Saturday, February 19, 2011

Does Jesus represent one of the 84,000 Dharma doors?

Buddha Daibutsu, Kamakura, Japan. This statue,...                                         Image via Wikipedia
I would guess that at least some long time visitors and friends for this site, as well as new visitors who look at some of the site's history, will notice that the theme was mostly Buddhist in nature and is less so over the past 12-18 months.  At least overtly Buddhist, as in bearing the trappings of (East) Asian culture. There are still posts that are "Buddhist" even by this standard, but there has been much more on general spirituality and religion, interfaith issues, and Christian themes.  Some of this is partially explained by the background page I created.

As I alluded to there and elsewhere, I am not trying to "put a yak's head on a cow's body".  I don't think Christianity are Buddhism are the same religion or that should be stitched together as one; they clearly have different perspectives, backgrounds, and methods. They come from different cultures and have developed around specific concerns.  That does not mean that they cannot both reflect touching or learning from the same ground of wisdom, or that they aren't sisters.  They can be unique and still have the same mother.  In fact, we can see examples of how they both approach similar concerns very differently, yet underneath may be lurking a common thread.  In fact, it is the fact that they each diverge widely in some ways while retaining some key fundamental similarities that makes them more compatible to me.  Rather than trying to cover the same ground, and hence being directly in conflict, there distinctiveness allows them to be complementary. This gives them quite a bit they can learn from each other, an interesting interconnection between East and West. In it much like the yin and yang combining in the classic Taoist symbol, as I am holding both traditions in a dynamic tension.

I have always found Buddhist sutras, poetry and prayers, particularly of the East Asian/Mahayana traditions, to be very inspiring and moving.  The affirmation they offer, the consistently peaceful and empowering imagery and message, on occasion provokes a faint but endearing sense approaching what I imagine the sacred is like.  But I sometimes get fatigued with some elements of Western Buddhism, which ever so lightly imply they or their tradition is better than those "religious people" (there are those deny Buddhism is a religion because of the baggage they associate with that term), especially those from Western/Abrahamic religions.  I admit to once being tempted to feel the same way, to feel bodhier than thou. And while I may not look down on Christianity as a whole anymore, I am still tempted to be less than charitable towards those who have been loosely labeled fundamentalists.

On the other hand, I've been drawn to several traditions in East Asian Buddhism (Chinese Pure Land, Shin, Chan, Zen, Nichiren Buddhism, etc), and have had a hard time consistently following one or finding groups to meet with. That of course can be seen as providing an opportunity to create new inroads and build something, but it also means much less support for someone who needs it.  There is also a kind of energy in Buddhism as it propagates out of Asia, a vitality and an enthusiasm that captures the imagination and the heart.  Ironically, in places like Japan, Buddhism is said to be slowly turning into a funeral religion. That is, people turn to it for major occasions in life; since those who practice it tend to be older, the most common occasion is, of course, the end of life. This trend is also seen in the Christian equivalent of East Asia for Buddhism. i.e. Europe (and by extension the United States). Old school and mainline Christian denominations have been on the decline for decades. Yet newer incarnations that have their roots in the first half of the 20th century such as Pentecostalism are making waves in the old territories, much like groups such as the Soka Gakkai have in Japan. And these Christian movements also have quite the vitality as they spread into places like Latin America and Africa.

The state of different forms of Buddhism and of Christianity is important to my view of how the two interact and my attraction to particular aspects of each. While I tend not be a regularly thrilled or edified by many elements of traditional Christian scriptures and prayers, I have been greatly impressed many formally recognized and informally genuine saints and mystics within Christianity that have been fed with precisely that spiritual food. At times I feel the Christian message and its imagery is still mired in a kind of exclusivity, an us versus them mindset, which has the notion of superiority at its root. Rather than being a critical messenger of a vital message to humanity, even the more open and inclusive forms of Christianity still often sound and feel like a special club for member only that holds the only useful or important beliefs regarding the Divine.  But I am more and more convinced that this particular message is sold best by the fundamentalists, not the mainstream denominations and especially not their more liberal churches.

Contrary to what some may suspect, there has been a lot of soul-searching by these mainline and liberal groups. They were not as a whole seeking simply to capitulate to contemporary culture or ideas of modernity, though some involved with them may have held such views. They were and are trying to honestly assess how to be faithful to the spirit, and not just the literal surface reading, of the tradition they had inherited and how it made sense in the context of the changing world around them. This should be applauded, but there is still more work to be done. They need to decide if they want to keep chasing and falling behind their more conservative brothers and sisters, who want to remake the church into their distorted vision of tradition emphasizing condemnation, separation, and Biblical literalism, or if they want to complete the renewal they have started. To be a light of hope and inspiration open to all, a beacon to draw people to God by showing them the kingdom of heaven; not in the sense that their imagination must use traditional Christian imagery, but in the sense of what the kingdom really is: seeing the world and each other through the eyes of divine love.

As I've written elsewhere:

Many folks would say "If you aren't going out to save people what is the point?" But the Gospel simply means good news and the commission is to share that news. Being an ambassador and building a Church to share this news doesn't have to equate with setting up an institution to save people (which first involves convincing them they are damned). The news that you are welcome, accepted and loved beyond measure isn't trivial nor is it easy to accept. The Church and its ambassadors would have plenty to do just living as if these things were true and sharing that acceptance and love with others.
I know some folks will object to my comments about salvation, but I am making a point that there is good news beyond convincing someone to "buy fire insurance" with a "turn or burn" argument, neither of which has any merit. In fact, one can (and I think should) see the idea of salvation not as an angry sky-god who needs appeasing, but as our inability to remember divine love; to feel it, to be nurtured by it. To repent is to turn away from looking for the solution to our deep longings and their resultant destructive cravings in shallow experiences and to find it in God. Again, as I've also written previously:
Coming out of a system involving sacred law and offering sacrifices, Jesus becomes the Christ by entering the world as a human who then operates within the prevailing religion and cultural beliefs by becoming the perfect sacrifice capable of covering all people for all time. He is the face of God, of Ultimate Reality, saying, "Whatever you have been taught by your religion or culture about existential guilt and punishment that debt is going to be covered -- you are free."
The notions of Jesus as friend and brother and of the passion and resurrection as God's solidarity with humanity are not just casual ideas that some old hippie thought up to make the Bible seem more warm and fuzzy. They are rooted firmly in Christian thought and have been explored by serious theologians. Moreover, these images and themes are precisely what Christianity needs now, both to reinvigorate its own members and to repair its tarnished image; without these things there is not a shining city on a hill but a city burning to the ground.

And this is how the current state of Christianity influences me and my religious choices. In other words, why even attempt to rediscover or re-explore Christianity? Why not remain a readily identifiable "Buddhist" kind of Buddhist and leave the Christian half of the equation alone?

Some folks are fleeing Christianity and heading to atheism, or secularized Buddhism, or a fuller/religious Buddhism, etc, because the parts of one of their native culture's major religions that they most need and desire are being neglected, left to wither on the shrinking vine of vanishing parishes and muted leaders while harsher and more judgmental voices take root and thrive. Much of what is truly inspiring and beautiful in the Judeo-Christian tradition has always struggled to blossom amidst such voices. The people that have been nourished by this tradition and who have in turn inspired me with their traveling talks and books are getting older, and their home communions and denominations are either shrinking, edging more toward the authoritarian/judgmental trend, or both. What will happen when this fruit dies? Will there be any fertile soil left for its seeds to take hold? Will such understanding become diminished, relegated to the space of a few quiet notes in the overall song of the Christian faith? And what exactly is my role and responsibility in all of this? 

I have passed through religious dissatisfaction and indifference, which lead me to agnosticism and atheism. This allowed me to try to wipe the slate clean and eventually become a seeker with an honest and open agenda to find truth and fulfillment with fewer preconceptions and without restriction. Having found so much from the East (a little from Hinduism and Taoism and so much more from Buddhism), and seeing how it could benefit those wandering in the desert in my own society, surely I could just stick with that. Help organize and build communities to foster and strengthen Buddhism in the West; to make refuges for many of these tired and hungry seekers. Then again, like so many before me, seeing how a good deal of what I had found could serve as a new frame for recovering much of what has been neglected in Christianity and uncovering much that is still left to be found, I could work to help the transition that is struggling and stalling in that religion, perhaps be one of many coming home to it to aid in some small way the birth of what a few are predicting to be a new Christian era. 

Then it occurs to me. Is it really an either/or proposition?

Both Buddhism and Christianity have symbols and stories emphasizing that people and things which others discard or despise, which are considered broken or useless, have an intrinsic value. They can be redeemed and remade. Nothing is truly lost, not forever. Buddhism also has teachings about the universal nature of the Dharma; that many find it and live in accordance with it even though they've never heard of the Buddha. The upshot of such teachings is that everything has the potential to be a catalyst for spiritual growth and our awakening to enlightenment. This is represented in the idea of the 84,000 Dharma doors -- there is no one-size-fits all life path to experience such growth, even when people are practicing in the same tradition. 

So can one seek the Dharma in all things? Is the Dharma present in the teachings and life of Jesus? Is it evident in the lives and writings of many of the saints who emulated him? And if so, does the path of Jesus represent one of the 84,000 Dharma doors? If the answer to these questions is yes, what then? Is the appeal of the lives of these women and men and the founder of their religion just a reflection of what I find so inspiring in Buddhism, or is it a genuine call to enter into their struggle as one of them? How can one really be sure? What does it mean in such a circumstance to be faithful to the vow to rescue all sentient beings? To honor the teachings of all Enlightened Ones? How does it fit with the notion of being like yun-shui*? 

These are the questions I have pondered, a joy and a burden, over the past couple of years. This is my journey so far. May you find and cherish the blessings this day.

*(a Taoist concept picked up by Chinese Buddhist, it refers to being subtle yet invincible, taking oneself lightly so one can readily float or flow past all obstacles, and literally translates as "clouds and water"; it is relevant here because of the idea of fitting oneself easily to each situation)

Addendum: None of this is to say that the more fundamentalist groups lack compassion, or do not celebrate mercy or justice, etc. Nor is it to say that millions of people are not finding solace and becoming better people because they practice at such churches. It is to say that they present a distinct vision that is readily differentiated from their counterparts, and that I support the latter.
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  1. Interesting post. I like how you are threading together Christianity and Buddhism and your insights.

    Have you ever heard of the Baha'i Faith? Baha'is believe all the major religions come from the same source :) Just sounds similar to some of what you were saying.

  2. I've heard of it, as well as UUism, but too much blending can blur the picture.

  3. I have been working with "The Golden Rule" for the past few years ( it is an underlying, unifying message that is found throughout the world, from both religious and non religious sources. " Treat others as you want to be treated". Many are under the misnomer that this moral ethic of reciprocity sprung from the lips of Jesus and his teachings. However, history shows us the first (uncovered) Golden Rule recorded was actually from ancient Egypt " do for one to do for you that you may cause his thus to do..." As someone who was born into devout Roman Catholicism and had the opportunity to work and live in Hindu ashrams, Buddhist Dharma Centres, Native Indigenous reservations and Sufi commmunities, I found it edifying to know that this is one " rule" that unites us all and that rule ( as the HH Dalai Lama so eloquently says... ) is what joins us as a Human family, is that no one wants to suffer and everyone wants to be happy... So how do we approach happiness ? certainly by nurturing community, family, loved one and demonstrating care and concern for the welfare of others. If we cause others suffering ( according to Buddhism and other Eastern Religions and philosophies, this will be the cause for us to suffer, at some point in time. But if we lift others up and bring some peace and joy to others, it seems that the Universe works in magnificent ways to reflect that back into our daily lives, with the love, concern and care of others towards us. Without minimizing the Golden Rule, or touting it as a " cure all" I would say, as Jewish scriptures so gracefully and succinctly state" love your neighbour as yourself.. because your neighbour IS yourself." One Plant, One Race- the Human race, or as I like to toy with words from a Sufi perspective: the HUUUUUUU MAN race :)

  4. puts them together very well IMO. it is how I found your blog!

  5. Greetings and welcome to all of you. Your comments are appreciated!

    @Grace: To make sure I am not unclear, I was referring strictly to myself; others may be able to do it just fine without losing sight of what they are seeking.

    @Tina Tara: The Golden Rule is a favorite of mine. I had a post not too long ago showing it being expressed in a variety of world religions. Whether so and so said something first or last isn't as important to me as whether their life and teaching follows the wisdom they espouse. The Golden Rules does come from the insight that we are all interrelated and interdependent, and too often that is misrepresented or forgotten by those who get a hold of a movement after the death of its founder. I am one of many working to correct such errors in the Christian community.

    @尼克: Yes, he does a fine job. But there are still questions each practitioner must explore and solve in her or his own heart.


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