I visited my my family this weekend for a picnic. They live in Chicago. I live almost eight hours away and other family members live even farther. It is rare to get us all together and so I felt compelled to show. I had to deal with many questions of my Buddhist faith. Most of my family is heavily invested into their Christianity and to them, the concepts of any other faith are considered false.
So how do you speak with a Christian that is trying to understand that Buddhism a wholesome practice for everyone?
WHAT KIND OF BUDDHIST or CHRISTIAN ARE YOU?
The first issue that must be addressed, I realized, is that when we say Christian or Buddhist there is an assumption that all Buddhists and Christians practice their faiths homogenously.
Of course, this is not true. Ask a Catholic about their faith and it becomes clear that there are very significant differences between that belief system and that of a Protestant, Mormon, Baptist, etc. Even within the overall acceptance that Jesus is the Son of God, there is a profound difference in almost every other aspect of practice and understanding.
So while some Christian faiths are less fundamental and open to diverging concepts being incorporated into their daily religious practice, there are other sects of Christianity that are more strict in their understanding of Christ.
I really cannot profess to know much about which particular non-denominational Christian group my family follows but it was not open to ideas of a separation of secular and spiritual practice. As they asked more about my practice, it was obvious to me that my family did not believe in their own concepts of free will.
That is not to say that they didn’t believe in free will, but in their eyes all decisions were guided correctly through a divining rod in their soul to the right directions and choices they make.
But this is not the case of all Christians.
As we discussed our faiths during a family picnic, I had to acknowledge that my sect of Buddhism was also very different than other traditions. As a American Theravadan Buddhist, my practice and understanding of Buddhism does differ in flavor.
Each year, I help organize a multi-traditional Vesak ceremony (the celebration of the Birth, Enlightenment and Passing of the Buddha). It is fascinating to see the variety of practices and divergent concepts of what Buddhism means to each of them.
So the first realization that must be made in trying to reconcile anyone who chooses to be a Christian-Buddhist (or Buddhist in the Christian Tradition) is that their combined belief systems must incorporate the similarities of the Buddha and Jesus.
WHERE JESUS AND BUDDHA AGREE
There are many books on the topic of where Buddhism and Christianity agree in philosophy. The same can be made of most (if not all) religions. Some of the key factors of what is best of the Bible and Buddhism both converge on the areas of ethics, kindness, giving, and love.
Even the concept of sin, depending on how you interpret the Bible, is the same.
On the “Sermon on the Mount” Jesus states many concepts that would agree with many Buddhist traditions:
- Be humble
- Be compassionate (a possible translation of sympathy through mourning)
- Live simply (a possible translation of meek)
- Be ethical (a possible translation of righteous)
- Be merciful
- Be pure of heart
- Be a peacemaker
- Do not live in fear to do what is right
- Be an example to others (“the light of the world”)
- Do not murder (the Buddhist First Precept)
- Do not commit adultery (The Buddhist Third Precept)
- Sin is not only found in action but in intention (the Buddhist concept of volitional action creating karma)
- Keep your promises (The Buddhist Fourth Precept)
- Turn the other cheek (The Buddhist concept of compassion or karuna)
- Do charity because it is in your heart to do so (the concept of dana)
- Do not judge ( The Buddhist concept of the three poisons: hatred, greed and delusion)
- Always be seeking and questioning ( “seek and you will find .. “)
- Beware of false prophets and judge them by the fruit they bare (the sutta of the Kalamas)
In many ways, this seminal talk of Jesus encompasses almost all of the major concepts of Buddhism.
WHERE JESUS AND BUDDHA DISAGREE
The definitive dividing line for Christianity and Buddhism is also set out in the “Sermon on the Mount.” While Buddhism is a faith of self-realization, Christianity is a faith of God’s revelation.
In order to be Christian, you must believe that there is a God and that Jesus was his only begotten son who came to Earth. (Well for most Christians).
But the Buddha purposefully did not speak of a creator God. He also lived 500 years before Jesus and would not have known him (although there is speculation that Jesus would have known Buddha’s teachings). Buddha not being a theist or atheist left alone the issue of God as irrelevant to his practice.
“I teach only the understanding of suffering,” said Buddha, “and the end of suffering.”
However, if Jesus is the way to salvation, can you believe in the practices of the Buddha and still be Christian? Isn’t Jesus the only way to the end of suffering?
For those who follow a Christian Buddhist path, Jesus himself could best present the answer. “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” said Jesus, “and unto God what is God’s.”
Buddhism is a faith in the practice of here and now. Christianity is a practice for the afterlife.
BUT WHAT ABOUT NIRVANNA AND HEAVEN?
For those Buddhists who practice for an understanding of the afterlife, incorporating Christianity would be almost impossible. The concept of rebirth precludes the idea of an eternal heaven.
The Christian faith requires the concept of heaven (although not historically a concept of hell). There is a God, a Heaven, and Jesus. So Buddhists who embrace the cosmology of certain sects of Buddhism or atheism, could never entertain the idea of Christian Buddhists: just as Christians who believe God is continually participating in every thought of their life could never believe in a happiness that is caused by their own free will.
But what of God being in every aspect of the world? Effecting every action? Christians who consider adding Buddhism to their practice may find others like my family who think that no movements are made in the universe without God’s intervention. I would direct them to Kings 19:11-13
The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. 12 After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. 13 When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
In this understanding of God, the Creator would be one that does not interfere with the world in which we live, but only touches the heart of man to let him know he is there. It is up to man to make his volitional choices using his free will, and making his own happiness.
The story of Job tells of the story of a faithful man who is beset by all sorts of misfortune, but he “chooses” to keep his faith. While Jesus performs miracles and teaches his gospel, he always leaves these parables as tools so that his followers can make their own choices towards happiness.
The Buddha does the same as Jesus, but without the need to exclude the idea of other faiths. The Buddha said for us to always question and practice and see the truth by the fruits of our efforts. If a Christian can grow and develop his faith by adding the tools of the Buddha, then I see it as a good thing.
WHAT DO I BELIEVE?
My Buddhism is one of today. A businessman once said, “Success is always the by product of work not the goal.” I believe that this is true with all faith. To practice Buddhism for a goal to reach Nirvanna is to miss the point of my Buddhist practice. I practice to live the fullest and happiest life possible. That requires developing myself with the tools and lessons provided by the Buddha. If I were to become enlightened, that is a byproduct of what I think is important.
I strive to reach the four sublime states of compassion, sympathetic joy, unconditional friendliness, and equanimity in my being.
It is true that I do not follow the Christian faith, but I have studied it for many years. I believe that Christianity is not about trying to get to Heaven, but embodying the essence of Christ, who encompassed the four sublime states. A Christian wanting to achieve these qualities can enrich his faith by adding Buddhist practices and not be hypocritical.
While I do not follow Christianity, I do not deny it. While I do not believe in the afterlife as they do, if those who follow it embody the qualities of Jesus in the here and now, then I embrace their practice as successful and good.
Too many practitioners of all faiths focus on the rewards at the end of our journey, when the rewards and purpose are the journey itself.