Thomas Merton

Prayer versus meditation? They’re more alike than we realize

Black woman with hands held in gesture of prayer or meditation

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.


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.


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.

Original article no longer available

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The Dalai Lama on tolerance

When I was a boy in Tibet, I felt that my own Buddhist religion must be the best — and that other faiths were somehow inferior. Now I see how naïve I was, and how dangerous the extremes of religious intolerance can be today.

Though intolerance may be as old as religion itself, we still see vigorous signs of its virulence. In Europe, there are intense debates about newcomers wearing veils or wanting to erect minarets and episodes of violence against Muslim immigrants. Radical atheists issue blanket condemnations of those who hold to religious beliefs. In the Middle East, the flames of war are fanned by hatred of those who adhere to a different faith.

Such tensions are likely to increase as the world becomes more interconnected and cultures, peoples and religions become ever more entwined. The pressure this creates tests more than our tolerance — it demands that we promote peaceful coexistence and understanding across boundaries.

Granted, every religion has a sense of exclusivity as part of its core identity. Even so, I believe there is genuine potential for mutual understanding. While preserving faith toward one’s own tradition, one can respect, admire and appreciate other traditions.

An early eye-opener for me was my meeting with the Trappist monk Thomas Merton in India shortly before his untimely death in 1968. Merton told me he could be perfectly faithful to Christianity, yet learn in depth from other religions like Buddhism. The same is true for me as an ardent Buddhist learning from the world’s other great religions.

A main point in my discussion with Merton was how central compassion was to the message of both Christianity and Buddhism. In my readings of the New Testament, I find myself inspired by Jesus’ acts of compassion. His miracle of the loaves and fishes, his healing and his teaching are all motivated by the desire to relieve suffering.

I’m a firm believer in the power of personal contact to bridge differences, so I’ve long been drawn to dialogues with people of other religious outlooks. The focus on compassion that Merton and I observed in our two religions strikes me as a strong unifying thread among all the major faiths. And these days we need to highlight what unifies us.

Take Judaism, for instance. I first visited a synagogue in Cochin, India, in 1965, and have met with many rabbis over the years. I remember vividly the rabbi in the Netherlands who told me about the Holocaust with such intensity that we were both in tears. And I’ve learned how the Talmud and the Bible repeat the theme of compassion, as in the passage in Leviticus that admonishes, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

In my many encounters with Hindu scholars in India, I’ve come to see the centrality of selfless compassion in Hinduism too — as expressed, for instance, in the Bhagavad Gita, which praises those who “delight in the welfare of all beings.” I’m moved by the ways this value has been expressed in the life of great beings like Mahatma Gandhi, or the lesser-known Baba Amte, who founded a leper colony not far from a Tibetan settlement in Maharashtra State in India. There he fed and sheltered lepers who were otherwise shunned. When I received my Nobel Peace Prize, I made a donation to his colony.

Compassion is equally important in Islam — and recognizing that has become crucial in the years since Sept. 11, especially in answering those who paint Islam as a militant faith. On the first anniversary of 9/11, I spoke at the National Cathedral in Washington, pleading that we not blindly follow the lead of some in the news media and let the violent acts of a few individuals define an entire religion.

Let me tell you about the Islam I know. Tibet has had an Islamic community for around 400 years, although my richest contacts with Islam have been in India, which has the world’s second-largest Muslim population. An imam in Ladakh once told me that a true Muslim should love and respect all of Allah’s creatures. And in my understanding, Islam enshrines compassion as a core spiritual principle, reflected in the very name of God, the “Compassionate and Merciful,” that appears at the beginning of virtually each chapter of the Koran.

Finding common ground among faiths can help us bridge needless divides at a time when unified action is more crucial than ever. As a species, we must embrace the oneness of humanity as we face global issues like pandemics, economic crises and ecological disaster. At that scale, our response must be as one.

Harmony among the major faiths has become an essential ingredient of peaceful coexistence in our world. From this perspective, mutual understanding among these traditions is not merely the business of religious believers — it matters for the welfare of humanity as a whole.

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the author, most recently, of “Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together.”

[via the New York Times]
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Get thee to a nunnery, ashram, abbey, meditation center, or temple

Amid economic struggles, interest in spiritual travel is growing. While the accommodations may be barebones, more people are visiting monasteries, meditation centers, retreat houses, and other spiritual sites.

It’s estimated that 300 million travelers worldwide take some sort of religious-oriented trip each year, spending about $18 billion. According to the Travel Industry Association, one in four U.S. travelers has expressed interest in taking a faith-based trip, a number that is expected to continue to grow.

I confess to being one of those spiritual travel junkies. I’ve gotten up at 3 a.m. to chant in Buddhist monasteries, lingered over morning coffee with nuns in Iowa, walked part of the Camino de Santiago in Spain, splashed myself with holy water in Lourdes, prayed at St. Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Desert, and gathered holy dirt from the floor in Chimayo, New Mexico.

I believe there are several reasons why this form of tourism is growing:

• Spiritual tourism is relatively inexpensive. Sure, you’re going to drop a lot of cash on a trip to Delphi in Greece or Angkor Wat in Cambodia. But virtually every American lives within driving distance of a spiritual retreat of some sort, whether it’s a Roman Catholic abbey, a Buddhist meditation center, or a conference center offering holistic programs.

Most religious communities welcome visitors — in fact, Benedictine monks believe that to host a visitor is to welcome Christ himself. Some ask only for a freewill donation, and others will allow you to work in exchange for room and board. Fees, when charged, are generally modest.

At a time when many people can’t afford a conventional vacation, a weekend spiritual retreat may still be within reach.

• Holy sites are often found in beautiful places. Many retreat centers are situated in lovely corners of the world, from St. Benedict’s Monastery in Snowmass, Colo., to the island of Iona off the coast of Scotland. Rather than spending a vacation fighting the crowds in a major city, you can recharge your batteries by staying in a rural hideaway where the silence is punctuated only by the gentle chiming of bells.

• Spiritual sites are multiplying. Sites like Mecca, Mount Sinai in Egypt, and Bodh Gaya in India still draw legions of pilgrims, but so do a growing number of more unconventional holy sites. St. Paul’s Chapel across from the World Trade Center site in New York is one, along with Martin Luther King Jr.’s tomb in Atlanta.

Or travelers may create their own spiritual trip by journeying to the Italian village where their grandparents lived, or by visiting a childhood home.

• Spiritual sites appeal to baby boomers. Time’s winged chariot is drawing uncomfortably close to many of us. Pretending like you’re 20 again on a Caribbean beach is one way of dealing with this disconcerting fact-of-life, but so is spending a week in silent meditation.

An added bonus is that many retreat centers offer spiritual direction as well as hospitality. Think of it as counseling for the soul.


It’s not surprising that Americans — who have some of the highest levels of religious belief in the world — want to take their faith on vacation with them. But spiritual travel is actually the world’s oldest form of tourism. Most religions recognize the value of pilgrimage, from Muslims traveling to Mecca and Jews to Jerusalem to Buddhists journeying to the sites associated with Gautama Buddha.

Such trips differ, I think, from ordinary travels. In an era in which it’s easy to step onto a plane and be deposited nearly anywhere in the world, a spiritual pilgrimage is a reminder of the power of journeys taken slowly and deliberately.

The object of such a trip is usually not just rest and relaxation — though that may happen — but rather inner growth. It often begins with questions: Who am I? What is my purpose in life? What do I need to hear? And here’s where I’m going to let you in on a secret: A pilgrimage can be made to any destination, as long as the trip is undertaken mindfully and with a seeker’s heart.

I think many of us have a yearning for the mystical, even if we can’t quite define what that might be. In these peaceful places removed from the bustle of ordinary life, amid the flicker of candles and aroma of incense, something deep within our souls can be awakened. The older I get, the more such holy sites appeal to me.

As I think back to my most vivid travel experiences, I remember the silvery sound of nuns singing in a church in Santiago de Compostela, a tea ceremony with Buddhist monks in South Korea, and a weekend spent in a tiny hermitage in the woods in Iowa. When I return home from such places, I have more than memories and photographs: inside, there lingers a feeling of tranquility and renewal.

When the Oglala Sioux visionary Black Elk was ready to go on pilgrimage, even the animals spoke to him. “It is time! It is time!” crows cried as they flew past him, bringing a message that could not be ignored. Perhaps it is time for you to leave on pilgrimage, too?

• Saint Leo Abbey near Tampa. This Roman Catholic Benedictine abbey welcomes pilgrims of all faiths to a landscape of woodlands and lakefront. ; 352-588-8624.

• Ocmulgee National Monument, Macon, Ga. Temple mounds and a reconstructed ceremonial earth lodge are highlights of this ancient Native American holy site.; 478-752-8257.

• Hope Springs near Peebles, Ohio. Located in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, Hope Springs offers peace, environmental, social justice, and community-building programs. ; 937-587-2605.

• Abbey of Gethsemani, Trappist, Ky. People who treasure the writings of Thomas Merton find inspiration in this monastery in rural Kentucky where he lived from 1941 until his death in 1968. ; 502-549-3117.

• Bear Butte, Sturgis, S.D. Covered in prayer flags, this small mountain just east of the Black Hills is both a state park and a holy site for tribes that include the Lakota and Cheyenne.; 605-347-5240.

• Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, N.M. Set amid the spectacular desert landscape made famous by Georgia O’Keeffe, the Presbyterian-affiliated Ghost Ranch offers a variety of programs and classes. ; 800-821-5145.

• Shasta Abbey Buddhist Monastery, Mt. Shasta, Calif. This Zen monastery near the Oregon border conducts a year-round schedule of retreats, Buddhist ceremonial festivals, and Dharma Talks. ; 530-926-4208.

• Breitenbush Hot Springs near Detroit, Ore. Hot springs set amid a temperate rain forest await visitors to this non-denominational center.; 503-854-3320.

• Basilica de Guadalupe, Mexico City. The most visited shrine in North America honors the Virgin of Guadalupe, who appeared to Juan Diego in 1531. or the Mexico Tourism Board at 800)-44-MEXICO.

• Santiago de Compostela, Spain. Europe’s most famous pilgrimage route leads to the church in northwest Spain where the remains of the apostle St. James are said to lie. This year marks a Holy Year for the route, a designation that will bring an even larger influx of people hiking this storied road. or the Spanish Tourism Board at 305-358-1992.

Lori Erickson is the author of The Joy of Pilgrimage and blogs about spirituality and travel at The Holy Rover (

[via Miami Herald]
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Learning to receive

woman standing calmly in a field, with the sun behind her head like a halo

To think of generosity only in terms of giving can limit us. Sunada tells of her realization that being truly generous is as much about being open to receiving as it is about giving.

As a follower of the Buddha’s teachings, one of the ethical principles I try to live by is generosity. Most commonly, generosity is understood to be about giving freely, and putting others’ needs before one’s own. While this definition isn’t wrong, I think it’s a bit too simplistic. Over the years, I’ve come to realize that generosity is a two-way street. It’s an openness of heart that’s just as much about graciously receiving as it is about giving.

Generosity is a two-way street. It’s an openness of heart that’s just as much about graciously receiving as it is about giving.

I know that those of us who feel committed to living by our spiritual values want to reach out and give in any way we can. While this is a great ideal, there are times when it can become a blinder. Ironically, focusing too much on the outgoing act of giving can sometimes put up a wall between giver and receiver. There’s a danger of getting caught up in our own ideas of what it means to be generous – of being a selfless helper and doing good – and losing sight of what this principle is really about. It’s about experiencing our interconnectedness in a way that knows no boundaries or hierarchies. Where there is interconnectedness, abundance flows freely in all directions, including back to myself.

Let me tell you my story of when I first started to see things in this new way. For reasons that I still don’t entirely understand, I’ve always felt uncomfortable accepting spontaneous gifts, especially if it’s money. One time when I was at a restaurant with a friend, she picked up the check and offered to pay for me. My immediate impulse was to protest, not out of politeness, but because deep down inside it didn’t seem right. I can afford to pay for it, I heard myself think. It’s not necessary. And since I knew that this person didn’t have a lot of money, it seemed like an unnecessary sacrifice on her part. Out of concern for her, I felt it was better for her to keep that money to herself, and not spend it on me for something I didn’t really need. This was my way of being generous and caring toward her.

My friend didn’t insist, but gently said, “Would you please allow me to give this to you as a gift?” That’s when it suddenly hit me on the head. Her gesture had little to do with how much money either of us had, or whether her offer was necessary. She wanted to honor me with a gift, pure and simple. In my foolish concern over her financial situation, I had lost sight of what she was really trying to do. I had been rebuffing the gift and blocking off her act of generosity. That was pretty self-centered of me!

I then started noticing other ways that I seemed to close myself off from others. One was my reluctance to ask people for help, especially if I thought they would have to go out of their way for me. It’s because I don’t want to impose, I’d say to myself. If I can do it myself, isn’t it better if I just take care of it on my own?

It’s not about giving from a place of power and strength, but sharing our wholeness and humanity (flaws and all) and openly accepting whatever comes back.

Maybe this is a Western way of thinking, but I’ve heard many people say they don’t like asking for help. Somehow we feel we need to be independent, self-sufficient, strong, and capable of taking care of ourselves. Yes, of course, it’s good to be all those things. But when do we start to cross the boundary into isolating ourselves from the love and personal connection that others want to give to us?

I saw this very clearly the time I needed emergency surgery and was hospitalized for a week. There I was for days, lying in bed while doctors, nurses, family, and friends all hovered around for the sole purpose of taking care of me. I was the center of their universe. For the first couple of days, I felt pretty uncomfortable with the attention and hubbub. But given the circumstances, I really had no choice but to surrender to the situation!

Once I stopped fighting with the idea, I was amazed and humbled by how willingly people gave their time and energy to me. I had a steady stream of visitors, many of whom brought me books and music to entertain me while bedridden. Phone calls and flowers arrived from people who were too far away. My need for help continued well after I had returned home. Once I was home, I was surprised to find one friend, whom I hadn’t counted among my closest ones, called and offered to be my servant for an entire day – to run errands, shop, and cook for me.

I felt cared for, supported, and loved by many people from all different parts of my life. They didn’t want anything in return from me. The best thing I could do was to accept their gifts wholeheartedly and graciously. That’s really all they wanted. And actually, I was giving them something by doing this. By allowing myself to be open and vulnerable to them, I was giving them my trust.

I admit I still have a hard time with this idea of giving and receiving so freely and openly. It will be a lifetime learning process for me. Thomas Merton understood how challenging this is when he said, “it takes more courage than we imagine to be perfectly simple with other men.”

But at least I see more clearly now what that ultimate ideal I’m aiming for looks like. A true generous spirit is one that’s willing to give herself over completely to another person. It’s a willingness to share all of herself, especially her weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and flaws. It’s not about giving from a place of power and strength, but sharing our wholeness and humanity (flaws and all) and openly accepting whatever comes back. This, I think, is the real vision behind the lessons the Buddha gave us on generosity.

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Cultivating inner space

Tom Fox, National Catholic Reporter: My own contemplative prayer efforts have been sporadic and date back some 40 years.

Like many others of my generation, I was influenced by the writings of Trappist Fr. Thomas Merton, who encouraged contemplative prayer. I felt a special affinity to the monk who was both a pacifist and Vietnam War objector.

Like Merton, I traveled to Asia in the 1960s. I flew to Vietnam in June 1966 after graduating from college to work as a civilian volunteer with war victims. After finishing two years with International Voluntary Services, a nonprofit organization, I took up writing and worked as a Vietnam War correspondent.

It was in 1969 that I encountered an American teacher of transcendental meditation who was passing through Saigon. I signed up along with my fiancée, Kim Hoa, a Vietnamese social worker, to study transcendental meditation. We spent several evenings in training and those lessons ended in a candle ceremony in which he gave us mantras.

Another entry point into meditation came a few months earlier when I traveled to Paris and met Thich Nhat Hanh, who was a member of the Vietnamese Buddhist peace delegation. We spent several afternoons discussing the war, Buddhism and his meditation practices. Some years later, I took part in a retreat he led at his monastery in Plum Village, France, where he has lived in exile for 40 years.

During the retreat, we would eat our meals in silence, chewing each morsel of food from our vegetarian plates 50 times before swallowing. We would take slow and deliberate “meditation” walks, conscious of our breathing with each step. If a bell, any bell, sounded in the distance, we would stop anything we were doing to pause and reflect for one minute.

From Asia I have learned that mind, body and spirit are intimately connected; the health of one influences the others. I believe regular exercise uplifts the spirit and sets the stage for good meditation practices. I still meditate, though not consistently. I go to yoga lessons several times a week. They allow a different form of meditation.

In India, the practice of yoga is connected to religious beliefs; outside, it varies considerably depending on the instructor and the studio. Any yoga is physically rewarding and can lead to a relaxed body and mind. My favorite yoga comes when I find an instructor who appreciates its spiritual dimension and conducts classes accordingly. Good instructors know how to create sacred space.

In recent months, through speaking with various spiritual gurus from different religious traditions, interviewing them for NCR podcasts (www.ncr, I have found that all take time to cultivate “inner space.” It is fascinating how common Eastern meditation practices have become in the West, including, and even especially, among Christians. A few prominent examples of people who have learned some meditation techniques from the East include Fr. Ronald Rolheiser, the Rev. Cynthia Bourgeault, Fr. Robert E. Kennedy, Beatrice Bruteau, Fr. Edward Hays, Sr. Pascaline Coff, Fr. Richard Rohr and Br. David Steindl-Rast. Each has, at times, blended Eastern meditation practices into their Western Christian traditions.

We have come a long way in a short time. Visionary East-West bridge builders, including Merton and Frs. Bede Griffiths, Anthony de Mello and Raimundo Panikkar, would be astonished to find so many Christians having learned from Eastern practices.

While dogma continues to separate religions, meditation draws them together. In meditation we discover that all faiths seek insight, wisdom, peace and life in the Spirit.

Read archive of original article.

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The Buddha of suburbia

The Dalai Lama’s American religion

Boston Globe: This weekend, an unusual encounter is taking place at MIT: The Dalai Lama meets the human brain. Along with the Dalai Lama, prominent Tibetan and western Buddhists are joining neuroscientists, psychologists, and other academics in a conference called “Investigating the Mind,” where topics ranging from consciousness to the emotions are being brought under the group’s collective microscope.

From a scientific standpoint, the conference promises to “identify the common ground between two powerful empirical traditions—Tibetan Buddhism and behavioral science.” But from a historical standpoint, the most significant fact about the conference may be that it is transpiring at all. To attend it, the Dalai Lama has had to cross the equivalent of 1,000 years of time, in one of the more improbable journeys ever.

When the Dalai Lama fled into exile in India in 1959, Tibet was a medieval country without any wheeled vehicles, and many of its citizens had never even heard of America. Tibetan Buddhism — banned in its homeland, where the Chinese occupiers have destroyed 6,000 monasteries and killed a large number of the country’s population — seemed doomed to follow all conquered religions since the Incas and Aztecs into the ashbin of history. Even after the Dalai Lama finally got a visa to visit the United States in 1978, his supporters could worry about empty places in a 250-seat speaking hall. When they called TV programs to ask if they cared to interview the Dalai Lama, frequently the response was, “What did you say her last name was?”…

But tonight a reported 13,000 people will attend the Dalai Lama’s sold-out talk at the FleetCenter. In the United States, Buddhism is doubling its numbers faster than any other religion, with Tibetan Buddhism growing fastest of all. The Boston area alone boasts more than 40 Buddhist centers, and two major Buddhist presses — Wisdom Publications and Shambhala (the latter has published over 600 titles) — are headquartered here. How, in a mere generation, did we get from Tibetan Buddhism’s near-extinction in its homeland to its remarkable flowering in America?. . .

The story begins, in a sense, with the celebrated Catholic writer Thomas Merton and his fateful voyage to the Indian Himalayas in 1968. Before Merton’s visit, he had assumed the Dalai Lama was a pompous ecclesiastical bureaucrat, and he considered Tibetan Buddhism to be a backward, superstitious faith suffused with too much black magic and even sex. Like earlier Westerners, Merton had misinterpreted the religion’s paintings of copulating beings, not realizing they symbolized the union of the human and the divine. In fact, those Westerners were not entirely mistaken about the sensuality they saw. Unlike other kinds of Buddhism, the Tibetan variety accepts the passions and the emotions and transforms them to fuel the difficult transition toward what Buddhists call compassionate wisdom. Tibetan is at once the most mystical and the most earthy of all Buddhisms.

In India, Merton began to understand the religion’s two-sided nature as he observed the Tibetan exiles laughing and singing. They were, he noted, full of “intensity, energy, and also humor,” despite the murderous ravaging of their homeland. He concluded that the source of the Tibetans’ resilience must be their religion. “The Tibetan Buddhists are the only ones, at present,” he wrote in his journal, “who have attained to extraordinary heights [in spiritual achievement].” In America, by contrast, he believed Christianity had adapted to an increasingly prosperous and secular era mainly by joining in the party, diluting its own most vital traditions in the process. If the essence of Tibetan Buddhism could be extracted, Merton surmised, it might help restore religion in America to its former vigor. Merton became practically the first American to decide to devote his days to studying Tibetan Buddhism — although a freak fatal accident that very year cut prematurely short both his resolve and his life. (To Merton’s perplexity, one lama, who intuited that the scholar might die soon, attempted to teach him Tibetan pre-death exercises.)

Secularism triumphant was indeed the reigning ideology in mid-20th-century America. At the time the Dalai Lama escaped Tibet, an article in The American Anthropologist explained, “To a modern intellectual, religion is probably the most unfamiliar subject in the world.” Most journalists, academics, and social commentators considered religion an endangered species, whose ineffectual consolations would be rendered obsolete by ever-increasing rationality and universal prosperity. The midcentury intellectual consensus foresaw education and economic progress eradicating religious irrationality, as well as poverty, hunger, and social injustice everywhere all of which would evaporate, like clouds on a sunny day.

That utopian secular dream did not come true, of course, and some of the disappointed began to dream elsewhere. In the early 1970s, when Geshe Wangyal, Chgyam Trungpa, and other exiled lamas arrived here, they were astonished by the welcome they received from countercultural types like Allen Ginsberg, who expected those lamas to remake them into American versions of wise Eastern sages. Beyond the counterculture, many others — including liberal, well-educated Americans who had outgrown their faith of origin and were uncomfortable with anything theological — began to demand satisfactions reminiscent of the ones once provided by religion. As the Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow noted in 1998, ever more Americans claim that “they are spiritual but not religious, [that] their spirituality is growing but the impact of religion on their lives is diminishing.” An increasing number of discontented souls turned to the exiled Tibetan lamas, who were out of work, and to Tibetan Buddhism, which, unmoored from Tibet, was free to become American Buddhism — or at least to meet Americans halfway.

The Tibetan lamas, whose English was poor and who were ignorant of modern ways, appeared initially poor candidates for the role thrust upon them. But as they learned European languages and mastered the psychological mindset of the Westerners who approached them, they made a surprising discovery: Their religion suited, or was easily adapted to, a more secular time and place.”

Modern people want a path shorn of dogma, fundamentalism, exclusivity, complex metaphysics, and culturally exotic paraphernalia, a path that can be integrated with ordinary life and practiced anywhere,” one lama observed. Older Christian theologians might have responded that such a path would not be religion, but the Tibetan response was, in effect, “No problem.” Indeed, over 2,500 years ago the Buddha himself declared he was not promulgating a new religion but teaching remedies for suffering, and that no one should accept his teachings on faith.

Previously the only Buddhism popular in America had been Zen, and in his bestselling “The Way of Zen” (1957) Alan Watts explained its appeal: Zen is a storehouse of Eastern wisdom and it offers a respite from the crass modern world. The Tibetan lamas, however, once they acclimatized to America, insisted there was nothing particularly Asian about their religion, and that it suited the present age as much as it did any supposedly golden past.

Starting with Chgyam Trungpa, who had also escaped Tibet in 1959, those lamas devised for their new American students a “religion without theology.” Trungpa gave back his monk’s robes, wanting no external difference from his new countrymen, and in 1970 he founded America’s first Tibetan center near Barnet, Vt. By the decade’s end, his books were selling hundreds of thousands of copies. The first American students were excited to discover in Tibetan Buddhism a religion of actual techniques, of the methods of spirituality: It provided explicit, practical, step-by-step guidelines for achieving the noble states almost all religions extol.

Lamas like Trungpa began not by teaching metaphysical truths so much as giving instructions in meditation, which supposedly requires no more faith than a medical inoculation does to be effective. By presenting their new Western pupils tangible, nondogmatic things to do, from visualizations to exercises in compassion (such as taking on another’s pain), those lamas enabled them to experience the psychological effect of religion without its theological cause. Tibetan Buddhism could thus appeal to lapsed Christians and Jews who no longer attended church or temple and were left spiritually out in the cold, figuring out life’s key puzzles on their own. The lamas did not even require that you convert in order to get the benefits of Tibetan Buddhism; in fact, the Dalai Lama discourages it.

When the Dalai Lama first came to the United States, his message, intellectually, did not sound so different from that of the lamas who had preceded him. But the media spotlight focused on him, and he attracted at first thousands and later millions to the Tibetan cause by living out that message of pacifism and compassion in action.

The Dalai Lama had every reason to detest the Chinese, but instead spoke of them with sympathy and understanding. Amid all his responsibilities, and despite the tragedy of Tibet everpresent to him, he obviously was a happy man, really a bon vivant who exuded a confidence that all would work out well. Westerners watching him observed a religion, it seemed, of generosity, high spirits, and good sense. (Tibetan monks and advanced Western students see a different side of the Dalai Lama, however. To them, he teaches centuries-old esoteric practices and expounds ideas about a multidimensional universe that might astound a proper Unitarian or Episcopalian minister.)

The Dalai Lama has proved remarkably adept at separating what in Tibetan Buddhism is universally valid from what was merely dispensable “Himalayan dogma.” He has been known to stop in midsentence, and reverse a millennium of Tibetan precedent almost without blinking an eye. When some gay reporters quizzed the Dalai Lama about his stance on homosexuality, he voiced the typical Buddhist condemnation of it. Then he paused, reconsidered, and sent centuries of prejudice out the window: “If the two people have taken no vows [of chastity], and neither is harmed,” he said, “why should it not be acceptable?”

Similarly, the Dalai Lama comes from a tradition that opposes birth control, but he recognizes the dangers in overpopulation, and believes that one can no longer forbid it. He has likewise opposed the second-class citizenship of women in Buddhism, and today a western Buddhist teacher is as, or more, likely to be a woman.

The Dalai Lama has even declared, “If the words or the Buddha and the findings of modern science contradict each other, then the former have to go.” Try to imagine the pope or an ayatollah making a similar statement about the New Testament or the Koran.

In 1959, when Mao Zedong learned that the Dalai Lama had managed to escape, he groaned, “In that case we have lost.” Mao was wrong, of course, for today Tibet, flooded with massive Chinese population transfers, is in effect a Chinese colony with ever slimmer chances of regaining its independence. But no Chinese political or cultural figure could draw 13,000 people to the FleetCenter — or 50,000 to Central Park in New York, as the Dalai Lama did in 1999. The veneration that Chinese culture elicited for centuries has been supplanted by an international admiration for Tibetan religion.

The survival of the Dalai Lama and his religion evokes curiosity because it is the David-and-Goliath story, updated and rewritten in contemporary geocultural terms. The Dalai Lama’s “slingshot” in this unequal struggle has certainly been the most unlikely weapon: While elsewhere fundamentalist fanaticism consumes whole regions of the globe in flames, he has redefined what religion is and given it a useful, positive role for these, our violent times.

Jeffery Paine is the author of “Re-enchantment: Tibetan Buddhism Comes to the West,” forthcoming this winter from W.W. Norton. He is also the author of “Father India” and editor of “The Poetry of Our World.”

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