The Practice of Zen and Christian Meditation

Issue 1709

14 October 2017

Buddhism presents itself to the public in a subtler way in comparison to other faiths, offering an alternative way for people on a religious quest. Throughout many Christian communities, silence and meditation are no longer connected exclusively to religious practice. There are numerous opportunities for reflection, and some of them have an Asian origin. This article considers what Buddhist meditation offers to non-Buddhists, particularly Zen exercises as practiced by non-Buddhists, above all by Christians.

One of the reasons that has led us to talk about this issue is how this religious form of Asian meditation has come to the West through Japanese Zen, while Yoga has found more space in the secular environment as a physical exercise. In addition, the use of the now fashionable term “Zen” applies to many things, in part due to “masters” who assume this title on their own authority. At the same time, the arbitrary way in which judgments were made over the centuries on what is heretical or orthodox is today no longer the custom, all the more because of the necessity to clearly distinguish between theory and practice. 

In all cultures, besides rational knowledge that can be expressed discursively, there are forms of knowledge that are used to communicate without the use of the spoken word. Thomas Aquinas speaks of cognitio per connaturalitatem, which he understood as knowledge based on equality and spiritual closeness, a “connaturality.” John Henry Newman chose as his cardinal’s motto the expression cor ad cor loquitur (heart speaks unto heart). 

In Japanese, the Zen Buddhist expression ishindenshin (“from soul to soul”), meaning direct communication and transmission of a mood, is often used. These examples suggest how knowledge can be communicated non-discursively and must also be taken into account in the practice of meditation.

The author, Hans Waldenfels, is a professor emeritus of Theology at the University of Bonn.

This article is available in the October edition of La Civiltà Cattolica English edition. 

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