The Theology of Zen Buddhism

In this article, we will contrast the teachings of Zen with those of Christianity. At one level, Zenists will admit that the two religions are incompatible, but they will nevertheless argue that a Christian can practice Zen to great benefit. At another level, the Zen doctrine of oneness makes Zen believers religious syncretists: all religions are believed to contain the same essence (Zen). Thus a Christian who understands the true essence of Christianity will be at home practicing Zen. Consider the following declaration of Zen master Deshimaru (1927-82), who founded some 100 Zen centers throughout Europe and was often called “the Bodhidharma of modern times.” At their essence, he saw no difference at all between Christianity and Zen. “In their deepest spirit I find no difference…. In essence, it comes down to one and the same religion.”[1]

Despite the fundamentally anti-Christian nature of Zen, philosophically, theologically and experientially, even some who claim to be Christians endorse Zen. Zen Meditation for Christians and Christian Zen, written by Roman Catholics, are two of many examples. But the Zen claim and the Zen reality are not one.

The Zen claim: compatibility with Christianity. Zen masters teach that since Zen issupposedly noncommittal religiously, Christians can practice zazen. Soto Master Shunryo Suzuki argues: “Our practice has nothing to do with some particular religious belief. And for you, there is no need to hesitate to practice our way, because it has nothing to do with Christianity or Shintoism or Hinduism. Our practice is for everyone… there is no need to worry about the difference between Buddhism and the religion you may believe in.”[2] In what must have been a weaker moment, psychoanalyst Eric Fromm declared: “Zen Buddhism helps man to find an answer to the question of his existence, an answer which is essentially the same as that given in the Judeo-Christian tradition, and yet which does not contradict the rationality, realism, and independence which are modern man’s precious achievements.”[3] In Zen Meditation for Christians, Father H. M. Lassalle firmly declares that “the way of Zen does not conflict theologically with Christian belief” and that Zen can be used by Christians to love God more.[4] He thus asserts that “the Christian need have no misgivings” about practicing Zazen as Christian meditation.[5]

However, the parallels Lassalle draws between “Christianity” and Zen are parallels
between the practices and beliefs of Christian mystics, not the practitioners of biblical Christianity, whose worldview and spiritual practices are based in Scripture, not mysticism. Christian mysticism, to be sure, has felt the influence of Christianity, as opposed to other forms of mysticism that have not. However, our own in-depth research into Christian mysticism tells us that we are dealing with aberrational Christianity at best and heresy at worst, not with true biblical Christianity. So in this sense it is not surprising to find parallels between “Christian” mysticism and Zen. John of the Cross, Bonaventure, the Victorines, John Tauler, John Ruysbroeck, Meister Eckhart and others, whatever their orthodoxies may
have been, also plant their feet on theological quicksand. Lassalle notes that “their entire way reveals profound similarities with the Zen way.”
[6] Deshimaru correctly observed, “Father Lassalle never lectures on Christianity; he talks about Zen. Lots of other Christians do the same.”[7]

William Johnston, in his equally disturbing Christian Zen, “harmonizes” Zen and
Christianity, essentially neutralizing the latter by his respect for the former. In 1970 Johnston received the so-called “baptism of the Spirit.”[8] “It was through the Pentecostal movement that I came to see the parallel between the Zen satori and the Christian conversion or metanoia [repentance]…. Zen… can do a great service to Christians… especially to those people who are willing to listen to the voice of the great guru who gave us the Sermon on the Mount.”[9]

According to Zen, however, there is no “Great Guru Jesus.” Roshi Jiyu Kennett asserts, “The mass-hallucination of the Christian disciples who, after the crucifixion, saw Christ ‘risen from the dead,’ as they thought, is explained quite easily by the overwrought state of their minds at the time and this type of mass-hallucination is quite well known in Eastern religious circles, being nothing out of the ordinary. The danger comes when we attach importance to such things.”[10]

The Zen reality: opposition to Christianity. Zen authorities who are fair with the factsunderstand full well that Zen and Christianity are entirely incompatible. The chart and quotations below demonstrate this.


Christianity Zen
God The void
The Bible is the authoritative Scripture No authoritative “scripture” but experience
Absolute morality Relative morality
Jesus as atoning Savior No savior necessary
Salvation from sin Enlightenment from ignorance
Repentance involves turning from sin Satori involves a turning to “higher”

consciousness that denies sin exists

Self-denial Self-exaltation
Rational Irrational
The creation is real There was no creation
Religious dualism Monism
Christians “come to sit in fellowship” Zenists “come to sit in silence”[11]
Eternal life is offered as a free gift Personal extinction
Death to self = death to sin; the self is alive to

righteousness forever

Death to self = annihilation of self


As D. T. Suzuki pointed out, in Zen “the story of Creation, the Fall from the Garden of Eden,God’s sending Christ to compensate for the ancestral sins, his Crucifixion and Resurrection—they are all symbolic.”[12] Western Zenist Alan Watts, who called the idea of God the Father “ridiculous,” said that Jesus Christ was a false idol, thus displaying his ignorance of church history and biblical teaching:

The Zen Buddhists say, “Wash out your mouth every time you say ‘Buddha!’” The new life for Christianity begins just as soon as someone can get up in church and say, “Wash out your mouth every time you say ‘Jesus!’”… Poor Jesus! If he had known how great an authority was to be projected upon him, he would never have said a word. His literary image in the Gospels has, through centuries of homage, become far more of an idol than anything graven in wood or stone, so that today the most genuinely reverent act of worship is to destroy that image…. But Christian piety does not let him go away, and continues to seek the living Christ in the dead letter of the historical record. As he said to the Jews, “You search the scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life.” The Crucifixion gives eternal life because it is the giving up of God as an object to be possessed, known and held to for one’s own safety, “for he that would save his soul shall lose it.” To cling to Jesus is therefore to worship a Christ uncrucified, an idol instead of the living God.[13]

Suzuki is bold enough to write that “Zen followers do not approve of Christians,”[14] and:

Therefore, in Zen, God is neither denied nor insisted upon; only there is in Zen no

such God as has been conceived by Jewish and Christian minds…. Make obeisance to
the camellia now in full bloom, and worship it if you like, Zen would say. There is as much religion in so doing as in bowing to the various Buddhist gods, or as in
sprinkling holy water, or as in participating in the Lord’s Supper. All those pious
deeds considered to be meritorious or sanctifying by most so-called religiously

minded people are artificialities in the eyes of Zen…. Zen, therefore, is emphatically against all religious conventionalism.[15]

Thus, “When Buddhists make reference to God, God must not be taken in the Biblical
sense.”[16] “We see a deep cleavage between Buddhism and Christianity. So long as there is any thought of anybody, whether he be God or Devil, knowing of your doings, Zen would say, ‘You are not yet one of us.’… In Zen, therefore, there ought not to be left any trace of consciousness after the doing of alms, much less the thought of recompense even by God.”[17]

Yasutani Roshi tells us to dissolve our religious delusions “with the fireball of mu!”: “The opinions you hold and your worldly knowledge are your delusions. Included also are philosophical and moral concepts, no matter how lofty, as well as religious beliefs and dogmas, not to mention innocent, commonplace thoughts. In short, all conceivable ideas are embraced within the term ‘delusions’ and as such are a hindrance to the realization of your Essential-nature. So dissolve them with the fireball of Mu!”[18] Sasaki is frank enough to declare that Zen is “diametrically opposed” to basic Christian teaching. “Perhaps for westerners the primary hindrance in understanding Zen, even intellectually, lies in the fact that the great verities that Zen, with Buddhism, takes as basic are diametrically opposed to those the Hebraic-Christian religions have always assumed to be absolute.”[19] “Christian” Zenist Lassalle correctly observes that “speaking of God as a person is precisely what annoys the Buddhist.”[20] “Whether Zen masters arrive at any explicit belief in God is highly doubtful.”[21]

In light of this, Zen and Christianity cannot be reconciled. Entirely apart from the possible dangers of Zen, for a Christian to accept and practice Zen is a denial of God, Jesus Christ,biblical authority and almost everything distinctively Christian. For example, the Christian who honors the Bible as God’s Word could hardly subscribe to a philosophy that teaches, as Hua Hai taught in The Great Pearl, “The Scriptures are just words…. They are naught but emptiness.”[22] But Jesus Himself said, “The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life” (John 6:63). Can we imagine a Christian acting toward the Bible as Tokusan acted toward his scriptures? “When Tokusan (Te-shan) gained an insight into the truth of Zen he immediately took out all his commentaries on the Diamond Sutra once so valued and considered indispensable that he had to carry them wherever he went, and set fire to them, reducing all the manuscripts to ashes.”[23]

Despite Zen’s dismissal of Christianity, Dr. Lit-sen Chang points out that “modern Zen writers have deliberately borrowed Biblical terminologies to express what they cannot communicate otherwise. In so doing, they are at least unconsciously admitting that the Christian truths are far more adequate than the messages of Zen, even though they so often distort these truths to meet their own ends.”[24] For example, Zenists may use the term “God” to describe ultimate reality and “regeneration” to describe satori and “sin” to describe ignorance of Zen truth. At the same time they may argue that it matters not at all whether the resurrection of Christ, the central message of Christianity, was a historical fact. “When Paul insisted that ‘if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins,’ he was not appealing to our logical idea of things, but to our spiritual yearnings. It did not matter whether things existed as facts of chronological history or not.”[25]



  1. Shunryu Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (New York: Weatherhill, 1976), p. 76.
  2. Robert Sohl and Audrey Carr, eds., The Gospel According to Zen, Beyond the Death of God (New York: The
    New American Library, 1970), pp. 11-12.
  3. H. M. Lassalle, Zen Meditation for Christians (LaSalle, IL: Open Court, 1974), cover flap; cf. Part Two.
  4. Ibid., pp. 156, 160, emphasis added.
  5. Ibid., p. 78
  6. Deshimaru website.
  7. Lassalle, p. 100.
  8. Ibid., pp. 103-104.
  9. Roshi Jiyu Kennett, Zen Is Eternal Life (Emeryville, CA: Dharma Publishing, 1976), p. 31.
  10. William Johnston, Christian Zen (New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1974), p. 8
  11. Daisetz Suzuki, Essays in Zen Buddhism (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1949), p. 152.
  12. Sohl and Carr, pp. 16-17, 60.
  13. Daisetz Suzuki, Essays, p. 344.
  14. Sohl and Carr, p. 15.
  15. Suzuki, “The Awakening of a New Conscience in Zen,” in Nancy Wilson Ross, The World of Zen, an East-West Anthology (New York: Vintage Books), p. 288.
  16. Daisetz Suzuki, Essays, p. 343.
  17. Philip Kapleau, ed., The Three Pillars of Zen (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967), pp. 79-80.
  18. R. F. Sasaki, “Zen: A Method for Religious Awakening,” in Ross, p. 17.
  19. Lassalle, p. 68.
  20. Ibid., pp. 66,200.
  21. John Blofeld, The Zen Teaching of Hui Hai on Sudden Illumination (New York: Samuel Weiser, Inc., 1972), p. 92.
  22. Sohl and Carr, p. 41.
  23. Lit-sen Chang, Zen-Existentialism: The Spiritual Decline of the West (MA: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub.,
    Co., 1969), p. 128.
  24. Daisetz Suzuki, Essays, p. 43.


This article was written by Dr. John Ankerberg, Dr. John Weldon; ©1999.


  1. steve marino on January 6, 2017 at 5:29 am

    Very interesting article John. But we can’t be cherry picking what people say. It really is impossible to understand Zen (which simply means meditation) without practicing it, as it is a teaching outside the Buddhist scriptures. It is helpful to understand that whatever anyone says about Zen, and that includes the Zen teacher, Suzuki, ANYBODY, is most assuredly not Zen.

    Does Zen have a Christian creator, personal god? No, of course not. Is there a god in Buddhism. Silly to even ask actually. Zen is not about duality, where something is or is not. That leads to much suffering. In short, you have missed the essential truth of Zen, which I will attempt to illustrate, but again, it must be experienced. Words are only words, and worth as much.

    Zen includes the 8 fold path, which is a higher commitment than the ten commandants. It includes right view, right speech, right employment, right thought, right sexual relationships, etc. One could not be employed in a company that added to the suffering of any living being, so that is quite a powerful commitment. We also take several vows, something you did not mention. One of them is to save (from suffering) all sentient beings. That means that we do not approve of killing of any kind. Our animal friends are just that, not food products to be eaten. Someone that does not respect the sanctity of all life is not a human, they are less than an animal.

    In meditation, which is non deistic and simply focuses on our breath, we pull our attention back to our breath when we get caught up in our thoughts. That is all. The end. This is Zen meditation. So, how on earth can that transform someone? All I can say is that it does. It helps our mind to calm down from our incessant thinking, and the vows and 8 fold path keep us on a correct ethical path. Now, we get to the real nitty gritty of Zen, that which absolutely must be experienced to understand.

    During mindfulness meditation, which may be seen as meditation-on-the-go, we carry the sitting meditation focus into our daily lives. We remain centered, and thinking is left aside for something else to operate in the world. By this I mean, when our ego (we are not our ego, we are much more than we think we are) is out of the way, then we leave an opening for something greater than ourselves to operate. You may call that god, the universe,love,whatever you wish, it cannot be defined by words. When we operate like that, we operate w/ our original wisdom, which is undying and unborn. It is who we are before thinking. There is no death and there is no birth. This cannot happen as long as “we” are in the way.

    Think of it as contemplative Christian prayer w/o the focus on a deity. But that does not mean there is no deity involved! As soon as we say god, as mentioned, we should wash out our mouth out because we have reduced it down to our puny human level, and each culture and religion wants to own their version of god. As I stated, talk is cheap, let’s see the money! That means practicing a caring and compassionate life. The most important part of meditation is not on the cushion, it is going out in the world and helping all others. ALL others. The lizard, the tree, the stream, the human, the butterfly. All are god’s creation, all deserve our respect and care.

  2. Nozgi on August 23, 2021 at 1:49 pm

    so resurrection, virginal birth, and salvation theology (mere speculation), and a personal imaginary friend (with zero evidence) is seen as “rational”, and the Zen approach of observing your mind is seen as “irrational”. Wow!

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