Southeast Asia was a great experience for me. I spent four weeks in Myanmar and Thailand interviewing Buddhist monks, Christian and Buddhist professors of religion, directors of inter-faith dialogue programs, and peace workers. I now have a much better understanding of Buddhism and realize that many Christians have underestimated or misunderstood its insights and contributions. In terms of actual religious practice, many of us could take a lesson or two from the barefoot men and women in shaved heads and simple robes.
-Toward a Better Understanding-
There is no historic connection between the origins of Christianity and Buddhism—neither one was influenced by the other as far as anyone can tell. Buddhism arose out of the soil of Hinduism in the sixth century B.C., in Nepal; and Christianity out of Judaism in the first century A.D., in Palestine. But in spite of the mutual independence of the two great traditions, there are many important parallel lines of thought. When there are differences, the contrasts are very interesting and worth contemplating.
Buddhist teaching (Dharma) and Christian teaching (New Testament) have much in common in several respects. For example, both more or less emphasize putting one’s faith into action, love and compassion, personal transformation, and seeking inner peace. Definitions, methods and priorities differ at times, but Buddhism and Christianity share similar core values, especially in the realm of ethics and personal morality.
Differences between the religions are trickier to identify. First, much ignorance and misunderstanding exists between practioners of Buddhism and Christianity. So, sometimes, apparent differences are exaggerated or invented by one group that truly doesn’t understand the other. For example, Buddhists often charge Christians with being satisfied with just belief without actions, while Christians counter that Buddhists are all about action without faith in God. While it is true that Buddhism emphasizes self-reliance and Christians rely on grace from God, Buddhists also have a type of faith in the truth and wisdom of the Reality behind their teaching, and Christians also emphasize the importance of good works as an outgrowth of grace and companion of faith. I’m not saying the two religions are essentially the same. In my opinion, they are not. I’m saying that they may be more alike and have more in common than many often realize.
Second, as is true among Christian theologians, clergy and parishioners, there is a big gap between what Buddhist monks and the average Buddhist believe and practice. This means that it may seem easy to identify differences between doctrines written in the Buddhist Scriptures (Dharma) and the New Testament. However, in real life, beliefs and practice widely vary. Official teaching is often quite different from what the man and woman on the street actually believe and do.
For example, many Theravada Buddhist monks (principally from Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos) either do not believe in God or consider God irrelevant to Buddhist practice. However, at the same time, the vast majority of ordinary Buddhists from the same countries are very concerned about spirits, gods and angels. Both monks and laypeople believe in Karma (the good or evil you do now will come back to you in the next life in one form or another—i.e., “what goes around comes around”). However, the typical monk is eager to escape the cycle of reincarnation, while the average Buddhist is mostly concerned about enjoying this life and avoiding making the next one worse. The monks really want to achieve enlightenment and Nirvana, total liberation from human existence. The person on the street has been taught to be content with his or her life as is.
Thus, in dialoguing with Buddhism and Buddhists, we need to differentiate between official teaching and the life and practice of the millions of adherents. We also need to know what our goal is in dialogue. We can examine ideas with the educated; we can compare religious practices of the person in the pew to the person at the pagoda; or we can join with like-hearted fellow human beings of different religious backgrounds to work to solve common problems and promote world peace. Each goal has its place.
Definitively defining Buddhism remains challenging, because emphases, perspectives, teachings and application vary according to region, exposure to traditional religions, personal conviction of various monks, and other factors I have yet to learn or fully understand. But the bottom line seems pretty clear. In all its different forms, a major theme keeps emerging: Buddhism is a religion for the here and now. In spite of how Buddhist monks may hope to reach Nirvana one day, in practice, they are focused on how to train their mind in order to change their life. Many would also like to change the world, too.
-What I appreciate the most-
Beyond giving me a greater understanding of Buddhism and Buddhist practice, my experience in Asia has been inspiring. The teachings and practices are already helping me to become a better Christian. I say this not because Buddhists are teaching me about Christianity, but because their faith, convictions and way of being in the world are helping me to think through my own faith and life in a fresh way.
On the top of my list for most appreciated insights are the following:
- Buddhists emphasize the tragic consequences of greed and the misguided nature of materialism—money not only does not buy happiness, the western obsession with it is causing grief and anxiety all over the globe.
- Buddhists are often gentle, giving, friendly and respectful of all life, exposing dangerous ideologies that separate human beings from nature and other human beings.
- Buddhist monks focus on daily meditation, living simply, and cultivating purity, wisdom and compassion—thinking and doing good is more important than anything else.
- Buddhists live in the here and now, and highly value becoming better people.
The goal of devout Buddhists is to reach Nirvana. But Nirvana is not a place in space and time; it’s a state of mind that actually frees a person from all attachment to this world. They call it liberation—being free from all selfish drives, impulses, reactions, desires, consciousness, perceptions and feelings. In order to reach Nirvana, they practice meditation to eliminate ignorance, to train their minds, and to let go of their mental and emotional attachments. They want to be free from every aspect of what humans consider normal “life,” because these things lead to suffering. Their highest goals are purity, wisdom and compassion (selfless love for others). When they truly experience this right perspective and actions, they will be enlightened. Enlightenment eventually culminates in Nirvana—total happiness (bliss).
There is much in Buddhism that resonates with Jesus’ teaching and some that is at odds with it. Overall, though, the Buddhist monks have helped me to understand a very important principle of Christian spirituality in a clearer way: Those who truly believe in the teaching and ideals of a religion will show it by their level of devotion, faith, and practical actions.
-What this all means for my Christian faith-
As a Christian, I greatly appreciate another religious tradition that also prioritizes love, compassion, and personal transformation. Buddhism’s high ethical standards and values encourage me to continue to pursue inter-faith dialogue, and gives me hope that there may be millions of Buddhist allies in humankind’s pursuit of world peace.
On a more personal level, observing the beliefs and practices of Buddhist monks has challenged me to be more serious about my own religious practice. I feel inspired to become more intentional, dedicated and consistent in pursuing greater spiritual maturity and personal transformation. I have a new set of questions that I’m exploring: How can I learn to focus my mind better? How can I practice “letting go” of judgments, obsessions, concerns, and other emotionally charged distractions that keep me from focusing on Christ and serving Christ? How can I simplify my life to better utilize my time, energy and resources to fulfill my purpose in life? How can I more consistently and clearly communicate my values and devotion to Christ to others without words?
Surely progress is made in life when we put our minds, hearts and efforts into what we most value. The goal of Christian spirituality is to become more and more like Christ, in an ever deepening relationship with God; but this growth doesn’t just happen. Like it or not, change requires disciplined practice. And as far as I can tell, many Buddhist monks are way ahead of many Christians in walking (and sitting) their talk.
I also realized something else by reflecting on the Buddhists’ example: what I devote myself to now isn’t just for this life. Spiritual growth is also preparation for the next life. Buddhists practice and practice training their minds with the goal of reaching full enlightenment. What if we Christians were committed to practicing and practicing so that at death we were that much closer to the goal that God has in mind for us? I am not talking about trying to earn our salvation, but “working out our salvation” so that we may present ourselves to God as “pure and blameless” when Christ returns (Philippians 2:12-16).
Before anyone accuses me of promoting works-righteousness, let me assure you that I am talking about spiritual growth—positive changes in heart, mind and actions—that God produces by grace and the Holy Spirit. (See Philippians 1:6.) This is one of the most important differences between Christian faith and Buddhism—Buddhists look to themselves for the power to change, while Christians are taught to look to God for inner change. But paradoxically, this grace-based transformation also grows out of the believer’s response of obedience and effort.
In relational terms, serious devotion to spiritual growth means seeking to know Christ more and more, and to experience power and change through our relationship with him. The Apostle Paul described his intense commitment to his own spiritual growth this way:
What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers [and Sisters], I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3:9-14, NIV)
So much of what I learned and observed from my time with the Buddhists is already in my own scriptures or can be found in the history of Christian devotion and practice. The real contribution to me was not in discovering something new, but in seeing a faith in practice. The monks I met—those who focused on learning more, those who spent hours in meditation daily, those who were mostly concerned with helping HIV/AIDS victims, widows and orphans, along with those who devote themselves to alleviating human suffering—these individuals truly live what they believe.
I want to be that kind of Christian.