Kennedy Roshi ordains
Trappist monk Kevin
Hunt as a Zen sensei
Several years ago I was hiking in Tuscany and struck up a conversation with some English Buddhists who were staying at the same small hotel. They were there on a wine tour. Buddhists on a wine tour is somewhat like monks on a brothel crawl. Buddhists abstain from alcoholic beverages as a matter of ascetic discipline. Buddhists, at least practitioners of Buddhism, are vegetarian and these jolly Englanders were downing cinghiali, prosciutto, lardo, pancetta, sausages of every description, and whatever other pieces of pork, wild or tame, they could get their hands on like the Taliban was coming to eliminate pigs from the face of the earth. These “Buddhists” were dilettantes whose “sangha” was more a social club and where the “dharma” was no more than an Asian take on “Prosperity Gospel” religion. It was to Buddhism what Joel Osteen or Norman Vincent Peale are to Christianity—the Happy Clappy “power of positive thinking” hogwash.
Real Buddhism involves discipline. The Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha are taken seriously. But real Buddhism argumentably isn’t a religion, not in the western sense. Buddhism doesn’t posit the existence of a Deity. I wouldn’t say that it is atheistic in the sense that it denies God; it is just non-theistic. I think it is more precise to say that Buddhism is, what we in the west would call, a philosophy. Now I am saying this as a non-Buddhist and I am open to correction, or at least conversation, on this point—from an acknowledged Buddhist. I have read extensively in Buddhism for forty years and have a good collection of Buddhist works on my shelves. I am not an authority by any means, but let me explain what I mean. And when I say that it is not a religion, in the western sense, I do not intend that to denigrate Buddhism in any way. But Buddhism differs greatly in the questions it ponders from the question that Christian, Jewish, or Islamic thought—or western atheistic thought—raises. Or perhaps I had better further refine that: Buddhism differs greatly in the questions it ponders than does Christian, Jewish, or Islamic thought, excepting the mystical strains of those religions. The bridge of commonality between Buddhism and Christianity is pretty much limited to the mystical tradition within Christianity. That is why the official Catholic/Buddhist dialogue is conducted by a panel of Christian and Buddhist monastics. The various meetings of Catholic and Buddhist monastic scholars which have taken place at the Trappist Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky in 1996, 2002, and 2008 have been very productive for both sides as the rich heritage of contemplation in both religions has been shared.
Granted in some forms of Buddhism, and I think in particular of Tibetan Buddhism, there is mention of various “gods” or “demons” but these do not correspond to what is meant by a deity or god in western thought. Anthropologically they seem to be survivals from pre-Buddhist animism and are some sort of “spirits.” They are not common to all forms of Buddhism and these micro-gods would be foreign to most Buddhists, particularly those in the Zen tradition. Even in Tibetan Buddhism they comprise an element more of popular religion than official doctrine.
I have always been struck by how most Buddhists, including and perhaps especially the Dalai Lama, have spoken of the western concept of God. The Asian mind is not binary as is the western mind. To the west, if A is true then B must be false. We use scientific medicine or traditional forms of medical practice—herbs, acupuncture, etc. One is a scientist or a mystic, a Democrat or a Republican, a believer or an agnostic. In the East this duality seems strange and the Eastern mind is given to living with paradox and contradiction. In Japan it is not uncommon for a person to be Buddhist and Shinto; in China Confucian and Buddhist.
While Buddhism does not posit the existence of a Supreme Being, Buddhist leaders and Philosophers speak comfortably of God and of Jesus without seeming to find a contradiction to their convictions. In his book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, Thich Nhat Hanh, perhaps, after the Dalai Lama, the best known Buddhist author in the West, tells of receiving Holy Communion at a Mass celebrated by Daniel Berrigan. (OK, I know that isn’t kosher, um, I mean canonically approved, but it happened and Berrigan is a Jesuit so what does one expect.) The Buddhist Master gives a remarkably clear and vivid statement about the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist that not only reveals his experience of the Risen Christ in the Sacrament of the Altar but chides those Christians for whom an encounter with the Eucharistic Christ has become so routine as to be no longer truly appreciated. Western minds have a difficult time wrapping around this ability to reconcile diverse understandings within a single mind and heart but perhaps the problem is not with the Eastern ability to live with Paradox but the Western inability to accept the complexity of Truth.
So can one be a Buddhist and a Catholic? Does being a Buddhist preclude one from being a Catholic? Well, it depends on what one means by “being a Buddhist.” It is not necessary to leave the Catholic Church or renounce its doctrines to practice Buddhism’s spiritual path. When one uses the traditional Catholic distinction between latria (the adoration given to God alone) and dulia, the veneration given to saints or holy persons, one can say that there is no worship (latria) given in Buddhism to the Buddha or other figures but only the veneration due to wise and noble figures.
When the Reverend Marcel Guarnizo refused Barbara Johnson Holy Communion at her mother’s funeral Mass, he did so because she is in a same-sex relationship. He was unaware that she is a “Buddhist.” That fact was unearthed by Guarnizo’s supporters only after the fact but it has been used as a secondary justification for the priest’s action. Of course since he did not know it at the time and therefore it played no part in his decision, it can’t be used to justify it. On the other hand, should her being a Buddhist have been reason for Ms. Johnson not to have come forward to Communion? Well it depends. What sort of Buddhist is Ms. Johnson? Is she, like those English vinophiles I mentioned a dilettante, a sort of religious tourist to Buddhism, who plays at it weekends? If she does not follow the disciplines, to some degree, of Buddhism she is not really a Buddhist. Though even if she practices Buddhism seriously that does not mean she is still a Catholic either. Has she officially renounced Catholicism through some formal act? The Church says you don’t just sort of cease being a Catholic. You have to either formally join some other religious community incompatible with one’s Catholicism or formally reject, not Church teaching, but your membership in the Church. (I know of a case where a priest required a person who said they no longer were a Catholic to sign a document to that effect and have it notarized before the priest would hire the man as a non-Catholic employee.) Apparently from the example of Kennedy Roshi and other Catholic clergy, religious, and practicing laity on can practice Buddhist spiritual disciplines and still be a Catholic. Since Ms. Johnson claims to attend Mass (and receive Holy Communion) at least from time to time, she does not consider herself to have left the Church whatever her involvement with Buddhism may be.