it is amazing“ (Schurhammer 1982, p. 85).

Over an extended period in 1549 on Kyushu, the southernmost island of Japan, there was a real conversation between friends about what mattered in life. Xavier might have been seeking common ground with Ninjitsu, or, judging by his subsequent actions and recommendations for the missionary effort in Japan, he was looking for the weak points in Buddhist doctrine, the dharma, so he could prove Christianity’s superiority. Xavier read Ninjitsu’s “I don’t know” as doctrinal blindness and the work of the Devil rather than keeping his mind open in an inquiry.

Xavier writes, “Among the nine sects, there is one which maintains that the souls of men are mortal like that of beasts…. The followers of this sect are evil. They were impatient when they heard that there is a hell” (Schurhammer 1982, p. 283). Apparently Xavier informed Ninjitsu that he or some of his monks were condemned to hell because they did not hold to the immortality of the soul. Later Xavier began to regard zazen as a way of repressing the remorse he believed Zen monks must have felt for immoral behavior. Xavier was particularly offended by the sexual license of some monks and same sex liaisons with the acolytes in the temple.

The historian of religion might see this confrontation simply as the opening salvo of religious infighting that accompanied the civil upheaval in feudal Japan that was to last well into the solidification of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Jesuits did become embroiled, taking sides between the warring daimyos, tying their missionary success to military victories of lords who converted to Christianity. Daimyo Omura Sumitada and Koteda Saemon used their new religion to undermine the power of the Buddhist establishment, even burning Buddhist temples, images, and statues. These incidents, unfortunately for the Jesuits, were long remembered and bitterly resented (Boxer, p. 47).

To place Xavier’s arrival in the context of the religious history of medieval Japan, only 49 years later in 1597, as the Tokugawa shoguns continued to consolidate their rule, 26 Christians, including three Jesuits, two of them Japanese converts, and three young boys, were crucified in Nagasaki. That horrifying event marked the beginning of a savage anti-Catholic campaign that continued until the expulsion of all foreigners in the 1630’s, and closed Japan to all but a few trading ships from China and the Netherlands until 1854.

As difficult as it is to recount these events, and as deeply as it touches the central operating myth of Christianity that death freely chosen opens the way to salvation, this reading of history is a search for causal events, not a quest for meaning. These few facts connected with some of the actual written reports from the first Jesuit missionaries have located them in the circumstances of 16th century Japan. Zen is always contained in a specific time and circumstance. 

But, there is another dimension to these moments that lies in the realm of zazen, or what Christians call meditation or contemplation. Let’s take this unique encounter between Xavier and Ninjitsu out of time and space, and look at it through another lens, or really a pair of lenses, the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and the tradition of the Zen koan, old stories of encounters between teacher and student that are used along with meditation, or zazen, to focus and illuminate the mind.

Allow me to use a meditation technique of Saint Ignatius, the application of the senses, to recreate this meeting. Allow yourself as much latitude as your imagination requires and enter into this world of long ago.

Imagine that you are a Zen monk with many years of meditation training, living in a fairly remote temple high above a harbor where you usually see only fishing boats and perhaps, very occasionally, a Chinese junk. You have heard from your followers when they bring you food from the village that there is a dark haired foreigner making inquiries about local priests. Perhaps you have heard about these barbarians before—Spaniards and Portuguese have been sighted in recent years and have made contact with some people living along the coast. But up to this point, these strangers have been merchants or heavily armed soldiers. The only foreigners you have met hail from Korea and China. You have never met a European.

Perhaps as the abbot of a Zen Temple, you have also heard that this man who wears a simple black robe as unadorned as your own and his Japanese companion have been telling a story about the creation of the world, a great flood, a people who tried to follow a special law given by a god, and a man called Jesus who died and then was returned to life. We know from Xavier’s letters that he did craft an oral version of the life and death of Jesus, connected it with some of the stories from the Hebrew bible, had it translated into Japanese, and memorized it syllabically. Why did he come to stand in the middle of the town square and recite in nearly unintelligible Japanese what was, for most Japanese, a bizarre account of the creation and salvation of the world?

In your training you had worked with Jōshū's answer to a monk who asked him, “Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?”—his answer: “the cypress tree in the courtyard,” the Chinese answer, “庭前柏樹子,” attesting to the origin of the story in the early period of Zen, or Ch’an. Bodhidharma is the mythic remake of an actual monk, or perhaps a group of monks, who traveled to China from India in about the 4th century to plant Buddhism in Chinese culture. He is revered as the 1st Patriarch of Zen. And now, another bearded barbarian was standing at your Temple Gate with a question about life after death.

At this point in Ignatius’ meditation, when you have stepped into your imagination’s recreation of the event, Ignatius introduces another dimension into your meditation, the discernment. Simply allow whatever emotions are present to surface, and then examine them. Do they attract you? Do they produce joy and a sense of well-being? Or perhaps your gut tells you to stay clear. Examine the meeting between Xavier and the Roshi on an emotional level: what was it that drew them to become the best of friends? Perhaps it was simply intellectual interest. Some (Faure, 1982, p. 18) suggest a certain level of interior inquiry that established a common ground. It might also have been the mutual recognition of a person who meditates, a friend, in the deepest Buddhist sense of the word, a bodhisattva or a Bodhidharma.

From my own Zen training I think I understand why the Ninjitsu took Xavier seriously. A strange man who came from the other side of the world stood before him, spoke a strange sounding language, wore clothing that seemed somewhat monkish, and most importantly asked a question that demanded an answer, not rote, not just a yes or a no, but an answer that revealed a clear grasp of its full dimension coming from his experience in meditation. Even if I don’t know what Ninjitsu actually held about the existence of the soul, I do know that he considered the question important—Xavier asking it made it important.

When I first read the fragments of their conversations that Xavier reported in his letters, I experienced a torrent of thoughts, memories, and explanations, everything incomplete and all lying somewhere in my past, just as what I could either reconstruct or imagine of their encounter also lay in the past, 449 years ago, not as old as the koan stories or the gospel of Jesus, but belonging to a very different world than the 21st century.

Despite any difficulties with language, I think that Ninjitsu understood Xavier perfectly, and that might have even provided some answers given the extensive hells that are available in Buddhist cosmology. But perhaps Ninjitsu might have been more interested in allowing this man who had arrived improbably at his temple to figure out an answer for himself. Any question in the right hands can serve as a koan, and if a question lies close to a man or woman’s heart, summing up the purpose they have given to their lives, it can cut to the quick like a sharp knife. Ninjitsu certainly knew that Xavier didn’t risk life and limb to sail into Asia just to ascertain if Buddhists believed in heaven and hell.

We do not know if Xavier attempted to introduce Ninjitsu to the Spiritual Exercises, which might have been a good place to start, but we know for certain that Ninjitsu gave Xavier a critical piece of zazen instruction (Ninjitsu to Xavier, quoted in Faure, p. 17). “[W]hen asked what the monks sitting in zazen were doing, he ironically replied: ‘Some of them are counting up how much they received during the past months from their faithful; others are thinking about their recreations and amusements; in short, none of them are thinking about anything that has any meaning at all.’” (Schurhammer 1982, p. 74).*

Xavier had been trained in spiritual practice, you could even say “converted,” when he did the Spiritual Exercises with Ignatius with its rigorous, defined and orderly Four Weeks, the application of the senses, the invocations, colloquies and formal prayer. These are definitely things to do—so many that the mind has little time or space to move undirected. The closest one gets to listing recreations and amusements might be in the first week, which is a prolonged examination of conscience in the light of one’s purpose on earth. But it has no random or haphazard quality to it—it is directed. Ninjitsu’s comment about what filled the head while meditating had some irony that Xavier didn’t find amusing.

Ignatius also included in his Exercises detailed instructions on prayer. I have already used the application of the senses to recreate the meeting between Xavier and Ninjitsu; The exercise that comes closest to the practice of zazen though is what Ignatius calls the third method of prayer or the prayer of quiet. The instructions are quite simple, that one chooses a prayer that is so familiar that it floats in the consciousness with no effort: “Our Father who art in Heaven,” and then allow one word to rest on each breath. Perhaps that prayer becomes just a word on a breath until the bell rings to signify the end of meditation.

Here is the exact text from the Spiritual Exercises: “The Third Method of Prayer is that with each breath in or out, one has to pray mentally, saying one word of the Our Father, or of another prayer which is being recited: so that only one word be said between one breath and another, and while the time from one breath to another lasts, let attention be given chiefly to the meaning of such word, or to the person to whom he recites it, or to his own baseness, or to the difference from such great height to his own so great lowness.” 

Perhaps Ninjitsu had a similar experience when, as a young monk, he was given zazen instruction. I have every reason to believe that his instruction was not much different than the first time I sat in a Zen hall: simply count your breaths from 1 to 10, and when you lose track, simply redirect your mind back to 1 and begin again.

Although I had been practicing zazen on my own for years, when I officially joined a Zen temple, I asked for meditation instruction. I still recall that meeting vividly. One evening at dusk, after the six o’clock sitting, Zenshin Philip Whalen sat down next to me on the wooden bench overlooking the backyard behind the zendo on Hartford Street. He started by saying that I didn’t “wiggle around a lot” which he thought indicated that I had done some work, and then he asked me about my meditation. I listed my experience, almost like a spiritual curriculum vitae, zazen, vipassana, Tibetan initiations and, of course, the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius. Philip listened quietly and then said that it would be best to put all that aside and to try to begin freshly, but as that in itself was impossible, just the intention to have “beginner’s mind” would probably be enough. It was all that most people could do. So I asked, “Well what should I do with my thoughts?” Phil said, “Anything you like. You can’t stop your mind. Don’t even try.”

Over and over in my early meditation interviews with Phil and Issan Dorsey Roshi, the instruction was clear: leave my mind alone. After perhaps a year or so, I was able to be present to my mind just running on, and I began to notice that the flips and loops of repeated inner conversations seemed linked in a way somewhat akin to the kind of insights that I had in psychotherapy. Again Phil cautioned me that zazen was not psychotherapy; that I shouldn’t be satisfied with that insight but continue to sit with an open mind, trying to be in “beginner's mind” as much as I could.

The meaning of Eternal Life

At the very beginning of a koan is a terse report of an actual encounter, usually a question and an answer, between teacher and student. Xavier asked Ninjitsu, “Do you believe in the immortality of the soul?”

From what I can map from the chronology in the letters, Ninjitsu and Xavier met many times over an extended period, at least three but perhaps as long as nine months. It was unlike today’s high-level ecumenical tightly scripted formal conference negotiated in advance to trumpet straightening out the thread of old argument—where the parties separated, where they might converge, or where they agree to disagree.

There are clues that the conversation had elements of spontaneity and laughter. It might have been a time to become friends, to learn to deal with the language differences that separated them, and to consider life from a religious or spiritual perspective. Ninjitsu could have answered Xavier’s question with the famous, often quoted response to the question about what happens after death, “Don’t ask me, I’m not dead yet.” I like it because it makes me laugh, and Xavier showed very little tolerance for humor when the Roshi talked about what might be passing through his monks’ minds as they sat in meditation focused on collection plates and sexual dalliances.

Xavier will eventually condemn Zen as the work of the Devil. He was the product of the frayed religious culture that the Reformation left in its wake; he set a confrontational tone for the early Jesuits in Japan. He seemed to love the role of hurtling condemnations like an Old Testament Prophet. That is what spiritual life had come to in Europe and what he expected to find in Asia. I don’t know if Ninjitsu would have passed Xavier on his koan work—probably not, but Xavier did come to appreciate the depth and subtlety of the Zen mind, so much so that his recommendations for the Jesuit mission included, besides training in the Japanese language, as complete an understanding as possible of the religious traditions practiced in Japan.

For Ninjitsu, I would like to believe that Xavier’s question opened a window into his own soul, like a koan. Xavier writes: “I found him [Ninjitsu] doubtful and unable to decide whether our soul is immortal or whether it dies together with the body; sometimes he agreed with me, and at other times he did not” (Schurhammer 1982, 85). What Xavier takes to be wavering and indecision could also indicate Ninjitsu’s working with the koan. I can feel some kinship with an attitude that Ninjitsu’s answers might have betrayed. I have looked into the eyes of the teacher that I was working with a koan, and not known what to say, or how to respond, feeling one thing in one moment and something entirely different a split second later. If Xavier’s question did not open a new way of viewing the world for the Roshi, it did for me.

If you are inclined to find your own answer to Xavier’s question, I recommend that you include the practice of zazen to help your search and study. Over time, you can expect that your meditation will reset the language you, and your community, use to describe religious experience. Each time you say “life” on a new breath it will bring that word into the present moment. Each present moment wipes away more traces of the inherited meaning we give to words, the misunderstandings, the exaggerations, the lies and adjustments that we humans make for our precious beliefs, the fairy tales that we were told and believed as children. I won’t say that your language will reset to reveal the Truth, but you will certainly be more in touch with your own experience.

1549 or 1550 marked the end of the encounter. Xavier left Japan early in 1551. He died just over a year later on Sancian, a small island off south China, while waiting for a boat to carry him into the celestial empire. “Nixnit” died in 1565. The historical record shows that the groundwork for further conversation about religious beliefs between Zen Buddhists and Christians was not very firm. The gifts of friendship, however, cannot be underestimated.

The expression “eternal moment” is more than poetry, but something that can be really experienced in meditation. Lovers, and sometimes friends, can also share this experience. It might also be a lens to open up all of life in every dimension of time and space.

Jesuits enter the Zen hall

Koans can enter our consciousness, and change our point of view. They can even change a society. The wheel of the dharma, as the Buddhist metaphor clearly tries to show us, never stops. I have no evidence that Xavier ever really taught Ninjitsu anything about the Christian way of life, but I will posit some anecdotal evidence that it just might have happened as I imagined. 

Father Enomiya-LaSalle, S.J. is buried in Hiroshima. On August 6, 1945, he was walking only eight miles from the epicenter of the atomic explosion that destroyed the city. He survived. He also was a Zen student for the remaining 45 years of his life, attaining fluency with the practice of zazen and a mastery of the koans that was fully recognized by his teacher, Yamada Koun Zenshin. He wrote about his long experience with the practice, and led many fellow Jesuits into the sphere of zazen, including Pedro Arrupe who was his superior in Japan and Ignatius’s successor as the General of the Society during the time that I was a Jesuit. 

My friend and teacher, David Weinstein Roshi, was a student of Yamada Roshi during Father LaSalle’s last years, and often saw him coming and going at the zendo in Kamakura. He worked with his teacher almost until the day he died. David told me this story. One morning after zazen, after Yamada had finished seeing students who were working on a koan, he was standing next to Yamada as LaSalle was leaving. Yamada turned to David and said, “There is the man who taught me how to apply the koans in my life.”

After reading Xavier’s letters to Ignatius describing his encounter with Ninjitsu, to my mind it seemed inevitable that some Jesuits would eventually enter a Zen hall, and, that with the discipline learned from their training under the Spiritual Exercises, some would complete their koan training and teach Zen. 

I begin my acknowledgement of Jesuit and other Christian Zen Masters with Fr. LaSalle. His example and teaching influenced most of these men and women who became Zen teachers in their own right. I cannot even guess where their Zen practice will lead, but I hope that their work will open and enrich the spiritual lives of many people. —— Fr. Hugo Enomiya-LaSalle, S.J. (dec. 1990); Fr. William Thomas Hand, S.J. (dec. 2005); Fr. Willigis Jäger, O.S.B., Roshi (dec. 2020); Bro. Tom Marshall, S.J. (dec. 2010); Fr. Bill Johnson, S.J. (dec. 2010); Fr. Pat Hawk, CSsR, Roshi (dec. 2012); Fr. Kakichi Kadowaki, S.J., Roshi (dec. 2017); Fr. Niklaus Brantschen, S.J., Roshi; Ruben Habito, (former Jesuit), Roshi; Bro. Kevin Hunt, OCSO, Trappist, Sensei; Rev. James Ismael Ford, UU Minister, Roshi; Fr. Robert Jinsen Kennedy, S.J., Roshi; Sr. Elaine MacInnes, Our Lady’s Missionaries, Roshi; Rev. David Parks-Ramage, UCC, Roshi; Fr. Ama Samy, S.J., Roshi.

The Verse

Here are a few lines from Rumi translated by Coleman Barks that I have chosen to close the question of “the immortality of the soul.” 

Who gets up early to discover the moment light begins?

Who finds us here circling, bewildered, like atoms?

Who comes to a spring thirsty

and sees the moon reflected in it?

Who, like Jacob, blind with grief and age,

smells the shirt of his son and can see again?

Who lets a bucket down

and brings up a flowing prophet?

Or like Moses goes for fire

and finds what burns inside the sunrise?

Jesus slips into a house to escape enemies,

and opens a door to the other world.

Solomon cuts open a fish, and there's a gold ring.

Omar storms in to kill the prophet

and leaves with blessings.

Chase a deer and end up everywhere!

An oyster opens his mouth to swallow one drop.

Now there's a pearl.

A vagrant wanders empty ruins

Suddenly he's wealthy.


*I first read about Xavier's encounter in Bernard Faure's Chan Insights and Oversights. I asked my friend Bro. Tom Marshall to locate Xavier's Letters. He did, and another friend, Robert Blaire Kaiser, helped me get them out of the Jesuit Library at the Univeristy of San Francisco. The Jesuits are meticulous about recording their dates and places of their missionary work. I knew that part would be easy. I had not expected to find any evidence confirming the enounter from Japanese sources, However when Ninjitsu, abbot of the Zen Temple, Kinryu-zan Fukushoj, appeared in Zen records along with his dates, it was easy to match them up, and say with a great deal of certainlty that “Ninxit" was in fact Ninjitsu.

*Fukushoji has been alternatively designated as a Soto Temple (Faure), a Rinzai Temple (Kagoshima records), a Sendai Temple (Xavier Memorial Association). Although this encounter was before the 17th century Rinzai revival of Hakuin Ekaku (1685–1768), the instruction has the distinct feel of shikantaza, “just sitting,” favored by the Soto school, founded by Dōgen Zenji, (1200-1253).


Francis Xavier: His Life, His Times, Vol. 4: Japan and China, 1549-1552, Georg Schurhammer, Jesuit Historical Institute, 1973.

Chan Insights and Oversights: An Epistemological Critique of the Chan Tradition, Bernard Faure, Princeton University Press, 1993.

Gateless Barrier: Zen Comments on the Mumonkan, Zenkai Shibayama, Shambhala, 2000.

A Vision Betrayed: The Jesuits in Japan and China, 1542-1742, Andrew C. Ross; Edinburgh University Press, 1994.

Papers on Portuguese, Dutch and Jesuit Influences in 16th and 17th Century Japan, Boxer, C.R., compiled by Michael Moscato. Washington D.C.: University of America, Inc., 1979.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Ignatius Loyola and Father Elder Mullan, Cosimo Classics, 2007.

The Essential Rumi, Coleman Barks, translator, Harpercollins, 1995.

Thank you!

Bro. Tom Marshall, S.J. was a koan student par excellence, a wily fox, an ordained priest in two Zen lineages, a brother in the Society of Jesus and a true son of St. Francis Xavier. You held my hand, or laughed, as I worked my way through the account of Xavier’s travels in Japan. Bless you, dear Tom, as you explore worlds yet undiscovered.

I also thank the late Bonnie Johnson and her husband Daniel Shurman who brought the Exercises back into my life after being dormant for more than 30 years.

Morgan Zo Callahan gave me the time and space to complete “Buddha, S.J.” as a tribute to those Jesuits who have traveled both the paths pioneered by Ignatius and the Buddha. Morgan, I don’t know yet whether it is a mark of completion or beginning for us—perhaps both.

The funeral of Ösel Tendzin. Deliver us from cults.

My friend Barbara O’Brian alerted me to this article by Steven Butterfield, When the Teacher Fails . In 1990 when Ösel Tendzin died in San ...