Friday, April 13, 2007

Christian Buddhists? Buddhist Christians?

I have found the question of the compatibility (or lack thereof) of Christianity and Buddhism to be very contentious in certain circles, so I thought I might take the topic out for a spin. So can you be a Christian and a Buddhist? Of course. And absolutely not. Given the choice between the two answers, which would you prefer? But before you decide, let's take a closer look at how we can arrive at these two mutually exclusive answers.

Let's start with the rejection of compatibility. That's not too hard to understand. You start by presuming that being a Christian requires the following beliefs:


  1. there is an anthropomorphic Supreme Being, that is, a Creator God who has a will and a consciousness with a personality; more or less this God is like a human being without all the faults and with unlimited knowledge and power; as a perfect Being this God is changeless and eternal.
  2. this same God made the Universe at some point in the remote past and either directly created or set in motion the creation of human beings who were initially in total union with the divine will.
  3. sin is separation from direct union with the mind/will of God
  4. original sin is the story (interpreted figuratively or literally) of how humanity became separated from God, that is, how they came to neglect an inherent awareness of the Divine.
  5. the story of the Gospels is the story of how God became manifest in the human world as Jesus Christ in order to bridge the gulf that came to separate humanity from the Divine; this was accomplished by Christ acting as a substitute for all those who deserved eternal separation from God because of either original sin (which is inherited) or their own sins (acts separating them from/going against their sense of the Divine).
  6. Jesus was crucified, laid to rest in a tomb, and experienced a bodily resurrection after three days, eventually directly ascending to Heaven, the realm beyond the mortal world where the heart of God dwells.
  7. only by believing these stories and accepting the grace of God offered through Christ can a person's soul escape eternal torment/annihilation.

On the other hand, you assume that being a Buddhist means believing teachings which state:

  1. everything is impermanent (so a changeless, eternal God as required above would not be compatible with this view) because everything is empty (of intrinsic existence); this is also argued to go against the concept of an eternal soul if a soul is also supposed to somehow be eternal and fixed.
  2. even heaven and hell realms are temporary (and possible figurative/metaphoric) and reflections of our choices, i.e. karma; there is no appeal to a Supreme Being to change our karmic consequences.
  3. everything is interdependent via the concept of dependent co-arising, so again, there is no existence outside of this connected web of causality and presumably no place for an eternal, changeless Being.
  4. one may experience many lifetimes before being liberated from the cycle of birth and death (this can be seen literally or figuratively), which conflicts with the idea in traditional Christianity of living one life then being judged for eternity.
  5. the narrow exclusivity of the previously described beliefs of Christianity doesn't fit well with the idea of following the teachings of a different religion.

The conflict, then, between a traditional Christian view and a common Western Buddhist outlook, is fairly obvious. A deeper or more comprehensive comparison and analysis is certainly possible, but even at such a superficial level as has been outlined here one can apprehend why Buddhism and Christianity are often said to be mutually exclusive. Yet there are people who write books comparing the saying of the Buddha and Christ, as well as those who claim to benefit from a syncretic belief involving Jesus and the Buddha (and perhaps other teachers). To appreciate why this may be so, let us consider the distinction of being a Christian Buddhist and a Buddhist Christian.

The distinction between a Christian Buddhist and a Buddhist Christian was not really relevant for discussing why the two sacred traditions are incompatible - no matter how you mix them it doesn't work. But what about those who do mix it up? Presumably, the latter label takes precedence, i.e. a Buddhist Christian would be a Christian first and a Buddhist second (and vice versa). A Buddhist Christian can still adhere to most of the aforementioned list of traditional Christian beliefs while simultaneously picking and choosing certain aspects of Buddhist teachings and practices, such as meditation. A Christian Buddhist can likewise adhere to Buddhist teachings (including but not limited to those listed above) while simultaneously picking and choosing certain aspects of Christian teachings, such as the admonition to love others as ourselves.

Then there are what may be called non-traditional Christians (which traditional Christians, and even many Buddhists, would likely not recognize as being "true" Christians). Many of their beliefs have been on the wrong end of history and have been declared heresies and false teachings, or in some cases are simply in the minority/ignored by most practicing Christians. Yet in the ongoing dialog with eastern mysticism, Hinduism, Buddhism, etc, many of these beliefs are being reconsidered and in some cases resuscitated. Sounds good. Let's get a brief sketch of what that *might* look like:

  1. "God" is a term for the endless potential from/in which which all existence/universes spring, known as I AM, as the Tao, as the essence of shunyata and tathata expressed as the dharmakaya, and other hopeless attempts to name the ineffable, which is simultaneously transcendent and immanent.
  2. in an attempt to grasp and make this Source familiar, myths arose in which God was fashioned in our own image as an anthropomorphic Supreme Being, that is, a Creator God who has a will and a consciousness with a personality; more or less this God is like a human being without all the faults and with unlimited knowledge and power; as a perfect Being this God is changeless and eternal.
  3. creation is a perpetual act of the Divine in which all of existence participates, arising and dissolving in a continuous flow of what can be and what is.
  4. sin is separation from direct union with the mind/will of God; rather than a blood curse inherited from the disobedience of Adam and Eve, it is a description of how certain actions, speech, and thoughts lead one away from the truth of the fundamental inter-connection of all things and our own inherent completeness as an individual within a greater whole.
  5. original sin is the story (interpreted figuratively) of how humanity became separated from God, that is, how they came to neglect an inherent awareness of the Divine.
  6. the story of the Gospels is the story of how God became manifest in the human world as Jesus Christ in order to bridge the gulf that came to separate humanity from the Divine; it is an ahistorical (its value goes beyond its historical reality) story providing an exemplar of the the proper relationship of humanity and the Divine.
  7. the story of Jesus being crucified, being laid to rest in a tomb, and experiencing a bodily resurrection after three days, is a part of the larger ahistorical teaching; the truth of the story lies in the heart, not in what cannot be verified or rejected empirically.
  8. the message of Christ is one of reconciliation with God and the abundance of undifferentiated grace; the plight of the unsaved is a depiction of the suffering of those who have not been reconciled to God, whether it be through religion or not.


In the case of such Christians (or those who share at least some of these variations from the traditional views), at least for those who will allow them to use that label, it is fairly clear that they can not only find compatibility with Buddhism but even a deep connection between the fundamental principles of Buddhism and their faith in Christ, especially the life of Jesus and the idea of the bodhisattva. It is just as clear how Buddhists might also find a connection with this form of Christianity. As I am not an expert in the history of Christian theology, I cannot argue whether the more traditional view is somehow more authentic to the original teachings of Christ as opposed to the panentheist/universalist view, but I am aware that there is a long thread of such thought in the Church, especially in the more contemplative orders/traditions which practiced mysticism to experience conscious union with the Divine. From what I have heard, there are contemporary theologians/philosophers which have explored such ideas of Christ and God (Paul Tillich comes to mind), so whether or not it is considered orthodox, it is a view that has both a history, is relevant to modern theology, and is actively practiced (see for example the works of Thomas Merton or Wayne Teasdale).

Speaking of being outside of conventional/"traditional" Christianity, the Unitarian Universalists were essentially founded in such an extreme ecumenical revelation and expansion of Christianity and now embraces members who identify as everything from Wiccan to Jewish to Buddhist to atheist. So I will let a UU/Christian have the last word here on the concept:

Who is Jesus Christ to me? He is both a teacher of the Way, and the Way itself. For one who has always had a hard time grasping the concept of God, let alone developing a working definition of God, Jesus both points me toward a definition of God and then lives that definition. Jesus Christ is the freedom that laughs uproariously at the things of this world, while loving me dearly for being human enough to lust after them. He is my soul’s safety from all harm. He is the avatar of aloneness, a compassionate and unsentimental narrator of the soul’s exile on earth, and proof of the soul’s triumphant homecoming at the end of the incarnational struggle. He is not afraid to put his hands anywhere to affect healing. He mourns, and weeps, and scolds, and invites. He is life more abundant and conqueror of the existential condition of fear.

“By their fruits ye shall know them,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount. There are indeed degenerate branches on the tree of Christian life, but this does not keep me from Christ. There are even disagreements among Unitarian Universalist Christians about the appropriateness of this or that perspective, practice, or teaching—debates that I regard mostly with affection, if occasionally with irritation. We have so much else to do.

My daily Christian practice, although it changes frequently and is augmented by wisdom and practices from other traditions, consists mostly of clumsy efforts to love my God with all my heart, all my mind, all my soul, and all my strength, and to love my neighbor as myself. That’s work enough for this lifetime.

I call myself a Christian because I am a disciple of Jesus Christ—not just Jesus-that-great-guy-and-teacher-with-the-long-hair-and-sandals but Jesus the living avatar of the great God and Jesus the Christ of Easter morning.

How Jesus claimed me

One Unitarian Universalist's religious journey.
By Victoria Weinstein

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