Buddhism & the ‘Conversion’ Before my Conversion

One of the key questions of modern Catholic theology concerns the relationship between Christianity and the non-Christian religions. The question is as old as the Church herself; but it has become more pressing in our time, especially given the accelerating cultural and religious diversity of Western societies.

Vatican II reaffirmed the normative necessity of explicit faith in Christ and membership in the visible Church (Lumen Gentium, 14). But the Church also acknowledges the possibility of salvation for those “who, through no fault of their own, do not know the Gospel of Christ or His Church, yet sincerely seek God and, moved by grace, strive by their deeds to do His will” (ibid., 16). The Church likewise “rejects nothing that is true and holy in (the non-Christian) religions” (Nostra Aetate, 2).

Inspired by the late Stratford Caldecott, I hope in time to unfold my own thoughts on the relationship between Christian revelation and the non-Christian traditions (I have already dealt, in a past column, with one flawed approach to this question.) However, I have come to realize that I cannot write about this topic without explaining the unusual perspective I bring to it.

Before I was a Christian, I was “nothing”: non-religious, essentially. Or was I?

This turns out not to be a simple question. And it makes my view of the other religions – especially some of the Asian traditions – correspondingly complex.

*

I have already alluded to a time, before my Christian conversion, when I thought seriously about “joining a Zen Center, a Buddhist temple, something of the sort.” Even then, though, I would probably not have called myself “a Buddhist.” At age 20, I think I would have identified as someone who practiced Zazen – sitting-meditation in the Soto Zen tradition – and whose goal was the transcendence of suffering in the Buddhist sense of the term. Whether this counted as “religion,” or even as “Buddhism” per se, was not a question of interest to me. I would have told you that my interest was in practice, not words.

In the light of my subsequent Christian and Catholic conversion, it is easy to look back on some of this as shallow and dilettantish. In certain ways, it was. For instance: like many Westerners who become involved with far-Eastern religious ideas and practices, I was contravening some of the most basic moral precepts of the tradition I had chosen to draw from. In retrospect, I can see the extent to which I was treating one of the “great human paradigms” (to use Hans Urs von Balthasar’s term) like a personal possession or a consumer product. That was not my intent then, but that is how it looks from here.

But there is one thing I do not want to say about this period of my life. I never want to say that I was simply “dabbling” in Zen Buddhism. I was not. While my approach to Zen, and my practice of it, were both deeply flawed, they were the result of something I would describe as a kind of conversion.

I use that word here only in a qualified sense, since I never “became a Buddhist” in the objective, definitive way that I would later become a Christian. Nonetheless, conversion is one of the few terms that seems adequate for what I experienced – well before I believed in God or accepted any claim of divine revelation.

*

Call it what you want. The 20-year-old Ben Mann was partly right: words aren’t the most important thing. What mattered was that I began, during that year, to see my life as profoundly out of order and in need of change.

God did not factor into the equation: I had dismissed the whole question of God’s existence as irrelevant. What mattered to me was what I could see. And I could see some of the forces that were ruling my life at that point: resentment, jealousy, despondency, competition, romantic and sexual desire . . .

Unsurprisingly, the predominant obsession was always romantic love; and yet the persistent feeling was not a longing or a sense of loss. Those things were there – but the main thing was simply anger.

Sometimes it felt like the articulate-yet-unhinged rage of punk and hardcore music – staples of my listening over the years. But often – and perhaps more dangerously – it felt like the quiet, controlled fury of Elliott Smith’s “Bottle Up and Explode”: “You look at him like you’ve never known him / But I know for a fact that you have … Thinking that you were about to come over / But I’m tired now of waiting for you . . . ”

In such a moment one feels furious – and helpless in the face of it, because he remains fixated on the object of his simultaneous desire and anger. One only becomes angrier – and more desirous – in the course of this fixation; and this only multiplies the feeling of helplessness. And there is no end to the cycle – until you tire of it, or regain control somehow, or redirect the energy of frustration . . . or actually lash out, at others and yourself. “Bottle up and explode, over and over.”

A few years before, in high school, I had first taken an interest in Buddhism. That interest had faded, but it remained as a reference point. And something clicked for me, during a late-night diner visit soon after my 20th birthday, when a close friend – a woman I myself had thoughtlessly hurt, not long before – quoted the Buddhist saying to me: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is not.”

*

This did not turn me toward God, certainly not directly. Nor did my life make the radical turnaround I perhaps hoped for. Some of my worst mistakes were still to come.

Yet it was, in its way, a moment of conversion. There was a real awakening, a growing knowledge that I could not live in this subjection to my desires and frustrations.

“Look at these Buddhist monks, some of whom spent the Vietnam War avoiding napalm and clearing away corpses. But they arrived at some kind of compassion and inner peace. And here you are in torment – and tormenting others – because a certain woman spends her nights with a certain man and not you.”

“Those monks have something to teach you. Another kind of life is possible . . .”

Such thinking was not wholly wrong. And I experienced that life, at times: I believe God used Zen Buddhism to give me a kind of “preview” of that supernatural life which can only be fully lived in and through Jesus Christ.

Zen did not save my soul, but it helped open my eyes. It could not direct my gaze toward God, but it increased my sense of appreciation and solidarity with the world. One can only become a “new creation” in Christ; but even outside the visible Church, one finds many glimpses and tastes of that new and other life. And the Church, for her part, “rejects nothing that is true and holy” outside her visible bounds.

Still, I realize this may strike some people as a contradiction in terms. I speak of an agnostic “conversion,” to a religion that I did not regard as a religion. It was a conversion with basic flaws, philosophical and personal, that would surface in time and bring me before the Cross of Christ.

But a Christian, I think, must be able to accept the possibility – and frequent actual occurrence – of a real and significant spiritual awakening, that is nevertheless insufficient and still mingled with error. This kind of “partial awakening,” without explicit faith in Jesus, is not yet the full Christian act of repentance or faith; it may even involve the embrace of a worldview contrary to the Gospel on some points. Yet for all its ambiguity, it is still a movement toward truth – and perhaps, unknowingly, toward the One Who is Truth.

I know that this possibility exists, because I experienced it, and have seen evidence of it in others’ lives. Something less than Christian conversion, but seemingly beyond mere human self-improvement, takes place. It is the sort of thing some alcoholics seem to go through, for instance, when they entrust their sobriety to an unspecified “higher power”: for many, this does not constitute an act of Christian faith. But can we really say, contrary to the very premise of that entrustment, that it involves no supernatural grace?

*

At this point, my interest in all of this is not so much personal as it is theological. The Church’s relationship to the non-Christian religions is very much a live issue; I believe it will be a defining question of the third Christian millennium. Still, among Catholics, a great deal of talk on this subject is rather abstract: it amounts to intramural speculation, among those who grew up and came of age in a Christian milieu, who have never deeply known or engaged any other religion. I do not mean to suggest that the Church does not hold, in some way, all the “treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3); but there is a dimension lacking when Christians discuss those outside from a position of isolation.

My own experience with Buddhism shapes my view of those around me who have not yet come to faith in Jesus Christ, or who appear to have abandoned such faith. By extension, it also shapes my view of modern Western culture – where I believe there is more going on than the simplistic picture of a catastrophic, apostate, post-Christian society.

Finally, it must be said that my experience of Zen – like the profound pre-Catholic experiences of many other converts – still influences the way I practice my Christian faith today.

To be sure, I do not advocate any form of religious syncretism or indifferentism. Nevertheless, whatever is true and holy outside the Church has its proper home and fulfillment within the Church: and this applies no less to the positive aspects of Asian religiosity, than to the pre-Christian Greek philosophy of Plato and Aristotle. All the “gifts of the Magi” are to be offered to the True King.

Benjamin Mann

By

Benjamin Mann is a Byzantine Catholic, former atheist, and incurable philosopher, with experience in journalism, speechwriting, and monasticism. He published a short autobiographical book, “Shouting Through the Water,” in 2014 (available as a free download at http://tiny.cc/sttwbook), and is preparing a sequel reflecting on his post-monastic life. His current interests center on the integration of psychology and meditation within a traditional Christian framework

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  • Kat

    Wonderful article. 🙂

  • Kristen

    Probably my favorite post of yours, ever.

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