Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 37-41
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What I Know and Don't Know: A Christian Reflects on Buddhist Practice
Catholic Theological Union
To reflect and write on spiritual practice for publication in an academic journal requires a delicate balancing act. It is not appropriate simply to recount one's experience; nor is it appropriate merely to theorize. I am assisted in this balancing act by a set of categories proposed some years ago by Walter Principe and generally accepted as standard now within the academic field of spirituality. Principe observed that spirituality operates on three interrelated yet distinct levels and that it is crucial for the academician to be clear about which level or levels are being presented. The three are: (1) experience; (2) articulation within wisdom traditions; (3) academic interpretation. 1 My understanding of what is desired in the present context is some of all three but with a primary emphasis on the second. What does Buddhist practice look like from my stance within my Christian "wisdom traditions"? Thus, this is the horizon within which I will present both experience and academic insights.
First a bit of autobiographical context. I became a Christian as a young adult, after having been raised in a secular humanist household. My first attempts at a form of meditation as a teenager came from reading Taoist books; in college I experimented with drugs (at that time this was often seen as "spiritual practice") and spent a couple of years very seriously practicing transcendental meditation. Only after all this did I seek baptism and church membership. Since then, my certainty that my call is to be a Christian has not wavered. I spent several years in a Carmelite contemplative monastery, and I now belong to another Roman Catholic religious order.Yet I have repeatedly been drawn to periods of engagement with various practices having Hindu and Buddhist roots.
This context is important to describe because I am aware that for me (and for many spiritual seekers today) there can never be a "pure" insertion in a single tradition. I reflected on that recently in an airplane at twenty-five thousand feet, looking down and seeing how totally human constructive activity has reshaped the contours of the land, the rivers, and everything that depends on them. I realized then that the same must be said of the inner contours of my soul. Nearing fifty, I bear the marks [End Page 37] of everything that I have ever done or touched or suffered or known. As I approach this task of reflecting on Buddhist practice from the point of view of a Christian, I cannot do it as a pure outsider. My spiritual practice is Christian in its core, but it has been inextricably shaped by so many other influences--including varieties of Buddhist practice.
It is also important to acknowledge the limits of my knowledge about Buddhism and Buddhist practices. My academic exposure to Buddhism is about equivalent to an introductory undergraduate course. As for Buddhist practice, I have participated in a total of five weekend retreats, three one-week retreats, and one three-week retreat. These were all from either Vipassana (Insight Meditation) or Zen (Kwan Um or Diamond Sangha) traditions. Occasionally, I have also had even briefer exposure to other Buddhist traditions. I am very aware that there is much I do not know, or that perhaps I just plain misunderstand, about Buddhism.Yet dialogue requires that I honestly state my views, in their present form, with the hope that in the dialogical process what is misinformed or insensitive can eventually be corrected.
Spiritual practice (for Buddhists as well as Christians) involves many different kinds of practices. Practices of charity, such as hospitality or almsgiving, perhaps present the fewest obstacles to mutual understanding, because the practices may be generally similar in both traditions. The ritual practices of a religious tradition, on the other hand, can feel extremely alien to those who do not belong to that religious culture. Paul Hanvey has noted that our reaction to...