Teachings of a Jesuit Zen master
Roshi Robert Kennedy SJ led a group of 28 participants in a Zen retreat at the Dominican Retreat Centre, Tallaght, Dublin from 25 to 30 August 2022. Each day, the retreat involved several hours of silent sitting and silent walking meditation along with evening Mass, helping participants to experience calm, clarity and peace. Roshi Kennedy, an Irish-American Zen master and Jesuit priest, gave a number of formal and informal talks throughout the five-day retreat. Read his teachings below:
- Roshi quoted a Zen author who spoke of compassion as ‘suffering together’ and noted that Zen practice moves people to be more compassionate in the world. Roshi spoke of the present as intimately connected to the future, e.g., the silent sitting meditation known as zazen can be seen as preparation for the goodness that will be released into the world.
- Roshi referred to a Zen master who told his monks that he would be away from the monastery for a month, leaving them to wonder who he would put in charge. There was a very wise monk there, but he wanted to put someone else in charge. He wished to choose a leader who embodied ‘grandmotherly care’. The Zen master had to reiterate his wish to the monks as they thought he meant ‘grandfatherly care’. It was fitting that the designated head monk at the Zen retreat was of a grandmotherly age and presence. She sat next to Roshi Kennedy in the meditation hall and was noted to wish participants a gentle night sleep after an all-day sitting.
- At the final Mass, Roshi spoke of Zen as a way to tune into God’s grace and love (St Ignatius Loyola) and that the purpose of zazen is to do God’s will. There were plenty of silences during Mass and Roshi’s ‘beautiful face’ was observed as he appeared to empty himself. He talked about looking out the window before Mass while the group was doing silent walking meditation known as kinhin. On the one hand, he observed that the line was a little crooked! On the other hand, he saw that the participants looked stunningly beautiful. He also said, in what seemed like an emotional moment, that it was a privilege to be with everyone.
- Roshi encouraged participants to “remember the spirit” of the retreat. It was thought that many people brought the normal challenging stresses of their lives into the retreat, that they were able to courageously sit through the hard labour of meditation, and were led to calm, clarity and peace by the end of the retreat. A strong bond was also formed among the group.
- Roshi spoke of how the precepts of Buddhism may help people to be more engaged in caring for the environment. He acknowledged his own need for someone to teach him in this area so that he can become more ecologically aware. He said that related books and resources need to make things practical for people. He encouraged participants in their capacity for change. For example, he referred to one of his own Zen teachers, Roshi Glassman in New York, who evolved from wearing flashy Zen robes earlier in his teaching to helping people on the streets and smelling like a buffalo later in his life! Moreover, Roshi Kennedy told participants that they must ultimately find their own vision rather than follow someone else’s.
After Roshi’s teachings, the participants responded by encouraging him in his work as a teacher and leader and emphasising his profound influence as a person. One lady, for instance, spoke of how he has helped her and others be more grounded and connected to Mother Earth. Roshi Miriam Healy, an Irish Zen master and former student of Roshi Kennedy, said he is like a graceful swan in how he lives his life. There was a tangible amount of respect for him in the meditation hall. At the end of the retreat, he said in good humour: “Enough of this love-making, let’s eat!”
Gavin Thomas Murphy of Irish Jesuit Communications was one of the participants at the five-day Zen retreat. He shares his experience:
“I noticed during zazen that I sometimes got distracted with ‘magical displays’ or a fantasy world. For example, a nagging thought could easily escalate to a disturbing feeling and image, leading me away from reality. But I discovered that I could ask direct and explorative questions of my experience. I could see it from multiple perspectives or a three-dimensional point of view. I could sit with it in silence until its power diminished. This brought great peace and freedom.
The Zen retreat also helped me to connect more with my environment. The quiet burning candles in the retreat centre reminded me of my own mellow flame of love; the cool air that effortlessly came in and out of my body during morning kinhin left me awestruck; a glass of water before zazen refreshed and nourished me with its purity; and the insects that came upon me while meditating under an old walnut tree made me realise our shared make-up. I saw the world as less threatening with a greater openness to love through getting in touch with our universal nature.”
Roshi Robert Kennedy SJ remains in Ireland for the month of September 2022. He is attending the meditation sittings at Earth + Sky Dojo (meditation hall) » in Upper Gardiner Street, Dublin. The general public are welcome to attend.