Question: "Is the Buddhist concept of Zen compatible with the Christian faith?"
Answer: The Buddhist concept of Zen refers to a meditative state sought as a means of spiritual awakening and self-discovery. While practitioners of Zen claim that zazen (“sitting meditation”) is compatible with the Christian faith, there are some key distinctions that make this practice incompatible with Christian beliefs.
First, Zen seeks self-enlightenment. Christian prayer or meditation, in contrast, seeks God’s enlightenment of the believer. Zen Buddhism teaches one to empty the mind of all thoughts. Christian mediation is laden with thoughts of God’s greatness and worship of Him. Psalm 63:6 exemplifies godly meditation, which has God as the focal point: “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night.”
Second, Zen’s meditative focus is upon looking inward for inspiration and direction. In contrast, the Bible teaches that our search for direction should be founded upon God’s Word. God instructed Joshua, “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful” (Joshua 1:8). Psalm 1:2 says the “blessed man” is the one “whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night.”
Third, Zen’s focus is upon living in the moment, being fully aware of all that is taking place in daily life. While there is nothing wrong with being aware of one’s surroundings, it is an incomplete as a means of fulfillment. Psalm 77:12 notes a focus on remembering God’s work in the past: “I will consider all your works and meditate on all your mighty deeds.” Many passages also teach us to live with an eternal perspective, looking ahead to our future home with Christ. Paul noted, “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:23).
Fourth, Zen practice entails the acceptance of other Buddhist beliefs incompatible with Christian teachings. This includes belief in reincarnation, which is at odds with Hebrews 9:27. Buddhism also holds to a view of God very different from Christianity. Buddhism teaches the oneness of all things; Christianity teaches that God is transcendent and exists as a Trinity of Father, Son, and Spirit. Further, human sin and the need for salvation are viewed far differently in Buddhism, which sees no need to be saved from sin and does not believe in a future heaven or hell.
Many more differences could be mentioned, but these key contrasts denote the essential disunity between Zen and Christian meditation. The practice of zazen is far different from the pattern of meditation expressed in Scripture. We are called to say, “I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways” (Psalm 119:15) and, “I will meditate on your wonderful works” (Psalm 145:5).