Buddhist meditation class attended by various faiths

Pamela Steinle

A 15-foot golden cross stood over the group of seven as they began Buddhist meditation.

Teacher John Cowen, 66, reached out and hit a bowl-shaped gong. As the clang reverberated throughout the chapel, the group closed their eyes and began to look within themselves.

Buddhist Meditation for Christians is a unique 12-session class created by Cowen to resolve two spiritual worlds into one theological practice.

Over the past five years, he has taught the course to approximately 100 students at five Episcopal locations, including the University Episcopal Center.

Attendees Thursday afternoon ranged from Nancy Peters Carrillo, a practicing Christian, to Jaime Leamon, a student at the Aveda Institute who doesn’t practice any religion.

“I want to be a spiritual person,” Leaman said. “I felt I was yearning, missing something in my life.”

Each week, Cowen e-mails the group assigned readings he wrote, and he plans to publish in a how-to book on Buddhist meditation for Christians.

Cowen said he expects only half of the students to make it through all 12 sessions. He said most students leave due to time constraints, although a few leave for theological reasons.

Students are required to read their weekly e-mail, meditate daily and attend eight of the 12 weekly sessions.

Cowen has been intrigued with the Buddhist religion since his high school years at a Roman Catholic seminary.

After he completed his monastic training, he became a practicing parish priest but quit after eight years.

“I didn’t believe in God,” Cowen said. “The scriptures and doctrines didn’t make sense.”

For the next seven years, Cowen said he saw himself as an agnostic but returned to the church after realizing he behaved as though he believed in God.

Eventually Cowen decided to have his orders recognized by the Episcopalian Church, a denomination he has served ever since.

Cowen’s Wiccan friend reintroduced him to Buddhism approximately 10 years ago. It was then that he said he realized Jesus Christ and the Buddha preached the same message.

Cowen said both gods told their followers their human eyes weren’t seeing the world around them.

“Jesus said the kingdom of heaven is spread out before you and you don’t even see it,” Cowen said. “Buddha said, you’re asleep, and you need to wake up.”

Although he hasn’t encountered much confrontation from other Christians, he said criticism wouldn’t affect his faith.

Through personal meditation, Cowen has come to the conclusion there is no self. He said critics’ claims he mistranslated or took things out of context wouldn’t affect his beliefs because he has experienced his doctrine.

He said he believed Buddhism was the solution, but he couldn’t shake certain aspects of Christianity. Therefore, he decided to combine his Christian background with Buddhist theology.

The churches, to a great extent, have missed the spirit of life because they are stuck in tradition such as speeches, songs and good works, Cowen said.

“Buddhism begins with the expectation that you can wake up to the miracle of being alive,” he said.

Pamela Steinle welcomes comments at [email protected]