The Twain Shall Meet: A Comparative Study of the Christian-Buddhist and Buddhist-Christian Perspectives By C.W. Accardo

Class: Religion and Society                                                            Major: English ’13

It was Rudyard Kipling who once exclaimed,

Oh, East is East, and West is West, and never the twain shall meet… 
But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth, 
When two strong men stand face to face, tho’ they come from the ends of the earth!*

     Clearly, Kipling was not aware of the wars that would be fought between the “strong men” of the East and the West, and the effects of those wars: World War II, Korea, and Vietnam would all show that the meeting of military mights does not often bring about the chivalric equanimity he had imagined. Interestingly, however, from these conflicts we haveseen a sense of equality and sharing come forth, but not from the machismo “strong men” Kipling expected, but rather from the self-humbled and pacifistic meek men of the East’s and West’s various religious traditions. When we consider the most recent of these East-West wars (Vietnam), we specifically see a developing interaction and dialogue between the more Western Catholic/Christian religion and that of the Eastern Buddhist, as throughout the war dialogues and meetings had been held between the two faiths in hopes of finding solutions for peace. Beyond the war and stretching into the present (and likely the future), these dialogues have developed and changed to look beyond (although not exclude) the commonality of politics and warfare, and have begun to explore the differences and similarities between the religions themselves, and how they interact.

However, as of late we have seen more than dialogue and conversation, but an actual melding of these two faiths in certain individuals and even larger communities, and the identifications as a “Christian-Buddhist” and a “Buddhist-Christian” are becoming increasingly popular in our globalizing world. To paint a picture of how prevalent these phenomena are, when typed into the Google search engine, the former yields over 14 million results, and the latter 2 million. Although not the most academic way of proving prevalence, when we are dealing with the subtleties of religion and identity, I cannot think of many other ways of proving that the bi-religious phenomenon between Buddhism and Christianity is undoubtedly becoming not only a part of our own culture, but the world’s. Interestingly, these two searches have yielded two very different numerical results, and one must wonder if to be a “Buddhist-Christian” is the same as being a “Christian-Buddhist.”

I will begin by arguing that there is a difference, but that this difference does not inherently imply a differing belief system (although differences are prevalent and will be proven later), but rather implies an ordering in which these religions have been integrated into one’s life. For the sake of argument and semantics, in this identification system we will consider the first tradition to be one’s “home” religion (what they were raised with or practiced primarily), and the second to be one’s “adopted” religion (the religion they later integrated into their life). For example, a Christian-Buddhist is one who first practiced Christianity, and then adopted Buddism; a Buddhist-Christian would be the reverse. Recognizing these differences in perspective, we then can ask if there is a difference in the beliefs of these two bi-religious practices: do they ultimately come to the same conclusions, or do they reinterpret the adopted-religion within the lens of their home-religion? Recalling Kipling, we must wonder the implications if “never the twain shall meet” even in a seeming unity between East and West, and if “the twain shall meet,” will East become West, and West become East?

To explore this question, I have forgone the forums and the “common voice” of the internet (personal journals, blogs, Facebook groups, etc.), and instead decided to read the works of three very influential religious figures who have found varying degrees of unity with these differing faiths; this is an intentional choice, as it is these sorts of ordained practitioners who typically produce the written and spoken works which affect the larger religious populace as a whole. Thus, I have read and compared the works of the famous Trappist monk Thomas Merton, the Jesuit/Zen priest Father/Roshi Robert E. Kennedy, and the Vietnamese Zen monk Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh. Each of these men has had contact and conversation with each other, and has found enough inspiration in the other’s tradition to extensively write on the matter and include its religious practices into his own. In doing so what I discovered is that, more often than not, these religious figures do not find separate and unique truths in the other religion, but instead draw parallels, and view the other religion as a sort of equal-reflection to their own. Even though their practices may look similar, and even the vocabulary in which they explain these practices may sound similar, the intention and reasoning behind them is still very different, and it seems that each of these writers is incapable of (or does not even desire to) wholly remove the lens of their own religion in participating in the other. If religion is the language of how one reads and expresses a deeper and truer reality, what we find is that in learning and adopting another’s religion, one cannot learn the language of the other religion without first going through the already known language of home-religion, much the way an American student who learns Spanish must understand Spanish through translation into English. In no way is this essay criticizing any of these men for their views, nor is it claiming in either direction that Buddhist-Christianity/Christian-Buddhism are mutual adulterations of each other, but rather it is a simple analysis in how quasi bi-religious perspectives operate.

After reading Kennedy’s book entitled Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit (can’t you hear the echo of Living Buddha, Living Christ in the title?), what I found is that it seems like the majority of Christian-Buddhists do not adopt Buddhism out of an intrinsic desire to practice Buddhism, but instead do so to augment and improve their own religious practice. In short, a Christian-Buddhist practices Buddhism to become a better Christian. As Kennedy writes, Zen can be used within a Christian context as a means to “…remind us of essential truths in our Christian religion which, because of contemporary social preoccupations, we tend to forget”.1 These essential truths include contemplative prayer, which is used in the Christian tradition to become closer with God. To integrate Buddhism into Christian prayer, Kennedy suggests that Christians should recognize the Buddhist belief of anatman, or ‘no-self,’ as a means of emptying one’s ego, so as to leave room for God to fill that space. In Buddhism, the practitioner must come to realize that he has no-self in order to remove unnecessary clinging; the ‘self,’ which the practitioner initially views as inherent and lasting, is truly composed of transient aggregates. When these aggregates change and fail, the practitioner will suffer if they are ignorant to the ever-changing nature of things. Thus, for the Buddhist, when one fully removes the attachment to the self, one removes suffering, and thus enlightenment has been achieved–this is the goal of realizing anatman. However, Kennedy reinterprets the purpose of anatman for the Christian-Buddhist practitioner as a means of “…relax[ing] his grip on anxious questions concerning the ‘I’ and the ‘Thou’ of the relationship [between him and God]”.2 Kennedy finds that this Buddhist perspective confirms Christ’s commandment that “Whoever loves me, let him forsake himself”,3 for in forsaking one’s notion of self, the practitioner comes to “the experience that God lives in us” rather than existing distinctively in what Kennedy calls the “I-Thou experience”.4 Kennedy argues that this view of no-self is reflexive between Buddhism and Christianity, and notes that, in his comparison of Christianity and Buddhism, Zen Buddhist Yamada Roshi translated the phrase “Jesus emptied himself” as “Jesus became mu”,5 with mu being the Zen word for emptiness-of-phenomena, or nothingness. Thus, Kennedy comes to the conclusion that “Zen reminds us that Christian contemplation is not a looking at Christ, or a following of Christ, but a transformation into Christ”.6

However, when we consider Yamada’s translation of that Biblical passage, we see (quite literally) that certain religious and spiritual ideas can only be translated, and not fully conveyed. Yamada interpreted the Biblical verse within the context of his own religion, and it seems that Kennedy is doing exactly the same thing in his analysis of anatmanand its application to Christian practice. Thus, although Kennedy accurately describes the Buddhist idea of no-self, and has a very firm personal understanding of it, his application of it is not towards the Buddhist goal of enlightenment; rather, he is using Buddhism as a means of practicing Christianity. Albeit, this Christianity is reinterpreted from its typical understanding, it is still very Christian and works to very Christian aims. In this context, Buddhism is being used to fulfill a promise the Buddha never made himself, and in fact refused to make: the connection and interconnection with a higher power (God).

Thomas Merton, the Trappist Monk, took a similar approach to his study of Zen in Mystics and Zen Masters. As the title denotes (and as we found in Kennedy’s work), Zen most often seems to be integrated into mystical traditions of Christianity. Likely, this is due to Zen’s famous lack of dogma, which is created through its intentional breaking of common logic with spiritual and logical paradoxes; this gives Zen a certain flexibility that often allows it to be integrated and applicable to other religious traditions. Thus, Zen Buddhism is most similar to mystical Christian traditions more than any other, but Zen itself is not a mystical tradition and does not make the claim to be one. However, Merton finds that “statements about the ‘nothingness’ of beings and of ‘oneness’ in Buddhism are to be interpreted just like the figurative terms of Western mystics describing their experience of God,” and Merton argues that in both Zen Buddhism and mystical Christianity “the language is not metaphysical but poetic and phenomenological”.7 Although his statement is, to a degree, correct, it is interesting that we again see a Christian interpreting Eastern Zen ideas within a Christian context.

This notion of Christian contextualization becomes quite obvious throughout Merton’s work. He typically tends to study a particular facet of Zen Buddhism, spending much time on the no-self like his counterpart, Kennedy, as well as other ideas like prajna. On the former concept, he writes that for the Zen Buddhist, enlightenment is gained by “self-forgetfulness” and not by any attainment, which he finds “reminds us of St. John of the Cross and his teaching that the ‘Spiritual Way’ is falsely conceived if it is thought to be a denial of [the senses]”.8 He reinvokes St. John of the Cross again when he argues that the emptiness of Buddhism is “much more like that todo y nada of St. John of the Cross than the illuminated inner self of the Neo-Platonists”,9 and here we see that even in describing what emptiness is not, he must find a Western comparison. It is on the latter subject (prajna) that we see Merton make the most equalizing comparisons after analyzing the Chinese Chán patriarch Hui Neng’s work:

[The conscious’] destiny is to manifest in itself the light of that Being by which it subsists,as a Christian philosopher might say. It becomes one, as we would say, with God’s own light, and St. John’s expression, the “light which  enlightens every man coming into this world”,10 seems to correspond pretty closely to the idea of prajna and of Hui Neng’s “Unconscious.”11

As Hui Neng saw, it really makes no difference whatever if external objects are present in the “mirror” of consciousness…True emptiness in the realization of the underlying prajna-wisdom of the Unconscious is attained when the light of prajna (the Greek Fathers would say of the “Logos”; Zaehner would say “spirit” or “pneuma”) breaks through our empirical consciousness and floods with its intelligibility not only our whole being but all the things that we see and know around us…[In the light of prajna] We know them [external objects] in a vastly different way, as we now know ourselves not in ourselves, not in our own mind, but in prajna, or, as a Christian would say, in God.12┼

    Like Kennedy, Merton finds that these similarities have an application to the Christian’s practice, as “to a Christian perhaps the most extraordinary thing about it [the Void] is that it sees the primal ontological constitution of being or void in a Trinitarian relationship”.13 The Zen perspective of the void, albeit useful to Merton, is only useful when “we…look to the transcendent and personal center upon which this love, liberated by illumination and freedom can converge. That center is the Risen and Deathless Christ in Whom all are fulfilled in One”.14 Again, we find that Merton draws very accurate comparisons between Zen and Christianity, but does so only within Zen’s ability to fit within a Christian model, and Merton ignores D.T. Suzuki’s perspective (which he was aware of) that “Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the Zen experience is that it has no personal note in it as is observable in Christian mystic experiences”.15 Thus, to Merton the Christian perspective can reconcile and even equalize differences between its own tradition and Zen, even if the other cannot.

Although Suzuki is definitely a voice of authority on the matter of Christian-Buddhist differences, he is in no way the only voice, and we find that other Buddhist practitioners are much less divisive than him. In fact, some Zen Buddhists have gone so far as to integrate Christian beliefs and practices into their own tradition, creating the counterpart Buddhist-Christian perspective. The Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh, who was a close friend of Merton, is famous for his dialogue and influence between Christians and Buddhists, and although he is an ordained Zen monk, Hanh clearly has internalized Christian practice personally to some degree: on his own altar at Plum Village, Hanh has images of Christ alongside the Buddha, and he frequently alludes to the Bible and Christian beliefs, even when speaking outside the realm of Christian-Buddhist dialogue. However, in light of our analysis of Kennedy and Merton, we must wonder if Hanh is interpreting Christianity through a Buddhist lens.

When we look to Hanh’s Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, we can essentially glean Hanh’s equalizing perspective from the title, and find that to Hanh, Buddhism and Christianity are “brothers” that are equal but different. At first it seems as though Hanh has fully integrated a theistic religion into the nontheistic Buddhism when he writes “God is happiness. God is peace. Why do we not enjoy God?…The practice of mindfulness helps us to free ourselves to enjoy what is there”.16 For Hanh, the total meditative mindfulness found in the Buddhist tradition is a form of “Horizontal theology [which] helps us establish links with what is around us,” and that “by getting in touch with them [everything around us], we will be able to get in touch with God”.17 This “Mindfulness is the Buddha,” Hanh writes, and “Mindfulness is the equivalent of the Holy Spirit, the energy of God”.18

Thus far it seems as though Hanh and Merton/Kennedy share almost identical beliefs, in that from both perspectives mindfulness and meditation become a way of reaching God, but we must still question how Hanh is defining God/Holy Spirit, and we noticeably find that he refuses to do so. Although Merton is undoubtedly more mystical and holistic than other Christians, it is clear that the Christian-Buddhist perspective still maintains some shred of anthropomorphism when dealing with God, as is evident from Merton’s belief that Buddhism lacks the “personal center” of God. This is not the case for Hanh, as the Zen Buddhist must (as the dramatic phrase goes) kill all of his or her notions of the Buddha; so too does Hanh kill his notions of God, arguing that “In discussing whether God is a person or not a person, you are trying to compare the ground of being with one expression at the phenomenal level. This is a mistake”.19 A practitioner should not “say anything about God…[as] the best theologian is the one who never speaks about God”.20 For Hanh, God takes on the elusive qualities of Buddhist enlightenment, and is not discussed or elaborated upon, but is simply mentioned.

In spite of this refusal to describe God or what God is, Hanh does go to greater lengths in describing Jesus, as “God is concrete in the form of…Jesus Christ,” and this is similar to how “in Buddhism, the…body of the dharma, is embodied in…the Buddha Shakyamuni;”21 because Buddhism anthropomorphizes a representation of enlightenment, so too can Christianity have Christ represent the Holy Spirit and God, so long as we are not discussing the actual nature of the Spirit itself. It is in this way that both Jesus and Buddha are brothers in Hanh’s eyes, but this was not always the case: Hanh admits in his other book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, that he thought of the Buddha as superior teacher to Christ, as the Buddha had spoken much longer on this earth than Christ ever did. However, Hanh removed this prejudice when he remembered how the Buddha once compared the capacity for enlightenment to the spark’s ability to light a fire, and thus age does not limit the capability of a Buddha. Upon remembering this, Hanh recognized Christ as a legitimate teacher, and finds that he did not come to the conclusion earlier because he did not understand the teachings of the Buddha thoroughly. Thus, we find that Christ must first be legitimized by Buddha before he can be accepted by the Buddhist-Christian.

After coming to this conclusion, Hanh then Buddhifies his view of Christ in Going Home:

Then Jesus went to the mountain to spend forty days in retreat. He practiced meditation and strengthened the spirit in order to bring about a total transformation. Although it’s not recorded in what position he practiced, I’m sure he did sitting and walking meditation, and that he practiced looking deeply…Maybe he sat under a bodhi tree, like the Buddha.22

We can note that, instead of using typically Christian terms like “praying” and “looking to God,” Christ seems to be doing a Zen sesshin while in the desert. Although more than likely just being playful, Hanh’s statement about Christ under the Bodhi tree reflects how he is Buddhifying Christ. This becomes even more apparent when Hanh writes that:

The image of Jesus that is presented to us is usually of Jesus on the cross. This is a very painful image for me. It does not convey joy or peace, and this does not do justice to Jesus. I hope that our Christian friends will portray Jesus in other ways, like sitting in the lotus position or doing walking meditation.23 

    Although Hanh is correct in saying that the image of a crucified Jesus is a painful one, his reasoning behind removing it lacks an understanding of the Christian perspective; although the image of a tortured Christ is saddening at first, to a Christian it represents the last sacrifice of blood, and it comes to be a symbol of total salvation to the one who gazes upon it. There is optimism in Christ’s bloodshed, but Hanh, coming from a very nonviolent form of Zen Buddhism, is unable to see this; he would much rather focus on Christ’s meditations than the very Abrahamic notions of sacrifice and salvation, and again explicitly Buddhifies Christ by putting him in the lotus position during meditation. There is an irony to the fact that Hanh warns Christians from viewing God as a human like figure, which he finds understandable considering their human perspective, while he himself views Christ as a Buddha-like figure, which is equally understandable considering his cultural and religious perspective.

This transformation of religious figures is not something that we have seen in Merton or Kennedy, who for the most part leave the imagery of Buddhism and the Buddha in tact while changing the ultimate purpose of meditation to fit a Christian means. In fact, there seems to be a noticeable absence of the Buddha as a religious figure, and Merton and Kennedy look more to very human and tangible teachers. Considering this, we must wonder if Hanh’s changing of the image of Christ is some reflection of his integration of Christianity into his Buddhist practice, which is different than that of Merton and Kennedy. Unlike the Christian-Buddhist perspective, it seems that the Buddhist-Christian perspective that we find in Hanh’s practice does not actually use Christianity as a means of enhancing or actualizing one’s Buddhist practice, but instead the relationship between the two becomes one of equality: the Buddha first says something, and it is re-legitimized by Christ saying it as well (however, if Christ says something alone and Buddha does not, we do not hear about it). We see this all throughout Hanh’s writing, in that everything between the religions that is similar becomes paralleled: Buddha/Christ, Enlightenment/God, Mindfulness/Holy Spirit. Thus, for Hanh and the Buddhist-Christian perspective, there is a need to make Christ appear like Buddha in both philosophy and artistic representation.

However, no matter how much similarity Hanh finds between the Buddhist and the Christian traditions, and no matter how useful Merton and Kennedy find Buddhism to be when integrated into Christian practice, there is an obvious and consistent acknowledgment of difference between the faiths. Although these writers go to great lengths to find similarities and applications of the adopted faith, they never fully find it to be equal to the home faith. As mentioned previously, Merton finds Buddhist notions of emptiness and prajna to be similar expressions for (respectively) the emptiness that Christ experienced, and God, but ultimately believes there is a noticeable and irreconcilable difference, in that Buddhism lacks the personal centeredness that one finds in the Christian tradition. Kennedy likewise finds that Buddhist ideas can be compatible with Christian practice, but acknowledges that many Christians will be unable to adopt the Christian-Buddhist lifestyle because of obvious of Zen’s “disagreement with Christianity on theological and philosophical issues,”24 which Kennedy does not attempt to reconcile. In spite of his tendency to equalize Buddhism and Christianity, Hanh also does not ever deny the differences, and finds that “the only difference between them lies in the degree, in the emphasis;”25 however, Hanh does maintain a certain holistic equality in spite of recognizing the differences, and compares Buddhism and Christianity to an orange and a mango, in that “when you look deeply into the mango and into the orange, you see that although they are different, they are both fruits”.26 He does not say what Buddhism and Christianity share beyond both obviously being religions, but he does imply that there is some deeper and intrinsic connection between them; that they are of some similar origin or function, much the way the two fruits are.

Thus, by looking to the influential works of ordained practitioners from both the Christian and Buddhist perspectives, who have integrated the practice of the other religion into their own, what we find is that the prevalent Christian-Buddhist and Buddhist-Christian perspectives are very different; however, this difference is due to their shared tendency to view the adopted religion within the lens of the home religion. For Kennedy and Merton, the Buddhist faith still retains its elements of anatman and enlightenment, but the Buddhist emptiness-of-phenomena becomes transformed into an emptiness to be filled by God, and enlightenment is not an ends, but a means of building a true and deeper relationship with God. To the Christian-Buddhist, Buddhism becomes a way of reinventing one’s tired perspective of the world, and thus uses Buddhism and meditation as a means to a Christian, god-based end. This is not the case from the Buddhist-Christian perspective as presented to us by Hanh, where the notions of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are Buddhified and seen to be reflections of Enlightenment, Buddha, and mindfulness. Christianity is not necessarily adopted or additive to the Buddhist-Christian’s practice, but is seen as a verifying extension of it. Ultimately, it seems that no matter how seemingly eclectic or holistic the perspective, even this holism is really just an extension of a previous held religious practice. Returning to the opening words of Rudyard Kipling, we find that the “twain” of Buddhism and Christianity can meet and have met, but that East is still East, and West is still West, and the two will never be the same, although perhaps always similar.


1 Robert E. Kennedy, Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit: The Place of Zen in Christian Life (New York: Continuum, 1999), 32.
2 Kennedy, Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, 35.
3 Matt. 16:24
4 Kennedy, Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, 36.
5 Ibid, 37.
6 Ibid, 37.
7 Thomas Merton, Mystic and Zen Masters (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1967), 20.
8 Merton, Mystic and Zen Masters, 26.
9 Ibid, 33.
10 John. 1:9
11 Merton, Mystic and Zen Masters, 25.
12 Ibid, 27.
13 Ibid, 39.
14 Ibid, 42.
15 D.T. Suzuki, Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings, Ed. William Barretr (New York: Three Leaves Press, 1956), 124.
16 Thich Nhat Hanh, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers (New York: Riverhead Books, 1999), 2.
17 Hanh, Going Home, 2-3.
18 Ibid, 18.
19 Hanh, Going Home, 11.
20 Ibid, 8.
21 Ibid, 53.
22 Hanh, Going Home, 46.
23 Ibid, 46.
24 Kennedy, Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, 32.
25 Hanh, Going Home,17.
26 Ibid, 17.


* Rudyard Kipling, “The Ballad of East and West,” in Barrack-Room Ballads and Other Verses (London: Heinemann and Balestier, 1892), 85-94.
┼ Italics do not appear in original text, added by author for emphasis


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