From Zen to Jesus—A Jewish Pilgrim's Path
by Stephen Schacher
When I was a child in the 1940s, I heard the rabbis talk about whether we should support the founding of Israel or wait for the Messiah to lead us there. As I grew older and learned more about the history of my people, I learned just how long we have yearned for the Messiah to come. Never in all my musings did it occur to me that he had already come, or that he would enter my life.
Impressed by A Big World
I was born in New York City in 1941 to a Conservative Jewish family. My father was a dentist; my mother a homemaker. Growing up, I acquired a wonderful secular and Jewish education, attending Orthodox summer camps and receiving religious training at my temple’s school until I was a bar mitzvah (turned 13). At camp, we had prayer services each morning and abbreviated Orthodox services on Friday nights and Saturday mornings. In addition, we said grace before and after each meal, and the food was strictly kosher! I enjoyed the Jewish community atmosphere of camp but at summer’s end returned to the less observant environment of my home. No doubt these early experiences at camp made a deep impression on me and led me years later to long for the presence of God in my life.
A summer grand tour of Europe I took with my parents when I was eleven stimulated my appreciation for my Jewish heritage. It was 1952 and Europe was just recovering from the ravages of the Second World War. Americans were still heroes and friends to Europeans, so we were always greeted warmly. Occasionally, we would meet Jewish families with whom we felt great camaraderie and community. At the time, I was not aware of how great a miracle it was that they had survived the war.
The European grand tour provided me with another experience—a religious one. Included in our tour of every city were the requisite visits to the great museums and cathedrals. I saw thousands of paintings in England, France, and Italy, and hundreds of frescoes, stained glass windows, and sculptures. The overwhelming majority of art was about Jesus Christ.
I received a pictorial presentation of the life of Jesus—his birth, life, death and resurrection— but I didn’t know what any of it meant. I had no idea who Jesus was or what he might mean to me as a Jew. I only knew that Jesus was an important person to other people.
Following this trip, my parents became emboldened to travel to more distant lands. In 1957, when I was sixteen, we embarked on a grand tour of Asia. I remember most vividly taking a motor launch up a river in Vietnam, which at that time was enjoying a brief period of peace after the war with France and before the war with itself and with America. I remember seeing a child with a swollen belly on a tattered vessel who looked devastatingly undernourished. A natural inclination to help arose in me, but I had no idea what to do. I found myself wondering, How is it that I am here in this launch, enjoying this life, while he is there suffering? What if suddenly our souls were transposed and he would sail off to live the rest of my life, and I would be left on the boat to live his? The Far East seems to generate questions like that. Buddha himself, while still a pampered prince, was tormented by such questions. Although I did not realize it at the time, that experience was the seed of a Buddhist phase in my spiritual search for meaning.
A Quest for “Self”
After graduation from high school in 1957 I entered Yale University as a premed student. My parents had always hoped and planned for me to follow after my father and become a doctor. They encouraged me toward biology and medical school, and in the end I accepted the plan my parents felt was best for me.
In the early 1970s, I took a research position in medical education at the University of Vermont. I began to explore the idea of stress as a common source of illness. Along with this, I began attending holistic health conferences and delving into the New Age philosophies that they presented. This in turn led me to examine Eastern medicine, and finally, Eastern philosophy—disciplines Western world at that time.
For the next ten years, I immersed myself in Asian thought. Though my original intent was to learn how to apply it to stress reduction (which I did), the religious aspects eventually pervaded my personal life. I moved to New Mexico to become part of a New Age community.
At that time, I was of the opinion (seemingly shared by my entire generation and encouraged by our spiritual teachers) that all spiritual paths led to the same goal.
That goal was the discovery of one’s Self. The choice of spiritual “method” (a.k.a. religion) was simply a matter of deciding which path was most compatible with one’s own personality or stage of spiritual development. The outcome of any path, however, was the same—the discovery of one’s Self. Anyone who succeeded in reaching this goal became a Master, an awakened or enlightened Being.
Oddly enough, to be consistent with this point of view, the teachers and trainers expounding Eastern philosophies felt a need to tell Western students that what they were teaching was no different from what Jesus taught. Sometimes they said this to underscore their philosophy: that all teachers ultimately taught the same message. Sometimes they said it because they assumed that all of us Western students were Christians and would find it easier to accept Eastern metaphysical teachings if we found them in harmony with the memories of our childhood Bible lessons.
They would often quote from Jesus to reinforce the idea that there was universal agreement among various spiritual masters.
As a result, I heard quite a bit of the gospel preached, albeit with an Eastern interpretation of “oneness,” a teaching that Christians would call gnosticism.
Immersed in Zen
Throughout this period, I did have one central, unifying spiritual ractice— Zen Buddhism. I began practicing early in 1971, after reading Philip Kapleau’s autobiography and Zen text, The Three Pillars of Zen. I read this book dozens of times, actively sat in Zen Buddhist halls (called zendos), and took part in Zen retreats. I liked the meditation, I loved the teachings, I found the teachers (roshis) to be wonderful people and I became increasingly certain that this was the way of life for me.
By 1975, I had left both the research and practice of medicine to devote all my time to spiritual pursuits, supporting myself with part-time medical positions. I felt that what I was learning would ultimately make me a more effective physician as I still desired to teach patients how to deal with stress. I considered becoming a full-time Zen roshi, a goal that would take many years of singleminded meditation under one or more teachers.
All of these plans, however, came to a dramatic and complete halt on June 4, 1981, as I was meditating in a zendo in Seattle, Washington, and preparing to deepen my study of Buddhism.
I had moved to Seattle in 1980 to become a flight surgeon with the Federal Aviation Administration. At that time, air traffic controllers were known for their problems with on-thejob stress, and I felt that I was ready for a full-time position handling stressridden individuals and their medical problems. I joined the local Zen community and soon was sitting with them regularly in meditation, under the direction of a Japanese Zen master.
As my understanding of Buddha’s teachings was deepening, I found my meditation practice wonderfully relaxing and intellectually exciting. My life became simplified. In Zen fashion, I reduced my possessions to the bare minimum (a few clothes, books, skis, and cooking spices). My furniture was minimal and orderly. My desire to understand more about “my path” accelerated. I was ready to discuss with the roshi the issue of taking vows to become a formal Zen student.
A Thought Experiment
However, there was one point on which I was not completely satisfied.
The more I heard various teachers state that Jesus and Buddha were saying the same thing, the more I wondered about the contrast between Jesus’ agony on the cross and Buddha’s beatific and totally relaxed enlightenment.
I knew if I could understand how these expressions of spiritual completeness could be identical while appearingto be completely opposite, my understanding of both of these paths would grow.
As a good Zen student, I knew that the way to discover what an apple tastes like is to bite theapple, chew it, and swallow it.
Therefore, I reasoned that the way to discover what Jesus taught was to identify with him, to become a Christian. I knew—or thought I knew—that to become a Christian one simply believes and confesses that he or she accepts Jesus as the Messiah, the Promised One of Israel who would bring peace forever.
So on this June day, as I meditated in a zendo, I convinced myself that I definitely needed to undertake this thought experiment. I said loudly in my mind and with complete conviction, Jesus, I accept you as the Messiah of Israel. In my mind I also heard the words The Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. Without warning or preparation, following a series of mentally visualized images—to my utter astonishment—I suddenly saw that it was true!
Thoughts and images began to flood my mind! Bins of stored information, previously unconnected in my mind, suddenly flooded together in a manner that produced insight after insight. In Jewish thought sin was removed by the Yom Kippur atonement, a ritual that God provided in the wilderness for taking care of subsequent sins, not thePassover lamb.
Now I reasoned that if Jesus’ death fulfilled both ritual sacrifices—Passover and Yom Kippur—his death on the cross was extremely meaningful
It made sense what Christians believe, that Jesus died for our sins and gives eternal life. I had a sudden sense that Jesus was the Messiah.
Sidetracked by Jesus
As soon as the Zen meditation session ended, I became aware of a great inner peace. I realized that if Jesus was indeed the Messiah, I no longer needed to become a Zen roshi or engage in Buddhist meditation. Like most Eastern philosophies, Buddhism teaches that after death we are physically reincarnated. In each subsequent lifetime we experience the benefits or punishments for our deeds from the previous lifetime. By engaging in meditation, an individual is thought to cease generating new karma while simultaneously becoming strong enough to face his or her past karma as it slowly unfolds over many lifetimes.
I further realized that if Buddha’s point of view about life were really the Truth, and I had been sidetracked from pursuing it because of what Jesus Christ had said about himself, then to a certain extent Jesus would be responsible for having distracted me from the benefits of the Zen path. He would have led me to more karma and suffering and would, therefore, share the blame and punishment for my sins.
It hit me with great force that Jesus had no karma of his own, yet he was willing to take the punishment for all my sins— past, present, and future.
The goal of every religion, philosophy, growth seminar, and spiritual practice I had ever studied was to pay back your karma, get over your unconscious guilt, and free yourself from fears, needs, and desires. Yet here was Jesus offering to do it all at once. When I realized the truth about Jesus, I knew I had found what I had been looking for from the beginning.
Enlightened at Last
The zendo bell rang. Time to go to dokusan (face-to-face meeting with the roshi). I ran to be at the head of the line. The roshi smiled when I entered. I told him that I had experienced a great insight and that I wanted to become a Christian. I told him I felt as though my heart had opened. While this was being translated into Japanese, and his answer back into English, I imagined that he was going to tell me that this was a makyo (illusion). Instead he said, “When your heart opens, you have found what you are looking for.” In Zen talk, this is code for enlightenment. The “heart” means the spot in the belly toward which you direct your meditation. When it opens, you experience the “Nothingness” of enlightenment. This, however, was not my experience.
I hadn't been emptied, I had been filled.
Finally, I had found that peace for which I had been searching so long. The Messiah had come. While I was looking in a faraway place among Eastern idols, trying to become one with everything and with “Nothingness,” the Messiah came for me. How amazing! I now experience not just freedom from bondage to “karma” (which I now realize is sin) and assurance of eternal life—but a personal relationship with the Eternal God, the God I prayed to as a Jewish boy in summer camps.