Profiles in Buddhist-Christian Dialogue:
Robert Jonas -
DVD (transcript online below)

You can see this video for free on youtube at:
Profiles in Buddhist-Christian dialogue with Robert Jonas

46 Minutes. 1996
DVD $14.95

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Buddhists and Christians around the world have entered into dialogue, and as this dialogue has deepened some of them have taken it within themselves. They have not only studied the beliefs of their dialogue partners, but have gone on voyages of discovery that embrace both Buddhist and Christian spiritual practices.

In this series of profiles we are going to meet some of these inner explorers, hear their stories, and try to catch a glimpse of how they are bringing these spiritual practices into harmony within themselves.

In this video we visit Robert A. Jonas, who is a Christian in the Carmelite tradition and has received spiritual formation in Buddhist traditions. Currently a student of Sui-Zen, the Japanese bamboo flute (shakuhachi), he is an active member of the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies, a founding member of the Ruah Institute in Boston, and founder and director of The Empty Bell. He is the author of Rebecca: A Father's Journey from Grief to Gratitude. This video is the fascinating story of his own spiritual journey, and the insights he has gleaned from his encounter with both sides of the dialogue. It also includes a few minutes of Robert playing the flute.

Listen to:
Robert Jonas playing
the shakuhachi

Audio preview





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More about Robert Jonas

Robert Jonas has just completed an edited collection of Fr. Henri Nouwen's work for Orbis Books. It is part of a series on great 20th century spiritual guides, and will come out in September, 1998. Since Fr. Henri Nouwen and Robert were close friends, the 50-page introduction is a more intimate look at Henri than is generally available.

The Empty Bell is a sanctuary for the study and practice of Christian meditation and prayer. Its purpose is to learn the history and practice of the Christian contemplative path and to explore its common ground with other ancient Wisdom.

Robert Jonas, playing his Shakuhachi, has recently produced two CDs. The first one is Blowing Bamboo.  The second one, New Life From Ruins: Zen Celtic Sacred Songs and Meditations, is a rare fusion of Christian Celtic and Zen Buddhist contemplative music blending Irish and Scottish songs and the haunting sound of the bamboo flute. Both are available at

Contact Robert Jonas and The Empty Bell at:


Online Transcript:

I live in Watertown, MA, am married and have a 25-year-old daughter and a 6-year-old son. I run The Empty Bell which is dedicated to the Buddhist-Christian dialogue. I am here at this 1996 Buddhist-Christian conference in Chicago to offer some shakuhachi music. I have been involved in the Buddhist-Christian dialogue since 1983.

I am a psychotherapist and a spiritual director. I facilitate prayer meetings and studies of the Christian mystical tradition. I grew up as a Lutheran. My grandmother taught me how to pay in German. "I am small, my heart is pure. No one lives in my heart but Jesus."

My spiritual life has been about Jesus in my heart all these many years, but I had many detours. I studied in a Lutheran college for two years, but felt - during the Vietnam conflict - that religion was not up to what was happening in the world. Religion was irrelevant. So I transferred to Dartmouth College and majored in government in 1967.

I was looking for a sport and discovered Korean karate. My teacher, Donnie Miller, was a Taoist trained meditator, so I meditated before and after classes. And I learned the body is infused energy called chi, and we were instructed to direct it to our feet while we walked in the snow barefoot. Sometimes it worked, but sometimes my feet turned blue. But it was a lesson for me about the depth of spirituality that is available in the world that I had never encountered in my Lutheran upbringing. The body is infused with spiritual presence and that nature was alive. One can participate in nature on a spiritual level.

I just went straight East and started doing Taoist meditation every day. I went into community organizing work in the inner city of Kansas City, Kansas, and was the only white in an all-black housing project. I was on the 13th floor where there were 13,000 people living in one city block. Big towers, brick and wire structures, and it felt like being in prison. That was my shocking introduction to urban life.

And it was my re-immersion into Christian life because I walked into a Baptist church for the first time and learned how to sing in the spirit with the black folks in Kansas City. Mama Bohannon protected me. Her son was the leader of the Black Panthers, so when I was accosted by blacks on the street, I would tell them I was living with Mama Bohanon, and everything was cool.

I taught meditation to black and Italian kids in conjunction with karate. They were attracted to it so they could beat up their friends, but as soon as they got there I was teaching them to sit to pay attention to their breathing. This was totally new to them. A few kids were really turned on to the spiritual life. I sometimes wonder what happened to them.

I left Kansas City and the Vietnam war was winding down, and went to Berkeley. A lot of us were living in a peace brigade commune in Oakland which took in draft resisters. Some were rehabilitated with us, and some lost their minds on LSD, some stole our wallets, and some became friends.

Joanne, the woman I was living with at the time, and I had a baby in Berkeley at home in the commune. It was so exciting. Kristie is now 25. We started the Berkeley home birth collective, and started delivering babies with no training, but we had an intern with us. We also started a pre-natal care program. We were really creating an alternative society at that time, and then the back to the land movement began.

We went to Oregon and bought a truck. We brought it back to Berkeley and built a huge cathedral structure on the back of this truck, and covered it with Leonardo da Vinci paintings, and on the front we had a huge naked Renaissance man. It was a huge project and took us 5 or 6 months. I was an ambulance driver.

Then we drove across the country with Joanne and Christy. We settled in New Hampshire, and for 5 years we ran an organic vegetable farm. I helped start the Milford Food Co-op in New Hampshire, and the Brattleboro Food Co-op. And we convinced the local obstetricians to occasionally come out to home birth. I was the director of the Green Mountain Health Center for one and a half years where we did East-West medicine. We were one of the first in the New Age health movement in Brattleboro in ‘74-’75. I learned shiatsu massage.

I was going through an emotional crisis and discovered the Commons, a Carmelite Monastery in Peterboro. I became friends with the monks who were also doing organic farming. The back-to-the-land movement met Christianity again. For me it was a coming home, but now there was mysticism. In the Lutheran tradition there was no body and no nature, but there was personal relationship because there was Jesus. We had that down.

But when I discovered St. John of the Cross I discovered the sensuousness, the eroticism, the tactile sense of being in the world in my body, that that was part of the spiritual life even though eventually you experienced dark nights. Still, the senses were acknowledged.

And then there was nature in St. John of the Cross’ beautiful symbolic poetry. So suddenly my Christian life was expanded tremendously, and I felt the connection with the East because of the letting go and dying into experience, there was the sudden connection with Taoist meditation and the simplicity of the moment in being present. So East and West came together for me. I was a 3rd Order Carmelite for 5 years or so.

My wife and I taught natural family planning which was part of living with the rhythms of nature, and growing our own food, and then we went to Harvard to get into education. I was interested in international development. 1978 - graduate school in education.

In the midst of graduate school at Harvard my mother died in 1970. She was sick in Wisconsin, and I went back and forth to be with her, and pray with her. She was not a praying woman, but she warmed to the idea as her death neared. She was very touched by the music my brother and I played on the guitar - Christian songs.

The shock of that started to move me more deeply into my spiritual life, but also into the psychological world. I discovered that my parents had been alcoholic, and I carried a lot of wounds from an alcoholic household that I was unaware of. So I went into psychotherapy. That experience was so rich that it completely changed my life, and I was less interested in changing the world through educational means and was suddenly descended into the territory of intimacy with others because in a way this psychotherapist saved my life. It was an eye-to-eye experience, and I don’t know if I ever had anyone pay such close attention to be before.

So I discovered the richness and power of intimacy. I changed all my training to psychotherapy. I took a course on object relations. The wonderful thing about object relations describes the process of how those people we grow up with, especially our caretakers and mentors, in a way become voices within us, and in a way we carry our history of past relationships within us. Sometimes we are aware of those voice, and sometimes we are not. We sometimes have difficulties in our present relationships because in a way we are projecting or bringing along our past without knowing it. I got totally into it and started analyzing a lot of my family and friends, and alienating a lot of them because I was facile with all the labels. I misused it with them, and with myself, giving myself every neurotic symptom that exists. I continued having psychotherapy, and then doing it in the early ‘80s, and felt I had a gift for it. In 1984 I met Henri Nouwen and immediately loved him. He talked about Jesus. He’s Catholic and a bit more mystical than Billy Graham.

I went up to him and asked to do spiritual direction with him because he was talking about Jesus’ presence here and now, and that is what I want, and I don’t experience that all the time! So we talked, and after a couple of sessions he thought maybe I was noticing something in his life that he wasn’t seeing, so we started to think I was supposed to be his therapist instead of him being my spiritual director. We went back and forth, and some tension there.

I was working with handicapped people where I had a psychological internship, and Henri was starting to be connected with the L’Arch community - a spiritual community for handicapped people that is now world-wide - and has a Christian Catholic base.

We met at a time when our interests were similar and our relationship turned into friendship. So I had a friendship with this Catholic charismatic mystical guy that was formative for me, and I was in psychotherapy. When my mother died I also went through a separation-divorce with my wife Joanne, and as I was coming out of that death experience I met Henri and also met Joseph Goldstein, a Vipassana Buddhist teacher, and this web of relationships included Christian friends, psychotherapy friends, and the Vipassana community. One of the people I met was my future wife, Margaret. Margaret’s mother was a student and friend of Joseph Goldstein. So I began to experience in my family life the Christian-Buddhist dimension.

In the 1980s I spent many long days sitting in silence at the Vipassana retreat in Barry called the Insight Meditation Center. I did a lot of 3-day retreats, 10-day retreats, and some long courses. The teachers in these three worlds had strong opinions about the people in the other dimensions, but I was feeling an integration within myself that was going somewhere.

In the early ‘80s my story begins to take form. I started leading retreats that takes these three dimensions of healing together, and people started coming to me for some help who wanted the integration of psychology and Christian practice of prayer and meditation. I worked in an Episcopalian setting.

In 1986 I felt inspired to go to a theology school, so I did. ’84 - finished my Harvard doctorate. I felt I needed more training in the Christian mystical tradition. Western Jesuit School of Theology. I took 5-6 years with two courses a semester, and was especially interested in the prayer life of the mystics.

My psychotherapy practice shifted more and more just to the spiritual dimension. Now in 1996 I don’t take any psychotherapy clients anymore. I am just working in spiritual direction.

Three years ago we moved to Watertown and I started The Empty Bell Sanctuary, and renovated a carriage house just a few miles outside of Boston. The building of The Empty Bell came out of a vision I had one morning. Vision: I was sitting on a cushion in a circle of people where I was facilitating people of different spiritual traditions to be in an atmosphere of holiness together. People would support one another when they came together, and then would go out and work in many different fields. That image was so powerful and deep for me that I had a sense that that was what my life was going to be about. (1991) When we found the property in Watertown I had a clear image of that carriage house, that that carriage house would become the embodiment of that prayer, and it has.

There is a community of people who come every Sunday morning. First we sit in silence, and then we read the Scriptures of the day from the Catholic tradition, and then people share what is coming up in their lives in terms of Scripture. Then more silence, and then we pray for others. And we support each other to have a life of service.

On Thursday we have a similar group, and on Tuesday there is a group studying the history of Christian mysticism. We are going into our third year. We are reading the texts of about 30 Christian mystics. It has been a wonderful experience to read the texts of those people who have been so excited and enlivened by God’s real presence, to read it not as a theologian, but to read it from the inspiration of our own prayer life.

We read, then we come back in silence, and then we talk about where we were touched by it. We talk about how the tradition comes inside of us.

We have two or three Tibetan lamas who come in for Buddhist-Christian dialogue, we have several Buddhist priests who come in. The Buddhist-Christian dialogue is very much alive there. It is also an outreach program with the churches in the Boston area. We have a program in Brookline, Massachusetts called the RUA, which is an ecumenical context where every fall and spring we have a 12-week program focused on interfaith issues. What do we do with our work lives, for example, and we have panel discussions where people from various religious traditions talk about it.

And then we do several programs with the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies. Mu Soeng, a former Korean Zen Buddhist monk runs it, and he and I have done many presentations together. Last year we focused on Eckhart and ran retreats.

We have a group of Buddhists and Christian monks and nuns who come to The Empty Bell quarterly to spend a whole day together. It has become a wonderful local support group. Many times they say they can talk more easily about certain dimensions of the spiritual life there among people who are quite different than they can in their own monasteries.

During the day I often meet with people - 3 a day - sitting one-on-one talking about the spiritual life. That’s part of my ministry. I also felt I needed to write more about what I was doing. Last year I finished a book called Rebecca: A Father’s Journey from Grief to Gratitude. Now I am working on a book about the shakuhachi, a Japanese bamboo flute, as well as music and spirituality, which is new to me. My ministry is working with people one-on-one in that intimate work of healing, leading interfaith dialogue groups through The Empty Bell, helping Christians learn about their own mystical tradition, and then my writing.

I’d like to talk about some of the interesting dimensions of the Buddhist-Christian dialogue, and also the therapeutic dialogue. My primary interest is in people being happy and healed, and I feel that is what God wants in me in a very intimate way, and for all people. But there are many issues that come up when one tries to integrate these very different traditions.

One of the great gifts from Buddhism to Christianity is to help us Christians be in touch with the lived present moment. As Zen folks say, be here now. That precious moment of direct experience is something that Christians have not really known so well, so it is a wonderful teaching.

The Buddhists here at this conference are expressing thankfulness to Christians to remind them for the need for engagement in the real world - economics and politics. There are some problems in this dialogue. In the past the Buddhists would come to teach Christians, and the Christians were very happy to receive from the Buddhists. But I have noticed a subtle change even over the last four years. I have noticed some of the Buddhists do want to receive something from the Christians. One example is what happens in silence. In the Buddhist tradition we say there is this precious moment of pure presence. We may say something similar in the Christian tradition - there is a precious moment of pure presence - but I also feel that in the Christian tradition I have grown with this experience right from the start of my life, with my grandmother who taught me how to pray, that there is another One there, a Holy One, and for me that was, and is, Jesus. And when we as Christians say that Jesus lives in us, Christ lives in us, there is always an interpersonal dimension in our spiritual practice - an inner voice, or a sense of inner presence - that leads one to make contact with an Other in an ultimate way. And that when we say that the ground of what is ultimately so is somehow relational.

Then when I stand up from prayer or meditation I am still in the company of that relational sense. There is something that is dynamic and relational going on. That doesn’t change. There is no difference from sitting and praying, and standing up and acting with other people. It is a relational universe. I am constituted relationally.

But sometimes I feel for me as a Christian that some Buddhists have a very hard time to say anything about what is ultimate, and for many Buddhists, and maybe for some Christians, too, the sense of relationality is meant to disappear completely. So in the Christian tradition we call it the apophatic tradition where we go beyond all thoughts, all concepts, so that any sense of otherness has disappeared, and there is just this being and presence, but no other.

Sometimes in the Christian tradition the apophatics say that it all collapses into oneness in some way of which you can say nothing about, and they put themselves above the cataphatics, that is those who love the rich and storied imagery of the life in the Gospels, and the life in music, and the life in icons and images.

These two folks don’t understand each other or meet each other or try to say that perhaps their path is a little bit better than the other. In that area there is a little bit of tension sometimes. But I, myself, in myself, don’t feel that tension. It’s not a problem for me. Sometimes I feel that what prayer ultimately is about is the simple presence of God in which there are moments in which everything is just what it is, and there is no spiritual thought about it, no religious thinking going on, but there is a beauty, and just being present to everything just the way it is - kind of Zen-like.

And there are moments when I feel this vivid sense of an intimate presence to me that is the leverage point of everything that is going on. Maybe one insight I have gotten from the dialogue is that very often what we are trying to do is the balancing of these different dimensions and moving quite fluidly in and out of different dimensions, and the temptation is to latch on to some dimension of spiritual practice or reality, whether it is a psychological dimension or an emotional dimension, and an iconographic dimension or a technique dimension, and make that everything to the exclusion of some other entry points for God’s presence to us. It’s a kind of a wonderful dance. That’s how I feel about the spiritual life.

Here Robert Jonas plays his shakuhachi during an evening conference.


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