Issue 42, December 2003
Seminar on Hermeneutics: Interpreting Scriptures in Pluralist Contexts
Application of Buddhist Praxis in Christianity
Paper read at a Bossey seminar on
Interpreting Sacred Scriptures in Pluralist Contexts

Katrin Åmell

The following contribution has to do with how Buddhist meditation praxis has been integrated into Christianity. I will mainly concentrate on how the special form of meditation in Zen Buddhism, zazen, “sitting” in silence, or the equivalent to “contemplation” in a Christian context, has been practised by Christians. When I’m referring to this praxis I use the word “zazen” to be distinguished from the more inclusive word “Zen”, which can mean many things: a Buddhist branch or institution, a spirituality, a way of living and so on according to the context. For some people, zazen is neither Buddhist, nor Christian, it is a neutral method, which can be practised by everybody, Christians, Buddhists or by people without any religious belonging. Anyhow, as I have experienced in Japan, zazen is integrated within a Zen Buddhist context, very often in a monastery, where much time and emphasis is put on this particular praxis. Outside Japan the framework of zazen might be less monastic.

Zazen was introduced into Europe about 40 years ago, in the 60ties. It came here through different ways. Like many other phenomena in Europe it was first flourishing in the US, in the so called Zen boom of the 50ties after the writings of D.T. Suzuki (1870-1966) on Zen Buddhism. Some years later it found its way to Europe. This American Zen was one of the channels. Another channel came directly from Japan with Zen masters who founded centres in Europe of different Zen schools and there offered zazen as a popular activity. Taisen Deshimaru who arrived from Japan to Paris in 1967 could be mentioned as one of these masters. A third channel was zazen offered by Christian European missionaries in Japan who were strongly influenced by the spirituality of Zen and the praxis of zazen. I’m thinking especially of the Jesuit Father Hugo Enomiya Lassalle (1898-1990) who started his career as a Christian missionary to Japan but at the end of his life also could be considered as a missionary for zazen to Europeans, while remaining a Christian and a Jesuit Father. Another kind of “neutral” zazen was introduced by Karlfrid Graf Dürkheim (1896-1988) who had served in Japan as a cultural attaché. When he returned to Germany after the war he made a psychological adaptation of zazen for Westerners and created a centre for what he called “initiation therapy” based on zazen. This was the therapeutic way. Many other founders or centres which were established later on could be mentioned. For example one could think of the Buddhist Vietnamese teacher Thich Nhat Hanh who still has a great influence in many European countries. But I will now stop this geographical description from where zazen came to the European Christian, or maybe post-Christian, culture.

Monastic Interfaith Dialogue

When people with a Christian background have met these different types of praxis, which have been developed in a Buddhist context, even if they are introduced as neutral methods, as therapies or whatever, they have reacted in different ways. Three different reactions or levels of commitment can be distinguished. One group of practitioners is happy to borrow some elements from the Buddhist context, for example the sitting only, but they really don’t want to go to the sources to pick up more knowledge about the Buddhist background. Another group of practitioners has been introduced to a praxis which has already been refashioned to suit the needs of Westerners. Here we can think of the use of zazen in a context of Christian prayer, or the therapeutic version of zazen. A third more qualified praxis exists, where the Christian practitioners really have the intention to engage themselves in a mutual dialogue with Buddhist practitioners and are ready to learn something from the Buddhist traditions and even the Sutras. This kind of praxis on an interfaith level has been developed especially among monks and nuns from Christian and Buddhist traditions. In this monastic context the praxis has a value in itself as a central contemplative element in the monastic framework, but it can also be seen as a driving force in the interfaith dialogue. The praxis and the interfaith dialogue are thus intertwined with each other in this monastic context. The dialogue is based on a praxis which permits a spiritual encounter at a deep level, which is beyond words, or where there is no common verbal language. There is a structure for the praxis and the dialogue, namely the monastic framework with its institutions. I would like to concentrate myself on this monastic application of a Buddhist praxis in the context of interfaith dialogue. As I will argue later on this is not limited to people in monasteries. Many of the elements can also be applicable to lay people.

First some words about how it started. The Cistercian monk and famous author Thomas Merton was one of the pioneers in this field. In his cell in Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky he had for many years studied the Zen tradition and he had discovered its values before being able to go to Asia. He went there only once, when he was invited to give a lecture in Bangkok in 1968 at the first Benedictine pan-Asian congress, organized among others by the mediaeval scholar Dom Jean Leclercq. After his lecture Merton died unfortunately by an accident, but one can say that the monastic interfaith dialogue was born in Bangkok 1968, even if the organization Monastic Interfaith Dialogue or Interreligious Dialogue, (MID for short) as it is sometimes called was established ten years later in 1978. It was stated in Bangkok that the monastic life in Asia is the one institution of the Church which is closest to non-Christians. The Benedictines in Asia, therefore, were urged to establish contact with their “colleagues” in the Asian religions. Since then a lot of exchanges and dialogue activities have taken place. As we are here talking especially about Christianity and Buddhism it could be mentioned that most of the contacts have been between European or American Benedictines and Japanese Zen monks and nuns, as well as with Buddhists of the Tibetan tradition.

East-West Spiritual Exchange

There is a French speaking quite active branch of MID, called Dialogue Interreligieux Monastique, (DIM for short). French and Belgian monasteries took the lead in the beginning and are still doing a great deal of the work. A significant part of the work is the monastic interreligious exchange program. The most established form is probably East-West Spiritual Exchange, which has existed since 1979 and consists of exchanges between representatives for Zen Buddhists monasteries in Japan and Benedictines in European monasteries. The exchanges take place alternately in Japan and in Europe.

The structure of East-West Spiritual Exchange is every time the same. First there are a few days of getting to know the culture. The program may consists of lectures about the religion, visits to shrines and temples as well as of official visits to central institutions, since these exchanges are of an official character and are officially encouraged by both religious traditions. This kind of dialogue is thus something more than a private concern for committed individuals.

During the main part of the exchange, the participants are divided into small groups consisting of two, three or four persons, which, for a few weeks, seek to integrate themselves into the monastic life of the other religious tradition. They participate in almost everything: religious ceremonies, daily work, contemplation or its Zen Buddhist equivalent, zazen. What is striking to all participants is how similar these structures are in the Benedictine and the Buddhist tradition. Even though the language barriers are considerable, it is still possible to understand the other tradition through analogous habits.

After this period of “apprenticeship” in the monastic life of other religions, all participants take part in a sesshin, a silent retreat where zazen is practised during the major part of the days. This is the spiritual deepening. The exchange, which lasts for about a month, ends with a symposium, where it is possible to ask questions and discuss experiences. After the exchange has been brought to completion, contacts between the two traditions are maintained. Sometimes the same persons take part in more than one exchange. This leads to greater depth, in many ways.

This kind of dialogue belongs to the category of the religious experience, or contemplative dialogue, where the encounter in silence is a form of non-verbal communication.

An evaluation and some characteristics

An evaluation has been published in 2003 for the 25th anniversary of the DIM/MID Commissions. The background is that the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue is preparing a document entitled “A Christian Spirituality of Interreligious Dialogue”. As an illustration to this document, Christian monks and nuns were asked to give an account of their contacts with another spirituality and to describe in what way their own spiritual life was changed by this commitment. This evaluation, which has the simple title “Monastic Experiences of Interreligious Dialogue”, has not been given the form of an analytic document.i The testimonies from forty-one persons are just there without any attempt at analysis. The readers have to draw the conclusions themselves. It is however possible to outline first some characteristics of this type of spiritual encounter, secondly to chisel out some critical points from the texts.

As a first basic point one can mention the discovery of the body in a real physical sense.

Through abdominal breathing, straight back, the position of zazen the participants could feel the energy circulate in their body. They thus got a new awareness of the body, which helped them also to quieten down the mind and had big influences on their life of prayer in general. I think that one could say that they discovered how to pray with the body. This physical discovery is a very fundamental point.

Another point is the self-emptying, the void, the detachment or whatever one calls it. The Christian Greek term kenosis in the 2nd chapter in the letter to the Philippians has gained a deeper meaning for the participants through the practice. This self-emptying of God is a great theological theme, which has occupied for example the Buddhist scholar Masao Abe. There are also other more individual levels of this void. The participants have discovered that there is a void in the centre of their being, where God can dwell. This is also experienced as a kind of vocation, to be individually and in community such temples for the divine dwelling. Closely connected to the void is the detachment, where the Buddhists seem to be more radical than Christians. “I want to live having only as much as I can take with me when I die”, says one participant, and continues “of course there is nothing we can take with us when we die. So I learn from the example of the Buddhist monks and nuns to leave everything behind, to live in simplicity, especially to live in harmony with nature. Thus they impel me to a life of renunciation and continuous conversion.”ii

The encounter with another spiritual tradition, if it is done honestly, is a challenge to one’s own faith. Often this leads to a rediscovery of the riches in one’s own tradition of faith. This sort of rediscovery is mentioned by many participants. One American Cistercian nun describes her personal development like this:

In the beginning stages, my participation taught me to use my body in prayer, to use my whole person. Later on, it was learning to be still, both exteriorly and interiorly. But after that, it became something in a different dimension: the meeting/encounter with the Other, both the Other as God, and the other as my neighbour, an other who perhaps had an entirely different concept of the Absolute, who could not even call the Absolute God and had no experience of Christ. Dialogue became my experience of meeting Christ in this other person. This meeting with the ‘other’ also strengthened and deepened my own belief and understanding of Christianity.

As persons of other religions questioned my belief, I began to truly study the doctrines and beliefs of Christianity and Catholicism for the first time, and began to understand them and live them more deeply in my life. Most of all, this encounter led me to a profound search for the person of Jesus.

All of this led me to a new and rich experience of the Gospel and to a desire to appropriate the gift of baptism to allow Jesus to live in me, to act through me, to unfold the Spirit, to reveal the Father.iii

I’ve chosen this rather long quotation because I think it is representative as a description of this process of personal rediscovery of one’s own tradition of faith.

As the last point I will mention what some participants have called “believing and praying with humankind”. When people of different faiths sit together, often in silence, they become aware that they are not alone. They have sisters and brothers in other parts of the world who have desires similar to their own. This means an integration in the prayer of all humankind, that could hopefully lead to more sharing, more transformation and peace among people of different cultures and religions.

Criteria for a good dialogue

Of course other characteristics or maybe results from this kind of spiritual encounter could also be mentioned but I think the examples already given might be sufficient here. As you have noticed the participants are quite positive in their accounts. What they say is that they have got something more in the contact with the other spiritual tradition. Their horizons have been broadened. However it is also useful to ask some critical questions about this kind of encounter. Are there some problems? Can something go wrong in these encounters? What are the criteria for a good exchange? Since all meetings between cultures have their difficulties, even if they also are enriching and offer mutual understanding, I think that it is appropriate also to have a look on the more critical questions.

I would like to highlight some of the criteria necessary in a good dialogue of religious experience. One such criterion is called discernment, diacrisis, in the monastic context from the time of the Desert Fathers, and an indispensable value in spiritual life. Today we might call it “critical review / examination” or something similar. Those who claim to represent a certain religious tradition have to be given a preliminary examination, without being judged. The aim is to make certain that real dialogue is at all possible. One point to keep in mind is the question of authenticity. Today there are many Asian spiritualities on offer, and it is necessary to ask whether what is being offered is authentic. Is it really representative of a venerable tradition, or is it a by-product or even a forgery?

Another point pertains to the authority, which has to be verified. Is the representative for the other tradition free in relation to their “ego”, without attachment to money, comfort, reputation, or even devotion, which their disciples display? What is the quality of their training? Which are their links with their own tradition, their spiritual lineage?

The last point is the attitude towards other religious traditions, which is totally decisive for the dialogue. Are these persons ready to learn from others, or are they only interested in strengthening their own positions or winning converts? All these points are related to the criterion of discernment.

This kind of critical questions can be justified and useful, not only in a monastic context, but in the initial phases of many kinds of interfaith dialogue and contexts where a praxis from another religious tradition is offered. Both parties in the encounter must of course pose the questions. Today we also find, at least in Asian spiritualities, people who claim to represent two or more traditions, e.g. Christian and Buddhist. These questions must indeed be posed to such persons, in order to find out whether they really can be seen as bridges in dialogue, or whether they just want to establish their own enterprises.

Another criterion according to the document is competence. To gather knowledge about the tradition one encounter is a sign of mutual respect, and at the same time it raises the quality of the dialogue. We are here thinking of the history, cultural context, philosophical background, social and psychological incentives, religious expressions and doctrinal developments of the other tradition. This kind of knowledge makes it possible to distinguish those aspects of a religious tradition which are culturally determined from those elements which belong to the very heart of the religion. An example of this is ch’an in China, which on a superficial level does not resemble Zen in Japan, but at the heart is the same Zen Buddhist school. These insights, which are independent of the monastic context, are worth seeking in every kind of encounter with another spiritual tradition.

The question of interpretation of phenomena encountered in the dialogue is yet another criterion. There are some pitfalls that are difficult to avoid, in spite of good intentions and pure motives. One such danger is the tendency to concordism, the desire to compare elements from two very religious traditions with each other. It is sometimes better to state that some elements from different religious traditions cannot be compared to each other. But the dialogue cannot and should not bypass that which is alien and seemingly incomprehensible, since that may be an integral part of the other tradition. A similar pitfall is the tendency to exaggerate some elements in the other tradition, which seem familiar, and translate these into terms, which are used within one’s own tradition. Close to this danger is the habit to categorise that which is encountered in the other tradition, and use labels which are used in one’s own tradition, such as “monism”, quietism” etc. Such labels may be totally irrelevant and misleading in another context.

In order to avoid these pitfalls, two fundamental attitudes are called for: on the one hand humility and respect towards the mystery that is proper to each person, and, on the other, simplicity, which is the opposite of ambivalence. It is impossible to belong to more than one religious tradition, at least in the monastic dialogue, and one’s own identity is important for the reciprocal nature of exchanges.

This point about interpretation and use of knowledge which has been gained in the dialogue can also be applied outside the monastic context.


Many Christians have for the first time discovered a unified view through their encounter with eastern spiritual traditions, especially zazen. The contemplative inner life, where spiritual exercises from East have been of great help is related to the connection between the monastic contemplative life, and the general contemplative renewal, which runs parallel with the charismatic movement. Christian monks and nuns whose life of prayer has been revitalized by encounter with the East spontaneously communicate their taste for prayer in different forms. Like many other Christians, monks and nuns pursue their contemplative search with inspiration from Eastern spiritualities. In doing so they participate in a more general contemplative renewal. Through this they also take part in the great movement of dialogue, encouraged by the Church, and they give a proper contribution to the specific dialogue of religious experience. Many laypeople are involved in similar experiences. The monastic interfaith dialogue is however one of the most active ones in which people have done a lot of work and also managed to evaluate their experiences. I have tried to highlight some of these points, which could also be regarded as useful tools at the disposal of everybody who is interested.

Dr Katrin Åmell is a Dominican Sister from Sweden. She is the Director of the Ecumenical Theology Desk of the Christian Council of Sweden.

i. ”Monastic Experience of Interreligious Dialogue. 25th Anniversary of the DIM/MID Commissions 1978-2003”. Special Issue of the International Bulletin (E.14), Monastic Interreligious Dialogue Commissions.
ii. Ibid., p. 58.
iii. Ibid., p. 18.

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