Sunday, October 02, 2005

Big thoughts at the Big Picture

Q came by for a visit, and has poked me sufficiently to warrant a new post.
He has very nice calves by the way. Here is his comment:

If there is one thing in your post that I have reservations about, it is your apparent syncretism.

Christianity and Buddhism are not the same (as I'm sure you know). Resurrection and reincarnation are two quite different doctrines. To give a second example, Christianity holds to a linear view of history, very distinct from the endless cycles of Buddhism.

I don't know that it is wise to blur such distinctions. By allowing each faith to be totally itself, we are given two distinct vantage points from which to examine the world. Each faith offers insights that the other cannot provide.

In other words, my concern is that if we blend Christianity and Buddhism together, we are spiritually poorer than if we allow each to speak for itself.

Maybe you believe that too, or maybe you think there are advantages to emphasizing the commonalities between the two faiths. I'd be interested in knowing more detail, since you've offered us only a mere taste here.
I love this question because it pushes me to work things out a bit more clearly in my own head. At this point, I am not all that clear where my thoughts are going to take me this evening...

Maybe it would make sense to reaffirm that this is my personal mapping. Since I do teach Religious Studies, I am not in the business to convert or to promote my point of view - so I don't attempt to convince students that Jesus and Buddhism intermingle and make sense. I had been toying around with conversion to Buddhism for years prior to actually doing it. I needed to satisfy a couple of conditions. One, I did not want to feel "colonialist" and occupy foreign territory without any previous invitation. Some Buddhist academics would accuse me of that anyway. The community I joined, is part of the Shambhala tradition, a relatively new form of Tibetan Buddhism - and one of the first purely western Buddhist developments. It was introduced to American hippies by a Rinpoche in exile (approximately 10 years after the Chinese occupied Tibet). To make a very long story short, Shambhala was developed as a new branch off the Kagyu and Nyingma lineages. I have all kinds of "issues" with the political structure on Shambhala, but I think most would admit that this is part of our human heritage, and one would expect this in the first place. My second condition was to become part of an active practicing community. I have found a real kinship with the sangha that I currently practice with - this was an area of my spiritual journey that was of the utmost importance to develop.

Is the way I rationalize God and Jesus in the Buddhist cosmology shared among the sangha? Well it's probably much like any other community - some would and some wouldn't. It's not an integral aspect of what we do or talk about at the centre. Are my beliefs syncretic? Quite possibly. I have not spent much time ruminating on that particular matter. I am not trying to make sense of the Christian worldview and Buddhist cosmology simultaneously, but rather working out how Christian cosmology could be viewed with a Buddhist lens. I suppose I could be accused of being disrespectful of all Christians whoever walked the earth. Perhaps some of that would be true. In all honesty, this was an act of compassion, as much as an act of understanding. It keeps me open, without shutting down. (I did mention my tendency toward anger when it comes to Christianity from time to time) I think that resurrection, creation, heaven, hell, Jesus God still "works" the way Christians have been debating over the millenia. I am in no position to become a theologian. I'm not really suggesting that we blend the both together, but from my point of view, they can co-exist without negating the other. As a convert, this was important to me. I invested alot of my own thought and time developing a relationship with God and Jesus. It would have been like asking me me to stop understanding English when I learned French.

I've just chosen to regard Christianity with a new set of glasses. Now I know that many Christians would debate this. I suppose I should expect it. These are not ideas that I think I ought to promote, nor do I actively engage in redefining Christianity. I think I have enough respect of Christianity to know that there are thinkers (past and present) who do an amazing job doing that for themselves. When I read Christian theology, I am present to it. I am not actively trying to translate it into Buddhaspeak. I don't think it is the same thing to embrace it into one larger picture. At least I've convinced myself that it is possible. Maybe I can boil all this down to 'I am not comfortable telling another faith that they are wrong and totally incompatible with my own".

I h0pe that makes some more sense. I do admit, I could spend more time contemplating this issue.

Thanks for the poke!


Pirate said...

You know I am an reformed American Hippie who has found the prose of a Pirate more enlightening and view is better.

Al Capone had many assets that were worthy. He treated those who depended on him better then most governments do of the people that depend on them.

hotboy said...

Dead interesting post again! Experiential mysticism? Maybe more interested myself in techniques and results than doctrine, or going around believing in stuff I don't know. Most thoughts maybe aren't worth having, but ideas are fun so long as they don't lead you to blowing yourself up in crowded restaurants.
Who is the rinpoche you mentioned?
Kalu Rinpoche liked Christianity because it said if you did good things you got good results. The cause and effect ideas are the same. But he was disappointed in that it didn't seem to be very profound.
Personally, I was brought up a catholic and I was told to believe in things which were intellectually unsupportable. But what do I know? Great post again! Hotboy

hotboy said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
McSwain said...

I thought Q put it very well. He said what I couldn't quite put into words, and what I was afraid might be taken wrong if I did get it out. Anyway, I am definitely Christian, but there are many of us out there who find that most of the churches today ("religion") and our beliefs don't quite match up. I also think the impression most non-Christian people have of Christianity probably wouldn't match up with the everyday folk like me who call themselves Believers. And that's not a bad thing to talk about. :)

Stephen (aka Q) said...

You express a view very similar to my own when you say that Christianity and Buddhism can co-exist without negating the other.

You describe my question as "poking" you, and that's a pretty good description of why I am interested in Buddhism! I am deeply rooted in Judeo-Christian theology, plus our modern secular worldview. Buddhism pokes me at both points — it is another approach to life which profoundly challenges the presuppositions of the other two.

I wonder whether you are familiar with the scholar Marcus Borg, who edited Jesus and Buddha: the parallel sayings. Borg is keen to explore the commonalities of the two masters. There's a good interview with him here.

When the interviewer presses Borg for a key difference between Jesus and Buddha, Borg responds,

Jesus was a social prophet and Buddha was not. I see Jesus not only as wisdom teacher but as a God-intoxicated voice of religious social protest. Buddha's teaching is really very individualistic. … Buddha's basic strategy is to try to find a way to escape this world of suffering rather than, as in Jesus' teachings, to find a way to transform the structures that produce suffering in the world. I want to be clear here that I have no interest in making a case for which one is better, Jesus or Buddha! I am simply stating what I see as a fundamental difference between them.

The difference that Borg identifies (among many similarities) is key for me. The basic impulse of my heart is for social transformation, even more than individual (personal) transformation. More than any other difference between the two faiths, that's probably why I remain a Christian.

But I also appreciate the wisdom of Borg's final two sentences. He isn't saying that one is better than the other, just that they are alternative points of view; presumably each has both strengths and weaknesses.

MC Etcher said...

Wow. Let me go study for a few years, and then I will be worthy of making a substantive comment...

hotboy said...

I read somewhere that a big buddhist juju man in Tibet said Jesus must have had buddhist influences ( buddhist missionaries were in Syria and Alexandria before his time) maybe through the Essenes because the Sermon on the Mount is Buddhist. Is it? Hotboy p.s. Also if societies live by bad rules, laws, behaviours bad things happen to them. But the great thing about Christians is they get their hands dirty with the drunks and stumblebums and Mother Teresa stuff. The Dalai Lama said once that buddhists should be doing more of that.

Heather said...

pirate: yo ho ho and a bottle of rum! The only Pirate prose I know...apart from arggghhhh me hearty!

Cheryl: Thanks for affirming this. I think Christianity gets alot of bad press to be honest.

Q - interesting stuff - I'll have to check out Borg's work. I can't help but thinking of 'the Borg" from my Star Trek TNG days! HE makes claims about the religious founders, but what about the practitioners? Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism see a difference between those who "attain" / realize nirvana personally (arhats) and those who do and make a vow to remain in samsara to be of benefit to all beings (bodhisattva) - its a major aspect of compassion. I wonder then, if this is a form of social responsibility - but seen in another view?
If you are interested in Buddhism with a social conscience, then check out "Engaged Buddhism". I think part of the reason why we are not as aware of Buddhism's social contribution - is a huge topic - I was about to get into it but I caught myself. I think Borg is over simplifying matters to suggest that "Buddha's teaching is really very individualistic. … Buddha's basic strategy is to try to find a way to escape this world of suffering". In some ways this misses the point. Its not about escape - from my understanding. Wow...more stuff...poke poke!

McEtcher - nah - you're qualified to have an opinion. Years of study will just confuse things...and probably put you into debt!

Hotboy - I have heard about this before. As far as academics go - I don't think this claim is substantiated at all. I remember hearing this question come up in Theology classes and the profs rattle on about no real "proof" to this. I wonder where the rumour originated?

And the Dalai Lama can come and pay me a visit, and I guarantee his hands will get quite dirty!!

Stephen (aka Q) said...

Is it any surprise that "Q" would refer you to the Borg?

(though "Q" in this case is not a Star Trek reference but a nod to a non-extant source of Jesus' sayings utilized by Matthew and Luke).