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Experts Call Buddhism and Christianity Incompatible
BY ANTHONY FLOTTREGISTER CORRESPONDENT
JERSEY CITY, N.J. — A priest
professor at a New Jersey Catholic university is also a “Zen master.” Father
Kevin Hunt, a monk in Spencer, Mass., is a Buddhist “sensei.”
A chapel on a Catholic campus in
California holds a weekly “Mindfulness and Zen Meditation” session.
Anthony Clark, an assistant
professor of Chinese history at the University of Alabama and a noted Catholic
expert on Buddhism, cites more examples: a Benedictine convent that sells the
Dalai Lama’s books and practices Chan Buddhist meditation; a Dominican priory
with a Zen-style prayer room.
In March, Bishop Frank Dewane said
enough is enough.
Blessed Pope John XXIII Church in
his South Fort Myers, Fla., Diocese was holding yoga classes during Eucharistic
adoration — initially with only a glass partition separating the two
He’s not alone in his rejection of
efforts to give Buddhism Catholic trappings.
It’s all a bit “alarming” to Father
Walter Kedjierski, a priest at St. Catherine of Sienna Church in Franklin
Square, N.Y., and a student of Asian religion and culture who has written on
“There seems to be a growing trend
in Catholic retreat houses to offer courses in yoga and Zen meditation,” Father
Kedjierski says. “I have even seen the brochures of some Catholic retreat
houses and when I looked at the activities offered I have wondered if the
facility even is Catholic because there are no courses on the saints, on the
Catholic spiritual tradition, nor catechesis, but there are plenty of offerings
about Zen Buddhism, yoga, and meditation.
“Have we chosen to abandon the
richness of our own faith tradition for another? Have we sufficiently altered the ideas
inherent in Zen and yoga about a total abandonment to all attachments and
concepts that Christ and the truths of the faith can find a place in them? If the answer is No, then very clearly this
is doing damage to the Catholic faith.”
Professor Clark echoes that
message does it send that you’re having people go through Buddhist forms of
meditation?” Clark said. “It has really allowed Catholics to say, ‘I can be
Buddhist, too.’ When you make that step then you’re beginning a kind of
interest that can, I think, lead you to almost either an eccentric version of
Catholicism or leave the Church altogether. And that is a common story: ‘I
started with centering prayer and became a Buddhist.’”
The Dalai Lama’s recent tour of the
United States may have increased interest in Buddhism. The Chicago
Sun-Times reported on his appearance May 6 in the Windy City’s
Millennium Park, saying many of the 11,400 attendees were “Buddhist dabblers”
and “spiritual seekers.” The paper quoted Terri Smith and Shawn Drummond, both
Catholics in their 40s, who “embrace Buddhist meditation.” They said the Dalai
Lama’s teachings “deepened their spirituality.”
“It’s the best tool to transform
your life,” Smith said.
Jesuit Father Robert Kennedy of St.
Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J., says that he doesn’t see the practice of
the two faiths as a one-or-the-other proposition.
“I don’t see it as an alternative to
Christianity as if I were rejecting one thing and inserting something else,”
Father Kennedy said. “I think to be truly Catholic is to be truly universal and
to see the presence of God and the presence of Christ in whatever is true. As
the Church itself is always to be reformed and always moving forward to the
All the same, he concedes that
conversions between the two faiths typically head in one direction.
“I think it’s very likely at this
stage of the dialogue that as far as conversions go, there are more Christians
being converted to Buddhism,” he said. “It’s an uneven dialogue. Buddhists are
not so interested in Christianity. I think Christians are more interested in
Relativism is a great obstacle for
any kind of parity between the two religions, says Father Kedjierski.
“Nhat Hanh, the very well-known
Vietnamese Therevadan Buddhist monk/social activist, in his book Living
Buddha, Living Christ contends that attachment to concepts or truths
in religion with the idea that they are permanent and unchangeable is what
leads to violence in terms of battles between people of different faiths,” said
“Of course, we Catholics see it
differently. We believe that the truths which we cling onto as unchangeable and
ineffable, offer us stability and make our lives connected to the God who has
chosen to share his identity with us. We
see ourselves as being able to be tolerant while at the same time
uncompromising when it comes to what we believe.”
Father Kennedy acknowledged that
Buddhism’s understanding of the truth is at variance with Christianity.
“There is nothing in Zen practice
that is opposed to Christianity,” he said. “In Zen theory there is, but in Zen
practice it’s just doing the truth. They’re not
arguing against Catholicism. They say to sit up, pay attention, look at the world as it is. Be compassionate.
There’s nothing there against Christianity.”
he became Pope Benedict, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned that there are many
pitfalls in Catholic experimentation with Buddhism.
the present diffusion of Eastern methods of meditation in the Christian world
and in ecclesial communities, we find ourselves faced with a pointed renewal of
an attempt, which is not free from dangers and errors, ‘to fuse Christian
meditation with that which is non-Christian.’ Proposals in this direction are
numerous and radical to a greater or lesser extent.
use Eastern methods solely as a psycho-physical preparation for a truly
Christian contemplation; others go further and, using different techniques, try
to generate spiritual experiences similar to those described in the writings of
certain Catholic mystics. Still others do not hesitate to place that absolute
without image or concepts, which is proper to Buddhist theory, on the same
level as the majesty of God revealed in Christ, which towers above finite reality.
this end, they make use of a ‘negative theology,’ which transcends every
affirmation seeking to express what God is, and denies that the things of this
world can offer traces of the infinity of God.
they propose abandoning not only meditation on the salvific works accomplished
in history by the God of the Old and New Covenant, but also the very idea of
the One and Triune God, who is Love, in favor of an immersion ‘in the
indeterminate abyss of the divinity.’ These and similar proposals to harmonize
Christian meditation with Eastern techniques need to have their contents and
methods ever subjected to a thorough-going examination so as to avoid the
danger of falling into syncretism.”
In Crossing the
Threshold of Hope, Pope John Paul II made the same point, calling
Buddhism an atheistic system and saying it is appropriate “to caution those
Christians who enthusiastically welcome certain ideas originating in the
religious traditions of the Far East, for example, techniques and methods of
meditation and ascetical practice.”
Father Kennedy conceded the point.
“It’s inherently probable that many Catholics, perhaps naively, will accept
everything,” he said. “And therefore the warning is necessary: ‘Be careful, not
all of this is true.’ And it can’t be uncritical acceptance. There must be
prudence: There must be study, there must be conversation with those who are
experts in the field.”
is one thing, says professor Clark. Practice is another.
practice is a doorway to Buddhist belief,” Clark said. “Meditation is designed
to inculcate in its practitioner a sense of non-self, a sense of being an
amalgamation with all that is — or isn’t. Meditation is supposed to facilitate
one’s attainment of the Buddha mind. To the Zen practitioner there is no mind,
no Buddha, and no Jesus.”
Anthony Flott is based in