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Zen and Christianity

Updated on January 14, 2015

Principles of Zen and Christian fundamentals

For Christians, there is trepidation about the concept of "Zen Christianity" in large part because Zen Buddhism is viewed as a religion worshiping the Buddha. This, however, is not the case. Zen is a path to enlightenment through self-analysis and self-improvement, with meditation as it's most commonly known characteristic to the extent that Zen Buddhists are known as "meditation Buddhists." They do not worship the Buddha, they simply take his teachings and those of other Zen masters and apply them to their own efforts toward self-enlightenment.

If you take a look at the guiding principles behind Zen Buddhism, you might be surprised to find that it shares many concepts with the teachings in the Bible. Such practices as charity, compassion, and tolerance are some of the fundamental ideas guiding the actions of followers in either instance, so why should one be separated from the other? Zen is less a religion than a way of life, centered around self-awareness and self-improvement, so is it such a leap to say that practitioners of Zen could use meditation as a path to God?


Zazen - What is meditation?

The act of meditation is defined as extended thought, reflection, contemplation, and/or spiritual introspection. Zazen, literally "sitting meditation", is the chief practice of Zen and is practiced to calm and relax the body, resulting in a state of concentration in which the practitioner can attain insight into the nature of existence.

It is not within the scope of this article to fully explain zazen, because in it's very nature it is a personal experience. What a practitioner gains from it is purely subjective insight into the self and one's own reality, the meditation itself is only a means to achieve a state of mind conducive to such epiphany.

Raffaello Martinelli on meditation and other eastern practices

"Since the Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions [Nostra Aetate, 2], a Catholic should not be prejudiced against controlled breathing, mantras and other Eastern practices as being non-Christian. The Catholic can, however, take from them what is useful, provided he does not lose sight of the Christian conception of prayer, its logic and its needs since it is within the Christian spiritual sphere these practices must be employed" - Monsignor Raffaello Martinelli

Christianity and Meditation: What's the problem?

So, based on the information provided, where does the conflict lie? If Zen is simply a path of introspection a means to obtain understanding of existence, and the practitioner truly believes in the teachings of Christianity, then deep meditation through the practices of Zen should only serve to further enrich their own personal relationship with God. Not just a superficial, scriptural understanding of the doctrines, but a truly personal religious experience.

In fact in February 2013, Monsignor Raffaello Martinelli, an expert on Catholic doctrine and a bishop in Italy, issued a statement that eastern meditation and yoga can be integrated into Christian practice, stating that meditation can be "a suitable means for the faithful to stand before God."

Old woman in prayer
Old woman in prayer | Source

Is Prayer Meditation?

Though prayer is an attempt to communicate with some higher power, similar brainwave patterns emerge as a result of both, and many Zen Christians observe meditation as a means of "listening prayer", or opening themselves to messages from God. So, the question is, are they really so different as to be contradictory? What makes reciting the Rosary all that different than contemplating koans?

While there are some literal differences in the two concepts, prayer does induce a meditative state and qualifies as spiritual introspection, which is part of the definition of meditation. This is a philosophical question that one must decide upon for themselves.

"Proper Sitting"
A kneeling position, employing a bench or cushion called a "zafu"
A cross-legged sitting position with ankles together and feet flat on the floor
Cross-legged position with one foot rested on the floor, the other on the opposite thigh
Cross-legged position with each foot resting on the opposite thigh
Sitting positions of Zazen

What is a koan?

A koan is basically a story, question, or statement designed as something of a paradox and is used to teach Zen students to abandon dependence on reason and logic and attain enlightenment. These koans are, to the uninitiated, usually described as nonsensical, but that is a part of the design. It is a question that cannot be answered by reasoning, or a statement that provokes thought without logic.

The Mu Koan is probably the most famous of them, and is as follows:

A monk asked Joshu, "Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?"
Joshu replied, "Mu" (Not, no-thing)
So, what did Joshu mean by "Mu"?

Getting started with Zen

To begin meditation in Zen, a student starts with simple breathing exercises designed to enhance concentration. This is done by counting each inhalation and exhalation until reaching ten, then starting again at one. Doing so allows the practitioner to gradually eliminate wandering thoughts and distractions, bringing the mind to focus on the breathing alone. With practice, the attention to the breathing can be eliminated and replaced with koan contemplation or shikantaza (just sitting.)

The potential application of this basic concept of focus and clear-mindedness to prayer is simple. In theory, it would allow a Christian the ability to pray without distraction and with complete concentration, not only on the prayer itself but on the personal "connection" they may feel with God.

Your opinion on Zen in Christianity

Can Zen be applied to Christianity?

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Author's Note

My goal here is not to persuade anyone, just ask a simple question and provide supporting information. I do not intend to offend anyone with my simplification of the topics at hand, either. The purpose was to simply take a look at Zen meditation and it's potential application to another religion. I hope that this will invoke some thought and discussion, but please, if it's in the comments section, I ask that you keep it civil.

Anyway, feel free to find me on Facebook, or visit my home page if you enjoyed this for more information, conjecture, and random topical analysis.


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    • Bishop55 profile image

      Rebecca 4 years ago from USA

      Wait, nope....Libra.

    • Bishop55 profile image

      Rebecca 4 years ago from USA

      Cancer?! I'm out of guesses here. Guess's? guesses? lol

    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 4 years ago

      Fumble, I'm afraid.

    • Bishop55 profile image

      Rebecca 4 years ago from USA

      final guess...I'm torn between Aquarius and Scorpio. You said whisker though, so it could be Sage. All very different. My spider sense usually nails it or fumbles.

    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 4 years ago

      I certainly hope that message gets across, at least to someone. Meditation is a healthy activity for anyone, regardless of faith, and I hope at least someone takes that and runs with it.

    • profile image

      Deborah Sexton 4 years ago

      Nice hub. I hope after people read it they will understand that meditation does not conflict with their religious beliefs.

      I have watched people on hubpages (through what they write) argue that Buddhists worship Buddha, and would not believe anyone who told them it wasn't true.

    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 4 years ago

      No rush. I've had a a lot of people guess my age, where I'm from, things like that, but never my astrological sign.

    • Bishop55 profile image

      Rebecca 4 years ago from USA

      A whisker...hmm...I'll have to wait a bit, since I now have a 1/10 chance.

    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 4 years ago

      I'm glad you enjoyed it! Sadly, your astrological guess was a whisker off. Care to try again?

    • Bishop55 profile image

      Rebecca 4 years ago from USA

      On a complete side note, I'm thinking your an Aries or a Capricorn, or have heavy influences of those signs in your chart.

    • Bishop55 profile image

      Rebecca 4 years ago from USA

      I agree with Pfech, but then again I don't identify with Christianity, or any specific denomination for that matter. Bottom line, these practices are good for the mind and connecting with our higher power. This was a good read.

    • JG11Bravo profile image

      JG11Bravo 4 years ago

      Couldn't agree more. Thanks for taking a moment to leave a comment!

    • pfech profile image

      Pamela J Fech 4 years ago from Huntington, IN

      Any type of meditation is a great way to relax the nerves and obtain inner peace.