Ruben Habito Interview: The Convergence of Catholicism and Zen

In both Catholicism and Zen, says Ruben Habito, there’s a stillness where no words are needed.

Lion’s Roar
9 May 2023
A hand holds a blue Catholic rosary.

Lion’s Roar: Can you tell us about your spiritual life growing up in the Philippines? 

Ruben Habito: I was born and raised in a Catholic family. We prayed the rosary together, and I found myself naturally saying the rosary in a way that enabled me to settle down and find spiritual grounding.

In my mid-teens, I began to ask big questions. I started learning about suffering and poverty. Go to Manila and you’ll immediately be confronted with people—children—sleeping in the streets. My question was how could a loving and merciful God, who’s supposed to be almighty, allow such suffering?

Stillness is the same whether you use Catholic or Buddhist words to describe it. It is not the words, but the experience, that opens our hearts to the mystery.

When I was in school, I was interested in physics and wanted to be a physicist when I grew up. I learned that if you flash a beam of light from any one place in the universe, it will go endlessly, though not in a straight line. The structure of the universe is such that it’ll curve.

So, if you flash a beam of light, sooner or later—many trillions and gazillions of years—it will eventually go back to where you started it. The universe is well structured, cohesive, interconnected, and this gave me a sense that we’re all connected.

I’d imagined a God in white robes with a white beard up in the sky, looking down over the universe from outside. But I realized the universe didn’t have room for such a figure. Free from the sense that somebody was watching over my shoulder, I felt a gap. “What’s the point of this life?” I began to ask in earnest.

I got a science scholarship from the University of the Philippines, but rather than doing my math homework, I spent more time in the library reading philosophy and religion books. I gravitated to the Catholic chapel.

There was a Jesuit who’d give sermons and talk to people. He was a hip priest—very humorous. I decided to set aside that scholarship and enter the Jesuits.

Ruben Habito. Photo courtesy of the author.

What were your Jesuit studies like?

We were given guidance in the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius, which called for a thorough process of self-examination and opening the heart to divine presence—looking at the life of Jesus and following Jesus. That was my spiritual nourishment.

Then one day we received a visit from a Jesuit priest who was assigned in Japan. He said Japan was trying to become the number one economy in the world, so they were caught in this frenzy of materialism, and it was a challenge to present the gospel there. He said they needed people to help. I felt the attraction to going to Japan and arrived there in the fall of 1970.

At the Japanese language school in Kamakura, my spiritual director was a Jesuit named Father Thomas Hand. At that time, he’d already been practicing Zen for a few years. The Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church had just concluded in 1965 with a new openness to other religions. There was a document in the Catholic Church that was promulgated called Nostra aetate. It affirms that everything that is good and true and holy in the world comes from the same God. Therefore, the task of Christians is to discover those truths so that they can be brought forth and enable us to be in conversation with our non-Christian neighbors.

I was sent to do graduate studies in Buddhism to become a faculty member at Sophia, a Jesuit University, teaching the students about Buddhist and Japanese religions.

How did you personally find a meeting place between Catholicism and Buddhism?

It took many years of sorting things out. Sometimes I was tempted to say, “All this theological stuff is too complicated! Let me just become a Zen Buddhist.” But then something in me told me, no, that’s not being true to myself. It’s a process, and I’m still in the process of articulating this, for myself, and for others as well. There’re so many ways in which we can live. A garden with many different flowers.

How are Buddhism and Catholicism similar?

Stillness is where I found a point of convergence. There’s a contemplative tradition in the Catholic Church.

Is the interpretation of stillness the same in both traditions?

Buddhism and Christianity use different words to allow people to enter into that place of stillness, but when you’re there, no words are needed. I entered through Zen, taking a posture conducive to stillness, breathing with attention, and then letting the mind be calm. That allowed me to have a taste of stillness, which I’d also found in the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. Somehow, two different sets of words—two sets of concepts—converged into the invitation to just be still and openhearted.

So, the stillness you experienced in the Catholic tradition felt the same as the stillness in the Buddhist tradition?

Stillness is the same whether you use Catholic or Buddhist words to describe it. It is not the words, but the experience, the taste of stillness, that opens our hearts to the mystery. When I try to articulate it, if I’m with Catholic friends, I use words they can understand. And, of course, when I’m with my Buddhist friends, Zen language comes very naturally from the tradition itself. If it’s a mixed group, sometimes I take a word, phrase, or image from the Christian tradition and set it in a Buddhist context or vice versa.

Words are not to be taken as absolutes. They are pointers to something beyond words, like fingers pointing to the moon. If you use words skillfully, you can enable people—whether Buddhist or Christian, or whatever religious background they may have or not have—to experience stillness. What’s most important is to steep yourself in stillness, so that you’re grounded in that, and to be opened to mystery.

How would you describe stillness to the North American reader? 

The main thing I can say comes directly from the Zen tradition. First, take a posture conducive to being still. Sit in a way that you can keep your back straight and be able to breathe well from your center of gravity, which is your lower abdomen. And from there, pay attention to each breath. Let your mind be still and rest in that stillness. Don’t analyze, don’t compare, don’t expect. Stop your mind from its discursive activity. Just allow your whole being to be still.

Open the eyes of your heart, so that you can see things as they are without obstruction.

You’ve written interfaith books such as Be Still and Know: Zen and the Bible andHealing Breath: Zen for Buddhists and Christians in a Wounded World. What other book about Buddhism do you recommend to Christians?

Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Miracle of Mindfulness is something I recommend to everybody, Buddhist or Christian. That’s a very easily digestible introduction to a life of awareness and presence.

Why is interfaith dialogue important?

I would like to encourage people of any religious tradition to leave their little silos and meet others. Amidst the differences in our words and concepts, we’re able to find kinship.

I hope that as long as I live, I’ll be able to continue being a seeker with others who are also seeking. I’ve been blessed to discover that we’re always in the midst of the eternal, the infinite, and that our lives are interconnected with everything else. What a great gift it is to be alive. The only thing we can do is to be grateful and share this touch of the infinite with everyone we meet.

Lion's Roar

Lion’s Roar

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