Iesu Hotoke Sound

Near the end of his life the Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton said that he wanted “to become as good a Buddhist as I can.” A contemporary priest, Robert E. Kennedy, S.J., Roshi (Zen master), holds Zen retreats at Morning Star Zendo in Jersey City. He states on his web site: “I ask students to trust themselves and to develop their own self-reliance through the practice of Zen.” Meanwhile, the St. Francis Chapel at Santa Clara University hosts the weekly practice of “Mindfulness and Zen Meditation.” Similarly, there are a growing number of Buddhist retreats and workshops being held in Catholic monasteries and parishes.

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to combining Zen Buddhism and Catholicism, suggesting that the Catholic Church has finally “awakened” from its “outdated” and “exclusivist” ecclesiology. While Buddhism has not been in the news recently as much as Islam, its influence and attraction has steadily increased in the West. Is Catholicism really “parallel” to Buddhism? Can Catholic doctrine be reconciled with Buddhist beliefs and practices?

The Coming of Buddhism

Buddhism is the fourth largest religion in the world, with about 370 million adherents, or about 6% of the world’s population. Although less than 1% of Americans identify themselves as Buddhist, interest in this ancient belief system is growing. Sections on Buddhism in major bookstores usually dwarf those dedicated to Islam or Hinduism and there has been a steady stream of articles and books about (and by) the Dalai Lama in recent years. Some stores even display the Dalai Lama’s works beside those of Pope John Paul II, hinting at the “similarities” of the Buddhist and Catholic faiths.

The influence of Buddhist thought in some Catholic circles has been evident since the 1960s. In the wake of the Second Vatican Council’s call for respectful dialogue with other religions, many Catholics, including many priests and religious, dove headlong into studying Buddhism. Much was made (and still is) of the many “common characteristics” of Catholicism and Buddhism, especially in the realm of ethics. External similarities, including monks, meditation, and prayer beads, seemed to indicate a newly discovered closeness between the followers of Christ and Buddha. While some helpful interreligious dialogue and study was accomplished, some Catholics mistakenly concluded that Buddhism was just as “true” as Christianity, and that any criticism of Buddhism was “arrogant” and “triumphalistic.”

This attitude still exists, of course, as do attempts to combine the two faiths. It’s not uncommon for Catholic retreat centers to offer a steady diet of classes and lectures about Zen Buddhism, Christ and Buddha, and even “Zen Catholicism.” Their bookstores feature titles such as Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, and Going Home: Jesus and Buddha As Brothers. Comparisons are often made between Christian mysticism and Buddhist mysticism, at times suggesting that the two are essentially identical in character and intent.

Catholicism and Buddhism, Ignatius Insight, Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson, 2005

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