Ruben L.F. HABITO.  Be Still and Know: Zen & the Bible.  Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2017.  Pp. 194.  $24.00 pb. ISBN 978-1-62698-215-4.  Reviewed by James BRETZKE, S.J., Boston College School of Theology & Ministry, Chestnut Hill, MA 02467.


Not long after the 1989 publication by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)’s monitum on serious concerns regarding Zen meditation and other suspect practices I had stopped off  in Japan on my way back to Korea after having completed my doctorate in Confucian Christian ethics, and as I was about to embark in a related field of inter-religious dialogue I wanted to learn what my Jesuit colleagues at Tokyo’s Sophia University had to say about this magisterial document.  That they were unconvinced by the document would be rather an understatement, and the general response was that whoever penned the missive had very little understanding and even less experience with that which was being condemned as a dangerous attempt to “to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian” [emphasis in the original]. (Cf. Letter To The Bishops Of The Catholic Church On Some Aspects Of Christian Meditation, 15 October 1989, still on the Vatican web-site at

After reading Ruben Habito’s latest book in this area of “fusion” of the Christian with the Zen I wonder if the Roman fears of a generation ago could be laid to rest (or at least significantly ameliorated)?  I hope the answer would be in the affirmative as H. has given us a gentle, yet masterful account of some of the very practical ways in which the treasures of the Bible could be mined more deeply using some of the approaches found in Zen.  H. himself is very much a bridge builder: Filipino, a Jesuit for 24 years, serving in Japan, and then after leaving the Jesuits a long-time “married with children” spiritual director and retreat giver at the Maria Kannon Zen Center and professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas.

While some prior basic knowledge of Zen or Buddhism might be helpful it certainly is not required as the book is quite accessible to anyone coming out of the Judeo-Christian tradition.  The short volume is organized into an Introduction, Conclusion, and four chapters which consider in turn Psalms 46 and 23, and two sections from Matthew’s Gospel (the Parable of the Hidden Treasure Mt 13:44-46 and the notion of beatitude in Mt. 5).  H. begins and ends with a charge he recalls from his own Japanese Zen teacher, Yamada Koun Roshi, “’The words and ideas you have heard from me to guide you in your Zen practice derive from the Buddhist religious tradition.  But as you go back to your communities and they ask you about Zen, learn to use language that your Christian audience may readily understand.  You must therefore familiarize yourself with your own Bible and bring out whatever would be effective pointers that you may find there, so they too may experience for themselves the world of Zen, which, as you know, is ultimately beyond all words and concepts’.” (p. ix, and recalled on p. 171).  H. has been both very faithful and quite fruitful in fulfilling this mandate.

What the reader will take away is a deeper appreciation for the divine Truth and Presence that grounds every legitimate religious tradition.  H. is not arguing either for syncretism or indifferentism, but rather he builds on the reality of the sensus plenior that allows for the Bible always to lead us to greater and deeper real truths if we can leave behind some of our preconceptions, biases, and limitations that conspire to skew our vision of what God is actually trying to show us.

For me the most helpful chapter was the one dealing with “beatitude” as H. brought together the Zen cosmology with that of Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount.  Those who are pronounced “blessed” are so designated not for what they have “done” but for who they are, i.e., they are “blessed, just as they are.  What is the message for us ?” (p. 118).  This means that we remain in God’s eyes “accepted just as we are, in and through our own struggles, in and through our failures, as well as whatever we may consider our successes.  These are aspects of the blessing that we are” (p. 122).  A Zen-inspired Christian meditation practice then might help us realize that even in a “time of grief, perhaps an important message was being conveyed to us, but we were too preoccupied with grief to be able to recognize or appreciate it?” (p. 123).

A Zen “koan” is an enigma or riddle somewhat like Jesus’ use of the parable.  H. describes a koan as “a challenge that, on its surface, seems to be an insoluble contradiction.  How can I be truly blessed when there are still so many issues unresolved in my life …?  This is the koan stated plain and simple, which each of us may be able to identify with.  Zen invites us to simply sit with this and ‘be one’ with it.  Be still, and know” (pp. 124-125).  This sort of stillness is not sectarian or denominational since it opens the ears of all who would hear to the deeper message of God’s love.