I read your own article on how you were the English teacher for a Zen Master and became, over time, a Christian influenced by Buddhism. Thank you.
I am a Korean Christian, and I am also quite drawn to Buddhism. Somehow Buddhism speaks to a side of my life that I don’t find in church. However, I shared your article with my pastor, and he said that you did not answer many “hard questions” that he would want to ask you. My pastor is a very good man, and I like him a lot. He is not a biblical fundamentalist. But he does worry that you, an American, stray too far from what he calls traditional Christianity. I want to share with you some of the “hard questions” he asks. Would you answer some of them?
A Christian Friend from Korea
Your pastor is right to say that my article does not address some hard questions. I like your pastor. He is honest to you and wants to be honest to God, too. Each question he raises deserves independent and thorough treatment. I hope the response below might provide occasion for the two of you to talk more. I want to offer thumbnail responses to each of the questions he raises, knowing that each question deserves extensive discussion. If you want further response please write again. Also, please explain to your pastor that I do not think all Christians need to learn from Buddhists. There are many wonderful Christians who have no interest in learning from Buddhism at all; just as there are many wonderful Buddhists who have no interest in learning from Christianity. I just want to speak to Christians who are drawn to Buddhism. Like you.
Eight Hard Questions
1. What is Christianity, anyway? Is it a set of beliefs? Is it a way of living? Is it already defined by its past? Is it evolving? Can it change over time?
Christianity is a way of living which can evolve and change over time. In the language of East Asia, it is the dao of one’s life. It is more than a way of believing, though it involves beliefs. It is being open to the sacrament of each present moment, and to God’s indwelling call toward wisdom, compassion, and creativity, with help from Jesus. People can believe many different things and participate in this way. There is no single “right” theology.
2. Why turn to Buddhism in the first place? Does this mean that there something missing in Christianity? If so, is it all right for a Christian to acknowledge this? Or, by contrast, should a Christian claim that Christianity is self-contained and complete as it is, without need of outside influence?
All religions have insights, but none have all the truth. The insights they carry can complement, not contradict, one another. For example, Buddhism may be especially wise when it comes to the interconnectedness of all things and Christianity may be wise when it comes to the forgiveness. Just because one religion contains “truth” does not mean another is “false.” They can both be true in different ways.
3. What about God? As a Christians learn from Buddhism can they continue to believe in God and to pray to God, even as many forms of Buddhism are agnostic on the question of God? Can a prayerful approach to life, in which one addresses God as a Thou, be reconciled with traditional Buddhist meditation, in which one rests in silence, without addressing a divine being?
Yes, a Christian can learn from Buddhism and at the same time have faith in God as one who listens and responds to prayers. This God has many faces, and some of them are Asian and African and Latin American. Whitehead offers an especially helpful way of appreciating how God is an exemplification of, not an exception to, the interconnectedness to which Buddhists awaken.
4. What about Christ? What role can Christ play in the life of a Christian influenced by Buddhism? In the life of the Christian influenced by Buddhism, do Christ and the Buddha demand equal allegiance? If so, does this involve divided loyalties? In turning to Buddhism, is a Christian being disloyal to Christ?
For a Christian influenced by Buddhism, Christ can be understood as the historical Jesus and also as an indwelling and universal spirit – the Logos or Wisdom of God – which is everywhere throughout the world. In this second sense, Christ is the light which enlightens all people (John I:4). Christ is in the enlightenment of the Buddhist, the insight of the artist, and the wisdom of the grandmother – even if she happens not to be Christian. To follow Christ is to be open to wisdom wherever found, trustful that it is of God and from God, thus named or not. To be loyal to Christ is to be open to truth.
5. Can a Christian be a Buddhist, too? If so would this mean that a Christian is half Christian and half Buddhist, or all Christian and all Buddhist? How would this Christian understand himself or herself? When asked "What is your religion?," what would he or she say?
Different Christians will answer in different ways. Some might call themselves Buddhist-Christians, suggest a synthesis of the two traditions. But if they are Christian they will naturally be drawn to Jesus in a special way, wanting to share in his journey. For them, it may be best to say that they are Christians influenced by Buddhism, acknowledging the centrality of Jesus and his journey for their lives.
6. Is learning from Buddhism fair to Buddhism? If Christians learn from aspects of Buddhism without converting to Buddhism in a wholehearted way, are they really being fair to Buddhism? Doesn't such an approach violate the very ethos of Buddhism or any religion, insofar as a religion requires wholehearted commitment in order for its depths to be realized? Indeed, can ideas and practices from a given religion be abstracted from the contexts in which they emerged and transplanted into other contexts, or do they cease to have their meaning when such abstraction occurs?
Yes, ideas and practices from different religions can be de-territorialized from their original settings and re-territorialized in other settings. This happens all the time. Ideas within Christianity have been de-territorialized and re-territorialized in other settings. A good example is the way in which ideas, originating in Christian settings, have helped nourish the lives of people in other settings. Similarly, ideas in Buddhism can help nourish the lives of Christians and others. Many Buddhists celebrate this possibility; they are glad that others are learning from Buddhism without claiming to be “Buddhist.” The ideas and practices may evolve as they do so, but there is nothing wrong with this. A Buddhist idea can be internalized by a Christian without requiring a wholehearted commitment on the part of that Christian to Buddhism, and the other way around. Process thinkers call this “mutual transformation” and believe that it is a healthy fruit of inter-religious dialogue.
7. What can Buddhists learn from Christianity? If Christians can cross over into Buddhism, learn from it, and return with enriched capacities for walking with Christ, cannot Buddhists also cross over into Christianity, learn from it, and return with enriched capacities for practicing the Dharma? Must evangelism be one way: namely that of Christians being evangelized by Buddhists? Or can evangelism be two way, with Buddhists learning from Christianity, too.
Yes, Buddhists can learn from Christianity, too. Still more deeply, they can learn from Christians who, in their lives and ways of living in the world, are living examples of openness, forgiveness, service to the poor, prayerfulness, and trust in the availability of fresh possibilities. Their lives are their teachings. One of the most important forms of Christian evangelism today lies, not in imposing one’s will on others, but in having a receptive and listening heart, so that the other person feels free to be himself or herself. In having the humility to be a good listener, the Christian becomes Christ to that person, and finds Christ in that person, too.
8. What about the pressing needs of the world? As history unfolds with its various crises of war, ethnic tensions, community disintegration, ecological destruction, religious intolerance, overpopulation, and the violation of human rights, does the world have time for Buddhist-Christian dialogue? Is not this dialogue a rather small and perhaps self-indulgent endeavor, compared to the more pressing needs of our time? Wouldn't the time and energy of Christians be better spent if devoted to what the world truly needs today: care and respect for the community of life, social and economic justice, ecological integrity, democracy, non-violence, and peace?
The Christian who learns from Buddhism rightly knows that these pressing needs are important. If her “learning from Buddhism” results in an overemphasis on her own spiritual journey, she lapses into a kind of spiritual narcissism. However, there is no conflict between being concerned for the world and concerned with the well-being of one’s own (selfless) soul. The two can go together, like the Yin and Yang of Daoist philosophy. Activists who do not take personal spirituality seriously often burn out or fall into debilitating despair. Christian-Buddhist dialogue can be a context in which some Christians find the internal freshness required for helping to created beloved communities.