How Christianity Can Learn From Buddhism

by Mark Votava


Buddhism appeals to a lot of my deep intuitions as I find myself liking the focus on mediation, living in the present moment, compassion, mindfulness, awareness and enlightenment.  It seems that an authentic expression of Christianity would have similar practices to it, but unfortunately most of Western spirituality is void of such things.  As I am trying to identify with what is authentic in the Christian tradition, I see so much authenticity missing and nowhere to be found.  Christians have become lost because we are often times estranged to the practices that help us to live into our depths.

  • The life of Thomas Merton

I love the life of twentieth century mystic Thomas Merton who started to explore how Eastern spirituality could affect his understanding and practice of Christianity in the West.  He particularly studied Buddhism for his own enlightenment.  Merton was a Trappist monk who dedicated his life to contemplation for twenty seven years in a monastery in Kentucky.  He loved silence and solitude along with writing as he published around 50 books during his short life.

  • A way of life versus an intellectual belief

Often times when we think of Buddhism we think of a way of life.  And when we think of Christianity we think of an intellectual belief in the mind.  Why is this?  It seems that Christianity has lost the interior practices that lead to a way of life such as: meditation, awareness, mindfulness, living in the present moment and compassion that are so common in Buddhism.

  • Living in the present moment

Over the years, as the church has been lacking to help me with my own own spiritual formation, I have searched for a way of life that can lead me to awareness, mindfulness and compassion.  All of this fosters living in the present moment.  This is the rule of life that I want to live by, but I probably won’t find guidance from those associated with traditional Christianity.  Thich Nhat Hanh and Thomas Merton have been tremendous guides to me as I have read some of their books.

  • The friendship of Thomas Merton and Thich Nhat Hanh

In fact, Merton said that he had deeper resonation with Thich Nhat Hanh than he ever had with any other Christian he knew in his life.  They become friends and their bonds were nothing like he experienced with those in the Christian tradition.  Thich Nhat Hanh was a lifelong Buddhist practitioner of mindfulness, awareness, living in the present moment and compassion.  He was also an extravagant writer like Merton himself.

  • Listening to what is authentic in you

One of the things I love about Buddhism is the focus on meditation.  When so much of Western Christianity is focused on prayer through words, I have found this so empty because often times the content of our intercession is about our own agenda at the exclusion of really listening within ourselves.  There has got to be a different way to express our communion with our Creator.  The Buddhist practice of meditation is all about listening to what is authentic in you.

  • Jesus often went to solitary places

Without listening through mediation, we have no awareness, mindfulness or compassion to allow love to lead us in everything we do.  We have no capacity to discover our true selves where love and compassion come from deep with us.  We will get stuck in the past or the future and forget about the present moment.  Jesus often went to solitary places to practice mediation in silence and solitude where he listened intently to God.

  • Buddhism has much to offer Christianity

This encompassed Jesus’ life giving him the capacity to love, suffer, show compassion and be mindful toward everyone he encountered on his journey.  Followers of Christ should learn to practice these things just as he did during his lifetime.  This is a practice that allowed Jesus to connect with his being and become an expression of love in the world around him.  Buddhism has much to offer the Christian tradition in the West that has virtually forgotten the interior life.

  • Learning from Eastern practices

What a sad tragedy this is, but there is hope to recover this way of life if we open ourselves to learn from Eastern practices of the contemplative life which embodies deep reflection and compassion.  It seems contemplatives have always been the outsiders.  Often times the mystics are the one who embrace authenticity, simplicity and truthfulness.  But they are judged or condemned as heretics, sad to say.  There needs to be a contemplative revolution within the body of Christ in everyday life.

Here are a couple of Thich Nhat Hanh quotes from his book Touching Peace and a Thomas Merton quote on ecumenism taken from Mystics and Zen Masters.

  • Meditation is the art of stopping

“Mediation is not to avoid problems or run away from difficulties.  We do not practice to escape.  We practice to have enough strength to confront problems effectively.  To do this, we must be calm, fresh, and solid.  That is why we need to practice the art of stopping.  When we learn to stop, we become more calm, and our mind becomes clearer…”   Thich Nhat Hanh Touching Peace

  • The present moment

“Life is found only in the present moment…”  Thich Nhat Hanh Touching Peace

  • Seeds of enlightenment, awareness, understanding, and compassion

“Mindfulness is the seed of enlightenment, awareness, understanding, care, compassion, liberation, transformation, and healing.  If we practice mindfulness, we get in touch with the refreshing and joyful aspects of life in us and around us, the things we are not able to touch when we live in forgetfulness…”  Thich Nhat Hanh Touching Peace

  • A genuine ecumenism of common intuitions

“…genuine ecumenism requires that communication and sharing, not only of information about doctrines which are totally and irrevocably divergent, but also of religious intuitions and truths which may turn out to have something in common, beneath surface differences.  Ecumenism seeks the inner and ultimate spiritual ‘ground’ which underlies all articulated differences…”  Thomas Merton Mystics and Zen Masters

Do you think that Christianity could learn from Buddhism?