The Buddhist Roots of Medieval Catholic Mysticism

The decades from the 1970s forward have witnessed the increasing popularity of spiritual formation programs within Evangelical circles, based on a resurgence of interest in medieval mysticism and its contemplative spiritual techniques. A major factor behind this movement was the softened posture that the Roman Catholic Church assumed toward Evangelical Christianity at the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). In corollary response, many Evangelicals began seeking deeper spiritual experiences based on the contemplative techniques of the medieval mystics. But the process didn’t stop there, since the Second Vatican Council also opened doors for Catholics to engage in inter-religious dialogue and to begin mining the traditions of other religions for mystical practices that could enhance Catholic spirituality.

It did not take long for Catholic mystics to realize that mystics of other religions were experiencing the very same contemplative states of consciousness attained by the medieval mystics. This realization naturally led to inter-religious dialogue and the initial exploration of inter-spiritual practices, particularly that of Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation, which so closely parallels contemplative “Christian” techniques and experiences, while differing drastically in actual belief. In view of the similarity of experience and the recent assertions of scientific support for the positive health claims of Mindfulness, it is not surprising to find many Evangelicals adopting not only contemplative Catholic spirituality but also Buddhist mysticism (Mindfulness) in an attempt to enrich their Christian experience.

What is mysticism? Our English word is derived from the Greek mysticos, meaning the occult knowledge veiled in mystery that can only be known through subjective experience. Mystics are those who, through contemplative, meditative techniques, attain altered states of consciousness beyond the thinking mind to experience unmediated union with the Divine, the All, the Source, the Universal, the Force, the Energy, or the Void, depending on which tradition one follows.

Mystical spirituality awakens supernatural “revelations” of non-dual [not two] consciousness, giving the impression of transcending the biblical binaries that distinguish Creator from creation, male from female and good from evil, so that all are intuitively joined into One. Hinduism’s yoga traditions call this state the awakening of Shiva’s mystic Third Eye, a so-called state of esoteric enlightenment that destroys the “demon” of distinctions. Thomas Keating and Richard Rohr, contemporary Catholic mystics with large followings among Evangelicals, also refer to the contemplative state of consciousness as the Third Eye because it awakens a way of seeing reality beyond binary distinctions. In Buddhism, this state is called Nirvana, a state of blissful perception that a Unitive Void is the highest reality beyond the illusion of material existence.

Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation can actually refer to two different practices, both of which alter consciousness and change the way we think. One form is practiced as a sitting meditation that focuses concentration on the breath to intensify awareness on the present moment. This form is very similar to the meditation practiced in yoga, which also focuses on the breath as a technique to prepare the body and mind to enter into deeper meditative trance states through single-pointed mental focus.

But Mindfulness can also be practiced continually throughout the normal course of the day by experiencing each moment’s activity through the lens of intense, non-judgmental concentration on the point of the present now. Life is thus perceived in sequential progression from one present moment to the next, allowing thoughts to arise without critical evaluation. In this type of meditation, the practitioner becomes a neutral observer of the self, experiencing a continuum of present moments. The mind is thus detached from objective reality and enters a kind of waking trance-like state. Because all moral judgment is suspended toward the attitudes and actions of oneself and others, the mind easily dissociates from normal evaluative response patterns. In other words, Mindfulness changes the interpretive grid through which the mind processes reality.

The goal of mysticism, in general, is to alter one’s perception of reality, redefining the self, the world, and the Divine according to mystical intuitions of Universal Consciousness as Ultimate Reality. Thus mysticism serves as the basis for a collective spirituality that transcends religious distinctions and is therefore the force behind the growing interfaith movement in which “Christian” mysticism plays an important role.

This really shouldn’t surprise us, though, since the medieval mystics, who now hold such powerful influence in many Evangelical circles, were themselves heavily influenced by the Oneist religious philosophy of Neoplatonism. Somewhere between the late 5th and early 6th centuries, a man writing under the pseudonym of Dionysius the Areopagite (pretending to be Paul’s Athenian disciple recorded in Acts 17:34) repackaged Plotinus’s pagan philosophy of Neoplatonism in Christian terminology. Revered with near apostolic authority, pseudo-Dionysius (as he is now properly known), introduced Christianized Neoplatonism as a foundational worldview for Catholic mysticism.

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What is expressed in Neoplatonism is the ontological unity of everything, meaning that everyone and everything share in the Essence of Divine Being. Meditative techniques are designed to awaken perception of inner Divinity flowing within the stream of Divine Consciousness pulsing throughout the cosmos. It is theorized that if religions could only tap into this stream, the experience would eclipse religious distinctions and serve as a catalyst for interreligious harmony.

Though Neoplatonism is a thoroughly pagan religious philosophy, pseudo-Dionysius successfully infused it into medieval Catholic spirituality through his influential works The Mystical Theology and The Celestial Hierarchy, treatises that were spiritually formative to John Scotus Eriugena, Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Jan van Ruusbroec, Johannes Tauler, and a host of other medieval mystics.

But the Christianized Neoplatonism of pseudo-Dionysius is also responsible for the modern revival of interest in contemplative spirituality. In the fourteenth century, an anonymous English monk wrote The Cloud of Unknowing, a book the author credits in its entirety to the teachings of pseudo-Dionysius (whom he calls St. Denis): “Anyone who reads Denis’ book will find confirmed there all that I have been trying to teach in this book from start to finish.” In the early 1970s a dusty copy of The Cloud of Unknowing was discovered by Trappist monk William Menninger in St. Joseph’s Abbey in Spencer, Massachusetts.

Inspired by The Cloud’s mystical “Christian” allegory, William Menninger, Abbot Thomas Keating, and fellow Trappist M. Basil Pennington developed Centering Prayer as a revival of medieval contemplative spirituality. In his influential book on Centering Prayer, Open Mind, Open Heart, Keating defines contemplative prayer as “a process of interior transformation… [leading to] divine union” during which “[o]ne’s way of seeing reality changes in this process.”  What takes place during contemplative meditation is the exchange of worldview from Twoism to Oneism, which Keating describes as “A restructuring of consciousness…which empowers one to perceive, relate and respond with increasing sensitivity to the divine presence in, through, and beyond everything that exists.”

Having become convinced of the ubiquitous nature of Divinity by the “Christian” Neoplatonism expressed in The Cloud of Unknowing, Abbot Thomas Keating began sponsoring interreligious dialogue as a leader in the growing interfaith movement. To this end, in the early 1970s, Keating opened the doors of St. Joseph’s Abbey to Zen roshis (Buddhist spiritual masters) for intensive Buddhist meditation retreats called sesshins, first for the Catholic monks and eventually for the general public. St. Joseph’s eventually became known not only as a Catholic monastery, but also as a prominent Buddhist retreat center.

Deeply drawn to Buddhism, Keating collaborated with Tibetan lama Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, founder of the Naropa Institute for Tibetan Buddhism, which still incorporates Keating’s teaching on Centering Prayer into its curriculum.  Trungpa founded the Naropa Institute in order to advance his mission to induct Western initiates into the occult secrets of Tibetan Buddhism, understanding that interspiritual collaboration between Catholic and Buddhist monks would serve to transcend distinct belief systems, facilitating a unity based on shared mystical experience.

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In his book The Mystic Heart, Catholic monk Wayne Teasdale recognizes the historic significance of uniting Catholicism and Buddhism. Inspired by insights from British historian Arnold Toynbee, Teasdale asserts that “if Christianity, taken as representative of all theistic traditions, and Buddhism, a nontheistic religion, or as some call it, a psychology, can somehow reconcile their differences, then perhaps all the faiths can similarly be brought into harmony.”  The ultimate goal of this merger is universal religious harmony, which mystics believe will manifest in a united world religion, spreading peace and harmony around the globe. To attain such lofty concord Teasdale suggests a technique based on the principle of include and transcend. While acknowledging the contradictions between Catholicism and Buddhism, Teasdale asserts a resolution based on transcending the differences until “something new will be born that moves beyond both while including each.”

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As a believer in the universal brotherhood of mystics, Thomas Keating has continued as an energetic leader in the interfaith movement. In 2008 he partnered with Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, head of the Golden Sufi Center (Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam) in presenting the conference “Oneness & the Heart of the World.” The intent of the conference was described as “Th[e] unique meeting of two mystical traditions [Catholicism and Islam] explor[ing] the oneness that is at the heart of all spiritual traditions.”  Keating has also served as the president of the Temple of Understanding, founded in 1960 by Juliet Hollister to promote the mystical unity of religions.

Thomas Keating also collaborates with Ken Wilber, a leading integral philosopher who practices the tantric sexual mysticism of Kundalini Yoga. Keating currently serves on the Advisory Board of the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, an organization founded by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hahn and Hindu guru Ram Dass (formerly Harvard psychologist Richard Alpert). The Center’s goal is to transform education from intellectual knowledge to contemplative experience in order to attain “the realization of our inextricable connection to each other, opening the heart and mind to true community, deeper insight, sustainable living, and a more just society.”

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This ongoing dialogue of nearly thirty years has resulted in establishing the field of “contemplative science” as a credible scientific discipline with degree programs offered in leading universities. For example, Brown University offers a degree concentration in “Contemplative Studies” that integrates neuroscience with Zen Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, Sufism (Islamic mysticism), and Christian monasticism (contemplative prayer). Faculty member Willoughby Britton, a participant in the Mind and Life dialogues with the Dalai Lama, is assistant professor of Psychiatry and Human Behavior at Brown University Medical School and is a leading champion for the benefits of Mindfulness.

But she also admits that meditation doesn’t always end well. She has therefore opened Cheetah House as a recovery center for those suffering the often intensely negative effects of meditation, which Britton equates with the “dark night of the soul,” experienced by medieval mystic John of the Cross. An article in The Atlantic featuring Britton’s work at Cheetah House reveals that problems arising from meditation can range from “confusion” to “psychological hell” and even to serious physiological problems. One distraught meditator described a thought that demanded, “Let me take you over.” Another thought urged him, “kill yourself.” Another meditator lost the ability to digest food for several years, devastating his health, and yet another was tormented by an “onslaught of unwanted sexual thoughts … a sexual Rolodex of every taboo,” to which he finally yielded. Another man thought he was becoming schizophrenic as a result of meditation.

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The biblical worldview understands [contemplative meditation] as the forbidden and dangerous realm of spiritualism, yet our post-Christian society is woefully ignorant of the very real dangers that meditation has of opening oneself to the occult spirit world.

Other cultures are not so naïve. In the case of Tibetan Buddhism, novice monks must undergo secret initiation rituals, including reception of a spirit as a prerequisite to learning the sacred arts of meditation and magic that form the core spirituality of their religion. Advanced Tibetan monks are renowned for their supernatural abilities, which can only be explained by the psychic powers they receive from the spirit world. One example is evident in the supernatural powers exhibited by those who master the technique of Tibetan Tummo Meditation and are able to sit naked in Himalayan snow for prolonged periods, suffering no ill effect to the body. This is because their bodies mysteriously radiate the heat of an inner fire during the practice of Tummo Meditation and actually feel hot to the touch. Those documenting their supernatural feats have witnessed steam emanating from their bodies as the snow melts around them.

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In his autobiography Freedom in Exile, the Dalai Lama unmasks the occultism of Tibetan Buddhism, documenting his own reliance on the Nechung Oracle, who channels the wisdom of Dorje Drakden (the protector deity of Tibetan Buddhism) during mediumistic trance states. According to the Dalai Lama, “The ceremony begins with chanted invocations and prayers, accompanied by the urgings of horns, cymbals and drums,” inviting Dorje Drakden to enter. The oracle is then clothed in a ceremonial robe and headdress as the spirit possesses him. Tibetan lamas assist and protect the oracle during the violent manifestation of the Nechung spirit, which tosses him like a rag doll as it hisses and prophesies to the Dalai Lama through him. When the spirit departs the oracle collapses in “a rigid and lifeless form, signifying the end of the possession.”

The psychic phenomena and spiritual manifestations of Tibetan Buddhism may seem disconnected from the Western contemplative practices of Centering Prayer and Mindfulness Meditation. Yet we need to understand that the medieval mystics also experienced psychic phenomena and spiritual manifestations, awakened by their contemplative meditative practices. One example is Teresa of Avila, whose book The Interior Castle is still widely read, even by Evangelicals. Teresa was a Carmelite nun who was deeply devoted to Mary and lived a life of severe asceticism, practicing penance and prayer to fulfill her sense of calling to a “vocation of reparation” for the sins of the world. Teresa believed, as did most medieval mystics, that her own participation in the sufferings of Christ was not only necessary to shorten her time in Purgatory and save her soul, but was also efficacious in freeing others from their bondage to sin. She thus believed that her own suffering had to be added to Christ’s work on the cross in order to fully affect salvation.

To this end, she practiced self-imposed tortures such as self-flagellation along with denial of adequate food and sleep. Her severe ascetic practices coupled with the altered states of consciousness awakened through contemplative meditation resulted in multiple visions, voices and ecstasies that often terrified her. They also imparted psychic powers such as the spontaneous levitation she experienced during celebration of the mass. A prolific writer, Teresa also experienced what is known as automatic writing, during which a forceful rushing of words would descend on her with such velocity that she was barely able to write fast enough to record the spiritual revelations she was receiving.

Contemplative techniques are designed to subdue the body and mind into passive openness to mystical experiences that impart the convincing impression of tapping into a higher plane of reality beyond that which can be understood with the rational mind. Organizations like the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society and the Mind and Life Institute are dedicated to changing the way the West perceives reality by shifting consciousness from the thinking mind to the mystical heart through contemplative practices. Thomas Keating’s revival of Centering Prayer and the Dalai Lama’s promotion of Buddhist Mindfulness Meditation have deeply influenced Western spirituality toward mysticism.

By training the public at every level of education in these contemplative, meditative techniques, society becomes enslaved to subjective, emotional experience and loses its ability to think and act for the real common good by setting the glory of God as the highest priority. The biblical fear of the Lord, which is the very beginning of true wisdom, is lost in the confusion of mystical perceptions of Universal Consciousness. As Evangelical Christians, we need to regain our focus on Paul’s exhortation to present our bodies as living sacrifices in the service of Christ as we devote our minds to the transformation that can only come through the reasoned study of God’s Word and its heartfelt application to our lives. (Rom. 12:1-2)

This article was excerpted from a longer article published at  Used by permission from the author.  The full article can be read here