What Rowan Williams really said about Buddhism

Published 03 July 2014  |  
PA

Sensationalist headlines insist that the former Archbishop of Canterbury has turned to Buddhism – but has he really exchanged his mitre for an alms bowl?

In an article for this week's New Statesman, Lord Rowan Williams highlights the importance of ritual within his prayer life, sharing that he begins each day with a short "meditation".

This has led to wild claims that he has been inspired by and even adopted a form of Buddhism – an unusual move for a man who led the Anglican Communion for 10 years.

Williams, however, insisted that he is merely drawing on practices long-held by the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches, though he does highlight similarities with Buddhist rituals.

"Over the years increasing exposure to and engagement with the Buddhist world in particular has made me aware of practices not unlike the 'Jesus Prayer' and introduced me to disciplines that further enforce the stillness and physical focus that the prayer entails," he wrote in the New Statesman.

"Walking meditation, pacing very slowly and coordinating each step with an out-breath, is something I have found increasingly important as a preparation for a longer time of silence."

Williams went on to describe his morning process in detail. "The regular ritual to begin the day when I'm in the house is a matter of an early rise and a brief walking meditation or sometimes a few slow prostrations, before squatting for 30 or 40 minutes (a low stool to support the thighs and reduce the weight on the lower legs)," he said.

While in this position, the former Archbishop of Canterbury uses the Jesus Prayer – "repeating (usually silently) the words [Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner] as I breathe out, leaving a moment between repetitions to notice the beating of the heart, which will slow down steadily over the period."

He explained that this helps to focus his mind and rid himself of "distracted, wandering images and thoughts".

"If you want to speak theologically about it, it's a time when you are aware of your body as simply a place where life happens and where, therefore, God 'happens': a life lived in you," Williams said.

In her Christmas message last year, the Queen – who boasts the title 'Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England' – also highlighted the importance of meditation within a Christian framework.

"For Christians, as for all people of faith, reflection, meditation and prayer help us to renew ourselves in God's love, as we strive daily to become better people," she declared.

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