Zen Buddhism and Christianity

(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book More Than Allegory. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)

Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales. Source: Wikipedia.

Who am I to talk about religion? I am no theologian or religious scholar. Heck, I'm not even religious. So what compels me now to write something about two of the world's most significant religions? The sincere answer is: I am not really sure. Over the past weeks, after having finished the first draft of my fourth book – a very analytical, intellectual piece of work – I've found myself operating less at an intellectual level and more at an intuitive, heart-felt level. It is as though the completion of the draft freed me up to explore new avenues of being, and new ways to relate to myself and reality. In this process, it occurred to me that there is a striking similarity, even an equivalence, between Zen Buddhism and Christianity when it comes to the key manner in which these two religions help an individual relate more harmoniously to the world. This is what I'd like to talk about below.

Before you feel compelled to point out to me how these two religions differ dramatically in their respective worldviews and dogmas, let me emphasise what I said above: The equivalence I see is in the way they help an individual relate more harmoniously to reality; not in a similarity of dogmas. Moreover, I am aware that many scholars suggest that Christianity grew out of Buddhism as much as of Judaism, as the BBC documentary below suggests. But this is not what I want to talk about either. My point is completely agnostic of possible common origins. So let me get to it without further ado.

The source of all human suffering is the ego's inability, yet absolute need, to control how reality at large unfolds. This is a recipe for perennial frustration and anxiety since, deep inside, the ego is well-aware that it cannot control the world; that it cannot have everything it wants or stop bad things from happening. If you think carefully, you will notice that all suffering ultimately comes from this dilemma. If the ego could tell nature how to behave, what to do and what not to do, we would all be happy tirants. As a tiny, limited, but tireless aspect of nature, the ego is at war with what is, was, and can be. That's why we suffer.

Now, my key point is that both Zen Buddhism and Christianity help us tackle this fundamental cause of suffering in surprisingly analogous ways. To see it, one has to look past initial appearances.

Zen aims at stopping all suffering by disidentification with the ego. In other words, a Zen practitioner seeks to lose his or her identification with his or her own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and persona. A successful Zen practitioner will identify him or herself with what they call pure awareness; a formless, narrative-free, neutral, but universal witness. The practitioner will still maintain an ego, but instead of believing him or herself to be the ego, he or she will use the ego as a tool for interacting with the world, without identifying with it. The moment this goal – often called 'enlightenment' – is achieved, all suffering stops: Only the ego suffers, and you are not the ego! The suffering of the ego is witnessed as the suffering of a character in a movie. In a strong sense, the ego is demoted from king of the hill to a small, limited, yet useful servant of impersonal awareness.

Now let's look at the essential manner in which Christianity reduces the suffering of the faithful. Christian believers also suffer because of the inability of their respective egos to control the world: They can't have all they want, they can't stop illness, and they can't avoid death. Their religion offers a way to deal with this dilemma through a form of surrender to a higher power: 'My destiny is in the hands of God,' they will say. By handing over its responsibility and struggles to a higher power, the ego withdraws from its war against reality. But as a consequence, it also finds itself demoted from king of the hill to a small, limited, yet useful servant of a higher power. Do you see the equivalence? At the level of inner feeling, the end result is precisely the same as that achieved by Zen practitioners: The tremendous lessening of a burden – as if a huge load were lifted off one's shoulders – and the cessation of futile struggles against what is.

Zen seeks to achieve this end result through an extremely skeptical and radically empirical path: It entails no narratives, dogmas, or theories of any kind. Its masters simply try to point the way for you to achieve a state of mind in which you no longer identify yourself with your ego. Instead of wasting time describing what 'enlightenment' is, they focus all their attention on helping you reach 'enlightenment' yourself. As such, Zen has enormous intellectual appeal to me as a skeptic empiricist. It soothes my instinctual fear of falling pray to fairytales: There are simply no tales in Zen, let alone fairy ones. For the same reason, I believe Zen to have enormous intellectual appeal to anyone involved in science or philosophy. The price, however, seems to be a kind of dryness that may come across as non-empathetic. When one is suffering, such detached approach may be difficult to embrace wholeheartedly. As humans, we crave empathy and reassurance, which is authentic and legitimate. Moreover, disidentification with all thought and emotion may end suffering, but how bland does it make life?

Christianity, on the other hand, achieves the exact same result through a plethora of narratives, symbols, and dogmas. Instead of the barren landscapes of Zen, it provides one with incredibly rich and meaningful images that speak directly to the unconscious (see Carl Jung's book Aion for a discussion of the psychology of the Christ figure and related topics). Empathy, compassion, and reassurance abound. Instead of the abstract concept of formless, universal awareness, Christianity offers the image of a divinity who is concurrently a flesh-and-blood man (Jesus the Christ) and a formless, universal potentiality (the Holy Spirit). The Holy Trinity can make a difficult abstraction such as the Holy Spirit directly accessible to any person, regardless of education or capacity for abstraction, in the form of a man who is also God himself. How much easier it is for the ego to surrender to such a concrete father figure, handing over its struggles to Him, instead of accepting itself to be a mere illusion! The price of this richness and accessibility, however, is the difficulty faced by any rational person to accept the narratives of Christianity uncritically. And make no mistake: The power of the narratives is entirely dependent on their being believed at some level, even if not literally! One must, somehow, muster enough faith in the Holy Trinity – most easily accessible in the form of Jesus the man – for it to be of any help in achieving the surrender of the ego. This isn't trivial in today's cynical and overly rational cultural context.

I could go on to explore the implications of everything I said above, and to relate it to the appalling state of religion in today's society. But I'll refrain from doing so for now. After all, my motivation for writing this article was simply to point out a similarity between faiths that, on the surface, are so radically different. Perhaps analogous similarities can be found across many other faiths. If that is so, they are all pointing to the same key for the end of suffering: The surrender of the ego in face of the wider reality of mind.


  1. Congratulations on finishing your fourth book! I hope you feel good about how it turned out.

    This post certainly is different than your usual fare! I very much relate to it, in that it touches on things I've been pondering in the last few months. The way I've been thinking about it is that there are different aspects or different ways of formulating the concept of "the ego." One way is that ego is this separate bundle of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and persona. "I am not an ego" means "I am not this little bundle."

    Another way of conceiving of the ego, however, is the thought "I am on my own"--I am a small creature left adrift in an impersonal world, having to fend for myself in the face of titanic forces that either don't notice me or see me as a tasty morsel.

    In the first case, relief from the ego means deconstructing one's sense of personal identity. In the second case, relief from the ego means realizing you are not on your own; you are in the hands of a loving, caring God.

    I personally think that both are important (along with a third: the belief that I am the only one that matters here--every religious tradition targets that one to one degree or another).

    Actually, I think you have captured a note that was more present in the original teachings of Jesus than in subsequent Christianity. Most New Testament scholars now see the Sayings Gospel Q as our first and best record of the Jesus tradition. This is a gospel, composed mostly of sayings, that both Matthew and Luke used as a source document. In fact, we know of it only from its sayings showing up in their gospels in much the same wording and order.

    In Q, there is an implicit picture of the human condition as one that is not so much characterized by immorality and irreligion, but by the terrible anxiety of being on one's own and having to fend for oneself in a callous and predatory world. The solution that Q offers is trust in an unconditionally loving and caring God, a God who refuses to separate people into the deserving and undeserving, but "sends his rain on the just and unjust alike." The result of such trust is the very lifting of the burden of the ego that you describe. In the teachings in Q, characters show up who are absolutely carefree, displaying no self-concern, but only concern for the other, even while under assault. It's as if being under God's care has given them Teflon coating.

    I am of the opinion that even though Christianity kept some of the essence of this carefree teaching, it got very corrupted and degraded. The focus on relief of the anxiety of being human got replaced with a focus on refraining from being a sinner. The focus on a God who refuses to divide got replaced by a God who is all about dividing, a God who is often more scary than caring. As a result, that carefree spirit you can see in the earliest teachings got replaced by an awful concern for the state of one's eternal soul. So I agree that Christianity does contain the kind of surrender of the ego that you are talking about, but I think it has watered that theme down and mixed in contrary elements.

    By the way, you might know this but I'll mention it anyway. Thomas Merton was a Christian mystic who explored deeply the parallels between contemplative Christianity and Zen. In fact, D.T. Suzuki considered him to be the Westerner who best understood Zen.

    Thanks for this post. As departures go, it was a very nice one!

    1. Thanks Robert!

      Yes, it was a kind of departure... or maybe a further step on the road, I don't really know. But I recognize the clear difference in tone and content compared to my usual stuff. In a way, my writing is morroring back to myself how my own mind has been evolving. Completing the draft of the book seems to have freed up space for exploring a new direction. Maybe this signals what I will be thinking about over the coming couple of years. Or maybe not... if the fourth book is well-received, that will surely plunge me back on radical skepticism, empiricism, and logic... left-brained stuff. :-)

      >> ...there are different aspects or
      >> different ways of formulating the concept of "the ego." One way is that ego
      >> is this separate bundle of thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and persona. "I am
      >> not an ego" means "I am not this little bundle."
      >> Another way of conceiving of the ego, however, is the thought "I am on my
      >> own...

      But are these two things really different? As you say yourself, the notion that "I am on my own" is itself a thought; itself a part of the little bundle of thoughts and beliefs. It's hard to conceive of any image the ego might have of itself that is not itself a thought/belief in that bundle.

      >> the Sayings Gospel Q

      I didn't know at all about this, whichc learly shows my ignorance as far as religious scholarship. I will track this down... if you know of any easy link, I'd appreciate it if you could share!

      Cheers, B.

    2. Well, I'll be interested to see which way you end up going. In my mind, though, the things you usually write about are right next to the spiritual wisdom issues you write about here. I personally don't think of them as residing in a whole other hemisphere (but then maybe they do!).

      I totally agree that the thought "I am on my own" is a part of that bundle. However, I don't feel that that thought is usually seen as an integral part of the definition of ego. More importantly, I don't feel that its negation--"I am not on my own"--is seen as an essential part of the transcending of ego. I think that's because I usually hear "ego" in this sense set within an impersonal vision of reality. In contrast, "I am not on my own" implies a relational vision of reality, in which one is ultimately in relationship with something greater than oneself.

      This brings to mind something Ken Wilber said about what he calls "boomeritis" in his book "Integral Spirituality":

      "In today’s 'new paradigm' spiritual movements, we usually see the opposite problem: a complete loss of Spirit in the 2nd-person [Spirit as the 'Great Thou']...no conceptions of a Great Thou, to whom surrender and devotion is the only response."

      "Vipassana, Zen, shikan-taza, Vedanta, TM, and so on, simply do not confront my interior with something greater than me, only higher levels of me....That is why the merely 1st-person approaches [Spirit as one's ultimate identity] often retain a deep-seated arrogance."

      I'll give you a few links about Q. The first is my favorite article about it:


      The second is a chapter I wrote about Q for an anthology on the healing power of spirituality and religion:


      The third is a page with lots more links:


    3. Thanks Robert. The quote from Wilbert is also quite interesting... I will chase that further, for I suspect he is onto something...

  2. Hey B.

    This line caught my attention:

    "Moreover, disidentification with all thought and emotion may end suffering, but how bland does it make life?"

    True. I have a proposal here. What if, instead of /separating/ ourselves from our thoughts and emotions, we seek to /integrate/ them, in a whole self. I am the one feeling these emotions, I am the one being hurt, I am the one who is happy, etc. The ego is /part/ of me, as are all of my personae. I think "pure awareness" (at least the kind you described above) isn't what we should go after, but a unity within ourselves, and with mind (nature, the universe, pick a word). I do think at our deepest depths we have a personal core, a place where all information /we/ experience flows into, yet at the same time I think we are offshoots and expressions of the "Source" (via "Dreamed up Reality").

    In short, my shadows, complexes, ego, and personae are all part of me, within me, and so are all of my emotions, thoughts, and the like. Instead of distancing myself from my ego states and personae, saying "You aren't me!", I should accept them, into the totality of my self (I make a distinction between self and ego, which I think you can identify clearly), so I can understand them, and be complete. I think that is more rewarding and experientially full than the utter denial of all narratives, and identification -- because they are there, and they are within you, a part of you.

    (Jung's "Whole Self", in a sense.)


    1. Moreover, my only go to place concerning these issues, NDE's seem to show a reality outside bodily existence as emotionally rich and filled with narratives...

    2. Hi Josh,
      Yes, that's Jung's 'Individuation' process... maybe that's the most modern version of Western spirituality; the path of integration, not disidentification...
      Gr, B.

  3. Bernardo,

    Few Christian Priests have brought the blending of the Christian West and Eastern Vendata Tradition in which Buddhism arose than the Benedictine Oblate Father Bede Griffiths (1906-1993). He was ordained into the priesthood in 1931 at the English Roman Catholic Monastary, Prinknash Abbey,and practiced the Benedictan Monastic Tradition at Farnborough in Hampshire and was by his abbot to Pluscarden Abbey in Scotland.

    During Griffiths' time at Farnborough, he had come to know Father Benedict Alapatt, a European-born monk of Indian descent who was greatly interested in establishing a monastery in his homeland.

    Griffiths had already been introduced to Eastern thought, yoga and the Vedas and took interest in this proposed project. The abbot at first refused permission. Later, however, he changed his mind and authorised Griffiths to go to India with the Indian member of the community. There was one condition, though, Griffiths was not to be there as a member of the abbey, but as a priest subject to a local bishop, which meant that he would be giving up his vows.

    After some painful inner debate, Griffith agreed to this and, in 1955, he embarked for India with Alapatt. At the time, he wrote to a friend: "I am going to discover the other half of my soul".

    I find his courage to make 'a visionary leap'in his Jungian search for Wholeness of his Soul Mandala remarkable and consider him a 'saint' or better said an important 'guide in my own journey of soul aching for Wholeness". It's the courage to leap that impresses me.

    In a 1983 interview he stated,
    "We're now being challenged to create a theology which would use the findings of modern science and eastern mysticism which, as you know, coincide so much, and to evolve from that a new theology which would be much more adequate."

    He was considered a 'holy man and yogi' by non-Christian and Christians and set up an Ashram where he wrote a number of books that show his scholarship and Heart Knowledge of East and West Spiritual Traditions as complementary and compatible paths that brings Spirit and Numinosity back into the Western Christian tradition and the historical interaction that has always informed Levantine, Persian, Egyptian, Indo-Aryan and Chinese Hermetic Traditions that Jung drew upon when finding his way to articulate his Liber Novus Visionary Experiences in his Red Book experiences written in 1913-14 and concretized by the Chinese Alchemical Text he was introduced to by Richard Wilhelm in 1928, "The Secret of The Golden Flower".

    Link of video interview shortly before his death.


    1. Maybe Father Hriffiths could bring together both the Jungian approach of integrating all aspects of the psych into the greater Self (individuation) with the Eastern Buddhist tradition of disidentification..... there is a sense in which both are the same, since the individuated Self is no longer the ego that starts the process...

  4. hi Bernardo

    Just discovered your blog, very interesting indeed.

    Just as one of the people who commented earlier, this line in particular evoked a reaction in me:

    "Moreover, disidentification with all thought and emotion may end suffering, but how bland does it make life?"

    Not letting my thought and emotion define me, doesn't mean I am no longer experiencing these thoughts and emotions, right? It seems to me that if I do not identify with my thoughts and feelings, I am more free to fully experience them as they are, without an urge to change, control or blunt them.... And if I experience them - and by extension, life - more fully, then life becomes less bland, not more!

    The way I understand it, the Zen idea of enlightenment does not entail a disconnect from experience, but rather a disconnect from our tendency to evaluate and judge our experience, in order to (or perhaps as a result of) fully accept whatever experience comes along.

    Take care,


    1. This is an interesting thought, Hans, and I see the sense in it...
      Are you a Zen practitioner?
      Gr, B.
      PS: Trouwens, woon ik ook in Nederland :-)

    2. Hi Bernardo

      I can't call myself a Zen practitioner, but I have recently started practicing mindfulness meditation.

      take care,


      PS ik heb wel de Nederlandse nationaliteit, maar ik woon in Belgiƫ....

    3. Very Nice Blog Bernardo. My name is Stephen Echard Musgrave or Shogaku Zenshin Roshi I am a teacher " Zen Master" in the Soto tradition of Japan with a backgound in philosophy. I would say that the mystical tradition of Christianity particularily of Johannes Meister Eckhart resonate with Zen teachings.Zen does not howeve separate reality into creator and created.

      Zen is a practic that has its philosphical roots in three of the Mahayana Buddhist traditions the mahdyamika,Yogacara and Hwa Yen schools.It however does not stress philopshy but developing insight directly into ones own nature.From the Buddhist perspective that nature is empty,but that is not an ontological stateemnt but a soteriological one. One might say that conventional self sees the waves but not the ocean,and thinks that isall there is.


    4. Dear Steve,
      What you say above resonates very much with my latest writings, as do the points you make in your DharmaWeb interview (http://www.dharmaweb.org/index.php/Interview_with_Stephen_Echard,_Roshi_Zen_%26_Pop_Culture). The analogy of the two facing mirrors, in particular, surprised me in how resonant it is. This motivated me to perhaps go out on a limb and ask you: would you like to have a look at the draft of my latest, upcoming book? If you would like to, without commitment, perhaps you can let me know an address I could send it to, by contacting me through the contact form of this site.
      Namaste, Bernardo.

    5. Steve, by the way, not sure if you saw this:

    6. Yes please go ahead I can be reached at oldroshi@sbcglobal.net

  5. Hi Bernardo,
    I found your site through the Science & Nonduality website and have spent the last few days reading through your articles. I find myself agreeing with most of your views so far, but I do have lots of questions for you. Such as... yes, it makes sense that mind is in consciousness and not the other way around. But is this consciousness a closed or open system? And what do you think about the theory that so called "dark energy" may, in fact, be consciousness? I'm sure many of my questions will be answered in your book, so I'll wait until I've finished that before asking any more.

    I'm only braving a comment here because this question caught my attention (as I see it did for others as well): "Moreover, disidentification with all thought and emotion may end suffering, but how bland does it make life?"

    Since you seem to be a fan of empirical evidence, I'll answer this from experience. (I've practiced Zen for going on 10 yrs. though I would not call myself a Zen Buddhist) The point is not to disassociate from your thoughts and feelings. The point is to think the thoughts, feel the emotions and then let them go. Thoughts and feelings are part of the human experience. Holding on to these is what causes suffering. Meditation is the practice of learning to let go so we can be fully engaged in the present, not ruminating on the past or worrying about the future.

    Far from making life dull, it makes life sweeter, richer and more precious. It allows you, for example, to eat an orange and really enjoy the experience, to taste the sweetness, instead of swallowing it without notice as your attention is on the next task your need to do or the last mistake you made. It frees you to enjoy each moment as it is unfolding. Your life becomes your practice. Not as easy as it sounds.

    And to address the reason you wrote this article: the similarities between these two religions. While I agree that both were created to alleviate human suffering by lessening the burden of reality, I have to say that the difference in the way this is achieved is a much more interesting point. While Christianity reaches outward for a cure to suffering, Zen Buddhism reaches inward. Then again, if all is consciousness, I suppose it is one and the same. Food for thought.