Christian Insight Meditation - Preface

Following in the Footsteps of John of the Cross


288 pages, 6 x 9 inches


ISBN 9780861715268

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Observers of the religious scene have noted in the past fifty years or so the turning of many Western Christians, in search of meaningful practices to deepen their spiritual lives, to Eastern religions. Seeing this, the Dalai Lama has graciously said on various occasions, “We don’t want you to become Buddhists. But we would be happy to see you take what you find of value in Buddhism back into your lives to help you become better Christians.”

Easier said than done! Entering into another religious universe sends you back into your own with new and complex questions. Experienced guides are necessary to help pilgrims of interreligious dialogue negotiate the delicate passage of exploration without losing their footing.

Few are those who have worked as perseveringly in the role of guides as the authors of this book. It is a challenging task to become familiar with not one but two universes of religious discourse, and to find the themes in each that resonate with one another. And it is even more challenging to then develop a program or, in this case, a retreat model, that renders that resonance operational.

This the authors have done, based on three assumptions: First, that insight meditation, derived from Theravada Buddhism, is essentially a spiritual practice available to all and does not require belief in any of Buddhism’s religious tenets. Second, that Christians can deepen their faith in and love of Jesus through this particular method of meditative practice. And third, that insight meditation can even offer a way into the self-emptying, purifying action of Christ’s embrace of the cross, and serve as a doorway to a deeper experience of God’s love.

Those who understand that there continue to be different religions in the world because there are some real differences between the religions, will appreciate that works such as these are “works in progress,” witnessed to by the very fact that this is a revised and expanded version of an earlier work. But such works, though they will never be finally “finished” this side of the End-time, are important and necessary in a world that has come to see itself as a global village; a world in which the Spirit of God is at work among all people in every place, culture, and religion; a world in which peace among people of religion can only come through a positive appreciation for the gifts each brings.

While this book devotes considerable space to measuring the resonance between the teachings of the Buddha and John of the Cross relative to some aspects and objectives of meditation practice, it remains a work ultimately oriented not toward theory but practice. Where theory is concerned, there are bound to be differences of interpretation; but it is harder to argue with the experienced reality of beneficial effects accruing from one’s personal practice over time.

It is in one’s personal practice that “the rubber hits the road” as they say. Over the years of their own practice and of guiding others on the Silence and Awareness retreats, the authors have come to the conclusion that the insight meditation practice of Theravada Buddhism contributes positively to Christian contemplative life. But I suspect they would be quick to say, with the Buddha, “Don’t believe it because you heard me say it. Put it to the test in your own experience, and judge for yourself.”

Today’s religious pilgrims can be grateful to Mary Jo Meadow, Kevin Culligan, and Daniel Chowning for their pioneering work and conscientious exploration of a segment of the new frontier in our religiously plural world.

Thomas Ryan, CSP



Ascending Mount Carmel was the metaphor of St. John of the Cross for seeking God. To show the most direct route, his drawing of the mountain had “nada, nada, nada” (nothing, nothing, nothing) written on it all the way up. This path of emptying out, of relinquishing everything, and of seeing the “nothingness” of objects to which we might cling is also the way of Theravadan Buddhist vipassana (insight) meditation. Christian insight meditation uses this time-honored, precise meditation method to implement John’s ascetical and mystical teachings.

Since my co-authors and I published Purifying the Heart: Buddhist Insight Meditation for Christians in 1994, many more Christians have discovered Buddhist meditation and appreciated its helpfulness in supporting their spiritual work. We are happy to offer a revised edition of our book under its new title: Christian Insight Meditation: Following in the Footsteps of John of the Cross.

We addressed the first edition of this book to Christians who long for the happiness of seeing God as Jesus promised to the pure in heart. By offering an ancient Buddhist meditation practice within a Christian prayer tradition, we hoped to teach our readers a process of inner purification that we believe can lead to deeper Christian faith in this world and the direct vision of God in the next.

Since that time, we have also found Buddhists interested in the teachings of St. John of the Cross. We offer this new edition for any readers who might feel that exploring the spiritual traditions of John of the Cross and Theravadan Buddhism could enhance their spiritual life.

Eastern Riches for Christians

Despite the long history of mysticism within Christianity and its many and varied approaches to meditation and contemplative prayer, more and more Christians have turned to Eastern religions to find guidance for their interior life that they did not find in Christianity. Some have completely abandoned the religion of their childhood, believing they have found the “pearl of great price” in Eastern meditation.

Since our first edition, many Christians who are interested in or practice Eastern meditation have come to our retreats. Some had discovered for themselves Christianity’s rich mystical tradition. They set out on their own to build a bridge between their Eastern meditation practice and Christian contemplative prayer. Such persons, who often call themselves Buddhist Christians or Christian Buddhists, draw equally upon both traditions to assist their interior development and growth in faith.

Other Christians who began with Buddhist meditation have experienced its physiological and psychological benefits; however, they are uncertain how to relate meditation to their faith. They are open to integrating their meditation practice into their Christian life if someone can show them how. Some worry about syncretism in their religious practice or fear becoming New Age dilettantes, believing it safer to keep religion and meditation separate.

We cannot know how many Christians, not yet familiar with our work, have at least some experience with Eastern meditation, but we suspect there are many. This book offers all these Christians reliable guidance for integrating at least one form of Buddhist meditation into one tradition of Christian contemplative prayer.

The Silence and Awareness Retreat

This book grew out of our eight-day Silence and Awareness retreat, which we have directed since 1989. Some readers of our first edition have attended this retreat, and others have worked privately with the published tapes of our 1991 retreat. The retreat teaches the Theravadan Buddhist practice of vipassana, or insight meditation, within the framework of Christian contemplative prayer found in Carmelite spirituality, especially in the life and writings of St. John of the Cross. His Carmelite contemporary, St. Teresa of Avila, also appears in our work.

As we developed this retreat from year to year, we gradually recognized the need for this book. We wanted to make the basic instructions for insight meditation available in writing for Christians who wanted to work with this practice on their own. We also wanted to set down, as clearly and simply as possible, our understanding of how this venerable Buddhist practice can be integrated with Christian prayer.

Our intent in this book is primarily pastoral and practical. We recognize, but do not discuss, many important questions that occupy professional scholars in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue and in the study of Christian spirituality. We are also aware of, but again do not elaborate, the social and political implications of collaboration between persons of differing religious faiths.

We want simply to teach the practice of Christian insight meditation, providing only as much history and theory as seems necessary to show the compatibility of this simple Buddhist practice with Christian prayer.We believe that Christians who are faithful to this practice soon discover for themselves its power to bring inner peace and healing, its implications for Christian life,and the inseparable connection between wisdom and compassion known for centuries to both Christian and Buddhist meditators.

Our Interfaith Perspective

This book invokes the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which exhorted Catholic Christians to “acknowledge, preserve, and promote” the spiritual and moral goods and cultural values of Hinduism and Buddhism.6 Vatican II also challenged missionary members of religious institutes to reflect attentively “on how Christian religious life may be able to assimilate the ascetic and contemplative traditions whose seeds were sometimes already planted by God in ancient cultures prior to the preaching of the Gospel.”          

We have tried to be as faithful as possible to the integrity of both Buddhist insight meditation and Carmelite spirituality. At the same time, we attempt to point out the similarities between these two traditions that enable Christians to assimilate Buddhist insight meditation into Christian prayer and to practice an authentic Christian insight meditation.

We deeply believe that the Christian insight meditation taught in this book, a twenty-five-hundred-year-old Buddhist meditation practice integrated into Carmel’s eight-century tradition of contemplative prayer, can satisfy the hunger of American Christians for spiritual nourishment—one of the most pressing pastoral challenges to Christian churches. To feed this desire, we offer a meditation practice that not only purifies our hearts, but also draws us directly into the paschal mystery, the self-emptying death of Jesus Christ that gives new life to our world.

Emptiness is a common theme in the spiritual teachings of both the Buddha and John of the Cross. Emptying our lives of attachment to everything contrary to God’s will and opposed to the free movement of the Holy Spirit within us is the essential process that prepares us for transformation of our lives.8 By fostering this emptiness, by leading us securely along a lifelong path of poverty of spirit and purity of heart, Christian insight meditation disposes us for this unfathomable blessing that alone satisfies all our longings.

Plan of the Book     

Part I briefly lays the foundations of our approach. It first presents Jesus’ call to purity of heart. Next it gives a historical outline of the Buddhist tradition of insight meditation and the Carmelite tradition of prayer.

Part II gives the instructions for insight meditation as they are taught during our retreats. This enables the reader to learn and experience the meditation practice directly. It also offers some new material giving guidance on setting up a practice, and discusses how to find help.

The unit’s final chapter presents, more fully than the first edition did, the overall path of practice as both traditions see it.

Part III compares the teachings of John of the Cross and the Buddha on interior purification. This comparison provides the primary theoretical basis for our effort to integrate insight meditation into Christian prayer.

Finally, Part IV discusses some questions people attending our retreats often ask about using insight meditation as prayer. The last three chapters in this unit are new, written for this edition, to address the more recent questions we have been asked.

Two appendices offer additional information. Appendix I recaps our own work in drawing from Christian and Buddhist scriptures and other teachings the contemplative practice we call Christian insight meditation. Appendix II lists resources for help in continuing the practice of insight meditation.

Because insight meditation focuses on self-emptying purification, we refer only briefly to the Buddhist loving-kindness (metta) meditation practice. However, Gentling the Heart: Buddhist Loving-Kindness Practice for Christians teaches this practice in detail within Christian perspectives. Together, these two books show both the interior and social implications of Theravadan Buddhism for Christian spirituality.


Deep meditation in Buddhism, called jhana or absorption, is experienced much the same as contemplation in Christianity—as receptive, passive, and not under our “control.” However, Buddhists and Christians see the causes of development in meditation practice somewhat differently. Buddhists attribute it to deepening concentration, or stability of mind.

Carmelites, especially John of the Cross, generally regard contemplation as the inflow of God into the human person, a gift of God’s love that we cannot achieve by our human actions alone. They teach that we can use various ascetical techniques and spiritual practices to dispose ourselves for contemplation, but the increase of divine life in us is always grace, God’s gift. To avoid confusion, we reserve the term “contemplation” in this book to John’s understanding.

We use the words “contemplative prayer”—or synonyms like “contemplative practice” or “contemplative method”—for the nondiscursive meditation practices we use to dispose ourselves for contemplation. We discuss the concepts of meditation, contemplative prayer, and contemplation in greater detail in Part IV. Until then, when we speak of contemplation, we mean it as John of the Cross did—as God’s unmerited gift; when we speak of contemplative prayer, we mean meditative practices that dispose us for that grace.

Language Usage

Three persons wrote the first edition of this book. I am responsible for the revised edition. I have done my best to give you a smooth and consistent text, both in style and content, and to iron out stylistic differences among the authors. Some content from the original edition has been rearranged, and some additional content added. The initials at the end of each chapter indicate whose work is found in that chapter. Where only minor changes were made in the second edition, I did not add the initials of others’ work appearing in it. Where greater ones occurred, I did, with the first set of initials indicating whose is the major portion of the work.

For a text that reads more easily, I take several liberties with language usage. To preserve a smoothly reading text, I do not indicate minor deletions, which do not change meaning, in citing other authors. I also avoid most use of titles. This means that I commonly refer to Christian saints without putting the appellation “St.” in front of their names. I often refer to St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila simply as John and Teresa.

In citing Christian scripture, I give only the name of the evangelist instead of prefacing it with “the gospel according to.” For epistles, I name only the recipient rather than stating “the epistle of X to Y.” Finally, because the words “Nibbana” and “Dhamma” are what Christians would consider God-concepts, I capitalize them, although some Buddhists do not. I italicize non-English words that recur frequently in their first appearance only.

I take the liberty of offering a contemporary translation of Teresa and John, working from a Spanish text and the two English translations most common in theWest.11 This makes the text easier for most readers, and keeps the work flowing without the interruption of many unfamiliar terms or archaic ways of phrasing expressions. I do the same for Buddhist scriptures and works of Buddhist scholars that are in translation. These changes make the quotations more readable.

Notes of Gratitude

When we first presented Christian insight meditation, we recognized that we are latecomers in demonstrating the relevance of Eastern meditation for Christian prayer. We express our gratitude for Bede Griffiths, Thomas Merton, Abhishiktananda, John Main, Sister Ishpriya, Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, William Johnston, Pascaline Coff, Yves Raguin, Raimundo Panikkar, Anthony de Mello, and many other pioneers in the field of ecumenical spirituality upon whose work we stand. You will easily discern their inspiration in our work. However, because we want to capture in this book the atmosphere of our Silence and Awareness retreat in both the meditation instructions and spiritual conferences, we provide notes for only direct quotations in the text. All our other sources are included in the general bibliography.

We thank Wisdom Publications for their interest in offering the revised edition of this work, and Josh Bartok of Wisdom for his helpfulness in bringing the second edition to press. We remain grateful to Clarence Thomson, former director of Credence Cassettes, and Michael Leach, formerly with Crossroad Publishing Company, for their original interest in our work and their encouragement to share our retreat with a larger audience through audiotapes and the first edition of this book.

We are also grateful to Joseph Goldstein, Buddhist author and cofounder and guiding teacher at Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts, and Kieran Kavanaugh, O.C.D., a founding member of the Institute of Carmelite Studies and American translator of John of the Cross, for their critical reading of our first edition and their helpful comments. They have both contributed immensely to this book, although the authors alone are responsible for its final form. I, the editor, am especially grateful to the teachers at IMS, especially Joseph, for expounding the Dhamma to me. Their wisdom pervades this book.

Finally, we thank all who have joined us for our Silence and Awareness retreats. Their longing for genuine spirituality, their openness to our teaching and guidance, and their constructive criticisms of our work have made it possible for us now to share this experience with a wider audience. To these men and women, we dedicate this book.

Mary Jo Meadow


How to cite this document:
© Mary Jo Meadow, Christian Insight Meditation (Wisdom Publications, 2007)

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