I like the way this guy operates. He’s Travis Fitzgold, a Lutheran pastor and director of the Zen Learning Project (ZLP), a spiritual practice community in Austin. Texas, and he helped me figure out what this blog is about (even though I’ve never met him and I’m sure he’s never read it). You might even say I experienced a moment of Zen when I read a handout on “Zen Practice for Lutheran Christians” he prepared for a breakout session at a regional conference of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America.
You see, I’ve been billing Ordinary Time as a “Zen Lutheran lectionary,” but I’ve never been sure how those pieces fit together.
So now comes Fitzgold, director of ZLP, a spiritual practice community in Austin. He offered his workshop at ELCA’s Southwest Texas Synod Assembly in Corpus Christi back in June. (An ELCA synod is a regional body, like a Catholic diocese or a Methodist conference, and the assembly is its annual conference.) His handout on Zen practice is available on the synod’s website.
And, bingo, it gave me a little flash of insight into how a Zen Lutheran lectionary might operate in ordinary time (which I define, no doubt too loosely, as the portion of the church year after Christmas, Easter and Pentecost when the focus is more on the Holy Spirit at work). I can’t say I experienced satori, or enlightenment. Guys like me don’t do things like that, and if we do, we’re not comfortable talking about it. But it was definitely a breakthrough.
Fitzgold’s handout consists largely of quotes from Martin Luther and 20th-century teachers of the Zen Buddhist tradition. Several of them jumped off the page (well, OK, out from the computer screen) at me. Like these, under the heading “Everyday Work and Zazen [meditation]”:
Luther. “…the works of monks and priests, be they never so holy and arduous, differ no whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic toiling in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before Him by faith alone…” (Babylonian Captivity of the Church, loc. 7962).
Shunryu Suzuki. “Zen is not some kind of excitement, but concentration on our usual everyday routine” (Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, p. 42).
Charlotte Joko Beck. “Zen is a lifelong study. It isn’t just sitting on a cushion for thirty or forty minutes a day. Our whole life becomes practice, twenty-four hours a day” (Everyday Zen: Love and Work, p. 5).
I tend to think of Buddhism and Christianity as being complementary systems of belief and practice — where one leaves off, the other picks up — and not at all the same thing. But all of these quotes resonated with me. Especially the part about not sitting in formal zazen meditation for 30 or 40 minutes at a whack. I’ve tried meditation (zazen means “just sitting,” but all the the protocol strikes me as way too detailed and exacting). I just don’t have the time, or the patience, to master it.
But the idea of finding enlightenment in everyday life is something I first stumbled on 20-25 years ago when I was “working the steps” in a 12-step recovery program. And it was life-changing.
At the time, I was reading a lot of Zen authors — including Suzuki — but I didn’t call it enlightenment. Instead, I called it serenity. Now, having absorbed (hopefully) at least some of the basics of Catholic spiritual traditions, I’m more inclined to call it an awareness of the presence of God and my place in the order of God’s creation. For all practical purposes, I think it’s basically the same thing. Saying this may involve me in some kind of a heresy, but I think it’s not far off from what Luther meant when he talked about salvation and justification.
(A tangent: When I was working the steps, one of the old-timers said to me, “I can’t tell you what salvation is, but I’ve seen it around the tables in Alcoholics Anonymous.” It stayed with me, especially when 16th- to 19th-century pettifogging about the precise nature of salvation, justification and sanctification seemed pretty far removed from my day-to-day existence. So maybe it’s not a tangent after all.)
Anyway, Travis Fitzgold’s Zen meditation session at the ELCA conference in Texas addressed issues that have been on my mind lately. So I did a couple of keyword searches — I Google everything — and found a promotional video on YouTube for his Zen Learning Project in Austin. It was an interview by Albert Allen, a local realtor whose son takes tennis lessons at ZLP, and Fitzgold mentioned something in passing (at 1:50) that crystalized issues I’ve been wrestling with:
Even though I sit [meditate] in a setting that comes from a Soto Zen tradition, my methodology is not strictly aligned with any Zen lineage. Instead we focus on mindfulness. So it’s a bit of an oversimplification of the nature of Zen, but we’re just focusing on a practice of [engaging with] the present moment.
My takeaway: If they don’t worry about oversimplification at the Zen Learning Project in Austin, maybe I don’t have to worry (at least not too much) about it on my little blog in Springfield, Illinois On the Learning Project’s website, Fitzgold elaborates on what he told Allen:
ZLP is, strictly speaking, not Zen. The Zen tradition extends many years into the past and has developed along particular lineages throughout the world. ZLP is not part of any of these lineages, although founder Travis Fitzgold regularly references the Soto Zen tradition as brought to the USA by Shunryu Suzuki Roshi. ZLP focuses on the practice of mindfulness as a methodology of learning, and hence the name Zen Learning Project.
Instead of meditation, ZLP focuses on teaching tennis and music to youngsters. A USPTA (US Professional Tennis Association)-certified instructor, Fitzgold aims to teach the kids “fundamentals of stroke production, point strategy, body awareness, focus, gratitude, and generosity.” And his guitar students learn “creative expression, enjoyment, and mindfulness while conversing through music” in addition to technique. All of this, even the tennis, is Zen. Fitzgold explains:
The mission of Zen Learning Project (ZLP) is to practice mindfulness in the arts. We practice together through arts such as music, tennis, sitting, and walking. Any activity can be artful, even our everyday ordinary activities. Traditional Zen practice pursues the arts of sitting, walking, tea ceremony, flower arranging, and archery as mediums of awakening. At ZLP, we practice together today, supporting each other along the journey.
Mindfulness. That rang another bell. Originally a Buddhist concept (Theravada vipassanā, not Zen, if you want to get technical about it), it’s all over the popular culture, and mass market publications like Time magazine do cover stories explaining it’s more than a “New Age retread of previous prescriptions for stress.” I’ve even been exposed to it at “Tao of Dulcimer” retreats conducted by roots musician and T’ai Chi master Don Pedi of western North Carolina. Lutheran Family and Children’s Services of Missouri has a brief survey posted with the counseling resources on its blog for clients:
While mindfulness is about being rather than doing, it requires a lot of effort to begin to practice. Practice can be loosely broken into formal and informal practice. A formal practice (meditation) involves sitting quietly for a specific period of time and focusing on your breath or on a word or prayer. When your mind wanders, simply notice where it has gone and gently, in a non-judgmental way, bring it back to the focus you have chosen.
Informal practice means bringing mindfulness to any of your daily activities. For example, what if you focused on all of the sensations you experienced while taking a shower in the morning, gently bringing your mind back each time you started to think about something else? Would you experience your shower in a different way? What if you brought that same attention to each conversation you had throughout the day? Would it change your relationships?
I don’t want to sail under false colors here. By citing a Lutheran social service agency’s website, I don’t want to imply that mindfulness is a Lutheran spiritual practice. The article is posted under LFCS’ counseling resources. And it cites Full Catastrophe Living, an influential, purposefully secular book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder and director of the stress reduction program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, as well as No Man is an Island by Thomas Merton. But LFCS is affiliated with ELCA and recognized by the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
And, most important of all for my purposes, the discussion of informal meditation practice by Travis Fitzgold and by Lutheran Family and Children’s Services of Missouri, taken together, gives me a fresh context for what a Zen Lutheran lectionary might look like from day to day.
References and links:
Albert Allen, “Zen Learning Project | Austin, Texas,” interview with Travis Fitzgold, Aug. 11, 2018, YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gtme_o9UXQY.
Travis Fitzgold, “Zen Practice for Lutheran Christians,” Southwest Texas Synod Assembly, ELCA, 2019 https://swtsynod.org/i/events/Travis_Fitzgold_Zen_Practice_For.pdf.
Don Pedi, “2020 The Way of the Dulcimer Spring Retreat: Spring & Fall Retreats at Wildacres Retreat Center in the mountains of Western North Carolina,” Don Pedi Music & Art http://www.donpedi.com/calendar-special-events-Tao-of-Dulcimer.htm#Special_Events.
Kate Pickert. “The Mindful Revolution,” Time, Jan. 23, 2014 https://time.com/1556/the-mindful-revolution/.