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Can Buddhism Help Christians Strengthen Their Christian Faith?

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Michael Carroll
Michael Carroll

In September 1979, Cardinal Terence Cooke of New York hosted his Holiness the Dalia Lama on his first visit to the United States, on the sanctified ground of St. Patrick's Cathedral -- a sacred place cherished by millions of New Yorkers -- Catholics, Christians and non-Christians alike. And it was here that Catholics throughout the United States witnessed a unique and telling moment: a respected and revered Catholic leader and a much loved and widely recognized Buddhist Spiritual King encouraging Catholics and Buddhists to open to one another to, as I remember it, "go into one another's places of worship and learn from one another."

As a practicing Buddhist and former Catholic with a degree in Catholic Theology, I was delighted to witness such an event and hear such an invitation. Scholars and contemplatives from both Catholicism and Buddhism had been exploring one another's traditions for decades and it was refreshing to see such a dialogue open further to a wider congregation. I also had a personal stake at the time because these two men meeting in that Cathedral helped my mother and father grow more comfortable with my spiritual journey and encouraged them to graciously explore some of the profound insights Buddhism had offered to me.

Now don't get me wrong. I never considered His Holiness and the Cardinal's encouragement as an invitation to form some kind of synthesis between Buddhism and Christianity -- an attempt to "mediocritize" religion, giving the false impression that, in the end, all religions were somehow the same. In fact, both men had been very clear about the distinctions between their faiths and both were understandably concerned that the services that day not give a false impression that Buddhism and Catholicism were somehow exchangeable.

But they did speak to the possibility of spiritual harmony -- that we could, in fact, explore each other's worlds and learn from one another. And it is here in this possibility of spiritual harmony that we could ask ourselves a simple question: What can Buddhism offer Christians that could help Christians strengthen their Christian faith?

Such a question, I am sure, may appear a bit presumptuous. But asking this question is not meant to be a one way street, by no means. We could and should ask the question, "What can Christianity offer Buddhists that could help Buddhists be better Buddhists?" The profound works of compassion performed by Catholics and other Christian groups throughout the world, for example, are a beacon of moral brilliance and virtue that should inspire Buddhists in our compassionate work, no doubt.

But if we were to consider another question -- "What can Buddhism offer Christians that could help Christians strengthen their Christian faith?" -- we could focus on a central and most profound vision of Christianity: communion with God.

At the very heart of Christianity is a powerful, intimate longing to have an unmistakable and immediate experience of what is sacred and for Christians this is about spiritual union with God. As the great Spanish Mystic, St. John of the Cross, professed in his "Ascent of Mount Carmel":

"...God dwells and is present substantially in every soul, even in that of the greatest sinner in the world ... when the soul rids itself totally of that which is repugnant to the Divine Will and conforms with it, it is transformed in God through love ... (ASMC V) ... learn to be still in God ... (ASMC XV)..."

But how do we actually "conform," "transform" or "learn to be still" in God? Can we have an unmistakable experience of this "love" that St. John talks about and if so how?

Traditionally, Christian contemplatives lived lives of denial and sacrifice caring for the needy or living in seclusion using prayer, solitary retreats, acts of compassion, and much more to perfect this most profound union with God. But, how about the average Catholic or Christian raising a family, working as a nurse or attending college? How can the Catholic Church and other Christian institutions support their efforts to have an unmistakable experience of God? And it is here where Buddhism could make a contribution -- could help Christians strengthen their Christian faith -- by offering a simple contemplative discipline not just for priests and monastics but for all Christians. And this simple contemplative act is learning how to be silent.

Today, now more than ever, there is a profound need for silence in order to connect with what is sacred in life. Whether we are truck drivers or moms; teenagers or corporate execs -- learning the way of silence in an era of constant noise and distraction is indispensable if we seek communion with what is vast, profound and hallowed. As Mother Teresa, the great Saint of our time so aptly put it:

In the silence of the heart God speaks. If you face God in prayer and silence, God will speak to you. Then you will know that you are nothing. It is only when you realize your nothingness, your emptiness, that God can fill you with Himself. Souls of prayer are souls of great silence.
("In the Heart of the World," Mother Teresa)

For Buddhists, learning how to be silent is the singular great, exquisite practice -- a discipline called mindfulness-awareness meditation. And while Buddhists take great satisfaction in having perfected this contemplative practice over many generations, we are the first to recognize that mindfulness-awareness is not ours and has relatively little to do with "Buddhism" and everything to do with rediscovering what makes life sacred. Practiced by millions of ordinary people throughout hundreds of generations, such a discipline is about learning to sit still, quiet the mind and open the human heart to the sacredness of right here right now. And offering this practice to others -- whether Buddhist, Christian or otherwise -- is a gentle yet powerful gift we Buddhists are delighted to offer. And maybe this is the harmony that the Dalai Lama and Cardinal Cooke were hoping for: opening together in silence to what is sacred. As Mother Teresa taught:

"Silence of the heart is necessary so you can hear God everywhere -- in the closing of a door, in the person who needs you, in the birds that sing, in the flowers, in the animals ... In silence He listens to us; in silence He speaks to our souls. In silence we are granted the privilege of listening to His voice."