by Pastor Doug Kings
We hardly notice them now; they are so common: Buddha statues. You see them outdoors in people’s lawns and gardens. In an office it might be on a bookshelf or on a desk. Search on Amazon or Wayfair and stand back for the flood of results, in all sizes, styles, and prices.
Interestingly, when we encounter one, we usually don’t draw any religious conclusions. In other words, if a friend has one in their garden, we don’t assume this means they are Buddhist. We don’t really assume it means anything at all. Yet surely it must mean something?
It is often said that Buddhism is more a philosophy than a religion, and there is some truth to this. One can follow Buddhist teachings and principles without necessarily affiliating with any Buddhist organization or participating in any Buddhist rituals. This is a common experience in Western countries, like the US.
The specifically religious aspects of Buddhism developed over many centuries in southern and eastern Asia, in response to the Buddha’s teachings. “Buddha” is not a name but a title, which means enlightened one or awakened one (his given name was Siddhartha Gautama), and he taught that anyone could become a buddha, that is, become enlightened.
Many traditional Asian Buddhists view him as a god, yet others say Buddhists do not believe in a god! The confusion comes primarily from differences in Eastern and Western understandings of divinity.
Recent interaction between the mystical and monastic traditions of Christianity and Buddhism have been narrowing that gap, however, often by helping each other better understand their own traditions. Thomas Merton, for example, credits the Japanese-American Zen scholar D. T. Suzuki with introducing him to the great German Medieval teacher and mystic, Meister Eckhardt. After multiple meetings with various groups of Buddhist monks, Merton would later say he often felt more at home with them than with many of his fellow Roman Catholics.
Since the end of World War II, Christians have participated in a wide variety of inter-religious dialog. Many would say that the most fruitful of these conversations has been with Buddhists, as both sides have grown from their interactions.
For example, some credit exposure to the prophetic tradition in the Old Testament and Jesus with the growth a more socially active Buddhism. Thich Nhat Hanh, whose book Living Buddha, Living Christ we are about to read, studied at Princeton Seminary and lectured at Columbia University. When Nhat Hanh returned to Vietnam in 1963, he became a peace activist, antagonizing both sides of the conflict. After leaving South Vietnam on tour, the government there refused permission for him to return. But when the Communist government later took power, they did the same.
As are result, Nhat Hanh created a Buddhist monastic community in southern France called Plum Village (now the largest monastic community in the West). His extensive writings and lectures have focused on achieving both personal and global peace, as well as promoting “deep ecology”, the awareness of the interrelationship of all aspects of the natural world. After nearly forty years of exile, he received permission to return to Vietnam and did so in 2018 to live out his last years.
On the Christian side, Buddhist teachers like Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dali Lama, and many others have awakened people to the need for personal, spiritual awareness; provided better understanding of the Buddhist teachings that address this; and have enabled a new appreciation of Christianity’s own traditions in this area, going back to Jesus himself.
For the Buddha, the central question of life was: Why do people suffer? His answer was a combination of psychology and spirituality. The circumstances of our lives are largely unchangeable, but we do have control over how we respond to them. What’s needed is understanding or enlightenment. We need to “wake up” to the inner reality of existence.
In that regard, according to New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, Jesus and the Buddha are on much the same path. In his Preface to a book he edited, titled Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, Borg writes:
Jesus and the Buddha were teachers of wisdom. Wisdom is more than ethics, even though it includes ethical teaching. The “more” consists of fundamental ways of seeing and being…. Jesus and the Buddha were teachers of a world-subverting wisdom that undermined and challenged conventional ways of seeing and being in their time and in every time. Their subversive wisdom was also an alternative wisdom: they taught a way or path of transformation. Thus, both were teachers of a way less traveled.
For some time, there has been a growing consensus—among theologians, clergy, and people in the pew—that the church has been on a long and unfortunate detour from its intended purpose. For a variety of mostly self-serving reasons, its message has been that the gospel is about salvation for a life-to-come, with little to say about the value of life here-and-now. After many centuries, and a global transformation, the church now confronts a world little interested in such a message.
Modern Biblical scholarship has now made it clear that Jesus actually had little interest in such a message either. His earthy parables and direct teachings pointed to a new way of living. Like the Buddha, Jesus also appreciated people’s confusion and desperation in asking, “Why am I suffering?” and why is our world suffering?
The questions are the same today. In their mutual humility and compassion, Christians, Buddhists, and participants in all the world’s religions and philosophies are gradually appreciating that their commonalities are more significant than their differences. And with our world in deepening crisis, they are also understanding it is essential that we all need to become buddhas, and “wake up.”
Blessings in your life and ministry.