Lesson 4: Buddhism

BuddhismI am not sure whether any of my friends would call themselves Christian Buddhists; but in the “if it works for you” world in which we live, some certainly could be regarded as such. They talk of complementing their Christianity with Buddhist practices and understandings, describing these as improving what they perceive to be shortcomings.

This usually involves regarding Buddhism as more realistic in certain areas. For instance, it contends that we bring most of our suffering on ourselves and that we could do far more to free ourselves from pain. My friends find this more helpful than preaching our suffering is a result of being trapped in sin from which only Christ can rescue us. They further suggest this concentration on our helplessness has led by default to all kinds of false teachings, such the prosperity gospel that proclaims God freely provides true believers with what they covet. The Buddha reminds us that there is practical wisdom behind “Do not covet” when he teaches craving is a major source of pain. Covetousness or craving can never be satisfied and eventually leads to frustration, violence, and increased suffering.

The conventional response is to deride this fairly popular blending of Christianity and Buddhism as fickle heresy. After all, one religion builds on the proclamation of a very particular deity, and the other has no god at all. One assumes the existence of a very singular self, and the other has an entirely different picture of humanity. However, before dismissing this as shallow thought, we should remember some regard the ability to hold two contradictory statements in your mind at the same time as the measure of true intelligence.

Better still, Barbara Brown Taylor offers a more helpful perspective when she suggests my friends are really consciously or unconsciously using Buddhist thought to bring out parts of Jesus’ teaching and ministry that we have often lost. Christ constantly speaks about recognizing the natural consequences of our actions and taking responsibility for what we do. He, also, claims this begins with repentance or rethinking in order to become aware of what is really happening all around us. For instance, we will not be anxious about tomorrow if we see God’s love cares for even birds and flowers.

Taylor’s perspective also extends to her holy envy for the nonviolence of Buddhism. The Buddha reminds us that human suffering is the major concern of religious thought and action. Even a quick perusal of the Gospels shows Jesus also addressed the underlying causes of poverty, illness, death, and hatred in his ministry and teaching. And like the Buddha, he warns violence promotes pain and suffering while solving nothing. Jesus’ call to love unconditionally even our enemies is certainly one of history’s best and most challenging expressions of nonviolence.

It is tempting to compare and evaluate the two approaches, perhaps asking if transforming our thoughts or actions is more beneficial, but that is not really the issue. It is far more important to appreciate the common wisdom in this time and place. Taylor helps us appreciate that the Jesus found in the Gospels is far more open to different ways for alleviating human suffering than many of his present followers. The Christ constantly refused to come up with definitive programs, often answering a question with a story or another question. His intention was to heal and transform, not to win an argument or build a systematic theology.

Along the same lines, I have to admit my friends’ attempts to blend features of the two religions have also enriched my faith. They constantly force me to ponder what I truly believe, and that has involved remembering parts of Jesus’ teaching I have been passing over lightly.

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