Christianity lies at the root and heart of Western culture. Today intellectually rejected because of its failure to relate effectively with science, and sentimentalised by those who seek popularity within a world of adolescent values that last a lifetime, the traditional European religion none the less continues to stir the heart. Perhaps it is the story of Christ himself, rather than the abstractions of theology or the often hypocritical moralism, that touches us so. Every day we are hearing his story - in Tibet, in Bosnia, among the Kurds and Shiites of Iraq and in our own twentieth century well watered slums.
In a recent article for The Sharpham Miscellany I explored some themes that are in common between Buddhism and Christianity and also some differences1. The essential linkage lies in the common concern with compassion while the major differences lie in the psycho-philosophical understanding of the place of the human being in the Universe. Christianity has focused particularly on the alleviation of poverty and plays an active role in politics in many countries. Buddhism focuses more on the alleviation of psychological misery among rich as well as poor and has so far played a relatively minor role in world politics, Tibet excluded.
Buddhism's strength lies in the fact that the profound philosophies of the Madhyamika and Cittamatra schools not only found a deep resonance within modern physics and philosophy but may come to occupy spaces in the intellectual world of the West where the meaning of being requires deeper attention. Here, in the vacuum of modern thought, Buddhism's critique of the self allows a reconstruction of values based upon a deconstructive approach resembling that of contemporary French philosophy in particular. In the world of alienation in which we find ourselves today, this provides hope where only regressive and fundamental religion seems to be strong. Furthermore, it is a message which the emerging underclass of modern society might well understand if and when it hears of it.
Yet the deep strength of Christianity lies today in obscure places where the "deep" religion of inner contemplation and quiet asceticism still sustains itself. A visit to the Franciscan friary at Batcombe in Dorset showed me a caring community with a profound spiritual life, practice and liturgical round. This deep Christianity is anchored in values that approach those of Buddhism closely. Emphasised here is the inner life of contemplation married in various ways to action. Teachers of the pseudo-Dionysian tradition, Meister Eckhart and the mystical writings of obscure saints and priests of the medieval times are important here. The Cloud of Unknowing by an unknown spiritual adviser to priests in 14th century England is very close to Zen, as is the little book of the French monk Brother Lawrence on The Presence of God. What we have here is an apophatic approach to God; that is to say an approach that focuses on what God is not rather than what he may be asserted to be. Such a view leaves the essential mystery untouched by definitions and discriminative thought and allows a contemplative openness that only the spiritually adult can attain. It is in regions such as these that Buddhism and Christianity can enter a productive dialogue. This is no longer possible in those regions where pop Christianity and evangelism maintain their unthinking way.
In Buddhism there is no God. But then what thinking priest claims the existence of God as essential to Christianity these days? So is God a problem? The answer is only affirmative for Buddhists if by God, some fixed unmoveable permanent causative entity, a father figure projected into heaven, is proposed. This God is probably truly dead and gone but his shadows are everywhere. But if by God one means the deep mystery at the heart of the cosmos about whom or which nothing can be asserted other than that the process is one of endless change, evolution and return, then the difference with Buddhism becomes minimal. Indeed this is also the reason why Buddhism can retain a good relationship with Hinduism but only a polite one with Islam. If Christianity ceases to be a fundamentalist religion of the Book and re-emerges with the humility of the Desert Fathers the dialogue with Buddhism can deepen.
But can one then relate to this God? Not as the spiritually adolescent might wish to do in a sentimental and emotional elation that can so easily mislead, but certainly so in contemplative thought and meditation. My own Christian heritage sometimes surfaces when within my sitting meditation in zazen the word GOD suddenly appears like a koan demanding resolution. Today this word has ceased to be a puzzle to me, nor any longer does my personal emergence from an adolescent Christianity produce twinges of guilt. Instead the word GOD has become a power word, a mantra that stands for the whole just as well as Buddha Mind, Tathata or any other term. It arises and passes away. It has become empty and therein lies its ancient power. I feel less at ease with Jesus the Christ. Who was he? What kind of a being was he? Why has the Church made such a mess of his message? For me the koan "Tell me what the cross is?" remains a live issue to which I must return. There is no way one can escape the deep roots of one's own culture. The way through is dialogue.
Many people, puzzled by the alienation and ennui of our times and by the rising wave of valueless materialism and criminal apathy without heart, have been looking into Buddhism because Christianity fails to be enough. Yet such people often retain deep Christian motifs in their psyche that cannot be denied. To work these through in dialogue is essential to our re-emerging spirituality.
Recently Hebe Welbourne, a child health doctor and wife of the late theologian Fred Welbourne (who I remember well from the days of the Bristol Encounter Centre) of Bristol University, became the "resident hermit" in an ancient house of prayer next door to the church of Westbury on Trym. Feeling the need to explore meditative approaches of our time she came to a Western Zen Retreat at Maenllwyd. Her report follows. It is clear to me that in such meetings lies the essence of the dialogue of which I speak. We have had many Quakers on retreats for they find zen close in many ways to their silence in church. I was once asked to lead a retreat for a Christian community but some unclear resistance developed and it never came to fruition. Today, I think that simply to offer an open door at the Maenllwyd is the way forward. Those Christians who have an affinity with contemplation are likely to find their way there and join this inner dialogue. Sometimes, as in the report "What's the trick?" (below), the Ch’an or Western Zen Retreat allows the resolution of a problem that many Christians experience due to the dilemmas of their own tradition in modern times. The door remains open to all2.
1 Buddhism and Christianity - bridging the gap. In: Sharpham Miscellany; essays in spirituality and ecology. The Sharpham Trust. Totnes. pp 57-70.
2 Two useful books on Zen and Christianity are William Johnstone's Christian Zen (1971) Harper Colophon Books and Silent Music; the science of meditation. (1974) Fontana/Collins.
For additional reading I recommend:
Allchin, A.M. 1983. Solitude and Communion: papers on the hermit life. Fairacres Publication 66. SLG Press Oxford.
Caussade, J-P de. 1977. The Sacrament of the Present Moment. Fount Paperbacks. Collins
Furlong, M. 1985 Merton; a biography. Darton, Longman and Todd. London.
Leigh-Fermor, P. 1982 A Time to Keep Silence. Penguin
Levi, P.1987 The Frontiers of Paradise: a study of monks and monasteries. Collins Harvill
Sophrony, Archimandrite.1973. The Monk of Mount Athos. Mowbrays. London and Oxford