Divergence, Convergence: Buddhist-Christian Encounters

By Lefebure, Leo D. | The Christian Century, October 16, 1996 | Go to article overview

Divergence, Convergence: Buddhist-Christian Encounters


Lefebure, Leo D., The Christian Century


A Zen Buddhist teacher sets a statue of Jesus on an altar alongside the Buddha and lights incense to both. A Catholic priest sits cross-legged in meditation and attends to his breathing as he has been instructed by Zen teachers. Increasingly, Buddhists and Christians are borrowing from each other's traditions, and the results present new opportunities and new questions for both religions.

Generations of Christian missioners journeyed to Asia to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Some discovered in the religions they encountered there an experience of meditation so powerful that it changed their lives. Buddhist teachers, in turn, came to Europe and the U.S. to share the wisdom of the Buddha, and some found their own practice transformed by the witness of jews and Christians. The effects of these encounters have been felt across the world, as many Westerners have turned to Buddhist and other Asian forms of meditation, seeking peace and personal integration in a frenetic and fragmented world. Buddhists, in turn, have pondered the meaning of social justice and action - partly in response to questions from Christians.

The encounter of Christianity and Buddhism is affecting members of both religions, and Buddhism is leaving more and more traces even on secular American culture. Phil Jackson cites his use of Zen practices as coach of the Chicago Bulls. In 1993 Bill Moyers's television series and book Healing and the Mind featured stress reduction programs that use techniques of Buddhist meditation and yoga as part of holistic health care programs. In one interview, John Kabat-Zinn, author of Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, described his attempt to take the art of cultivating awareness from Buddhist and Hindu meditation and make this available to Americans. Recent scientific research has confirmed many of the beneficial physical and psychological effects of sitting and walking meditation, whether these practices are done in a religious context or not.

Westerners have turned to Buddhism for a variety of reasons. For some, Buddhist meditation practice offers a concrete, pragmatic method for facing anxiety, healing emotional wounds, dwelling in the present, and developing a deeper sense of peace and loving-kindness. People alienated from the traditional theistic beliefs of Christianity or judaism may be attracted to a frame of reference that does not include a creating and redeeming God. Some converts to Buddhism have complained that Christianity merely talks about a loving God, whereas Buddhism offers effective strategies to change one's awareness and cultivate a peaceful, loving attitude.

The appearance of Zen and other forms of Buddhism in Christian prayer raises questions about the relation between Buddhist practice and Christianity, especially the Christian mystical tradition. Do the two traditions converge in a profound way, or are they radically different? Is it possible to appreciate the distinctiveness of each tradition and also find a common basis for understanding and action? Is it possible to practice both religions at the same time while maintaining religious integrity?

Christian understandings of creation set the framework for aR aspects of Christian faith and theology. Christian language about sin and grace, redemption and forgiveness, assumes a God who created a world that is different from God yet intimately related to God. For Buddhists, everything in the universe is interdependent, and there is no creating God who radically transcends the world. While Buddhists have many different perspectives on cosmology, they agree that everything arises in mutual relation to everything else. Amid the variety of Buddhist symbols and expressions for the unconditioned or the ultimate, the principle of nonduality asserts that ultimate reality is not other than this world. Ultimate reality is just this present moment, as it is related to all other moments. …

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