Enlightenment in Black

For the priest Christoforos Schuff and the Zen monk Saazen Larsen, prayer, meditation and rituals are an important part of life. But if faith does not show itself in action, then they don’t think it’s worth much.

Text: Hans Ivar Stordal ‖ Photos: Lars Verket

“I am not more spiritual when I sit in deep meditation here in the temple than when I am teaching mathematics”, says Saazen Larsen, the zen-buddhist monk in the Norwegian Sotozen Order in Vågdsbygd [Norway].

“I totally agree,” nods the man on the chair next to him, Father Christoforos Schuff, priest in the Orthodox Church at Greipstad in Songdalen. “We can’t differentiate between the physical,everyday life and spirituality. They are intertwined.”

MEN IN BLACK. Larsen is from Kristiansand and Schuff is from California, but now they live only a few kilometers from each other, and both of them host a congregation regularly in a remodeled room in their own homes. Both have turned towards the East to set their spiritual roots and both have taken new names. The one is close-shaved, the other has long hair and a beard, but both are dressed in long black robes, signifying their roles as priests.

I use these clothes about 95% of the time, says Schuff, and tells that the way he’s dressed often leads to conversations on the street. “Some people come up and want to almost confess then and there.”

“’Cool clothes,’ is what they say to me,” laughs Larsen.

SPIRITUAL DAILY LIFE. The two sit in a small temple with a high ceiling in the annex of a white farmhouse in Vågsbygd. The spring sun is shining down on the carpet through the colorful cloth curtains that cover the walls. Behind them is an altar covered with decorations and symbols: lamps, candlesticks, incense holders, and a small golden statue of Buddha.

“Can I light some incense?” asks Schuff, something he is readily allowed to do. 

Normally Larsen works as a teacher at a high school in Kristiansand, something which, according to him, “means I wear a different style of clothing than this.” Outside of work he meditates regularly and holds services in the temple, in addition to the celebration of Buddha’s birthday, marriages, and recently also a confirmation. But the spiritual life is a part of everything.

“When I am at school, I am a teacher, but also spiritual and a Buddhist. Spirituality is an abstract dimension which is difficult to see – you need to know what to look for,” says Larsen, who also points out that it’s not about special clothes or burning incense.

“In the case of Buddhism, spirituality is first and foremost about our relationship to ourselves, about being a good human being, and of course about our relationship to Buddha’s teaching.”

“Once someone came into my kitchen while I was standing there with my electric guitar,” says Schuff, “and they said, ‘Do you play the electric guitar? I thought you were spiritual…’ Well, we all have our prejudices, I thought,” laughs Schuff.

INNER PRAYER. Schuff also has a contrast-filled daily life where he juggles family life, farm and forest work, and music and art activities together with the obligations of his role as a priest.

“When I have time, daily life can have many rituals, while in other periods, there are very few. The rituals can be very rewarding, but sometimes it can be freeing to not have to do them.”

But Schuff’s not talking about the normal, modern press for time. He has just returned from the island of Lesvos in Greece, where the largest number of refugees have been arriving to Europe. He led a refugee site there for about six  months.

“I’ve been getting about four to six hours of sleep many nights, and I’ve constantly been working with many different people to find solutions for all kinds of things,” says Schuff, who has been working intensely for a long time with both refugees and other vulnerable groups, such as the Roma in Kristiansand. At these times he has found strength in a different kind of prayer.

“In the Orthodox Church we have something we call ‘inner prayer’-- to pray silently with no words. I don’t want to say that I’m good at this, because we shouldn’t talk too much about our own prayers or fasts. But, I have experienced that to the degree I have done this, it has given me strength,” says Schuff.

Larsen and Schuff both are a part of faiths that emphasize repetitive rituals, such as worship or regular prayers.

“When one has taken on the role of a monk, it does not mean that all the rituals are a lot of fun,” explains Larsen. “At the same time, they are a part of the reason we are where we are. We find them meaningful; they give meaning to our lives.”

NO BORDERS. “Humanity is seeking to be ‘at peace’,“ says Schuff. “It’s a beautiful word in Norwegian, ‘tilfreds’ [ENG. ‘content’, ‘at peace’ in NOR.]. But sometimes people become completely destroyed by trying to follow a huge amount of religious rituals, prohibitions, and commandments. Then I might tell them that they need to stop. ‘Yeah, but I need to pray from the prayer book,’ they say, and I might answer, ‘But that hasn’t helped you at all!’“

When he decided to follow the path of becoming a priest, it was especially the Orthodox Church’s combination of the practical and the mystical that spoke to him, also in the rituals.

“Sometimes the long text readings give me nothing. But sometimes something suddenly sticks out that reminds me of an essential principle or something of the sort. So perhaps some of the listeners have similar experiences while I recite something that may have grown mundane to me?”

What do your practices such as prayer, meditation, and worship mean for your everyday lives?

“During Zen meditation, body and mind come into balance. But as a teacher there are times when you just have to count to ten. Some people seem to think that a zen monk should remain tranquil at all times, like a zombie that never reacts to anything. That’s not the way life is. But if I sat next to myself as a 24-year-old recent world champion in martial arts, I would be able to see the difference. My temper is just as short today--that’s our genetics. But my practice and my relationship to Buddha’s teaching is reflected in my life – I hope.”

GOD KNOWS. “If people ask me whether or not I’m a Christian,

I often answer, ‘God knows’,” says Christoforos Schuff.

HOLY APATHY. “I’ve also had a much shorter temper before,” says Schuff. “The Orthodox tradition has helped me to control this, but also to be able to let things go: for example, to let go of others’ reactions, or to let go of being right.”

He relates that if he is accused of something, even if  unfairly, that he tries to answer with a simple: “Forgive me and pray for me”, instead of defending himself.

“In the Orthodox tradition there is something we call ‘holy apathy’. This is meant positively, and means among other things to see the meaninglessness in many things we tend to value highly, like our reputation or material things.”

Schuff tells us how this has also helped him the last six months on Lesvos, where he has seen a lot of death and misery.

“I have experienced how I can have deep empathy without allowing myself to be sucked in so strongly that I become useless. Instead of allowing this empathy to suck out all my energy, I can use it for something good.”

Schuff has experienced how this tranquility comes from the spiritual practice of prayer, meditation, and breathing techniques.

“10 – 15 years ago I would never be able to react in such a way as I do today.”

NO WALL. “In such conversations we find that there is no wall between us,

neither do we need to build one,” says Saazen Larsen.

REASONS TO BE ANGRY. But are you allowed sometimes to become angry and to not react in a balanced way?

“Then you’ve misunderstood the term ‘balanced’,” answers Larsen quickly. “People believe it’s about feeling only love and joy--that it’s about being ‘balanced’ until one becomes entirely useless. No, in this world there are things you need to react to,” says Larsen emphatically.

Schuff knows more than many about this “holy anger,” which arises on behalf of the weakest and demands action.

“In Greece the police are arresting everyone as they arrive. Small children and thousands of people are incarcerated. I think that’s a good reason to become angry.”

He went to a demonstration against the police with signs with the provocative words, “Fuck Injustice and God Damn the War.”

“I don’t use such words about people, but about systems,” explains the priest. He gave a brief speech to the police where he encouraged them to show civil disobedience.

“Even though I didn’t say anything mean or use foul language, I surprised myself by the intensity of my voice, to be me.”

“You weren’t exactly violent though, probably?” interjects Larsen dryly.

“No, I didn’t exactly hit anybody with the microphone,” laughs Schuff. “But it’s about finding a balance. Am I acting in way that promotes peace? That’s what I want to do. And at the same time, I am enraged by the injustice.”

“The day that there is no reason to be angry, is the day that the world has become a very good place to be,” adds Larsen.

OUT INTO LIFE. You both say that prayer and meditation give you strength. But does it also go the other way, that your inner spiritual life also is empowered by outer actions and experiences?

“First and foremost, I don’t like to place a division between these things,” says Schuff.“To be active socially or politically, or to make music or art… all of this is a part of the spiritual life for me.”

This engages Larsen: “We cannot divide intention from action. We can think very merciful thoughts, but if we don’t do something with them, then what are they worth? All religions have a faith, but if that faith does not show itself through action, then there is no point to this faith or in Buddha’s teachings,” says Larsen emphatically and adds, “Now I’m getting so excited that I’m about to lose my balance here.”

“That brings to mind the letter of James in the Bible,” says Schuff, “‘Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works… faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.’ If love and love for our neighbor remains an idea, it is completely worthless.”

ENLIGHTENMENT. What would you both say to a layperson who feels that the gap between faith and everyday life is too wide?

“That’s quite simple,” says Larsen, taking a pause for effect. “There is nothing else. There is nothing more than normal, ordinary, everyday life. One doesn’t become a different person if one becomes a monk or converts to another religion.”

“What I like about the tradition I’m a part of,” says Schuff, “is that I’m allowed to say, ‘I don’t know. What do you think about it? What are you looking for?’ I am rarely the one who just says, ‘Keep the faith.’”

“When doubt no longer comes to us, then we are dead,” says Larsen.

MY DOUBT. Right before this interview, Schuff received a request to hold a speech entitled “My faith”.

“I told them then, ‘No I can’t, but I can talk about ‘My doubt’. These two things are indivisible for me.”

“Doubt makes us feel insecure and sad, and certainty makes us feel safe and content. But the road towards a higher ideal actually leads between these exchanges: doubt, enlightenment, doubt, enlightenment… we just need to accept it.”

“Embrace it,” says Schuff.

“Yes. When we doubt, we doubt. In Zen Buddhism we have a proverb: ‘When you are sleeping, you are sleeping. When you are drinking tea, you are drinking tea.’”  

[Published in “Thirst” Magazine (Tørst): 2016 Spring Edition, pp. 24 – 27.]

Participant Biographies:

Saazen Larsen (53)

· Buddhist Priest in Bugaku Zen Temple in Kristiansand

· Founder of the Norwegian Sotozen Buddhist Order

· Special Educator in High School

Christoforos Schuff (37)

· Priest in the Orthodox Church

· Musician, artist, and part-time farmer

· Has been intensely involved in helping vulnerable groups such as the Roma and refugees

· Has led a refugee camp on Lesvos ca. 6 months

Illustration Quotes:

GOD KNOWS. “If people ask me whether or not I’m a Christian, I like to answer, ‘God knows.’” says Christoforos Schuff.

NO WALL. “In such conversations we find that there is no wall between us, neither do we need to build one,” says Saazen Larsen.