In this article, Thich Nhat Hanh compares the Christian notion of "Holy Spirit" to the Buddhist notion of "mindfulness". This is likely to be a matter of contention with at least some Christian theologians. Reading a number of Christian reviews of Thich Nhat Hanh's book ""Living Buddha, Living Christ", the most oft-heard criticism is that the Buddhist is interpreting the Christian concepts through a Buddhist filter- and thus, getting it wrong. A Buddhist will compare Christian concepts to his experience of
reality then weave it creatively into the Buddhist, poetic description of the world, with the understanding that all of the words- the Christian theology, the Buddhist teachings, and his poetic attempt to weave
them together-are all of a completely different nature than the deep, living,reality of life. The Buddhist doesn't take the words so seriously as a Christian might (he might say, “OK if that concept doesn't work for you, how about this one?”). Using words and concepts to describe reality is like using
grains of sand to describe the ocean. The Buddhist experience, born of meditation, is that concepts we use to describe reality are not an absolute truth, but a kind of poetry, pointing to our experience of reality. Buddhism is always saying, don't get attached to the ideas and concepts, or you won't be
able to touch deeply the truth of the living reality before you. So Thich Nhat Hanh takes a bit of Buddhist poetry, “mindfulness”, and compares it to a bit of Christian poetry, "the Holy Spirit".
When I was doing my masters work in Christian Spirituality, one of my last classes was on Catholic Doctrine. At some point in the class, I asked the teacher if "God", "Christ" and "Holy Spirit" are considered poetic expressions pointing to the mystery of God, or are they fundamental entities existing in some absolute way in the world. "It is the latter"- she said. As we prepared to write our final papers for the class, I asked her if I could talk about the Buddhist approach to doctrine for my paper. She said yes. I described the Buddhist notion- all concepts, all theology, cannot express the deep reality of life- only a relative description of some aspect of that reality. I handed in the paper on the last day of class and never got it back. My final grade went down from the "A" it had been to a "B".
Here is Thich Nhat Hanh's article:
Many years ago when I visited Italy, I met a Catholic priest who organized a public talk for me. We had time to talk with each other, and I asked him this question: “My friend, what is the Holy Spirit to you?” And he said that the Holy Spirit is the energy of God, sent by God to us. I thought that expression is
beautiful, and as a Buddhist practitioner I can accept it very easily.
The Holy Spirit is the kind of energy that helps you to be compassionate, to be healed of your ill being. I
think Catholics and Protestants would agree about that: the Holy Spirit is the agent of healing, of transformation, of joy, of being there.
In Buddhist circles, we say very much the same thing to describe mindfulness. To us, mindfulness is the energy that can help us to be there, in the here and the now. Mindfulness helps us to be alive, and since we are there, we are capable of touching life deeply, of understanding, of accepting, of loving.
If we continue to develop that energy of understanding and loving, then we will get the healing and transformation that we need. That is why the Holy Spirit is exactly what we call the energy of mindfulness.
I can say that a Buddha or a bodhisattva is someone who is made of the energy of mindfulness. Each of us has a seed of mindfulness within ourselves. If we practice walking, sitting, smiling, breathing, eating, doing things every day with mindfulness, we help that seed of mindfulness in us to grow, and it will generate that energy of mindfulness that helps us to be alive, fully present in the here and the now, helping us to understand, to accept, forgive, and to love, to be healed. That is why it is correct to say that the energy of mindfulness is the energy of a Buddha, of a bodhisattva.
We have that energy in ourselves, and if we know how to practice, we can generate that energy from
within. To me, the expressions “Holy Spirit” and “Mindfulness” both point to the same thing—something that is very concrete, that is available us in the here and the now, and not just an idea, a notion.