Meditating in a Cave

Buddhist monks reverencing Buddha lead
missioner to reflect on Christian spiritual journey.

Thailand is among those Asian countries blessed by craggy mountains that jut like dragons' teeth out of turquoise seas or rise unexpectedly in emerald rice paddies. Those mountains are riddled with caves that have become pilgrimage sites for devout Buddhists.

The caves house Buddha images, some ensconced in roomy chambers, others sitting in solitary recesses. In former times they were home to hermit monks, who have a unique understanding of pilgrimage. They share the view of our own latter-day American hermit, Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who wrote, "Our real journey in life is interior; it is a matter of growth, deepening and an ever greater surrender to the creative action of love and grace in our hearts."

I had reason recently to recall Merton while visiting some of these caves, a short drive south of Bangkok. Buddhist monks whom I teach English had expressed an interest in seeing them, and it seemed a fitting way to finish the three-month Buddhist rain retreat (a special time of prayer during the monsoon season). So off we set on a cloudy day in a rented van. The first couple of caves proved an aesthetic disappointment. But the third, Khao Luang, in Phetchaburi, made the trip worthwhile.

This roomy chamber is illuminated by daylight from two holes in the roof, and despite the overcast, the light was sufficient to venerate the enormous seated Buddha. (Theravada Buddhists do not worship in the sense that we worship God; for they see the Buddha only as a human being who attained enlightenment. Buddha means the fully awakened one.) Moving deeper into the recesses, the monks sought out a row of smaller images. As they stood there reverencing them, the sun suddenly broke through in great shafts. God's blessed light poured out unstintingly upon the Buddha's sons! I stood in awe of the beauty of the moment, hoping the lens of my camera could capture it.

I couldn't help but think of Thomas Merton, who, while standing barefoot before the Buddha images in Polonnaruwa, Sri Lanka, experienced his own enlightenment. "I was suddenly, almost forcibly, jerked clean out of the habitual, half-tied vision of things," he wrote, "and an inner cleanness, clarity, as if exploding from the rocks themselves, became evident... All problems are resolved simply because what matters is clear... Everything is emptiness and compassion....I don't know when in my life I have ever had such a sense of beauty and spiritual validity running together in one aesthetic illumination."

Even before Vatican II declared that the Holy Spirit was at work in all the great world religions, Merton had sensed it. He visited Tibetan Buddhist monks, some of whom resided in caves like these. They had moments not of communication but of communion. Merton put it well, "My dear brothers, we are already one, but we imagine we are not. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are."

Just as Merton's spirituality was enriched by Buddhism, a Buddhist monk, Tich Nhat Hanh (whom Merton called friend and brother) so grew in his love for Christ as to reverence a picture of Jesus on his Buddha altar. This Buddhist monk wrote of the power of the Holy Spirit in the lives of Christians.

Those shafts of light illuminating Buddhist monks as they pray in a cave reminded me that centuries ago starlight fell upon other wise men as they worshiped God in their own way in Bethlehem's cave. They came from outside the Jewish tradition in which Christ was born and undoubtedly returned to their lands to continue to worship in their own tradition. And yet, they remain within our Christian tradition the very symbol of how God's revelation breaks all established boundaries.

Brother John Beeching is from Victoria, Canada.

What is Buddhism?

Five hundred years before Christ, Siddhartha Gautama, a Nepalese prince, reacted against Hinduism, with its countless rebirths to higher or lower life forms depending on one's actions. Meditating under the Bo tree, he attained enlightenment and became Buddha. He taught that humans are responsible for creating heaven or hell on earth.

The Four Noble Truths comprise the essence of his teaching:

All life is suffering.
All suffering comes from selfish desires.
Eliminate selfish desires and you eliminate unhappiness.

The Eightfold Path eliminates selfish desires. Many sects and schools of Buddhism seek to perfect and refine the Eightfold Path:

Right understanding
Right thinking
Right speech
Right conduct
Right livelihood
Right effort
Right alertness
Right meditation

The two main divisions of Buddhism are the Theravada, which encourages the practice of personal discipline, meditation and the attainment of wisdom to achieve Nirvana, and the Mahayana, or Great Raft, that promotes enlightenment through meditation.

Most of Southeast Asia, especially Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar, follows Theravada Buddhism. Northeast Asia, notably Korea and Japan, practices Mahayana Buddhism.

The Theravada branch of Buddhism holds that nirvana, or the end of suffering, ends the cycles of rebirth and may be attained through personal effort and wisdom. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the Zen branch of Mahayana seeks detachment from all rituals and logic. It strives for a burst of illumination from within.

Theologically, Buddhism is non-theistic, neither affirming nor denying the existence of God.

Buddha denied being divine or even holy. Asked to describe himself, he said, "I am awake."

Everyone can become a buddha according to the Mahayana. A bodhisattva is one who delays entering nirvana in order to show others the way. In this sense, some Buddhists consider Jesus a bodhisattva.

The hallmark of Buddhism is compassion for all living things.

The Second Vatican Council called for dialogue and collaboration with followers of Buddhism and other non-Christian religions, declaring: "The Catholic Church rejects nothing which is true and holy in these religions."


Mary Knoll Magzine, Feb. 2000