Christianity in the Crucible of East-West Dialogue


In my earlier God, Zen and the Intuition of Being, which is included in this volume, and in part of Mysticism, Metaphysics and Maritain, I had sketched out the possibility of a dialogue between the metaphysics of Thomas Aquinas and Zen, and tried to show that there could be a Christian metaphysical explanation of enlightenment. In this book I wanted to explore that path further, and that is what I have done, especially in Part III.

But as I wandered through the worlds of Buddhist-Christian and Hindu-Christian dialogue, I began to realize there was a whole dimension to these dialogues that I had not really paid much attention to. I had imagined that the heart of these dialogues was about trying to fathom the luminous wisdom found in the East, and bringing it into relationship with Christianity's own deep metaphysical, theological and mystical traditions, and I still believe that to be the case. But I had not realized how estranged some Catholics were from these traditions.

The result is that they see the beauty of the East, but instead of being stimulated by it to bring forth the treasures of Christianity so that deep can speak to deep, they don't see these treasures, and end up trying to enrich Christianity by reinterpreting it in Buddhist or Hindu categories, and by doing so, impoverish it. So this book is going to alternate between what I see as the deficiencies of some of the Catholic participants in East-West dialogue, and the dialogue that could take place between enlightenment and the metaphysics of St. Thomas, and it is going to try to accomplish both these goals by asking whether Eastern enlightenment is the same as Christian contemplation, or Christian metaphysical insight.

A Note on Terminology

I will use the words advaita, or nonduality, natural mysticism, and mysticism of the self, as equivalent ways to refer to the central core experience of enlightenment to be found in the different religions of the East.




All too often the world has ridden to war under the banners of religion. But in sharp contrast to this terrible fact is the growing dialogue between Christianity and Eastern religions that is spreading around the globe and entering deep into the hearts of its participants. Part of this dialogue has been highly visible: the Assisi meeting of world religious leaders, the Universal Declaration of Nonviolence, the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, the UNESCO meeting in Barcelona on the contribution of religion to the culture of peace, etc.

But there is another dimension of dialogue which is no less promising, the dawning encounter of the contemplatives of each tradition. A Japanese Zen master staying at the 1,000 year old monastery of Montserrat in Catalonia makes his way up the mountain side to the hut of a Benedictine hermit, and finds a scroll of the Heart Sutra on his wall. The Bhagavad-Gita is sung on the banks of the Kaveri River in Tamil Nadu in southern India, as it has been for ages past, but this time it comes from the lips of a Christian guru in the robes of a Hindu sannyasi at the ashram of Shantivanam. An American Zen master in the lineage of Koun Yamada Roshi begins a sesshin, or Zen retreat, but he is also a Catholic priest, and most of the participants are Christians.

What would a Tibetan monk or a wandering Hindu holy man have to say to a Christian contemplative in the tradition of John of the Cross? Or what would a Zen master say to a Christian metaphysician who is following in the footsteps of Thomas Aquinas? In such dialogues each would have to try to articulate the inner experience at the heart of his or her own spiritual tradition. Let’s try to get a glimpse of what these experiences are like.

Enlightenment Experiences

In 1953, Koun Yamada  was a 47-year-old Japanese businessman and a Zen student under the direction of Yasutani Roshi when he had an enlightenment experience that transformed his life. His account of this experience is all the more fascinating because it was Yamada’s own Catholic students who were to play a major role in bringing Zen into the Catholic Church. One day Yamada was riding home on a train when he read the traditional Zen saying that goes: “I came to realize clearly that Mind is no other than mountains and rivers and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.” And he felt that he had finally realized what this statement meant, and tears began to come to his eyes. He went home with a feeling of great expectancy. “At midnight I abruptly awakened. At first my mind was foggy, then suddenly that quotation flashed into my consciousness: “I came to realize clearly that Mind is no other than mountains and rivers, and the great wide earth, the sun and the moon and the stars.” And I repeated it. Then all at once I was struck as though by lightning, and the next instant heaven and earth crumbled and disappeared. Instantaneously, like surging waves, a tremendous delight welled up in me, a veritable hurricane of delight, as I laughed loudly and wildly: “Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! There’s no reasoning here, no reasoning at all! Ha, ha, ha!” The empty sky split in two, then opened its enormous mouth and began to laugh uproariously: “Ha, ha, ha!”1 That morning his teacher told him that he had reached a wonderful degree of insight called “Attainment of the emptiness of Mind.” 2

A woman described a similar experience like this: “While I gaze at ‘nothingness,’ I perceive the sound of raindrops and the wind rustling through the trees, and steps in the night. From afar the clear voice of a bird is heard. Already it is dawn and in the morning sun the dew sparkles on the tips of leaves. It is as if the whole sun came pouring down drop by drop. Oh, what glory! Oh this splendor, this vastness is noth­ingness; like the great ocean, all is nothingness. From the depths of my body tears gush forth in solitude.”3

This is the kind of experience that the Zen master Fumon wrote about in his death poem: 4

     Magnificent! Magnificent!
     No-one knows the final word.
     The ocean bed’s aflame,
     Out of the void leap wooden lambs.

Metaphysical Experiences

There are also metaphysical experiences that are at the heart of the Christian metaphysical tradition, and which seem to have a deep analogy with enlightenment. Raissa Maritain talks of one that happened to her in 1905 soon after visiting the cathedral at Chartre. She was “on a journey and watching the forests glide by” her car window. “I was looking out of the window and thinking of nothing in particular. Suddenly a great change took place in me, as if from the perception of the senses I had passed over to an entirely inward perception. The passing trees suddenly had become much larger than themselves, they assumed a dimension prodigious for its depth. The whole forest seemed to be speaking and to speak of Another, became a forest of symbols, and seemed to have no other function than to signify the Creator.”5

Another woman told me of a similar experience:” One afternoon I was sitting in my kitchen. As the sun went down it came through the window and struck a single yellow daffodil. The sun illuminated it to such a degree that the light seemed to come from within it, and I was overwhelmed by the isness of the flower, its very act of existence. Breathlessly I stared at the wonder of it all, and felt drawn to the Creator of this isness, this miracle of being.”

Christian Mystical Experiences

There are also Christian contemplative experiences like those at the heart of the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. These kinds of experiences still take place today.

A father of six children and a lay Carmelite describes the mystical experience that came to him many years before and led to his conversion to Catholicism. After a car crash he was reading Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, and began to interiorly to reach out to the God described there: “In this act of believing I was giving my heart and mind to this living God whose name I did not know other than he was the only one, true living God, and He was the God of love, and He was honest, truthful. I was giving my heart to Him in trust, in belief, and He was giving Himself back to strengthen that, or affirm that that act is true, is acceptable… It was a reciprocal ongoing thing. That’s how I would describe it. It wasn’t just me making acts as I think most humans conceive of the acts of religion that we make. We just make them, but we never get anything back. There is no conscious existential reciprocity. What I went through at that time was a living experience. So exciting.”6

A married American business woman describes this kind of contemplation like this: “What I experience as infused contemplation is an awareness of something from God coming down into me, and it is tangible. It is not physical, but it is just as tangible as touching something that is physical. And I also experience that a part of me is drawn up into God and held in God, and it feels like my attention is held in God. The amount of my attention that is held in God varies. There are times when my attention is held in God, and my mind can in a way wander at the same time, but this sense of being held remains. That’s kind of hard to describe, but there are degrees of how much I feel absorbed into it.”7

John of the Cross expresses this relational love mysticism in one of his greatest poems, “The Spiritual Canticle” where he writes:

     Where can your hiding be,
     Beloved, that you left me thus to moan
     While like the stag you flee
     Leaving the wound with me?
     I followed calling loud, but you had flown.8

It is the relationships among these three kinds of experiences that we are going to explore. Are they simply the same? It is hard to imagine that Fumon and John of the Cross had the same kind of experience, and then wrote the radically different poems that they did. At the same time, all three experiences seek to somehow know and experience the absolute, the ultimate ground of things.

Is the deepest wisdom of the East, the very experience of enlightenment, the same as what happens in Christian metaphysical or mystical experience? This is the primordial question that is at the heart of the East-West dialogue. If up until now this question has often been in the background, in the future I believe it will become more and more visible and unavoidable. It is a question that radiates tremendous energy that influences all we say and do. This is a question that is surrounded with such difficulties that some would consider it unanswerable, or even unaskable. But I think it is inevitable. The more the East-West dialogue spreads, and the deeper it goes, the more it will become clear that this question lies at the heart of it.

It is our task to try to make this question more explicit, even to insist on it over and over again, first from one direction, and then another, so it begins to emerge from its obscurity. Once this begins to happen we can address it more directly and begin to try to answer it.

The Structure of This Book

In Part I, Chapter 1 we look at the fascinating dialogue between Christianity and Zen Buddhism, especially on the part of the Catholic Zen students of the Sanbo Kyodan School.

Chapter 2 focuses on the Hindu-Christian dialogue, especially the interior dialogue that the Benedictine monk, Henri Le Saux called Abhishiktananda, carried on between his Christian faith and the path of advaitan, or nondual, Vedanta he tried to live out in India. These two chapters alert us to the serious challenges that East-West dialogue pose for Christian belief, for we see tendencies on the part of Christians to refashion Christianity in the light of the Eastern forms of meditation they are practicing.

Part II, Chapter 3 looks at the historical and psychological dynamics of contemporary Catholic theology that underlie, in part, these tendencies towards the reformulation of Christianity.

And Chapter 4 examines how these same dynamics play a role in the current formulations concerning the central theological questions of God’s universal salvific will and the role of Jesus in the salvation of all people.

Chapter 5 states that there are, in fact, two fundamental kinds of mysticism, and thus, two kinds of East-West dialogue. In one, Christian love mysticism looks for partners in the deep devotional currents of Hinduism and Buddhism – which is a dialogue we are not going to pursue here – and in the other, Eastern enlightenment needs to find the most suitable Christian partner.

Part III hopefully demonstrates that this partner is Christian metaphysics. Chapter 6 introduces Christian metaphysics indirectly by way of Islamic metaphysics.

Chapter 7 touches on the metaphysical dimension that exists in Tibetan Buddhism, and goes on to ask whether there could be a dialogue between Eastern nonduality and Christian metaphysics.

Chapter 8 looks at a Christian metaphysical explanation of enlightenment, and explores how the question of the existence of a self can allow us to put this East-West metaphysical dialogue into a wider context. By way of conclusion, we look at the question of whether it is advisable, and in what fashion, for Christians to practice Eastern forms of meditation.


1.      Kapleau, Philip. The Three Pillars of Zen, p. 205.

2.      Ibid., p. 206.

3.      Dumoulin, Heinrich. Zen Enlightenment. p. 146.

4.      Takahashi, Shinkichi. Afterimages. p. 38.

5.      Maritain, Raissa, We Have Been Friends Together. P. 115-116.

6.      Patchett, Joseph. A Contemplative Journey: Video.

7.      A Visit with a Contemplative: Video.

8.      John of the Cross, Poems, “The Spiritual Canticle” p. 31. Translated by Roy Campbell.



Chapter 1