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 activities.
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 evangelizing Buddhists.
“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 sentiment.
“What 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 truth.”
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 Buddhism.”
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 the priest.
“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.”
Before he became Pope Benedict, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger warned that there are many pitfalls in Catholic experimentation with Buddhism.
“With 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.
Some 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.
To 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.
Thus 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.”
Study is one thing, says professor Clark. Practice is another.
“Buddhist 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