Saturday, January 16, 2010

Can Orthodox Christianity Speak To Eastern Religions?

by Kevin Allen

I recently had a conversation with a dear Eastern Orthodox priest, whose twenty six year old son had left home the day before to live indefinitely at a Buddhist monastery. He was heart broken. His son was not a stranger to Eastern Orthodoxy or to its monastic tradition, having even spent two months on the holy mountain of Mt. Athos.

His son’s journey is not an isolated event. Eastern religious traditions are a growing and competing force in American religious life. Buddhism is now the fourth-largest religious group in the United States, with 2.5 – 3 million adherents, approximately 800,000 of whom are American western “converts”? There are actually more Buddhists in America today than Eastern Orthodox Christians! The Dalai Lama (the leader of one of the Tibetan Buddhist sects) is one of the most recognized and admired people in the world and far better recognized than any Eastern Orthodox hierarch? Have you looked in the magazine section of Borders or Barnes and Noble lately? There are more publications with names like “Shambala Sun”, “Buddhadharma”, and “What is enlightenment?” on the shelves than Christian publications!

In addition to losing seekers to eastern spiritual traditions (many of them youth), eastern metaphysics has also seeped into our western cultural worldview without much notice. They are doing a better job (sadly) “evangelizing” our culture than we Eastern Orthodox Christians are!

The Lord Himself commands us clearly

“that repentance and remission of sins (baptism) should be preached in His name to all nations” (Luke 24:47).

Buddhists (of which there are many sects) and Hindus live among us in America in ever-growing numbers, in our college classrooms, on our soccer fields, and in our “health foods” stores – they are right in our own backyards! They are a rich, potential “mission field” for the Eastern Orthodox Church in the United States.

Unfortunately with few exceptions, like the writings of Monk Damascene [Christensen] and Kyriakos S. Markides, we are not talking to this group at all.

As a former Hindu and disciple of a well-known guru, or spiritual teacher, I can tell you Orthodox Christianity shares more “common ground” with seekers of non-Christian spiritual traditions of the east than any other Christian confession!

The truth is when Evangelical Protestants attempt to evangelize the eastern seeker they often do more harm than good, because their approach is western, rational, and doctrinal, with (generally) little understanding of the paradigms and spiritual language (or yearnings) of the seekers of these eastern faiths.

There are three “fundamental principles” that Buddhists and Hindus generally share in common:

1. A common “supra-natural” reality underlies and pervades the phenomenal world. This Supreme Reality isn’t Personal, but Trans-personal. God or Ultimate Reality in these traditions is ultimately a pure consciousness without attributes.

2. The human soul is of the same essence with this divine reality. All human nature is divine at its core. Accordingly, Christ or Buddha isn’t a savior, but becomes a paradigm of self-realization, the goal of all individuals.

3. Existence is in fundamental unity (monism). Creation isn’t what it appears to the naked eye. It is in essence “illusion” and “unreal”. There is one underlying ground of being (think “quantum field” in physics!) which unifies all beings and out of which and into which everything can be reduced.

What do these metaphysics have in common with our Eastern Orthodox Faith? Not much, on the surface. But in the eastern non-Christian spiritual traditions, knowledge is not primarily about the development of metaphysical doctrine or theology. This is one of the problems western Christians have communicating with them. Eastern religion is never theoretical or doctrinal. It’s about the struggle for liberation from death and suffering through spiritual experience.

This “existential-therapeutic-transformational” ethos is the first connection Eastern Orthodoxy has with these traditions, because Orthodoxy is essentially therapeutic and transformative in emphasis!

The second thing we agree on with Buddhists and Hindus is the fallen state of humanity. The goal of the Christian life according to the Church Fathers is to move from the “sub-natural” or “fallen state”, to the “natural” or the “according to nature state” after the Image (of God), and ultimately to the “supra-natural” or “beyond nature” state, after the Likeness. According to the teaching of the holy Fathers the stages of the spiritual life are purification, illumination and deification. While we don’t agree with Buddhists or Hindus on what “illumination” or “deification” means (because our metaphysics are different) we agree on the basic diagnosis of the fallen human condition. As I once said to a practicing Tibetan Buddhist:

“We agree on the sickness (of the human condition). Where we disagree is on the cure”.

Eastern Orthodoxy – especially the hesychasm (contemplative) tradition – teaches that true “spiritual knowledge” presupposes a “purified” and “awakened” nous (Greek), which is the “Inner ‘I’” of the soul. The true Eastern Orthodox theologian isn’t one who simply knows doctrine, but one

“who knows God, or the inner essences or principles of created things by means of direct apprehension or spiritual perception. “

As a well-known Orthodox theologian explains,

“When the nous is illuminated, it means that it is receiving the energy of God which illuminates it…”

This idea resonates with eastern seekers who struggle to experience – through non-Christian ascesis and/or through occult methods – spiritual illumination. They just don’t know this opportunity exists within a Christian context.

As part of their spiritual ascesis, Buddhist and Hindu dhamma (practice) emphasizes cessation of desire, which is necessary to quench the passions. Holy Tradition teaches apatheia, or detachment as a means of combating the fallen passions. Hindu and Buddhist meditation methods teach “stillness”. The word hesychia in Holy Tradition – the root of the word for hesychasm – means “stillness”! We don’t meditate using a mantra, but we pray the “Jesus Prayer”.

Buddhism, especially, teaches “mindfulness”. Holy Tradition teaches “watchfulness” so we do not fall into temptation!

Hindus and Buddhists understand it is not wise to live for the present life, but to struggle for the future one. We Orthodox agree! Americans who become Buddhist or Hindu are often fervent spiritual seekers, used to struggling with foreign languages (Sanskrit, Tibetan, Japanese) and cultures and pushing themselves outside of their “comfort zones”. We converts to the Eastern Orthodox Church can relate! Some Buddhist and Hindu sects even have complex forms of “liturgy”, including chant, prostration and veneration of icons! Tibetan Buddhism especially places high value on the lives of (their) ascetics, relics and “saints”.

The main difference in spiritual experience is that what the eastern seeker recognizes as “spiritual illumination”, achieved through deep contemplation, Holy Tradition calls “self contemplation”. Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), who was experienced in yoga (which means ‘union’) before becoming a hesychast – monk and disciple of St. Silouan of the holy mountain wrote from personal experience,

“All contemplation arrived at by this means is self-contemplation, not contemplation of God. In these circumstances we open up for ourselves created beauty, not First Being. And in all this there is no salvation for man.”

Clement of Alexandria, two thousand years ago wrote that pre-Christian philosophers were often inspired by God, but he cautioned one to be careful what one took from them!

So we acknowledge the eastern seeker through his ascesis or contemplative methodologies may experience deep levels of created beauty, or created being (through self-contemplation), para-normal dimensions, or even the “quantum field” that modern physics has revealed! However, it is only in the Eastern Orthodox Church and through its deifying mysteries that the seeker will be introduced to the province of Uncreated Divine Life.

It is only in the Orthodox Church that the eastern seeker will hear there is more to “salvation” than simply forgiveness of sins and justification before God. He will be led to participate in the Uncreated Energies of God, so that they

“may be partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4).

As a member of the Body of Christ he will join in the deifying process, and be increasingly transformed after the Likeness! Thankfully, deification is available to all who enter the Holy Orthodox Church, are baptized (which begins the deifying process) and partake of the holy mysteries. Deification is not just for monks, ascetics and the spiritual athletes on Mount Athos!

Eastern Orthodoxy has much to share with eastern spiritual seekers. Life and death hangs in the balance in this life, not the millions of lives eastern seekers think they have! As the Apostle Paul soberly reminds us,

” it is appointed for men to die once but after this the judgment.” (Heb. 9:27)

May God give us the vision to begin to share the “true light” of the Holy Orthodox Faith with seekers of the eastern spiritual traditions.


1. Makarian Homilies; Glossary of The Philokalia
2. Hierotheos Vlachos, Life after Death; 1995; Birth of the Theotokos Monastery
3. On Prayer; Sophrony; pages 168-170


Kevin Allen is a former Hindu practitioner before becoming an Eastern Orthodox Christian, and is also the co-host of the Internet radio program “The Illumined Heart” which is broadcast weekly on Ancient Faith Radio (


  1. I'm a former Buddhist that actually went from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism again. I spent almost ten years in the Theravada tradition of Buddhism. Christ the eternal Tao was a great book that I think has the potential to reach Buddhists.

    Here is my take:

    If you notice, the dalai lama pretty much speaks the language of religious indifferentism by saying things like "all religions are ther same" and "stay in your own tradition." This seems natural to the pervasive relativism in Western culture, and so it seems friendly and "true" to many Westerners. In Truth, much of Western Buddhism seems to take it's cues from modern science and psychology and not Buddhism in the traditional sense outside the "mindfulness" and meditation aspects of the religion. In fact, many reject rebirth and seek to use meditation as a form of calming self help. Because modern science is pretty much atheist, and because many Western Buddhists are disillusioned former theists, they sometimes marry atheism with Buddhism. And so Buddhism, in the modern Western sense, is not a religion at all but a westernized atheism/agnosticism with meditation techniques.

    I just couldn't do it after a while, not even as a traditional Theravada Buddhist. It was lifeless and empty, especially all the talk about no soul, no self, and emptiness. The idea of samsara, the endless round of rebirths for those outside the highest levels of meditation, was utterly depressing. I think this is a great post and you are "cutting edge" in trying to address the issue of Eastern Religions.

    You see, if we truly believe that only through redemption in Christ can man be saved and enter heaven, than we as Christians have to offer something more concrete than the vague and novel ideas of Buddhism or the "anything goes" relativism of modern culture. How to do this is beyond me, but it must be done.

    In Christ,


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  2. Yes, Justin, the Orthodox and Catholic Christian view is more complete in my view. We have much more to help us in our spiritual struggle than Buddhists. This is why Christ was sent, to help us. Buddha was a seeker that came long before Christ. His path may have led him to God, this we cannot judge, but the path he followed is a most difficult one at best. God new that we needed help and sent it.

  3. Deacon Charles-

    Amen to that. I pray that more people come to see that what you say is true. Somehow, even in the midst of Buddhism Christ called me out of the darkness. Let us hope he does the same for others as well. You're right, we can't really judge the Buddha, as he was dealing with religious questions the best way he knew how before the time of Christ. I think Heiromonk Damascene touches on something similar in Christ The Eternal Tao when talking about Aristotle and Lao Tzu.

  4. My story is similar to yours. I was Orthodox but after engaging in Buddhist practices, God led me back to Christ in a new an much deeper way.

  5. That is interesting, and I suppose that whatever you found that was good and useful in Buddhism you brought back with you to Christianity to be seen through the lens of Christ and Orthodoxy.

  6. Yes and No. The discipline of the mind was a benefit but the meditation practice was a hindrance. I had to unlearn this approach to fully engage in the Jesus prayer. A prayer is quite different than meditation as taught by Buddhism. In a Christian context it becomes a technique and useless. The Jesus prayer demands surrender and humbleness before God, a contrite heart, an orientation towards repentance coupled with participation in the sacraments. Quite different.
    How about you.

  7. Sorry it took so long to get back to you deacon Charles. I have a similar experience, in that once I re-entered Christian life I found it necessary to stop meditating. As you say, it "becomes a technique and useless." I say the Jesus Prayer but not for too long, being ever mindful that one is supposed to have a spiritual guide for such an undertaking.

    Part of my journey back to Christianity has been one of humility and of unlearning Buddhism and all the baggage I could bring to Christianity from it. I figured if I were to fully re-enter the Christian life I had to face it on it's own terms, trusting in God and in people who had walked the Christian path longer than I.

    In the Catholic Church (and I suppose the Orthodox Church too) the assumptions of Buddhism, namely, that man can free himself through his own efforts without God, is a heresy, the heresy of Pelagius.

    It is humbling to try to unlearn what I clung to for so long and to learn to trust God. It seems as if you have had a similar experience.

    All in all I really enjoy this blog and your own take on things. It's nice to discuss things like this with a fellow Christian who has also been involved with eastern meditation.

  8. We both seem to share the same blessing.
    The big mistake I made in my prayer life was to link the Jesus prayer to my breath. For eastern meditation practices this was not difficult. This made it physical, connected to the body, when its is a mental prayer, requiring compunction. Helped when I gave up linking the two. I had stopped using the Jesus Prayer for two years before I was allowed to return to its use.

  9. I am very happy to have found this conversation. I am a former Theravada Buddhist monastic, having spent nearly my entire adult life in this tradition, culminating, I could say, in three years in nearly continuous silent retreats in Sri Lanka and Burma in the 1980s. I am now 54. About a year ago I began feeling what Justin describes as finding the canonical Buddhist teachings "depressing" -- after 35 years of intense study and reflection on them! I agree re: many Buddhist adherents "seek to use meditation as a form of calming self help." I would go further and state there is for me an alarming compulsion/ addiction towards the altered states so highly touted by the Buddhist meditation suttas (termed the "jhanas"). After becoming a vipassana retreat leader and group instructor I found it very difficult to wean my students from this cumpulsion to chill, which really is the best I can describe this. It seems the entire Buddhist enterprise for many is a drive towards deeper and more "transformative" mental states. After attaining the jhanas as taught by the Buddha I was quite disappointed to find that nothing really changed much, if anything I was more driven to go further...You can see where I am going with this. In any event, I have just begun the expoloratory movements outside of Buddhism. I spent the last part of 2009 in an all out assualt on the writings of Saint John of the Cross, with some benefit. But it wasn't until I stumbled on Saint Theophane the Recluse that I felt something stir very deeply and it appears quite lasting. I am just now reading the books you recommend am having very moving experiences in the process. I agree, unlearning Buddhism and the cumpulsion toward "transformation" through self-effort alone involves a re-orientation toward contrition, humility and surrender, which involves larger and deeper aspects of the psyche. I can't tell you how much I have bebefitted from this blog and the recommendations! I only wish I were closer to your Church(I live in Honolulu). I know you caution against beginning the Jesus Prayer without guidance, and before becoming a member of the Church, but any advice you might have for me would be appreciated! I am looking into some type of distance education course perhaps. Please know that your efforts have struck a very deep chord with this lifelong-Buddhist-who-may-not-be-a-Buddhist-for-very-much-longer. Tom

  10. Thanks for you thoughts Tom. You experience is like many who followed the path of Buddhist meditation. The biggest challenge is to learn that the Jesus Prayer is not a technique but a prayer. First requires faith. Be sure to read the Gospels.

    Here are some links that may help you
    Ten Points for an Orthodox Way of LIfe-
    Writings from Church Fathers on the Jesus Prayer -
    Orthodoxy in Hawaii -

    Try and contact one of the Orthodox Priests who live in Hawaii and He will guide you to the proper resources.

  11. As a longtime spiritual seeker (in Tibetan Buddhist circles inter alia) I have found the following texts especially attractive:

    The Sayings of the (Desert) Fathers
    The Ladder of Divine Ascent
    The sermons of St. Symeon the New Theologian
    The Way of a Pilgrim (but not the sequel)
    That brief account of St. Seraphim of Sarov

    I think any of these would be suitable for spiritual seekers in general. Another possibility is "A Night on the Holy Mountain," which I believe is available on the internet.

    In other words, those aspects of Orthodoxy which are closest to hesychia and the desert. "Christ the Eternal Tao" I found very learned, and contains much helpful ancilliary material, but the actual verses and parallels I found forced. I liked "Franny," but not "Zooey," though neither would really be appropriate representatives of Orthodoxy.

    Oddly enough, I dislike the Philokalia as a compilation, and feel that the selections are not very well arranged. I realize that this is a minority viewpoint. In any case, the work is too large and unwieldy for any but the most committed.

  12. For those who are serious the Path to Salvation by Theophan the recluse is very good. It will bring you to the true Orthodox Way of life. He writes for lay persons but with a deep insight into the requirements of a spiritual life.

    The Philokalia is not a good book for the beginner. It is a collection of writings of monks for those who are very advanced in their spiritual path. It can easily mislead you.

    A spiritual guide is a must in the Orthodox Way. You will likely be misled without one.

  13. When it comes to the issue of Eastern Religions being reached by Orthodox, would this mean Eastern Orthodox alone or would it also include those who are Oriental Orthodox as well? Additionally, what of those who are Eastern Catholics? Would they also be able to speak to Eastern Religions?

    I made a thread on the issue entitled "East Vs West: Is Western Christianity or Eastern Christianity best suited for evanglising those in Eastern Religion?"---as I've long appreciated the thoughts of those in Eastern Christianity more so than Western Christianity. They ways in which they emphasize mysticism and philosophy--as well as action----in one seems to be a good demonstration of what it means to combine orthodoxy with orthopraxy. Many in the West have become immensely tired of living within a world where all that happens is either reading scripture and quoting creeds----or simply having services and yet feeling disconnected with others.

    Forgive me if its an offense for me being here, seeing that I'm not Orthodox (though I have friends who were in it/appreciate it greatly).


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