My Flirtation with Christian Buddhism

There is a reason why this image is offensive
The former archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has spoken of his daily meditation exercises which draw upon Orthodox and Buddhist traditions. Interestingly, for the former chief Anglican guru, Anglican 'spiritual exercises' are neglected in favour of something slightly more esoteric, or even exotic.

Rowan Williams maintains that in the morning he 'squats' to pray. Physical postures for prayer are quite important. We are told that Our Lord spent nights in prayer - so despite what His Holiness tells us, it is simply untrue to suggest that Our Lord was a pastor who had no time for contemplation, but did Our Lord adopt the 'yogi' position? Would the desert fathers recommend it? Is the Buddhist posture of the 'lotus pose' suitable for Christian prayer?

I think I understand where Rowan Williams is coming from here. While a Catholic not very long into his conversion, I bought a book called 'Light Within' by Laurence Freeman OSB, a Benedictine monk. At the time I was particularly vulnerable and already very self-absorbed. The kind of Christian meditation (repeating 'Maranatha' while squatting on my bed in a bid to find 'inner peace') was really very unhelpful to me. I believe it succeeded in sending me even further up my own behind than I was already at the time. I became more arrogant than I already was at that time, more proud than I already was at that time and behaved as something of a 'little god'. I am not saying I am without such vices now, I am saying the spiritual methods advocated in Christian meditation drawing upon the Buddhist tradition seemed to inflame, rather than dampen, or root out, these vices. Of course, these Buddhist-informed spiritual methods did sister chastity no favours either.

Laurence Freeman OSB and the Dalai Llama
The more I did 'Christian meditation', in the 'tradition' of this Benedictine monk, the more 'spiritual' I believed I was becoming. His lectures and books and spirituality are regularly praised in The Tablet, which, if I was a spirituality guru would give me the absolute shudders. Of course, it would be foolish to extend my experience of this eastern-influenced 'Christian meditation' technique to the experience of everyone else, but while searching for the 'light within', there is perhaps a unique danger that a Christian may find quite easily not the Light of the World but the false light of Lucifer. That is, of course, what mystics down the ages have warned can happen to the 'spiritual man' quite easily.

In reality, I used 'Christian meditation' as a way not of seeking God but of escaping from myself at a time when I was particularly in turmoil. I look back on this episode in horror, not because I am 'such a better person now', but because traditional Catholic devotion to the Mass, to the Blessed Sacrament, frequent Confession, the authentic liturgical prayer of the Church to be discovered in the Divine Office or Little Office of Our Lady and the Holy Rosary help me truly to look away from myself and to turn towards the Lord. Traditional Catholic spirituality is all about the Other and the Other, most especially in the Mass, is visible and tangible, God Incarnate - not 'out there' or even, until Holy Communion, 'within'. We do not have to search for Him 'within' ourselves when He is truly present! It is then that we adore, adoring not ourselves but our God. Of course, every Catholic Church has the Mass and the Blessed Sacrament, but not every Church has reverent liturgy that advertises the Real Presence and fosters devotion.

Our faith in Jesus is mysterious but tangible. He is Other but present.
I do not kneel anywhere like as much as I should before the Divine Majesty of our God, but thanks to the teaching of Benedict XVI and others, I understand that kneeling, especially in reverence to the Blessed Sacrament, not only gives due honour to God but helps to reinforce within ourselves an acknowledgement that God alone is Good, that I am helpless without Him, that I am dependent upon Him for every grace and virtue that I need in order to live in my particular state of life.

Adherents of Christian prayer that incorporate the Buddhist methods of meditation would protest, I am sure, at my criticism, but within the still relatively new emergence of those who seek the 'light within', there rarely seems to be a love of Catholic Truth, a sense of loyalty to the Magisterium and love of Our Blessed Lady and the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar. There doesn't tend to be much of a sense of sin and our need to be saved from it. It is not impossible that those who advocate such practices have discovered within this unique blending of Christianity and Buddhism, a 'higher truth' that makes the true Gospel of Our Lord Jesus Christ and our need for repentance irrelevant. When we disappear up our own behinds, that is what tends to happen, though I understand the importance of not making universal what, for me, was particularly unhelpful.

The sad truth is that these time-tested spiritual practices recommended by the Saints and holy Popes of the Church are much neglected in modern times by modern Catholics who are always open to the temptation to find within 'eastern' spiritual traditions, something that accommodates itself to their particular tastes, doesn't upset their sensibilities and really makes spirituality revolve around the self under the pretense that this spirituality is focused uniquely on the Godhead. This is not, of course, to denigrate the Orthodox model of ceaseless prayer of the desert Fathers in recitation of the 'Jesus prayer', but merely to suggest that Buddhist techniques of 'prayer and meditation' are somewhat in contradiction to authentic Christian prayer, if for no other reason than the physical position adopted by the one who prays. It models a posture of self-dependence and self-exploration that can lead to self-absorbtion. Praying while standing and praying while sitting may not be the absolute ideal, we may find we pray as we can when we can, but to deliberately adopt the posture of 'squatting' does rather say to ourselves and to God that we are deliberately looking within, towards introspection of self, rather than looking towards Him.

Our Lord spent nights Himself on His knees to pray to His Eternal Father. The Gospels recount those times when men and women prostrated or knelt before Our Lord in recognition of His divinity and power. There really is nothing within the Orthodox spiritual tradition or the Latin spiritual tradition - or even the Anglican spiritual tradition - that remotely suggests that the one who prays is the one who "squats" like a Buddhist seeking 'wisdom within' and I don't think St Benedict would approve of this still new Christian Buddhist tradition of "squatting" to pray, if only because it is the tradition of those who do not believe. But, hey ho, now that Communists are 'closet Christians', I guess Buddhists are as well...

I do hope this blogpost does not sound unnecessarily harsh.

Comments

Unknown said…
Wonder if Jorge thinks Buddhists are closet Christians too?

Seattle kimmy
Savonarola said…
There seems to be only one reference to Jesus kneeling to pray in the Gospels, in the garden of Gethsemane. It is hardly likely that he spent an entire night or 40 days and 40 nights of prayer on his knees! Kneeling may be appropriate for expressing submission to God's power and authority, but John Main, the Benedictine who taught meditation, says we are called not just to bow down before God and adore him as an object of worship, we are called to something much greater - to know him, to be in union with him. The prayer of meditation is not a technique, but a discipline, a simple way of practising what Christ says we should do, lose yourself in order to find it - let go of your ego-self in order to know your true self in union with God. The use of a prayer-word or phrase is as a focus to let go of our thoughts and feelings so as to know the Spirit of God who, St. Paul says, has been poured into your heart.

Rowan Williams in the piece you refer to speaks of prostrating himself, which is going further than even kneeling, and his use of the Jesus prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. Is this not eminently orthodox as well as Orthodox? It is absurd to think he is not solidly centred in his Christian faith. If he finds some Buddhist ideas helpful why not use them?

You clearly did not get far with the prayer of mediation, the practice or understanding of it, but that should not make you misrepresent it for others. The practice of meditation is in fact continually growing all over the world, while traditional formal religion seems to be mostly in decline.

You express most of the usual misconceptions as well as fear that people tend to have of something which is not very familiar. There may be some similarity with meditation in other religions, but as a Christian prayer it derives from ancient monastic sources, being mentioned, for example, in John Cassian whose writings St. Benedict prized highly: he says his monks should have Cassian's works read to them. My experience of those who meditate is that they are fully committed (and rather more than most) to the life of the Church, the sacraments and liturgy. It is only that since their main desire is to know God, rather than merely be religious or orthodoxly Catholic etc., they cannot be content with externalised religious observance. Maybe you gave up too quickly. John Main says, half jokingly, the first 30 years are the worst.

Something that concerns me in the regular misconceptions of meditation is that for very religious people the Devil is always more real than God. They seem to think that if we go beyond the limits of what someone or something else says is the right things to do, we can never simply trust in God to protect us from falling into the clutches of the Devil, as if his power and influence are always bound to be stronger than God's. This sounds like heresy, if you want to use that language.

Since we are called to be in union with God, it is a pity if one stops at just being safe or saved, sorting out the right doctrines, rituals and laws. God is not confined to these. It is worth remembering that since there is no temple in heaven, there can be no worship either - no sacraments, no traditional Latin Mass, no adoration of the Blessed Sacrament or Corpus Christi processions. There is only God - and he is likely to want to have with him all those pet hates of traditionalists, the dissenters, heretics, divorced and remarried, even more than he wants you - see Luke 15. If all you want to know here is the right religious system, heaven where there is only God is likely to be a sad disappointment to you.
viterbo said…
I squat - on a good day - once morning - but I don't evah think such squatting's gonna save my soul. Who knew that the 'bowels' spoken of in the Douay-Rheims were literal?
The Bones said…
My point, Savaronola, is not that we should be on our knees 24/7, but that the posture of squatting suggests introspection which is not a part of the Catholic contemplative tradition but of those who seek to 'find themselves'.

There is something particular about squatting that suggests something buddhist. The posture itself says to the one who prays that he is looking within to himself.

I am glad that I gave up the nonsense espoused by that particular Benedictine monk because it only served to make me more self-centred and introspective than I was already and can be now.

Whether standing, kneeling or laying down, we can be certain Our Lord was always praying to His Eternal Father. I really doubt He explicitly squatted for the purpose of prayer. All I was saying is that to adopt this position deliberately is to approach prayer in a fashion alien to the Faith.
Savonarola said…
Looking again at what Rowan Williams says, he speaks of squatting, but really he uses a prayer stool, a low stool placed behind the legs as a support when kneeling. I used to use one myself, but these days my knees cannot take it for any length of time, so I rarely kneel to pray. I don't think this is what you mean by squatting.

It is surely the inner disposition of the person praying that matters more than the gesture. I suspect you really know as little about Buddhism as I do and have no idea what Buddhists are doing when they pray. From what I do know I think it is very misleading to suggest that unlike Christians they are only going into themselves rather than seeking a spiritual reality that is other than themselves.

God is both within and other, immanent and transcendent, but if your approach is exclusively or primarily towards the transcendent God you are likely to have a distorted image of that God. We need to know the God within us as well, so we need personal prayer of quiet and union as well as external devotions and liturgy. Laurence Freeman says there are three essentials in a healthy and balanced Christian spirituality: the Eucharist, the reading and pondering of Scripture and a practice of contemplative prayer such as meditation. Western Christianity has badly neglected the last of these, which is why more and more people who know that being contemplative (i.e. in union with God) is at the heart of any true religion and do not find a way of being contemplative offered to them through the normal life of the churches seek it elsewhere. This is a disaster for the churches, but sadly a self-imposed one.
Dymphna said…
Did Rowan really mean that he positions himself like a man stradling a public toilet or does he mean that he gets himself into the lotus position to pray? Either way is hilarious to invision.
Lepanto said…
The post doesn't sound harsh to me, it sounds (as usual) eminently sensible. None of the many great Catholic mystic saints recommend this posture.
I trust that the Benedictine was attempting to convert the Dalai Lama to the one true religion (but then I am an optimist). I am sure that the Saint Francises (Assisi and Xavier) would not be asking for advice on appropriate praying postures from poor benighted pagans but would be teaching them how to pray.
Mary Kay said…
There is a significant difference between meditation as practiced by Buddhists as opposed to Catholic meditation. Buddhism teaches all emptying of thought (while using a sound such as 'om') to focus simply on existing or 'being'. St. Francis de Sales, St. Benedict, other Catholic writers on the other hand, would have you clear your mind of thoughts of the world, and focus on one feature of God, one line of a prayer (such as Aquinas' meditation on the Our Father), one virtue as exemplified by Christ or a particular saint. There is a significant difference! The one, as Laurence experienced, is very self-centered and is considered dabbling in spiritism. Catholic meditation is deep consideration of a truth of the Faith after tuning out the world.

I think of the story of the old French farmer who sat for long stretches in the Church but did not appear to be praying. When asked about it, he said 'I look at Him, and He looks at me.'
Savonarola said…
Mary Kay says, 'there is a significant difference between meditation as practised by Buddhists as opposed to Catholic meditation,' but then describes them as being much the same. 'Emptying of thought' (Buddhist) is another way of saying 'tuning out the world' (Catholic). The Buddhist aim of focusing simply on existing or 'being' (or Being, or God) sounds like the French farmer looking at God. Is it not wise not to pontificate on things of which one really knows little?

Anyone who encounters people of other faiths (Buddhist, Sikh, Hindu, Muslim) will know that often they are just as prayerful, spiritually centred, close to God (so far as anyone can tell) as Catholics ever manage to be. This being so, we might even think we could learn something from them, and certainly would not want to perpetuate the appallingly arrogant condescension of describing them as 'poor benighted pagans.' One would have hoped that this kind of attitude had long ago been consigned to the dustbin of history, but sadly not in the case of some Catholics.

A lot of Catholic prayer and devotion, treating God as a celestial wizard from whom we can beg favours, is thoroughly pagan and immature as compared with other religions.
Nicolas Bellord said…
But Savonorola I have always understood that a Buddhist does not necessarily believe in a God so how can he be close to something he does not believe in? From talking to one or two Buddhist monks I do admire them but it seems to me a very grim outlook they are seeking - a sort of nothingness in a total detachment from reality.
Mary Kay said…
Savonarola seems to have a bit more personal interest in this topic, demonstrated by his attacks on the faith or knowledge of those with whom he disagrees. I find it funny that he thinks he already knows many who will be inhabiting heaven. I think most of us will be happily surprised to get there!

Anyway, semantics aside, I say there is a big difference between emptying oneself of all thought, such as the demoniac from whom 7 devils had been cast out, vs 'tuning out the world', which is merely recollection, focusing on virtues, attributes of God, etc.

Also, Christ (not a celestial wizard...) told us very specifically to ask of Him and said we would receive. Countless millions have become very close to God without any knowledge of buddhism or other belief systems. Savonarola's criticism doesn't change that.

And I don't think your post sounds harsh, Mr. B.

Lepanto said…
'Go therefore and learn from all nations'? I missed that bit of scripture.
Savonarola said…
For the record I didn't say I know who is in heaven, only that - to judge from a text like Luke 15 - God is likely to want to have with him many unlikely characters.

Contemplative meditation is important to me, for the reasons I suggested, so I do find it sad when people misrepresent it who really know little about it.

I know little about Buddhism, its beliefs and forms of prayer, which is why I would be more cautious than some in claiming I can confidently say it is this or that.
Savonarola said…
Mr. Bellord, so far as I understand (which may not be much) Buddhists do not believe in a personal God, but they do have a concept of the spiritual which is not nothingness or denial of reality, but reality in the truest and deepest sense. One would need to know the religion from the inside in order to understand this properly, I imagine. The few Buddhists I have encountered, far from having a grim outlook, seem to be noticeably happy and serene.

'Go and learn from all nations' may not be in Scripture, but any wise person will welcome truth and goodness wherever they are found and see in them signs of God who is not bound by our limited conception of him.
Nicolas Bellord said…
Savonarola: I imagine it depends upon which Buddhist monk you talk to. The one I met, many years ago, seemed to be seeking a total detachment from this world into a realm of nothingness. I did not mean that Buddhists are grim in their outlook but I admired the fact that they seemed to be practising virtue or freedom from passion with very little eventual reward other than nothingness unlike the Christian religion which accepts this world as being good as having been created by God and will reward the faithful with eternal bliss. In that sense I find the Buddhist outlook a bit grim!

Indeed detachment from this world may be a good thing at times but it must not be total. It is interesting that Aung San Suu Kyi has been known to suggest to the monks that they might be a little bit more active in dealing with the affairs of this world.
Mary Kay said…
Contemplative prayer is very valuable. We have contemplative religious orders whose goal is to keep mentally in the presence of God. Most of us are contemplative when we read a piece of scripture or in some other way experience the very nearness of God, and we should strive for these moments in our prayer lives. Contemplation is, I believe, the goal of recollection. It isn't the denial of reality but the realization that God is with us and more real than the visible world.

My knowledge of Buddhism is that which is popular here on the west coast of the US, the goal of which is to make all reality nothing. Pain, love, fear, physical properties, are 'unreal' and the goal is to be oblivious to reality: to be literally nothing. The apparent peacefulness of its practitioners is basically the belief that 'there is nothing, I am nothing; since death is the end of man, we should be as if we are already there.' This is totally contrary to the reality of God and His Church. Any belief system that can have such little regard for life, and this is common in most Eastern religions, cannot have recollection and contemplation because these acts are positive: recollecting something of God, contemplating something of God. To sit quietly while breathing calmly and trying to empty one's mind of all thought is totally contrary to Catholic contemplation. Our Church in this era has become so engrossed in ecumenism that too much time is spent looking for superficial similarities when in reality, there is only one God, one Church, one Faith that can save, and Catholics need to acquaint themselves once again with the riches of our Faith.
Anonymous said…
As Catholics we have so many great mystical saints like St. John of the Cross , St. Theresia and St. Catherine etc., who teach us about meditation and contemplation..

Compared to these Buddhism is a pretty dull religion.

Bit of a dead end street in the end..or no?


Barbara
Savonarola said…
'Buddhism is a pretty dull religion. Bit of a dead end street in the end or no?' asks Anon. No clearly, considering how many Westerners are attracted to it because they have not found a way of being contemplative offered to them through the normal life of the Catholic and other churches. When did your parish last put on meetings to introduce the ways of prayer advocated by John of the Cross or Teresa of Avila? It is all there in our Christian tradition, but it is not what people pick up from the churches - which is why they go elsewhere.

I know little about other religions and have not much interest in them, but I suspect the commenters here who insist that Buddhism is about nothingness are way off the mark and would have to say they really know little about the beliefs and spirituality of that religion.

Mary Kay confidently says that countless millions are close to God without recourse to other systems of belief, but there must be countless millions who are close to God without any knowledge of Catholicism, so why we do need to be so dismissive of other religions? I came across this today: ' ... the experience of God is much more widespread than religious people usually allow. The early Christians were big enough to recognise this when they said that whoever loves knows God and whoever doesn't love doesn't know God. This simpler evolutionary truth somehow became buried in the intellectual competition to prove the existence of God and to show that my proof, my God, was superior to yours.' Maybe it's time we moved on from this game of spiritual one-upmanship.
Nicolas Bellord said…
Savonarola: I do not think anyone is saying that Buddhism is just about nothingness anymore that one can say that all there is to Catholicism is salvation. They are just the sought for ends. One does not have to be dismissive of other religions but the crucial difference between Christianity and Judaism on the one hand and other religions is revelation. (Leaving Islam out of this for the moment). One can see Buddhism or Hinduism or other religions as being ways of seeking God or the Good in different ways and admire them for the extent to which they have got on that path. However we have the benefit of revelation which adds immensely to whatever can be discovered by natural means. I am afraid it does leave us one up on the rest! But we have the duty to bring this revelation to others.
Savonarola said…
Can that really be the difference? Divine revelation surely comes in many forms.
Nicolas Bellord said…
Savonarola: For Christians revelation is what is in the Bible. I think I am right in saying there can be no further revelation and it is this unique revelation related in the Bible that Christians have and other religions do not.
Savonarola said…
Agreed of course that Biblical revelation is unique to Christianity, but I guess Muslims would say that the revelation of God given to them in the Koran is unique to their religion. Divine revelation comes in many forms. Maybe we have reached a stage in the history of religion and the world where we need to emphasise our solidarity and the oneness of God working wherever he will.

This exchange all started because Bones didn't like Archbishop Williams "squatting" to pray (really using a prayer stool), regarding this as a Buddhist practice and very unchristian, but I see no reason why we cannot borrow what helps from each other, while still preserving our own unique systems of belief. Rejoicing in being special is no longer going to get anyone very far. Today it seems that many Muslims as well as some Catholics need to learn this. Pride in uniqueness usually leads to violence against others.
Nicolas Bellord said…
Savonarola: I do not think it is a question of rejoicing or pride but a question of where the truth lies. Triumphalism is not a good thing but seeking the truth is. I believe Christian reliance on natural law coupled with the revelations contained in the Bible is where the truth lies.

I find the claim that Mahomet had divine revelation not credible. It seems to me more likely that he was an imperialist warrior who invented a new cut down version of Judaism and Christianity to inspire his armies.
Savonarola said…
Mr. Bellord, I regret that your last message shows there is no point in continuing this discussion.
Nicolas Bellord said…
Savonarola: I am sorry you feel that way but I really do not see that my statement of my beliefs is offensive in any way to you or anyone else.
la bolilla said…
Wow, Savonarola, you sound like a groovy hippie. Either that or Oprah Winfrey. I'm not sure.

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