by Christina Leaño
I was 22 years old and holding tightly to my driver, praying that I wouldn’t die on the back of the motorcycle. We were swerving and curving through some unpaved jungle roads on the Philippine island of Mindanao. I was certain that these were my last moments on earth.
I was on my way to my first Buddhist retreat having been invited by my host father, a Zen practitioner. I was in the Philippines as a volunteer with the Mennonite Central Committee and was doing language studies before starting three years of service with a Filipino environmental group.
Once we arrived at the Zen sesshin, we entered into the rhythm of silence across several days. Sitting. Walking. Sitting. Walking. We slept on bamboo floors and practiced qigong to the chirping of birds. Toward the end of the retreat we each had a chance to have an interview with the teacher.
I can remember sitting in the bamboo hut waiting my turn. I was terrified. As a cradle Catholic, the Zen practice was both mesmerizing and confusing. Meditation brought me to a place of silence that felt both natural and new. I wasn’t exactly sure what was happening in the stillness. I just knew that something deep within me wanted it. Craved it. I was connecting to a new part of myself that could taste freedom, and God, in a new way.
And yet I squirmed with the thought of committing to this practice, which I would do upon meeting the teacher and receiving my koan, or Zen riddle which was supposed to help trip me into enlightenment. There was no mention in my decades of Catholic education of where Buddhism or Zen might fit in. Even Christian forms of silent meditation were shunned upon at the time. I was certain I was going to hell.
I was just about to give up my place in line when I remembered that earlier in the day we had celebrated Catholic mass. This retreat had been organized by Assumption Catholic sisters who had been trained by another Catholic sister, Elaine MacInness who was a Zen roshi in the Sanbo Kyodan tradition after years of study in Japan. Somehow these other Catholics, priests and religious sisters no less, didn’t seem to have a problem incorporating Zen into their Christian spirituality. Maybe I could too.
I decided to go through with my interview with the Zen teacher. I went in, did my prostrations, and received my koan. The decision to stay was the beginning of a lifelong exploration and commitment to Buddhist practice that continues today. The decision in that bamboo hut two decades ago changed my life.
Today my Buddhist study and practice is largely in the Western Theravada tradition, although I also draw deeply from the Tibetan tradition. It has transformed my relationship to my Christian faith, to God, and to the world. Here are a few ways:
- I often incorporate the body into my spiritual practice. In my most awakened moments at Sunday liturgy, I will connect to the actual sensations of receiving Eucharist, the wafer on my tongue, the saliva forming to meet it, and the decision to fully receive it.
- I read scripture in a more embodied manner, tuning into the energies of the words and the invitations being offered. It makes lectio divina a process of truly resting in the Word to marinate in God’s loving embrace.
- I have learned ways to cultivate “loving my enemy” through the practice of metta. The process of systematically offering loving kindness to self, benefactor, loved ones, a “neutral person” and then difficult people help me to respond to this difficult mandate of Jesus.
- The development of awareness helps me to better see and respond to unhelpful thoughts or difficult emotions as they arise — judgments, anger, frustration, irritation. No longer caught in the throes of these mind states, I can better touch into the virtues of faith, hope, and love that our faith calls us into.
The list of ways that I have integrated the Buddhist path into my Christian faith is long and rich. It is an ongoing process of exploration and deepening, always with the intention of awakening to God’s love and compassion within myself and sharing that with others. Who would have thought the end of a terrifying motorcycle ride would have been the beginning of something so much bigger and transformative.
Christina Leaño is a trained meditation teacher, retreat facilitator, and spiritual director who has been studying Christian and Buddhist contemplative practices for close to 20 years, including three years in a Cistercian monastery. She is a recent graduate of the Community Dharma Leaders Program through Spirit Rock Meditation Center. She currently serves as the associate director for the Global Catholic Climate Movement, a Catholic network responding to the moral imperative of climate change. She holds a B.A. from Yale University and M.A. in Systematic Theology from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley. She will be leading a retreat titled Walking the Christian Buddhist Path next month at the Bethany House of Prayer in Arlington, Mass. Learn more about Christina at christinaleano.net.