David Frenette is a senior teacher in the Centering Prayer movement–a contemplative Christian practice that was designed by Father Thomas Keating. He’s also the spiritual director at the Center for Contemplative Living in Denver, and the author of The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God.
In this episode, David describes the similarities and differences between Buddhist and Christian practice, the benefit of surrender, and the Christian Contemplative tenet of “the God within serves the God in other people.”
This is part two of a two-part series.
- The Path of Centering Prayer: Deepening Your Experience of God
- Incarnational Contemplation
- Center for Contemplative Living in Denver
Vincent: So, David, one of the questions I wanted to ask you about I think in hearing you described the Christian contemplative practice and talking about it, I think for many people listening to this they’ll be able to hear a lot of parallel kind of language and parallel understanding that’s in the Buddhist tradition. There’s no surprise since they’re both contemplative traditions and they’re both doing similar kinds of practices.
And yet there’s also a lot of differences both in the language and also you can say in the phenomenological descriptions of experience. So my own sense of things like this is that it’s useful not to assume everything is the same immediately and to recognize these differences might mean something. And I wondered if you could talk a little bit since you have this interesting kind of dual background in practice with both the Buddhist and Christian tradition obviously much more on the Christian side but still.
If you could talk a little bit about the ways that Christian contemplative practice might be different than Buddhist practice and maybe even how it might be more effective at certain things. For instance I heard you say the word surrender many times. And although that word sometimes comes up in the Buddhist lexicon it’s one that is not so common. And it seems to be pointing to something really profound. So just as an example my own listening to what you’re saying I’m hearing differences in things that would have been really helpful for me to hear as a practitioner but I had to kind of pick up myself.
So could you speak a little bit about the differences and the ways that you think Christian practice might add something that maybe is not present in Buddhist practice.
David: Well of course that’s a huge topic and I have such great respect for Buddhist practice. The one thing and of course this kind of maybe comes from my story that might be meaningful for some people is that because Christianity has been for 2000 years a kind of spiritual culture of the west, some people might find an easier connection with the Christian contemplative path than with a path that hasn’t been embedded as much in the culture.
But the culture is changing. I mean even in 30 years the culture has changed so much so it’s now a globalize culture and those differences maybe less meaningful. But I do know many people who are practicing centering prayer because they somehow feel or connect with the archetypes that are embedded in the culture. The Christ archetype, the archetype of the divine feminine that’s represented and expressed in Mary the Mother of God but also in Mary Magdalene, the dynamic divine energy of the feminine which is a little different than the divine Mother energy.
Maybe those archetypes or energies as they manifest in Buddhism also very profound, maybe they may not have the same kind of resonance. But of course the Christian contemplative tradition has not done a good job of representing itself so that can be accessed by anyone who’s a real seeker maybe until the last generation through the work of Thomas Merton and Thomas Keating and these other great Christian teachers, Brother David Steindl-Rast. You know there’s quite a few of these monks who have given their lives to carrying these, the wisdom of the Christian tradition and then letting it come forth through their teachings to the world.
So in other words some practitioners maybe more comfortable with the path of Christian meditation. It’s interesting as I said I’m raised in the Christian western culture, influenced by Christianity but not in a church or not in a religious way. But for some reason it’s been my path too. So there’s also the sense of maybe there’s an innate connection one has with a lineage or with a path. I know some Buddhist teachings say this. And so maybe one’s innate or hidden connection with the path that one has in this lifetime is also Christian and that could be valuable for somebody.
The idea in centering prayer of consent sometimes might be helpful for somebody. You know that Ken Wilber, we know Ken Wilber he’s a great philosopher of consciousness, and in his theory or one aspects of his theory he has said that his encounter as a Buddhist practitioner with actually Thomas Keating centering prayer and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, this great Jewish teacher some years ago, 10 years ago, Ken said that it was the encounter with theistic paths that helped him see that sometimes a Buddhist practitioners in his view lack that element of surrender.
And so in Christian practice or in centering prayer the idea of consent and surrender to a mystery and then becoming one with that mystery and then realizing that the mystery God is that there is no mystery. It might be a good path for somebody because there’s nothing like surrender to shatter the false self or the separate self sense. I think in other traditions that are not theistic sometimes surrender manifest itself in a different way. Surrender to the lineage or to the teacher or to the sangha, the Buddhist sangha, the dharma, whatever. But in Christianity it’s kind of push to the forefront.
Consent and relationship and then surrender into that relationship in the service of the destruction of the self, separate self sense or what Thomas Merton or Thomas Keating called the false self. It’s false because it experiences itself as separate from other people and the deep sense of identity that’s revealed in the Christian understanding on the contemplative path is that we’re at one with everything. But we don’t realize that oneness because we’re just attached to our ideas and thoughts and separate experience. So surrendering that is a great benefit.
Vincent: Another term that I heard used in the Christian tradition is service. And I know there is services talked about in different ways and different traditions like in the Hindu tradition you have whole yoga of service, like karma yoga. But you know in the Buddhist tradition there is not as much discussion. It doesn’t seem like about this aspect of things. I know it’s sort of talk about with things like the Bodhisattva vow and stuff like that. But when you’re describing your time in the intensive practice environment, it sounded like work and service were such an integral part of that experience.
And when I go to Buddhist retreat centers it’s like maybe 45 minutes of the day spent working and really there’s no sense of service like to other people there. It’s just a sense of kind of working on your own trip, your own awakening process or whatever. So is that another aspect that has a difference emphasis? You mentioned surrender. Is service also something you found is emphasized differently in the Christian path?
David: I think in Christian teachings service is emphasized quite a bit. Again some of the problem with the Christian emphasis on service is that it lacks this contemplative ground to it. And so a lot of the Christian services is more exterior or external. They kind of forget about Jesus’ instruction in the canonical gospels to clean the inside of the cup meaning go into one’s own motivation. And the best way to do that is through contemplative practice and then to serve out of that awareness.
So again my spiritual father Thomas Keating talks about contemplative service. And says the contemplative service is serving, you know, being involved and caring for people and tending to the needs of the world around one immediate and one’s own family and one’s own work situation but also extending oneself to confront injustice and whatever the needs of the world are in any particular time so extending oneself.
But he says the contemplative service is God in us serving God in other people. God in us serving God in other people. So along with what one is doing, you know, back at the retreat center our basic task was to take care of the retreatants and provide for them. And part of my life now is to provide for people in little spiritual direction circles and care for my wife and our life together. But along with those activities to be open to the way that God within is serving God in other people.
So there’s less attachment sometimes to one’s own agenda, to my own agenda for what I’m doing and service becomes a practice that expresses the sitting practice of centering prayer and whatever other practices one is doing in life. Now Buddhism-such a profound tradition. I know that teaching is there in different ways in Buddhism. But it’s true that Christianity, the culture, the spiritual culture of Christianity has emphasized service very strongly. And I hope it kind of emphasizes or develops this interiority to service and doesn’t get trapped in the externals of it.
And Buddhism-it’s becoming more active, engaged Buddhism, right? You probably had a lot of talks about that. So maybe both traditions are developing or articulating their aspects of their teachings in new ways. People talk about the development of a western Buddhism. I think that’s probably happening. And it might be happening in parallel with what’s happening in Christianity which is that Christianity is not developing a western kind of Christianity. But it’s hopefully developing over the course of a couple of generations a new expression of its contemplative teachings for this era of time, the 21st century.
So the monastic cloistered understanding which preserve the contemplative dimension in Christianity. It’s not the only one and it’s something needs to be brought forth and I think it’s happening in Christianity over the course of a few generations. And maybe in another generation there will be western Buddhism and maybe a more developed Christian contemplative path. And they both might talk about service in the same way, maybe not in the same language theological, philosophical way but with the same heart essence the need to serve and be engaged in the world as an expression of one’s own practice.
In Christianity that’s the idea of God in us serving God in other through our commitments and what we do, what one does, and ordinary life and responding to the unjust system that oppress people. There’s plenty of those.