Kanhwasŏn Practice in Europe Present Situation and Future

Kanhwasŏn Practice(看話禪修行) in Europe Present Situation and Future

Bernard Senécal sj / Faculty of Religious Studies, Sogang University.

Ⅰ. Introduction

The practice of kanhwasŏn in Europe is in line with the broader context of the introduction of Buddhism into the Western world. Accordingly, in order to study that practice we must first examine the context it belongs to. The English historian Arnold Toynbee(1889-1975) did not hesitate to say that the introduction of Buddhism in the West constituted the most important historical event of the 20th century. It may perhaps be compared with the introduction of Indian Buddhism into China some two thousand years ago. As a result, the encounter of Buddhism with the West most certainly represents and event of extremely broad and deep meaning.

Many scholars have strove to define the boundaries of the encounter of Buddhism with the West. In 1952, Cardinal Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) published La Rencontre du bouddhisme et de l’Occident, a work that would become a classic. In 1999, Frédéric Lenoir published another book, on the same topic and with exactly the same title, in which he updated de Lubac’s work. And in 2000, the famous Singer-Polignac foundation, located in Paris, organized a colloquium on the understanding of the encounter of Buddhism and the West since Henri de Lubac(L’Intelligence de la rencontre du bouddhisme, La rencontre du bouddhisme et de l’Occident depuis Henri de Lubac). This colloquium may be understood as an attempt to understand the main events having marked the history of Western Buddhism during the second half of the 20th century. In 2002, a book entitled Westward Dharma, Buddhism Beyond Asia also came out. According to its authors the study of Western Buddhism has begun only recently and it is still too early to describe its outcome.

In fact, it is quite difficult to define in a fully satisfactory way such broad entities as Buddhism and the Western World. Consequently, in 2003, willing to favor a complete, precise and balanced understanding of Buddhism by Westerners, Paul Magnin published Bouddhisme, unité et diversité-Expériences de libération. Of course, the seven hundred and fifty pages of this synthetic introduction to Buddhism represent the culmination of the author’s thirty years of scholarly research and reflection. But as I began writing this paper, I would have appreciated to find a work capable to match Paul Magnin’s book, and that would have been entitled L’Occident, unité et diversité-Expériences de libération. If such a book existed, it ought to state clearly the ground on which the unity of the Western world and its experiences of liberation may be defined. Nevertheless, in order to talk about the encounter of Buddhism and the West coherently, one has to provide at least a minimal definition of those two concepts. But such definitions should be dynamic, that is, capable of taking into account the fact that reality is constantly changing. And that is even more so when we begin to realize that Buddhism and the West are already engaged in a process of mutual transformation. Such is the context in which we have to examine the practice of kanhwasŏn in Europe.

Since our research is limited to Europe, it may look easier at first sight. But such is not the case. That is because the kanhwasŏn practiced in Europe comes from at least four different countries : China, Japan, Korea and Vietnam. Moreover, things may be complicated by the fact that traditions that existed independently in their homeland may now interact freely as they have to coexist within the European countries they have been imported to. In addition to that, one has to take into account the fact that the activity of Masters like Sungsan and Thich Nhat Hanh goes well beyond Europe. That may make it all the more arbitrary to try to describe the practive of kanhwasŏn in Europe alone. We should also keep in mind that Europe is a huge continent of 3.900.000 square kilometers, with a population of 456.000.000 people, living in 25 different countries and speaking 20 official languages, not to talk about dialects. Even as it is strugling to achieve its unity, Europe keeps expanding by accepting new countries. As the result of those geographical characteristics, the context in which Buddhism is expanding in Europe is very different from that of America. Similarly, Buddhist-Christian dialogue has started later in Europe than in America.

There are two ways to approach the practice of kanhwasŏn in Europe. The first one consists in reducing the dimensions of the topic. In order to do that we can limit our study to the three main European schools offering kanhwasŏn practice to their followers.

The first one has been founded by the Japanese Taisen Deshimaru(1914-1982), a disciple of Kōdō Sawaki(1880-1965) from the Sōtō school(曹洞宗). Arrived in Paris in 1967, Taisen Deshimaru trained a lot of disciples and founded the Association Zen d’Europe, which later became the Association Zen Internationale(AZI). In 1979, he acquired the estate of la Gendronnière(Loir-et-Cher) and founded the first European Buddhist monastery. His several thousand disciples have founded over a hundred temples all over Europe. At present, the AZI runs over two hundred temples worldwide.

The second one is the Sanbo Kyodan(三寶敎團), a minority group among the Japanese Zen schools, also called the Kamakura school. It has been founded by Hakuun Yasutani(1885-1973), a disciple of Harada Dauin Sogaku(1871 -1961), who had inherited the Dharma of both the Rinzai(臨濟宗) and the Sōtō schools. This school distinguishes itself by two characteristics. First, it never required from its Western followers that they convert to Buddhism. On the contrary, it still claims that anybody, including non Buddhists, can benefit from the practice of kanhwasŏn. For this reason, the Sanbo Kyodan has transmitted the Dharma to a number of Westerners that were working in Japan, including Christian pastors, sisters and priests, as well as rabbis. Second, as those people with a first-hand knowledge of the East went back to their native countries, they created branches of the Sanbo Kyodan.

The third group has been founded by Thich Nhat Hanh and is based on the practice of the Vietnamese version of Sŏn called Thiên. Thich Nhat Hanh came to the West in 1970 and created several meditation groups in a number of countries. In 1982, he decided to settle down in France at the Village des Pruniers(Dordogne), and created an association called l’Ordre de l’Inter-Être, which very strongly emphasizes both the practice of meditation and the importance of social work.

Each of the above three groups reckons approximately thirty thousand people. Nevertheless, with around half of its members practicing hwadu(話頭) meditation, the Sanbo Kyodan from Japan is by far the most important European school of kanhwasŏn. There are, of course, other schools of kanhwasŏn in Europe, like for instance from the Japanese Rinzai or the Korean Kwanūm(觀音) lineages. However, since they are much less important numerically, just like Taisen Deshimaru’s AZI or Thich Nhat Hanh’s Ordre de l’Inter-Être, it is exclusively on a more detailed description of the Sanbo Kyodan that we shall focus our attention in the fourth part of this paper .

A second way to study the practice of kanhwasŏn in Europe, which we shall also use in this paper, consists in observing how the Western mind interacts with the spirit of the Sŏn school. More precisely, we will try to show how this mind encounters the religious tradition that has most contributed to the shaping of the Western mentalities. Even though Western Christianity is facing a deep crisis it undoubtedly remains the main religious tradition of the West. Therefore, the first part of this paper will be a synthetic introduction to the encounter of the practice of kanhwasŏn with the Occident. The second one will point to some aspects of Christianity that may facilitate the adaptation of kanhwasŏn practice to the Western world. A third one will describe what kind of help and transformation Christianity may expect from such a practice. A fourth and final part will describe some of the concrete attempts that have been made to integrate hwadu meditation to traditional Christian methods of meditation.

Ⅱ. Understanding the Encounter

of Kanhwasŏn with the West

Above all, one should keep in mind that kanhwasŏn has a very long history. A rapid glance at a book like Chŏng Sŏngbon Sūnim’s Sŏn’ŭi Sasanggwa Yŏksa is enough to realize it. In order to understand kanhwasŏn practice as it has been completed and established under the Song dynasty by Wŏno Kūkkūn(圜悟克勤, 1063-1125), from the Yanggi branch of the Imje school(臨濟宗 楊岐派), and his Dharma heir Taehye Chonggo(大慧宗杲, 1089-1163), one has to trace the remote beginnings of its history back to the third millenium B.C. in Indian Antiquity. As a result, the development of kanhwasŏn has taken place over several centuries and left us a considerable amount of litterature. It is a well known fact that kanhwasŏn practice may be considered the ultimate fruit of the encounter of Indian Buddhism with Chinese thought. Moreover Sŏn also is the most Confucian form of Buddhist. As a result, kanhwasŏn practice not only represents the result of a long encounter of Chinese thought with Indian Buddhism but also the complete emancipation of the latter from the speculative tendencies of the former.

This all means that kanhwasŏn is inseparable from very concrete situations. Consequently, one cannot but wonder how harmoniously the result of such a long historical process in the Far East can integrate itself as such to the West. Accordingly, it certainly isn’t an exaggeration to say that a full integration of kanhwasŏn to the Occident may require several centuries. Moreover, in order to be successful, the result of such a process should involve both faithfulness to the original spirit of kanhwasŏn and its perfect adaptation to Western culture. Maybe it will be possible, then, to talk about the quintessence of the encounter of Far East Buddhism with Western culture.

However, we may wonder if our scholarly knowledge of Buddhism and the sophisticated means of communication and transportation that are available in today’s world will not greatly accelerate and facilitate the settling of kanhwasŏn in the West. This could then mean that the Occident does not need, in order to understand the Buddha’s teachings correctly, a phase of adaptation similar to the one China went through as it interpreted Buddhists concepts through Taoist categories during two centuries. As a result, quoting the worldwide achievements of Masters like Hakuun Yasutani, Sungsan or Sheng-yen, some do not hesitate to claim that kanhwasŏn has already taken root in the West.

Nevertheless, Victor Sōgen Hori from McGill University does not hesitate to say that the Dharma still has to come to the West. Such a statement does not deny the existence of a great number of Sŏn centers throughout the Western world, but challenges the validity of the meditation practiced and the authenticity of the Dharma transmitted in those places. I also believe that it is to early to claim that the Dharma has already arrived to the Occident. Indeed, even though the Buddha’s tradition seems destined to enjoy a bright future in Occident, its followers still do not represent more than a tiny minority. Moreover, kanhwasŏn practice only represents a tiny fraction of Western Buddhism’s practice.

The following table displays the number of Buddhists and Buddhist groups found in ten European countries in the late 1990s.




from Asia



of Total
That Were

France ~350,000 ~300,000 ~280 58 0.6
Britain 180,000 130,000 400 58 0.3
Germany 170,000 120,000 530 82 0.2
Italy 70,000 ~25,000 ~50 57 0.1
etherlands 33,000 20,000 60 15 0.2
Switzerland 25,000 20,000 100 7 0.3
Austria 16,000 5,000 50 8 0.2
Denmark ~10,000 ~5,000 ~32 5 0.1
Hungary 7,000 1,000 ~12 10 0.1
Poland ~5,000 500 30 39 0.02

note: ~denotes very rough estimate

As we can see, in England, France, Germany, Holland and Switzerland the numbers of Buddhists coming from Asia is far superior to that of the native converts. We must also notice that the statistics corresponding to French Buddhism are nothing but a gross approximation. That is because good information remains difficult to find and because it is hard to define who really is a Buddhist. But this identification problem seems to go well beyond France.

We should also be careful to keep in mind that the figures displayed in the above table do not correspond to the Sŏn school but only to Buddhism as a whole. However, the following chart gives an idea on how Buddhism from five European countries may be categorized according to tradition.


Great Britain(%)


































It has to be noticed that, with the exception of France, Tibetan Buddhism has a majority in all countries. Nevertheless, we should keep in mind that a certain number of Sŏn centers in France have had to close their doors because of the fierce competition coming from Tibetan Buddhism. In other words, Europeans are strongly attracted by Buddhism from Tibet.

According to Martin Baumann, Buddhism is destined to remain a minority religion in Europe during the 21th century. That is enough to make some people in the Far East hastily conclude that Westerners cannot achieve enlightenment. Such statements recall us the Roshis(老師) claiming that being Japanese was a condition sine qua non to achieve enlightenment. Such a declaration is not only founded on ultranationalism, it also denies the core teaching of Mahāyāna Buddhism, according to which all sentient beings are endowed with the Buddha nature(佛性). In order to refute it, let us quote the dialogue that took place between the young and illiterate Hyenūng(慧能, 638-713) and the Fifth Patriarch Hongin(第五祖弘忍, 594-674).

“The priest Hung-jen asked me : ‘Where are you from that you come to this mountain to make obeisance to me ? Just what is it that you are looking for from me?’ I replied : ‘I am from Ling-nan, a commoner from Hsin-chou. I have come this long distance only to make obeisance to you. I am seeking no particular thing but only the Buddhadharma.’ The Master then reproved me, saying : ‘If you’re from Ling-nan then you’re a barbarian. How can you become a Buddha?’ I replied : ‘Although people from the south and people from the north differ, there is no north and south in Buddha nature. Although my barbarian’s body and your body are not the same, what difference is there in our Buddha nature?’ The Master wished to continue his discussion with me ; however, seeing that there were other people nearby, he said no more. Then he sent me to work with the assembly. Later a lay disciple had me go to the threshing room where I sent over eight months treading the pestle.”

Needless to say that it is very contradictory to pretend that the Dharma has to be transmitted to the West while harboring such prejudices.

Roshi Albert Low from the Montreal Zen Center insists to say that it is quite counter-productive to claim that the Dharma has not come to the West yet. Instead, he suggests to work at discovering or rediscovering the elements of Western thought and culture that may favor the acceptance and integration of the Dharma to the Occident. In a sense, what Albert Low says may be understood as Buddhism already existing in the West even before the coming of the Dharma. Nevertheless, however seductive such an idea may be, it ought to be handled carefully. Because if the Dharma already exists in the West, then its introduction from Asia shouldn’t make any difference.

In the next chapter, we shall examine closely some aspects of Christianity that may facilitate the adaptation of kanhwasŏn to the West.

Ⅲ. Christian Hermitic life and Kanhwasŏn

In order to understand how kanhwasŏn may be adapted to the West, it is very important to grasp thoroughly what constitutes the core of hermitic life in the Christian tradition.

1. The Age of the Desert Fathers

Western hermitic life began in the third century with Saint Antony of Egypt(250-356). He retired alone to the desert in order to begin living as a hermit. People being attracted by his life of asceticism, he soon found himself surrounded by many followers. Moreover, Antony’s influence rapidly reached the rest of Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Arabia and all parts of Europe where thousands of people made the decision to become hermits.

The appearance of Western hermitic life corresponds to the time when Constantine(? -337) converted to Christianity. Christians naturally rejoiced greatly as a long dreamed of event finally materialized. But such a triumph also had its side effect. Indeed, as the political power of the Church started to rise, the fervor of its followers began to cool down. Since it is precisely that fervor that had favored the spread of Christianity throughout the Roman empire, its loss could not but be deplored by lucid believers. Therefore, it certainly is no coincidence if the beginning of hermitic life corresponds to an overall weakening of the Christian faith. In other words, hermitic life can be understood as the strong reaction of some believers willing to recover the spirit that had animated the martyrs throughout three centuries of harsh persecutions. The Christians who animated that very powerful renewal movement are called the fathers of the desert.

In fact, in order to find the origins of Western hermitic life, one has to go back to great figures of the Old Testament like Abraham(19th c. BCE), Moses(13th c. BCE) and Elijah(9th c. BCE). And, of course, one also has to remember John the Baptist(1st c. BCE-1 c. CE), who lived in the desert during several decades, and Jesus the Christ, who did the same during forty days, fasting and, according to the tradition, overcoming all temptations.

The desert fathers left us a huge inheritance : “collections of their sayings, letters, sermons, ascetical treatises, biographies, monastic rules, and historical and theological essays of great value.” The literature left to us by the desert fathers has considerably influenced all currents of Christian spirituality.

Among the praying methods that they have taught us, one deserves special attention. It is called ʻprayer of the heartʼ and chiefly consists in repeating, day and night, to the rhythm of one’s breath, the name of Jesus. In many ways, this technique of meditation resembles the continuous(omae iryŏ 寤寐一如) observing(kan 看) of the critical phrase(hwadu 話頭) of a kongan(公安). The practice of the prayer of the heart began in the Eastern church from where it has spread all over the world. Its goal consists in achieving deep and constant peace of the heart.

Over the centuries, Christian hermitic life has taken a great variey of forms. It is neither necessary nor possible to describe them all in this paper. Therefore, I will only indicate briefly the role played by hermitic life at some key moments of the history of Christianity.

2. The Middle Ages and Saint Francisco of Assisi

Francisco of Assisi(1182-1226), the famous Italian saint who created the religious order that bears his name, may well be considered one of the chief representatives of hermitic life in the Middle Ages. In his time, the Church enjoyed considerable power and wealth. The extreme poverty that characterized Francisco’s life style has been a powerful challenge for an institution that had moved away from Christ’s spirit. There is no doubt that the long time that Saint Francisco spent in solitude, praying and fasting, allowed him to gather the spiritual energy necessary to accomplish his mission. It is also well worth noticing that he wrote a rule for hermits.

3. The Renaissance and Ignatius of Loyola

The Church of the Renaissance saw the rising of the Basque Ignatius of Loyola(1491-1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus, also called the Jesuit Order. Ignatius came to realize that the Church of his time was to narrowly centered on Europe and that it had to open itself up to the rest of the world. That is the reason why he founded an international religious congregation, which he placed directly under the authority of the pope. As a result, in order to answer rapidly and efficiently any demand of the supreme authority of the Church, the Jesuits are ready to go anywhere in the world. But the most amazing thing is the fact that Saint Ignatius not only lived as a hermit for over a year, but also considered seriously dedicating all his existence to that life style. Indeed, he wanted to enter the Carthusian Order, whose most famous monastery is La Grande Chartreuse, located in the French Alps. That religious congregation has been founded by Saint Bruno(1030-1101) for people desiring to spend their whole life in a community of hermits. Though Saint Ignatius’ desire has not been realized as such, it has considerably influence all the spirituality of the Jesuit Order. That is why it may be said that the Jesuits are Carthusians living right in the middle of the world. This means that there is a common ground between the desire of a hermit to enjoy the freedom of a complete solitude, that allows the total entrusting of oneself to the action of the Spirit, and the apostolic freedom, to be found in the middle of action, aimed by Saint Ignatius to realize the same goal. It also signifies that the contemplation of a hermitic life can be fully combined to a radical social commitment. Indeed, it is written in the constitutions of the Society of Jesus that any Jesuit willing to become a Carthusian monk is perfectly free to do so. This means that for the fully awakened one, there can’t be any contradiction between living in complete solitude and being present to the whole world. It also signifies that as it is possible to contemplate right in the middle of highly dynamic action, it is also possible to be active in the depth of the most profound contemplation. Here we can discover one of the main characteristics of the way of life embodied by Christ himself.

4. Today’s Hermitic life

Hermitic tradition remains very lively in today’s world. The mere fact that it exists offers people the possibility to take some distance from a society that is so full of itself that it believes that its high technique and industry are capable of satisfying all human desires. Indeed, even though they lived in solitude, hermits have always played the role of spiritual director for those that came to beg their help. Moreover, when hermits live in communities, they often run retreat houses allowing those willing to do so to share their life style for some time. Here, rather than describing the multiple forms of hermitic life found in today’s world, I will briefly recall some of its key figures. This should allow us to detect some of the main trends of hermitic life in today’s world.

The Frenchman Charles de Foucauld(1858-1916) has spent his life as a hermit in the Hoggar Mounts of southern Algeria. By doing so, among other things, he aimed at entering into dialogue with Islam.

The Frenchmen Jean Monchanin(1895-1957) and Henri le Saux(1910-1973), as well as the Englishman Bede Griffiths(1906-1993) have dedicated their lives to a dialogue between Christianity and Hindouism by living with the hermits of the Saccidananda region of India.

As one of the most famous hermits of the 20th century, the American Thomas Merton(1915-1968) considered that the wisdom of the Desert Fathers and Mothers “enables us to reopen the sources that have been polluted or blocked up altogether by the accumulated mental and spiritual refuse of our technological barbarism.” Such words remind us (8 c. BCE) what God said, through the prophet Hosea, to the Hebrews who once more had abandoned Him to worship idols : “I shall seduce you, take you to the desert and speak to your hearth.” One of Merton’s biggest contribution is his beginning of a dialogue between Christianity and the Buddhist monks and nuns of Asia. This dialogue has kept developing ever since.

Catherine de Hueck Doherty(1896-1985), from Russian descent, has written over thirty books, the best known of which is Poustinia. In that work she encourages people living in huge modern cities to create a space of silence and prayer, ie of desert, right in the middle of their homes. That is in order to become more intimate with God in every day life.

Finally, we can think of the Swissman Brother Roger(1915-2005), assassinated lately, whose Taizé community in France has considerably favored the development of Christian ecumenism worldwide.

The above examples allow us to draw the following conclusions. Although the meaning of hermitic life is very often misunderstood by people, it has always had a considerable impact on all the Christian tradition. Indeed, even though they dwelled in solitude, hermits have always strongly influenced not only the life of the Church but also the societies on the fringe of which they lived. In this sense, it is not exaggerated to say that hermitism is the blood of Christianity.

Even though hermits have never been more than a very small minority, it is important to underline that they have kept recalling all Christians the irreplaceable importance of silence and meditation whenever one wishes to deepen his understanding and knowledge of truth. Moreover, today’s hermits are inviting all Christians to achieve unity and to dialogue with the world religions.

All the above facts on hermitic life allow us to realize that Western society has at its disposal a strong tradition that can considerably facilitate its acceptation of kanhwasŏn practice.

Ⅳ. The Help that Western Christianity

can get from Kanhwasŏn

Like all religions, Christianity has been victim of its success. This is true to such an extent that we may say that as failure is the mother of success, success is the mother of failure. Western Christianity, despite having had to face challenges coming from atheism and inner divisions, has managed to maintain the same shape during several centuries. Moreover, it has had no serious contacts with another well organized religion, like Buddhism for instance, dealing thoroughly with the problems of suffering and death.

There is no need to describe, in this paper, the actual situation of European Christianity. As we have said above, this Christianity is facing a crisis. The decreasing number of its believers should be enough to prove it. As an explanation of this situation, we may say that European Christianity has lost a huge part of its vitality. Consequently it has also lost a lot of its capacity to attract people. In front of such a situation, some naturally ask whether Christianity still has a future or not. That is why so many Europeans are looking for a new source of hope. It is against this backdrop that kanhwasŏn is being introduced into the Western world. My argument is that as a transfusion of blood may save the life of a dying person, so may kanhwasŏn practice, without loosing its identity, become a source of renewal for Western Christianity. Of course, Christianity may end up developing a new shape through such an encounter.

From here on, before explaining what kind of help Christianity may get from kanhwasŏn practice, I will recall briefly what is the original spirit of the Christian tradition and what are the consequences of its loss.

1. The Original Spirit of Christianity

In the New Testament, Christ says of himself that he has nowhere to rest. In many ways such a statement may resemble one that is found in the Platform Sūtra of the Sixth Patriarch(六祖壇經) and according to which non-abiding is set as the main doctrine(無住爲本). In order to understand the meaning of Jesusʼ words, we have to go back to Abraham, the common ancestor of Christians, Jews and Muslims.

As a Bedouin, Abraham lived in the solitude and silence of the deserts he wandered about. As a nomad, he had a tent for abode and did not store surplus products. He lived entrusting himself to the circumstances and believing that all he needed, beginning with water and food, would be given to him day after day. Even though Abraham was waking toward a land that had been promised to him, that land should not only be thought of as a country like, for instance, todayʼs Israel. It should rather be understood as the true nature that one has to find within himself. In other words, in many regards, the Promised Land resembles the Pure Land. In that sense, we may say that Abraham was walking toward himself, or, in other words, toward his true nature. As he was following his course, Abraham was always open to the possibility of an encounter with God and with foreigners. As a result, he kept experiencing new realities. That is why it may be said that God kept surprising him. For God was not where Abraham expected him to be, He also was where Abraham did not expect Him to be. Similarly, Abraham did not know whom he would meet during his journeys across the desert. Such unexpected encounters kept transforming him. Consequently, as we can discover through Abrahamʼs experience, truth is not an abstract reality such that we could take hold of it. On the contrary, truth is a dynamic and lively reality we are being seized by through concrete experience. Such a truth is given at every step and rediscovered at every instant. If there were some signs along the desert roads followed by Abraham, they kept indicating contradictory directions. In other words, it was a road without a road. Some of Jesusʼ words may help us to understand what this means : “The wind blows where it will. You hear the sound it makes, but you don’t know where it comes from or where it goes. So is it with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”

It is in order to rediscover the nomadic spirit of Abraham that hermits made and still make the decision to entrust themselves to the solitude and the silence of the desert. It is this very spirit that has allowed them to act as reformers within Christianity. As this spirit, when it is fully-fledged, is the Spirit of Christ, it has to be the spirit of all Christians. In other words, as all Buddhists have to become living buddhas, so should all Christians become living christs. But unfortunately, the descendants of Abraham tend to forget his nomadic spirit.

2. The Problem with Christianity

History teaches us that Christians, Jews and Muslims keep displaying a tendency to forget the common root of their respective faith : the spirit of Abraham. In other words, they tend to prefer a sedentary life to a nomadic one, noise to silence, and gathering together rather than solitude. That is why they abandon nomadic life, and build houses in cities well indicated by road signs and in which they can store in large quantities just about anything they want. However, such a transformation of their way of living has a considerable impact on their conception of truth. Truth loses its concrete and dynamic character to become a fossilized and absolute abstraction. At the same time, the Christians lose their ability to deal with reality inductively and their thinking becomes more and more deductive. Instead of being constantly transformed by constant and unpredictable encounters with God and others, they try to control those encounters by reducing God and others to their limited horizon. In a word, instead of living by the truth, they become administrators of the truth. As a result, the clerics harboring such a state of mind end up transforming the temple of Jerusalem into a place where a stuffed god is being worshipped. Such was Judaism in Jesusʼ time. It may be said that, just as Buddhism was a reformist reaction to Hinduism, Christianity was borne from a reformist reaction to such a temple. Jesus said to the clerics of his time : “Woe to you experts on the law! You have taken away the key to knowledge. And not only haven’t you gained access, you have stopped others who were trying to enter.”

Of course, all that we have just said represents a dramatized and condensed view of Western Christianity. Nevertheless, it may be said that a constant conflict, between a nomadic and a sedentary paradigm, constitutes one of the main impulses behind the unfolding of Christian history. Each time that the course of events has had an excessive tilt toward the latter, a reformist movement based on the former has arisen. This is exactly what a synthetic look at the history of hermitic life within Christianity has allowed us to highlight. And it may be said that the Christian conscience is always tempted to rebuild the Jerusalem temple, let it be in Rome or elsewhere. Such a tendency deepened as the Catholic church became split with the Orthodox church in 1054 and with the Protestant church in 1517. But the ecumenical council of Vatican II(1962-1965), as it has emphasized both the unity of all Christians and opened dialogue with all religions of humankind, has made a historical effort to put the situation right. And Pope John Paul II(1920-2005) has been perfectly faithful to that spirit of renewal. Such an opening, in an effort to renew Christianity, reminds us of the one made by some adepts of Zen desiring to renew their tradition through contacts with the West.

3. The Contribution of Kanhwasŏn

I think that kanhwasŏn can bring something to a Christianity eager to renew itself. Indeed, kanhwasŏn practice can remind Christians of the traditional values of hermitism and of Abraham nomadic life : silence, solitude, the mobility of non-abiding and meditation. Such a reminding cannot come from a inner challenge alone, it must necessarily also come from an external one. This means that a genuine reform is possible through an epoch-making event like the encounter of kanhwasŏn with Christianity.

Kanhwasŏn has the advantage that it can be practiced, either individually or in a group, even in the middle of cities. It suffices to regularly create a space of silence and solitude where we dwell. Kanhwasŏn may allow our troubled minds to get rid of their endless and sterile calculations so that they may recover their original simplicity. As a result, it helps one to acquire a right view as he faces the world he lives in.

It cannot be said that Christians do not have traditional methods of prayer. On the contrary, though they have many, most of the time they either do not know them or do not use them. Moreover, if they want to recover a dynamic understanding of truth, these methods of prayer may gain much from an encounter with techniques of meditation coming from another tradition. For instance, though there exist both an affirmative and a negative way (Via Affirmativa and Negativa) within Christianity, the vast majority of those who pray usually tend to rely solely on the latter. As a concrete example, let us recall one of the sayings of Jesus to his disciples : “Still, I must tell you the truth : it is much better for you that I go.” In fact, this means that in order to fully understand who He is and what He has said, Christians must let Him go. Even though Jesus has clearly told them not to do so, Christians keep being attached to Him in an excessive way, as if they were hooked to a finger pointing the direction of the moon. In many regards the dialectical relation of the affirmative and negative ways found in Christianity is very similar to the one found in Buddhism and especially in Sŏn. But the mutual complementarity of the two ways being much more clearly emphasized within Buddhism, the practice of kanhwasŏn can certainly help Christians to discover, or rediscover, and use a much more balanced approach of those two paradigms. In a word, Christians have to be born again from above. As Jesus has said : “Unless one is born from above, one cannot see the kingdom of God.” This is exactly what the practice of kanhwasŏn may allow Christians to discover. And if I say it, it is because I have experienced it.

Of course, some people could easily argue that the main ideas developed in this paper tend to reduce the understanding of the practice of kanhwasŏn to some of the needs of Western Christianity. But D. T. Suzuki did exactly the same when he introduced Zen Buddhism to the West as the “non historical essence of all religions.” It can be said that this is an extremely limited and selected view of Buddhism. That is because by introducing Zen as such in his most famous works, D. T. Suzuki repackaged Buddhism according to the expectations and hopes of his Western readers. Such an attitude may deserve many criticisms. Nevertheless, it is precisely because of that repackaging that D. T. Suzuki could successfully introduce Zen Buddhism to the Occident. And even though what he did may be considered somewhat flawed, since he intended to remain faithful to the spirit of Zen, it is hard to say that such a repackaging was completely wrong. Moreover, it is possible to say that the whole history of Buddhism is filled with similar examples. For instance, in his History of Buddhist Philosophy, David J. Kalupahana introduces Buddhism to Westerners through occidental categories, to such an extent that some critics claim that what he talks about isn’t Buddhism anymore. But in fact, since Buddhism has kept doing the same thing, for the sake of its adaptation, each time that it entered in a new area, such criticisms seem misplaced. The birth of Mahāyāna or of Tantric Buddhism may be considered other examples of the same phenomena.

I shall now talk about the concrete attempts that have been made to integrate the practice of kanhwasŏn with Christian methods of prayer.

Ⅴ. Attempts to Integrate Kanhwasŏn Practice and Christian Methods of Cultivation

Since there exist both common points and differences between Buddhism and Christianity, the attempts to integrate kanhwasŏn practice to Christian teachings have sparked off a number of reactions. I am now going to mention some of these reactions. Afterwards, I will describe the Sanbo Kyodan and give an account of the past history and of the prospects of the attempts made to achieve an integration of kanhwasŏn practice to the Christian tradition.

1. Western Reactions to Sŏn Buddhism


A first reaction consists in believing that the practice of Sŏn is the sole way to achieve truth. As a result, the advocates of such a position consider that Sŏn Buddhism is superior to all other religious traditions and they look down on them. The Dalai Lama is very critical of such people. They believe that the followers of traditions others than theirs cannot discover what they have found in Sŏn Buddhism. Such a feeling of superiority may make them look endlessly for an ever purer form of Sŏn tradition. As a result, they may end up looking and sounding very fundamentalist, confusing unessential matters like, for instance, clothes, furniture, or the tea ceremony, with essential ones. Such people make the Dalai Lama laugh. At the opposite extreme, some people consider that Sŏn Buddhism is nothing but a hoax destined to fool people. This is exactly the position of H. Van Straelen in his Le Zen Démystifié.

The two fundamentalist attitudes that we have just described are clearly opposed to an encounter between Sŏn Buddhism and the West. Between such extremes, we can find positions that are opened to a dialogue between the cultural and religious context to which Sŏn Buddhism has to adapt. But the problem is to find a good balance between mutual transformation and the maintaining of each partners identity.

Let us take a look at some attitudes regarding Christian Sŏn. According to Jacques Brosse, any attempt to disconnect the practice of Sŏn from Buddhism amounts to its neutralization. Similarly, Éric Romeluère claims that the teachings of the Sŏn school and of Christianity are so different that Christian Sŏn amounts to pure schizophrenia. On the other hand, the Benedict monk and priest Willigis Jäger has got so deeply into the practice of kanhwasŏn within the Sanbo Kyodan that he has obtained the Dharma seal and became, though still a Roman Catholic priest, Ko-un Roshi. He also runs a very successful meditation center, called the Benediktushof, near Würzburg, in Germany. Moreover, at an international level, Father Jäger is one of the three highest persons in charge of the Sanbo Kyodan. But recently, the Vatican has decided to prevent Father Jäger from teaching, declaring that the overall content of his predications does not conform to the tradition of the church. We may wonder if such a decision does not come from difficulties to understand the thought of a man who is too far ahead of his time. But even if it were so, let us remember the case of Thomas Merton who has managed to dwell in between the two extremes that we have just quoted. He declared that the more he got to know and love Buddhism, the more he could live as a good Christian. He also said that he felt closer to Buddhist monks practicing meditation than to Christians that did not. Nevertheless, Thomas Merton’s orthodoxy has never been challenged and he is unanimously recognized as a beacon of the encounter of Christianity with Buddhism.

2. The Sanbo Kyodan(三寶敎團)

With thirty thousand members, the Sanbo Kyodan is by far the largest organization teaching kanhwasŏn in Europe. Its followers have the choice between two different paths.

The first one, called ‘shikantaza(只管打坐)’ merely consists in sitting down, observing oneʼs breath and physical sentations or the sensations coming from outside the body but without developing any attachment to them. In addition to that, those who wish to do so may pronounce the sound mu(無) with their mouth and lips, but without producing any sound. About half of the members of the Sanbo Kyodan practice shikantaza.

The second method adds kanhwasŏn practice to shikantaza and is practiced by the other members of the Sanbo Kyodan.

The Sanbo Kyodan uses about seven hundred kongans(公案) coming from five different collections(konganjip 公案集). They are given to the adept, one by one, and in a predetermined order. He must find the answer to a given kongan in order to get the next one, and must solve all the seven hundred kongans to get the Dharma seal. The first collection contains twenty two kongans. It has been made for Westerners by the founders of the Sanbo Kyodan. In general, these kongans have been selected from the other collections and their content does not refer too much to the Chinese background they come from.

The other collections are the Mumungwan(無門關), the Pyŏgamnok(碧巖錄), the Chongyŏngnok(從容錄) and the Chŏndŭngnok(傳燈錄). Yamada Koun Roshi(1907-1989) has made commentaries(chech’ang 提唱) for all the kongans found in those records. As he wanted his students to understand easily, he thaught in English and explained to them the Chinese cultural, spiritual and religious background of each kongan. A commentary is not an answer to a kongan but an explanation that allows the student to get a better grasp of the question asked by it. The commenteries of Yamada Koun Roshi have been translated in English, French, German and other European languages. The making of the commentaries is based on the kongans. As the content of the kongans is extremely diversified, it allows the writers of commentaries to deal with just about every aspect of the adept’s life, either internal or external. In the Sanbo Kyodan, all the people that have either taken the direction of an already existing meditation center or created a new one have written commentaries in European languages.

The people practicing kanhwasŏn can do it individually or with a group meditating on a regular basis, generally weekly, or during an intensive training period lasting several days(yongmaeng chŏngjin 勇猛精進). The encounter with the roshi can take place during the weekly practice meeting, or twice a day during a period of intense training, or during an individual visit of the adept to the roshi. The adept enters the room where the roshi is sitting, bows in front of him, reads the text of the kongan that he is meditating and keeps silent during a brief moment. That silence is kept in order to allow the roshi to say something or ask a question if he wishes to. Afterwards, the adept displays the state of mind that he has achieved(ch’edŭkhan kyŏnggye 體得한 境界). In 99% of the cases, the answer must be non verbal. In other words, the state of mind achieved has to be expressed through a gesture or an attitude. If the answer is correct, the roshi may say a few words to help the student expand his conscience even more. Afterwards, the adept may start meditating the next kongan of the collection he is going through. If the answer is wrong, the roshi tells it to the student and then sends him back. In such a case, the adept has to keep trying to find an answer by himself, a process that may take several months, if not years.

Kongans do not have logical answers. Consequently, an answer has to be found in an other dimension than that of reason. By doing so, a level of conscience different from the ordinary one may be stimulated. A correct answer cannot come out of a logical process. It must rather spring up from the deepest part of the human being. The answer must be non verbal in order to prevent the mind from playing the endless game of its rational tricks. Here, the roshi’‘s attitude is very important, because he must discern instantly whether the state of mind displayed by the adept is rational or not. If it is, he must uproot the cause of the wrong answer on the spot. Here, ʻwrongʼ does not mean that the answer is bad from a rational standpoint, but rather that it cannot arouse a deeper state of conscience. Indeed, the goal of kongans is to spark off small or big awakenings. The intense observation of the critical phrase of a hwadu(話頭) continuously trains the mind of the practitioner and leads him toward an ever greater opening to the hidden reality of the world.

Two main reasons may be given to explain why the members of the Sanbo Kyodan are attracted by the practice of kanhwasŏn. The first one is because they believe that such a practice will allow them to discover something that does not exist in the Western tradition. The second one is because they hope that kanhwasŏn will help them to get the indomitable and countless passions of their mind under control. It is interesting to notice that they all start looking at kongans with a considerable amount of curiosity, believing that they are simple enigmas that they will be able to solve through rational thinking. However, most of them overcome this first approach. But the most essential problem comes from the Chinese cultural background in which kanhwasŏn was born. Its understanding requires the learning of an entirely new language with its symbols and metaphors. This is the reason why kanhwasŏn will never be popularized. Of course, a considerable number of works explaining the context in which kanhwasŏn was born, as well as translations and interpretations of the records of the sayings of the patriarchs, or of the sūtras and treaties, keep being published in Western languages. In addition to that, many efforts have been made to create kongans for Westerners and there are numerous possibilities. Material like some short stories coming from the Bible, as well as sayings of Christ or of the desert fathers could be used. But to my knowledge nobody has really succeeded yet in taking advantage of that material. Above all, there should be specific answers to the kongans thus made, but nobody has done yet the research necessary to find and test them.

The above informations allow us to see that the Sanbo Kyodan can rightly claim that it has a clear Dharma lineage. In addition to that, it also offers a fully-fledged course of kongans, to be solved one by one, and each having a distinct answer. On the other hand, it is important to mention that some other masters attach no importance to these three elements, claiming that a course of kongans to be covered step by step, each with its own answer, is against the genuine spirit of the Sŏn school. In addition to that, the Sanbo Kyodan also enjoys a good international organization and all its masters agree to abide by a strict, simple and clear code of ethics. In that regard, the meditation centers of the Sanbo Kyodan are unlike so many Sŏn centers that do not belong to a specific organization.

Beside the reasons that we have just mentioned, there are two others that may help to understand the success of the Sanbo Kyodan. The first one is that its first Western members are people who went to Japan to learn the culture and the language. It is with such a first hand knowledge that they went back to their native countries to transmit the teachings of the school. The second is its openness toward other religions, including Christianity. But the AZI of Taisen Deshimaru and the Association Inter-Être of Thich Nhat Hanh, the two other main Sŏn groups of Europe, also attract a number of Christians, even though that doesn’t seem to be the result of a systematic policy like in the case of the Sanbo Kyodan. For instance, many French Christians listen attentively to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh whose great openness toward other religions is well known. Among the many books that he has written, one is entitled Going Home-Jesus and Buddha as Brothers. Similarly, it is not difficult to find many Christians among the members of the AZI. In 2004, during an encounter with Yuno Roland Rech, one of the high responsible of this group, he told me : “So much the better if the practice of Sŏn may be of some help to the Christians.” Of course, the great interest taken by some Christians in Sŏn does not necessarily mean that they intend to give up their religious identity.

Master Sungsan of the Kwanūm Sŏnjong has said : “I myself am the way, I am truth, and I am life.” Even though he interpreted this powerful Christian statement in a Buddhist sense, the mere fact that he used it should be enough to let us guess that he too kept Christians in mind.

The above facts show us that, whether we like it or not, Buddhism and Christianity are actually coexisting in the Western world.

3. Concrete Attempts of Integration

It is important to realize that quite often the Japanese roshis themselves have suggested the creation of kongans adapted to Christians. A good example is Taeŭi Roshi(大義 老師), from the Japanese Rinzai school and the master of Chongdal Nosa 宗達 老師(1905-1990), the Korean who has created the Han’guk Sŏndohoe(韓國禪道會) in 1965. But let us now take a look at the way such a task should be accomplished. In order to do that, I will examine the work done by some Jesuits that have worked in Japan during the last fifty years. Indeed, the specific contribution of each one of them is an indispensable link for the creation of a Christian kanhwasŏn.

The German Heinrich Dumoulin(1905-1995) is an academic who was thaught at Sophia University in Tokyo and gained an international reputation. Unfortunately, his famous work Zen Buddhism : a History, does not talk about Korean Sŏn.

Enomiya Lassalle(1898-1990) is another German but who became a Japanese citizen. Moreover, rather than studying Sŏn, he dedicated his whole life to its practice, going as far as going through all the kongans of the Sanbo Kyodan several times. In one of his works, he systematically compares the practice of the spiritual exercices created by Saint Ignatius of Loyola with that of kanhwasŏn. His numerous books have made him known worldwide and very much contributed to the propagation of Sŏn in the West.

The Irish William Johnston, also an academic teaching at Sophia University, has both practiced and studied Sŏn. He has compared Christian and Buddhist meditation methods, and especially the thought expanded by mystics like Master Eckhart with the negative way of the Sŏn school. His books keep selling very well worldwide.

The Japanese J. K. Kadowaki also is an academic teaching at Sophia University and who both studies and practices Sŏn. In his book Zen and the Bible, he systematically compares kongans with the content of the Old and New Testaments. But, most interestingly, he got the inspiration to write that book in the 1950s, from a professor called I. Ratzinger, who later became a Cardinal before becoming lately Pope Benedict II. This shows us that the man who now holds the highest responsibility in the Catholic church had already realized, some fifty years ago, the considerable importance of the encounter of Sŏn Buddhism with Christianity.

Ⅵ. Conclusion

Instead of being centered on the Sanbo Kyodan, this research could have chosen a more global approach to the study of kanhwasŏn practice in Europe. Or, on the contrary, it could have focused on the Korean share of would could be called “the European market of religions.” Nevertheless, I have chosen to set back the practice of kanhwasŏn in the global context of the encounter of Buddhism with Western culture, and especially with Christianity. Each of the other approaches would have had a value of its own. But the one that I have chosen has the advantage of avoiding to deal with an extremely broad question in a vague an abstract way. Instead, without losing the broadness of the topic, it has remained very concretely focused. Refusing to recognize the value of such an approach would be tantamount to trying to understand the Buddhist conquest of China without knowing anything about Chinese religions. Of course, the present research study should be completed by a number of others based on issues like feminism, philosophy, psychology, social justice, sociology, etc.

As we have seen in this paper, hermitic life, that has tremendously influenced the Western world, constitutes an excellent ground for the encounter of kanhwasŏn. Moreover, the present crisis of Western Christianity favors its acceptance of a tradition that may contribute to its renewal. We have also examined the reasons of the success of the Sanbo Kyodan, as well as the role played, during the last fifty years, by Jesuits working in Japan for the development of a Christian kanhwasŏn.

The firs reason of the success of the Sanbo Kyodan is the fact that its teaching has spread to the West through people that often had an outstanding first hand knowledge of Japanese language and culture. Secondly, it has a well defined Dharma lineage, proposes a step by step course of seven hundred kongans, each having a specific answer, and all its masters write commentaries on the kongans. Its also is well organized at an international level, sticks to a clear code of ethics, and is opened to a dialogue with other cultures and religions. But we have also learnt from Victor Sōgen Hori that the practice of capping(ch’akŏ 著語) should form an indispensable part of kanhwasŏn training. And we should not forget that the engaged Buddhism proposed by Thich Nhat Hanh is very successful in the West.

The study of the work done during the last fifty years by some Jesuits working in Japan allows us to say that the following elements are required for the creation of a Christian kanhwasŏn : a deep, broad and accurate knowledge of Buddhism, a thorough experience of the practice of kanhwasŏn, as well as a good understanding of the Bible, of Christian mystics, and of philosophy.

In Europe, Korean kanhwasŏn is far from being as well known as Japanese Zen. At present, nothing allows us to predict that things are susceptible of changing, let it be on the short or on the long run. So much the better if the conclusions of this paper may somehow contribute to change that situation.

Let us now enumerate some of the distinctive traits of Korean kanhwasŏn.

First, the fact that it remains unknown may play in its favor since people are often attracted by what is entirely new, especially in America.

Secondly, from the view point of the history of Buddhism, Chinul(知訥)’s tono ch’ŏmsu(頓悟漸修) doctrine is very innovative.

Thirdly, though the sudden-sudden(tono tonsu 頓悟頓修) conception of enlightenment advocated by Master Sŏngch’ŏl(性徹) has provoked a huge controversy it has also enriched Korean Buddhism and made it even more attractive.

Fourthly, the fact that Korean Buddhists and Christians each represent approximately 25% of the population of Korea constitutes a unique situation, providing exceptionally good conditions for the development of a Christian kanhwasŏn that could be exported.

Fifthly, the existence in Korea of associations of lay people(在家修行者) like the Han’guk Sŏndohoe(韓國禪道會) can serve as a model for the creation of similar groups abroad.

The encounter of kanhwasŏn with Western culture is a process that will most probably take several centuries rather than just a few decades. It is an extremely complex phenomena, the understanding of which will require the collaboration of many people during a great number of generations. Right now, among the Westerners that practice kanhwasŏn, some do it as Buddhists and others as Christians. But the two types are necessary and it would be desirable that they work together in harmony instead of clashing. That is because the coexistence of the two groups is indispensable to guarantee both the preservation of kanhwasŏn‘s specific identity and its full integration to the Occident. While the Western Christians will work at the integration of kanhwasŏn to their faith, the Western Buddhists will keep helping them to acquire a correct understanding of Buddhism. And conversely, the former will recall the latter that the Occident is not a religious tabula rasa. Needless to say that it would be of the outmost importance for the adepts of kanhwasŏn, let them be Buddhist or Christians or of any other religion, that they maintain strong ties with the Far East tradition they trace their roots back to.

Sometimes ago, I heard a French Buddhist scholar say to some people attracted by Buddhism : “Please do not come if you are not very seriously motivated.” These words came from the fear, shared by many, that Buddhism may be in danger of becoming an easy fashion. I want to say the same thing to the Westerners attracted by the practice of kanhwasŏn. But to all those that feel strongly committed to that practice, despite its difficulties, I want to communicate my certitude that, on the long run, the encounter of Far East Buddhism with Western Christianity will most probably bear fruits profitable to all humankind.

* Keywords

kanhwasŏn, Association Zen Internationale, Association Zen d’Europe, Han’guk Sŏndohoe, the sudden-sudden(tono tonsu 頓悟頓修), Sŏngch’ŏl(性徹)