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By: Daniel Umbel
In: Christian Encounters with the Religious Other, Spring Semester, March 2, 2006
What is Buddhism? I recognize that I come to this question as something of an outsider. On the other hand, perhaps “outsider” is not the most accurate word to describe my own relationship with Buddhism, for Buddhism has always intrigued me; and to some extent I feel the teachings of the Buddha have permanently shaped my own perceptions of the world. Though I would not claim to be a “Buddhist Christian” (whatever that may be), I continue to admire the Buddha and the simplicity of his message, and I think it is a message that should draw Christians back to the roots of our own faith tradition. Nevertheless, it is precisely my own admiration for Buddhism that leads me to consider whether my own appreciation for Buddhism is structured a priori by Christian presuppositions. Could it be that I admire certain aspects of Buddhism precisely because I am a Christian? For instance, I have never accepted reincarnation or the relative agnosticism of Buddhist teaching. Neither have I ever wished to drop God’s forgiveness in favor of a universal karmic law. The fact that I can appreciate some of the teachings of Buddhism and simultaneously deny some of the foundational presuppositions that comprise the Buddhist worldview should demonstrate the extent to which my own appreciation of Buddhism is an act of perceiving in the religious “other” a refraction of the truths of the Christian tradition itself.
The following essay therefore, is an act of appreciation and an act of differentiation. What is it about the Buddhist message that speaks powerfully to myself (and others) and why? What is it about the Buddhist religious worldview as a whole that I find problematic and incompatible with the Christian faith? What aspects of Buddhism are shared by Christians and can provide points of contact between Buddhists and Christians?
No discussion concerning Buddhism can take place without naming the Four Noble Truths. The centrality of the Four Noble Truths for Buddhism can be appreciated if one considers the historical evolution of Buddhism from its earlier Theravada form to the “Greater Vehicle” or Mahayana. Despite this great shift in emphasis within the Buddhist tradition – a shift Hans Kung suggests is analogous to the shift from Judaic to Hellenistic thought in Christian history – the Four Noble Truths continued to be as foundational in Mahayana and all the later Buddhist teaching as they were in the formative phases of Buddhist tradition.1 In addition to the historical proof of the enduring prominence of the Four Noble Truths for Buddhist identity, it is often the self-authenticating explanatory power of these teachings that captures the imaginations of those appreciate of Buddhism within our own culture.2 Therefore, in light of the importance of the Four Noble Truths’ centrality in the Buddhist message it is only appropriate to begin our discussion in examining these teachings.
The first noble truth is that our lives are unsatisfactory. This point does not undermine the fact that our lives are often filled with times of joy and happiness, only that such times do not last permanently. Happiness fades away, elation can turn into depression, and joy over success can disappoint us after the success is attained. Our lives on earth are not perfect, and yet we often strain to attain some state of ultimate and abiding constancy. We desire abiding happiness or pleasure or joy, and yet it continuously eludes our grasp. The reason our desire for ultimate satisfaction founders is because all that exists is in a state of permanent flux and change. Life is a state of constant becoming and movement. Everything that is comes to be, decays over time, and ultimately passes into another form. Nothing in our own experience is stable, and yet we continually seek stability. Nothing is certain and yet we reach out for certainty.3
The second noble truth is that the real origin of dissatisfaction and suffering is in our attachment to transient things (which really includes all that we can or do experience, including our mental constructs, and our sense of self). Perhaps it is relatively comprehensible for the Christian outsider to see that we are often overly attached to material possessions or the need for approval or bodily pleasures (and that such attachment leads to suffering when those things are taken away from us), yet the problem goes much deeper than this, according to Buddhism. The problem is not that we desire the wrong things and should therefore shift our desires onto the right activities and pursuits. Rather, the root problem, the source of our dissatisfaction, is simply the fact that we desire anything at all. Our thirst for existence itself is the deepest root of our own dissatisfaction. Because we live and because we desire to live we continue to suffer. Desire itself in all its forms is illusory, the harbinger and the source of all suffering.4
The third noble truth follows logically from the second, and yet it is different from the following two truths in that we begin to see a solution to our predicament. If the first two noble truths are diagnostic, the third and fourth noble truths point to our salvation. The third noble truth tells us that there is a way out of the cycle of desire, clinging, loss, and pain. There is a way through attachment to pleasure and avoidance of pain (both of which are types of desire). We are enslaved to pain and pleasure, loss and disappointment, but there is liberation. Because the source of all our suffering is in desire for that that which is impermanent, and everything is impermanent, the path to the cessation of suffering is through the cessation of all desire, including the thirst for our own existence.5
The fourth noble truth is simply an entrée into the Eightfold Path, and the eightfold path is simply the systematic organization of the means to liberation (the cessation of all desire), including: 1) Right perception concerning the impermanence of all reality, 2) Right ethical life, 3) Right meditation and concentration.6 We might say that the fourth noble truth is simply an elucidation of all the practical means, philosophical perceptions, and mental habits necessary to reach enlightenment, the cessation of all desire.
Before moving on it is necessary to explain the differences between the Christian view of the world and the Buddhist worldview, because the Four Noble Truths do not make sense divorced from certain Buddhist metaphysical judgments. Because of this fact, a Christian person reading the Four Noble Truths may not be able to understand why these are of salvific importance to the Buddhist. (Is it really self-evident, for instance, that cessation of desire entails salvation?) But once these truths are placed within the broader Buddhist worldview their coherence within that world and the way they point the way to Buddhist enlightenment (and ultimately salvation) begins to become clear. Furthermore, the Christian may not be able to fully comprehend the full differences between Buddhism and Christianity from a cursory glance at the Four Noble Truths alone. He or she may interpret them through Christian (or western) frameworks and assumptions and thus miss the radical differences between Buddhism and Christianity. Therefore, we will now attempt to sketch out the Buddhist worldview, comparing it with Christian assumptions.
The first thing we need to understand about the Buddhist worldview is that there is no discernable beginning to the universe. There is no beginning and there can really be no final consummation in the way Christianity envisions it, i.e. as the righting of wrongs, the satisfaction of our true desires, the fulfillment of our hopes. For the Christian (as for the Jewish person) the universe begins, continues, and finds its fulfillment in God. God initiated time and God will bring it to completion. This means we Christians think in terms of linear movement, of a beginning, a middle, and an end. This way of thinking is completely foreign to the Buddhist worldview. The very word for existence as we know it in the Buddhist interpretation is Samsara, which means the cycle or wheel of existence.7 The Buddhist view of the world is a perpetual spinning of the wheel of time. There is no progress or goal. One does not want to improve through existence, one wants to escape it altogether. The Buddha himself says that, “…this samsara is without discoverable beginnings. A first point is not discerned of beings roaming and wandering on hindered by ignorance and fettered by craving.”8
The second thing we must understand about the Buddhist worldview is that nothing at all is permanent; everything is in sate of perpetual flux. This is the reason there is no place for a creator God in the Buddhist worldview. The being of a creator God who is eternal, all-powerful, etc. is wholly foreign to the Buddhist cosmology. God is permanent and abiding and trustworthy, according to Christian hope. Yet this is precisely the reason God is not important to the Buddhist religious quest. Remember, the goal is to cease desire, to let go of all trust in something outside oneself, everything is unworthy of trust because everything is shifting and insubstantial. Therefore, there can be no being that is outside Samsara that can ground our hopes or assuage our fears. There is nothing that is stable, not even a god. There is nothing outside of Samsara, the wheel of suffering fueled by desire.
Not only is belief in God denied, but many Buddhists also interpret belief in God and faith and reliance upon God as illusory. Appealing to God or to higher powers of any kind is simply the manifestation of craving, a sign that one is not sufficiently enlightened and has yet to travel the path to true salvation. According to the Tibetan guru Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, “The wrong way…involves seeking shelter – worshipping mountains, sun gods, moon gods, deities of any kind simply because they would seem to be greater than we. This kind of refuge-taking is similar to the response of the little child who says, ‘If you beat me, I’ll tell my mommy,’ thinking that his mother is a great, archetypically powerful person. If he is attacked, his automatic recourse is to his mother, an invincible and all-knowing, all-powerful personality.”9 The solution is not to appeal to higher powers to come to the rescue. The only path to salvation is in relinquishing any hope for a final rescue at the hands of a higher being. One must give up hope, and give up craving. We must see through the illusion of our existence and our craving for safety, and come to the realization that all is impermanent, that everything changes. Appealing to God can impede the liberation process. In the words of Pema Chodron, “Theism is a deep-seated conviction that there’s some hand to hold: if we just do the right things, someone will appreciate us and take care of us. It means thinking there’s always going to be a babysitter available when we need one…. Nontheism is finally realizing that there’s no babysitter that you can count on…. Nontheism is realizing that its not just babysitters that come and go. The whole of life is like that…. From this point of view, theism is an addiction.”10
Under the heading of impermanence is the denial of a coherent self or “I.” What we in western culture call our mind or our consciousness, and perceive as a relatively stable core, a consistent “self,” is in Buddhist psychology a bundle of constantly fluctuating aggregates. Emotions, mental images, thoughts, perceptions, memories, all these things that the western world has affirmed as somehow emerging from the self or being experienced by the mind are denied substance in Buddhism. In fact, it would be incorrect to speak of a mind or subjective consciousness “experiencing” anything according to Buddhism. The fact that we think we have something called and “I” or a “soul” or a “mind” that sees other things or experiences others is part of the problem. Such a differentiation between subject and object provides a construct that fuels our craving for continued experience.11 It is here that we see just how deeply the Buddhist definition of “craving” extends. Craving is not simply the desire for physical pleasure, or the desire for wealth, or power. Those are the most obvious manifestations of craving. But we also crave desires, thoughts, and emotions. We crave a sense of being a solid being persisting in stability over time. This craving, this desire for ongoing experience is the root of the cycle of suffering. If we cut the root of suffering off at its source (the desire for existence itself) we enter liberation. Chogyam Trungpa utilizes the Tibetan metaphor of the three Lords (or demons) of desire to illustrate just how deep our self-delusion extends. These nefarious Lords plot to veil our egos to our own impermanence and insubstantiality. “The Lord of Form refers to the neurotic pursuit of physical comfort, security, and pleasure…. The Lord of Speech refers to the use of intellect in relating to our world…. The Lord of Mind refers to the effort of the consciousness to maintain awareness of itself.” Only once all these Lords have been negated can we enter Nirvana.12
We have dwelt at some length with this second aspect of the Buddhist worldview (i.e. impermanence) to demonstrate the importance of this assumption. Once one grasps impermanence then it becomes easy to see why Buddhists deny a self and a Creator of the universe. The Buddhist system is essentially monistic. There is no room for another Being who upholds and grounds the world. The Buddhist world must remain ungrounded. Neither can the self be seen as some eternal core (as in Hindu or Platonic thought). Such an eternal soul would provide a metaphysical basis for desire, for experience, for thought and action because the soul is by its very nature eternal and indestructible. In Buddhism nothing is eternal or indestructible because there can be no basis whatsoever for the continuing desire to exist or experience.
The third thing we must realize about the Buddhist worldview is the law of karma and reincarnation. Cessation of desire is the way to Nirvana, to enlightenment, because the cause of our existence is the continued desire to exist. If we have not fully transcended our desire we will not escape Samsara. The wheel will continue to turn for us. We will return to existence. We will exist again in some form, and after our deaths we will have an opportunity for enlightenment once again. Although there may be many hells, heavens, and plains of existence through which we may have to pass on our journey through Samsara all the various levels of existence are subject to the same laws. Heaven is no more stable or lasting than Hell in the Buddhist worldview. The demons are more evil than humans, the gods are more blessed, but the laws of karma govern all beings, they will be reincarnated if they continue to desire existence.13
The fourth and final observation concerning the Buddhist worldview is the concept of Nirvana. We should understand that Nirvana is defined as negation, ceasing to suffer, ceasing to crave, ceasing to desire, ceasing to exist. To describe Nirvana is impossible. Nevertheless, says Heinz Bechert, “one has to avoid two misunderstandings here, the idea, on the one hand, that nirvana is simply annihilation and, on the other, that it is something like eternal life. It…defies our categories of thought and description.”14 Furthermore, it is clear that Nirvana is attainable while on earth. To cease all desire, to gain liberation while living is possible. After all, the Buddha reached Enlightenment relatively early in his life, and then spent the rest of his (final) worldly existence teaching the dharma to the world.15
Now that we have discussed the basic framework of presuppositions the Four Noble Truths take for granted, it becomes obvious how these truths could lead one to ultimate salvation. Because all is impermanent and insubstantial the quest for security through pleasure or selfhood is futile. We are seeking strong foundations in sinking sands. Because Buddhism describes all existence and all being as fleeting and insubstantial (and denies the existence of God), it must also see desire for continued existence as itself a futile effort. Furthermore, the futile nature of existence is grasped once one realizes that for the Buddhist the world does not develop or reach an end point, a point of fulfillment as in the Christian or Jewish model of the world. Why, then, would one want to continue to return to life? We can ride a merry-go-round for only so long. Eventually we will want to get off. This is precisely what the Four Noble Truths point to, the liberation and salvation from the continuous rounds of births and rebirths that are caused by our insatiate desire for existence.
In her article in the book Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha, Sallie B. King describes her ambivalent relationship with Buddhist teachings, especially during and after her pregnancy. After briefly describing the core Buddhist teachings concerning non-self, impermanence, and the unsatisfactory nature of life (from which we want to liberate ourselves) King talks about the growing sense, as a result of her own pregnancy, that there were truly things of ultimate value in this world worthy of our love and affirmation. “Without my consciously realizing it, my subconscious worldview has changed: I have come to feel that there is ultimacy in this world. In practice, it is an ultimate good, for me, to care for this child. Nothing else matters as much; nothing else comes even close. Yet, at the same time, on the conscious level, my mind is full of thoughts of…the unsatisfactoriness of the world. Gradually I begin to sense that the two central aspects of my life – my Buddhist mind and my motherhood – may be incompatible.”16 King goes on to affirm the fundamental validity of familial bonds and human love as attachments of rich meaning and ultimate significance.
King’s realizations, her need to affirm the abiding validity of human love stands in tension with the fundamental teaching of Buddhism that only through detachment from all attachments (including familial bonds) can we gain liberation in Nirvana. We reference King’s struggle here to point out two things: a) that the Buddhist teachings on liberation from suffering are very attractive and true to experience to some extent, while b) the ultimate consequences of the Buddhist diagnosis of our human predicament (diagnosed as it is within the Buddhist universe) are problematic for a culture shaped by the Christian affirmation of human significance and human loves. As King herself says, “Buddhism doesn’t talk about love in the Western sense.”17
King’s experience can be taken as paradigmatic for those in our culture who feel drawn to Buddhist teaching. I know that I, for one, have always been drawn to the clarity of the Four Noble Truths, while always remaining hesitant to adopt the larger Buddhist framework within which the Noble Truths must be embedded in order to function as pointers toward Nirvana. In the following (which will act as a bridge to our final reflections) I want to make a few guesses as to why Buddhism has been attractive to me. Hopefully I am not so out of touch with my own generation and the surrounding culture that I cannot gain insights into the tenor of our times by engaging in a little critical self-reflection. The following is, of course, anecdotal and personal, but it may be, nonetheless, instructive.
I think part of the appeal of Buddhism (or what passes for Buddhism on the shelves of our local Barnes and Noble) is its ability to expose and subvert cultural assumptions. Our culture proclaims uninhibited consumption as an ultimate good. How many advertisements have we read, seen, or listened to, that proffer some version of bliss as the result of purchasing a product? Similarly, our culture holds out the possibility of upward mobility as the path to salvation and security. Indeed, if we were to begin to deconstruct every cultural assumption that rests upon the idea that wealth, power, and honor are the foundations of the good life it is questionable whether we would have a distinct culture at all. But there are those who question the grand consumer narrative. Even the most basic self-analysis will teach us that the acquisition of material possessions does not bring happiness. Nevertheless, because we are taught it does bring happiness, we are caught in a vicious circle of acquisition to feed a hunger that cannot be satisfied by matter alone. From within this circle of desire and the continuously deferred gratification fueled by the dissatisfaction our latest purchase or achievement produces, the prophetic critique of the Four Noble Truths can find deep resonance. Buddha calls into question the very presuppositions that fuel our consumer economy. We crave satisfaction and find dissatisfaction. The Buddha exposes desire as the root of our dissatisfaction. The Buddha subverts the premises our culture seeks to affirm as ultimate.
Second, Buddhism appeals to those within our culture because we live this side of Feuerbach, Nietzche, and Freud. (Trungpa’s comparison between the construct of “God” and one’s “mommy” sounds like it is straight out of Freud). These three merely carried out a critique of the tradition that began with the “turn toward the subject” as epitomized by Descartes and others. Yet, while Nietzsche thought that the denial of God’s existence could only strengthen and free humanity from its own self-imposed subjection to an illusory higher power; in fact, the power of the lone (or corporate) human subject (thus liberated) cannot withstand the valley of the shadow of death. In an effort to rid ourselves of God’s guidance and existence we have only succeeded in making our own existence that much more tenuous. What really guarantees that we should choose to continue to exist? Could it not just as well be that our present life is an illusion, a cosmic accident? Because of the influence of materialist philosophy (and perhaps to a greater extent the thoroughgoing methodological agnosticism of the academy), Buddhism can find deep reverberations amongst the educated in our culture.
Finally, the basic Buddhist message is so appealing to some because it reflects some foundational Christian teachings that have become marginalized in our present cultural context. Let us attend to someone many Christians claim to highly respect: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt. 6:19-21). It is interesting to quote these words of Christ in the context of a discussion on Buddhism, for like Buddha, Jesus highlights the inherent illusion of worldly wealth. Both Buddha and Jesus would be in agreement on the precarious nature of earthly treasure. Could it be, then, that in being attracted to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism many in our culture (including myself) are simply being drawn to the way of Jesus? Let me be clear here and reiterate the fact that one can be drawn to a text when superficially read and when read out of the basic context and worldview within which it functions appropriately. I suggest that this a-contextual reading of the Four Noble Truths is precisely what I (and many other erstwhile Buddhism admirers) have done. To be “drawn” to Buddhism despite rejecting most of Buddhist cosmology and metaphysics is inconsistent primarily because in being drawn to Buddhism we are really being drawn to faithfulness to Jesus’ message in the Sermon on the Mount.
Yet, despite an affirmation of the Buddhist critique of misplaced desire, no Christian can agree to the complete negation of desire as is called for by the Four Noble Truths and as is legitimated by Buddhist metaphysical suppositions. As Christians we can agree that attachment to material possessions is misplaced desire, we may even say that love of others can be fundamentally misplaced if it is not a love that grows out of our own love for God, yet we cannot agree that the cessation of all desire is the path to liberation. We believe God has created us to find our fulfillment in our love for him and for our fellow human beings.
It should be pointed out right from the beginning that Scripture affirms love for God and neighbor just as it recognizes, like the Buddha, the fleeting nature of our lives here on earth. It is important to note, though, that reflection upon the fleeting nature of human life runs in juxtaposition with God’s divine power and permanence. For example, in Isaiah the prophet says that, “all the nations are as nothing before him; they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness” (Isaiah 40:17). And prior to this verse the prophet contrasted human ability to God’s all-sustaining word, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever” (Is. 40: 6-8). It is all the more striking given our exposition of Buddhism that the prophet compares human life to the rapid fading of grass and the decay of the spring-time flower. Is this intended to affirm the immortality of the soul or a strong sense of individual identity? I gather the opposite. The prophet, like the Buddha is keen to observe the fleeting nature of human existence. Yet (and this is the most decisive element) he juxtaposes the fleeting nature of human life with the divine constancy. This is something Buddhism was unable to perceive because Buddhism shows no trace of being influenced by God’s revelation to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (Like Platonism, Buddhism searches for the firm foundations amidst shifting sands. While Plato thought he found as much in his affirmation of the immortality of the soul and the secure “being” of the eternal forms, Buddha gave up the search for a solid foundation, declared everything impermanent and proceeded accordingly. Both Plato and Buddha operated within a fundamentally extra-canonical worldview (interpretations of which are remarkably similar despite the opposing conclusions at which they arrive)). Only the Biblical framework places humankind’s continuity and existential security in the hands of a Creator God who by his very nature as God upholds humankind from the outside. While the Buddha looked at the fading flower and found grounds for an all-encompassing impermanence, Christians (and Jews) see in the dying grass the proof of our need for and radical dependence upon God’s word, God’s power, and God’s grace.
But in order to demonstrate further to what extent there are intriguing parallels between Buddhism and Christianity let us dip into a few words by Saint Gregory of Nyssa. Like the Buddha, Gregory sees a problem in desire for material possessions. In his allegorical interpretation of the brick making of the ancient Israelites in Egypt Gregory compares the constant filling and emptying of the brick mold to our appetite for material possessions and finite values. Such things fill us only for a moment; leave us empty and yearning to be filled again. These things may fill us momentarily but they cannot fulfill us. As Gregory says, “Those who yearn after the pleasures of the clay and keep on filling themselves with them never keep the space which receives them full; for although it is always being filled, it becomes empty again before the next pouring. If [anyone continues to crave only the clay] be becomes empty and a vacant container once more for something else.”18 In many ways Gregory, like Augustine, envisions us as empty containers that cannot be filled and fulfilled except by cultivating a desire for God himself. Again, as has already been pointed out, unlike Buddhism, Christianity (and certainly Gregory) emphasizes desire for God as our first priority, while not negating the importance and the secondary place of other loves.
Scripture is well aware of human frailty and the Christian mystical tradition has sought to emphasis this fact in order to instill in the soul a desire for God alone, but it should be pointed out that Scripture also affirms basic human loves. In Ephesians 5:25-33, for example, Paul compares Christ’s love for his Bride the church to the love between a husband and wife. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity affirms married love as the sacrament of Christ’s own love and attachment to his Church. In some respects we may even say that there is divine imperative with regards to love and attachment (in contradistinction to Buddhist detachment) in that Christ, though he was the form of God, entered into human life in order to redeem it and fulfill it. Christ would not have entered into human form had he not loved his creation from its very inception. Desire for others and attachment to them is not wrong in and of itself, according to our Scriptures. In fact, we could pile up Scripture after Scripture both in the Old and New Testament that takes God’s love and attachment to human beings to be of paramount importance, passages that compares God’s love to the love between husband and wife, and passage that seek to illicit our desire for God as the most basic form of obedience – a movement in which we find our final fulfillment. As Saint Augustine says, “to praise you is the desire of man, a little piece of your creation. You stir man to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”19
So far we have found agreement between Buddhism and Christianity in one respect. Both contain strong denunciations of inordinate craving and misplaced desire. But Buddhism would go as step further than Christianity and declare illusory all craving whatsoever (including the desire to exist). Christianity cannot go this far because we have faith in a God who saw fit to create the world and declare the world as such to be good, though it must find its fulfillment in God’s love and power and grace. Buddhism extrapolates an entire metaphysical and cosmological system from the isolated experience of frustrated desire, a sacred canopy that serves to further confirm such experiences as Buddhist experiences. Nevertheless, in the matter of concrete Christian witness, affirmation of the Buddhist critique of inordinate desire is not only tactful or good strategy; it is also necessary for faithfulness to our own tradition. Indeed, we can accept half of Lord Buddha’s diagnosis, the half that suggests that desire for things cannot bring fulfillment, and that such desire is indeed the source of much of our suffering. There is a strong tradition in the church that emphasizes some of these basic points, in agreement with some aspects of the Four Noble Truths (especially the contemplative traditions, and more specifically, Eastern Christian theology and spiritual practice). But it should be added that in only accepting “half” of Buddha’s diagnosis and rejecting most of the metaphysical presuppositions that inform even that half of Buddhist interpretation we are no longer really interpreting Buddhism, but planting ourselves firmly within our own Christian tradition. Thus in the final analysis one must be honest and simply state that we as Christians cannot accept large portions of Buddhist thought and practice, and that our appreciation of Lord Buddha’s teachings will be selective and re-interpreted within the Christian framework.20 Be that as it may, as Saint Thomas Aquinas has said, one cannot enter into a dialogue until one is able to agree on at least one point with one’s interlocutor. The illusory nature of material pleasure and other misplaced desires can be one such starting point in a potential Buddhist-Christian encounter, a place where the gospel’s difference can unfold naturally through an initial affirmation of similarity.
In summary, the Christian tradition, the Old and New Testaments, the church fathers and various contemplatives and mystics throughout the tradition have maintained two simultaneous things: acknowledgment of our state of becoming, our fragility, our decay, and the fleeting and unfulfilling nature of merely material pleasure. Insofar as we focus on this fact we can see a point of contact with Buddhism. Yet Christianity (and Judaism, I presume) would uphold love of and desire for God as the clear alternative to the instability of craving for material pleasure. Furthermore, because Christianity believes in a triune God, a God who is not only the goal of all striving, but also the Creator and the passionate Redeemer, our affirmation of human loves and simple human goodness and affection can also find a place of meaning and value.
In the above I have tried to both share appreciation for basic Buddhist tenets, and attempt to take account to what extent my appreciation of Buddhism has already been shaped by Christian emphases that were part of my own tradition. This essay has demonstrated a number of things: 1) That in “looking” at the religious other we can be called back to a more basic form of faithfulness within our own tradition. The dynamic interaction as we grapple with differences and similarities can be enormously fruitful (and humbling) as we see in the so-called “other” the reflections of Christ’s own way and walk.21 2) That there are indeed similarities between Buddhism and Christianity and that those similarities can be talked about all the while emphasizes the radically different conclusions each perspective draws from the shared premises. 3) That attention to similarities between Christianity and Buddhism can help the tactful and humble witness share elements of the faith that Buddhists would agree with, all the while waiting expectantly for questions from the other regarding the differences. A precarious combination of humility and honesty is called for in such situations.
I will end by simply confessing my continuing admiration for the words of Buddha and his followers. Christianity has always been a borrowing religion, and I suggest that study of Buddhism is so compelling that we cannot help but the see the world in new lights through the mediation of its auspices – lights that, however dimly and unexpectantly, participate in the He who is Light, in whom there is no darkness at all.
Kung, Hans. Christianity and the World Religions: Paths of Dialogue with Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Translated by Peter Heinegg. Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Company, 1986, 377.
This has been my own experience, but also that of others, see Sallie King’s description of her journey toward Buddhism in: King, Sallie B. "The Mommy and the Yogi." In Beside Still Waters: Jews, Christians, and the Way of the Buddha, edited by John P. Keenan Harold Kasimov, and Kinda Klepinger Keenan, 157-70. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2003, 158.
Rahula, Walpola. What the Buddha Taught. Second Edition. New York: Grove Weidenfeld, 1974, 16-20.
Bodhi, Bhikku, ed. In the Buddha's Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon. Boston, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2005, 37.
Trungpa, Chogyam. Cutting through Spiritual Materialism. Boston: Shambhala, 1973, 27.
Chodron, Pema. When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times. Boston: Shambhala, 2005, 48-49.
Of course, like much that has already been discussed, the law of karma is much more complex than this paragraph makes clear. I only highlighted the most important aspect for the purposes of this paper. For more clarity on this subject, see: Rahula, 32-34, and: Thera, Nyanaponika. "Karma and Its Fruit." In The Buddha and His Teachings, edited by Samuel Bercholz and Sherab Chodzin Kohn, 122-29. Boston: Shambhala, 1993.
King, 164; Substitute “Christian” for “Western” and I think this sentence would make more sense given the predominance of Christian language in much of Western history and culture.
It should be pointed out, lest we misrepresent King, that she affirms her Buddhism despite some reservations when comparing her love for her child to the Bodhisattva vow (where a being on the verge of Nirvana vows to enter and reenter Samsara for the sake of all sentient beings, until all are guided to enlightenment). Nevertheless, it seems to me that the example of the Bodhisattva and the type of compassion embodied as a virtue within the Mahayana tradition does not minimize the fact that in the final analysis salvation in Buddhism must entail a final total detachment from all things.
Gregory of Nyssa: The Life of Moses. Translated by Abraham J. Malherbe and Everett Ferguson. Edited by Richard J. Payne, The Classics of Western Spirituality. New York: Paulist Press, 1978. 68.
Saint Augustine Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick, Oxford World's Classics. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1991, 3.
This is not triumphalism or arrogance, it is simply what every religious tradition must do to stay coherent. The Dalai Lama and other Buddhists see fit to interpret Jesus through there own Buddhist lenses, categorizing him accordingly. Although I as a Christian think they have misinterpreted Jesus, I completely understand why they must so interpret him. On the re-interpretive imperative of religious traditions see: Marshall, Bruce D. "Absorbing the World: Christianity and the Universe of Truths." In Theology and Dialogue: Essays in Conversation with George Lindbeck, edited by Bruce D. Marshall, 69-102. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1990.
To invoke an example drawn from popular culture, in the film “Seven Years in Tibet” Heinrich Harrer, the famous mountain climber attempts to demonstrate his prowess and mastery to a local Tibetan woman he finds attractive. She, on the other hand, finds his approach unattractive and tells him, “the difference between your country and ours is that while your people honor the person who climbs up the mountain, as Buddhists we admire the one who makes himself small for the sake of others.” If this notion is not a reflection of the Christ-life I am not sure what is.
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