Today it is not uncommon to encounter some Catholics and other Christians who have incorporated eastern meditation into their Christian prayer practices. An example of this is “Zen,” a form of Buddhist meditation that is popular in Chinese Buddhism.
By F. K. Bartels
29 January 2010
Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson, in their article titled “Catholicism and Buddhism,” observe that “Today there is a proliferation of resources and retreats dedicated to combining Zen Buddhism and Catholicism, suggesting that the Catholic Church has finally ‘awakened’ from its ‘outdated’ and ‘exclusivist’ ecclesiology.”
Robert Kennedy S. J., Roshi, is a Jesuit priest and Zen master. On his website, Morning Star Zendo, he tells us that “people, leaning toward a deeper form of prayer, are often attracted to studying Zen.” He writes that “Zen gives us a method to put contemplation into practice. Zen training does not allow us to analyze or theorize about prayer or life. Instead, it plunges us at the outset into the contemplative act in which there is no subject or object.”
Several questions come to mind: First of all, is it an accurate assessment to say that the contemplative act is an act “in which there is no subject or object?” Second, what would motivate Catholics to practice Zen or other forms of eastern meditation, and why should some Catholics find it necessary or helpful to incorporate non-Christian meditative elements into their Christian prayer tradition? If it is indeed advantageous to bring in Zen Buddhism, then the logical conclusion is that Christian prayer is insufficient. Could that be so?
Yamada Roshi, a Zen teacher Robert Kennedy studied with in Kamakura Japan, addressed the following questions to his Christian Zen students: “First, why did you not just continue doing meditational practices following your own Christian tradition instead of coming to Zen? Was there something lacking in Christianity that led you to seek something in Zen, or did you have some dissatisfaction with Christianity that led you to Zen?” (quoted from innerexplorations.com; Ruben Habito, Total Liberation, p. 87).
Those are telling questions that cut right to the heart of the matter. It appears that Roshi has drawn the conclusion that Christians who are led to Zen are dissatisfied with Christianity. As serious as that is, there is a deeper problem at work here: one which is a reflection of not only western culture and the modern mindset but the depths of the heart as well. Why would a Christian find Christian tradition dissatisfying? Asked another way, why would a follower of Christ find what God’s Son has revealed to be insufficient? There is a whole host of possible explanations: there is the insidious prevalence of religious relativism and indifferentism; there is the widespread spirit of self-serving gratification; and there is, too, the temptation to constantly seek after new fads, “breakthroughs,” or ancient “wisdom” that is hoped to bring about the expeditious attainment of some sought-after spiritual goal. Others are simply overly curious and, perhaps unconsciously, let curiosity get the best of them.
What Does it Mean to Advance in Prayer?
Many Zen adherents believe that they are advancing in the spiritual life, and feel that, through Zen, they have trained themselves to engage more fruitfully in the contemplative act. But what has led them to draw these conclusions? First, is contemplative prayer something which can be learned as a matter of technique, or, on the other hand, is it a gift that God gives to whom he so chooses? Second, what does it mean to advance in prayer, what some would phrase as becoming more “spiritual?”
Fr. Thomas Dubay, in his book Authenticity: a Biblical Theology Of Discernment, observes that “If one does not live gospel humility, detachment, love, obedience and all the rest, he cannot grow in prayer. He is not authentic. He is not listening to the Holy Spirit no matter how convinced he may be that the Spirit is speaking to him (and he is only too often unshakably so convinced).”
Further, Fr. Dubay points out that those who are truly advanced in prayer, those who are indeed listening to the Holy Spirit, will display in their lives evidence of the state to which they have been raised by God’s grace; that is, they will be living the gospel life with joyful dedication. Those who love Christ do not miss Mass through their own fault; they do not refuse to support the Church financially, physically, and spiritually, they are not dissenters; nor are they slothful in their duty and interest toward learning the Faith and adhering to what they’ve learned.
When we read from the saints, those spiritual leaders whose lives were spent marching at the forefront of the cause for Christ, we find that, over and over again, a common theme develops. That theme is one of love, detachment and humility; it is one of fasting and almsgiving; it is one of constant prayer. Further, we find a profound dedication to and love for the Bride of Christ actively displayed by these spiritual leaders. They knew the meaning of obedience, and they accepted with pure heart the teachings of the Magisterium. They were acutely aware of the fact that the Church is guided by the Holy Spirit and, therefore, cannot err in her teaching on faith and morals. If we truly desire to advance in prayer, the lives of the saints show us the way.
Contemplative Prayer: Gift or Technique?
Contemplative prayer seeks “him ‘whom my soul loves’. It is Jesus, and in him, the Father”. Therefore contemplative prayer is not merely a process of emptying or quieting the mind, nor is it attained through a self-induced meditative state. Contemplative prayer “is a gift, a grace; it can be accepted only in humility and poverty”. One must fervently live the gospel life in order to receive the gift of contemplative prayer. Thus, it is a “covenant relationship established by God within our hearts”; it is a “communion in which the Holy Trinity conforms man, the image of God, ‘to his likeness’”; it is a “gaze of faith, fixed on Jesus”; it is silence and “silent love”; it is a “union with the prayer of Christ”; it is a “communication of love” (cf. CCC No. 2709-19).
It should be clear that advanced prayer is a gift from God, granted to whom he chooses, and is prayer that is fixed on Jesus. It is prayer with a definite and specific object: The Holy Trinity. Further, the Father grants advanced or mystical prayer to those who live the gospel life. The Father shares his mysteries with the little ones, not with the proud and conceited (Lk 10:21); and God reveals his wisdom to the humble only (Ps 25:9). The gospel life is the way to advanced prayer.
“There is no other way of Christian prayer than Christ.” Our prayer “has access to the Father” only through Christ. “The sacred humanity of Jesus is therefore the way by which the Holy Spirit teaches us to pray to God our Father” (cf. CCC No. 2664).
When reading from Sts. Teresa of Avila or John of the Cross or Catherine of Siena, one will not discover any hint of Zen Buddhism in their descriptions of contemplative prayer. Far from emptying themselves of any subject or object during their prayer, they fervently gazed upon the Person of Christ on whom they modeled their lives.
One of the Church’s greatest authorities on mystical union and the contemplative life is the Doctor of Prayer, St. Teresa of Avila, who writes: “I clearly see . . . that if we are to please God and He is to grant us great favours, it is His will that this should be through His most sacred Humanity, in whom His Majesty said He is well pleased. I have learnt this indeed by repeated experiences; the Lord has told it me. I have clearly seen that it is by this door we must enter, if we wish His sovereign Majesty to reveal great secrets to us. Therefore . . . even if you are at the summit of contemplation, you must seek no other way; this one alone is safe” (The Life of Saint Teresa of Avila by Herself, Penguin Classics, p. 156).
Incorrect Interpretation of Nostra Aetate
The Vatican II declaration Nostra Aetate was issued on October 28, 1965. In paragraph two we read that “throughout history even to the present day, there is found among different peoples a certain awareness of a hidden power, which lies behind the course of nature and the events of human life.” Hinduism and Buddhism are mentioned, as well as some aspects of truth found in them. Vatican II states that “the Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men” (NA 2).
While the Church has high regard for those rays of truth which may be found in other religions, mixing Buddhism with the Christian religion as if both are of equal value has never been sanctioned. Some unduly extrapolated from Nostra Aetate, taking it as a license to mix Catholicism with eastern religions. However, if we read further we find that Vatican II insists Catholics are obliged to proclaim that Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. “Yet she [the Church] proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (Jn. 1:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (2 Cor. 5:18-19), men find the fullness of their religious life. . . . The Church, therefore, urges her sons to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religions. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non-Christians, also their social life and culture” (Ibid.).
The Beauty of the Church
In an age in which religious indifferentism is common, perhaps we need reminding of the importance and beauty of the Catholic Church Christ founded two-thousand years ago. It is that Church who contains the fullness of truth; it is that Church who is the gateway to salvation, in which Christians receive the words of truth and the sacraments of life, that they may be led securely toward their end, which is eternal unity with Christ the Lord.
The Church “is called ‘that Jerusalem which is above’ and ‘our mother’ (Gal. 4:26; cf. Apoc. 12:17), [and] is described as the spotless spouse of the spotless lamb (Apoc. 19:7; 21:2, 9; 22:17). It is she whom Christ ‘loved and for whom he delivered himself up that he might sanctify her’ (Eph. 5:26). It is she whom he unites to himself by an unbreakable alliance, and whom he constantly ‘nourishes and cherishes’ (Eph. 5:29). It is she whom, once purified, he willed to be joined to himself, subject in love and fidelity (cf. Eph. 5:24), and whom, finally, he filled with heavenly gifts for all eternity, in order that we may know the love of God and of Christ for us, a love which surpasses all understanding” (Lumen Gentium 6).
Christian Prayer is Sufficient
St. Teresa of Avila advanced to the heights of contemplative prayer, experiencing the sublime wonders of raptures and ecstasies. We find that she was profoundly dedicated to Christ and the Church he founded. She sought no other way than the way of Christ, which is the gospel life of love, humility, poverty, and obedience. She held a deep love for Eucharist, the body and blood of our Savior, and for the Mass, the highest form of Christian prayer:
“At times I feel such a longing for Communion that I cannot express it in words. . . . When I came to the church, I fell into a deep rapture. I seemed to see not just a door into the heavens such as I have seen on other occasions, but the whole heavens thrown wide open. I beheld the throne, . . . and above it another throne, on which I understood, in a way that I cannot explain, the Godhead sat” (Ibid., p. 303).
Undoubtedly, Christian prayer is the way to a deeper prayer life. It is Christ, in his sacred Humanity, that lights the path before us. It is Jesus who is the way, the truth and the life (cf. Jn 14:6). Let us not look for shortcuts. It is not possible to follow the way of the world and, at the same time, advance in prayer through the use of meditative techniques alone.
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Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.