I’ve always wanted to be spiritual, but I have trouble believing things,” I said, smiling nervously at the robe-clad Zen Buddhism teacher. We were sitting together in a small room for a one-on-one conversation about my Zen meditation practice.

He chuckled. “So, I guess Zen is perfect for you.”

The year was 2011, and I was 36 years old. I had been practicing Zen Buddhism for three years and had traveled to Kentucky to attend my first meditation retreat, a weekend event held at a Zen center near Lexington. The retreat schedule was tough. We sat in meditation from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., broken up by short periods of walking meditation, meals, and chores. Everything was to be done in silence.

Zen was the latest chapter in my lifelong spiritual quest. That quest had begun during my teenage years, when I realized that my Hindu ancestry—passed down by Indian immigrant parents—need not dictate my own faith. As I became aware of alternative belief systems, I realized that I was an agnostic: I honestly didn’t know what to believe. So I dropped the Hindu label and committed to discovering for myself the ultimate truth.

Growing up in Houston, I learned the basics of Christianity through friends and neighbors. I also spent part of my childhood in the United Kingdom, where Christian prayer, hymns, and sermons were part of regular school activities. My Hindu parents always spoke respectfully about Christian beliefs. They would go (and encourage me to go) to church with friends when invited.

But it wasn’t until I got to college that I came to know Jesus through my evangelical Christian friends. I observed how their faith gave them peace and strength during difficult times. And every time I heard about God’s far-reaching love for us, demonstrated through Christ’s sacrifice, I wanted to weep. But while my heart was ready to take the leap, my inner skeptic—the stubbornly agnostic, somewhat smart-alecky part of my brain—held me back.

In my late 20s, I joined a church with the hope of nurturing the seeds of faith that lay dormant within me. During that time, there were moments when I truly did embrace what the Bible says about Jesus. But inevitably, my inner skeptic would pipe up with its doubts, and I would find myself backtracking to appease it. It’s more plausible that Jesus was just a great teacher, and that the Resurrection is just a metaphor, I’d tell myself. And I don’t need to accept all of Scripture, only the parts that resonate with me.

Several years later—with my head and heart still at spiritual loggerheads—I quit going to church and began to explore Zen Buddhism.

Less than 1 percent of the US population identifies as Buddhist, and an even smaller fraction identifies as Zen Buddhist, especially considering Zen’s aversion to labels. But it’s a path that many spiritual seekers have found appealing. Many of the people I got to know through my Zen practice had turned away from Christian upbringings to seek answers in Zen.

My inner skeptic was intrigued by the possibility that Zen might provide a spiritual path that didn’t require specific beliefs. Buddhists generally don’t view the Buddha as divine. He was a human teacher. The name Buddha simply means an awakened or enlightened person—a status that, in theory, anyone can achieve through practice.

And Zen—at least the American flavor of it that I experienced—goes further, de-emphasizing even traditional Buddhist beliefs like rebirth or karma. Some Zen Buddhists do hold these beliefs, and teachers may refer to them; but as one of my Zen teachers put it, “They’re optional.” (Stubborn skeptic that I was, I opted out.)

Fundamentally, Zen is a practice, and its core is meditation—sitting still and focusing attention on something. One straightforward option is focusing on one’s breath, often by counting it. Alternatively, some Zen teachers encourage practicing with a koan—a paradoxical statement, riddle, or story that is supposed to confront the student with the inadequacy of analytical thinking. “Solving” a koan requires insight that goes beyond the limits of reason.

Regardless of the specifics, meditation gives one a front-row seat to observe one’s “monkey mind”—the inner monologue that is constantly blabbering, engaging in elaborate arguments, and singing 80s songs—as it tries to hijack attention away from the focus of meditation. As I started practicing Zen meditation, I slowly got better at directing my attention. I found that anchoring my attention to my breath could give me some distance from the antics of my monkey mind, helping me stay grounded in stressful situations.

This benefit isn’t unique to Zen or Buddhism. I suspect most mental health professionals would tell you that it can be obtained from learning secular mindfulness skills, or from any spiritual discipline that trains the attention. But Zen practice aspires to more than psychological benefits. It aspires to a direct encounter with the nature of reality that cannot be expressed in words or concepts.

Article continues below

As Dogen, a Japanese Zen teacher from the 13th century, put it, “To study the Buddha Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe.” In Zen, I imagined that I could indulge the radical agnosticism of my inner skeptic by sitting still and taking a deep, honest look at the present reality—including the state of my own mind—just as it is.

In doing so, I hoped to eventually see through the walls of my ego, let go of my biased and limited ideas, and experience the raw, ultimate truth. Such a mystical experience wouldn’t be a one-way door to spiritual awakening. But over time, the cumulative insight from my meditation practice—integrated into my life, into the world of words and concepts—would help me grow spiritually. It would help me become more fully present and alive in each moment, less prone to causing suffering for myself or others, and increasingly able to discern exactly what was needed in every situation.

Over the next 12 years, I practiced Zen meditation daily and attended numerous meditation retreats. I grew to enjoy the natural beauty of the retreat center in rural Kentucky, and I was touched by the hospitality, sincerity, and authenticity of the staff there. The meditation itself, however, could be unpleasant. There was physical pain and boredom. There were distressing thoughts and feelings that I couldn’t act on or distract myself from. But periodically, my inner monologue would ebb, accompanied by a heightened awareness of the chirping birds, the croaking frogs, or the rain striking the roof. Those moments were beautiful.

Still, I didn’t experience any spiritual breakthroughs. I never solved any koans, and I certainly didn’t feel “enlightened by all things of the universe.”

Frustrated but still determined, I started making plans to attend a month-long Zen retreat in the fall of 2020. I figured I just needed my monkey mind to shut up long enough for me to finally catch a direct glimpse into the ultimate truth—and I was convinced that a month of silent meditation ought to do it.

But that wasn’t God’s plan.

When the world shut down in 2020, the retreat was canceled. As the fear and isolation of the following months brought me to the brink of a mental health crisis, something shifted profoundly within me. I found comforting Bible verses floating through my mind. I found myself inexplicably drawn in by Christian videos I found online, including a Max Lucado bible study. Frustrations with Zen aside, I didn’t feel I was being drawn away from Zen as much as I was being drawn toward Jesus.

Article continues below

I spent the summer and fall of 2020 exploring online and outdoor church services. That Christmas, I was ready: I fully committed my life to Jesus. It was the spiritual breakthrough I had hoped to get from the month-long Zen retreat, better than anything that I could have imagined—and it was done God’s way, not my way.

As further evidence that God uses all things for good, my detour through Zen has solidified my faith in Jesus. My inner skeptic, having finally learned that its radical agnosticism is a dead end, was done trying to run the show. While doubts still arise, I no longer stay stuck in them. Instead, I come back to what my heart knows: Jesus is the Son of God and Savior of the world, not just a great teacher. The Resurrection is not just a metaphor. And no part of Scripture is optional.

Over the past few years, I’ve had a chance to reflect on the difference between Zen meditation and Christian practices like contemplation or biblical meditation. The key difference is that the Christian practices are anchored in the knowledge of God through Scripture and faith.

In Zen, I often felt alone in the trenches with my darkest thoughts and feelings. And even the most beautiful moments I experienced during meditation—those moments of delight in God’s creation—were useless without a compelling framework to process and integrate them into my life. In contrast, when I meditate on God’s Word and presence, the Holy Spirit sustains me in the trenches, and Scripture provides the framework to understand my experience.

Despite Zen’s downplaying of words and concepts, I suspect that many Zen practitioners at least implicitly use traditional Buddhist teachings as their framework for understanding their meditation experience. If that’s the case, then—even in Zen—spiritual understanding doesn’t just come about by directly experiencing reality, free from any preconceptions, as my inner skeptic had hoped. The conceptual lens through which we view our experiences matters immensely.

Article continues below

All told, you could say that I was a terrible Zen student. After more than a decade of Zen practice, after daily Zen meditation and numerous retreats, after hours upon hours of sitting with uncomfortable thoughts and feelings, I came no closer to understanding the ultimate truth and having it transform me spiritually. And rather than patiently persevering, using my spiritual disappointment and the challenges of 2020 as fodder for my Zen practice, I threw in the towel and turned to Jesus.

What I can confidently say, though, is that I gave Zen my best effort. And my best effort wasn’t good enough to save me.

Only Jesus could do that.

Sita Slavov is a professor of public policy at George Mason University and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.