Karma Chameleon: From Zen Practitioner to Episcopal Bishop

“The lay ordination was a welcoming rite for me to commit myself to the path to discover why I suffer or why other people suffer,” Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester told the Times of London shortly after his election as bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern Michigan on February 21. Forrester went on to explain that he took jukai—the lay ordination rite of Zen Buddhism—“[T]o use the practice of meditation to help that suffering.”

These days Forrester’s practice is being mightily tested. His embrace of Zen meditation has riled conservatives in his denomination, and prompted close scrutiny of the process of discernment Forrester himself led that produced his name as the sole candidate for the post left vacant by the death of the diocese’s previous bishop, Rev. Jim Kelsey, in June 2007.

Forrester’s election must be ratified within 120 days by a majority of bishops and diocesan standing committees in the Episcopal Church before he can officially assume his new role. Defenders of orthodoxy—both Episcopal and at large—have leaped through that window of opportunity hoping to thwart what they see as yet another effort by progressives to weaken the foundations of Christian faith.

“The bottom line is that Forrester has embraced something foreign and contradictory,” wrote Greg Griffith, a blogger at the conservative Anglican Web site Stand Firm in Faith. “Call it a faith, call it a philosophy, call it what you will but it is not Christianity. One simply cannot embrace the doctrines of Buddhism—Zen or any other flavor—and simultaneously embrace the doctrines of Christianity.”

“The reality is that this particular meditative practice is not in step with Christian doctrine,” concurred James Tonkowich, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, a think tank with ties to the neo-conservative movement and a history of exploiting wedge issues in order to widen rifts in mainline Protestant denominations. “The issue is not whether meditation is good,” Tonkowich said, “it is what is being meditated on.”

So what, exactly, does Rev. Forrester meditate on? In an interview with Religion News Service, he said that in his daily meditation, he doesn’t think about Buddhism or Zen philosophy. In fact, he tries not to think about anything at all.

That’s consistent with the “Rules for Zazen” established by Dogen Zenji, the 13th-century Japanese master who founded the Soto School of Zen Buddhism—the practice lineage at the Lake Superior Zendo, where Forrester is a member. “After having regulated your posture,” Dogen instructed, “exhale completely and take a breath. Sway your body from left to right a few times and settle into a steady, immobile sitting position. Now think of not-thinking. How do you think of not-thinking? Not thinking. This in itself is the essential art of zazen.”

And how does cultivating the art of zazen relate to Forrester’s Christian faith?

“My practice is simply sitting in the presence of God,” Forrester told RNS. “When thoughts arise I let them go and return to being in the presence of God.”

Forrester’s description of his contemplative life places him squarely in a tradition of practice with a long history in both Zen and Christianity. Kuei-feng Tsung-mi, a 9th-century master of Ch’an (the Chinese precursor to Japanese Zen), described five different aspirations that might attract a practitioner to Buddhist meditation. “Gedo” or “outside way” practice is the aspiration of someone who sees zazen as a natural complement to spiritual discipline in a non-Buddhist religious tradition.

And in a statement issued through his diocese’s Web site, Forrester linked his integration of Zen meditation and Christian piety to the spiritual path blazed by a well-known cohort of Catholic contemplatives in the recent past. “I am thankful for the pioneering work of Thomas Merton in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue,” Forrester said. “I am also thankful for the current elders in our Christian tradition, such as Thomas Keating and David Steindl-Rast, whose practice of meditation (like that of Merton) deepened their own contemplative life and led them to explore the sacramental common ground we share through the grace of God.”

Forrester and Merton and the rest of their ilk acknowledge their debt to the 13th-century German mystic Meister Eckhart, who said, “To be empty of things is to be full of God.” Eckhart, in turn, traced his form of practice to the earliest, pre-canonical Christian communities, whose meditative prayers survive only as remnant scraps in authorized biblical texts, like this addendum to Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself empty.”

That passage has inspired theologizing as complex as a circuit diagram for the Large Hadron Collider, but the implication is simple if your religious impulse leads you toward contemplation rather than doctrine: thinking obscures what you’re after and non-thinking reveals it.

Forrester might have anticipated the storm of criticism that his non-doctrinaire approach to spiritual practice has seeded among conservatives. Half a lifetime ago, the 51-year-old former Catholic took as his mentor the renegade theologian Charles Curran, who lost his position on the faculty of the Catholic University of America in 1986 for refusing to recant his dissident positions on issues as diverse as papal authority, in vitro fertilization and homosexuality.

Though his spiritual path led him away from Catholicism and eventually to quiet parish life in one of the least populous Episcopal dioceses—there are fewer than 2,000 members in the diocese of Northern Michigan—Forrester’s early acquaintance with torch-and-pitchfork conservatism has turned out to be merely a prelude to his current predicament.

Call it karma.

My hope for Forrester is that the uninformed opinions of critics like Greg Griffith and the predations of James Tonkowich at IRD inspire progressive Episcopalians (I hear there are a few) to make a “Have you no shame, Senator?” stand against modern-day Pharisees who see the silver thread of the Christian contemplative tradition about as clearly as they see Dark Matter or the Oort Cloud.

I also hope he carefully considers his own attachments. Contrary to what orthodox Christians want to believe, Forrester, by taking jukai, has not made the Buddha’s enlightenment his spiritual home. Tokudo, the Zen Buddhist ritual marking that transformation, entails shaving the head and wearing the robe of a Buddhist monk. The would-be bishop who has run to the edge of the world is still hanging on to his hair—and clinging to the top of a hundred-foot pole.