Franciscan Zen – Practising Poverty

giotto francis renunciation

One of the biblical texts that appears again and again in Buddhist-Christian dialogue is the well-known hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 in which the writer speaks of a Christ who emptied himself. This idea of kenosis is appealing to those who are exploring how Christian understandings of Jesus┬ácan interact with Buddhist experience of sunyata (emptiness or void) and it is not unusual for Christian thinkers to see this experience of ‘void’ as closely akin to the experience of God. This depends, in part, on an understanding of kenosis that goes beyond a simple expression of humility in the act of incarnation and sees self-emptying as a fundamental expression of the divine. God is not ‘a being’ but being itself, empty of all form and beyond all description or intellectual apprehension. God is sheer simplicity, complete unity, without beginning or end. The distinctively Christian aspect of this would be to see this divine self-emptying as ‘for us’, an act of transforming love, but an act so complete as to be empty of duality or over-againstness. This is a complete identification with us.

But there is an aspect of this discussion that is of particular interest to Franciscans, and that is the suggestion of the language of poverty in the Philippians hymn (humility, the nature of a slave). Franciscan poverty is akin to Buddhist sunyata in that it is not only a kind of ascesis, and not only a compassionate identification with the poor, but is a mystical state of identification with Christ in his emptiness. It is a letting go of contingent things, a refusal to put one’s trust in objects, status or even ideas. All of these things are fleeting, what abides is loving emptiness. For Franciscans, the life of chosen poverty is not a concept but a practice that involves renunciation both in material terms and in spiritual ones. I think this means that the distinctive character of Franciscan┬ácontemplation is a practised renunciation of conceptual thought and the adoption of a posture of complete openness. Openness and emptiness are, I think, the same thing in relation to contemplative or meditative practice.

This is an area where I think Franciscans can take a lesson from Zen Buddhists, particularly those of the Soto tradition that is content merely to sit in a thinking-beyond-thinking. The practicalities of this practice – following the breath, adopting a stable, alert posture, letting go of thoughts as they arise – are all there to help one embody the simplicity of emptiness. In Christian terms, they are there to train us in ‘having the same mind that was in Christ Jesus’ (Phil.2:5). Zen helps me to realise that having such a mind is not a question of thinking and ideas, not even a question of doctrines, but of living a life of spiritual poverty.