Walking a Buddhist-Christian path
at St. Ignatius College Prep
By William Haardt
“Mr. Haardt, are you Buddhist?” a student asks one day after school.
“Why do you ask, Carla?”
“Well, you start our class with meditation every day, you seem to really embrace Buddhism and talk about it a lot. Not to mention you use a Korean Buddhist bowl to begin our prayer/meditation period. You also have various Buddhist statues, along with icons from other religions. It just seems like an obvious question.”
“Well, Carla, I am the world religions teacher here, so I have decorated the classroom accordingly. But I understand your question; it is not the first time I’ve been asked. Do you have a minute, I’d be glad to explain?”
I have been teaching 60 to 120 seniors world religions at St. Ignatius College Prep in San Francisco (or “World’s Wisdom Traditions” modeling Huston Smith’s approach) each year for the last three years.
I graduated from Strake Jesuit High School in Houston in 1991, arrived at Colgate University, and, after many diversions, majored in religious studies. The courses in Hinduism and Buddhism opened up insights that I had never been able to see clearly within my own tradition. After a year of graduate studies at Catholic University of America, I decided to teach high school and have been doing so ever since.
As a Roman Catholic, I have always craved more silence and wondered why there is not more instruction in prayer beyond the customary petitionary prayer. I was surprised to find in the Catholic Catechism that prayer includes vocal, reflective, and contemplative dimensions. Yet it seems the contemplative depth of our tradition has waned over the centuries.
Thus, my path led me to the Buddhist tradition, one founded on a contemplative practice -- meditation. I appreciate the sacramental nature of our Christian tradition but had to find a way to cultivate my need for interior silence. I’m currently involved in the Theravada Buddhist tradition at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California.
Jack Kornfield, who engages in interfaith dialogue within the contemplative path, leads the center. Through him I was reminded of the vital need to devote some daily time to silence, to prayer. In doing so, we regain a sense of ourselves, the basic goodness and simplicity of our own being.
Thus, we can become what Ignatius of Loyola impressed upon his companions, contemplatives in action. By grounding ourselves in our true nature (Christ for Christians, Buddha-nature for Buddhists), we can then act from this place of wholeness. Thomas Merton explains:
“Life is very simple: we are living in a world that is absolutely transparent to God and God is shining through it all the time. This is not a fable or a nice story. It is true. God manifests himself everywhere, in every thing, in people and in things and in nature and in events. You cannot be without God. It’s impossible. Simply impossible.”
So I come back to Carla’s question. I do not call myself Buddhist, but rather I am a Catholic-Christian who has been touched deeply by other traditions, especially the Buddhist. In my World’s Wisdom course, I try to show students the “forgotten truth” of these traditions. Each in their unique and distinctive way expresses Merton’s reality.
He adds, “Now I realize what we all are. And if only everyone could realize this! … I suddenly saw all the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God’s eyes. If only they could see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed.”
As human beings we need a particular tradition within which to ground ourselves. Contemplation reveals to us, as it did to Merton, that God is the ground of our being, and the more conscious we are of this reality, the more we can live from this truth in the nitty-gritty of life, with our families and friends, with our colleagues and students, with ourselves.
In the high school setting at SICP, kids are under tremendous pressure to perform at the highest level and often manage to do just that. When Carla and other students come into my class, I begin with five minutes of silent prayer/meditation. I want to give these students a taste of that quiet that allows us to listen to God, especially in a culture with cell phones, internet, and the worship of “doing” and “performance.”
The Buddhist and Christian paths converge as they both recognize the “fruits” of prayer/meditation. As Christians we talk about fruits of the Spirit. “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law” (Gal. 5:22,23).
We harvest this Spirit-fruit through the sacraments and a life of prayer. The Buddhist tradition emphasizes the Brahma- Viharas (Divine-Abodes) that characterize the awakened mind -- metta (loving-kindness), karuna (compassion), mudita (appreciative joy), and upekkha (equanimity). The path to awakening is through wisdom and compassion, which are cultivated through meditation and the Eight- Fold Path.
Both traditions point to the awakened life of the Spirit and once we realize (make real) the truth of our being, these fruits flow out of us. I find great wisdom in how both of these traditions understand the process of transformation, grounded in a life of prayer/meditation, and the results of that transformation.
Buddha and Christ represent what is possible for us human beings, right here and now. I ask my students in class to raise their hands “if you do not want peace, joy, love, compassion, gentleness, patience, happiness, etc…?” As humans, we all want these fruits that both traditions reveal are available to us in abundance.
I pray for every one of my students that they may come to know God in the way Merton did. The Buddha and countless others have “awakened” through the practice of contemplative prayer. Ignatius himself had his own conversion experience while in deep prayer in Manresa. As Christians, we can engage other traditions and learn the depths of our own.
As Pope John Paul II wrote, “By dialogue, we let God be present in our midst, for as we open ourselves to one another, we open ourselves to God.”
(William Haardt is religious studies teacher at St. Ignatius College Prep, San Francisco.)
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