When Christianity and Buddhism Meet: A Catholic at the Zendo

By Healey, John W. | Commonweal, January 17, 1997 | Go to article overview

When Christianity and Buddhism Meet: A Catholic at the Zendo


Healey, John W., Commonweal


Dear Sister Linda Julian,

Several times toward the end of Zen retreats we have made together, you have asked, "But what does my Christianity add to my Buddhism?" And the answer you received was, "Nothing. It's all going the other way right now."

I understand that skepticism about Christianity's "adding" to Buddhism. Both of us know many fellow-Christians who are drawn to Buddhist practice, either because of an alienation from the church, or, as I believe is true for ourselves, because we find in the zendo something we believe we cannot find in the church.

I would not call myself a "Buddhist"; even "Buddhist-Christian" has its difficulties. Although Thich Nhat Hanh has statues of Buddha and Jesus on his altar, the Dalai Lama has said that mixing Buddhism and Christianity is like "trying to put a yak's head on a cow's body." Even Thomas Merton, who did so much to foster Buddhist-Christian dialogue, says in Zen and the Birds of Appetite that "studied as structures, as systems and religions, Zen and Catholicism don't mix any better than oil and water."

Despite these and other cautions, I believe that my efforts at Buddhist practice, and my reading in Buddhist literature, have subtly and significantly influenced my Christian faith - and, I would say, for the better. In moving from church to zendo and back again, I know that I have been able to respond more and more "heartily" to the gospel. It is not that I have set up a parallel religious practice (no statues of Jesus and Buddha side by side on my altar - no statues at all, come to think of it), but in "Buddhist" practice I have somehow come home in a new way to my Christian faith.

What I have found in the zendo is a deeper silence than I expect to find in the church, at least in my lifetime.

As you know, for Buddhists, especially in the Zen tradition, the first step in "just sitting" is to let go of all "views," that is, quietly but firmly to set aside all spontaneous and not-so-spontaneous discriminating judgments of right and wrong, good and bad - all judgments whatsoever, even those which might make up "Buddhism." (This, I think, is the basic meaning of the notorious Buddhist dictum, "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.") I would not say that this "emptying of the mind" is the essence of Buddhism, but Thich Nhat Hanh would certainly put as the first step for the mindfulness practice which is at the heart of Zen living.

As our own Empty Hand Zendo (zen community) manual describes it, "Seated meditation is the core of our practice. This involves working with the body, breath, and mind, entering into deep silence and stillness, and opening to a fresh awareness moment after moment." In short, no "views" to be clung to here!

It is this silence that many of us, including practicing Christians, have experienced as a "coming home." On one level, having set aside so much of our usual busyness, one might say that we have come home just to ourselves, or to what some folks would call our "center." That is certainly true, but in the Buddhist tradition I think it would be more accurate to say that we seek to become "decentered," less concerned with ourselves and with the judgments, convictions, illusions, and prejudices that we so often use to prop up those "selves."

Raimondo Panikkar titled his major study of Buddhism The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha (Orbis), and one of the things the Buddha was most silent about was "God." I think the Buddha has something to teach us on that point. I was introduced at an early age into the tradition of "negative theology," which stresses the limits, or even the breakdown, of all our concepts of God. And it is still a very important part of my religious outlook. If anything, I have become over time more convinced that our ecclesial talkativeness, and especially our all-too-facile "God-talk," can become a real obstacle to personal faith. (No one can say that we haven't been cautioned about the dangers of talkativeness. …

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