- Catholic Discernment with a View of Buddhist Internal Clarity
In January 2004 at the Northern California Ch'an/Zen-Catholic Dialogue I offered a presentation regarding the Catholic spiritual decision-making process called "discernment."1 This article addresses the same topic but with a decidedly broader scope. It weighs the like processes of spiritual decision making in the Catholic as well as the Theravāda Buddhist tradition. On the Catholic side, I begin by referring to selected moments in this long, rich, and developed theology of Catholic discernment, though primarily the discussion focuses on what is referred to as "Ignatian discernment." For the most part, the Ignatian method has become the normative means of discernment for the Catholic spiritual tradition.2 On the Buddhist side, while we might employ various Buddhist terms to discuss the correspondence to Catholic discernment, I have chosen to focus on the term "internal clarity." Further, within the Four Noble Truths, I consider the Eightfold Path, which can be subsumed under the Three Trainings of discernment, virtue, and concentration. These Three Trainings are considered indispensable for self-realization.3
To carry on this comparative discussion I have selected what I see as three shared moments in the Catholic and Buddhist theology and practice. First, in both traditions there is a common aim of the practitioner to strive for the spiritual ideal set before him or her, although, understandably, at this beginning stage this ideal may be a concept without experiential content. Therefore, beginners must initiate their spiritual journey by engaging the ordering of the affections toward the higher good. Next, there are the means employed to arrive at this ordering of the affections; both Catholic discernment and Buddhist discernment largely focus on the hard work of dedicated prayer or meditation, respectively. Finally, the outcome for the Catholic discernment and, in fact, the entire spiritual journey itself is to please and serve God and others. Resounding peace and happiness is the fruit of such discernment and practice. For Buddhists, the outcome is an internal clarity that comes with self-realization. The outcome is to be awakened to the truth of one's essential being.
Given the comparative nature of this discussion, I must state the obvious: Catholicism and Buddhism are unquestionably distinct spiritual traditions. Therefore it is imperative that a comparative study respects each tradition. I acknowledge that only a relative and inexact comparison is possible between the two spiritual traditions of Catholicism and Buddhism. I must also acknowledge that this article emerges from a [End Page 39] Catholic perspective; such was the origin of this consideration at the Northern California Ch'an/Zen-Catholic Dialogue Buddhist members of the dialogue wanted to understand the processes of Catholic spiritual decision making. I believe that a qualified and respectful comparison responds to that original Buddhist inquiry. I also mention that given the comparative nature of this brief consideration of these encompassing spiritual traditions, what emerges is a reflection on various moments in the process more than a complete and systematic exposition on Catholic and Buddhist decision making. Still, I hope such comparison may help both Buddhists and Catholics gain understanding of one another's spirituality. Of course, advancing this mutual and fertile conversation between Catholics and Buddhists is ultimately the intention of both this comparative study and this article.
In the Catholic spiritual tradition, there has been a developing understanding of discernment from the primitive Church to the present. Regarding an early concept of spiritual decision making, Matthew's Gospel states: "every good tree bears good fruit and every bad tree bears bad fruit" (7:16–20). The meaning here seems clear enough: good comes from good decisions and evil results from bad decisions. Implicit in this counsel is a moral choice between good and evil, as well as the inevitable and long-term consequences of a good or bad decision. Thus an early concept of spiritual decision making was initially that of moral choice.
Discernment understood as moral judgment remains constant in the early Church. In the fifth century, pope and saint Gregory the Great offered instruction on discernment. In Morals on the Book of Job, Gregory likens the sense of smell to the...