Buddha and Christian Monasticism
The teachings of Jesus have been understood and practiced in different ways throughout time, not only within Christianity itself, but in other religious traditions as well. By examining the history of Christian monasticism, and the understanding of Jesus's teachings in Zen Buddhism (with focus given to Thich Nhat Hanh), one can observe the commonalities and differences of both traditions’ understandings of Jesus’s teachings, which affect the role, practice, purpose, and importance of the monastic life, the ramifications of which are not only important within the context of their specific religious traditions, but to all of humanity as well.
From Christianity’s inception, to the Edict of Toleration in 313AD, the majority of Christians were forced to live a semi-ascetic life. Being members of a persecuted religion under the Roman state, and unable to participate in public office, the army, and certain occupations (since these typically involved pagan worship and/or sacrifice), Christians were already, in a sense, "deny[ing] [themselves]” and “tak[ing] up [their] cross and following..." Jesus (Mark 8:34). However, in 395AD Christianity’s status was drastically altered, for it was elevated to the position of the official state religion. Upon institutionalization, the Church was forced to relax its formerly stringent moral standards in order to cater to the suddenly increased number of believers. The teachings of Jesus were then separated into “‘commandments,’ which ‘impl[ied] necessity’ and which were taken to be binding upon everyone, and ‘counsels of perfection’ which were ‘left to choice’ and were binding only upon the monastic athletes” (Pelikan 114). The demarcation between these two moral categories found its scriptural basis in Matthew chapter 19, in which Jesus converses with a rich young man who seeks eternal life. Jesus first instructs that to achieve this lofty goal some of the Ten Commandments must not be broken. The presence of “thou shall,” spoken by Jesus, was interpreted as a mandate necessary for salvation. However, when inquired further Jesus states, “‘if you wish to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me’” (Matthew 19:21). The conditional “if,” here, was understood as being optional, an individual choice to be made by each Christian. Monks and nuns, then, were the ones who took these “counsels of perfection” to heart, retreating in anchoritic protest against the worldly Church that was quickly becoming more and more lax in its ethical demands. Hence, to the monks, all of Jesus’s teachings were considered vital, the sum total of which called each and every individual to live a life modeled after Christ himself. “Thus the monks began by patterning themselves after Christ” (Pelikan 110). However, the conception of what constituted “the Christly life” changed throughout time. In the early, anchoritic stages of Christian monasticism, Jesus’s withdrawal from worldly affairs was stressed. Scriptural support for this can be found in John 6:15, in which Jesus retreats to the solitude of a mountain when a large crowd seeks to carry him off and make him king. This interpretation of Jesus’s life and teachings led to a kind of isolationism and worldly denial characterized by the figure of St. Gregory of Nyssa, who, as explained by Thich Nhat Hanh, believed that “the contemplative life [was] heavenly and [could not] be lived out in this world” (60). As a result, when the monk was summoned to ecclesiastical duty, he/she was expected to lament. This sentiment, however, eventually changed. The stoic insensitivity to the world upset the Vatican, perhaps understood as bordering on Gnostic denial of the flesh and indifference to human and worldly suffering. Since Christ was understood as both human and divine this trend of radical, individualistic cloisterism would not do. Consequently, monasticism adopted a more cenobitic quality. This outlook was well characterized in the figure of St. Basil, who was considered to be the cenobitic movement's founder, for he believed monks should work and pray in a community. Moreover, he emphasized that it was “possible to pray as [one] work[ed]” (60). This balance of work and prayer was likely understood as a more accurate representation of the life of Jesus (it certainly is today, at least within the Catholic Church). During the 50s and 60s the Marist Brothers of New York taught that the performance of charitable acts was a form of prayer in itself. Indeed, if one understands Christ as residing in each and every person, which is derived both from Catholicism’s understanding of the Church as Christ’s mystical body and also from its interpretation of Matthew 26:31-46, one is literally forced to social action, and while contemplative prayer has its place, the love of the mystical, transcendental Christ must manifest itself on the earthly plane as the love of one's brother. Thus, while overt, monastic practice changed forms, living a life in imitation of Christ, did not.
Many similarities can be noted in Zen monasticism, and while I believe the outward practice of the teachings of Jesus are quite similar in both traditions, Thich’s understanding is somewhat different than that of the Christians. Firstly, on a more general level, Zen monasticism, like its Christian counterpart, began as a reaction against something. While in the Christian context monasticism was opposed to the “moral decay” and worldly concerns of the newly institutionalized Church, Zen Buddhism, along with its Mahayana brethren, contested the elitism and religious interpretation of Hinaya Buddhism. Thich's spiritual forebears, alongside Christian monks, considered their sangha/church to be so far-gone as to necessitate the establishment of a separate spiritual community. Zen, too, has its itinerant and socially active wings, both likewise stemming from divergent understandings of the teachings of the Buddha. Those who separate themselves from the world do so believing that only upon attaining enlightenment will they have the necessary insight to relieve beings from the true causes of suffering. Instead of futilely wasting one's energy in attempts to allay suffering this moment, the attempts of which would ultimately fail due to the practitioner's imperfect knowledge of the root suffering's causes and conditions, monks of this kind choose to focus all their concentration on achieving enlightenment as soon as possible, after which they hope to have the clarity of perception required to truly provide healing services for all beings. This attitude is somewhat comparable to that of the anchoritic monks of the Christian tradition, who believed the ultimate aim of life was to give up one's possessions and live a solitary life filled solely with the love of Christ, for that was considered all that was truly important. Thich Nhat Hanh, however, would have a bone to pick with members of both of these groups. To him, mindfulness, which is the essence of meditation, makes one aware of what needs to take place in the present moment, and if social injustices are being committed and people are dying, one's practice, because of its very nature, calls the practitioner to action. Clearly, Thich's views are much closer in line with those of the cenobites and St. Basil. He plainly states that "the question is not whether to be engaged or not. The question is how to engage without losing the contemplative life" (175). However, Thich arrives at this conclusion not through his understanding of the life of Christ, but instead through common sense. “Even in monasteries, we have to cook, clean, sweep, and wash. How can we avoid these? Is there a way to work in a meditative mood? The answer is clearly yes. We practice mindfulness of cooking, cleaning, sweeping, and washing” (61). Because this is possible “there must be ways for monks to continue their contemplative lives while engaging in society” (61). As for Thich’s understanding of the life and teachings of Jesus, while he does state that “the living teachings expressed by the lives of Buddha and Jesus should always be the models for our practice,” his interpretation is slightly different than that of Christianity. Where Christian monks model their lives after the example of Jesus as illustrated in the Gospel, Thich believes that the “person” of Jesus “needs Christians...for His energy to continue in this world” (73). Thus, by understanding the figure of Jesus through the lens of the doctrine of no-self (anatman), the practicing Christian community, believed to be the Body of Christ, becomes for Thich the direct manifestation of the living Christ who is accessed through the doorway of the Holy Spirit/mindfulness (126). This conception of the teachings and person of Jesus, which can be found in some Christian theology today, is slightly different than that of traditional Christian monasticism, for even if the Christian community was not practicing, Christ would still be considered “alive” as the transcendent Son of God as presented in the Gospels. While the results of both conceptions are almost identical, there is an ever-so-slight distinction in comprehension.
Interestingly, both Thich and Christian monasticism utilize their interpretations of the teachings of Jesus to assess and reform religious institutions. In the section entitled “Are We Practicing the True Teaching?” Thich challenges sanghas and churches to discern whether or not they are practicing non-violence, gender equality, poverty, and charity (71-3). These issues endure today, for many modern lay practitioners voice these concerns. Needless to say, the history of Christian monastic reform movements is well documented. From the actions of Benedict of Nursia in 529AD, to the later movements of Luther and the Jesuits in the 15th and 16th centuries, monastic reform orders have altered the face of Christianity in vital and historic ways. In a sense, then, the teachings and life of Jesus are used as instruments of self-reflection, and when the Church and its dogma appear to “fall short,” action is instituted. Thus, in a fashion similar to a Zen koan or Jesus's use of ironic reversal, by forsaking the world the monks gained more influence over it. Further similarity between the monastic traditions can be found in their emphasis on practice, both in its "devotional" and "transformational" forms. Where Zen monks take refuge in the Three Jewels and engage in zazen (mindful meditation), Christian monks recite the rosary, sing Gregorian chants, and engage in contemplative prayer. While the different practices (devotional and transformational) may seem distinct, Thich rightfully points out that "mindfulness and the Holy Spirit are at the heart of both" (130). Indeed, the meanings of prayers often grow deeper the longer one recites them, and the blissful feelings that can accompany meditation practically urge one to sing praise. Along similar lines, the Christian practice of meditatio scriptura is akin to the Zen koan, for in both instances a story or saying slowly affects one’s consciousness. While I don't believe Thich's form of Zen utilizes koans, their presence is central to Rinzai Zen, and indeed to the history of the Zen movement in general. Both traditions also tend to engage in some form of social work, doing so mindfully and prayerfully (although as shown above this is not always true since both Zen and Christianity are such vast religious traditions). Finally, Thich, along with Christian mystics, who are oftentimes, but not always, monks, arrive at profoundly mystical epiphanies. The claim that "things cannot be described by concepts and words…they can only be encountered by direct experience" is characteristic of mysticism regardless of the religious tradition with which it happens to be associated (140). Concepts and notions of God and the Buddha that once satisfied one's soul tend to lose their pallor and eventually offer no solace whatsoever. Jim Marion, in his book Putting on the Mind of Christ, describes this process as a mystical progression of consciousness towards Christ Consciousness, and is not far removed from Borg's conception of Christ as a teacher who invites his followers to engage in a journey of transformation. The Christian tradition of negative theology, as noted by Thich, is in fact geared towards the dissolution of notions of God, finding its Buddhist mirror image in the saying “if you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Mystical "dark nights" are also found in both Christian and Zen contexts. The most famous Christian examples are probably those of St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila, who beautifully describe the purgation of the soul, the anguish felt as old conceptions of God are stripped away, the purification of the soul in holy fire, and the blissful union with Christ (conceived of as the bridegroom of the soul) that surpasses all words. Here, the apophatic link between Zen and Christian mysticism is clear. Zen students have also described similar experiences - of being cast down into one of the hells (or a depth in the self), where the ego painfully dies and the enlightened student returns to the world. These similarities are striking and fascinating.
Jesus, it seems, takes on diverse roles to different people in varying circumstances and time periods. This "mirroring effect," as noticed by Schweizer, may spurn some people to the conclusion that the teachings and figure of Jesus, and religion in general, are merely expressions of the tenor of the times, or worse, manipulative instruments fabricated by elites to control the masses. I disagree, believing that the fact that Jesus can be viewed as savior, lover, revealer, guide, teacher, paradigm for the human life that beckons to be imitated, and present in the actions of his followers indicates the rich effulgence and abundance of the Christian tradition. The multiplicity of interpretations of the teachings of Jesus is not something unfortunate, on the contrary, it expresses its richness, and it is precisely that dynamism that allows the critical dialogue between religion and society, and within Christianity itself, to take place. Mystics, as observed by Scholem in his book On the Kabbalah and Its Symbolism, tend to challenge their traditions as often as they whole-heartedly support it. This discourse provides the fertilizer on which historical continuity may grow. I also believe the vast similarities between Christian mysticism and Buddhist monasticism are not difficult to explain when one considers the possibility that all religious traditions touch the same divine substratum, the same "ground of all existence," to use Paul Tillich's definition of God. Because this most fundamental layer of existence lies beyond all human expression, and can only be accessed through direct, personal experience, it must necessarily be filtered through the various symbolic matrices of the individual, who due to his/her phenomenal manifestation lives in a certain place, during a specific time, and thus expresses him/herself within the symbolic system he/she is most familiar with. Thus, in true monotheistic fashion, there is nothing outside of God. No religious tradition monopolizes the truth; no community can claim exclusive access to the Divine, for there is no reality apart from it. Each tradition accesses the same transcendent reality, but each expresses it in a unique fashion, for that articulation is bound within the context of space-time. The fact that Thich Nhat Hanh (as a representative of a religion that can seem very different from Christianity) finds spiritual nourishment in the teachings of Jesus supports this claim, which allows, as he underscores in Living Buddha, Living Christ, real dialogue between religious traditions to be more than possible. Finally, the recognition of religious “common ground” directs us to the very essence of the human experience - the need for, and the reality of, love, acceptance, reconciliation, and peace, both within and between us.