The Practice of Zen and Christian Meditation

Hans Waldenfels, SJ

 Hans Waldenfels, SJ / Church Life / Published Date:14 October 2017/Last Updated Date:15 July 2021

Unlike Islam, Buddhism presents itself to the public in a subtler way. In fact, in an age characterized by activism and feverish agitation, Buddhism offers an alternative way to people on a religious quest. Throughout wide areas of public life, the invitation to silence and meditation is no longer connected to the Christian Church. In churches, however, there are numerous opportunities for reflection, and some of them have an Asian origin. In that sense, beyond the simple attraction of Asian practices, specific elements are also used. 

Zen and the West

In the following text, what Buddhist meditation proposes will be discussed. We will look particularly at 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 that 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 psychosomatic 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.[1] At the same time, the superficial way in which judgments have been voiced over the centuries on what is considered heretical or orthodox is today no longer acceptable, 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.[2] Thomas Aquinas speaks of cognitio per connaturalitatem,[3] which he understood as a 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).

A book by Peter Lippert, SJ, Da animo ad animo, first published in 1924, was very widely read in the past. 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.

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