29 October 2007

Not One, Not Two: Being a Christian Buddhist

You love the apple; yes, you are authorized to love the apple, but no one prevents you from also loving the mango. -Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh
I am writing this paper on behalf of people who wonder if they can have a dual affiliation of being a Christian and a Buddhist. There are many people in Christian and Buddhist communities or congregations to which practices of both religions have value. Such people wonder, "Can I be a Christian and a Buddhist?, "Are there other people like me?", " Do I have to adopt some strange dogma in order to bring them together?" This paper will show how myself, and other people have decided to identify themselves as not following just one religion, or following two religions. These people are just following their individual spirituality which include what many consider two disparate religions.

It has been said that Christians can learn a lot from Buddhism, which would make them "better Christians." In Father Joseph Spae's book on Buddhist-Christian empathy, he sums up authorities as pointing out the value of Christians learning about Buddhism.
Some Christians still labor under a host of misconceptions in regard to Buddhism. Yet there are many others - particularly in Buddhist countries - who realize that the Buddhist culture and tradition are worth their interest and support, not only as treasuries of mankind, but also as an actual enrichment of the Christian faith….
Faculty member Reggie Ray, in reflecting on the history of the Buddhist-Christian dialogues at Naropa University, wrote about the effect on the Christians and Buddhists who attended.
We also found that many of our deepest insights were provoked by or came from the other: Christians experienced over and over that they learned about what is true and ultimately real from Buddhists, and Buddhists learned likewise from Christians.
A Christian Buddhist (or Christian-Buddhist) is someone who practices Christianity and Buddhism equally or at least makes both of these religions parts of their personal spirituality. Such persons don't consider themselves to be following only part of either religion, but to be a full member of both.

Below are two possible types of Christian Buddhists.. The actual variety of individuals for whom such an idea as being a Christian Buddhist has some relevance is difficult to pigeonhole. For the sake of this paper I will use these two general types.

One of these types are those who grew up Christian and later took on Buddhist practices and developed a deep respect for Buddhism, while still remaining a Christian. Such a person might be a regular attendee at church services but also participate in a sitting group or be active in a Buddhist temple or center. Such a person may read quite a bit about both Christianity and Buddhism. Many writers have said that such a person often becomes a better Christian due to better connection with personal spirituality and mysticism which is more easily available in Buddhism.

The other type discussed in this paper are those who left Christianity as a child, or later in life. Such persons often come from a conservative religious background, or some may come from families who do not participate much in religious life. Such a person had been exposed to Buddhism at some point, and been attracted to its brand of spirituality as being much different from his or her opinion of religion growing up. Such a person, before finding Buddhism, often has grown disillusioned with the religion of his or her parents or even religion in general.

Interestingly, many of the people of this type, after practicing Buddhism for many years, become curious about the religion in which they grew up on. The forms of the faith of their parents come back into their mind, or the ideas do not seem as foreign as they once were. Especially learning about Christian contemplatives can have this effect.

Such a person may feel that Christianity is part of his or her identity and culture. Christianity could be seen as part of who he or she is, and therefore a part that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.

In Thich Nhat Hanh's book, Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers, he addresses the situation of Westerners who have adopted a faith different than the one they grew up in, because they were so angry about the religion they followed in their youth.
Because they have suffered so much they want to have nothing to do with their family, their church, their society, and their culture. They want to become someone else…. They want to become a Buddhist because they have hated everything relating to their roots. Have they succeeded in leaving everything behind in order to become something new? The answer is no.

At first one would wonder, "where are Christian Buddhists?" The truth is that Christian Buddhists are all around us. I believe that many people have these tendencies but don’t believe that they can decide to openly practice both religions.

First, there are people that are in churches who are afraid or uncomfortable with expressing their practice of another religion to other church members. Interfaith worship and activism seems to be only a recent occurrence. It seems that only in the last ten years have people realized that they can participate in dialogue with another religion without trying to convince each other to convert. Members in churches may feel that they are not good Christians if they take on the practices of Buddhism. They are held back by the idea of Christianity as the "one way" to God.

Secondly, within many western (i.e. "white") Buddhist organizations there has often been the opinion that Buddhism is "better" than the religions members have left. Christianity is seen as ignorant or full of blind-faith fundamentalists. Buddhism is seen as more free of structure or institutions. Western Buddhists may look at someone becoming interested again in their first religion as regressing. So these people are stuck feeling awkward about participating in Christianity.

There are probably people that are not satisfied with their impression of the practice of either religion on its own, and wish there was an organization or place where they could practice both. They may believe that the organizations they currently find are insistent on someone practicing their faith in isolation.

There are also different degrees of practice of either religion. Some people may adopt only some of the practices, like a Christian who practices Buddhist meditation.

People often ask me how I could think of myself as a Christian Buddhist. The simple answer is that I don’t see God as separate from me. However I don’t think of myself as God, or a God. Father Thomas Keating agrees with this concept of God in a speech he made at one of the Buddhist-Christian dialogues at Naropa University.
The idea that God is an object outside of oneself to which one relates through prayer is totally unscriptural. It is heresy, and should well be forgotten. It is an idea which is the result of a cultural conditioning originating in the world of philosophy and especially Descartes. The worldview that affirms the subject-object dichotomy has produced the fruit of modern technology, but it has also cramped the intuitive faculties of the Western mind and left education totally bereft of its spiritual dimension.
God is within me as God is within all things. Regarding this, R.H. Blyth, in his book, Buddhist Sermons on Christian Texts, quotes the book of Revelation, "And I saw no temple therein: for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple.... " He comments along with this quote that for those who live by Zen Buddhism, "Every place is hallowed ground, every day is a good day, every act is worship, waking or sleeping, dead or alive." It is the idea of God as existence. When I worship God, I am worshipping creation and all beings. This is basically the idea of panentheism. Matthew Fox explains the idea in his book, Wrestling with the Prophets, he believes this "theism" was a tradition of the early Christian mystics.
This is a precise naming of panentheism "all things in God and God in all things." This perfectly orthodox naming of our relationship to divinity is alluded to in the vine-and-the-branch imagery of John [chapter] 15 as well as in Acts. ‘For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring.’
In regards to Buddhism, I no longer pray to God asking for something. I realize that God is not separate from me and therefore try to avoid dualism. I also think of Jesus as a great teacher who reached the highest spiritual level, Christ. The notions of being a Buddha or a Christ become synonymous. The potential within each of us is to equally have the chance to develop to the level of Christ or Buddha. Marcus Borg, in his book about the historical Jesus, comments about the uniqueness of Jesus and his attainment.
…I would agree that Jesus is unique in one sense of the word, and deny that he is unique in another. In the sense that Jesus is not exactly like any other religious figure, he is unique (and so are the Buddha, Muhammad, Lao-tzu, and, for that matter, every person). But in popular Christian usage, the "uniqueness" of Jesus is most commonly tied to the notion that he is uniquely and exclusively true revelation of God. It is this meaning of his uniqueness that I deny.

In this way, you could call the potential inside us buddha-nature or christ-nature. This could be said to be similar to this verse in the book of Colossians, "For ye are dead, and your life is hid with Christ in God." Hid inside you is your christ or buddha nature, waiting to be uncovered. It is also said in the epistle to the Romans that, "For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, they are the sons of God." We are all the sons and daughters of God.

I follow both the Ten Commandments and the Ten Lay Precepts in Zen. I worship God and Jesus in church and bow to the wisdom of Buddha’s state of enlightenment and the sutras. I am not bowing down before idols as I don’t think of myself as bowing to the statue, but to the state of realization that Buddha achieved. Dom Aelred Graham, in his book Conversations: Christian and Buddhist, quotes a Zen Master who was once questioned by a disciple about the image of Buddha in the temple.

It is as you say, but you may learn while you worship that you yourself become the Buddha itself. But for the time being you may not understand what the Buddha is. So for this period this Buddha image is necessary. When you come to understand what the real Buddha is, you bow to the Buddha image at that time too. But the meaning would have become greatly changed…. The meaning, or so-called act itself, is 'pure' or 'great act,'….

I am not putting another god before God, because I think of God as not being different from the ultimate realization in Buddhism.

As to my own upbringing, my father is a retired American Baptist minister. He has a doctorate in the philosophy of World Religions. My mother started out on the path of becoming a minister and then decided to be a social worker. Actually, at this time my sister is studying to become a minister. I grew up going to church every Sunday. Church was a given that was not questioned in my family. My older brother and sister, like me, had to go to church every Sunday, unless there was something else the family was doing.

I enjoyed going to church. I appreciated Sunday school and loved to read all the children’s storybooks in the church library. There were only a half a dozen kids in the church my age as most of the congregation was over fifty.

Though religion was a big part of my life I don’t remember discussing it much with my father until I was in my teens. Until my teens I was not exposed to any other ways of worship.

Every summer I would go to church camp. During one summer I experienced my first disillusionment with Christianity. The campers were given a survey to fill out at one of the classes. One of the questions was something like, "Do you believe you are going to heaven when you die?" The choices were "yes," "no," or "I don’t know." I put down that I didn’t know, and one of the counselors noticed and talked to me right away. I told her that I didn’t know if there was a heaven or not, which was somewhat accepted in my family. Since no one dead could tell us, my Dad saw how it wasn’t so important to know where we would go when we die, but how to live. The counselor told me that there was a heaven and that I should just put down that I believed I would go there someday.

I was disappointed with her suggestion but did as she said. Later it came to exemplify the lack of individual spirituality that I missed in Christianity. I was not encouraged to think independently.

For myself and other Christian Buddhists there are a number of problems we have with Christianity that bring about our interest in Buddhism. When we discuss religion together we often give the impression of being very negative about Christianity. I don’t believe we mean to do so. I will list here the problems with Christianity that led to an interest in Buddhism and some of the problems I have encountered since then.

As I mentioned above the evidence of members of a church following an individual spirituality is not easily apparent in most congregations. It is especially difficult to see among fundamentalist Christians who have blind-faith in God. People in churches are easily tempted to just agree with everything the minister says whether it is a conservative or liberal church. This kind of apathy in belief brings together that congregation and solidifies its bonds.

This relates to the feeling of specialness among church members. Other churches, denominations, or religions are seen as "not one of us." We are seen as having the sole hold on "the truth." This keeps out the openness of ecumenism or interfaith work. There is a great need of people to solidify their own belief system by bringing it in accord with a group. This is even better accomplished when one is convinced that anyone not in his or her group is wrong or misguided. There is a great feeling of security.

Another problem I saw were "Sunday-only" Christians. They are those who think only about God or spirituality on Sunday. They believe that if they go to church every Sunday and live an honest life they will go to heaven. There is no inner development for these people. There is no personal connection to spirituality or God. It could be said that such people are lazy in their spiritual life. R.H. Blyth quotes the Christian mystic Tauler as writing, "Who does not seek and find and receive God at home, or in the street, will never receive him rightly in church, that is certain." He follows this with a quote from the Japanese Buddhist poet Shodoka, "Walking is Zen, sitting is Zen, speaking, silence, activity, quietness,--the essence is at rest." There is no time when it is not good to think of God and therefore your own spirituality.

After I became a Christian Buddhist I encountered some Christians who did not understand how I could do so. Some of them took it as a personal insult against their faith that I thought of myself in such a way. By being a Christian these people thought of themselves as the keepers of that faith. It was "theirs" to defend from those who adopt their own understanding of Christianity, which is different from their own.

In addition it doesn’t seem to provide a clear guide to how to live one’s life. Simply imitating Jesus is not sufficient for guidance.

In Buddhism I found excellent guidance for how to live my life. The whole concept of being aware every moment appealed to me right away. Before encountering Buddhism I had been studying environmentalism and ecology. The idea in Buddhism that every action has an effect fit in quite well with my study. I knew that the idea of there being consequences (karma) to our every action made sense. As in environmentalism, I saw again how no action happens in isolation. That ultimately we are not separate from everything in the world.

The next thing that impressed me were the Ten Lay Precepts and the Bodhisattva Vow. The precepts, which I will go into in more depth later, show one a good way to act. Basically that way is in consideration of other beings. The way it was presented was clearer to me than trying to somehow obey God. The Bodhisattva Vows emphasize service to all beings, which sounded like serving God, as I had promised to do when I was baptized. I follow the Zen version.
However innumerable beings are, I vow to save them.
However inexhaustible the passions are, I vow to extinguish them.
However immeasurable the Dharmas are, I vow to master them.
However incomparable the Buddha truth is, I vow to attain it.
The other great idea that encouraged the growth of my respect for Buddhism, and acceptance of it was the idea that we create our own reality. We make the world as difficult or easy for us as we choose. We all see things slightly differently. This notion that we don’t all experience life the same was totally different than what I had found in Christianity.

I was surprised to find that eventually my interest in Christianity was revived. While learning about Buddhism I still attended church irregularly and enjoyed it. Even though I considered myself a Buddhist after 1992, I did not become active in a Buddhist group until I lived in a Zen monastery for a year beginning in 1995. The monastery was in South Korea. I lived for a year as a student there. I was the first Westerner to do so. It was when I was a resident there that I first read the Bible all the way through from the beginning.

While I read the Bible I found a great deal of ideas that were similar to Buddhism. I was struck by how much of Christianity is not presented to the common believer. I also had been exposed somewhat to the Christian mystics, like Thomas Merton, who had never come up during my experience of church life. It was then that practicing both religions became easier.

I have been able to find many similarities in Christianity and Buddhism. The most obvious similarities are compassion and honesty. The compassion of Jesus and that of a buddha or bodhisattva are the same in that they are unconditioned. Jesus' love was for everyone. To emulate that love is a challenge for both Christians and Buddhists.

As I mentioned about the Commandments, both religions emphasize honest relation with each other. This is related to the verse, "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you." This consideration in actions is directly related to karma. In Buddhism you also do this because no person is separate from you, and each being was at one time your mother, father, or lover.

When considering the mystics there is also a common belief that to "know God" or become close to God, one must transcend or destroy the self. This is the last barrier in both religions to pure experience of the universe.

It would be remiss to not also point out some of the differences between Christianity and Buddhism. I admit that they are different. However within a person, they can be the same. They may be different roads to the same goal, but they are different roads.

The biggest difference is the apparent separation of us and God. Though there are ideas in Christianity that say otherwise, this is the appearance of reality in Christianity. This separateness is further solidified by the idea of "original sin." Being that we are sinful, and god is not, makes us inferior. We cannot be perfect as Jesus was, and only exist by the grace of God.

In Buddhism it is emphasized that you are equal to Buddha. You have the same potential of the highest spiritual attainment. Nothing is above or below you.

As with the problems I shown above with Christianity, I have also found problems in Buddhism which are related more to the practice than the teaching themselves, and how followers act.

The first shows the differences between Eastern and Western culture. The most difficult thing about transplanting Buddhism to the West is separating or not separating the cultural practices from the practices inherent to the religion. The relationship between teachers and students is completely different from the East. The most difficult tasks for teachers is to clearly define the roles. This has brought about students in the West who revere their teachers so much that they insist everyone else should too. Students make cliques around the teachers that make the teachers unreachable by the beginning practitioner.

Western practitioners will also sometimes become angry when a newcomer doesn't know the rules, or questions the authority of the teacher. Students attach on to their teacher or organization and cut themselves off from other very similar Buddhist teachers or organizations. Just as there is exclusivism in Christianity, it rears its ugly head in Buddhism as well.

1 comment:

Kirsty said...

Thank you so much for writing this. This describes a lot of what binds me up. It is so hard as a christian to explain the beauty and nature of our love for buddhism and how it wonderfully enhanced our spiritual faith. It's nice to see I'm not the only fish out in that sea :)

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