mother, grandmother, nurse, practicing Christian and Zen teacher
Ellen Birx, Christian and Buddhist
A small but growing number Christians in the West are turning to Buddhism for spiritual guidance. Many are reading books about Buddhism, and some are also meditating, participating in Buddhist retreats, and studying under Buddhist teachers. They are drawn to Buddhism's emphasis on "being present" in the present moment; to its recognition of the interconnectedness of all things; to its emphasis on non-violence; to its appreciation of a world beyond words, and to its provision of practical means -- namely meditation -- for growing in one's capacities for wise and compassionate living in daily life. As they learn from Buddhism, they do not abandon Christianity. Their hope is that Buddhism can help them become better Christians. They are Christians influenced by Buddhism.
I am among them. In several essays in Open Horizons (see the buttons below) I have explained how my own journey as a Christian has been enriched by Buddhist wisdom and practices, showing how a form of contemporary theology called "process theology" has helped me do this. And in another essay in Open Horizons, I offer a thumbnail sketch of six Christian who turn to Buddhism. On this page I introduce another Christian who turns to Buddhism through reviews of three of her books, offered by the world's most inclusive interfiath organization, Spirituality and Practice. Her name is Ellen Birx.
Ellen Birx is a nurse and professor in the School of Nursing at Radford University, Virginia. She became a Zen teacher under Roshi Robert Kennedy and Roshi Bernie Glassman. The cofounder of the New River Zen Community, she frequently lectures to patients, Zen students, health professionals, and the general public. She is a wife, mother, and grandmother.
With great skill and finesse, Birx relates Zen to health and healing. She makes wonderful use of ancient stories, sayings, and verses from three classic koan collections. Whether you are struggling with a health crisis, recovering from one, or just trying to cope with the everyday challenges and crises of life, this astute work is bound to lift your spirits.
Simplicity is an essential part of Zen practice. Anyone who is familiar with Japanese flower arrangements or the care put into the preparation of a single cup of tea knows what she is talking about. Zen practice requires a certain awareness, which is brought to sitting, breathing, walking, and all aspects of living. Paying close attention to what is going on inside us and around us is crucial in our care-taking efforts. One of our favorite passages is this one:
"Zen Master Zuigan worked very hard every day to wake up and pay attention. Each day he called himself, 'Master!' He answered himself, 'Yes!' Then he called out to himself again, 'Thoroughly awake! Thoroughly awake!' He answered, 'Yes! Yes!' "
Those who are gravely ill are forced to come to terms with mystery. Birx quotes this Zen verse for them:
"Moonlight reflected in the bottom of the pond is bright in the sky: The water reaching to the sky is totally clear and pure. Though you scoop it up repeatedly and try to know it, Vast, clarifying all, it remains unknown."
Not knowing is a liberating way of being. Birx refers also to the Zen saying, "Not knowing is the most intimate." This is a profound truth for all who work with the dying. Husbands and wives could also use this phrase as a mantra and derive great pleasure from it.
In a superb chapter titled "Acceptance: Things Just As They Are," the author notes that this spiritual practice frees us to be a healing presence in the world. It happens when we are responding to what lies in front of us and not trying to control the future. Sharing our whole self with others becomes possible when we have become intimate with ourselves. "Taped to my refrigerator is a quote by Maezumi Roshi that I cut out of a Zen Center of Los Angeles newsletter years ago. It means as much to me today as it did when I first read it. It says: 'In your daily life, please accept yourself as you are and your life as it is. Be intimate with yourself . . . I want you to take good advantage of every chance you have to become a really intimate being.' When you are intimate with yourself, you accept and get to know who you really are deep down. When you are intimate with others you feel free to share who you really are and to say what you think. Roshi Kennedy speaks of the beautiful undefended self." This is a truly nurturing book.
Excerpt from Healing Zen
"As you practice acceptance, you grow in your ability to face and fully accept people, circumstances, and things just as they are. Acceptance is not a passive resignation to circumstances and situations. Acceptance is not just making the best of a bad situation. It is an active presence to life just as it is. Acceptance means not pushing away, denying, or excluding things or circumstances that you do not like. It is the process of continually dropping expectations and judgments and accepting what is. Acceptance expands your vision, acknowledging all aspects of yourself and the world. Nothing is walled off. Total acceptance connects you with everything and helps you experience wholeness.
"Acceptance takes place in the present moment. You remain right here and now dealing with what is. Your energy is not going into thinking about what might have been or wishing things were different. Your energy is available to respond most effectively to the situation at hand. We generally don't have a problem accepting good things. It is the bad things that challenge our ability to accept things as they are. Acceptance is the process of transcending good and bad, of transcending duality. Acceptance is transformative and frees us to be a healing presence in the world."
Selfless Love Beyond the Boundaries of Self and Other
By Ellen Birx A good case for unbounded love and compassionate action from a perspective blending Zen and Christianity.
Ellen Birx has a Ph.D. in psychiatric nursing and for the past 27 years has been a professor at Radford University. She is a Zen teacher and cofounder of New River Zen Teachers Association. She is the author of Healing Zen and the coauthor with her husband of Waking Up Together.
In a homey definition of meditation, Birx calls it "a way to stop the habit of mental hoarding and regain some spaciousness and mental clarity. It is like cleaning house, and letting in a breath of fresh air." She then launches into a deeper assessment of this widespread spiritual practice which enables individuals to realize they are not their thoughts or feelings; there is no spectator, commentator, or witness to life; there is no point in trying to separate ourselves from others; and we can experience the unity of our common humanity.
Birx concludes that meditation is a perfect way to get in touch with your original self which is beyond forms and words. For her, not knowing is a major part of contemporary spirituality. She writes cogently about unbounded love, unconditional love, wise love, embodied love, and the art of loving life. In the end, all of these variations combine into a selfless love that takes care of others and is nurturing of one's self as well.
Birx's mix of the wisdom of Zen Buddhism with the Christian way of love is very appealing. So are the poems which are scattered throughout the book as little seedlings for our souls. Here is an example of one of them: "Without human affection, we wither and die of thirst. A whisper, a glance, a smile refreshes like a glass of cool water. Life flows back into us. In the giving and in the receiving we are the love we need."
Excerpt from Selfless Love (a poem)
"Welcome everyone! Rich and poor Young and old Women and men Gay and straight From every tribe and nation From every noble tradition Bring your gifts to the table. Come celebrate our shared humanity. Come honor our common ancestors -- Earth and stars Human beings Animal beings Plant beings Stone beings All sentient and nonsentient All hungry ghosts Come join in love's feast."
Embracing the Inconceivable: Interspiritual Practice of Zen and Christianity
By Ellen Birx Lessons from an interspiritual practitioner about oneness, mystery, and letting go of separation.
Ellen Birx holds a Ph.D in psychiatric nursing from the University of Texas at Austin and is professor emeritus, Radford University, Virginia. She is the co-founder of New River Zen Community in Blacksburg, Virginia. We have reviewed two of her three books: Selfless Love which makes a good case for boundless love and compassionate action and Healing Zen about compassion, caring, and caregiving for yourself. Years ago Brother Wayne Teasdale coined the term "interspirituality" which he saw as "the sharing of ultimate experiences across traditions." Ellen Birx, like many other Christians, has discovered "the realization of our true identity in oneness with ultimate reality or God" through this path.
Another learning for this interspiritual practitioner is acceptance of the inconceivable mystery. It arouses in her the spiritual velocities of awe, wonder, and gratitude. A third insight from the Zen Buddhist path is letting go of the American ideal of the separate self. She does justice to what this means in the opening chapter on "Zen and Nonduality." We were very pleased to see Birx's affirmations and explanations of spiritual qualities and virtues we hold dear to our hearts: reverence, humility, joy, freedom, love, and mystery. Here is her interpretation of reverence: "Reverence includes and transcends religion, and it touches the heart of what being a decent human being entails. Reverence makes us want to bow down to that which is greater, makes us want to do better, makes us want to reduce suffering, and gives us the energy and vision to work to make the world a better place for everyone now, and for all those who will be born in the future."
Excerpt from Embracing the Inconceivable
"In writing about the interspiritual practice of Zen and Christianity, I am simply sharing the joy and insights I have experienced with those who may be interested in interspiritual practice. However, I cannot emphasize enough that the key word here is practice. The danger in reading a book like this is that you may think you understand what I am saying, but unless you actually meditate long and strong, with the guidance of an authorized Zen teacher, and with a sangha to support your practice, it is unlikely that you will go deep enough to experience the fruits of Zen practice. The same is true of walking the Christian path. The fruits of the Spirit do not come from reading alone. They come from study, prayer, spiritual direction, loving action, and participation in a Christian community. In my life I have focused on these two spiritual traditions because it is difficult to go deep enough into more than two traditions, and depth is of essence. So whatever spiritual paths you pursue, go deep and bring forth the gifts of those traditions to enrich your life and the lives of others.
"Once Yakusan was sitting in meditation, and Zen Master Sekito asked him, 'What are you doing there?' 'I am doing nothing at all,' said Yakusan. Sekito said, 'You say you are doing nothing. What is it you are not doing?' Yakusan replied, 'Even thousands of old Buddhas do not know.' Sekito approved of Yakusan's answer (Sekida 2005, 263 - 64). Zen meditation is not about doing; it is about letting everything drop away so that you can clearly see what you already are. Along with thousands of old Buddhas, we too do not know. We embrace the inconceivable, which cannot be grasped with the intellect or expressed in words. "Both Zen and Christianity require you to let go of the ego completely and surrender to that which is greater than your furthest imagination. When you take this leap, you see that you are not separate from ultimate reality or God. You are not separate from your own true identity as a manifestation of ultimate reality or God. Ultimate reality or God is inconceivable, and so are you. You are not separate from other people, the earth, all beings, and the whole universe. In the realization of nonseparation or nonduality, boundless love and compassion arise. You are liberated to live as a decent, authentic, loving human being."