Buddhism and Christianity: Is there compatibility?

By JOEL GEHRINGER, Lincoln Journal Star, Aug 7, 2005

Jersey City, NJ, (USA) -- Zen master Robert E. Kennedy heads Morning Star Zendo, a Buddhist zen center in Jersey City, N.J. As the organization's roshi - or "teacher" - Kennedy leads meditations and guides members of the group towards a deeper understanding of the Buddhist practice's benefits.

He is also the author of two books on Buddhist meditation and has trained six other zen masters who have become senseis and roshis at their own zen centers.

Kennedy has achieved a level of meditative mastery that many Buddhists only dream of reaching.

And he's done it all while serving as the theology department chairman at St. Peter's College, a Catholic school in Jersey City.

In fact, Kennedy's not even Buddhist. He's a Jesuit priest.

"I'm completely Catholic and completely Jesuit," he said. "I have no conflict of faith."

But he is one of many who have found meaning in the practices of both Christianity and Buddhism, a practice that dates back to the 17th century, when European Christian monks began to study eastern religions.

As explorers learned more about Buddhism, religious leaders began to find parallels between the two religions, which, on the surface, seem irreconcilable.

It might seem odd ? or even impossible ? that one could practice the traditions of both religions. Christians preach of one God, creation and salvation, while Buddhists believe in reincarnation, enlightenment and nirvana.

"The beliefs aren't compatible at all," said Stephen Lahey, an Episcopalian minister and religious studies professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

"The idea of a continuing self, surviving death and remaining who you are in some way is central to a lot of Christianity, but, by golly, it's not in Buddhism. The idea of Buddhism is to shrug off the burden of self."

Kennedy, who learned about the beliefs of Buddhism while assigned to a school in Japan, agreed.

"I don't think the two faiths can easily be put together on the intellectual level," he said. "They have different starting points and they differ in the questions they ask. There's no attempt at a quick synthesis. But it's not really about belief  at all, it's about practice."

Lahey said the argument of compatibility lies in the differences between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.

"Both are lenses for examining a religion," Lahey said. "When you look at a particular religious belief through the lens of orthodoxy, it's either going to measure up to that religion's tradition or diverge from it. With orthopraxy, what one believes is far less important as what one does."

In simple terms, orthodoxy focuses on beliefs while orthopraxy focuses on goals. Most forms of Christianity are orthodoxical in nature, while eastern religions such as Confucianism and Buddism are orthopraxical.

But when both Christianity and Buddhism are viewed through the lens of orthopraxy, they have some striking similarities.

"Both promote being mindful of who the self is and not who society pretends the self is, and being mindful of the intimate connections the self has to nature and other selves," Lahey said. "There's an awareness of the divine and that creation is shot through with the divine. And, of course, there's the morality of loving your enemies as yourselves. It's those attitudes that are shared."

Viewed thus, Kennedy said, his commitment to Catholic teachings and his practice of Buddhist Zen become acceptable.

"Certainly through orthopraxy we can practice the rights of other faiths," he said. "This does not deny our orthodoxy. It just doesn't deal with it. It's not an issue."

Because of the shared commitment to just and moral spiritual existence, Kennedy said, Christians should be encouraged to explore what other religious traditions can teach.

"We have been instructed to promote the truths of other faiths, because whatever is true is of Christ," he said. "Christ is the truth. Then what we need is the virtue of discretion to discern what is true."

Dan Nguyen, president of the Tinh Tam Council of Buddhist Study in Lincoln, said Buddhists should be free to explore different practices and traditions.

"We are open to all other religions," Nguyen said.  "Buddha taught that we have to respect other religions."

However, he said, it is not common for Buddhists to practice Christian rituals or to pray to one god.

"We take part in their services," he said. "We pray along with them. But we pray to Buddha and they pray to God."

Some Buddhists and Christians, however, say they see no need for people of either faith to mix or borrow from other religions.

"I don't see the point in that," said Bill Mize, an associate pastor at Indian Hills Community Church. "A true Christian is one who has placed their trust and faith in Jesus Christ, lord and savior. Period. Anything else would be a false religion."

Mize said he sees no reason for a separation of the orthodoxical and orthopraxical traditions of either religion.

"The Bible itself is sufficient for meditation," he said. "We're called on to meditate upon the word of God. Anything we meditate on outside of the Bible would not be of the word of God, in my opinion."

Kent Porter, president of Jewel Heart Tibetan Buddhist Center, said Buddhists believe the world has many religions because of the world's many different personalities, and each should choose one that fits him or her best.

"If you try to be a little bit of this and a little bit of that, then you're not really either," he said. "I think to get the full benefit of whatever path you're on you have to follow it as well as you can. If you're a Christian, follow that wholeheartedly, be the best Christian you can be."

The same principle applies to Buddhism, Porter said.

But Lahey said he sees no conflicts and drew parallels between Christian prayer and meditation.

"An awful lot of people consider prayer as bidding, or requests," he said. "Prayer doesn't have to be in words. The more one looks at non-verbal prayer, the more one sees similarities."

Kennedy said he understands some might be against his way of life, but he's fine with more traditional beliefs.

"It's fair enough," he said. "Christianity may be enough for them, but for those who are (using other practices), there is a place for us at the Christian table."