On the altar in my hermitage in France are images of Buddha and Jesus, and every time I light incense, I touch both of them as my spiritual ancestors. Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ, p. 6
I have no hermitage in France, nor incense altar in my home or office. I don’t therefore have images of Jesus and Buddha side-by-side as does the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Recently however, a copy of the United Methodist journal for clergy, The Circuit Rider and a copy of Buddhadharma, a Buddhist periodical found themselves side-by-side in my briefcase. Ironically, the New Testament text on the front cover of The Circuit Rider was John 14:6, where Jesus says, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” The entire issue is about interpreting that text – and there I have it sitting next to a Buddhist publication! I hope someone else sees this as ironic and funny.
Things Buddhist are found not only in my briefcase, but have been finding their way into my blogs and into my sermons. I had purchased the copy of Buddhadharma to find out a bit more about the death of Maha Ghosananda in March. Ghosananda was sometimes known as “the Cambodian Gandhi” for his work for peace in his country after the downfall of the Khmer Rouge. Ghosananda lost family members to that brutal regime, and was one of only a few Cambodian Buddhist monks to survive its purges. The story is told that early in his work among Cambodian refugees, Ghosananda led a Buddhist gathering by encouraging those gathered to chant a verse from the Dhammapada: “Hatred does not cease by hatred, but by love alone is healed. This is an ancient truth.” By coincidence, I had recently read in Jack Kornfield’s book The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness and Peace, these words from Ghosananda: “If we cannot be happy in spite of our difficulties, what good is our spiritual practice.” Words such as these are powerful when heard in the context of Ghosananda’s life story.
My interest in Buddhism goes a long way back. When I was in junior high school, I had a deep experience of God’s love and care in Jesus. I would have said that I had been born again. But after a few years some of the theology and practice of some of my fellow Christians left me with a sense that I needed to know more and explore more in my spiritual life. In my college years I sought to find out more about the variety of world religions – Buddhism included. I was also interested in literature and found connections between Beat writers whose work I was reading (Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg) and Buddhism. I bought a few books on Buddhism, Zen in particular, read some of the work of Alan Watts, and while I found it interesting, it never went much beyond that. Seminary beckoned after college, and my own Christian tradition had rich resources I needed to learn about and learn from. My books on Buddhism traveled with us from place to place, mostly as occasional reference material. Maybe I just couldn’t get into a spiritual tradition in which the first “noble truth” is about pain and suffering. My work and my spiritual life have been immersed in Christian faith.
Every now and again, I would stumble across something that made an intriguing reference to Buddhism. Shortly after the turn of the new century, I read a section of a review Rowan Williams (now Archbishop of Canterbury) wrote about Andrew Shank’s book What is Truth? Williams wrote, “The oppressor needs the Abrahamic religions to be reminded of the imperatives for historical justice; while the heirs of the oppressed need a Buddhist discipline to free them from historical resentment. Two therapies for a truthful memory; these words have immense resonance just now.” Buddhist discipline as a therapy to free persons from resentment – that sounded powerful.
It was last summer, though, when I was teaching at the United Methodist Women’s School of Christian Mission in Minnesota, that I came across references to Buddhism that really grabbed my attention. The topic had to do with war and peace and interfaith dialogue. I was fascinated with discussions I read of Christian perspectives on other faiths – exclusivism, inclusivism, pluralism, deep pluralism. I particularly enjoyed Marjorie Suchocki’s discussion of her encounters with Buddhism in her book, Divinity and Diversity. I was especially grasped by her discussion of the importance of compassion in The Lotus Sutra. This was not a text with which I was very familiar, and it piqued my curiosity. There were books in my own library on Buddhism I had never read, and I realized that I had never read completely one important text, The Dhammapada. On our vacation, I took along Marcus Borg’s Jesus and Buddha: the parallel sayings, a copy of The Dhammapada and E. A. Burt’s Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha. Each work spoke deeply to me. I was making connections with parts of my own faith in new ways. I was discovering that Buddhism encourages a kind of letting go that I have heard leadership theorists say is so important for leaders (Edwin Friedman’s idea of being a “nonanxious presence”). So struck was I by some of the connections between a couple of leadership theorists who are Jewish – Edwin Friedman, Ron Heifetz – and some of the material I was encountering in the Buddhist materials I was reading I thought I should write an article entitled “Jewish Buddhism for Christian Leaders.” Who knows, I still may.
Through my reading and exploration, I rediscovered an older text of John Cobb’s. In his book, Christ in a Pluralistic Age, Cobb writes: “The fact that Buddhists and Christians can each recognize attractive features in the other’s positions does not guarantee that their achievements are compatible. But it does suggest that each, in interaction with the other, may go through a further transformation” (p. 209). Cobb wonders if something like a “Christianized Buddhism” or a “Buddhized Christianity” is possible and what it might look like. Is that what was beginning to happen in me – a Buddhized Christianity? I am not ready to say that. What I know is that since last summer I find myself moved and inspired by Buddhist teachers like Jack Kornfield and Sharon Salzberg, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. This spring I read Kornfield’s The Art of Forgiveness, Lovingkindness, and Peace, and discovered there wells of spiritual depth on which to draw – but I filter it through my Christian faith which is being deepened in this intrapersonal interfaith dialogue. There are a number of places in Christian Scripture where “gentleness” is held up as a work of God’s Spirit (Jesus in the Beatitudes, Paul in his list of the fruits of the Spirit). Jack Kornfield teaches me something more about the meaning of being gentle.
I find myself moved and inspired by Buddhist Scriptures, too. Two texts from my reading of The Dhammapada, among a few others continue to stand out. The refraining from all that is harmful, the undertaking of what is skillful, the cleansing of one’s mind – this is the teaching of the awakened (#183). The person who is harmonious amid the hostile, peaceful amid the violent, free from grasping amid the greedy, that one I call superior (#406). The entire Metta Sutta of the Sutta Nipata touches a remarkably responsive chord. I found after reading it that church consultant Speed Leas had sent me a copy of this in a bundle of stories he sent me after I attended one of his workshops on church conflict. Here are just a couple of lines from this beautiful work. May all beings be happy. May they live in safety and joy…. As a mother watches over her child, willing to risk her own life to protect her only child, so with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings, suffusing the whole world with unobstructed loving-kindness. Reading these Scriptures is helping me read my Scriptures with new eyes and a deeper appreciation. I am in the beginning weeks of reading through the New Testament in a year, and I will be doing so with the echoes of some of these writings ringing in my heart and mind.
So have I lost my Christian way? I don’t think so. I am reminded of the words of John Calvin. Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. (Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book II, Chapter 2, section 15). I would chose language different from Calvin’s, but I want to be open to truth wherever it may appear, trusting that God’s Spirit is indeed its only fountain.
It is Jesus I continue to call “Lord and Savior.” Jesus is my primary spiritual ancestor, but maybe it is not so bad having the Buddha as a spiritual first cousin once removed.
With Faith and With Feathers,