Can there be a ‘Christian Zen’?

For the past three columns, we have been discussing the document on prayer issued by Spain’s bishops in September, “My Thirst for God, for the Living God.” Last time we examined what it says about the problems with Buddhist methods of meditation. Now we’ll delve into the final paragraph of that section, which answers a vital question: To what extent can Christians incorporate Buddhist practices into their spirituality?

Paragraph 14 of “My Soul Thirsts” begins, “Sometimes Zen meditation is practiced by Christian groups and church organizations. Some even speak of a so-called Christian Zen. In principle, this would not represent an obstacle if it were limited to incorporating certain techniques into the pedagogy of Christian prayer that predispose the body and spirit to the silence necessary for prayer. Nevertheless, often times it goes beyond this, having no little impact on the understanding of what prayer is.”

In 1971, William Johnston published a book titled “Christian Zen.” He was a Jesuit priest living in Tokyo who took up Zen meditation and sought to find commonality between Buddhism and Christianity. The bishops are almost certainly referring to Johnston’s work. We should also recall, however, that the Spanish bishops apply the term “Zen” to all meditative practices that originate in Buddhism. The only specific practice they reference is mindfulness. Therefore, what they say of “Christian Zen” especially applies to what is sometimes called “Christian (or Catholic) Mindfulness.”

The bishops distinguish between “techniques” and “methods”: “The method, considered as a complete itinerary of meditation, is inseparable from the goal to be achieved and from the anthropological, religious and theological assumptions from which it is born and that sustain it. On the other hand, concrete techniques to help reach a certain disposition prior to prayer could be separated from the whole method and its foundations. It is not possible, however, to have true Christian prayer that assumes a method in its entirety that does not originate in, or departs from, the content of faith.”

Incorporating a complete program of Buddhist meditation into one’s prayer life would be problematic. If one exclusively used Buddhist methods in place of traditional Christian ones, one might adopt a view of human nature and of the divine that has no room for redemption in Christ. Practicing Buddhist methods outside of one’s prayer time could reap similar results. “Techniques,” on the other hand, may be separated from their Buddhist influences. How? By using them only as a physical or psychological preparation for prayer, rather than a stand-alone “supplement” to prayer or substitution for it.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) noted this same possibility in its 1989 document “On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.” In context, the CDF is referring to such practices as focusing on one’s breath or doing stretches before prayer. These practices can calm the body and the mind and help set aside distractions. However, the CDF teaches that these practices are only a preparation for prayer, not prayer itself.

While a particular technique might be separable from the goals and assumptions of Buddhism, a method of meditation cannot. For the Spanish bishops, full-fledged Buddhist meditation is a danger, whether or not the practitioner sees it as prayer. (See my column, “Spain’s bishops: Only God can quench our thirst” in the Oct. 4 edition of the Catholic Voice.)

What, then, about mindfulness, which often relies on Buddhist meditation to help form the habit of living in the present? Like other Buddhist practices, mindfulness is “inseparable from … the anthropological, religious and theological assumptions from which it is born and that sustain it” (no. 14). In other words, it is incompatible with Christian prayer and belief.

Connie Rossini is a member of St. Peter Parish in Omaha. She is co-author of “The Contemplative Rosary” released by EWTN Publishing and author of four other books on Catholic spirituality.

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