Doug Todd (Vancouver Sun): You could call it a religious war of words, with the West Coast serving as one of its most intense battlegrounds.
The bid to win hearts and minds pits Buddhist meditation against Christian prayer, with meditation, especially so-called “mindfulness,” seeming to be gaining ground.
It’s been the focus of more than 60 recent scholarly studies. It’s being embraced by hundreds of psychotherapists, who increasingly offer Buddhist mindfulness to clients dealing with depression and anxiety. It’s been on the cover of Time magazine.
Even though polls show there are 10 times more Christians in the Pacific Northwest than Buddhists, the forms of meditation associated with those on the opposite side of the Pacific Ocean are rising to the fore in North America. Buddhist meditators, who tend to think of themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” claim what they do is not “religious.” That’s part of the appeal of mindfulness. Such medita-tors complain that Christian (as well as Jewish and Muslim) prayer over-emphasizes pleading with, confessing to or praising a God.
But meditation, Western Buddhists maintain, is simply a “practice.” It’s “secular,” with no traditional God, even while it may also be “spiritual.”
It turns out, however, that the gap between Buddhist meditation and Christian prayer might not be so huge. Indeed, some forms seem almost identical.
Still, the many well-educated, well-off Westerners who have been drawn to Buddhism, including famous Vancouver spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle, have scored some important points when they criticize Christian prayer for being too busy, too noisy and too focused on soliciting otherworldly aid.
Indeed, Rev. Ellen Clark-King, the archdeacon of Christ Church (Anglican) Cathedral in downtown Vancouver, is among many who acknowledge Western Buddhists may have been doing Christians an indirect favour.
She does, however, go out of her way to cite the dangers inherent in claiming one form of spiritual practice is superior. There are many paths to the holy, she points out.
In her new book, The Path to Our Door: Approaches to Christian Spirituality (Continuum), she suggests the popularity of Buddhist meditation has prodded many Christians to re-discover some of the tradition’s less well-known meditative and contemplative methods.
“When considering silence as prayer many people’s first thought is of the Eastern, especially the Buddhist, tradition rather than the Christian,” writes Clark-King.
“Buddhism is seen as the natural home of contemplation while Christian prayer is believed by many to focus almost exclusively on intercession, confession and praise – all three very wordy ways of praying. However, this is to ignore a crucial – and central – component of the Christian spiritual path.”
Why has it taken so long for many Christians to seize on to their tradition’s contemplative practices? Clark-King speculates it is hard for anyone, whether Christian or Buddhist, to face the “emptiness” of solitude, which many equate with loneliness. It takes away our distractions and leaves us with only ourselves and, as she says, God.
SIMILARITIES BETWEEN MEDITATION AND PRAYER
It can be revealing to discover the similarities of Buddhist mindfulness and Christian prayer. The noted Buddhist magazine, The Shambhala Sun, is just one of thousands of sources on mindfulness.
In a how-to article, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche tells those who want to learn mindfulness to first get into a comfortable position and then note when thoughts arise.
Just monitor your thoughts and feelings without getting stuck on them, teaches Sakyong Mipham. “Say to yourself: ‘That may be a really important issue in my life, but right now is not the time to think about it. Now I’m practising meditation.’”
By labelling one’s “wild” thoughts and feelings, Sakyong Mipham says, mindfulness practitioners begin to recognize the mind’s discursiveness. “We notice that we have been lost in thought, we mentally label it . without judgment.” The ultimate goal, Sakyong Mipham says, is to keep noticing one’s breath, to reach tranquillity.
Even though Clark-King is not arguing that Buddhist mindfulness and Christian prayer are exactly the same, it is fascinating to note how similar her language is to that of Sakyong Mipham when she describes at least two forms of Christian contemplation.
The first form is set out in The Cloud of Unknowing, a classic book writ-ten anonymously in the 14th century, probably by an English monk.
The Cloud of Unknowing calls for a kind of contemplation that requires radical “openness” to a non-controlling God, Clark-King writes. “All that the pray-er does is keep silence as far as is possible, surrendering every thought as soon as it occurs without paying any attention to it whatsoever.”
The prayer style outlined in her book has been developed by 20th-century Cistercian monk Thomas Keating into a popular movement called “centring prayer,” which is closely akin to mindfulness.
The first step of centring prayer involves opening yourself “to whatever it is that you are experiencing,” says Clark-King. The second step is “to welcome the feeling whatever it may be, consciously saying to oneself: ‘Welcome fear, anger, unhappiness.’” The third phase is to let go of the situation and experience, “to stop trying to control it and leave it for God to take care of.”
There are now hundreds of thou-sands of Christians practicing centring prayer and related contemplative techniques across North America, Europe and beyond. The Canadian Christian Meditation Community is a leader in the field. Still, Christian meditation is not yet mainstream in Protestantism or Catholicism.
Clark-King calls contemplation a “passive” form of Christian prayer. She could say the same of mindfulness as well. Contemplation arises out of a stream of Christian practice that is known as “apophatic,” in which no names or images are used for God. God is not asked to do anything in particular.
The Path to Your Door outlines several other “passive” forms of prayer, which focus on self-emptying.
Like many Buddhists, Meister Eck-hart, a noted 13th-century Domini-can monk, taught “detachment” from desires and things. That’s in part why Eckhart Tolle, author of The Power of Now, adapted his name from Meister Eckhart.
All names for God separate people from the divine reality, said Meister Eckhart. The controversial Germanic monk was not afraid to be curt, telling anyone who would listen: “Be silent, and quit flapping your gums about God.”
Many Christian meditators, in addition, are drawn to the teachings of Thomas Merton, a 20th-century Anglo-American monk who engaged in dialogue with Zen Buddhists. Merton saw Zen-like forms of contemplation as the route to authenticity, where we rid ourselves of preconceptions and open up to God, whom many Christians call “the ground of being.”
Fortunately, there are more than a few Western Buddhists who have also figured out that the gap between their practices and those of some Christians is not as big as many assume.
Kate Braid, a Vancouver poet and scholar who practises mindfulness meditation, likes the way that Buddhist author Phillip Moffitt equates Christian “prayer” with Buddhist “intention,” and Buddhist “mindfulness” with Christian “observance.”
Victor Chan, who has brought the Dalai Lama to Vancouver on several occasions, also reminds people that “mindfulness” comes in many every-day forms. It is not mysterious or esoteric.
“You do not have to sit in the lotus position and chant ‘Om’ all the time to practise mindfulness,” Chan says. People in effect practise mindfulness, another word for “paying attention,” whenever they find ways to still their minds and concentrate.
That not only happens through “passive” forms of Christian contemplation, Chan says. People are also being “mindful,” he says, when they are learning how to play tennis, practising the piano, drawing, working on martial arts or memorizing poetry.
In the same vein, Clark-King emphasizes that contemplative prayer, or “observance,” is just one way by which Christians and other spiritual people can connect with the holy.
In addition to her book’s chapter on “passive” practices, titled “Silence,” The Path to Your Door contains many chapters outlining the spiritual benefits to be mined from “kataphatic,” or “active,” disciplines.
Kataphatic spirituality emphasizes words, actions and deeds. It includes artistic creativity, communing with nature, reflecting on sacred poetry, dance and serving the poor, ill or struggling.
THE DOWNSIDE OF CLAIMING SUPERIORITY
Clark-King takes a gentle shot at well-known Christian contemplative and author Cynthia Bourgeault, formerly of B.C., whom Clark-King says acts as if centring prayer is “the pinnacle of all spiritual experience.”
It’s counterproductive, Clark-King says. “This is not helpful. No spiritual practice, however helpful or advanced, is an end in itself; the end is always a closer relationship with God and a greater desire to serve our neighbour.”
I believe the same could be said for claims that Buddhist mindfulness is the finest of all spiritual practices. Or, conversely, that certain forms of Western prayer always trump the ways of the East.
Even though we should never ignore the real distinctions between various religions and spiritual practices, it’s humbling to recognize they often have more in common than we realize.
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