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Christian Rutishauser {*}

Zen and Christianity

For a Competent Interreligious Dialogue


From: Geist und Leben, 1/2008, P. 9-16
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


The question whether and how Zen meditation should be practiced by Christians is more complex than it appears at first sight. Comparative religious studies of Buddhist and Christian ideas of transcendence, salvation, revelation etc. do not help, because Zen is a form of meditation and a spiritual path of practice. Although both are closely connected with religious beliefs, they are nevertheless to be distinguished from them. A comparison of Christian mysticism and Zen spirituality gives just as little answer as reports of Christians of experiences on the Zen path, since the connection of the spiritual practice with liturgy, ethics, way of life and world view is here completely faded out. But these are crucial factors for a viable Christian identity. In order to adequately assess Christian Zen it is necessary that meditation has its place in the overall context of Christian life. Also Zen's transformation in meeting with Christianity is to be considered. The following considerations would like to outline these themes. But first let us briefly glance at the church context in which today this interreligious meeting takes place and the question of Zen meditation for Christians arises.


To Recognize Tradition and History

Religions meet in the shape of the faithful. Christianity is both, world-view and way of life of the church. Despite its spiritual dimension it is as community of believers as historical quantity subject to change. So Christianity has always been in a deliberate dialogue respectively in an unconscious interaction with other world-views and ways of life. It gets its concrete form not only from the biblical revelation and the tradition based on it but also from the constant interchange with society and culture. This dialogic identity of church and Christianity has in the last two centuries been formed by the confrontation with Enlightenment and the modern age - up to the Second Vatican Council by negative gestures of separation and since then by positive gestures of neighbours.



Since the Council many elements of the secular world have been fruitfully integrated into church life. In the area of spiritual life and meditation above all individual achievements of psychology have been made fruitful, although it in itself continued to be an anthropology closed to transcendence. The Council could lead the church into a dialogic attitude towards the culture of the modern age by embodying it more fundamentally in its own tradition. This change of paradigm was possible by overcoming a too narrow understanding of tradition, which previously was only orientated towards the scholastic theology and the Tridentine order. Ideas of the Middle Ages and of the early modern age were dominant. But the Council remembered the source of Scripture and the theology of the Church Fathers and the first Ecumenical Councils. After all Christianity had already developed in the classical antiquity as comprehensive religious system and paradigmatically created the basic forms of world-view, ethics, liturgy, community, works of charity etc. That in today's argument about the interpretation of the Council this fundamental principle of 'Ad fontes' is de facto evaded by revisionist circles, by again wanting to draw the church's identity only from the Tridentine tradition, is a dangerous stupidity.

The recourse to the twofold source of Christian identity has become the way out of confessional quarrels, has opened the way for interreligious dialogue, and gives new weight to mysticism and spirituality. This way back into the early history is sometimes exhausting. It is like an ethnology in a time when our own ancestors sometimes appear more exotic than foreign cultures and religions that we meet within the framework of globalization. But thus the tradition becomes living and a vital source that also today feeds the interreligious dialogue. As addition to the church's mission dialogue with other religions is an objective of the Council, which wanted to join all people in looking for truth. The Vatican's writings after 'Nostra Aetate' explicitly demand the dialogue also at the level of spirituality.


The Patristic Church and the Dialogue of Religions

That for the dialogue with the Asian religions in general and with Zen Buddhism in particular the resort to the early Church history is particularly fruitful is due to a historical constellation: Both Bible and Christianity as autonomous religious system developed from a dialogic discussion with Judaism, ancient forms of religion, and the pagan philosophical schools.



The church's identity developed from the biblical history that was anew interpreted by the Christ event, and from the integration especially of the Platonic tradition. The latter was not an élitist abstract philosophy but a practical way of knowledge to the vision of the divine with a clearly mystical trait. But the pluralist pagan religion with its multitude of ideas and rituals, which all were somehow interchangeable and served to get closer to the divine, was rejected. It was recognized as human concoction or, as we say today, as a psychological projection of the human need for transcendence. Christianity became a religion influenced by Hellenism with an individual form of meditation, which in its theory of knowledge and mysticism of ascent was strongly orientated towards neo-Platonism. Clemens of Alexandria, Origenes and Dionysius Areopagita with his apophatic theology may be here mentioned as representatives.

In today's inter-religious dialogue the church, which since the scholasticism had rather turned to Aristotelianism and left behind the Platonic paradigm of the first millennium, meets a spirituality from India that is basically influenced by neo-Platonism. In the West its rites are widely spread as exotic esotericism. With Zen we meet a philosophical school of Buddhism as way of practice that has by its radical apophatic orientation a great similarity to the philosophers' schools of antiquity. Also a spiritual anthropology is communicated with it. It is discerned as non-Christian, but on looking closer many elements correspond to a pre-scientific knowledge that was also an integral part of Christianity.

Hence today the order of the day is similar to that in the early church. One must distinguish with what forms of expression of Asian religions it is worthwhile to enter into a dialogue in order to deepen one's own Christian life in a globalized world. Zen Buddhism with its highly developed philosophy certainly belongs to them, whereas polytheism with its many and diverse rites is in principle contrary to the biblical thinking. But the dialogue can only succeed if the church solves the dispute between a traditionalist, Tridentine oriented interpretation of the Council and its progressive interpretation committed to the modern age and its belief in science. Just the generation of the Council, which has commendably lead the dialogue with the modern age and its fundamentally secular understanding of the world, must go a step further to turn to piety, meditation and the God question in the global context.



Concrete Experience and Ideal of Spiritual Life

Christians often turn to Zen and Buddhism because they are disappointed by the spiritual life in the church. There they hardly find concrete and professional help for a personal path of meditation. They also miss respect and a protected room that is needed for the continuous maintenance of a spiritual pathway and the work on inwardness. Those experiences cause not only many Christians who practise Zen but also those who write about it to compare a spiritually depleted Christianity with the ideal of the Zen path. Zen is furthermore often equated with Buddhism. Great harm is caused on the one hand by the missing distinction between religion as a whole and the spiritual exercise paths on both sides, and on the other hand by mixing historical experiences with the spiritual conception of a meditation path. In the inter-religious meeting, to be strictly correct, not only the historically communicated Zen Buddhism in Asia should be compared with the religious life of the West but also the conception of Zen meditation with the spiritual paths of Christianity, e.g. the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius or Teresa of Avila's writings on contemplation. But above all there are needed competently and professionally communicated Christian meditation offers that can express themselves in the dialogue with religious seekers. To be religious today means to be interreligious in the sense that a Christian has a positive relation to other religions and recognizes the truth shining in them. But as long as the church authorities give their main attention to reorganization and proper settlement of their public life, and theology elaborates its insights only in dialogue with the established, materialistic science without making them fruitful for the spiritual life of the individual the Christian spirituality and the interreligious dialogue with Zen will have a hard time.


Zen as Part of the Buddhist-Christian Meeting

Zen for Christians should be considered within the framework of the interreligious meeting. There the understanding of religion, as the sociology of religion has developed it, is particularly helpful. It sees Christianity and Buddhism as social systems, which - to say it simply - have five subsystems to their disposal that are in interaction with each other:



  1. The world-view answering fundamental religious questions: Where do we come from and where are we going? How are suffering, guilt and evil to be understood? How are history and the Absolute to be explained? The comparison of the faith in resurrection and the idea of reincarnation had to get their place here.
  2. The ethical instruction giving to the individual and the community rules of conduct for daily life and criteria for major decisions.
  3. The liturgical order that by the rites expresses the relation to transcendence and makes ideology and ethics perceivable by the senses.
  4. The institutional Constitution that organizes the religious community, regulates areas of competence, and gives social orientation. The Christian Church with its many and diverse structures and the Buddhist sanghas and monasteries may be mentioned as examples.
  5. The spirituality that gives the individual member of the religious community a personal path of piety, and enables it to grow spiritually. In Buddhism this is Zen and in Christianity meditation and contemplation.

In a healthy and religious identity, as Buddhism and Christianity represent, the five areas are always in interaction with each other and are formulated as coherent as possible. Buddhism has its centre of gravity in the field of Zen and the individual path of practice leading to freedom and salvation - hence in the fifth area. From this experience it develops the other subsystems. Christianity is based on God's revelation in history that belongs to the first area. From here it unfolds its logic by creating and arranging the other sections. Both religions thus develop their identity from different existential basic experiences. Via (those) different subsystems they come into dialogue with each other. Foreign elements are then integrated into the organism or rejected.


Zen's Change in Meaning in Christianity

When Christians practice Zen, this will for them have a different meaning than for Buddhists. Meditation is in Christianity neither the ultimate factor to create community nor does the salvation of the individual depend on it. Above all from the undeniably valuable enlightenment experience no complete interpretation of the world is deduced - as is done in Buddhism. Zen is taken over as method of meditation and in the new context gets a changed meaning. It is transformed by the Christian centre of gravitation, since a Divine Self meets the one who practises. The Zen meditation according to its function is classified and subordinated to God's salvation, because also those who do not practise Zen are redeemed by the act of faith in Christ. The daily Eucharist during a Zen Sesshins is an example how on the practical level integration takes place.



It is secondary whether this new context of meditative sitting is still to be called Zen. The shifting of the function is decisive. Such a transformation process is a natural and inevitable occurrence in the meeting of the two religious communities. In any case, an interreligious exchange is only justifiable if one works towards a certain coherence of all five areas of religious identity. If the fundamental law 'lex orandi lex credendi' - the correlation of world-view and spiritual practice - would be abandoned, the religious community would fall victim to eclecticism, would lose attractiveness and reliability, and - seen for a long time - risk its existence. People who let themselves form in a religious manner and are then exposed to a religious syncretism immediately show identity disorders. Where interreligious dialogue is lead seriously, not only Zen is offered for Christians but the Christian meditation paths are brought into dialogue with Zen. Besides the practical exercises also reflections on the interreligious meeting have to be offered. That nowadays just in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue the Trinity doctrine of the Old Church has highest relevance and gets fruitful impulses is known to few outsiders. So of course not just Zen is subjected to a shift of function but also the five areas of Christianity's identity are influenced in this meeting and stand in the river of history and life.


Courage to Accept Differences Takes the Dialogue Seriously

But the Christian soil has been abandoned, when Christians take over together with Zen the Buddhist world-view of reincarnation, when the freely intervening God as a personal Self disappears and redemption is only understood as salvation caused by one's sitting. The ethical monotheism, Judaism, which stands for it and the Christian message of salvation through Christ, the Tortured on the Cross, are then sacrificed once again. Where this happens out of an excessive enthusiasm for Zen and it becomes so independent that the result is an alternative community and a religion opposing the uniqueness of the biblical revelation, you have to refrain from it out of the Church's perspective. A popular religious pluralism accompanying such developments has to be unmasked in its gentle, but dangerous claim to universal authority and in its repressed fear of the truly different reality (of a personal God). But the present spread of Buddhism in Europe has to be distinguished from that, as fact to be taken note of and to be answered in a constructive dialogue.


Attractiveness and Truth of the Pictureless Form of Meditation

At a time when the social life has become complex and even the church presents its eternal truths as historically imparted, the search for simplification of faith and an immediate experience of God has grown. Furthermore, since religion on the one hand is fundamentally criticized and on the other hand either indefinitely formulated anew or emphatically revived in rigid formulas the spoken word has become suspect. For many contemporaries the traditional Christian language is dead, its words sound empty and hollow to them. In the area of spiritual practice and spiritual paths this basic mood finds its expression in the search for word- and pictureless forms of meditation and in the longing for a mysticism of immediate experience of transcendence and unity. Hence Zen with its method of unmasking mental constructs as illusions and its goal of getting empty (Leerwerden) appears to be an attractive way for many people. Since it is also in the nature of every spiritual path that meditation always becomes poorer in words and pictures, the Christian methods, which use biblical texts and grasp God as personal Self, are seen as preliminary stages of the apophatic meditation, as also Zen turns out to be.

This view in the interreligious dialogue also with many Christian writers always leads to a devaluation of the Christian forms of meditation, because they only focus on the formal aspects of meditation and aim at a personal experience of God. But this assessment is questionable both, from the biblical thinking that lets God be met in history and creation and from a philosophical point of view that sees also the experience of transcendence always communicated by human beings. Also with our question about Zen for Christians, meditation must not be seen separated from the other elements of a Christian identity. It belongs to the system of religion with its five subsystems. For meditation has its goal outside itself: It is to form man into the likeness to Christ and to transform him into a person that - out of inner freedom - devotes itself to the service of God and the world. Whether this is achieved by biblical, picture- or objectless meditation is ultimately secondary.


Spiritual Practice in the Service of Life

The experience of Zen shows that guided sitting breaks down an inveterate perception of reality and religious truths.



The socially constructed Self is questioned and dies. A spiritual cleansing process comes into being by the confrontation with one's own internal reality and the readiness to do without it. It leads to inner freedom, a truer Self and help - out of the experience of unity - to grasp deep layers of reality. Compassion and care for all creatures grow. This effect of Zen meets the demands of Jesus, that the wheat grain must die in order to live anew (cf. Jn 12, 24), that the Christian is to be a listener and on his guard (Mt 17, 13-23, Mk 13, 34 -37), and that care and assistance for one's neighbour are crucial (Luke 10, 25-37). Many who practice Zen become internally changed and find a new, deeper Christian life.

Because of its effect Zen is just not the continuation of a Christian path of exercise, on the contrary, Zen helps to a Christian attitude that is a pre-condition to become of one's own free will Christ's disciple. It is a beginning and stands beside other Christian forms of meditation in which the individual finds to inner freedom and a deeper Self. Like psychological therapeutic help also the Zen meditation promotes self-knowledge and Christian maturation. But the Christian meditation approaches only afterwards its peak: It leads man not only to himself but to the God of the Bible and to his own vocation in the service of others and the world. The Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius e.g. show that affection in the form of assistance, compassion and concrete love of one's neighbour is not a consequence of successful meditation. Rather, in the meditation man finds his unmistakable and personal vocation, when he on the one hand becomes engrossed in the mysteries of Christ and on the other hand lets transform his biographical situation in the light of God. The path of contemplation too, with its reduction in the meditation method, is ultimately entirely directed to Christ, Holy Scripture and liturgy that lend a concrete form to the spiritual life. But the Zen meditation has become a help for many Christians to let the old man with his inner distortion die and to create the inner freedom for this relationship to Christ.


    {*} Christian Rutishauser SJ, born in 1965, PhD., Head of the education sector in the Lassalle-House Bad Schönbrunn - spirituality, Jewish studies, interreligious dialogue.


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