Zen and Christianity


By Jack Campitelli

© 2012 Jack Campitelli LLC



For many of us who transact between the worlds of Christianity and Zen Buddhism, there is little reason or need to explain how seamlessly the metaphysical/mystical elements of Zen and Christianity fit together.




Christianity has such a broad spectrum of religions that claim to be Christian that the common denominator can only be the name Christ in the religion.  Christian religions can span a New Testament Christ of various exegeses to a New Age Christ of the cosmos.  There is also an ontological Christ that represents God’s presence in being and time.  This Christ could probably after painful discussion be roughly comparable with Buddha nature or even Lord Krishna dancing in the universe.


Buddhism started 600 years before Christ in India.  As Christ was plying the shores of Galilee, Buddhism was heading into China.  And 600 years later written evidence of Zen Buddhism started coming to notice.  As Thomas Aquinas was finishing Summa Theologica, Zen was entering Japan.  It if from Japan, rather than China, that Europe and North America received Zen priests and masters.


Zen is supposedly a non-religion that starts with the premise that God both exists and does not exist and neither exists nor does not exist.  The foundational element is a “suchness” that carries various names that roughly is comparable to Christ in the universe.  You can’t push the analogy because Buddhism, although full of rich texts, is not dogmatic in the sense that traditional mainstream Christianity is.  Zen is about “practice” by which they mean mindful attention to all that goes on in our lives.  The starting place of this in Zen is often “zazen” or sitting Zen where the student concentrates on breath.  In a monastic setting this is a twice daily practice.  Officially there is no “aim” since “striving” is the start of much karmic trouble in sacred texts.  Unofficially, the aim is “kensho” or a state of oneness with all that is followed by “satori” or awakening into emptiness.  There are explanations of why such states are possible due to the posture of sitting Zen but, for Buddhists, that is not up for discussion.  I believe that would say that “zazen” is enlightenment.  The fact that you are not yet aware is another issue.  In between formal mediation sessions students work – whether cooking, cleaning, or working in fields – or even Buddhist enterprises.   Zen has weekend “services” for visitors that can look like scenes from a Tibetan monastery or sometimes sparse liturgy from a Quaker meeting hall.  Services often have a “lecture” from the presiding priest on some aspect of Buddhism.  Services are followed by a Sunday-school of sorts for adults where Zen practice is discussed.


Zen represents a direct path to mystical/metaphysical experiences that is now quite mainstream for Benedictins, Trappists, and even Jesuits.  However, for Sunday-Christians, Zen Buddhism remains largely unknown and, if known, suspect and competitive with their current religion.  Besides the barrier of the “mysterious Orient” that cloaks the practice of Zen, there is the fact that no major religions preach “how to” for mystical experiences from the pulpit.  In marketing terms, mystical experiences are wholesale goods as far as religion goes whereas sermons and Sunday worship services are retail.  The problem with all forms of mysticism is that it tends to cut out the middleman: the priests, the church, the authoritarian hierarchy that customarily forms the traditional bridge between God/Christ and the faithful.  There is just no way to have an indirect mystical experience.  The path to “awakening,” no matter the twists and turns of methodology, are always personal.


Nevertheless, an increasing number of Christians around the world are finding their way to Zen Buddhism as additive to their Christian practice, not to supplant it.  Unlike parts of Christendom that are rigid with orthodoxy, Zen Buddhism has remained “flexible”.  As it moved into China from India, its practice was influenced by Taoism and Confucianism.  As it moved to Japan, its practice adopted many of classic elements of Japanese architecture and customs: of sabi (untranslatable but full of simplicity; quietude; rustic beauty) and wabi (untranslatable but things “fresh and simple; natural; accidental happenstance; uniqueness” approximate).  There is nothing about a phrase like “Christian Zen” that is going to upset Buddhists.




Early Christian mystics from Origen to the Desert Fathers, led ascetic lives, perhaps masochistically ascetic: when their regular ascetic practices failed to deliver the goods, they turned to increasing harsher levels of mortification.  They produced writings that are similar to a stage of the Buddha’s passage in Hermann Hesse ’s Siddhartha when Siddhartha spends years with ascetic practitioners who were searching for “the way” but leaves them behind on his quest.  The writings that survive show that the Desert Fathers and their like were truly embedded in the metaphor and dogma of early Christianity and, while I can find “Zen-like” passages, I find no attempts to describe “pure” kensho experiences, even in stories.


What we know of Jesus from the New Testament Gospels does not exactly fit into the non-dogma of Buddhism, especially Zen Buddhism, which hadn’t yet begun.  Zen didn’t emerge into written history until about 600AD.  However, what is interesting in examining the historical fragments of early Zen Buddhism, is that, like Jesus and his disciples, mendicant Buddhist monks, travelled and taught for decades, perhaps a century, before written records and commentary and stories about Zen began to emerge.  And, perhaps like instances in the Gospels, apocryphal stories of early Buddhism were penned to create legitimacy and credibility – once a foundation had been established.  Meaning, given the difficulty of widely disseminated communication from the time of Buddha about 600BC through the time of the emergence of Zen Buddhism in 600AD, and thus overlapping the period when Jesus taught, it was common for stories to emerge at some point to cover origins when it became necessary to have stories.  Stories were a way to set roots deep into past or present popular religions – including politically powerful pagan “religions” in the case of Christianity. The stories of both early Buddhism and early Christianity were likely more expedient than factual as was the custom.  And stories, such as Revelations, could easily have been both well meaning and, like all good marketing sales letters, designed to create a sense of urgency in “signing up.”  Revelations seems at once poetic, mysterious, symbolic and scary as hell.  It seems an accepted fact these days that early Christians were awaiting the imminent return of Jesus and undoubtedly wanted to be on the right team when he returned.

The Gospel of Thomas, though not an official New Testament gospel, has some Buddhist-like elements.  But it’s not Buddhist.

What we do know is that for centuries, and not too long after historic Jesus walked the Holy Lands, there is evidence of efforts to connect his teachings with Hinduism and Buddhism.  Since the Gospel birth stories and the time-line of Jesus parallel those of a host of religions that pre-date Jesus (most originating to the west of Galilee), there’s a case to be made that narratives were created that fit the early Christian efforts to connect Jesus to other and earlier religions, perhaps to enhance Christianity’s fledgling credibility and legitimacy.   It’s not inconceivable that stories also arose to link him to religions to the east of Galilee.

Somewhere in the 1100’s a story about a St. Buddha began to surface that supposedly found a path from India and may have happened, if at all, in the 7th century AD.   St. Josaphat of the story was a Catholic martyr and “the Buddha.”  The exact details of his life are lost to history but his name was removed in recent times from the official roll of Catholic martyrs.  In fact, there is a whole body of legend about Jesus himself traveling to India as a young man and adopting Hindu/Buddhist beliefs and returning them to the Holy Land.  Or maybe never returning.  Or maybe leaving Galilee and traveling to Kashmir where he preached until his death.  There is a tomb for him in Kashmir, India.

A woman, St. Hildegard de Bingen (1098 – 1179), is currently being honored as the 35th “Doctor of the Church” in 2012.  She was a renowned herbalist of her day, prolific composer and mystic/visionary.  Her long-term monastic companion was also a visionary.  St. Hildegard’s mystical experiences manifested themselves as visions and voices from God urging her to write about her visions.  Her narrative claims she had visions from an early age (3) and is perhaps why her parents confined her to a monastic enclosure a few years later.

Meister Eckhart (c.1260 – c1327), theologian, philosopher and mystic, is often thought as an entry place for Christians to explore mysticism.  And perhaps he is.  Even though he was tried and convicted as a heretic, his thought and metaphor remained clearly in the Christendom box of dogma and he considered himself a Thomist (St. Thomas Aquinas).  What he is not is a common denominator between Zen and Christianity.  Meister Eckhart comes complete with his own arcane pathways – but they are not the way of Zen.




However, historically, there is one very unlikely, almost totally unknown, taste of Zen to touch orthodox Christianity — and that is from the most rational and prolific mind that Christendom has ever produced and whose massive works form the very foundations of Christianity: St. Thomas Aquinas (1225 – 1274) of the encyclopedic Summa Theologica fame.


Nearly seven hundred forty years ago, Friar Thomas Aquinas, aged 49, died on his way to the Council of Lyons. His death, then unexpected, is still unexplained.  However, the age was full of unexpected and unexplained deaths.  The sole fact that seems historically sure is that, following four years of incredibly productive intellectual work during his second professional stay at the University of Paris, Thomas underwent “an intense personal experience” on December 6, 1273, which caused him to cease writing forever. That experience may have been a stroke, some form of physical or nervous breakdown, or a mystical experience. (In his important new study Friar Thomas d’Aquino, Father James A. Weisheipl rather puzzlingly suggests that it was a combination of all three.)

One proffered explanation is that Aquinas had what the Buddhists would call a “kensho” or “awakening” experience while saying Mass.  In a “kensho” experience one realizes that there are no inherently existing ‘things,’ that the world we experience is empty.  More precisely that there is no distinction between me and thee.  Kensho also implies an experience of one’s inner nature, the originally pure mind.  Whatever its explanation, the fact is that Thomas never wrote again after his “experience.” When his several admirers asked him why, he supposedly replied, “I cannot,  for all that I have written seems like straw to me.”  (as quoted by James Arraj Christian Philosophy, Vol. III found on his website: www.innerexplorations.com from a book by Jaques Martain)

The reason this experience is quite Buddhist is perhaps found in a Zen story.


In modern times a great deal of nonsense is talked about masters and disciples, and about the inheritance of a master’s teaching by favorite pupils, entitling them to pass the truth on to their adherents. Of course Zen should be imparted in this way, from heart to heart, and in the past it was really accomplished. Silence and humility reigned rather than profession and assertion. The one who received such a teaching kept the matter hidden even after twenty years. Not until another discovered through his own need that a real master was at hand was it learned that the teaching had been imparted, and even then the occasion arose quite naturally and the teaching made its way in its own right. Under no circumstance did the teacher even claim “I am the successor of So-and-so.” Such a claim would prove quite the contrary.


The Zen master Mu-nan had only one successor. His name was Shoju. After Shoju had completed his study of Zen, Mu-nan called him into his room. “I am getting old,” he said, “and as far as I know, Shoju, you are the only one who will carry on this teaching. Here is a book. It has been passed down from master to master for seven generations. I have also added many points according to my understanding. The book is very valuable, and I am giving it to you to represent your successorship.”


“If the book is such an important thing, you had better keep it,” Shoju replied. “I received your Zen without writing and am satisfied with it as it is.”


“I know that,” said Mu-nan. “Even so, this work has been carried from master to master for seven generations, so you may keep it as a symbol of having received the teaching. Here.”


They happened to be talking before a brazier. The instant Shoju felt the book in his hands he thrust it into the flaming coals. He had no lust for possessions.

Mu-nan, who never had been angry before, yelled: “What are you doing!”

Shoju shouted back: “What are you saying!” (quoted from www.101zenstories.com)



In the 1500’s St. John of the Cross and St. Theresa of Avilla were Christian mystics and wrote from and about that state.  There was great interest around Europe in their writings but their mystical experiences lacked easy, understandable “pathway practices.”  Thus widespread interest was short lived.




Christian mystics may well have rooted their mystical experiences in the ecstatic rapture of being totally immersed in thinking about or praying to Christ in one manner or another.   Whether St. Hildegard, St. John of the Cross or St. Theresa, the mystics of the middle ages seemed to produce very talkative and proselytizing interpretations of their experiences — not to diminish their experiences, just to distinguish them from what we know of Buddhist experiences.  In all of Buddhist literature, as far as I know, there are no reported visions of God/Buddha or voices urging them to write about the visions.  In fact, Buddhist “kensho” experiences don’t really have words or call for words.

The visions/voices of Christian mystics set them apart from the general populace and their mystical visions are used to proselytize to or mystify the uninitiated with the standard dogma of the Church during their time.  And there’s a case to be made that some of these souls were neurologically or psychologically impaired rather than just predisposed.

In my limited experience, the first thing someone does after a “kensho” experience is nothing.  The last thing one does is run around and tell folks about it.  Or create interpretation for it.  How an awakening experience manifests to others is by a change in visage and a change in attitude and behavior; rarely in

Here’s an interesting excerpt from http://www.orthodox.cn/patristics/apostolicfathers/mystic.htm

In reference to early Christian mystics or the Desert Fathers, [v]isions were practically non-existent in the mystical theology of the Eastern Orthodox Church! Distractions to prayer, whether voluntary or involuntary, were to be deplored and dismissed with whenever possible, and visions and ecstasies were considered to be involuntary distractions to prayer! Those experiences which later mystics sought after and prized so highly were considered by the earlier Christians as little more than nuisances to be suspiciously examined and barely tolerated.

Simply focusing on the idea of Christ relentlessly could quite possibly lead to a “kensho” experience.  If you can do it by attentive breathing (zazen) or attentive archery or tea ceremony, then it seems quite possible that persons could experience “kensho” by focusing on certain repetitious prayers (like the rosary), plain song chants, or long litanies producing similar sounds to those of chanting Tibetan monks and perhaps inducing semi-hypnotic states.  This could explain how some Christian mystics attained “kensho” but without pathways that they could pass on easily.

In contrast to the quietude of Buddhism mystics, the Christian mystics that find their way to history seem to have an agenda.  Their visions hold not just meaning for themselves but with it comes an urgency to interpret and share the “meaning” of their visions with others.  And since they survived history, one can assume that the interpretations of their visions fell within the bounds of approved dogma and reaffirmed the legitimacy of the Church and even Christ.


Using Zen meditative practice does not immediately put the novitiate outside any mainstream religions.  Writing about various Buddhist pathways to metaphysical/mystical experiences rarely gets anyone in Dutch with the precepts of their current religion.  Where things go awry is trying to put words to the wordless Zen experiences you might have and then trying to fit them into the dogma of a particular religion.  The first victim of awakening is almost everything you think you knew about God and certainly most of the dogma of your current religion.  It is not as if your new state is antagonistic, because it’s not.  It’s that you have moved beyond the world of words.  I suspect this is precisely what happened to St. Thomas Aquinas.  Perhaps he became Christianity’s first “Zen victim” due to his intensely focused attention into the nature and existence of God.

In a broad sweeping conclusion (and thus suspect), I have the feeling that Christ of the Gospels and Zen Buddhism are not a close match.  The metaphysical parables of Jesus are not Zen koans.  (A koan is a short question or story that undermines all attempts to explain it using words.  The idea is you noodle on the koan until your brain gives up.  And then the answer might appear.)  Zen casts a would-be student adrift into mindful-doing and mindless-emptiness so that the student is forced to quit using words as his way of knowing or to stay away from words long enough to find his own wordless knowing out of mindfulness and mindlessness.

The New Testament Jesus on the other hand gets right to a Confucian-like set of behavioral principals that define Christianity, such as “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”  (Mathew 22:35)  The “Lord’s Prayer (Mathew 6:9-13 et al) is very Christian-like and little Zen-like.  The most Christ-like part of the “Our Father” is an amazing concept that is not found in Buddhisn:  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  This is seemingly an anti-karma pathway.  The quid pro quo to getting your own transgressions forgiven unto eternity is that you must forgive the transgressions of others against you.  This prayer is directed to “Our Father in heaven” which seems like an “external God above us” (Latin “qui es in caelis”) and “heaven” certainly carried the notion at the time of 1) a real place and 2) located in or beyond the sky.  It is pushing the definitions of “heaven” as understood then to translate this as an “internal space” or heaven as a “oneness with Christ.”  The “Lord’s Prayer” is not Zen-like.

Jesus’s use of short “parables” as a mode of teaching doesn’t seem to have parallels in other religions.  Like koans, they are a clever way of conveying a lesson without coming right out and saying it.  Parables are open to interpretation as to meaning and the wrong people hearing them cannot really get a good purchase for attacking them as unorthodox teaching.  Like Zen koans, parables are sort of “coded” and useless to someone who has not “eaten” them.

While Christianity, like Zen, is about “doing” and “doing good,” the Christian foundational element of “love” is not a part of the Zen tradition.  The Buddhist concept of “Right livelihood” is not exactly the same thing.  On the other hand, if one finds enlightenment in Buddhism, past sins become irrelevant.  That is just not who you are any longer.  In fact, for the most part, there is no you any longer!  But there is a subtle difference between growing beyond the karma cycle of good and evil via “enlightenment” and being forgiven by a deity upon request.  Perhaps it amounts to the same thing in the end, but it is not the same exactly.

Metaphysical/Mystical experiences in the Sufi, Judaic, Buddhist, Hindu and Christian traditions are remarkably the same and remarkably produce the same behaviors “on the other side” of “awakening.”  What is not common to all these religions is the historic figure of Jesus as the be all and end all.

As you enter the world of Zen Buddhism many Christians wonder if they need to set Christ aside to enter.  The answer is, “No” — on many counts.  A more important question is, are you still a Christian after you have “awakened” using Zen practices?  Or, maybe phrased more articulately, how does Christ fit into your experience of no-self and awakened-self after plying the depths of Zen?  The easy answer is that the idea of Christ is not necessary to successfully reach a state of wakefulness in Buddhism any more, according to Buddhism principles, than you need “Buddha” to reach the same state.

In recent Christendom, stern religions like the Quakers, Shakers, Amish and even Mennonites offered very sparse Zen-like religions that involved “right livelihood” and “doing.”  As they would say, “Hands to work; hearts to God.”  Their aim was perfection in everything.  Such striving for perfection is not Buddhist.  What is Buddhist is the extraordinary mindfulness it takes to create perfect work.  Mindfulness is a very powerful spiritual path.  The Christian aspects of their religions revolved around “loving your neighbor” – and even though they were rough on their own members, they were historically open hearted to strangers.  Their “rules” of in-house conduct made sparse monasteries look like pleasure palaces.

However, there is a case to be made that the essence of Buddha, the historic figure, and Christ, the historic figure, are remarkably similar.  That is, each historic figure shares the same “what is-ness”.  It may be a matter of sophistry, but if we define Christ as “that part of God that is one with time and space (being and time)” and further that Christ has always been one with all that is and thus is one with us, whether we know it or not, then Buddha, Christ, and us all share the same “oneness.”

This concept of Christ makes Christ part of all that is from the very onset of “what is” and will continue until the end of time – the end of evolution or the collapse or fulfillment of the cosmos.  From Alpha to Omega.  According to this view of the nature of Christ, Christ already is part of all that is Buddhist.  Just as Buddhists believe Buddha is part of everything “that is” and thus part of Christ and us – whether we know it or not.

A more important question for Christians to ponder is, do Christ’s New Testament teachings actually add something to Buddhism that is not there?  For me, the answer is, “Yes.”  The metaphysical Christ is one with us no matter what or no matter the name we use to describe “God with us.”   However, the historic Christ of the New Testament introduces a few new ideas not found in Buddhism in a straight-forward manner: proactive “love” as the ultimate state of being; and breaking the karmic wheel with “forgiveness” of ourselves and everyone else.  To me these ideas are “evolutionary” – they go beyond the rubric of Buddhism; they seem to move consciousness to a higher level.

However, these concepts are irrelevant on your path to spiritual awakening – no matter what path you take.  As Buddhists would say, you are already on the path.  And you become enlightened just by realizing you are on the path.  On this path, at some point you may get to a place of oneness with all that is – I mean before you die.  If you look at the New Testament’s testimony about the thoughts of historic Jesus, you may find that Christ brings something to your life that might take your Zen practice to another dimension.

Perhaps, before setting out on your journey, you may wish to examine what is essential to you of Christ’s New Testament teachings.  All “new” religions of sincerity are trying to find new descriptors, new metaphors, for interacting with God.  To gain admission to the new religion it will be necessary to learn its argot, such as L. Ron Hubbard’s.  To understand anything well, you must eat it.  I am becoming much more careful, as I age, about what passes as metaphysical food.

Forming accessible pathways to an awakened state may be the greatest gift of Zen to all religions and all persons with spiritual curiosity.  It is one of the intrinsic wonderments of Buddhism that you really do not need to learn a new dogma or a new language (in the sense of coded metaphors) to plumb its depths.  To my way of thinking, it would be a mistake to try and cram the New Testament into Buddhism.  It won’t fit.  But, if you are Christian, on the other side of Buddhism, you will undoubtedly find Christ in a new light.


Online resources:


This is an amazing site:  http://www.innerexplorations.com/chmystext/cm5.htm