Catholicism and Zen Buddhism


Nones and the Interfaith Dialogue

The number of Americans who do not identify with any particular religion continues to grow at a rapid pace. One fifth of the U.S. public – and a third of adults under the age of 30 – are religiously unaffiliated today, the highest percentages ever reported in Pew Research Center polling.

In the last five years alone, the unaffiliated have increased from just over 15% to just under 20% of all U.S. adults. Their ranks now include more than 13 million self-described atheists and agnostics (nearly 6% of the U.S. population), as well as nearly 33 million people who say they have no particular religious affiliation (14%).

With these rising numbers, the religiously unaffiliated are becoming an increasingly important segment of the electorate.

However, a new survey by the Pew Research Center’s forum on Religion & Public Life, conducted jointly with the PBS television program Religion & Ethics Newsweekly, found many of the country’s 46 million unaffiliated adults are one way or another religious or spiritual. Two-thirds say they believe in God (68%). Moreover, more than half say they often feel a deep connection with nature and the earth (58%), while more than a third classify themselves as “spiritual” but not “religious” (37%), and one in five (21%) say they pray every day. In addition, most religiously unaffiliated Americans believe that churches and other religious institutions benefit society by strengthening community bonds and aiding the poor.
Quoted from the Pew Research Center website.


Catholicism and Zen BuddhismIn a commentary entitled “Conclusions about a Beginning” in the Afterward of the book, Benedict’s Dharma: Buddhists Reflect on the Rule of St. Benedict (2001), Brother David Steindl-Rast, a Benedictine monk, wrote: “Lay practitioners are running away with the monastic ball.” Additionally, one contributor to this book wrote, “As a lay practitioner I spend a portion of each year in strict contemplative environments”.  This contributor speaks for countless others. But the amount of time people spend in an environment that revives their contemplative spirit may vary. What is important is that they deliberately cultivate the contemplative dimension of life.  Monastics have no monopoly on mindful living; and as such, a contemplative life can be lived by all who choose this path.  Thomas Merton, hours before his death, called it an “instinct of the human heart.” Increasingly, events have proved his insight correct.  Not only are most formal practitioners of Buddhism laypersons, but in some monastic communities, oblates—those that are formally committed to Saint Benedict’s path—outnumber monastics by as much as tenfold, and this ratio is steadily increasing.

So what’s going on?

Catholicism and Zen Buddhism

The interfaith movement is manifested by Shinmeikutsu, a Zen-Christian monastery near Tokyo.  It was built by German Jesuits in the 1970s as a consequence of the Zen-Christian dialog that occurred in the late 1960s in Japan. Father Robert Kennedy, S.J., also a Zen teacher, studied there for some years before returning to this country, as a Zen teacher as well as a Jesuit priest.  Thomas Merton, before his untimely death in 1968, was instrumental in renewing Christian mysticism, as well as reaching out to Zen Buddhism.

My hunch is that a lot of people today are searching for an authentic spiritual path that fits their personal spiritual objectives.  As I ponder this theory, I also find myself wondering if this exploration is a part of the Perennial tradition.  Richard Rohr, a Franciscan priest, describes this tradition as one belonging to all the great religions of the world at a level of deep mysticism.  At such a level, people struggle to describe the ineffable in words, and, consequently, all seems to be pointing to the same thing.  This leads some down an interfaith spiritual path, as demonstrated by a recent book by Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian.   Knitter is a Catholic theologian.

Catholicism and Zen BuddhismIn a Kirkus Review of my recent novel, Into Light and Shadow: A Journey, the reviewer wrote:

Gordon is clearly knowledgeable about the religious concepts that Steve, the protagonist, encounters, and his explanations of them are clear and engaging. Though he draws heavily from Zen Buddhism, the author’s omnivorous, nondenominational take on spirituality is refreshing, and he deftly balances and integrates each of the many traditions that come into play. Particularly for readers interested in pursuing their own spiritual development, Steve’s story may serve as a useful and enjoyable model.

Perhaps my novel can add to the interfaith dialog in such a way that the “nones” will be able to widen and deepen their inquiry.

Here’s a synopsis:

Catholicism and Zen BuddhismSteve Forrest had always put himself first; he had built himself an enviable life, but it wasn’t enough. There was one more prize to claim.

Mount Everest is the greatest challenge in high altitude mountaineering, the goal of a lifetime’s preparation. To summit is to conquer. Others see the mountain differently. It is sacred to Tibetans. They call it Chomolungma, Goddess Earth Mother of the World.

It would prove to be the start of a journey, not the end of one; a spiritual journey unique to Steve, one that would utterly reshape his life. The mountain would take everything he had ever worked for but his battered ego. It would leave him alone, empty and vulnerable, as well as an invalid.

Enter Father Jack, a man whose appearance is as extraordinary as his story, for he is both a Catholic priest and a Zen monk. Here begins Steve’s real journey, a journey of spiritual ecumenism, bringing east and west together.

This novel reincarnates, if you will, Gautama Buddha (although Jack would say otherwise), leading Steve down the path the Buddha himself took thousands of years earlier on his quest for enlightenment. But the path will deviate to Steve’s Christian past and the spirituality of his forebears, as it must. Following close is a demon that in Buddhism has a name. As it once challenged the Buddha, it will now challenge Steve.