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The Comparative Analysis of Buddhism and Christian Ideologies

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Today’s parable is one of the most famous in scripture. The good Samaritan, where a man lies beaten at the side of the road. And a priest and Levite pass, but then a Samaritan stops to help him. Samaritans and Jews did not have friendly relations. They hated each other. Both traced their ancestry to Abraham and believed that they were God’s chosen people- and the others were not. They developed separately, as neighbors with a long-standing feud. The Jews destroyed the Samaritan temple. Samaritans had in the previous decades desecrated the Jewish temple by throwing bones into it at the beginning of Passover, making it impossible to celebrate the holy days. Jewish proverb- a piece of bread given by a Samaritan is more unclean than a piece of pig flesh.

So the Good Samaritan- the idea that there might even be a good Samaritan- would be both shocking and insulting to the Pharisees who were listening. It’s hard even to comprehend how problematic this parable would be. Jesus says as far as God is concerned love of God and love of neighbor are the greatest commandments. And when asked who is neighbor, he responds with this story that the neighbor, the one who pleases God and fulfills the commandment, is not the leadership of our own faith. It is the person of another faith. A despised faith.

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How do Christians hear this parable and still insist that professing Christ is the only way to heaven? I’m really not sure. Love of God and love of neighbor here sound much more like doing than professing. You can say you follow Jesus all you want, but Jesus taught love. Jesus taught reaching across borders in order to love. “Until there is peace between religions, there can be no peace in the world.” ― Thich nhat han. The Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader for the people of Tibet, has a book called Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together. He acknowledges that the world seems to be more and more polarized, hostile and divided. And that religion has often played a part in the polarization, sowing seeds of suspicion and distrust. Yet religion could help the world move toward healing and wholeness. “The challenge before religious believers,” he writes, “is to genuinely accept the full worth of faith traditions other than their own.”

The Dalai Lama writes that this spirit of pluralism “is not dependent upon accepting that all religions are fundamentally the same.” But the spirit of pluralism depends on seeing that compassion lies at the heart of all of the religions. So even though the religions are often very, very different—Buddhism, for example, is agnostic about the idea of whether there even is a supreme being or god— they all come agree on compassion. And so the first step is to gain some basic understanding of the aspects of faith traditions other than one’s own. And when we learn about other religious traditions, it can help us remember our own essential spiritual grounding- in compassion, in love and relationship of God and neighbor.

Buddhism began in India, with Buddha. Actual details about his life are unknown. He was Hindu and moved by suffering. So he sets out to study and pray and lived a life of asceticism, and according to legend, sitting under a bodhi tree achieved enlightenment. 4 noble truths- life is suffering- not all suffering. Good things happen, but good things fade too. That’s inevitable. Suffering comes from desire/attachment, way to end suffering to be free of desire/ attachment/ expectation, and the way (8-fold path). (Wisdom)

  1. Right View (or Right Understanding)- life is full of suffering, actions have consequences
  2. Right Intention (or Right Thought)- let go of selfish desires, attachment

    (Moral Virtues)

  3. Right Speech “It is spoken at the right time. It is spoken in truth. It is spoken affectionately. It is spoken beneficially. It is spoken with a mind of good-will.” — AN 5.198. This means that one should only speak if the words will help others, if what is being said is true, the speech should be kind and helpful and finally a person should speak only to promote good-will. This means that we should shun slander, gossip, argumentative speech, false witness to another and words spoken in spite. We should never spread rumors and try to avoid nagging.
  4. Right Action- not engaging in evil acts such as killing and hurting sentient beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, taking in intoxicants such as drugs and alcohol. Buddha teaches us that we need to turn away from cruelty and evil acts and only partake in acts of kindness and love. We need to show compassion and care towards others.
  5. Right Livelihood Right Livelihood means practicing kindness, dutifulness and good conduct when working

    (Meditation)

  6. Right Effort Action and Intention in order to attain freedom from suffering. It means disregarding desires that cause suffering to one’s self and other. It means setting aside time for meditation. It means not succumbing to immoral sexual desires. It means to be practicing mindfulness when it is most difficult to do so.
  7. Right Mindfulness Mindfulness means being aware of the exact moment you are living in, not dwelling in the past or the future. It also means being mindful of others.
  8. Right Concentration/ meditation- Since the world is full of things that we regard, our minds race all the time. We fail to focus. By learning to meditate, we let go of the world around us. We commune instead with our inner beings. This in turn communes with the universe. The title, “Buddha,” means “awakened one.”

When the Buddha started to wander around India shortly after his enlightenment, he encountered several men who recognized him to be a very extraordinary being. They asked him: ‘Are you a god?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘Are you a reincarnation of god?’ ‘No,’ he replied. ‘Are you a wizard, then?’ ‘No.’ “Man?” “No” ‘So what are you?’ They asked. Buddha replied: ‘I am awake.’ Buddha means “the awakened one.” How to be awake is all he taught. -Buddhist teaching.

And to be awake means to be able to live fully in the present. Buddhist monks’ practice this for years and years, emptying themselves and becoming attuned to their feelings and sensations. This is what nirvana means—to let go, to empty oneself and to become “no self,” anatman, where the boundaries of the finite self disappear. In Philippians, Paul wrote that says Jesus “did not count equality with God as something that could be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant. Marcus Borg wrote a book, Jesus and Buddha: Parallel Sayings, in which he notes many similarities between the two:

  • First, and most importantly, they both had life-transforming experiences of “the sacred” that they sought to share with others.
  • Both began renewal movements within their traditions.
  • Both were teachers of wisdom that is world-subverting. The teaching challenged conventional ways of seeing and being that involves a “way” or “path” of transformation.

Here’s an eighth century Zen story: When Hui-Hai was a young monk and first came to the great master Ma-Tzu, the master asked him, “What have you come here for?”

Hui-Hai said, “I have come seeking Buddha’s teaching.” “What a fool you are!” Ma-Tzu said. “You have the greatest treasure in the world deep inside you, and you go around asking other people for help. What good is this? I have nothing to give you.” Hui-Hai bowed and said, “Please master, tell me what this treasure is.” Ma-Tzu said, “Where is your question coming from? This is your treasure. It is precisely what is asking the question at this very moment. Everything is stored in this precious treasure house of yours. It is there at your disposal, you can use it as you wish, nothing is lacking. Why then are you running away from yourself and seeking for things outside?”

Hearing these words, Hui-Hai realized his own mind. Beside himself with joy, he bowed deeply to his master. “No one will say, ‘Look, there it is!” because it is within you.” And Jesus says, “The kin-dom of God will not come in such a way as to be seen. No one will say, ‘Look, there it is!’ Because it is within you.” This view of the kingdom of God is to be found in the present moment is remarkably similar to the Buddhist idea of nirvana, the blissful state of oneness with all things that is found only in the present moment. And the goal of Buddhism can be seen as very similar to the goal of Christianity: to be able to get beyond all the distractions of this world and to become aware of this state of being, this reign of God right here and right now, and then to live in this awareness. It is to become awake to the presence within us and among us.

My Holy Envy in Buddhism- This emphasis on enlightenment, on personal transformation. Buddha didn’t teach ideas or doctrines. He taught methods. And these methods can apply to other faiths. Christian Buddhists. In Christianity, at least as so often practiced today, there is much emphasis on belief. Do you believe in Jesus? Do you accept Jesus? And not nearly enough on becoming better people. So there are those who confidently claim to be Christian and also support locking babies in cages. Christians can tend to focus so much on the death and resurrection and neglect how Jesus lived and what Jesus taught. The good Samaritan story isn’t just about being nice and helping others- though that’s a great start. It’s about recognizing that all people are neighbors and loved by God- despite religious, cultural, national, other differences.

Book: “Without Buddhism, I could not be Christian”- “Christianity is long on content but short on method and technique”. Buddha / Buddhism is more concerned with experiencing ultimate reality rather than theology of defining and naming it. And Jesus didn’t teach a theology. Jesus taught an ethic. He taught love. He taught prayer. He taught disentanglement from what this world insists matters. He spoke in parables.

Jesus also preached about the need to give up attachments to earthly things: “Where your treasure is, there your heart is also.” You cannot worship God and mammon. From a few weeks ago- you want to follow after you say goodbye to your family? Don’t bother… Jesus practiced emptying himself, giving up his own desires and focusing on the presence of God. He prayed, “Not my will, but Thy will be done.” And Jesus also talked about the importance of living fully in the present moment: “Consider the lilies of the field and the birds of the air. They don’t worry; they aren’t anxious. They don’t suffer. Do not worry about things for tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Don’t worry about what to eat or what to wear, but seek first the reign of God. Do it now!”

Jesus- “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the ground and dies, it will not bear fruit.” “You will not find yourself unless you lose yourself.” In Christianity we talk about “dying” to an old way of being and one’s resurrection to a new way of being. Not just about accepting Jesus into your heart. It’s personal transformation. For Jesus there also was a path, a way, to an end to suffering—where there is no more crying or weeping, but peacefulness and wholeness and joy.

Meditation- “Seek and you shall find.” Sometimes Christians interpret this as if God is a Cosmic Vending Machine, thinking “Ask, and you will receive” means that God is there to fill personal orders. As if God is a Genie”. “The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.” Kierkegaard. Because God isn’t a genie. The offer is not a divine blank check. It matters what we ask for. Ecclesiastes says, “Vanity of vanities. All life is vanity!” The super important stuff of this life- wealth, reputation, power, etc is futile.

Rabbi Harold Kushner once wrote: America’s Declaration of Independence guarantees everyone the right to the pursuit of happiness But because the Declaration is a political document and not a religious one, it does not warn us of the frustrations of trying to exercise that right, because the pursuit of happiness is the wrong goal. You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something. The happiest people you know are probably not the richest or most famous, probably not the ones who work the hardest at being happy… I suspect that the happiest people you know are the ones who work at being kind, helpful and reliable, and happiness sneaks into their lives while they are busy doing other things. Prayer isn’t about asking for. Therese of Lisieux “Prayer is a surge of the heart; it is a simple look turned toward heaven, a cry of recognition and love, embracing both trial and joy”. Julian of Norwich said that “Prayer fastens the soul to God” It’s relationship. We fasten our souls to God.

Mother Theresa what do you say when you pray. I say nothing. I just listen. What does God say when you pray? God says nothing. God just listens. When you ask a Buddha, “What is it that you are part of when you are enlightened, or when you experience nirvana?” one of the terms or images that are used is sunyata, emptiness. That’s not a very good translation but it’s the word they use to identify that ultimate reality- the interconnectedness of everything. Or as the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh uses the term for ultimate reality, “interbeing.” New Testament — “God is love.” We are all connected through the God who is love. Karl Rahner: “The Christian of the future will be a mystic or will not exist at all.” He meant people will either have a dynamic, immediate and experiential relationship with God, or they will not have faith. Faith will either affect ordinary awareness, create new ways of living and energize every dimension of life, or it will be formulaic, superficial and empty. And we see this.

So as Christians, who learn from Buddhism, we spend time in shared worship and solitary silence; listen; open our eyes and hearts to the wonders of creation; pay attention to our feelings, longings, fears and hopes; share our lives with those who need our love and whose love we need; surrender to mystery and the embrace of the sacred Spirit. These practices open us to awareness of the God who is always present with us and in us.

Anthony de Mello described the role of such practices…

Disciple: “Is there anything I can do to make myself enlightened?”

Teacher: “As little as you can do to make the sun rise in the morning.”

Disciple: “Then of what use are the spiritual exercises you prescribe?”

Teacher: “To make sure you are not asleep when the sun begins to rise.”

Our hearts are restless until they rest in you, O God. Augustine. In the Buddhist sutra on loving-kindness, the Buddha says: As a parent would risk her life to protect her child, her only child, even so should one cultivate a limitless heart with regard to all beings. With good will for the entire cosmos cultivate a limitless heart. Jesus would have entirely agreed with that. Love God. Love your neighbor. This is the greatest commandment. Love. I began this series by quoting the Dalai Lama, do not learn about Buddhism to become Buddhist. Learn about Buddhism to become better Christians. To be better neighbors.

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