Tuesday, March 13, 2012


"So, can one be a practicing Buddhist and a faithful, sacramental Catholic? You will find few traditional Catholics who would answer in the affirmative."

I knew a Carthusian who built himself a Zen garden and had himself a Zen master - a woman, no less.  As far as I know, he is still a Carthusian and a Catholic.  Thomas Merton was famously a student of Oriental mysticism, and although he said I want "to become as good a Buddhist as I can." - he remained a Catholic.  Both of these men identified as Roman Catholic, both by religious profession and practice, yet I'm not sure it was their intention to identify themselves as distinctly Buddhist, or Buddhist Catholic.

This topic arose of course because Barbara Johnson was denied communion by Fr. Marcel Guarnizo.  Fr. denied Communion because Johnson revealed to him she was a lesbian in a relationship with another woman - in so many words.  Later it came to light that Johnson identified herself as a Buddhist, and in another situation, a 'student of Buddhist philosophy' - in addition to being a lesbian.  Those of us who support Fr. Guarnizo's actions see this as further justification for denying Johnson Communion, although Fr. Guarnizo probably was not aware of those details. 

Anyway - further discussion on the Guarnizo/Johnson Communion tussle is not my objective here.  What I find interesting is the subject of BuddCaths - or Catholics who claim to be practicing Buddhists, and specifically, a quote I ran across from John Paul II on Buddhism:
The “enlightenment” experienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man. To liberate oneself from this evil, one must free oneself from this world, necessitating a break with the ties that join us to external reality — ties existing in our human nature, in our psyche, in our bodies. The more we are liberated from these ties, the more we become indifferent to what is in the world, and the more we are freed from suffering, from the evil that has its source in the world.

Do we draw near to God in this way? This is not mentioned in the “enlightenment” conveyed by Buddha. Buddhism is in large measure an “atheistic” system. We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called Nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world. To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world which is the source of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process. - “Crossing the Threshold of Hope,” 
... Suffice it to say, on this point the pope drew a bright line between himself and many other Catholics who, essentially, argue that Vatican II completely embraced the “all religious roads lead to the top of the same holy mountain” approach to faith. - T.Matt, Get Religion.org
Is Buddhism compatible with Catholicism?

Is the nada of John of the Cross the same thing as the sunya of Zen?  Not exactly.  But what does the Church teach?
Catholics believe that the Church is the Body and Bride of Christ, the seed of the Kingdom of God, and the conduit of God's grace and mercy in the world. Buddhists believe that Church, or Sangha, is in the end, upaya, nothing more than the expedient means to ultimate extinction. Rather than the Beatific Vision, Buddhist teaching holds that non-existence is the only hope for escaping the pains of life.
Catholicism believes that truth, and the Author of Truth, can be known rationally (to a significant, yet limited, extent) and through divine revelation. In contrast, Buddhism denies existential reality; nothing, including the "self," can be proven to exist. 
Dialogue and Danger 
Romano Guardini, in his classic work The Lord, stated that Buddha would be the greatest challenge to Christ in the modern age. In an age of terrorism, such a statement may appear to be an exaggerated concern, but Buddhism offers Christianity serious and subtle challenges. Because it appears to be peaceful, non-judgmental, and inclusive, its appeal will undoubtedly continue to grow. Because it offers a spirituality that is supposedly free of doctrine and authority, it will attract hungry souls looking for fulfillment and meaning. "For this reason," the Holy Father states, "it is not inappropriate to caution those Christians who enthusiastically welcome certain ideas originating in the religious traditions of the Far East — for example, techniques and methods of meditation and ascetical practice." As he correctly observes, "In some quarters these have become fashionable, and are accepted rather uncritically."

Nostra Aetate, Vatican II's Declaration on the Relationship of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, states that "Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination." It continues to note that, "The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions" and believes that other religions, in certain ways, "often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men."

In Buddha’s final words to his disciples under the sala trees, he said, "Make of yourself a light. Rely upon yourself; do not rely upon anyone else. Make my teachings your light. Rely upon them; do not depend upon any other teaching." When the Fourth Evangelist described John the Baptist, he said, "He was not himself the light, but was to bear witness to the light" (John, 1:8). He continued by proclaiming that Christ "is the true light that enlightens every man who comes into the world" (John, 1:9). Christ, the "true light," did not teach His followers to extinguish their fires, such as is meaning of nirvana, but to illuminate the world with His love, and to reflect the light of His truth. - Catholicism and Buddhism | Anthony E. Clark and Carl E. Olson
It seems to me that Buddhism may be a convenient religion in our relativistic culture.  The authors cited above, noted:
Another key appeal of Buddhism is its non-dogmatic and seemingly open-minded character. For those who reject the dogmatic and objective claims of Christianity, or who believe that Christianity should avoid an "exclusive" or absolute approach to truth, Buddhism offers an easier alternative. In addition, some Christians find solace in believing that their faith in Christ and Buddhism are compatible. - ibid
H/T to PML for the GetReligion.org link.


  1. Great post Terry. My mother was born and grew up in Hawaii where there a lot of Buddhists of various schools of thought (Mainly Japanese but not limited to them). It was my understanding that one can differentiate between Philosophical Buddhism and religious Buddhism. I know that Chinese and Japanese Buddhism is often mixed with folk religion (Taoism, Shinto etc). As a child visiting Hawaii we went to Buddhist temples especially for the various festivals. My cousins who were part ethnic Japanese took part in the OBON DORI festival of the dead where graves are lit with lanterns and food left for hungry spirits etc. Along with the dance around a tower with a drum.
    It had never occurred to me that one could be a Catholic and a Buddhist at the same time. I'm assuming that Merton and other Buddcaths were of the mind that if the Japanese and Chinese can adhere to their respective folk religions and at the same time be good buddhists, then it follows that Catholics can do the same. I do know that philosophical buddhism was/is popular in the gay world precisely because it provides a spirituality that is inclusive, non judgemental and doesn't have to be practiced within a religious context. I'm not convinced that one can be a Catholic and a Buddhist at the same time. Our goal as Catholics is heaven and not a state of nothingness. My 2 cents.

  2. Had to give up my lovely psychologist when he was embracing buddhism...I also reject "mindfulness" techniques which are all the rage as treatments for depression & mental illness..thanks be to God I'm extremely well now!

  3. "Buddhist teaching holds that non-existence is the only hope for escaping the pains of life."

    Jesus, my God, chose to enter into humanity fully. He created humanity, He gets the final say so on what we are all ultimately about, the buddha says to listen to no-one but him(the buddha). Mmmmm, sounds like old nick to me.

    I'm sticking with Jesus, and the Catholic church. I've got a whole eternity to exist in yet. I haven't had that much fun in this transient existence. I am not taking any risks with the ultimate life! The eterrnal one, that is.

  4. I have a friend who is by no means himself a Buddhist, but he is interested in Buddhist philosophy and how certain things in it CAN be similar to Christianity, even how some Buddhists can be "primed" for the Gospel. He thinks of it in terms of how the Fathers viewed Platonism, or how St. Thomas viewed Aristotle and Avicenna.

    I see nothing wrong with this - Catholics cannot say that EVERYTHING outside the Church is evil and cannot be useful, otherwise we'd have to reject Aristoteliansm, which is the basis of the entire system of Catholic philosophy.

    Another thing to think about is that there is a difference between Zen Buddhism, which is highly atheistic, Theraveda, which is I think the Tibetan kind and is pretty nihilistic in the end, and Mahayana, which is common in Southeast Asia and which is actually very "religious" - most of such people I have met would make very good Christians, but I am ignorant of how to approach them.

    Now, as far as Buddhist meditation and ascetic practices being spread to monasteries without criticism - this is dangerous. Then again, I have seen certain practices adopted from the Christian East that have been accused of being "Buddhism" by those who are ignorant, so ...

  5. Tibetan Buddhism is a form of the Mahayana tradition. Therevada is much narrower in focus and less prone to deistic add-ons like Mahayana traditions are.

  6. Reminds me of the time I was watching Terry's favorite daytime show, *The View,* and Fran Drescher was on. She was kibbitzing about her time with the Dalai Lama and how wonderful he was and how wonderful and peaceful Buddhism is and so not like Christianity and won't the Catholic Church just 'get with it' and of course all the bobbleheaded View women were nodding in agreement so vehemently, I thought Joy Behar's head was gonna fall off.

  7. Thanks, Thom

    The Mahayana tradition seems pretty deistic as far as I can tell from the Vietnamese Buddhists I know.

    It looks like I was getting terms mixed up - my only point was that there are different schools, and that saying "Buddhists believe ..." can be like saying "Muslims believe in the coming of the 12th Imam" or "Christians believe in Sola Scriptura".

  8. The 2000 Preface to the twice re issued Introduction of Christianity by Cardinal Ratzinger originally published in 1968 is remarkable in presaging the precise time we are now in and speaks to the question you raise without a hint of ambiguity.

    Or, as pop CCM recording artist (& arguably Granddaddy of the same musical realm) Randy Stonehill put it simplistically yet with equally accurate insight in 1991, "Well it's a Great-Big-Stupid world.
    Dumb dumb da dumb dumb baby it's a stupid world"

  9. The official position of the Church regarding Buddhism is found in Nostra Aetate (2) which states: "Buddhism, in its various forms, realises the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination...The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions. She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men."

    Of course,the Church"...proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ "the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself." (Nostra Aetate 2)

    It seems clear that, as others have pointed out, there are certainly elements in Buddhism which are compatible with Catholic teaching and, as Mercury has pointed out, the Mahayana branch of Buddhism is arguable deistic. Obviously, such teachings as reicarnation are incompatible with Christian teaching.

  10. parepidemos - I might add that there a certain things in Plato and Aristotle that are incompatible with Christian teaching, which in fact are fundamentally flawed.

    Still, where things are true, where things are good, they are compatible with Christianity.

  11. If, as John Paul II said, Buddhism teaches that the world is bad, then that alone is sufficient reason for Catholics to reject Buddhism. Scripture explicitly states that God looked upon all that He had created and saw that it was good. If God created anything that was intrinsically bad, that would make Him the author of evil -- a blasphemous notion, since we know, by our Faith, that God is all-good.

    It seems to me a very bad idea for Catholics to delve into the beliefs of other religions unless they are well-catechized and firmly grounded in Truth. Unfortunately, many today are neither.

  12. The serious problem I see is that many Catholic do not know enough about their own religion to discern the false from the good. My experience is that many Catholics in my peer group who either began studying yoga, TM or Buddhism, have left the faith, or are marginal Catholics - attending Mass whenever and really are not engaged with sharing Jesus' teachings or studying Catholicism further than their h.s. instruction. However, they can go on & on about the new found practice that changed their life. Take a look at Carolyn Myss' writings and her thoughts on Catholicism and the eclectic Eastern thoughts she promotes. Many a Catholic are following her. Just my experience.

  13. Mercury, The Church doesn't teach that everything else is bad; if you read Angels and their Mission by Jean Danelieu, you'll find that angels were to oversee the twelve tribes of Israel. Only Michael got it right. All other religions have part of the truth.

  14. I don't think a person can come from a Western Culture and become Buddist. Our culture is so deeply ingrained in us to try to become something like Buddist would be like putting on ill fitting clothes.

    Now, how can I say that and still think that Catholocism/Christianity can be embraced by all? Because it is explained in it's definition of "Universal". As in the Sabbath was made for man, Salvation was made for man.

    Buddism was made by man.

    Culture can be appreciated, language can be learned but our God can transcend our human culture and transform it.

  15. Nan - I didn't say that. I agree - there is truth to be found in many places, but the FULLNESS of truth is only in the Church.

    We're not Calvinists :)


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