The Denver Post: What in the recent past seemed exotic and foreign is now almost routinely folded into “the fold.”
Buddhism is not only accepted as a mainstream American religion, it is a path increasingly trod by faithful Christians and Jews who infuse Eastern spiritual insights and practices such as meditation into their own religions.
When John Weber became a Buddhist at age 19, his devout Methodist parents were not particularly pleased.
In recent years, however, they’ve invited their son, a religious studies expert with Boulder’s Naropa University, to speak at their church about Buddhism.
“That never would have happened before,” Weber said. “They would have been embarrassed.”
The Pew Forum’s Religious Landscape Survey in 2007 found that seven in 10 Americans who have a religion believe there is more than one path to salvation. A growing number of people are contemplating more than one each.
And they are contemplating contemplation itself.
There are Jubus — Jews who bring Buddhism into their practice of Judaism — and Bujus, who are Buddhists with Jewish parents. Then there are UUbus, or Unitarian Universalist Buddhists, and Ebus, or Episcopalian Buddhists. There are Zen Catholics.
“There is a definite trend and movement that will not be reversed,” said Ruben Habito, a laicized Jesuit priest, Zen master and professor of world religions at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. “We are in a new spiritual age, an inter-religious age.”
Search can lead back home
People are hungry for a deeper spiritual experience — meditation, mindfulness, personal transformation, deep insight, union with God or the universe.
Habito, who calls himself a Zen Catholic, is one of the experts who say the search is a little like Dorothy and her ruby slippers. The quest for meaning ultimately leads some, like Dorothy, to their own backyards.
Judaism, Catholicism and Islam have rich traditions in contemplative practices, yet these had all but disappeared from everyday congregational life.
For many Christians cut off from the past, or alienated from the faith of their upbringing, Buddhism has served as the bridge to ancient wisdom.
“The problem is the contemplative tradition in the Christian Church has had its ups and downs over the centuries,” said Father Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and leader in the Centering Prayer movement, a modern revival of Christian contemplative practice.
“We sensed that the Eastern religions, with their highly developed spirituality, had something we didn’t have,” Keating said. “In the last generation, 10 to 20 years, some didn’t even think there was a Christian spirituality, just rules — do’s and don’ts and dogma they didn’t find spiritually nourishing. It’s important to recover the mystical aspects of the gospel.”
Christian contemplative practices were lost or weakened in the Protestant Reformation and later in the Great Awakening — religious revolutions in colonial America that advanced the themes of Protestantism.
“There is growing permission to turn back to some of the early church practices and pieces that helped us to be whole,” said the Rev. Stuart Lord, an ordained Baptist minister and new president of Naropa University, a Buddhist-founded institution. “I’ve been studying Buddhism and meditation for about seven years. I look at it as helping a person lead a fuller Christian life.”
Cultivating an inner life
Buddhist scholar Judith Simmer-Brown, a professor at Naropa, said Christian denominations are working hard to rediscover contemplative traditions as one way to combat people leaving their churches.
“They literally have rebuilt their Christian meditative forms,” Simmer- Brown said. “Some borrow heavily from Buddhism.”
Lord said the interdenominational yearning for meditation and deeper spiritual experience is not reflective of a desire for different doctrines or ethos — or a taste for Asian cultural trappings.
“It’s about cultivating an inner life, not the outer appearances,” he said. “You don’t have to shave your head.”
The Buddha was non-dogmatic and non-authoritarian — a compassionate guide, not a god, Buddhist texts say. The Buddha was silent on the subjects of a supreme being and the immortality of the soul.
“Buddhism is more about spiritual practice than believing in certain doctrines,” Habito said. “There are more definitive and particular requirements for saying ‘I am a Christian.’ ”
Yet the fusion of strong Buddhist elements with mainstream Christian religion has created a backlash, Simmer- Brown said.
The nomination early this year of the Rev. Kevin Thew Forrester to become an Episcopal bishop in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula created a stir when it was learned he also practiced Zen Buddhist meditation.
Forrester’s nomination failed.
Problems of religious rivalry
Blogger Greg Griffith, of StandFirminFaith.com, criticized the “progressivism” and the church’s willingness to fuse differing religious beliefs that paved the way for Forrester’s nomination in the first place.
“It starts with labyrinths, continues with Buddhist monks constructing mandalas in a cathedral, and over the background noise of pagan priests and books about love spells, proceeds to Muslim priestesses and now a Buddhist bishop,” Griffith wrote .
Methodist Rev. Toni Cook, a founder of St. Paul’s Buddhist Christian InterSpiritual Community in Denver, said religious rivalry creates more problems than reconciliation.
About 14 years ago, a gang member had laughed when Cook and a group of clergy asked how they could help get young people out of gangs.
“How are all the religions any different from street gangs?” he asked. “You mark off your own territory and defend it to the death.”
Cook decided: “There’s got to be a way to share sacred space without trying to convert one another.”
By the numbers
12,000 Approximate number of adult Buddhists in Colorado, according to Pew survey
2,600 years Age of the world religion Buddhism
170 percent Increase of adherents during a Buddhist “boom” between 1990 and 2000, according to the American Religious Identity Survey
1.5 million Estimated total number of Buddhists in the U.S. in 2004
5 million Estimated number of Buddhists in the U.S. currently, not counting the numbers of Christians, Jews and others heavily influenced by Buddhism