Jesus, Jazz, and Buddhism
Imagine that we – you and I – are waitresses living in Los Angeles. Let’s say that we are not especially religious if that means that we go to church or belong to a community of faith. We feel alienated from organized religion because it too often leads to arrogance, superstition, and divisiveness. But let’s add that somewhere in the depths of our minds we believe in God or something like God. At least we believe in a kind of goodness that dwells somewhere in the heart of reality.
We know that goodness is not the whole story. Every night on the evening news we see stories of rape, murder, and violence. Still goodness seems to have a soft power of its own, worthy of respect and trust. We see it when a neighbor takes her husbands hand and helps him down the steps, when our brother helps our mother out of the car into a wheelchair, and when a car full of teenagers stops for an orange cat crossing the road. We hold onto these scraps of light because they give us inspiration for daily life. Something else we find good is the cultural diversity of Los Angeles itself.  We see this diversity almost every day at the local diner where we work, when we serve people who speak different languages and order different kinds of food. There is something good about the manyness itself. If God exists we hope that God is many, too.
But there is an aspect of Los Angeles that troubles us, too. We have grown tired of celebrity culture with its emphasis on appearance, affluence, and marketable achievement as the measure of a person’s life. There is too much glitter, too much self-absorption, too much shallowness. We feel drawn toward wisdom and compassion, not appearance and affluence, as the goals of life. We do not want to be famous the way Hollywood stars are famous. We want to be famous the way people who smile at sticky children in grocery stores are famous: famous because they smiled back. 
We would also like to be famous to our children: famous because we are good and caring parents who care for them and listen to them. Our husband died in the war in Iraq and we are single parents who are doing our best to bring our children, albeit with help from our family and friends. We love our children very much and it is from them that we have learned something about goodness. As we watch them play we realize that goodness is not about ethics alone but also about spontaneity and joy. We want to bring them up in a way that sees through the glitter of Hollywood and into the sacredness of ordinary life.
As is our custom on a Saturday morning we take them on a walk and drop by the public library, which is close to the center of town where we live. We think reading, too, can be a sacrament: a moment of respite from the hurried pace of life. As we enter the library and make our way toward the children’s section, we see three books on display at the front desk directed toward adults. One of them is called Jesus Before Christianity by Albert Nolan and deals with the life and teachings of the historical Jesus before the religion of Christianity emerges. Another is Living Buddha/Living Christ, written by the Buddhist writer Thich Nhat Hanh and introduces people to the wisdom of Zen Buddhism. And a third is called Moving to Higher Ground: How Jazz can Change Your Life written by the jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and Geoferry Ward. We like the fact that these books are displayed on a single table. It reminds us that the world is small, complex, and multi-cultural. We wonder if insights from Jesus, Buddhism, and Jazz might help us grow a little closer to the goodness in which we place our trust. We check out the books and peruse them that night after we put our children to bed. Here is what we discover.
Jesus supports our anti-glitter campaign. He encourages us to find God in the lives of those who are too often forgotten in an age of consumerism: people at the dawn of life, the twilight of life, in the shadows of life. From him we are reminded that the measure of our life is not how much money we have, or how many possessions we own, or how much we are noticed by others, but rather in how well we love others, particularly those who are vulnerable and neglected. What draws us to Jesus, then, is not the idea that he was a savior who died for the world to free it from the consequences of sin. We know people for whom these ideas are very important and we do not want to argue against them. But what draws us to Jesus is not his divinity but his humanity: his open and hospitable heart.
Buddhism invites us to be sensitive to the interconnections of things and to remember the listening side of love: that side of love which gives other people space to be themselves. It encourages us to live in the sacrament of each present moment, fully present in the here-and-now, rather than living from nostalgia. And it invites us to remember that that all things in life – even the good things – are changing over time. What draws us to Buddhism, then, is not the idea that of a final nirvana after death, into which people can be absorbed after many lifetimes of spiritual pilgrimage. Of course it would be good if this is true. Too many people die with a sense of incompleteness and some with horror; it would be good if the journey continues for them after death, until they can find peace in their hearts. What attracts us to Buddhism is not the image of nirvana. It is how Buddhism might help us live wisely and compassionately in daily life.
Jazz invites us to recognize that our own live are act of improvisation, amid which we make decisions moment-by-moment which are not predetermined, not even by God. It simultaneously invites us to recognize that the universe itself is jazz-like: changing at every moment, filled with novelty and diversity. And it invites us to live with faith and hope: that is, with trust in the availability of fresh possibilities. This trust is quite similar to the faith of Jesus, who was himself someone who trusted in new possibilities from his Abba. We also see something like this trust in the compassion of the Buddha, who spent forty years after his death seeking to help heal others from their suffering. Both of these people – Jesus and the Buddha – were jazz-like in their capacities to improvise from the teachings and practices of their own cultural traditions, offering hope to others. Perhaps we can be jazz-like, too.
This does not mean that we are going to “become Christian” or “become Buddhist” or “become Jazz enthusiasts.” We are not especially fond of labels like this. Too often they function as flags which people wave in front of other people’s faces, trying to mark themselves off and be noticed. We remember a poem we read many years ago by an Asian-influenced poet. It described a world in which ordinary people and bears and waterfalls and butterflies were already awakened to the wisdom of inter-connectedness but in which a few people had not yet awakened and invented “Buddhism” to help them grow in such awakening. The already awakened ones were patient with the novices but the novices themselves grew overly enthusiastic and tried to convert everyone to “Buddhism.” They had too much conviction. The butterflies had to come and ask them to put down the flags and feel the wind in their faces. This is how we would like to live. If God exists we sense that God must be like the wind, moving and flowing in a gentle and loving way. We would like to trust the winds of love, wisdom, creativity, and integrity.
A Note from the Editor
As I edit this website I have had this woman in mind. I will call her Lydia. She is a combination of many people I know; I see her in many friends and family members, in people with whom I work, and in myself. I also see some of Lydia in two communities of faith in which I am active. I am active in a local Methodist church and also in a Zen meditation group that meets on Monday nights at a local Episcopal church. Like Lydia most of my friends at church are quite troubled when “Christianity” becomes a flag that people wave in people’s faces. We are not evangelical if that means thinking that everyone on the planet needs to become Christian. We are glad that there are many religions, not just one, and we are not disturbed when people are spiritual but not religious, if religious affiliation feels wrong to them. We think it is more important to trust the winds of the spirit, and thus to walk in love as Christ walked in love, than to foist a religion called “Christianity” onto others when it may not be right for them.
Like Lydia, we are also troubled by consumerism and the toll it takes on people, communities, and the earth. It troubles us, as it does Lydia, that so much of the world is permeated by a culture of consumerism which is antithetical to life’s beauty and deeper meanings. By consumerism I mean a cultural atmosphere that emerges in a society when it is saturated with market-driven values such as competition and a preoccupation with status, and when other more social values such as compassion and wisdom fall away. Some of its tangible effects are conspicuous consumption, wasteful consumption, and over-consumption. But these tangible effects are mere symptoms of a deeper philosophy of life that can overwhelm an individual and permeate a society and ultimately consumerism is this philosophy of life. It tells people that they are fulfilled or made whole by purchasing more and more consumer goods each year without ever having to say “enough.” It teaches them to measure their own worth by how attractive they are by consumer-driven standards; by how much money they have; and by how much status they have in terms of the goods they own. It tells them that they are consumers first and citizens second, such that their private good is more important than the public good. It tells that that paid jobs are more important than their families, and that paid work is the only work worth doing. It says life is a race toward material success, in which there must be winners and losers. When market-driven values such as these dominate a society, things fall apart. Being ambitious becomes more important than being good; being attractive becomes more important than being kind; being materially successful becomes more important than being a good parent, neighbor, and friends. People are more interested in new clothes than old friends. The social costs of consumerism are excessive individualism, a neglect of family and community, an overemphasis on money, a compulsively busy lifestyle, and a sense of emptiness that comes when life is reduced to things.
Of course this is not the whole story. There are many people in the United States and other parts of the world who want to enjoy the benefits of healthy and modest consumption, but who do not want to accept the religion of consumerism. They want to live in a world where the well-being of life, not the well-being of the market, is the ultimate standard of measurement. They realize that once survival needs are met, the purpose of life is not to accumulate more possessions and status, but rather to enjoy meaningful relations with friends and family, to enjoy work that contributes to the well-being of society, and to live with respect and care for the greater community of life. They quietly embody one version of the American Dream which was highlighted by Martin Luther King Jr., the dream of beloved community.
In the United States today there are two versions of the American Dream that compete with one another, but that are intertwined within the hearts and minds of many citizens. We might call them the Upward Mobility version and the Beloved Community version, and both have roots in the American past. The Upward Mobility version has become exceedingly materialistic. It is about making money in order to buy a home and a car and take expensive vacations. The purpose of these activities is not simply to keep up with the Jones; it is get ahead of them. People who subscribe to this version of the Dream imagine life on the analogy of a ladder. The aim of life, they say, is to climb this ladder and make your way to the top, even if this climbing involved leaving others behind lower rungs.
The other version of the American Dream – the Beloved Community version – is much more communitarian and, to be honest, closer to the vision of Jesus and the Buddha. It is about welcoming others in a spirit of friendship, taking care of them, and building communities with no one left behind. And it is about being imaginative and hopeful and then channeling that creativity in ways that truly help others rather than simply serving oneself. On this view the purpose of life is not to climb a ladder of upward mobility leaving others behind. It is to share in their destinies. The ladder is turned on its side and becomes a circle.
These two versions of the American Dream are inside the minds and hearts of most Americans. This means that we Americans are often torn between measuring our “success” in terms of the size of our pocketbooks or the size of our hearts. If we are shaped by religious traditions the second voice – the voice of compassion – is the truest. We know that on our deathbed the question will not be: How much money did you make? Instead it will be: How well did you love others? Nevertheless, the rise of consumerism in American culture over the last century has made the first voice – the voice of materialism – quite loud. How could it be otherwise? The gospel of materialism is preached twenty-four hours a day in advertisements on radio and television. Along with Lydia I seek a new American Dream, one closer to that of Martin Luther King’s vision of beloved community. That is why she is a soul-mate to me, even as I am a churchgoer.
Admittedly, though, if Lydia met me and asked me about my own beliefs, she would recognize some differences. For one thing I believe in a personal God: a God who hears and responds to prayers and who cares for every person, even every sparrow, with a tender care. I do not think of God as all-powerful; instead I think that God works through the soft power of love, just as she does. But I do think that the spirit of love in which she places her trust is grounded in a compassionate heart who shares in the joys and sufferings of all living beings. For another thing, I think that Jesus is more than a moral example; he is someone with whom I feel we have a personal relationship and whose death on the cross was an act of sacrifice for all of us, Lydia included. Finally and importantly, I find value in the community of friends I have at church. Two of our favorite sacraments are hymns and potluck suppers. Even if I didn’t believe in God I think I would go to church for the music and the bread pudding.
Nevertheless, I understand why Lydia avoids church and I respect her doubts concerning God. Sometimes I have them, too. I realize that some more conservative Christians worry about people who self-consciously avoid religious affiliation. They fear that this approach to life leads people into a shallow life of wandering about, tasting this aspect of one religion and that aspect of another, without entering deeply into any single path. Some also fear that being “spiritual but not religious” can involve a certain kind of carnivorous approach to life, in which other traditions are approached in a disrespectful way, almost as if they were mere items on a grocery shelf to be bought according to the whims of the ego. Certainly there can be a danger in eclecticism, if it amounts to picking and choosing according to the whims of the ego. It is the culture of consumerism itself, transformed into spiritual materialism.
Still I have a special appreciation for people who cannot affiliate with any particular tradition, including Christianity. In our age of cultural and spiritual globalization, a certain kind of eclecticism is healthy and spiritually necessary. In the first place there is wisdom in different religious points of view and it would simply be foolish to ignore that wisdom in the interests of being completely loyal to only one religion. Of course the world’s religions also contain foolishness, and this includes Christianity. There is no need to elevate any religious tradition to perfection. But the many religions also contain forms of wisdom, which are the result of thousands of years of experimentation, on the part of people on every continent, who have tried their best to figure out how to live. Along the way they have discovered some ideas and practices that are relevant to the whole world. It is irresponsible to hide from that wisdom in the interests of exclusive loyalty.
Additionally and importantly, people who are spiritual but not religious serve as a prophetic critique of the excessive zeal with which some people follow their particular religious traditions. Often we hear religious people valorizing the virtue of zeal of fervency when it comes to following a religious path. It seems to me a strong case can also be made for moderation and flexibility. At this stage in world history someone should write a book called In Praise of Lukewarm Religion. We live in a time when hardened and restrictive religious identities, while giving people a strong sense of identity, too easily function as fences by which others are shut out. The world has had its fill of people who are overly preoccupied with building fences between themselves and others in the interests of carving out identities which give them security. It is time for Christians and others to loosen up, to hold onto our identities – religious identities – with a more relaxed grasp, trusting in the spirit of goodness.
Note: The images in the second paragraph, including that of the orange cat, are indebted to the poem Collecting Light by Deborah Cooper; the images in the third paragagraph, including the one of sticky children, are indebted to the poem Famous by Naomi Shihab Nye. I am grateful to both poets for their allowing me to borrow them.