Beating a Hasty Retreat

September 25th, 2017

After many years of unnecessary delay, I finally participated in a full Zen retreat. I can tell because today most of my muscles hurt. That’s part of the deal. There are a lot of Buddhist aerobics involved in a Zen retreat.

Now that I have made it through a Zen weekend, I can compare the experience with making a Catholic retreat. It’s a bit like comparing apples with oranges. The differences are obvious. However, apples and oranges are both fruits, and they are all healthful. Catholic and Buddhist retreats are kind of like that too.

A retreat, by definition, implies that a person is getting away from their day-to-day world. The person is planning to leave behind work, and family, and Donald Trump raving about whatever he’s raving about today. A person going on retreat is going to turn off the cell phone, ignore the Internet, and focus on something else. The person may not even know what that something else is, but, by God, he or she is going to focus on it.

This temporary flight from the ordinary world has great value. All religious traditions caution against getting obsessed with “the world”, however you might define that. It is necessary at times for a person to pull back and take a couple deep breaths. It is far too easy to get sucked into the system, and live a desperate and largely unconscious life.

The Zen perspective on a retreat is that is a time for “hard practice”. It is a time of severe discipline. It is almost athletic in its stance. At a Zen retreat we sit/walk for hours at a time, meditating and trying to break through to reality. The emphasis is on work. It is a struggle. A person enters a Zen retreat in a warrior state of mind.

Catholic retreats are often based on a very different set of assumptions. I have been to far more Catholic retreats than Zen retreats. Catholic retreats start with the idea that the person coming to the session is wounded. The person walking into a Catholic retreat house (whether it be Redemptorist, Franciscan, or Jesuit) has had his or her ass kicked by life. That is why they are there. The folks running the retreat center are mostly interested in stopping the spiritual bleeding. They want to patch up the poor souls that limp in through the doors.

I have was told that by a nun recently that the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius (founder of the Jesuits) might bear more similarity to Zen practice than other types of Catholic retreats. My understanding is that these exercises are quite structured, and they usually take 30 days to complete. I have never gone on a retreat of that length, so I don’t know how much Ignation meditation actually resembles Zen practice. I can only speak from my own experiences.

Look at it this way: A Zen retreat center is a gymnasium. A Catholic retreat center is an emergency room.

I’ve spoken of the differences. Are there similarities? Of course, there are.

In a Catholic retreat there is a need to turn things over to Jesus. There is the requirement to let it all go. Well, what do we do in a Zen retreat? We try to let go of attachments.  What is the difference between giving it all to Jesus and opening our hearts to our essential Buddha nature? Not much. Actually, nothing at all.

The differences are mostly all words. Names. Concepts. Catholic and/or Buddhist, we all want freedom from suffering and we want a clear mind. We want healing. We might call that by different names, but we still all want the same thing.

Is there really a difference between striving and letting go? Are “hard practice” and finally “letting go” really the same? Do we all get to the same place?




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