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Seasonal Reflection: St. Francis and Buddhism

by Stephen Lynch, OFM

lynch3As Franciscans around the world commemorated the feast of St. Francis last week, Stephen Lynch, OFM, who spent many years in the Orient, wrote of the similar ideals and traditions of Franciscans and Buddhists. He describes the self-giving and self-realization that are significant to both groups. The recent news of the death of Apple founder Steve Jobs brought attention to Buddhism, since it is said that the respected innovator and business leader found focus through that religion.

Francis had in common with the Buddhists the importance of nonviolent love and commitment to peace, in practice as well as in theory.

Both Francis and Buddha were men of deep prayer. Tennyson, in The Death of Arthur, offers this marvelous piece of spiritual insight subscribed to by both Franciscans and Buddhists: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.”

Prayer and work, non-violent love, fasting and detachment from the material world are integral to both Buddhist and Franciscan spirituality. Francis condemned the Crusades as being hungry for war and for the use of power to accomplish their goals for the Holy Land.

Francis_reflectA famous Buddhist monk, Professor Yokoi, rector of the Buddhist Zen Institute of Komazawa University in Tokyo, felt St. Francis of Assisi exemplified the three fundamental ideals of Buddhism. He felt that St. Francis was a man without covetousness, without anger, and without delusion.

I first met Professor Yokoi when we were together on a five-week Tokyo TV series on religion. We were discussing the things Buddhism and Christianity had in common. I learned two aspects of Eastern religion that were new to me: I had not realized Buddhism felt strongly about the abiding presence of the Creator in all living things and the fact that, in Professor Yokoi’s words, we are all brothers and sisters, sharing enlightenment from the same cosmic center of creation we Christians call God.

Revering All Creatures
Francis intuitively sensed the indwelling of God in all things. As such, each creature was worthy of reverence and became the object of Francis’ special courtesy and respect. Francis preached to the birds and animals as easily as he preached to his fellow human beings. And his message was always the same: How wonderfully God blesses all creation; how all creation should respond to God’s love with praise, joy and gratitude. Professor Yokoi told me he never went to Rome without also visiting Assisi, as he put it, “to breathe the air that gave the world a Francis of Assisi.”

Both Buddhism and Christianity insisted that all creatures were worthy of reverence. For the “Little Poor Man of Assisi,” each creature in its own way bore the image of the Divine Presence. St. Francis’ approach to perfection emphasized the indwelling of God in all things. God’s Providential Love for His creation stands as the key to peaceful human relationships. Buddhist spirituality supports the same message.

Because God created human beings with body and soul, we need to constantly balance the material and the spiritual sides of our lives. Excessive concern with the material side of one’s life can lead to neglect of the life of the spirit. Biblical and secular literature is filled with examples of destructive self-centeredness, often triggered by the “greed factor.”

One young Japanese Buddhist woman who was doing graduate work in Western history at the University of Kyoto, at some point in her studies, ran across the life of 13th century St. Francis. She found this man’s life so captivating that she wrote to our St. Francis Retreat House in Kiryu-city, Japan, asking for information on Francis. Later, she asked if she could come to visit the retreat center. The superior said “yes,” but her father said “no.” Her father feared that his daughter was getting too interested in Christianity.

Several years passed. In the spring of 1977, this woman wrote to Flavian Walsh, OFM, who was now at our Franciscan Chapel Center in Tokyo, to say she had received Baptism in a Catholic Church in Kyoto. In her letter, she enclosed a copy of her graduation thesis, The Life and Times of St. Francis of Assisi. Part of her letter reads: “This marvelous little man brought me into the Church of Jesus Christ. I found the spirit of Francis of Assisi remarkably beautiful and realistic. I only hope my own Christian life will be a credit to him and to Jesus Christ.”

Uniting and Healing Wounds
Commenting on the often violent inhumanity of man to man, George Bernard Shaw in his play Caesar and Cleopatra sums things up this way: “And so, to the end of history, murder shall breed murder, always in the name of right and honor and peace, until the gods are tired of blood, and create a race that can understand.”

Francis committed himself to the special ministry of “healing wounds, to uniting what was falling apart, and bringing home those who have lost their way.”

At the core of Francis’ spirituality was the belief, “My God loves me.” And so he reduced his prayer to “My God and my all.”

Not even one’s own life is too precious to give for the sake of another who is in need. Self-giving and self-realization go together. Buddhism and Christianity both see the need for detachment, self-discipline and self-giving compassion toward all creatures, if we are to honor the divine presence dwelling within created reality that “God may be all in all,” 1 Cor 15: 28.

— Fr. Stephen, a resident of St. Anthony Friary in Butler, N.J., has written for both religious and secular publications. He served in Japan from 1957 to 1977: 10 years in Gumma Prefecture and 10 years in Tokyo.

Editor’s note: The image of Francis accompanying this reflection, painted by Robert Lentz, OFM, is courtesy of Trinity Stores.