Response To A Question on Buddhist Meditation

A reader wrote that he had begun to discover himself through Buddhist meditation despite 25 years of Orthodox Christian practice.  He asked for my perspective.  This is what I wrote him.

Dear E,

I don’t know enough about Buddhism or specifically about Buddhist meditation to make any sort of intelligent comment.  Neither do I know you personally nor your experience as an Orthodox Christian nor your actual practice of meditation.  Therefore, I will only make some very general observations and comments regarding the following question: Why is it that after living many years, perhaps growing up in, a pious Orthodox Christian context, why is it that some people seem to have their spiritual life jumpstarted by an encounter with or by a practice of heterodox Christianity or even non-Christian faith?

I don’t know why it sometimes happens that Orthodox Christians find a practice or perspective in a heterodox Christian or even a non-Christian faith which turns out to be very helpful in moving them forward in virtues that the Orthodox Church values.  I know a devout and apparently holy priest who grew up in the Orthodox Church, went off into Evangelicalism in his twenties because he found his own Orthodox faith to be dead.  Then in his thirties, he returned to the Orthodox faith with an evangelical zeal for the depth of wisdom, beauty and truth of the faith of his childhood.  Why did he have to leave the Church to find the Church?  Or, as in your case, E., why do some people have to look outside the Church to find a meditation practice that helps them find themselves?

I wonder if sometimes people (or monasteries or even whole cultures) fixate on certain aspects of the Orthodox faith to the extent that they ignore others.  It can happen that while focusing intently on certain important aspects of the Orthodox faith, one can unintentionally be ignoring other equally and perhaps even more important aspects of the faith.  It may be that, as Jesus pointed out to the religious leaders of his time, we strain out the gnats and swallow the camels.  A person who eats only green, leafy vegetables will most likely find himself weakened or even ill, regardless of how important green, leafy vegetables are to one’s diet.  And the irony is that a few people, perhaps with certain health conditions, might thrive on a steady diet of only green, leafy vegetables, while the same diet would weaken and sicken most otherwise healthy people.  But seeing these few unique ones thrive, it is assumed by some that everyone should follow their diet, despite the evidence that most people don’t thrive.

I find it interesting that the exact same first-century B.C. Judaism that produced Sts. Zechariah and Elizabeth and their son St. John the Forerunner, and Sts. Joachim and Anna and their daughter the Most Holy Theotokos, that same religion also produced Ananias the hight priest who condemned our Lord Jesus.  It was the same religion that produced the scribes and Pharisees whom Jesus condemned.  The same.  When you look at it this way, categories such as pious or zealous or faithful don’t really have much meaning.  Two people can be following the same Orthodox Faith to the letter, and one sees only the letter while the other passes through the letter to the Spirit.  One experiences the letter that kills, while the other the Spirit that gives life.

I don’t know why it seems to happen this way.  I have been to monasteries where the love and compassion of the brothers toward one another and toward visitors is so overwhelming that the strict fasting and the long vigils seem to be less important, mere means to an end.  Yes the strict fasting and long prayers in the night are the same, but somehow they seem less important, or less the thing, in the light of the brothers’ love for God and for one another.  Other monasteries seem to be all about the rule, all about doing it right, all about identifying and straining out the non-Orthodox gnat. And all the while, the love part seem hard to find.  Sometimes in such a context love is even reduced to obedience, as though the principle, or the rule itself, were what love looks like.  I have actually heard people say things very similar to this.

And again, it is a profound irony to me that some people actually seem to thrive in this later rule-emphasizing Orthodox Christian environment.  Others do not.  I have some parishioners who have actually chided me for being too soft on them in confession, as though I do not take the faith seriously enough for them.  I have other parishioners who fall into despair at the hint of a harsh word or tone, but who have responded very well to encouragement.  And each priest has his own tendencies, some harsher, some more gentle.  A lot depends on the relative discernment (or lack thereof) of the priest along with matters such as his own experience, expectations and personality.  Sometime, maybe, an earnest Orthodox Christian believer might not be able to see the truth and tools available in the Orthodox faith because he or she has not met a spiritual father or mother who speaks to them, whom they can hear.

 In St. Isaac the Syrian’s 66th homily, in the first section, he traces out the way to “spiritual knowledge,” using imagery of light and sight, seeing and darkness.  By spiritual knowledge, I think St. Isaac is referring to the true, knowledge of things as they are, a spiritual knowledge of the world, of oneself, and (at least the beginnings) of God.  In the final paragraph of the section he talks of hinderances to this knowledge and points out that “most men are unable to attain to a degree of perfection in spiritual knowledge.”  Among these hindrances he lists “being unable to find a teacher and guide” along with “the hindrances of times, places and means.”  

Not every spiritual father is appropriate for everyone seeking to grow in their faith and in their spiritual knowledge, very few priests or bishops or monks are suitable guides to everyone. The spiritual exercise that brings salvation to one might create only pride or depression or nothing at all in another. Sometimes we have to keep looking for the right teacher, the right time, the right place, the right means.  I read somewhere once that St. Pacomius the Great only accepted a third of the men and women who came to join his monasteries.  He would say to two thirds of those who came to him, “Salvation may be possible for you, but not here.”  Salvation comes to those who seek and ask and knock.  There would be no seeking if the first door one knocked on opened right away.

And so I wonder out loud: is it possible that if one becomes stuck in a particular Orthodox Christian context and is unable to progress there that God might use something from outside the faith to jolt this person to his or her senses, to open her eyes, to break his mental logjam?  I don’t know.  I do know that I have occasionally been inspired by a novel written by a heterodox Christian or even an atheist.  I do know that I have found certain yoga stretches to be helpful—especially after standing for several hours in Church.  Does that mean that Hinduism is OK or that atheists should be teaching the Faith?  No, not at all.  But I think It means that Orthodox Christians are free to use what is useful, to chew up the meat and spit out the bones.  

But we must be careful; we must be discerning.  We must be careful and discerning about what we might borrow from outside the faith because there is much attached to these foreign practices that we don’t see.  We must listen to the wise people in our lives, the saints who have gone before us and those who know us well in this life.   We must test everything, St. Paul tells us, and hold on to what is true and good.  

Finally there is the chicken and the egg problem.  My spiritual father taught me to breathe a certain way when I say the Jesus Prayer (sometimes, not always).  Sitting in the doctor’s reception room recently, there was a large screen offering health advice.  The advice that the screen offered regarding several mental ailments was to breathe in a way very similar to what my Orthodox spiritual father had recommended.  And so, which came first?  Did the Church borrow breathing techniques from others, or did others get it from the Church?  Or more likely, it’s neither.  Human beings are human beings, Orthodox or non-Orthodox, Christian or Buddhist or Hindu or atheist.  

And a human being functions better if he or she takes time each day to breathe a certain way and stretches his or her body certain ways.  It may have been the Hindus who first developed this stretching into a systematic practice (interwoven with many dangerous—from and Orthodox Christian perspective—Hindu concepts and presuppositions).  However, the fact still remains that human bodies can benefit a good deal from systematic stretching of the body muscles.  Similarly, certain breathing techniques and mental exercises may be universally helpful for all human beings even though these techniques and exercises were developed most systematically in a non-Christian context. 

The Church has been Christianizing aspects of pagan culture from the beginning.  However, one must be very careful that he or she is indeed Christianizing.  That is, one must attend.  The art, architecture, rhetoric and even philosophy of the pagan Greek world was largely Christianized.  This Christianizing continues today, but you have to pay attention to what you are doing and thinking.  Meditation can, I think, be Christianized.  But we must be very careful lest the meditation Buddhistize us, lest the Yoga Hinduize us, rather than we Christianizing the various non-Christian practices.

And here, I submit, that the whole Church is necessary.  I alone will most likely be deceived if I attempt to Christianize some pagan practice. So my advice is to proceed slowly and carefully, with as much discernment as you have, being open to rebuke and correction.  No one of us has all the gifts, all of the discernment necessary to separate light from darkness. 

12 comments:

  1. Peace…..After reading your article in response to the person searching outside of his Orthodox Church & Roots, I thought to make a brief comment. Many are searching during these difficult times and perhaps it is God’s way of letting this person find out for himself, where “home” is – so he is not there by obligation, so to speak. The person mentioned here, did return home like the Prodigal Son and being away may have brought him to a point of what he “thought” was missing, in reality, was not! There will always be a gap; something missing as we simply have not reached perfection and won’t until we are with God eternally.
    God bless, Margaret

  2. Thank you. I find this refreshingly accessible. My initial inquiring toward Orthodoxy some years ago (and still inquiring with dozens of hours in services, not hundreds) coincided with a single workshop at a Tai Chi place. The workshop was only about the first five poses, especially the first, a standing pose. My computer hunched back felt so renewed by it that I inquired further. But in subsequent classes I felt the weight of prestige, lineage, hierarchy, many poses, many names for the the poses, and even competitive events about these poses. I felt I could only end up being a poser at these poses.

    I was able to book an additional private session. For an hour they (co-teaching spouses) discerned my first pose — just my posture — and offered gentle correctives: “maybe drop your right shoulder.” Timed with my initial queries to Orthodox services I wonder if this pose helped me find a different level of purpose in standing there: not just being an inquirer, but also, in engaging this practice, taking a stand toward the inquiry.

  3. Thank you, Father. Very helpful to me as I try to come to a more Orthodox understanding of Centering Prayer.

  4. So, it’s ok to apostacize in order to “find oneself” as an Orthodox Christian…. Ok. Got it…

  5. It is clear to me, Fr Gillis, that you are not endorsing the notion that in some straightforward manner treason is a way to loyalty; lies are a route to truth; and death is an avenue to life. Such a characterisation of your commentary, though possibly sincerely held by the holder, seems unreasonable.

    It seems, Reverend Father, that you render the Cyprianic quip: “extra ecclesiam nulla salus”, with a fuller semantic range for “salus”, but not the wider range of meaning for the term “ecclesiam” so that the statement reads thus in English, “Outside the Church no safety”, that is, “Outside the Orthodox Church there is no fully trustworthy guidance that leads to safety in the arms of God.”

    Four possibilities appear from the combination of narrow and broad treatments of “ecclesiam” and “nulla salus”:

    1) adamant/fundamentalist Orthodoxy: narrow meaning for both terms
    (nulla salus as damnation or no salvation; ecclesiam as canonical Orthodoxy)
    2) the multi-culti option: broad meaning for both terms;
    (nulla salus as no psychological health; ecclesiam as the-ecclectic best-of-all-traditions)
    3) cautious Orthodoxy: narrow meaning for “ecclesiam” only; and
    (nulla salus as no certain guidance or safety; ecclesiam as canonical Orthodoxy)
    4) the Evangelical option: narrow meaning for “salus” only.
    (nulla salus as damnation or no salvation; ecclesiam as ‘the invisible church known to God”

    In the end, it appears, Michael, that you have espoused option 1; and that you have judged Fr Gillis’s view as some combination of options 2 and 4, without recognising the legitimacy or the possibility of Fr Gillis’ actual view: option 3.

    I invite you, Michael, to consider St Paul’s example on Mars Hill in Acts 17, where he used the altar to the Unknown God as a means for affirming something in a nonChristian worldview as a schoolmaster leading to perception of truth. However frustrating option 3 is this age of option 2, with many converts coming to Orthodoxy from option 4; let us acknowledge the courage of taking option 3 in this milieu, even if we are not comfortable affirming its claim to wisdom. For option 3 still holds true to the Church in the narrow sense of the term (the visible Church handed down from the apostles), without denying the narrow sense of the term “nulla salus” (damnation for individuals who reject the Truth), within the broader understanding of “no safety” (that non-Orthodox forms of Christian faith are a less reliable guide).

    1. Thank You Minimus,
      I hadn’t thought it through like this. My brain just doesn’t process well in such logical terms. Nevertheless I’m happy some people can think these things through. It takes the whole Christ to make the Church (in the narrow sense) 😇
      Fr. Michael

  6. As a Christian years ago I was drawn to studying Buddhist walking meditation before I came to Orthodoxy. I read many books that presented versions of Buddhism that was sanitized of all of its pagan roots. Only when I started reading older Buddhist texts did I see gods, demons, and levels of hell that would make a Baptist blush. I then decided that I needed to go back to my own tradition. I rediscovered that the Gospels are amazing and full of depth As for meditation, I found coming into the fullness of Orthodoxy that it enabled deep meditation for those who wish to seek it, and that my small steps outside the faith prepared me to see this clearly.

  7. My own reflection on the deep inner logic of the world’s major religions, when compared to various expressions of Christian faith, has led me to perceive the following affinities:

    1) Ethos of Dispassion and Mystical Enlightenment: Orthodoxy + Buddhism

    NB: monasticism as most prominent religious figure; asceticism and esteem for hermits; hesychasm; prominence of enlightenment or theology of Transfiguration

    2) Ethos of Sober-minded Cosmic Vision Mediated in Sacred Persons, Places: Catholicism + Hinduism

    NB: intense sacerdotalism; indissoluble marriage; indelible priesthood and Brahman caste; strong legal tradition or karma; 3-D icons of holy figures; eucharistic adoration and prayers with incense at shrines-at-home

    3) Ethos of Loyal Celebration of Identity: Evangelicalism + Judaism (and aspects of Sunni Islam)

    NB: book orientation; religious leader as teacher/scholar of religious texts as constitution for culture and law; Calvin’s Geneva, Zionism, Caliphate, Anglican-church-as-state; spirituality in the midst of daily business; prominent of Old Testament literature in sermons; antipathy to monasticism in favour of young fruitful marriages

    4) Ethos of Indignation: Liberal Protestantism + Secular Humanism

    NB: egalitarian ideals, esp. feminism; thorough-going iconoclasm; intense demythologisation; sentimental ethics; scientistic ethos; positive view of human nature that leads to viewing oneself as good

    5) Ethos of Joyous Victory/Dread: Pentecostalism + Animism (and also aspects of Sunni Islam)

    NB: engagement with paranormal, ecstatic spirituality; material blessing or victory as evidence of divine aid; spiritual warfare, jihad; reward-mindedness; conquest of evil through zealous missionary or expansion ideals; man-of-God as charismatic, untouchable like an emperor/chieftain

    Such affinities suggest that there are different dimensions of human experience that could become prominent and that Christians of one type or another have laid emphasis here or there. One might also note that these affinities are not so fixed in the pairs suggested above. For example, Sufi Islam would have much in common with the Buddhist ethos of mysticism even though, in the main, this aspect of human experience gains minimal traction among imams known for Islamic orthodoxy. Nevertheless, I do think there is some substance in perceiving these affinitive pairs.

    If there is substance in this perspective, it would not be surprising, then, that those attracted by Eastern Christian Orthodoxy could also find some appeal in aspects of Buddhist practice. But, in recognising affinity, one must not equivocate: for there is a great difference in purpose between the Christian ethos of asceticism and the Buddhist ethos of asceticism. The Christian ascetic loses himself for Christ in order to become his true (and best) self by participating in the divine nature (that is, filling his mind with Christ); but the Buddhist ascetic simply loses himself (vacates his mind) in various mental and physical disciplines in order to escape the pain of reality itself so that there is no distinction between himself and the universe.

    Humorous quip contrasting reality-affirming and reality-negating monasticism:

    Reality affirming Christian monks commune with reality by Bread;
    the eastern reality-negating monks buy Naan bread.

    1. The affinities you point out are quite interesting. It seems to me human beings are the same and have very similar spiritual and emotional needs and ways of expressing or trying to meet those needs. However, as you point out, and this is VERY IMPORTANT,that the expressions may be similar does not imply that the goal or the religious content (for lack of a better word) is the same. Religions are similar because they all involve humans, but that does not mean or even imply that the religions are at any level the same. It is like saying that because a Right to Life organization and Planned Parenthood have similarities in their structures or political tactics or fundraising activities, they therefore at some level are about the same thing. They are similar in that they are both human organizations, but what they are about is very different.

  8. Well said, Reverend Father. Similarity in ethos does not translate into similarity of substance, even though similarity in ethos could make the bridge to a Christian identity, and may be even to Christ, easier for some. To illustrate, a devout self-effacing Buddhist may find conversion to Eastern Orthodoxy less disruptive that conversion to pew-jumping Pentecostalism with its assertion of divine blessing manifest in material form; even as an adherent of a vivacious African Traditional Religion practising ancestral spirit possession may find conversion to Pentecostalism, with its emphasis of the filling of the Holy Spirit, more comprehensible than conversion to Orthodox monasticism that seeks deep enlightenment within.

    In light of the comment that similar ethos does not mean similar intent, one may ask whether or not similar intent demands similar ethos. This second question is addressed above in the matter concerning the scope of the term “ecclesiam” found in the truism, “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus” (Outside the Church/churches, no saftety/salvation).

    For Father Gillis, the answer to this other matter, starkly stated, seems to be this: similarity of intent does not necessarily imply similarity of ethos, even as similarity of ethos surely does not imply similarity of intent.

    But there is a caveat: similarity of ethos (Orthodox asceticism) in the matter of faith is the still safest, most reliable way to effect similarity of intent. That is, the ethos of dispassion proper to Orthodoxy is still to safest guide to eternal life in Christ.

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