Monday, April 30, 2007

Don't taint my Buddhism with comparisons to Christianity

There's room... at the stupa... for you.
There's room... at the stupa... for you.
Though as many as-the-number-grains-of-sand-in-the-Ganges-of-every-Buddha-field have come...
We are all still One,
Yes there's room... at the stupa... for you.

Thank you, please be seated. This morning's sermon is taken from 3rd chapter of the Platform Sutra...

OK, you may be wondering what that was supposed to be. If you have ever spent much time in a small Protestant denomination (or even a so-called non-denominational church), I'm betting that sounded familiar. I recently commented on an article discussing Buddhism from a more traditional Christian perspective and subsequently received a reply from a Catholic priest in a small spark of interfaith dialog. Perhaps it would for some be better to call it establishment Christianity rather than traditional as some could rightly point out that many now heretical views on the life of Christ once flourished among the early Christians. This raises the question of how many Buddhists, especially Western Buddhists, see Christianity.

At a particular Buddhist forum, whenever anyone makes any suggestion of commonality between Christianity and Buddhism, there are always several individuals who chime in to list the most incompatible and radical elements of establishment Christianity. And quite frequently this isn't just a side-by-side comparison - there is a passive aggressive quality to the comments, if not outright ridicule or derision. Getting past the snarkiness or sense of superiority that is sometimes present, there is something to be said for recognizing the differences. That is fine. Just as the good priest who replied here suggested, we can disagree in good will.

But that doesn't mean that a dismissive attitude towards Christianity by Buddhists is justified. I think part of it comes from the same source that drives the bitterness of the so-called "angry atheists" - the vision of religion and God put forward by many of those who focus on fear, condemnation, and exclusivity. Many of the latter also emphasize the literal reading of sacred texts (something that historically non-Western Buddhists did as well, btw) over the spiritual reading of such texts (i.e. focusing on whether the stories are all historically true rather than the ahistorical truths that are expressed). This is the distinction between what has been referred to as "the Christ of history" as opposed to "the Christ of the heart". Some Christians accept the former, some the latter, and some both.

If we read the Gospels without worrying about the historical details (like I discuss here or here, or even over here, for example), I do think that one can infer, though not "prove", that there are common spiritual truths that are embodied in story and teachings of Christ that are also present in the story and teachings of the Buddha (as well as other sacred traditions). But they are expressed through the cultural framework of their place and time. And it is to this framework that some traditionalists become attached/from which they formulate their theology and this is in turn what many people use make their religious comparisons.

For example, if what one may refer to as the Source is literally the potential for Creation, then they are not technically separate. Instead it can be thought of as looking at the same reality at different levels, the relative and the absolute. In this sense, Source/Creation are indentical, one giving rise to/sustaining the other. To get at this idea, imagine then Creation not as a static act or a fixed origin. Instead think of a perpetual Creation, in which the historical dimension (space/time) arises and dissolves simulateously from/to/as the Source. This view does not have to lead to "Oh, and let's call this source God and reinstall popular cultural conceptions." In fact, the apophatic tradition among many Abrahamic and Hindu mystics would warn against doing so, even though ultimately they do at some level still do so for reasons to be discussed.

I think this is an important point of distinction between Abrahamic apophatic mystics, many forms of Hinduism, and (Mahayana) Buddhism. In Christianity et al, there is still the feeling that the cultural constructs and mythology of the Bible/Church tradition is best at mediating the human approach to the Source/Absolute Truth/Ultimate Dimension and so there is still a "Person" of sorts in their relationship. Among many Hindu, the various gods are just different avatars for our own relationship to the Source because it is easier to grasp and act on. This is true because it is a matter of heart, and even while academic descriptions are great, people find it easier to "open" themselves to a person. Hence in the Upanishads, the commentaries on the Vedas (supremely ancient spiritual/religious texs), there is mention of the Person who dwells in the heart that one must meet to finally drop their final delusions of separation between the relative (historical) dimension and the absolute (ultimate) dimension and our own existence as part of an interdepent web. So many who have studied in the Hindu tradition have great respect for Christianity and the rest because they see Christ as the avatar some use to come back to (or realize their inherent union with) the Source. And doesn't that sound a lot like John 14:6 - "I am the Way, the Truth, and the Light. No man cometh to the Father except by me." If we see "the Father" as a symbol for the Source...

Then there is Buddhism, which does have many similar concepts (yeah, I know, boo hiss). Dependent coarising, impermanence, emptiness. This last is the key. As has been discussed ad nauseum, emptiness means both the lack of instrinsic/permanent existence of any form as well as the well-spring/potential from/in which form can arise and change. On the second aspect it is remarkably like the Tao, ("the Tao which can be named or described is not the true Tao"), and I think some Buddhists see them as essentially the same (especially in Chan). The difference is that Buddhism tends to be non-theistic, that is, it does not directly personify the Source nor talk about a Creator Being. Of course, some Buddhists are theists (yeah, boo hiss, they aren't "true" Buddhists, whatever), but some are also agnostic (and some may call themselves atheist, but it depends I suppose on how one defines both Buddhism and atheism). Of course, it doesn't take much to see that the ineffable Source of Taosim and Buddhism sounds very much like the views of the Source in Hinduism and even some corners of Abrahamic religion. But because the apophatic mystical tradition is not the majority view in current Christiany, Islam, etc, the gulf between Dharmic and Taoist traditions and Abrahamic traditions is often seen as virtually uncrossable.

Yet even in Buddhism, there seems to be a recognition of the need for visualization in practice, and this can be manifest in talking about Buddha-nature on a cosmic scale. Hence the Buddha is often said in (Mahayana) Buddhism to have three bodies - the manfestation in the historical dimension (i.e. Siddhartha Guatama as well as all sentient beings who experience the same realization/awakening) called nirmanakaya ("created body"); the unlimited "reality body" or dharmakara which is basically back to the ineffable/nondual Source; and something called the sambhogakara or "body of mutual enjoyment" which is described in a Wiki article as the archetypal form. It is the idealized form, the icon. And it serves the role of the image that can be used in visualization when opening one's heart to reality-as-it-is. This form could in some cases be a mandala, for instance.

I would suggest that Amitabha (i.e. Amida) Buddha has a similar role and hence the comparisons between Pure Land/Shin Buddhism and Christianity. In Pure Land it is said that a person long ago vowed to not to accept total enlightenment until his vows had been fulfilled (for the non-Buddhists such people are called Bodhisattvas), and his particular vows included the creation of a realm where people would not help but achieve enlightenment themselves. Some still see this in the most literal sense as an afterlife of bliss, others see it as a recognition of the clarity of the Buddha (i.e. it is both "here and now" and "otherworldly" in the same sense as we can talk about the historical and ultimate view of the same reality above). In traditional (i.e. "Chinese") Pure Land if one recites Amitabha's name and visualizes him/his realm one will be reborn in that place (the Pure Land). In Shin (a Japanese form of Pure Land), one does not recite the name to get into the Pure Land but as a means of expressing gratitude for foolish beings (us) being given such a gift - in realizing we are "already home" as it were. Yet Amida is not seen as a God in the traditional western sense, and eventually we come to see Amida as ourselves and ourselves as Amida (similar to other forms of Buddhism in which the same may be said of the archetypal image of the Buddha himself). {There is a lot here I am skipping about Buddhism and Shin in particular}

This sometimes is seen as being at odds with "self"-Power schools such as Zen. Instead "Other-Power" is relied on. Yet the self is not replaced by but fully realized in Other-Power and Other-Power is completed/fulfilled by each self. Still, even in Zen one talks about going beyond the ego, and in the end dropping many assumptions and self-made barriers, so that it really isn't strictly "self-Power" as one learns to transcend the view of identity as an isolated entity. Just different strokes for different folks - depending on which issues one is wrapped up in different practices may be more beneficial. But the point of the detour skimming the surface of Buddhism is that even there, with no God, there is still an avatar upon which one can use to help them on their way to the Source, beyond conventional knowing.

It is interesting that if one gets past parochialism, while there are still recognizeable differences historically and globally, there are in some corners of Abrahamic traditions and Hinduism and Buddhism a common thread that hints at something to which all of them maybe pointing (and I'm sure we can throw in other traditions as well). So it isn't about needing to be religious or even a theist, although as others have said regarding religion in general in such discussions, there is no point in reinventing the wheel. Nor does this mean that Buddhists must openly embrace Christianity. Yet I am reminded of a set of vows I have often repeated...

I vow to assist all beings without exception to attain the Highest Perfect Wisdom

I vow to transcend the endless delusions which hinder the perception of Universal Truth

I vow to learn and actualize the limitless teachings of all Buddhas and Enlightend Beings

I vow to follow unceasingly the Buddha's never ending path.

I think that the first two are as obvious as can be without getting into a a further discussion of what "the Highest Perfect Wisdom" and "Universal Truth" might mean. So I would like to get to the second two. Number three is particularly interesting. There is nothing whatsoever that says that a Buddha or Enlightened Being must practice one of the number of spiritual practices that are commonly referred to as "Buddhism". There is no legitimate exclusive claim made by Buddhism about realizing the Highest Perfect Wisdom or perceiving Universal Truth. While there is a social tendency to set up institutions in a culture or society that then becomes self-serving , an affliction that has affected many forms of organized religion, there is no core teaching attributed to the Buddha or his philosophy that would justify a claim that one needs to practice "Buddhism". It is more like a formula - practicing attitudes A, B, and C, while cultivating virtues D, E, F will lead to an awareness of reality-as-it-is and liberation from the existential suffering that afflicts sentient beings. So, while practicing Buddhism might be beneficial, if one is vowing to "learn and actualize the limitless teachings of all Buddhas and Enlightened Beings", one must be open to discovering and seeing different manifestations of such formulae and those who demonstrate their efficacy in all their forms.

As we go out from this place today, let us remember the Buddha in our actions, speech, and thought. Let our reverence for the Light in everyone we meet be as clear on our faces as it is in our hearts.

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