Can we legitimately mix Buddhist or Hindu practices with our Catholicism? Many people claim we can. Buddhist themselves believe anyone can practice meditation. Some Catholics take the same viewpoint. Centering Prayer, mindfulness, Yoga, and more have been introduced at parishes as either harmless for Catholics, a good preparation for Catholic prayer and spirituality, or equivalent to Catholic prayer.
In this post, we’ll examine the two authoritative texts that speak most clearly to this issue: Nostra Aetate and On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation.
Respect, Dialog, or Syncretism?
Those who promote the incorporation of Eastern spirituality into Catholic practice often quote this sentence from Nostra Aetate, which specifically refers to Buddhism and Hinduism:
“The Catholic Church rejects nothing that is true and holy in these religions” (no. 2).
They tend to ignore, however, the larger context of the sentence:
“She regards with sincere reverence those ways of conduct and of life, those precepts and teachings which, though differing in many aspects from the ones she holds and sets forth, nonetheless often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men. Indeed, she proclaims, and ever must proclaim Christ ‘the way, the truth, and the life’ (John 14:6), in whom men may find the fullness of religious life, in whom God has reconciled all things to Himself.
“The Church, therefore, exhorts her sons, that through dialogue and collaboration with the followers of other religions, carried out with prudence and love and in witness to the Christian faith and life, they recognize, preserve and promote the good things, spiritual and moral, as well as the socio-cultural values found among these men.”
Note that this section is about how Christians should dialog and collaborate with non-Christians in Asian lands, not whether Christians in the West should voluntarily take up Eastern practices. In the United States, our socio-cultural values are (or at least at one time were) founded on a Judeo-Christian outlook. A Catholic in the US deciding to go to Yoga class is not preserving cultural values. In some sense, she is rejecting her culture’s values for those of a foreign land and religion. Surely the Fathers of Vatican II intended no such thing!
True and Holy?
When Nostra Aetate speaks of what is “true and holy in these religions,” what is this referring to? How are we to determine what elements of a foreign religion are true and holy? The document gives us some clues. Just before this section, it reads:
“From ancient times down to the present, there is found among various peoples a certain perception of that hidden power which hovers over the course of things and over the events of human history; at times some indeed have come to the recognition of a Supreme Being, or even of a Father…
“Religions, however, that are bound up with an advanced culture have struggled to answer the same questions by means of more refined concepts and a more developed language. Thus in Hinduism, men contemplate the divine mystery and express it through an inexhaustible abundance of myths and through searching philosophical inquiry. They seek freedom from the anguish of our human condition either through ascetical practices or profound meditation or a flight to God with love and trust. Again, Buddhism, in its various forms, realizes the radical insufficiency of this changeable world; it teaches a way by which men, in a devout and confident spirit, may be able either to acquire the state of perfect liberation, or attain, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. Likewise, other religions found everywhere try to counter the restlessness of the human heart, each in its own manner, by proposing ‘ways,’ comprising teachings, rules of life, and sacred rites.”
First we recognize that some Hindus and Buddhists may believe in a Supreme Being. They seek to be freed from suffering, use myths and philosophy to discover truth, recognize that this life is passing, and try to find an answer for “the restlessness of the human heart.” These are good and even holy things.
The specific means they use to attain union with God or to be freed from suffering are not necessarily compatible with the Catholic faith, however. They “differ in many respects from the ones [the Church] holds and sets forth.” They “often reflect a ray of that Truth which enlightens all men,” but the Catholic Church has been given the fullness of truth from God Himself. This truth is Christ. Thus, any practice or belief that tends to minimize the role of Christ, overemphasize man’s role in his own salvation, propose other saviors, or otherwise contradict the Gospel, can and should be rejected.
If any Catholic wants to assert that Buddhist or Hindu meditation practices can be incorporated into the life of a Catholic, the burden of proof is on him. Nostra Aetate does not support this notion. In fact, it does not speak to the issue of Catholics adopting any practice from another religion.
St. Paul is our model. In Athens, he saw a monument “to an unknown god.” He used that as a starting place to teach the Athenians about Christ. We can find common ground with other religions and work from there. But Christ is the Sun. The goodness in Eastern religions is only the reflection of one ray from that sun. Why would someone who had the sun try to warm himself with a single ray that was reflected in a pool?
The CDF on Eastern Meditation
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued On Some Aspects of Christian Meditation in 1989 to combat current errors regarding prayer. Although it is almost entirely concerned with explaining what Christian prayer is, and voicing cautions regarding incorporating non-Christian practices into one’s prayer life, promoters of Centering Prayer, mindfulness, Yoga, and the like tend to home in on one sentence that speaks positively:
“That does not mean that genuine practices of meditation which come from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions, which prove attractive to the man of today who is divided and disoriented, cannot constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God with an interior peace, even in the midst of external pressures.” (No. 28)
Like the sentence from Nostra Aetate, this is often stated alone to support the idea that Catholics can practice Eastern techniques without harm. There are several problems with this conclusion.
1. If non-Christian practices can be adopted indiscriminately, there was no need for this document.
Most of what the CDF has already said regarding prayer would be rendered meaningless by this interpretation. Why caution Catholics about practices that are perfectly harmless for them?
2. This is a negative statement, but is being interpreted as a positive one.
As I have noted before, the CDF does not say, “Genuine practices of meditation which come from the Christian East and from the great non-Christian religions… constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God…” It says, “That does not mean that [they] cannot constitute [such a means].” In other words, some of them may constitute a suitable means, but one must at least apply the principles of the rest of the document to discern which do and which do not. The CDF does not address each practice individually.
3. The immediate context of the quote is limited.
No. 27 stated:
“Eastern Christian meditation has valued psychophysical symbolism, often absent in western forms of prayer. It can range from a specific bodily posture to the basic life functions, such as breathing or the beating of the heart. The exercise of the ‘Jesus Prayer,’ for example, which adapts itself to the natural rhythm of breathing can, at least for a certain time, be of real help to many people. On the other hand, the eastern masters themselves have also noted that not everyone is equally suited to making use of this symbolism, since not everybody is able to pass from the material sign to the spiritual reality that is being sought. Understood in an inadequate and incorrect way, the symbolism can even become an idol and thus an obstacle to the raising up of the spirit to God. To live out in one’s prayer the full awareness of one’s body as a symbol is even more difficult: it can degenerate into a cult of the body and can lead surreptitiously to considering all bodily sensations as spiritual experiences.”
Then the first part of number 28 goes on to address practices like Yoga:
“Some physical exercises automatically produce a feeling of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations, perhaps even phenomena of light and of warmth, which resemble spiritual well-being. To take such feelings for the authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit would be a totally erroneous way of conceiving the spiritual life. Giving them a symbolic significance typical of the mystical experience, when the moral condition of the person concerned does not correspond to such an experience, would represent a kind of mental schizophrenia which could also lead to psychic disturbance and, at times, to moral deviations.”
Our quote immediately follows this caution.
In other words, Eastern Christians have used the body in prayer in a way Western Christians generally have not. Some of these practices are similar to psychophysical practices found in Eastern non-Christian meditation. The CDF notes specifically using the breath and body postures. But it cautions that going all the way to practice something like Yoga can be problematic to the point of causing “mental schizophrenia,” “psychic disturbance,” or “moral deviations.” These are not small dangers!
Even when speaking of Eastern Christian practices, the CDF cautions us. The Jesus Prayer is a beautiful and powerful prayer, but “masters” of this method teach that it is not suitable for everyone. Incorrectly understood, the rhythmic breathing that often accompanies the Jesus Prayer “can even become an idol and thus an obstacle to the raising up of the spirit to God,” or “degenerate into a cult of the body.” This is why masters of hesychasm often insist that one needs a knowledgeable and experienced spiritual guide when taking up these practices.
That leads to the next point.
4. What is suitable for one person may be dangerous for another.
If even the Jesus Prayer, used incorrectly, can pose serious dangers, how much more so practices that come from outside Christianity! In Centering Prayer, and now with “Catholic Mindfulness,” we see non-Christian practices being offered indiscriminately to all. Centering Prayer also takes instruction (such as that in The Cloud of Unknowing) given to those who are already practiced in prayer and virtue and teaches absolute beginners, or those who might not even have faith in Jesus, to follow them. True Christian teaching on prayer recognizes that there are different stages, when different practices are appropriate.
With “Catholic Mindfulness,” we see an online course that anyone can take without any screening as to their psychological or spiritual state. I encountered no cautions within the course itself that the practice was only for the mature, or for those under spiritual direction, or that one should consult his own therapist, or other limitations. On the contrary, “Catholic Mindfulness” is offered as the answer to several psychological, personal, and even spiritual ills, making it more likely that those who take the course (or read the book that is soon to be published), will be somehow struggling.
I have witnessed Catholics who began practicing Yoga, experienced the “feeling of quiet and relaxation, pleasing sensations,” et cetera, and interpreted them as “authentic consolations of the Holy Spirit.” Yoga has become for these individual a favorite “prayer” practice, a means by which they think they grow in intimacy with Christ. Similarly, I have encountered numerous practitioners of Centering Prayer who think they are spiritually mature because they experience a peace which makes them more tolerant of others.
This danger is also inherent in mindfulness.
Rediscovering our heritage
If we really want to grow in prayer and virtue, and receive true Christian peace, “the peace that passes understanding,” we should rediscover our Western heritage. We began by noting that Nostra Aetate urges us to respect the socio-cultural values of others. Christians in the West are in grave danger of losing their own social-cultural values.
Eastern practices, even truly Christian ones, pose dangers for those of a different heritage. What we need in order to follow God more fully is a renewal of the contemplative heritage of the West. This heritage reached its peak in the Carmelite saints and doctors of the Church, Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. Few Christians today have even begun to plum the richness of these saints’ teachings.
Wouldn’t we be better off as a Church if parishes gave seminars and retreats on the teaching of the saints, instead of on non-Christian practices?
For more on mindfulness, I highly recommend Susan Brinkmann’s new book, A Catholic Guide to Mindfulness.
32 thoughts on “Mixing Catholic and Eastern Spirituality”
Regarding Sri Buddha during his lifetime some asked him whether there is God andSri Budda did not give an answer. He advocated eight fold path of right dispositions. He widely spoke on desire of man which is the cause of all consequences. Buddists practice discipline to control the vague mind.
Hindus have Vedas Upanishads and Bhagavathgeetha. when chapter 10 os Rig Veda when it speaks about Prajapathi that is the the Lord of people there are 10 similarities which can be reffered to Christ. There are are a lot of similarities between Filocalyia writings of the desert Fathers.There are similarites between the acetic life exposed by St. Theresa of Avila and Sri Sankaracharya when he exposes dwaitha = non dualism. There are holy men who have seen Jesus in the vision.If God is the creator and the Father of all then in other religions too there is holy and genuine. The infinite God has His infinite ways.
1. similarities between Desrrt Fathers’ writings and Upanishads.
2. Shankracharya’s Advaitha.
Sr. Jacintha, you are obviously much better versed in Hunduism and Buddhism than I am! God can lead anyone of good will to Himself, even if they have never known the name of Jesus. Nevertheless, whatever goodness can be found in these religions is found obscurely, whereas they are found in Christianity clearly and completely. I have great respect for Hindus and Buddhists who are doing their utmost to find ultimate truth. When Catholics turn away from their heritage to embrace non-Christian spiritual practices, that’s another thing.
For us who profess catholic faith, we are taught vocal prayer and community prayer. Only the contemplative Orders practice contemplation. But unofficially there are people besides participating in the celebration of the Holy Eucharist do expose themselves in silence before the Blessed Sacrament. It is a pity that the Hindus are capturing the crowds and our Churches remain dry. On the other hand the union with God goes far beyond the practices of Euphorism . After all our spirituality is not in exposing the spiritual powers . we too have great contemplatives. but the common man remains ever a child. In Hindu families a family holder before beginning his day takes bath and enters the room reserved for the Diety. He chants slokas and spends one hour in contemplation and no one can disturb him even if somebody dies in his home. But we are not directed to live in such a way. we have the genuine treasure hidden. but we are unaware of it.
I do not believe it is true that only the contemplative orders practice contemplation as Sr.Jacinta has said above. Rather, the Church’s tradition is strong in the practice of Lectio Divina, Mental Prayer, Contemplation, etc. Nowhere does the Catholic Church say that these forms of prayer are reserved for those in certain religious orders, but rather, these forms of prayer are for all Catholics. How to learn about them, however, isn’t easy… it’s not taught often… especially now that yoga is the norm. Now, children, even in Catholic schools, are given yoga classes rather than proper religious instruction. What a shame! I myself am suffering from the lack of formation in my K-college “Catholic” education. I’m 35 and so very sad to be born into the Cafeteria-Catholic generation. It’s not just morals that we were taught to pick and choose, but spiritualities too. I have a good friend, devout Catholic who insists that yoga is good for her and despite being told and explained by several priests, said she is going back to that rather than exercise that isn’t offensive to our Faith, such as Pietra Fitness or Pilates.
furthermore, the Rosary is a contemplative prayer that all Catholics are encouraged to say daily!! Is it taught to children (and new Catholics) as a contemplative prayer? Usually not. But, the Blessed Mother gave it to us as such!
Spirituality is a lifelong journey. This is common even in Hindu Religion. Even to get enlightened through the practice of the principles of Hindu religion it is a journey which needs perseverance in the quest. Even a Guru before attaining siddhi or enlightenment undergo long years like twelve years of absolute silence fasting study of the scriptures and contemplation
Only an enlightened guru can speak and teach about God. But most of them commercialize the external techniques to get enlightened. When a person is enlightened his pitutary pinnial and hypothalamus glands get activated, the pars psychological powers wake up and man is capable of exhibiting normally impossible prodigy. Yet Hindu religion itself says that the athma sakshathkara or that ultimate union with God is far beyond these powers. An enlightened person can help us attain that bliss easily and at the same time he can be an erroneous follower of Satan. Yoga can help to refresh the body and to be receptive to God’s inner voice. But not even yoga or vipasana can make us to be truely be in communion with God.
Sr. Jacintha’s comments are typical of religious men and women in India. It is the grace of god that led me to the Carmelite mystics through whom I learned contemplative prayer. I had read a book by phillip keller: A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. This book enabled me to see how sheep-like we are in our behavior. Even though the Shepherd leads us to select pastures some sheep insist on wandering off and trying every blade of grass and weeds and plants along the way. There lies the danger. Do read this book in pdf available for free download on google. It draws a portrait of Christ you may have missed.
Don’t you want to fly to the heights? Then why are you spending your time syncretising various religions?
Thanks, Valerie. I bought that book and read it back when I was in college. It’s enlightening, no pun intended.
Connie, Thank you for your insights. To me the answer is simply…Jesus is the way and the truth and the light. No one can go to The Father except through Him. His blood saved us and provided the means whereby we are redeemed. Thomas Merton and Richard Rohr jumped on the wrong wagon years ago and have misled many people including Catholic leaders who have denied the rich traditions of the Church. Attempting to control the mind though a certain technique leads to trouble. Detachment is the correct way which allows God to do His work in us He initiates the call…we are to respond through His grace.
wow, thanks again Connie, so may are embracing this practice, praying I can be a witness of truth about the dangers of it..
You’re welcome. It’s very counter-cultural (ironically) to stand against these things, but it needs to be done. Thanks for doing your part!
I don’t know much about Eastern forms of meditation, but I do know that spending time in silence in Eucharistic Adoration gives me a connection to Jesus that is wonderful. Better is holding the Lord on my tongue after receiving him, adoring him in my Temple, then gently swallowing this sacred host, knowing that our bodies are joined. How are Buddhist or Hindu rites better than that?
Yes, when we can take God into our own bodies, why would we look for anything else?
I agree with the dangers of centering prayer, yoga and any other mind set type prayers. Roman Catholics must understand relationship with God, first they must pray vocally. If they can advance in meditation and then to contemplative, then they will know but should get a holy confessor and spiritual director. Heart, mind and body must be one and understand that confession will only help them see more clearly.
In our Catholic Religion the posture we use is to fold the hands,kneel down and pray. Even in the family no one has introduced us a code for posture. But we were taught to leave aside work or study, gather together and pray. As we grow when we consciously opt to deepen our prayer there also follow some postures. When we are aware of the presence of God our body straightens stiff and motionless . We close our eyes and our eyes roll up and focus on the mid point of forehead . We either visualize Jesus Mary or bright light. Hands become stiff and if someone calls it becomes difficult to come out of rapture. The hands will be stretched upward rhythmically and slowly. When you slowly come back to the awareness you discover that the hands are dormant. when you forcibly move the hands you perceive the gushing of the blood circulation. St.Theresa of Avila too mentions this. In this process we too breath slowly and rhythmically. and we do relax. In our christianity we have not speculated the posture or rhythmic breathing bu we speak of our experiencing God
This is not correct, Sister! In Christian contemplation, the body is not affected by union with God until one is very advanced — around the 6th of the 7th mansions that St. Teresa of Avila talks about. We do not become “stiff and motionless” simply by becoming aware of the presence of God. You will not find such a teaching in any authoritative Catholic document and I know of no saint who taught this. Give me a quote from the Church or the saints, if you believe this is orthodox. Also, the eyes rolling up and focusing on the midpoint of the forehead is never seen in their teaching. I have been studying Teresa of Avila’s teachings for over twenty years. You are badly mistaken on your interpretation of her works. What you are suggestion is not only wrong, it is spiritually dangerous! You seem to be engaging in syncretism. Teresa of Avila teaches that union with God begins in the will. That means that in order to have even an elementary experience of Christian contemplation, our will needs to be radically aligned with God’s will in even the smallest matters–no habitual venial sin and giving up all inordinate attachments in order to place God first. Then God may give us the gift of contemplation in His own time. It usually begins with the passive dark night that John of the Cross wrote about so beautifully. We do not attain to contemplation by any gestures or postures. If there is no union of wills, the contemplation is false. Hindu and Christian experiences are not the same. Christianity always places Christ at the center, even at the highest stages, for we seek communion with a personal God, and He is the only Mediator, being both God and Man. I will pray for you and for whoever taught you these things.
This reality is not taught but gradually led by grace. The fact is that it is not what happens to the body but what counts is the mind heart and soul get attracted and absorbed by one centrednes or Christ centredness. God is transcendent and God is immanent. No one can build a castle without laying down first the solid foundation. The access to the Sacraments, the reading meditating and ruminating the Word of God. the guidance of the spiritual Director the retreats and specially the daily practice of silence and examen of conscience the spiritual reading and the friendship with the holy persons are the essenctial and beneficiary means to journey towards aspiring the intimacy with God.. The testing tool of our advamcing in spiritual life is the capacity to practice the unconditional charity self emptying and humility. This is the severe trial in life. often we however pray but the very first moment someone challenges us we react aggressively. This is our true humiliation. The journey of purification is a great task.
Connie– Can you give more background on ” Nostra Aetate”? Who wrote it? When? What is the context for this document? Maybe you’ve mentioned it in other posts, but I’ve never heard of it, and I’m new to reading your blog. Thanks!
Hi, Mary. I agree with you other comments, but my blog doesn’t let me reply to a reply. Nostra Aetate is a document of Vatican II. In English it’s The Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions. It’s one of documents that is most criticized by those who reject the authority of the council.
Thank you again, Connie. I agree that it is a shame that too many Catholics are frightened of the teachings of St Teresa and our contemplative Saints. Yoga as a form of exercising is good for you however.
The stretches may help your flexibility, just like mindfulness might help you manage anxiety. But there are alternatives that would do the same that are not bound up with non-Christian spirituality.
If one is supernaturally or by innate desire is drawn up to lead a contemplative life the contemplative life of St. Theresa of Avila alone does not frighten us but the ascending of the contemplation itself poses us to undergo the dark night of the soul. If yoga is sought to enjoy the bliss and well being in our Christianity it is to imitate Christ not until Tabor but walk behind Christ unto Crucifixion on Golgothta. If one has to reach the Throne of the almighty there are stages for purification. Not everybody opts for it
Sr. Jacintha, the life of contemplation and union with God is gift given by God. We desire and long for it and do our best to dispose ourselves to receive it. The Holy Spirit leads us through this process. To choose yoga and other non-Christian means is to lead ourselves and find our own way. there is no guarantee you will find God through these means. They are essentially self-focusing. But our Christian mystics show us how we can encounter the living God and have a deep friendship with him, perhaps even a spousal relationship! Letting God lead us is to learn to float rather than swim. Fr. Thomas Green s.j. books are a great start to this before you read the mystics: ‘When the Well Runs Dry’ & ‘Darkness In The Marketplace’
Sr.Jacintha, you can read ‘Into the Deep’ by Dan Burke & Fire From Above by Dr. Anthony Lilles. Both available on Amazon.in.
Yoga is not a Christian spiritual practice and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has warned Catholics about the dangers of using it as such. The spirituality behind Yoga is incompatible with a life lived for Christ. If Yoga can bring you to God, then Christ’s death and resurrection are meaningless. Please, please, as a religious sister (which I assume you are), follow the teachings of Christ and the saints, not of gurus! A guru cannot save you. Hindu practices cannot bring you to union with the triune God, who is not even acknowledged as such by Hindus. How can Yoga possibly be a way of imitating Christ? Christ did not teach or even practice anything like Yoga. He taught us to pray. Prayer to God the Father through His Son and in the Spirit is how we grow in union with God.
Very needed post Connie. Thank you for educating me further… 🙂
In my belief or perception I feel the yoga concentration or fixing the gaze can lead us to reach that bliss which can be obtained also by taking drugs a person can have hallucination or even the vision of God. But the holiness or the union with goes far beyond these means used. Many Gurus are capable of producing para normal effects which hypnotist NLP practitioner or a person ho does mesmerism and even a psychologist or psychiatrist can do. But holiness is distinct and it is a journey unto death. Many are so much advanced but enough one little word get angry or offended and are prone to self defense. But I believe that the criteria for holiness is that unaltered, unbiased state of being with the practice of humility and charity. Mother Theresa did not work out big miracles but in her life she suffered desolation and aridity.
In our Religion the Judaeo or American or western culture yes there are many mystics who have drafted the authentic ways of Christ realization or holiness.
I have heard that in Western and American world Hinduism has diffused so rapidly the in every corner there is a guru and an Ashram. I am not qualified to to judge but I do agree with the exponents of the path of our Christianity traced my the Catholic Mystics.
You are right that yoga can lead to a similar state as someone on drugs. That has nothing to do with authentic Christian prayer, however. Any visions one has in a yogic state (if that is a term) would be from evil spirits or hallucinatory. This is not something any Christian should be involved in.
Thank you Connie. Yes! One thought I’ve had recently upon reflecting on this great post is that the goal one seeks in yoga and the goal one seeks in Christian prayer are polar opposites. Yoga seeks some transcendentalism/ out of body experience. Christian prayer, on the other hand, seeks to conform our lives to Christ– meaning that we live to a greater degree a life of devotion, virtue and sacrifice. Christianity means being in touch with our bodies through self-control and love and with our souls through surrender to Christ seeking no “benefit”. Yoga, on the other hand, seems to be a launching point for abandoning the body.
I recommend the “In Conversation with God” books by Fr Francis Fernandez of Opus Dei as a true way of living and understanding Christianity and Christian prayer
Jesus is true God. The path can be traced for us to reach Him is the path of prayer. Usually it is not acquired by forcing the techniques or ritualism. True prayer and faith are a free gift from of God. We have a great number of means to pursue the life of Prayer. They are the Bible the catechism the writings of the mystics the retreats the confession Eucharistic celebrations Hour of adoration exposing oneself to the Tabernacle with a prolonged prayer a longing and thirsting to meet Know and love the Lord spiritual direction and the sharing of friends and the intervention of the Lord Himself can lead a person to contemplation. we have a great treasure before us. By practicing yoga yes it creates bliss. but while going ahead if one has not got that strong calibre there will be mental disorders and lack of mental balance
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