A recent profile in the Denver Post of Stuart Lord, Naropa University’s “Christian Buddhist” president, caught my attention. “I am a spiritual person,” said Lord. “For the last seven years I consider myself a Christian Buddhist. I can merge them together and try to be awake in the world and work toward being an enlightened person.” As a lifelong student of comparative religion, I am intrigued by people who can take such seemingly disparate fibers of spiritual practice and weave them into a single, meaningful thread.
When Buddhism takes root in a new culture, as it has done many times before, it always fuses with elements of the native religious traditions in that culture. In India, Buddhism took on aspects of the Hindu cosmology and iconography in which it first arose. In China, it incorporated major elements of Taoism and Confucianism. In Tibet, it fused with the shamanistic Bon religion. In Japan, it mixed with Shinto.
I’ve often heard Buddhist practitioners say that in America and other Western countries where Buddhism is now being established, modern science and psychology are the equivalents of those ancient religious traditions. The idea, I suppose, is that the spiritual practices of Buddhism will be somehow wedded with the methods and goals of empirical science to create a uniquely Western hybrid that is both spiritual and scientific. To this end, Buddhism is often dressed up in the clothing of science or psychology, making it more palatable to rational Western minds. Witness the flurry of books and research projects we’ve seen in recent years exploring Buddhism and neuroscience, Buddhism and physics, Buddhism and psychology, Buddhism and therapy.
But something about this comparison rings false to me. Neuroscience and physics and psychotherapy are the fascinations of scientists and intellectuals, but they are not the dominant forces that have shaped our culture’s religious and philosophical heritage. For better or worse, Christianity still takes that prize: despite waning influence in recent years it remains the dominant spiritual zeitgeist of our era. Even if you grew up Jewish, or a Dharma Brat, you are not completely exempt from Christianity’s influence, just as the most diehard Mac users are still, in some ways, dependent on the much larger world of PCs.
If the Dharma always melds with elements of the dominant spiritual practices of a new culture, maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree by focusing so much on the intersection of Buddhism and science. Perhaps the spotlight really belongs on the intersection of Buddhism and Christianity, and people like Stuart Lord are the forerunners of an emergent tradition blending Eastern and Western spiritual influences into something whose shape we don’t yet know how to anticipate.
Getting Down to the Core
Clark Strand is one of a growing number of Buddhist teachers who are shining a spotlight on this intersection. A writer, former Zen monk, and founder of the Green Meditation Society in Woodstock, New York, Strand has for several years been exploring the places where Buddhism overlaps with Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and other established faiths in the West.
Strand traces his inspiration back to a visceral experience of fear. In 2000, he was on a plane that suddenly began plunging towards the ground, with the smell of smoke wafting into the passenger cabin. An electrical fire had broken out in the control console, and the pilot was steering the plane back towards an emergency landing as quickly as possible. But in those few minutes, before they landed safely, everyone on the plane looked around with wide eyes and assumed they were all about to die. Strand was later puzzled when he recalled that in that fateful moment of facing imminent death, he instinctively began to recite not a Buddhist mantra, but the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me!”
When I was a teenager, I experienced a similar (if less dramatic) moment of existential terror on The Zipper, a particularly frightening carnival ride at the Oklahoma State Fair. Although by that age I had disavowed the Southern Baptist faith of my childhood and proclaimed that I didn’t believe in God, on The Zipper I was flung seven stories into the air and whirled upside-down in a rattling, hastily assembled cage whose rusting bolts looked like they might come out of their sockets. To my chagrin, I suddenly reverted to bargaining with God again: “Get me off this ride safely and I’ll…(fill in the blanks).”
Clark Strand’s experience on that plane, and the surprise of finding a very Christian prayer arising spontaneously where he would have expected a Buddhist one instead, was an important lesson. Strand recognized the need, for Western converts to Buddhism, of acknowledging and not completely turning away from the traditions in which we were raised—the source of our earliest, core spiritual beliefs and experiences. He began to give Zen-inspired teachings on “Biblical koans” to a group of students who became known as the Woodstock Buddhist Bible Study.
The Lesson of the Cherokee Rose
Recently I attended a five-day prayer festival at a Tibetan Buddhist monastery near Woodstock. An oppressive heatwave had gripped the East Coast, and on the hottest and muggiest afternoon of all, I met with Strand. His car’s air conditioning was broken, and during the 10-minute drive down the mountain from the monastery into the town of Woodstock I began to sweat profusely.
Over ice cream, Strand explained the “Aha!” moment when he realized the importance of studying Buddhism in conjunction with Western spiritual traditions. A few years earlier, he had met a gardener whose varieties of magnificent roses were prized even above those of the local horticultural society. The gardener showed Strand his secret: he grafted each rose plant, no matter how exotic, onto the root of a Cherokee rose plant that was indigenous to the area. His grafts flourished better than exotic rose plants that were placed directly in the ground, because the Cherokee root was already adapted to the local soil.
I endured the sweltering ride back up to the monastery with Strand. I took my seat at that prayer festival, surrounded by Tibetan monks and many Western monastics wearing Tibetan robes. I looked around the shrine room, which was bursting at the seams with all the rich and exotic, shamanistic iconography of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I chanted along, as well as I could, in Tibetan (a language I don’t speak) and tried to comprehend the esoteric meaning of prayers whose intentions and cultural context often eluded me. I watched and imitated the people around me in order not to fall out of step during the highly scripted, unfamiliar rituals.
In short, I did my best to play the role—but I still felt a bit like I had been teleported to the red planet and was witnessing the elaborate religious observances of Martians. I couldn’t help wondering, a little sheepishly, if we were all misguidedly trying to plant a beautiful but exotic rose directly into foreign soil. Is it wise to completely turn our backs on the traditions of our own culture, exchanging them whole-cloth for the forms of someone else’s culture? Are we, as American Buddhist practitioners, trying to mold ourselves into little Tibetans, or Sri Lankans, or Burmese, or Japanese?
What Lies Beneath
Our Judaeo-Christian roots are indigenous to the soil of American culture in a way that the exotic flowers of Asian Buddhism simply are not. According to Strand, the best way to help Buddhism truly flourish here is to graft it to those roots, not to try to dig them up and replace them.
I left behind the Southern Baptist faith of my childhood nearly three decades ago. But despite all that distance from my earliest roots, and despite having embraced Buddhism as the spiritual path that makes the most sense to me, the stories and iconography and teachings of Christianity and Judaism are still more familiar and often more resonant for me than the culturally foreign imagery and metaphors of Buddhism. Like the Cherokee rose, they have been growing in me longer, and they are better adapted to the soil of my mind.
That core of our earliest exposures to Christian or Jewish beliefs and practices might lie deeply buried in us, so deeply that we can be unaware of its presence—especially if we buried it there intentionally, out of rebellion against our upbringing. But the fact that we don’t often look at it doesn’t mean it’s not still there.
As Strand and I each found, in some cases all it takes to penetrate those outer layers and bring that long-buried core to the surface is a single moment of sheer existential terror, which sweeps away all other considerations. In that surge of naked fear, when it’s all you can do not to soil your underpants, who will you instinctively call on? Shakyamuni? Amitabha? Amitayus? Akshobhya? Avalokiteshvara? Kuan Yin? Padmakara? The Rigden King? Vajrasattva? Vajradhara? Vajrayogini? Vajratopa? Yeshe Tsogyal? Green Tara? Black Mahakala? White Manjushri? Samantabhadra? Kuntuzangpo? Or maybe just plain, old, fuzzy, formless, nameless God—the one you grew up with?
And let’s be honest: in that moment of total helplessness, when you are praying for mercy, will all the elaborate conceptual and philosophical distinctions you’ve made between these different traditions really matter one iota?
We should not forget where we come from. Even if our early religious experiences were negative, and even if the institutions that carry these traditions today are embroiled in corruption and demagoguery (and they are), deep within them there is still, beneath it all, a rich heart of wisdom that has been beating, quietly, for several thousand years. Curiously enough, the key for many of us in the West to developing a strong, flourishing, sustainable Buddhist spiritual path may be to stay in touch with our Judaeo-Christian roots. We might find that, like the Cherokee rose, tapping into those roots helps us deepen our Buddhist practice.