My recent article “Christian Buddhism?” at Buddhist Geeks provoked a lot of discussion, and some strong reactions from readers. This shouldn’t come as a surprise given its subject matter, but some of the reactions really were surprising.
A number of readers commented that they, too, were actively exploring how to bring together their Christian and Buddhist beliefs and practices. One remarked that as a Quaker and a Buddhist, she often gets criticized by both Quakers and Buddhists for combining the two faiths in her own life. Others expressed a sense of relief at seeing someone talking about this under-explored issue openly—like a taboo was broken.
Even more surprising were some of the reactions that didn’t appear online. A former Buddhist nun from Vancouver confided in me that when she was struggling with depression last year, she found her Buddhist practice wasn’t helping at all; she realized she “really needed to talk to God.” For her, returning for a time to the prayer of her Christian childhood, not sitting in shamatha or doing sadhana practice, was what relieved her suffering. And a Buddhist monk from Eastern Europe, practicing in the Tibetan tradition, confessed that he connects more deeply to his sadhana practice when he visualizes Jesus than he does when he visualizes Padmasambhava. These personal stories—both from Western monastics in the Buddhist tradition—suggest once again that, for many of us, our Christian roots are deeply embedded in the ground of our psyche, and it can sometimes be profoundly healing to reconnect with those roots even in the context of identifying as a practicing Buddhist.
On the other end of the spectrum, there were a number of negative comments from rather dogmatic Buddhists who cried “Wrong View!” as though the sky were falling. For the most part, these comments revealed a somewhat crude and pessimistic understanding of Christian theology, and a failure to see how it might overlap with Buddhist philosophy and practice. At any rate, when Buddhists with rigid opinions and fixed views begin to judge and disparage the spiritual lives of others, one has to wonder what distinguishes them from the Religious Right zealots who have given American Christianity such a bad name. Probably just their numbers.
Obviously, there are different kinds of Christianity and different kinds of Buddhism, and different ways of interpreting each of them—ranging from literal to liberal—so there’s no clear answer to the question of how well the two traditions can be combined. It depends how you’re practicing them, and what you believe. If you’re talking about the literalist kind of Christianity espoused by Billy Graham or the Pope (or a very literalist kind of Buddhism, for that matter), then yes, you may encounter cognitive dissonance and doctrinal conflict between the two faiths. But if you’re talking about the vastly more refined, contemplative theology of, say, Thomas Keating or the Gnostic gospels or the anonymous author of the classic Christian mystic text, The Cloud of Unknowing, that is another matter altogether. You will find plenty of subtle distinctions between their views and those taught by the Buddha, but none of those distinctions will really seem to matter very much.
Another way of saying this is that people who deny that one could meaningfully practice both Christianity and Buddhism are probably looking myopically at the exoteric or outer aspects of the two traditions: their dogmas, creeds, rituals, myths, institutions, and so on. But those who proceed to the esoteric or inner dimension of these wisdom traditions find little or no conflict between them. As Louis Claude de St. Martin famously said, “All mystics speak the same language, for they come from the same country.”
Consider, as illustration, the following two passages:
“The cause is beginningless mind as such.
Though it is neither confined nor biased,
Due to the unimpeded play of that very [mind],
Empty in essence, lucid in nature,
And unimpeded in manifestation, it appears as everything.”
“It is as atheistic to affirm the existence of God as it is to deny it. God does not exist as a being. God is the ground and power of being, and as such is the answer to the question of being generally. Everything that is has both its origin and its power to be in God.”
The first passage is by the Third Karmapa, an enlightened Tibetan Buddhist master of the 14th century who was writing about the Mahayana doctrine of Buddha Nature and the relationship between Ultimate Reality and the relative, manifest world. The second passage is from Paul Tillich, a highly influential Christian theologian of the 20th century. As Rev. John Lundin explains: “Tillich argues that everything we understand or say about God is necessarily symbolic. Whatever mental construct we carry around within us to help us understand the meaning of ‘God’ is limited by human finitude and is only a symbol of the Ultimate Reality to which it points.”
I won’t even go into the theoretical parallels between Tillich’s “God” and the Karmapa’s “beginningless mind,” though it is tempting to do so. To state the obvious: both of these esoteric philosophers, one Buddhist and one Christian, are using human language and mental constructs in an attempt to describe an Ultimate Reality that is beyond description and concept, the basic, universal “ground and power of being” that can only be apprehended experientially. Whether you call it God or Buddha Nature or the Dharmakaya seems to be a matter for sectarians and religious zealots to debate, but at the level of Ultimate Reality they are describing, all those conceptual labels are meaningless in the first place.
I suspect that those current and former Christians who are drawn towards Buddhism (not to speak of those Buddhists who are drawn back to reconnect with their Christian roots) are probably more interested in the esoteric, contemplative and experiential dimensions of both traditions, rather than the outer, more superficial aspects—the creeds and dogmas and myths. They know that mystics in both traditions speak the same language, and that is why they hear a common message being whispered from both sides.
Zealots and dogmatists on both sides will still, no doubt, cry “Wrong View!” and imply that Christian Buddhists are on a road to perdition of one kind or another. But what is Right View? I can’t say it any better than one reader identified as Dhammametta, who commented on the article:
“In these discussions, the matter of “Right View” is often brought up. We need to remember what Right View actually involves. In practice, it involves recognizing that these sensations, thoughts and beliefs are not me, not mine, that they are impermanent and subject to change. We recognize the underlying beliefs and inclinations that we might have, and we work with them. Along the way, we cultivate compassion for ourselves and others. That is how, in the context of individual practice, a Christian background and the Dhamma converge.”
The question mark in the title of that article was intentional, and instructive. For many of us, seeing those two words brought together as one label is patently shocking: Christian Buddhism? Say what?!! Proceeding from that initial shock, it seems the majority of people tend to react either with curiosity and appreciation, or with aversion and scorn, depending on their own conditioning and preconceptions. As Buddhists, our emotional reactions and conceptual reference points are (or should be) food for introspection and deepening our self-knowledge, not bludgeons for waging doctrinal warfare. In the end, we have to let go of all our fixed reference points—or die miserably trying to hold on to them.
As the title suggests, maybe we could just let it remain an open question, and rest in the ambiguity of not knowing, not grasping at intellectual ideas:
It’s a koan—one that is perfectly tailored for our culture and our moment in history.