A Catholic Monthly Magazine

Buddhist Meditation – What can we learn?

Fr John Kelly

by Fr John Kelly ocso

I spoke in the last article of ‘secular meditation’ because it is not necessarily oriented to moral values and to virtue. Often it is practised so that one may be more efficient in business or in politics. It could even be oriented to immoral goals.

Secular meditation differs a lot from Hindu and Buddhist meditation. I have not a great knowledge of these religions, and I hope that what I say is accurate.

In the Asian religions meditation is integrated with a whole philosophy of life. It is bound up with mystical experience and high moral values. Some Buddhists are very moral people and they stress compassion, which is one of the fruits of meditation. In the deep silence of meditation they are in contact with all being, and experience a certain communion with all creation.


Photo: - Matthew Bishop | Creative Commons - Attribution, Noncommercial, Share Alike.

We Christians love to relate to God as a living, loving person, a Father who loves and cares for us. The Dalai Lama says that he does not believe in a personal God. (Some Buddhists do believe in a personal God). Instead of the word ‘God’, many Buddhists use such words as ‘ultimate reality’, ‘the sacred’, ‘the ground of our being’. These concepts differ a lot from the Christian idea of God as ‘Our Father’. Many Hindus, e. g. Gandhi, pray and meditate. Furthermore some yogis and Hindu monks live extraordinary lives of prayer and self-denial. Often they spend their lives hidden away in caves in the Himalayas in north India. They seem to reach a high degree of self-realisation and perhaps union with God.

Buddhism and Hinduism have endured for two or three thousand years. Meditation has been practised faithfully by deeply committed monks even before the coming of Christ. Here in N.Z. we have about 40,000 Hindus and also about 40,000 Buddhists.

This raises a question for us Christians, what can we learn from these religions? This is not a new question. The Catholic Church has always tried to recognise the signs of the Spirit in secular and non-Christian philosophies and religions. Aquinas used the philosophy of a pagan, Aristotle, as a basis for explaining the whole of Christian theology and spirituality. Vatican II, in its document, ‘The Church in the Modern World’, strongly affirms the goodness of creation, science, culture and technology. It integrates these values with the theory and practise of Christianity. By assuming human nature, Christ has taken all creation into himself and redeemed the whole cosmos. He has made all secular values in some sense sacred.

The secular meditators have secularised Hindu and Buddhist meditation

In the light of this thinking we need to ask ourselves, what can we learn from Hinduism and Buddhism that will enrich our Christian life? The secular meditators have secularised Hindu and Buddhist meditation. Perhaps we can Christianise this meditation. If Aquinas was alive today, he would be working on this challenge. In our modern global village it is a challenge that we cannot ignore. Since the Holy Spirit is working in all human beings (L. G. 40) it should not surprise us if he has revealed something to the Asian religions that he has not told us.

The first important lesson that we can learn is that meditation releases hidden potential in a human being. In the West we realise that the human psyche consists of the conscious mind with its faculties and activities; we experience these at the level of consciousness. Freud, who was an atheist, discovered many truths about the unconscious that were unknown before his time. Now we are happy to integrate his insights with our Christian spirituality. In like manner, meditation, whether that of the Asian religions or secular, can be used to enrich our spiritual lives. Meditation, by suppressing conscious activity, allows new energy to flow from the unconscious into one’s life. They explain this by saying that the ‘deep-self’ or unconscious is activated. We ‘water the ground of our being’ by silence and the self is realised. All meditation, whether secular, Asian or Christian, will produce the effects just mentioned.

Christians, by using the meditation techniques of the Asians and the seculars, can release the unused potential of the unconscious and put it at the service of moral virtue and the love of God and neighbour. This extra energy is not unlike money. Just as money can be used for building up God’s kingdom or for self-indulgence, so the extra energy flowing from meditation can be used for good or evil. Buddhism and secular meditation have provided us with a new tool that we Christians can baptise and use in God’s service.

As Christians we believe that the three divine persons dwell down in our unconscious. We do not usually recognise them when we reflect on our conscious experience. John of the Cross points out that they are ‘hidden’ in the substance of the soul. Christian meditators claim that, when we cultivate the ground of our being by meditation, we open our spirits up to the Spirit of God. Meditation creates the milieu wherein God’s Spirit can touch our spirit.

All meditation, whether Christian or otherwise, serves to integrate the different levels of our personality. It integrates mind and heart, knowledge and love, internal and external. It helps us to live from our ‘centre’. The Greek Fathers pointed out that the division between mind and heart was the primary obstacle to spiritual growth. But meditation serves to unite mind and heart. This is another way of saying that it sets us free and helps us to overcome disorderly affections. Ignatius of Loyola saw these as the fundamental obstacle to spiritual growth.

The Buddhists remind us that meditation is part of a philosophy of life and that it must be integrated with moral values. It would be possible for a Christian to practise meditation without integrating it with a life of virtue and charity. If this happens, it is no more than secular meditation.

Many of the Asian techniques of meditation can be profitably used by Christians so as to enter into deep silence wherein the Holy Spirit speaks to our spirit. Meditation helps us to attain some degree of silence and tranquillity even in the heart of a noisy city, where most people live in the modern world.

To sum up: the Asian masters can teach us how to be still, how to activate our hidden potential, how to integrate mind and heart and how to unite meditation with moral values. Meditation makes us more fully alive and a person, fully alive, is the glory of God (Irenaeus).

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3 Responses »

  1. What can we learn from Bhuddist meditation? To be Bhuddists who do not believe in Christ. Highly dangerous to suggest Catholics should follow Bhuddists in any way, shape or form. As Marists you should be suggesting to Bhuddists what they can gain from Christian meditation, not the other way around.

  2. Also publishing a picture of Bhuddha is highly questionable to me when God Himself said, "Thou shalt have no false gods before Me".

  3. Wouldn't it reveal the Kingdom of God, here and now, if we could but show and practice, the generosity of spirit that Jesus did:
    to always give the other a second chance;
    to always look at the heart and not the happenstance;
    to listen carefully to the other side of the story;
    to recognise faith and not fixate on faults;
    to not judge in haste but ponder in our heart;
    to commit to compassion, not contention or control.
    How about we let God be God?
    How about we acknowledge, that bidden or not bidden, God is present?
    How about we recognise that we are all pilgrims, trying to find our way home?
    There is no right or wrong way. Simply God's way.