Thich Nhat Hanh on Christian/Buddhist relations

My friend Martha just alerted me to this wonderful article by Thich Nhat Hanh. It looks like it’s quite a few years old, since in it he talks about wanting to write Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, which was published in 2000. But its message remains important for us today:

Going Back to Our Religious Roots

In this article, the good Vietnamese monk tells the story of counseling a young Buddhist woman who had fallen in love with a Catholic man, and was distraught because his family was insisting that she become a Catholic in order to marry him. After speaking with her, Thich Nhat Hanh basically gave his blessing for her to enter the church, suggesting that if she continued to do mindfulness work, she could be a Buddhist on the inside, even while practicing Catholicism. She thought it over, and her reply is worth considering, as she weighs the merits of the two faiths: “[Buddhism is] a tradition that is so embracing, so tolerant, so open, if I abandon it and turn my back to it, I am not a person of value. [By contrast, Catholicism is] a tradition that is so strict, that has no tolerance, that is not able to understand, how could I formally identify myself with it?”

So much of the “we’re right and everyone else is wrong” thinking that characterizes conservative religion (not just Catholicism, although Catholics do have plenty of it) comes from an earlier time, when religion generally was deeply intertwined with tribal or national identity. To reject the other faith was part of maintaining the boundaries of one’s own tribe/nation. The problem is, such a world no longer exists: thanks to technology, mobility, and population growth, we now encounter all the world’s religions in our lives, every day. In business, we are taught that the survival of a business depends on its ability to adapt to new economic realities. I think the same holds true for religion. Religions that respond to the encounter with other faiths by retreating into a defensive chauvinism will, eventually, appear to the world for what they are: close-minded, intolerant, fearful, and obsessive/compulsive. I’m not saying that we have to abandon all our principles and our values, far from it. But if we do not learn to find such a strong grounding in our own values that enables us to interact graciously and generously with those who do not share our values, then of what worth are our beliefs to begin with?

I remember reading a critical review of Thich Nhat Hanh’s earlier book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, in which the reviewer whined about how theologically imprecise the book was. And I suppose the book may well have been “imprecise,” but that’s kind of like complaining because the Declaration of Independence doesn’t offer a nuanced understanding of royalty. When confronted by the possibility of interreligious dialogue or interfaith spirituality, we are all faced with a choice: are we more invested in purity, or in hospitality? Speaking as a Christian, you can find plenty of ammunition in the Bible and in the tradition to insist that the point behind faith in Jesus is to be “pure” for God, with Jesus’ blood being that special reagent that will purify us in the ways that we are incapable of purifying ourselves. Okay, that’s one way of looking at it. But it is just as possible, just as logical, just as spiritually coherent to see in the Christian tradition an arc of wisdom that calls us to move beyond the purity codes that defined our ancestral religious practices, instead embracing hospitality, which includes everything from welcoming the stranger, to opening our hearts to those who are “different” from ourselves, to embracing non-oppositional or non-dualistic consciousness, consciousness that celebrates the action of the Holy Spirit in the most unlikely of places, rather than seeking to judge and divide all things into that which is “good enough for God” and that which is not.

So we face a choice. If we opt for purity, we are opting for a spiritual vision that divides the world into the religious haves and have-nots. Do you have Jesus as your personal lord and savior? Do you have the sacraments? Do you have the correct theological beliefs and opinions? If you do, you’re in; if not, well… too bad. Change now, or suffer later (in other words: if you’re different, we will either control you or threaten you; take your pick). If we opt for this kind of Christianity, then of course a book like Living Buddha, Living Christ will seem to us to be just so much theological wishy-wash. The one thing the upholders of purity cannot countenance is attempts to break down the lines that separate clean from unclean.

But our other choice is to opt for hospitality, and by doing so, we will become outlaws in the eyes of the purists. We will be dangerous because we introduce confusion and ambiguity and paradox into the religious life. What’s interesting, and perhaps paradoxical, is that while the purists denounce the hospitaliters as impure, the hospitaliters are willing to offer the same nondual acceptance to the purists as they offer to those who are on the “outside.” You can tell me that I’m not okay; but because I believe my okay-ness comes from God and not from the good opinion of men, I can accept you anyway. That’s the real beauty of hospitality. And I think that’s the beauty that Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of when he celebrates the possibility of interfaith marriage — or interfaith living.

Interfaith Dialogue, Interspirituality, and Holy Daring
Do You Need a Spiritual Teacher?
Five Things Christian Contemplatives can learn from Buddhists
Our Words, Our Breath, Our Bodies, Our Spirit
About Carl McColman

Author of Befriending Silence, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

  • Greg

    Your thoughts reflected many I had in a post on Wiccan-Christian dialogue, which you can see here:

    “Hospitality or theology?”- a good question.

  • http://gmail Mary

    I enjoy your daily reflections and opinions.
    I am a Roman Catholic. Many of the comments about the Catholic faith seem true to one that is not educated in the faith.
    I left the Catholic church for many years because of the same uneducated belief. For a long time, I studied many different faiths (as far as time would permit). I did return to the Catholic faith. Not because I felt I had to but rather because I chose too.
    Bringing with me was the Zen part of me of mindfulness. This gave me a more open reality to the faith and a much more relaxed attitude toward it.
    What I have learned and still learning is that rules and conditions aren’t so important as ‘how to love’.
    Loveing one’s neighbor means just that. It doesn’t mean love only those that belong to the same faith or church that you do.
    We don’t have to agree or even like our neighbor. But we do have to love them.
    Thanks for reading.

  • Dan

    Put me down as opting for hospitality. I have read and heard a lot lately in the inclusiveism/exclusivism debate. Quite frankly, I don’t get exclusivism. It seems to me that as soon as someone excludes their neighbor over doctrine or dogma they invalidate their own belifes. Perhaps when we all seek compassion this wall will also fall.

  • George Bailin

    “You can tell me that I’m not okay; but because I believe my okay-ness comes from God and not from the good opinion of men, I can accept you anyway. That’s the real beauty of hospitality.”

    I can’t imagine a more succinct and truthful insight. In its simplicity, it has an explosive beauty, and an affection that blows away all that isolates us from one another. Many thanks.

  • noel a light bearer

    to mary
    tell me some more about your zen
    zen also been my path but also made me aware of chritianity in a positive way
    just reading dt suzuki at the moment and his huge regard for meister eckhart
    makes one wonder

  • http://gmail Mary

    To noel a light bearer,
    My Zen is quite simple. It is a “Yes” to every moment of my life.
    This “Yes” is a welcome to Divine Providence. All experiences (pleasant and not so pleasant) are my teachers in this life on earth. Everything learned and “unlearned” is a gift on ‘how to love’.

  • Chris

    I practice Zen but am also a devout Catholic. If Noel is interested in some teachers who bridge the two traditions, there are several good ones. Fr. Robert Kennedy SJ is a zen teacher who has authored serveral worthwhile books. Fr. Willigis Jager, a Benedictine, seems in with the Ken Wilbur crowd and in one of his books (Search for the Meaning of Life?), speaks directly to the issues Carl raises in this post. Ruben Habito (Living Zen, Loving God), Fr. Pat Hawk, and Fr. Kevin Hunt OSCO are also zen teachers worth looking into.

  • BG

    Having studied zen, read books by Kennedy and the others mentioned above and attended Kennedy’s retreats, I now find that much of what I learned in these experiences was in the Christian mystics all along. The desert mothers and fathers, hesychasm, John of the Cross, John Cassian, … and on …

    It seems to me a great challenge and opportunity for Christians to go deeper and deeper in our own tradition.

    That’s just my experience.

  • Carl McColman

    BG, I agree wholeheartedly, which is why I’m writing a book about Christian mysticism! I also think that Christians do well to maintain a sense of respect and deep good will when relating to other wisdom traditions. I don’t think there needs to be a conflict between entering deeply into the orthodox truth of our own faith, while also engaging in dialogue and creative learning/teaching across traditions.

  • BG

    Yes! And engaging in dialogue and creative learning/teaching differ from teaching another’s tradition while not acknowleding/teaching the depth of one’s own tradition. I don’t find that approach respectful to either tradition.

    I am looking forward to your book!

  • Chris

    Yea, I have bookshelves full of all the titles you (BG) mention and more (seems like you might enjoy Olivier Clement’s The Roots of Christian Mysticism). I have an advanced degree in theology spent much of my young adult life in and around Trappist monasteries. So I do see that Christian mysticism can offer me, conceptually, what Zen can. The practicalities, as a married lay person with children, are another story.

    As far as respecting traditions, I’ve sat with several of the teacher I mentioned and found them to treat everything and everybody with reverence–including the two traditions they embody.

    be well,

  • Brian Doyle

    This is a question that I have thought about a lot over the past year. For the first time in my life, I have been going to church (a UCC congregation) and working to understand what it means to confess faith in Christ. Having strong inclinations towards Buddhism and Taoism, my desire has been to see Christianity and Buddhism as simply different manifestations of the same teaching. But, as I continue to listen to our pastor and see Christian faith as it is (not as I want it to be), I’m increasingly feeling that they’re different teachings.

    For example, if you read the first pages of Walpola Rahula’s “What the Buddha Taught” (, it’s hard to reconcile what is essentially a non-theist path with Christian teaching. Does man have the capacity to liberate himself? Buddhists say “yes”–but I don’t think it’s in quite the same sense that Mary meant!

    Practicing lovingkindness is universal and I think that there is much for Christians and Buddhists to celebrate together. As for our personal paths, the question is: Can we mount two horses at once?

  • Chris


    You bring up valid concerns. A UCC minister sits with one of the Zen groups I’m associated with. Kevin Hunt OSCO a zen teacher and Trappist (over fifty years?) is someone I’ve asked about the two paths and if they are aiming at the same thing. His reply was, “I don’t know.” Perhaps, we can meet in this don’t know.

  • Dharmashaiva

    A Buddhist would not necessarily say that she can liberate herself, by herself. A Buddhist is one who has taken refuge in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Samgha. That’s not a lone cowboy path. That’s a path with the Teacher, the Reality, and the Community. No one makes it to Nibbana by herself.

  • Henry Melito

    There is suchness and then all the stories there by