A Christian Faith Enriched by Buddhism

Nuns from Taiwan's leading Buddhist group Tzu Chi pray during a gathering on the square of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall
Nuns from Taiwan's leading Buddhist group Tzu Chi pray during a gathering on the square of the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall in downtown Taipei on May 8, 2011 in celebration of the Buddha's birth anniversary which falls on May 10 this year. Tzu Chi said it has 47 chapters worldwide with about 10 million members. AFP PHOTO / PATRICK LIN (Photo credit should read PATRICK LIN/AFP/Getty Images)

I gave up Catholicism when I was 17. No great trauma or explosive event. I simply realized one day I didn't believe any more. Not in Catholicism. Not in God. So I went through college and a good chunk of law school with no faith or spiritual life. Then I found Buddhism. What began as a flirtation turned into 20 years of life as a Buddhist, two of them living in Buddhist monasteries in Nepal and India, one as a Tibetan Buddhist nun.

In the 11 years since I returned to the Catholicism into which I was born and baptized, I've been asked many times if I consider myself a "Buddhist Catholic" or "Christian Buddhist." Although the answer is no (and I discuss why in the opening chapter of "Growing in Love and Wisdom"), my Buddhist years were not only essential to my ability to return to Catholicism, they greatly inform my Christian spirituality.

But for Buddhism, I could not be Catholic today. When I left Catholicism my sense of independence and self-sufficiency was too strong to accommodate a personal relationship with, or recognition of my dependence on, God. Buddhism's individuality was much more consonant with my self-image, and Buddhism offered me a means of developing a spirituality that facilitated my eventual return to God.

I bring back much from those Buddhist years that inform who I am as a Christian. Paramount is an emphasis on experiential knowledge. What had first attracted me to Buddhism was the Buddha's view that there was nothing one must -- or should -- believe merely because the Buddha said it. Rather, everything is to be tested by one's own experience. More importantly, it is through that direct experience that enlightenment is attained. This emphasis on experiential knowledge has affected me in several ways. The first is recognizing the importance of a regular prayer practice, by which I mean not only attending Mass or other communal liturgies, but daily time in solitude with God. I've become convinced that this time with God is essential and something we need to make time for no matter how busy we are. A focus on experiential knowledge has also given me a greater appreciation of the value of ritual. When I was young I viewed many rituals of Catholicism as meaningless. I have grown to understand, through my Buddhism experience, the power of ritual to transform our hearts.

The emphasis on experiential knowledge has also convinced me of the primacy of relationship with God over rules as a vehicle for personal transformation. If I am convinced to the depth of my being that I am the beloved of God and if I am deeply in love with that God, that will be manifest in the person I am in the world. Adhering to God's law flows naturally out of relationship, resulting not from forced obedience to externally imposed rules but as a consequence of our recognition of our essential nature as the beloved of God. In addition all that flows from an emphasis on experiential knowledge, Buddhism has helped me understand in a richer way some of the truths of Christianity. Although expressed in different terms, many of the truths of Buddhism have resonance in Christianity (another subject I explore in some detail in "Growing in Love and Wisdom"). The Buddhist teachings on cherishing others over the self helped me embrace Christian humility. The Buddhist concept of emptiness gave me a way of understanding Christian notion on dying to self and rising in Christ. The Buddhist understanding of impermanence helps me deal with difficult mental states and feelings.

Perhaps the greatest influences Buddhism has had on my Catholicism is my openness to different ways of being Catholic. Some Catholics are more "traditional" than others. Some want the Mass in Latin, others in the vernacular. Some pray the rosary daily, others view the rosary as old-fashioned. Many feel the need to say one way is better than the other. I don't. Buddhism has helped me appreciate that we have different temperaments, inclinations, experiences and needs, and that all of that has an influence on what our Catholicism (and our prayer life) looks like.

Obviously, a journey through Buddhism is not a necessary part of everyone's path. We all grow in our faith -- and struggle with it -- in different ways. Some people grow in one faith tradition for their entire lives. The spiritual path of others seems to require a sojourn in a faith different from the one in which they were raised before they either return to the faith of their birth or find a new spiritual home. Buddhism was an integral part of my spiritual path.