Buffet Buddhism and contemplative Christianity

March 11th, 2019

Olga Khazan's March 7 story in the Atlantic, "Why So Many Americans Are Turning to Buddhism," discusses the significant upsurge in a secularized "Buffet Buddhism" among contemporary Westerners who find in meditation an inexpensive, accessible help for the mental health wear and tear that is such a feature of anxiously phone-checking, compulsively competitive modern life. "Dressed in her flowing gold robes," Khazan begins, "the bald female meditation teacher told us to do nothing. We were to sit silently in our plastic chairs, close our eyes, and focus on our breath." There is deep liberation in such practice.

I have to admit: as an ordained Christian pastor, theologian, and human who prays, I'm a fan of the Buffet Buddhism.

Beyond all the anxious fomentation among Christian leaders about the phenomenon of the "Nones," I have to admit that a mix-and-match, DIY attitude toward religious practice has, potentially, a great deal to be said for it. See Kaya Oates' 2015 book, The Nones Are Alright: A New Generation of Believers, Seekers, and Those In-Between, for more along this line.

From my standpoint, there are at least a couple of theological problems with opposition in principle to syncretistic learning from various, or "other" faiths. First, such opposition underevaluates the way in which Christ, the one through whom all things are created, is universally present in and reconciling all things. I'm thinking of Colossians 1 here, and Karl Rahner's notion of "anonymous Christianity" is also helpful. Second, and no less important, such opposition in principle to syncretistic borrowing and learning drastically overestimates the holiness and integrity of Christian ways of doing things vis-à-vis the way of Jesus. We worry that taking up, say, Buddhist meditation will water down our Christian practice or faith, but this is an uncritical, fearful, sectarian posture: it is supposed that these practices are Christian, and so holy, since Christians have a history of doing them; and those practices are pagan, and so unholy, because Christians don't have a history of doing them. That's an inadequately Christological way to think about the world.

But as it happens, the difference between "Buddhist" meditation and historic Christian practice isn't all that great anyway. My own induction into the stream of Buddhist influence came, not through any resolute desire to practice syncretism, but through the ancient Christian practice of contemplative prayer itself. Through a teacher I came to read Martin Laird's Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation. This book, and that teacher's influence, resulted in some paradigm shifts and subtle but impactful changes in my own praying and, eventually, thinking. Over time, I found I couldn't help but be interested in the deep similarities between both the practice of contemplative prayer, as a writer like Laird teaches Christians to practice it, and the practice of, say, Zen sitting meditation. The deep insights and approach to reality that results from contemplative prayer and Zen meditation also seemed in some significant respects similar — even as Laird's writing is continuously Christ-centered, and unrelentingly gilded with the wisdom of Christian spiritual practitioners from up and down the centuries. Laird, in fact, quotes nearly exclusively from Christian spiritual masters and mystics, precisely in an effort to correct the prevalent misperception, even among Christians, that one needs to drink from Indian-derived spiritual wells to learn deep forms of meditation.

And this brings us to a point about which many Christians might, not-wrongly, feel a bit of lament in noticing the popularity of Buddhist meditation techniques in the Nones' (and others') DIY spiritual reconfigurations or resurgence. American Christians frequently grow up in segments of the Christian stream which have nearly or entirely lost touch with the Christian tradition's contemplative resources. American Christians come up in the faith and assume that, if they're going to become spiritually transformed through meditation, they need to look outside of Christianity to do so. In some contexts they're correct, though of course there's always the internet. Some Christian leaders wish we could just introduce our communities to contemplative practice — surely that should stem the flow of our young people out of the churches, surely that should make church membership and tithing as practiced in our current American ecclesiastical models appealing to the secular folks desiring to learn mental health conducing prayer habits. Surely, we reason, as we wring our anxious hands, anxious about the viability of our institutions. Truth be told, though, there's something even more painful in all this for the churches in America. Stepping out of church, and into a DIY, syncretistic spiritual space — happy to receive some wisdom from the Catholic Cafeteria and equally eager to grab some techniques at the Buddhist Buffet with a side of community peace ethos from Mennonite Market — is, for many, positively liberating. Leaving one's birth spiritual community may be, but isn't necessarily, a sign of immaturity. It might be a step of growth in wisdom and into responsibility.

Buffet Buddhism is good for Americans, in part it seems, because it's not Christianity. And that can sting a bit to take in. Though anyone who's been paying attention to news about, say, the United Methodist Church or the Roman Catholic Church shouldn't find it all that surprising.

At the end of the day, what draws me to want to spread contemplative prayer, and to share what I've received from Christian, Buddhist and Hindu books, is not part of a grand plan to stem the decline of my denomination, or prop up its fiscal viability. What draws me is a desire — and, more deeply, a wonder — about whether there may be a kind of Christianity genuinely conducive to human flourishing available, a way into a compassionately contemplative humanity, just around the corner. Jesus Christ is Lord, and so it just makes sense to learn from everyone and have hope for the church.

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