e-mail us


So ancient and so new

NCR Staff

If there are any absolutes about religion in these United States, one of them is unquestionably change. Since the 17th century, when European immigrants began arriving on American shores, perhaps the most stable quality of the nation’s religious character has been flux.

An experience on a recent weekend is a case in point.

Early on a recent Monday morning I accompanied Srs. Janet Richardson and Rosalie McQuaidee to their zendo, the Zen meditation center they founded in Cockeysville, Md., near Baltimore. With only a little time for sitting Zen-style before leaving to catch a train, I folded my hands and bowed, taking cues from the others -- six women representing various Christian denominations. My goal for the next half-hour was to focus on my breathing, to refrain from fidgeting and to achieve the “still body, still mind” of Zen.

The nuns, my hosts, members of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, sat at the front of the group. Richardson, who has been designated a roshi, or venerable Zen teacher, sat on a low, sloped bench, her legs bent in a modified kneeling position; and McQuaidee, who holds the title sensei, or teacher, sat in modified lotus position on the firm, black round cushion familiar to all who practice Zen.

Unaccustomed to these sitting styles, I took a chair. McQuaide struck a gong and we started off with a monotone chant, called the gatha of repentance: “All evil karma ever committed by me, since of old, on account of my beginningless greed, anger and ignorance, born of my body, mouth and consciousness, now I atone for it all.” Then silence.

The idea, I had learned, is to discard thoughts at they come. And come they did. Was I sitting straight enough? Do what with my hands? Is that bubbling water from the small fountain in the corner annoying anyone else? I thought of several phrases for the story that follows.

The first 25 minutes of sitting passed too quickly. The others put on their shoes and passed single file outdoors for 10 minutes of walking, which would alternate with 25 minutes of sitting for another hour. I wished I could stay longer, or return, to this serene and elegantly simple setting: black mats and cushions, on a gray flat-weaved carpet, perfectly clean white walls alive with shadows from a candle, a Buddha statue atop a small painted Oriental chest.

I recalled a line I’d heard on a video about Zen the night before: “Like a beer on a hot day, it is not to be talked about. It is to be done.”

Richardson and McQuaide, both holders of earned doctorates, have been practicing Zen for some 25 years, since Richardson made a Zen retreat in 1975. They came to Baltimore in 1989 to work for Catholic Relief Services, and later left to devote full time to the zendo. They named it Claire Sangha; they chose Claire because it was the first name of the woman who founded their religious order, and it stems from the Latin word clarus, meaning clear and bright.

McQuaidee, whose doctorate is in musicology, also serves as musician at two Catholic parishes. Richardson, who formerly worked as a press officer at the United Nations, now works as a freelance translator in French.

Seekers on ancient path

What is happening at Claire Sangha is happening all over the country. Committed Catholics and lapsed Catholics, Protestants and former Protestants, religious and non-practicing Jews -- spiritual seekers all -- are finding that Buddhist forms of meditation offer a challenging but well-marked ancient path.

Some former Catholics have undoubtedly become Buddhists, and just as many have become Protestants or dropped out of organized religion entirely. But many Catholics are turning to Buddhism not because they want a new religion but because they are finding it helps to deepen their own faith.

Chris Kreeger, an active Catholic who serves as codirector of the Shambhala Meditation Center in Baltimore, teaches and practices Shamatha Vipassana. Like Zen (though different in subtle ways), Vipassana is a silent, non-conceptual form of mediation. It is often translated, Kreeger said, as “tranquility or calm abiding.” It leads to “a sense of mindfuless,” he said, “and a sense of being present.” Eventually, he said, everything becomes sacred.

Kreeger’s prayer life had dried up, he said, after he left a Catholic seminary at 23. He’d been there for nine years.

“For the next 15 years, I really wasn’t able to connect with spirituality though I tried lots and lots of times,” he said. Eventually, he found his way back through Shambhala. “Buddhism has enabled me to connect with the contemplative tradition of the religion I was born into and to develop that,” he said.

Now 51, Kreeger is married, serves as a lay preacher, works with the liturgy committee in his parish and often attends daily Mass. Although Kreeger doesn’t proselytize, he has seen other former Catholics who take up Shambhala work through the “baggage” that drove them from the church and find their way back.

Shambhala is derived from Tibetan Buddhism, the fastest growing form in the United States today. Its popularity derives in part from the peripatetic Dalai Lama, the exiled Buddhist leader from Tibet who was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.

Shambhala, Kreeger explained, is the name of an ancient kingdom in the Himalayas where, as the legend goes, the king told Buddha he would like to pursue enlightenment, but wasn’t able to leave his kingdom. The Buddha presented him with a spiritual program aimed at attaining enlightenment where he was, not only for himself but for his entire kingdom. What has been handed down, Kreeger said, is “a form of contemplation that seeks to engage the world.”

Learned in Asia

U.S. Catholics have been practicing Zen meditation, longer than they’ve been involved in Shambhala, but most of the early, visible Zen practitioners were priests and nuns. Some, like Jesuit Fr. Robert E. Kennedy, chairman of the theology department at St. Peter’s College in Jersey City, N.J., came to Zen through work in Asian countries and returned to the United States to share what they’d learned with others. Some were drawn to Zen through reading Thomas Merton, the noted Trappist monk and writer who found Buddhist meditation enriched his spiritual life. Interfaith dialogue between Christians and Buddhists -- a dialogue in which Merton was a key player -- has been ongoing for more than four decades.

Now, as the third millennium approaches, the trickling down of interest in Buddhism to the grassroots is a sure sign that the Christian-Buddhist encounter has come of age. Evidence of the growth is purely anecdotal. Buddhism is decentralized, and Zen centers typically don’t keep track of religious affiliation of adherents.

One of the ironies is that some of the Buddhist centers springing up around the country have used buildings that once housed Catholic monks or seminarians.

Kennedy, one of only three Jesuits in the world who answers to both Father and Roshi, is confident that interest in Buddhist meditation is more than passing fancy.

“It’s too much work,” he said of Zen. “It quickly weeds out those who are just passing by.” He began his study of Zen during a stint in Japan, where he was ordained a priest in 1965 and completed his studies back home in the states with Roshi Bernard Glassman, a noted Zen teacher.

In Kennedy’s recent book Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit (Continuum, 1996), he explains that he turned to Zen because he had lost his moorings in the post-Vatican II upheaval in the Catholic church. “Most painfully,” he wrote, “I lost my way in prayer.”

“What I looked for in Zen,” he wrote, “was not a new faith, but a new way of being Catholic that grew out of my own lived experience and would not be blown away again by authority or by changing theological fashion.”

Many Catholics who practice Buddhist forms of meditation note its correspondence to the apophatic tradition of Christian prayer, an ancient form that teaches that God can be experienced and known only through negation; it demands abandonment of all concepts, thoughts images and symbols. Zen offers “a door,” Kennedy said, for Catholics who want to connect with that tradition.

Zen practitioners often refer to Christian mystics such as the anonymous 13th-centuryauthor of The Cloud of Unknowing, or Gregory of Nyssa, Meister Eckhart and John of the Cross: contemplatives who, through the centuries, kept the apophatic tradition alive with their writings about the incomprehensibility of God.

Different yet similar

Although Buddhism and Christianity are “totally different” -- and it would be “insulting,” Kennedy said, to suggest they are not -- “there is a similarity to their methods of prayer, developed over many centuries.” The Catholic contemplative forms, however, have not been refined into methods easily accessible to the laity, he said.

Richard Seager, who teaches American religion at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y., agrees. “It’s hard to find Carmelites who will teach you how to meditate,” he said. The Christian meditative tradition has been associated mostly with monks in centuries past and “becomes harder and harder to find” in contemporary times.

Further, he said, “I think one can build an argument that the East has cultivated meditative traditions and refined them to a higher degree than in the West.” Now, with the flourishing of Buddhism in the West, “suddenly they’re all over the place and available. I personally hope it plays back and helps to revive some of the Western meditative traditions.”

Seager’s book Buddhism in America, a readable account of history and practice, will be published soon by Columbia University Press.

Buddhism, older than Christianity, was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, a wealthy prince born around 563 B.C. in what is now Nepal. According to the tradition, Siddhartha’s father hoped to shield him from unpleasantness, but Siddhartha became restless with his privileged life. On four occasions he slipped outside palace gates, where he encountered aging, disease and death, and finally, a holy man who awakened a thirst for spiritual truth.

He reached enlightenment under the Bo Tree and became the Buddha, “the awakened one,” and one of the world’s greatest religious teachers. The Buddha’s truths can be summarized this way: Life is suffering; the cause of suffering is desire; the cure for suffering is to overcome desire; the way to accomplish that is to follow the eight-fold path, which guides one’s attitudes and actions. Compassion, a willingness to serve others, is a sign and key element of an enlightened life.

Buddhism eventually developed as three main branches: Theravada, which flourished in Southeast Asia; Mahayana, the preferred form in China, Korea and Japan (and from which Zen is derived), and Vajrayana, the exotic form that emerged in Tibet. In reality, though, Buddhism takes many more forms.

Practicing Zen as a Christian, Kennedy said, is “coming into the presence of mystery in deep silence, coming into the presence of the world, the universe, creation, not to project what we think about it, but to look deeply at it with reverence and therefore with compassion.” It is, he said, to be attentive.

“The idea is to clear the mind” with an attitude like that of the prophet Samuel: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:9,10). “We are not trying to bring into the meditation things we know or think we know about God,” he said. As the Christian mystics taught, “we have to break even the smallest thread.”

The corollary to his contemplative practice, Kennedy said, is a very active apostolic life. In addition to teaching at the college, he meets regularly with Zen meditation groups around New York City and maintains a private practice as a psychotherapist.

Vatican is watchful

Although many priests around the world are involved in interreligious dialogue, and Pope John Paul II himself has met many times with leaders of other faiths, Vatican officials, concerned about a slippery slide toward “relativism,” have begun scrutinizing interfaith work. Vatican censure of the writings of the late Jesuit Fr. Anthony de Mello is one example. The ongoing investigation of Jesuit Fr. Jacques DuPuis for his book on religious pluralism is another.

The pope angered many Buddhists with his 1994 book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope, in which he described Buddhism as an “atheistic system,” one whose doctrines are “fundamentally contrary to the development of both man himself and the world.” Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, was even less tactful in 1997, when he described Buddhism as an “autoerotic spirituality,” a religion that seeks “transcendence without imposing concrete religious obligations.”

Eight years earlier, the congregation published a warning about Christian use of Eastern meditation techniques, listing several potential dangers. Such techniques must be “subjected to a thoroughgoing examination so as to avoid the danger of falling into syncretism,” the document said.

Kennedy is aware of risks. “In anything there is a danger of abuse,” he said. “There are inevitably misunderstandings and prejudice on both sides,” he said. “Some Buddhists feel non-Buddhists will never understand the sitting, and there are many Catholics who feel Catholics should not be sitting.” He added, “Interfaith work is essential. We can’t be isolated. Catholics must see that God’s truth exists in other faiths.”

Seager acknowledged that part of the appeal of Buddhism for Americans is its non-theistic nature. “The whole notion of a personal, living God has become problematic for a lot of people. Here is a tradition where you can continue to bracket the question.”

On the other hand, he said, “Buddhism does have universal, cosmic concepts or energies that are easily reconciled to theism.” The result, practitioners believe, is that Christians can meditate as Buddhists with compromising their Christian faith.

Janet Abels, a Catholic who works in Manhattan as a spiritual director, has studied Zen with Kennedy since 1992 and oversees a Zen group in Greenwich Village. Kennedy said that teaching Zen as a Jesuit offers “a safe bridge” for Catholics who want to explore Buddhist mediation.

Abels, who has reached the level of “dharma holder,” the last step toward becoming a sensei or teacher, finds that interest is not only growing, but maturing. In the 1960s and again in the 1980s Catholics sometimes turned to Zen because they were angry with the church, she said. “Those aren’t the people we attract now. Now the people who want to learn Zen are people who are OK where they are but who want to go deeper.”

Jesuit Fr. Matthew Roche, who offers Zen meditation at St. Anthony’s Catholic Church, a Jesuit parish in Oceanside, N.Y., on Long Island, said the program draws people who are dissatisfied with other forms of prayer -- “with memorized formulas and prayers, and even with Centering Prayer, a form of mediation often based on a mantra, he said.

Sitting with the crucifix

Roche, a practitioner of Zen himself, sits weekly with a small group, about six to eight, who place a crucifix rather than a statue of Buddha in the room. Typically, he said, they alternate sitting and walking meditation, ending with a teaching and then tea. Roche also accompanies the group monthly to St. Ignatius Retreat Center in Manhasset on Long Island, where some 30 people sit together for an evening. Roche estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the Manhasset group are Catholic.

“Zen is one of the options the church presents,” Roche said. “I think it’s good to present as many options as possible so people can find what works best for them. One of the things we’ve learned from the enneagram and Myers-Briggs are that we are surrounded by a wealth of personalities.

The enneagram and the Myers-Briggs test -- formally the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator -- are methods of sorting people by personality types. They are intended as paths to better understanding of self and others.

“People who are Catholic are very excited to find out they have access to this in a parish,” Roche said. Occasionally, though, someone objects. Roche said he tells them that while it may not be their form of spirituality, others should be free to explore forms of prayer that help them grow. The parish offers a wide variety of spiritual programs including some very traditional ones, he said.

Madge Larsen and James Whitehead are members of Roche’s parish and the Zen group he organized. Larsen has been practicing Zen meditation for about six years. She sits every morning at home in front of an altar. Like many others who practice Zen, and echoing Thomas Merton, Larsen said it is a discipline that helps people get rid of their false selves and become the people God intended them to be. She related a story she heard recently:

“One time Michelangelo was asked, ‘How did you create David?’

The artist replied, ‘I got a block of marble and I chipped away everything that wasn’t David.’ ”

Larsen said, “That’s what God wants to do with us. We are so conditioned, so involved in the business of the culture, our own world and thoughts, that God can’t break through.”

Zen, she said, is “a vehicle for helping us get to the core of who we are, so God can really send us out.”

Zen aims at separating one’s true self from one’s ego, the self-seeking part of the personality that often brings on pain. To some, “it’s depressing,” said Charles Birx, who teaches education at Radford University in Radford, Va., and oversees a Zen group at his parish, St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Blacksburg, Va. “People think of it as a religion in which there’s no self and no God.” But Zen is less about self-denial than about finding the true self, he said.

“Fr. Kennedy’s teacher once told him that it’s OK to love yourself, just find out how big your self is. The experience of Zen is to see that one does not deny oneself to serve the other but rather that one is the other,” Birx said. “When we help one another, we are helping ourselves.”

Rather than centering, Zen is “decentering, an openness to this unbounded life,” said Birx. “Zen for me was falling in love with prayer.”

Birx has practiced Zen for more than 25 years. He and his wife, Ellen, give Zen retreats, sometimes with Kennedy. “It is very scary to some people, especially people who want to hold on to a childish faith,” he said.

Alert and wakeful

“One of the main reasons this is important to me,” Birx said, “is that as I was growing up I learned verbal and mental prayer, but found I had forgot the body. In an incarnational religion, how could you forget the body? In Zen the body is very important. It’s a movement of the whole person, body and mind. We sit still and strong, awake and alert in the body, with a wakeful posture. Our mind is open to that which cannot be known by thought.”

James Whitehead of Roche’s parish said he often revels in connections between Zen and Christian teachings. “Sometimes Madge [Larsen] and I go and sit on Sunday morning, then go to church afterwards,” he said. “It seems like 50 percent of the time what we hear at the homily connects on the head with the teaching offered at the sitting. I love the richness of hearing the same thing from both traditions.”

Benjamin Lee Wren, a former Jesuit who teaches Buddhism and Zen at Loyola University, New Orleans, drives home similarities between teachings of Jesus and Buddha more formally. He has students memorize the four noble truths of Buddha, the principles of the eight-fold path, and the eight beatitudes of Jesus. “They begin to see the parallels,” he said. Wren said his course is “the most academically scrutinized course at Loyola,” because of periodic complaints from alumni and other critics.

Wren came to Zen in the 1950s through ikebana -- pure astonishment at that Japanese form of flower arranging. He tells his story in a new book, Zen Under the Magnolias, just published by University Press of America.

Wren sees creativity as integral to Zen. He expresses some of his own creativity when he celebrates a “Zen Mass” with his students. “I wish you could see it,” he said. “We really celebrate.” First his students make ikebana. “Then we put them on the floor,” he said. “There might be 25 to 50. Then candles, vigil lights of different heights.” The floor, he said, “begins to look like a Persian rug.” Worshipers sit on the floor in concentric circles. At the Lord’s Prayer they might walk in circles in alternating directions. Sometimes he introduces folk dance.

Wren explains in his book that Zen meditation, or zazen, is “a real help in undergoing the emptying-out process, kenosis, that [the apostle] Paul spoke of. … It may also help us to avoid,” he wrote, “what Edward Young, the 18th-century British poet once said, ‘We’re born originals and die copies.’ ”

Wren points out in his book that Zen is not for everyone. “Certain people’s unconsciousness is better off undisturbed,” he wrote.

Back to Christianity

If many Catholics are turning to Buddhism, the process also works in reverse. Richard Hart, raised a Methodist, became interested in Buddhism in the 1960s, eventually becoming a Buddhist monk. He opened the Clear Mountain Zen Center in Baldwin, N.Y., on Long Island, which he still operates. Then, four years ago, after being hit on his shoulders and head with a stick by a Japanese Zen master -- a teacher, Hart said, who got carried away with the traditional method of keeping disciples focused -- he had a stroke that left him in continual pain and paralyzed on one side. Because he had no insurance, Hart didn’t seek medical treatment or therapy. But he did hear the voice of the Blessed Mother who, over a period of time, became his comforter and friend.

“It just rocked my boat,” he said, of the first few times he heard her speak. “My first reaction was, ‘Are you aware you’re talking to a Buddhist? I think you have the wrong address here.’ ” Gradually, though, his pain subsided, his mobility improved, and he reconnected with his Christian roots. He developed relationships with Roche and Kennedy and became a Catholic.

A favorite topic among scholars close to the American Buddhist scene these days is the effect the East-West encounter on American soil will have on Buddhism and on Americans.

Seager, in his forthcoming book, writes of a “mixed tradition” Buddhism that is developing in the West. Americans, “who, as a general rule, value personal religious experience highly but have little use for doctrinal consistency or patience with traditional orthodoxy” favor an eclectic approach to spirituality that leads to mixing and sharing of traditions.

Kennedy is a strong proponent of an inculturated Zen. “Zen has to be Americanized,” he said. Americans should not “blindly imitate the Japanese” but integrate Zen into the American experience. As one small example, he said, Americans, for instance, don’t like their teachers to use sticks.

Some Buddhist beliefs are also being reexamined and revised. Seager points out in his book, for example, that the Dalai Lama has reportedly expressed a willingness to abandon beliefs derived from a cosmology that scientific inquiry does not support.

Despite growing rapprochement at the grassroots, though, scholars report tensions between Western practitioners and Asian immigrants who preserve their Buddhist heritage and faith in temples culturally far removed from the centers where Americans learn to meditate.

As for the effect on Catholicism, Kennedy is decidedly optimistic.

“Catholics should always be willing to integrate new truths from other faiths,” he said. “Just as the artistic expression of our faith came from the Italian Renaissance, there will be an Asian expression of the Catholic faith. It won’t look like the Italian Renaissance. It will come from silence, from the sense of oneness we have with creation.

“I try to be positive, to avoid arguing with people,” he said. “I try to show people the Catholic roots of silent meditation, always respecting the differences between Christianity and Buddhism, and to focus on the hopefulness, the continuing revelation of God through interfaith work.”

National Catholic Reporter, December 3, 1999