Henri Nouwen and Buddhism

by Ray Yungen - Excerpt from A Time of Departing, 2nd ed.

An individual who has gained popularity and respect in Christian circles, akin to that of Thomas Merton, is the now deceased Catholic theologian Henri Nouwen. Like Merton, Nouwen combines a strong devotion to God with a poetic, comforting, yet distinctly intellectual style that strikes a strong and sympathetic chord with what could be called Christian intelligentsia. Many pastors and professors are greatly attracted to his deep thinking. In fact, one of his biographers revealed that in a 1994 survey of 3,400 U.S. Protestant church leaders, Nouwen ranked second only to Billy Graham in influence among them.

Nouwen also attracts many lay people who regard him as very inspirational. One person told me that Nouwen's appeal could be compared to that of motherhood—a warm comforting embrace that leaves you feeling good. Despite these glowing attributes, several aspects of Nouwen's spirituality have earned him a place in this book.

Unfortunately, this widely read and often-quoted author, at the end of his life, stated in clear terms that he approached God from a universalistic view. He proclaimed:


Today I personally believe that while Jesus came to open the door to God's house, all human beings can walk through that door, whether they know about Jesus or not. Today I see it as my call to help every person claim his or her own way to God.

Nouwen's endorsement of a book by Hindu spiritual teacher Eknath Easwaran, teaching mantra meditation, further illustrates his universalistic sympathies. On the back cover, Nouwen stated, "This book has helped me a great deal."

Nouwen also wrote the foreword to a book that mixes Christianity with Hindu spirituality, in which he says:


[T]he author shows a wonderful openness to the gifts of Buddhism, Hinduism and Moslem religion. He discovers their great wisdom for the spiritual life of the Christian ... Ryan [the author] went to India to learn from spiritual traditions other than his own. He brought home many treasures and offers them to us in the book.

Nouwen apparently took these approaches seriously himself. In his book, The Way of the Heart, he advised his readers:


The quiet repetition of a single word can help us to descend with the mind into the heart ... This way of simple prayer ... opens us to God's active presence.

But what God's "active presence" taught him, unfortunately, stood more in line with classic Hinduism than classic evangelical Christianity. He wrote:


Prayer is "soul work" because our souls are those sacred centers where all is one, ... It is in the heart of God that we can come to the full realization of the unity of all that is. (emphasis mine)

It is critical to note here that Nouwen did not say all Christians are one; he said "all is one," which is the fundamental panentheistic concept of God—the God in everything unites everything. Like Thomas Merton, it was Nouwen's intent to make mystical prayer a pervasive paradigm within all traditions of Christianity. He felt the evangelical church had many admirable qualities but lacked one vital one: mysticism. He sought to remedy this by imploring, "It is to this silence [contemplative prayer] that we all are called."

One of the most classic examples I've ever encountered that reveals Nouwen's spiritual mindset is from his autobiographical book, Sabbatical Journey. In it, he speaks glowingly of his encounter with author and lecturer, Andrew Harvey, in April of 1996. Nouwen exclaimed, "I had the deep sense of meeting a soul friend [mentor]."

What makes this comment so revealing about Nouwen's belief system is the fact that Harvey is a world-renowned advocate of interspirituality through mysticism. He has written thirty books on this subject, one of which bears the following declaration that sums up the meaning of this term:


When you look past the different terminologies employed by the different mystical systems, you see clearly that they are each talking about the same overwhelming truth—that we are all essentially children of the Divine and can realize that identity with our Source here on earth and in a body. (emphasis mine)

It is important to note here that Andrew Harvey is one of about two dozen members of the Living Spiritual Teachers Project. The project's main goal is to promote mysticism as a bridge to interspirituality. Members include Catholic and Buddhist nuns and monks as well as Zen masters and the bestselling New Age author, Marianne Williamson.

A skeptic might respond with the comeback that Nouwen liked Harvey as a person, but didn't necessarily agree with his views. Nouwen himself put this possibility to rest when he said:


Before driving home, Michael, Tom and I had a cup of tea at a nearby deli. We discussed at some length the way Andrew's mysticism had touched us. (emphasis mine) Excerpt from A Time of Departing, 2nd ed. (pp. 61-64)



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