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Spiritually Bilingual: Buddhist Christians and the Process of Dual Religious Belonging
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Spiritually Bilingual:
Buddhist Christians and the Process of Dual Religious Belonging

Sociologists studying convert Buddhism in America have found that a surprisingly large number of Buddhists also identify as Christian.1 However, little empirical literature examines these Buddhist-Christian “dual religious belongers.”2 This study aims to fill that gap. Based on extensive interviews with eight self-identified “Buddhist Christians” of varying levels of doctrinal and experiential understanding, this study examines the conversion process of these dual belongers and how they combine these religious traditions. Building on Michael von Brück’s contention that one’s first religion is like a mother tongue, I compare taking on a second religious tradition to learning a second language.3 As practitioners become more “fluent” in the second religion, they differentiate the two religions more clearly while combining them more seamlessly in their daily lives.

methodology

This study employs grounded theory and a qualitative, inductive methodology. Grounded theory is designed to elucidate the dynamic changes involved in a social process, with rich descriptions of categories and explanations for variations between different people’s experiences.4 While the use of qualitative methods with a small sample size means that my results have little statistical significance, such methods have been used in recent research on conversion and dual belonging and yield deep theoretical insight.5

Eight participants for this study were solicited via word of mouth, personal acquaintance, and posting in a Buddhist-Christian Yahoo Group. In particular, I focused on Buddhist-Catholic practitioners to limit my sample group. Interviews were conducted and recorded in person or on the phone over a three-month period in fall, 2011. Interviews were open-ended, each lasting from sixty to ninety minutes. Several participants later received a draft of the paper to ensure they felt adequately represented; five participants responded. Names of participants have been changed for [End Page 57] confidentiality. To complement these interviews, I also incorporate written accounts of Buddhist-Christian conversion from both Catholic and Protestant authors.6

participants’ backgrounds

It can be difficult to define Buddhist identity in the West, as many people who regularly practice meditation in a sangha do not self-identify as Buddhist.7 This study focuses on those who both practice Buddhist and Christian spirituality and belong to religious groups of both traditions. The eight participants have a range of religious expertise and commitment to both traditions. In terms of Catholic identity, six are laypeople (one in a secular religious order), one a priest, and one a nun. Three participants are theology professors. Seven have been Catholics from birth. One spent a decade living in a Buddhist monastery, two of them are roshis, and five give Buddhist teaching or meditation instruction formally. Seven of them practice various forms of Ch’an or Zen, while one practices Tibetan Buddhism.

Cathy went not from Catholicism to Buddhism, but from Buddhism to Catholicism. A former Mormon and Unitarian, she began learning meditation at a Ch’an temple. This Ch’an temple normally only reached out to the Chinese community, but there was a Taiwanese nun there who wanted to reach out to non-Chinese community members. After practicing there for a few years, Cathy moved to another location, where she could not find any sangha that fit her needs. After attending Mass with a friend, she decided to become Catholic because she needed a community. It was not a hard transition for Cathy, who described feeling in meditation “some kind of entity, whether you call it God or Creator or atomic process.” She was confirmed as a Catholic in 2011.

Rachel has been a nun for fifty years and a practicing Zen Buddhist for thirty, ten of those years living and working in a Zen monastery in the mountains of California. She described feeling an emptiness in her faith, a lack of practical knowledge of how to attain the spiritual goals that her Catholic tradition had for her. After hearing Zen teacher Cheri Huber speak at a conference, she took Huber on as her teacher. She has facilitated meditation workshops for many years. Though meditation instruction is not her full-time ministry, “meditation is my life … so in a sense...