I wrote a book a few years ago called Faith to Faith. I wanted to call it How a Buddhist Taught Me To Be A Better Christian but my publishers resisted. They said Christian bookstores wouldn’t sell a book with that title. They were right. Unfortunately, they also failed to take into account that Christians who purchase books at Christian bookstores are usually not interested in other religions anyway. So they ended up publishing a book for people who were not interested in other religions while ignoring people who were.
In the meantime, I got paid to research other religions, meet tons of interesting people, and learn a lot.
I found Buddhism particularly intriguing. I had to keep asking myself, “Is this really a religion?” Oh, Buddhism eventually evolved to include statuary, temples, rites and such. It proscribes a practice and a lifestyle. It presents clear belief structures and so forth. It’s just that the Buddha’s teaching reveals a profound interest in states of consciousness and inner life. That’s a territory modern Westerners tend to categorize as psychological rather than religious. Since my secular training is in psychology, I found that fascinating.
Perhaps the real issue is our definition of religion. It’s a word many modern Christians reject when describing their own faith. That irritates me to no end. However, perhaps the word religion is at fault. Perhaps religion is an artificial category we impose on thought systems that would have nothing in common otherwise. I mean, what exactly makes us define a particular system of belief as a religion rather than as a philosophy? Habit mostly.
The further back we go in time, the more problematic such categories become.
Ancient people did not have a separate vocabulary to express ideas about disciplines we now call cosmology, physics, philosophy and psychology. They used ‘religious’ words to talk about nearly everything abstract. That’s because religion is the foundation of disciplines like ethics, jurisprudence, cosmology and so forth in every culture. Nations do secularize over time, but their religious underpinnings remain. That’s just the way it is; there are no real exceptions to that principle. Religions create culture, including modern ones. Nothing else is up to the task, at least not yet.
So Buddhism was a gift of ancient India. By the time the Buddha came along, Indian thinkers had already been thinking about the nature of consciousness, reason, personhood, and other inner states of awareness for a long time. They used religious language to ask questions like, “since I sometimes dream I am a butterfly, how can I be certain that I am not now a butterfly dreaming I am a man?”
That’s funny. It is however, a deadly serious question. What is dreaming anyway? Should we take it seriously? Why not? Can we be certain that our day-to-day life is not really a dream? Why not? Modern thinkers in the West didn’t’ ask such questions for a long time, at least with such earnestness. The Buddha asked them during the days of Jeremiah.
I think the reason the Buddha’s ideas provoke me so much is they shock me into paying closer attention to the Bible. As it turns out, our scripture also addresses such subjects – howbeit in passages we don’t read very much.
For example, some people think Freud got his ideas about the id, ego and superego from St. Augustine’s Confessions. Augustine, in turn, was reflecting on St. Paul’s teaching on temptation in Romans. Paul asks us to consider what is happening when a part of me wants sometime another part of me thinks I should not have – like an extra piece of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving, for example. He says that when two parts of me get into an argument, there must be a third part of me that makes the final decision. So there are at least three kinds of consciousness inside me, sometimes arguing about which way I should go. But which one of these three kinds of consciousness is the real me? Freud found that so fascinating he developed the modern discipline of psychology while pondering it.
The apostle Paul says the real me is not the one that demands more pie. He claims that the whiner is a false self, an old self, that has been put to death. Thats good to know, but if that piece of consciousness is still in there yelling for stuff, what is it? Who is it?
The Buddha solves the problem by claiming that all three kinds of these conscious states are illusions. In that case, what we call “self” is actually a constantly shifting collage of perceptions, impressions and judgments without any real core.
In Faith to Faith, I suggested we might offer Buddhism the following hymn.
Row, row, row your boat gently down the stream
Merrily, merrily, merrily merrily,
Life is but a dream.
Christian faith ends up in a very different place. For us, God’s call to personhood is central to our way of viewing and practicing life. Christians think of the self as something like Pinocchio in the children’s story. Christ has come to make us into real persons. So I can’t agree with the Buddha about my self being nothing but an illusion. On the other hand, what the Buddha says about not taking my constantly shifting moods and desires very seriously can be quite helpful. Spiritually speaking, neither my passing sins nor my passing virtues are very important. What is important is the destiny I can find through the redemptive work of Christ. My passing fancies can certainty mess me up if I take them too seriously, but if I keep my eyes on Christ I can trust him “who has begun a good work in me to complete it.”
So the Buddha is right about it not being spiritually helpful to keep focusing on me. I will become me only by getting the focus off of me and on to Christ. I become me by hearing Christ’s call to serve others. If I do that, Christ promises that he will take care of the formation of my self.
Just today I heard a good man, named Edsel Charles, say an astounding thing. He said that the words of Jesus as recorded by St. Matthew 28:19 are much more pivotal to the Christian faith than we often assume. Jesus said in that passage that becoming his disciple involves having someone teach us “all those things I have commanded you.”
What Edsel was getting at is that the teachings of Jesus may be the part of scripture modern believers ignore the most. Some even claim that the Lord’s teachings are not a part of the gospel, but rather a part of the Old Covenant. If that is true, then the worlds of Jesus are not for anyone, seeing that Jewish people are not known to study them much. Perhaps such attitudes is how we get a modern form of Christianity with a lot of teaching about the blood of Christ but in which the living Christ has become mute.
“I take refuge in the Buddha;
I take refuge in the Buddha’s teaching;
I take refuge in the Buddha’s community.”
Reading the Buddha, I can understand why they pray that. The Buddha is a good teacher. So good in fact that after hearing him, I always go back to listen once more to Jesus. Every time I do, I am in awe once more of the power of words I have been hearing since childhood:
“Come unto me, all ye who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn of me -- learn of me -- learn of me. For my yoke is easy and my burdens are light.”