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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 217-229

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Christian Insight Meditation: A Test Case on Interreligious Spirituality

Springs Steele
University of Scranton, Pennsylvania

In Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger's 1989 "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation," there is this significant caveat to Catholics:

With the present diffusion of eastern methods of meditation in the Christian world and in ecclesial communities, we find ourselves faced with a pointed renewal of an attempt, which is not free from dangers and errors, to fuse Christian meditation with that which is non-Christian (author's emphasis). Proposals in this direction are numerous and radical to a greater or lesser extent. Some use eastern methods solely as a psychophysical preparation for a truly Christian contemplation; others go further and, using different techniques, try to generate spiritual experiences similar to those described in the writings of certain Christian mystics. Still others do not hesitate to place that absolute without image or concepts, which is proper to Buddhist theory, on the same level as the majesty of God revealed in Christ, which towers above finite reality.... These and similar proposals to harmonize Christian meditation with eastern techniques need to have their contents and methods ever subjected to a thorough-going examination so as to avoid the danger of falling into syncretism. 1

Two years before Cardinal Ratzinger's letter, Mary Jo Meadow and Kevin Culligan co-authored an analysis of what they saw as remarkable similarities between the spirituality of the Catholic Carmelite John of the Cross and the Theravadan Buddhist vipassana (or "insight") tradition. 2 They went on, with the help of Daniel Chowning, to develop a spiritual practice that seeks to assimilate traditional Buddhist vipassana meditation into the spirituality of John of the Cross. The impetus was to supplement John's rather general instructions on method with the very detailed methodological program of Theravadan insight practice. 3

They have designated this approach "Christian Insight Meditation" and maintain that the Buddhist vipassana practice which is its basis can be assimilated to the spirituality of John because, ". . . although it originates in Theravadan Buddhism, insight meditation itself does not demand belief in the tenets of Buddhist religion." 4 In fact: [End Page 217]

We need not agree with any belief items or be willing to call on any supernatural beings to do the practice. This makes the practice available to everyone without any conflict with whatever religious loyalties they have. This practice is simply a way to apply fine-grained, continuous awareness to all of our experiences of mind and body. Although it is this simple, it leads us to the highest stages of spiritual unfoldment as the major spiritual traditions, including John of the Cross, see them. 5

The claim is that vipassana meditation is a neutral (i.e., non-tradition-dependent) practice--simply training in the mindful, equanimous observation of breath, body sensations, mental contents, and movements of the will--which, while not requiring acceptance of the theological or metaphysical tenets of any "major spiritual tradition," leads to the presumed identical ultimate goal of each.

This claim is simply asserted by the authors, without positive argument or support. While understandable in a non-academic text such as theirs, there are underlying issues connected with the claim that should be addressed. The first is tradition neutrality. The actual method the authors propose did in fact originate and was developed in the Theravadan Buddhist tradition. It presumes the practice of specific moral principles, the development of concentrative ability in a systematic fashion, and training of attention to highly specific perceptual experiences, all of which culminate in an ultimate state or experience designated nibbana in Pali, and Nirvana in Sanskrit. The authors initially present this spiritual practice in the original conceptual framework of Theravadan Buddhism and then "translate" it into the language of Christianity and John of the Cross. Thus instruction in Christian Insight Meditation is functionally training in Theravadan Buddhist vipassana meditation. As such, the practice is organically rooted in the perceptual or cognitive set 6 of Theravadan vipassana practice. In that sense...