On the eve of my return to Southeast Asia, I am looking forward to more conversation with my students and colleagues on the way of Jesus in a predominately Buddhist context.
Like Jesus, the Buddha is usually portrayed as a gentle and wise spiritual guide. By following his teachings and example, in pursuit of enlightenment and liberation from this world, Buddhists seek to detach themselves from all those desires that produce suffering. Along the way, they seek to live peacefully and to become more compassionate toward others. Buddhists don’t expect these changes to happen overnight, to say the least. In fact, according to common Buddhist teaching, full enlightenment will probably require thousands of (re-) incarnations, if it ever happens at all.
As Buddhists look to the Buddha for a better way to live and for hope for their lives, so Christians look to Jesus. Yet, Jesus’ way is different.
Rather than starting with the individual, or even the community, Jesus started with God. He taught us to put the Creator and giver of life at the center of our lives, and to seek to know, love, and serve God with all of ourselves. His Gospel was an invitation to increasingly experience God’s love filling us and flowing through us in ways that truly make a difference in the lives of those around us. In this way, God would be glorified in his creation, and we would experience life as God intends.
Jesus expected that those who follow him would make every effort to realize God’s vision for their lives, but he never imagined that we would try to do this in our own strength. At core, his message was not, “Try harder!” No, his good news was more radical than that. Jesus’ Gospel was a call to surrender our own will and self-reliance, so that God could do in us what we simply cannot do on our own.
Followers of Buddha—or any religion or religious figure that teaches that we must somehow earn or achieve or own salvation—must forever operate under a different system from what Jesus’ taught. They hold a different basis for hope, and live out their days in an endless pursuit of something that is always out of reach.
Followers of Jesus, on the other hand, start by capitulating. They give up the vain aspiration to reach the top of the spiritual ladder in their own strength—no matter how well-intentioned or noble the path. Instead, they gratefully rely on the mercy of God, submit to the yoke of Christ, and learn how to live by the leading of the Spirit of God.
Jesus said, “Come unto me all you who are weary and heavy burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble of heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28).
An obscure image for most of us, perhaps: a young, untrained ox paired with an experienced, disciplined partner. Once yoked together, the younger one follows the lead of the older, and stops resisting the farmer and exhausting itself. Suddenly there is less stress and distress than when it was fighting against the farmer’s will. And the field gets ploughed.
Jesus is giving us a picture of a relationship with God that is very different from one that requires our striving to some how pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Jesus is offering to gently lead us into the true life God intends for us, both by what he does for us and by what he shows us to do.
The way of Jesus makes him stand out from other great religious leaders, and his teaching from other spiritual paths. The key difference is not so much the intended goals of a becoming a better person, of creating a better society, or of attaining a better after-life. Most religions agree on much of this. No, the critical difference between Jesus’ way and all the others is how one gets there.
By being a follower of Christ, I don’t think I am better than others. On the contrary, I am keenly aware of how limited I am in my own power to become the person I would like to be. I accept this reality, and look instead to God’s love and acceptance for my sense of worth. I rely on God’s mercy and grace for forgiveness and redemption. And my spiritual journey is fairly simple—I’m seeking to learn what it means to live under the yoke of Jesus and live by the Spirit day-by-day, moment-by-moment. I take credit for nothing in my relationship with God, and am only grateful that I was given the grace to recognize the truth that would finally set me free.
A Suggested Prayer (for those tired of trying to advance spiritually on their own): “Jesus, I am so tired of trying to make my life work. I’m weary of trying to be a better person. I give up. Thank you for your gentle and loving invitation to give my life to you completely. I accept! Please teach me how to walk with you, side by side, under your yoke, under your leadership, by your Spirit, to serve God’s good purposes for my life. Please do in me and for me what I cannot seem to do on my own. Thank you.”
 Matthew 22:37-40; Luke 15:11-32. See, too, how John further develops this Gospel message, 1 John 4:7-19.
Benefiting from Buddhism is a series of articles on how to learn from and grow through interaction with those who think, believe, or live differently than we. In the first article, “How do Christianity and Buddhism Mix?” we looked at our different options. Do we want to be Blenders, Borrowers, or simply Inspired? In the second article, “What is an Authentic Spiritual Journey?” we talked about the importance of honesty, openness, intentionality, and eagerness for those who are serious about spiritual growth. But the question remains, how open should we be? For the Christian who already believes that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, what is the real goal of being open? And, what kind of openness is appropriate for Christians and truly fruitful on an authentic spiritual journey?
What is the Holy Spirit saying?
Contrary to what you might think, staying open in the midst of a conversation is less about the thoughts, beliefs, and feelings of the other person and more about God. While each of us has so much we can learn from other people who think differently than we do, the priority is on listening for what the Holy Spirit wants to say or do through the encounter.
When you are sensitive to the Holy Spirit in interpersonal relations, you are likely to become more understanding and less judgmental. You will feel more compassion and want to respond to that person with respect and kindness as a fellow human being. The Holy Spirit is not going to prompt you to water down your commitment to Christ, but may show you something you would not have seen or thought of otherwise. The Spirit may also remind you of a truth in Scripture or in your faith that you have forgotten or put aside, but now need to take hold of once again. By being open to the Spirit in such circumstances, the possibilities for God to work in your life are limitless.
For example, within just the past couple of months, the Spirit spoke to me very meaningfully through encounters with Buddhists, Muslims, and an agnostic. An hour discussion sitting on the floor with a Buddhist monk in Mandalay reminded me (once again) to not assume I know what others believe just because of the clothes they wear or the label associated with them. His articulate philosophy inspired me to do a better job making sure others know the heart of my faith and life.
Through a brief conversation in a small city square, a Muslim mother told me how she could manage raising five small children with her husband thousands of miles away in Pakistan. Her simple faith reminded me to look to God for strength to do whatever I’ve been called to do.
An agnostic friend of mine blew me away with his ridiculous acts of generosity. He refuses to take credit and insists that he does what he does to meet some need of his own. But his example led me to prayer, to ask God for the ability (grace) to not let my fear and greed hold me back from giving more spontaneously and generously to those in need.
Not one of these people read a verse from Scripture or referenced Jesus Christ, and clearly none of them would call themselves a Christian. Yet the Holy Spirit used the encounter to speak to me, to touch me, and to move me another step on my spiritual journey in ways that I deeply treasure.
I’m not worried about being too open to others, because I know how much Jesus Christ means to me, and I am continually looking to the Holy Spirit to help me sort out and benefit from all that I am experiencing. However, I don’t want to suggest that you don’t have to be thoughtful and prayerful about listening to others.
Talking with someone who articulately believes something different can be very disorienting, confusing, or troubling for many different reasons. Yet, rather than run away from the discomfort, and certainly rather than letting yourself just get swept away by every new idea that comes along, learn how to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit in the midst of the encounter. The following are 10 suggestions that might help.
Making the Most of the Encounter—10 safe steps you can take with the Holy Spirit
Ask the Holy Spirit to prepare you to hear God’s voice through your encounters with others, and to lead you to the people you can learn from.
Reach out to others. Sounds pretty simple, but most of us stay within our own little, safe circles. Seek out those who think or believe differently than you, and look for an opportunity to exchange views and experiences with one another.
Ask God to help you to listen without judgment and to love without strings. The goal of an encounter is not to quickly size someone up, but to genuinely connect mind to mind, heart to heart, and soul to soul.
Expect and ask for the Holy Spirit to speak to you through the encounter. Notice whatever strikes you as interesting or important in the conversation. Particularly take note of whatever is true, good, or beautiful, no matter who said it or who did it.
Ask questions. Be curious. Seek better understanding wherever needed or wanted.
Be ready to share with the other person how your faith in Christ and your experience with God have been a gift to you. Don’t use theological or formulaic language, but talk from your heart, as you would to a friend. What is true in your own relationship with God that is worth telling someone else about?
Identify further questions or concerns for yourself that arise from the encounter. What do the ideas or feelings of the other person make you wonder about your own faith or life experience? Try to put your question into words.
Actively seek out answers from reliable sources: Scripture, your pastor, mentors, or other trusted resources. Don’t stop with identifying your question. Look for answers.
Pray your questions and concerns. In other words, hold up what is confusing or troubling you to God, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you and work in you through the ongoing process of seeking greater understanding.
Thank God for the gifts of the encounter. What were you able to offer the other person that brings you joy? What did you receive from the experience? What will you do next based on your experience—for the other person, for yourself, or for someone else?
How open should we be to others? Open enough to receive everything the Holy Spirit may want to do in us or through us through the encounter.
A prayer “Loving Creator, thank you for the many different ways that you reach out and speak to us. Please help me to be more open to others and to whatever the Holy Spirit wants to show or teach me through them. Please speak to me in all of my daily encounters, and lead me to deeper levels of faith, hope, and love in every possible way. Amen.”
First of all, an authentic spiritual journey is the one that is, not the one we aspire to, not the one we create in our minds to fool ourselves, and certainly not the one we fake to impress others. We may feel scared to admit the truth about the quality of our relationship with God, but we don’t need to be afraid. Such honesty can actually be quite liberating, freeing us to build a more vital spiritual life upon a solid foundation—the truth.
By letting go of pretense, we can more fully appreciate the love and grace of God, who forgives us and sets us free to truly love and accept ourselves. The more we stop worrying about what others think of us, and look instead to Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2), the more likely we are to find the way, the life, and the truth we are looking for (John 14:6). Upon a foundation of truth and grace, we are in a much better position to start out fresh on our journey to discover more of the riches that can be found in Christ, more understanding, more truth, more of whatever it is the Holy Spirit wants to show us or do in and through us. It is at this point—more honest, yet hopeful; flawed, but forgiven; humbled, yet empowered—that we must get our priorities straight. We must line up our actions with our deepest held beliefs and values. But what does an authentic spiritual journey look like? An authentic spiritual journey: A case study Son and grandson of Protestant missionaries, Hermann Hesse was dissatisfied with the emptiness and over-reliance on the intellect that he perceived in Western society and the Christian religion. In his angst he sought insight in psychoanalysis and Eastern religion. Finally, in 1951, as the fruit of his own quest, he published Siddhartha, an evocative novel that has since inspired and captured the imagination of millions around the world. His story traces the life-long, spiritual journey of a fictional character named Siddhartha, who is positioned as a contemporary of the founder of Buddhism, Gotama (aka Gautama, Buddha). As a true seeker, Siddhartha is willing to look for answers wherever he can find them, and to experiment with different ways of being in the world. He is trying to find the truth about life—not intellectually, but practically. He wants to know what truly makes sense in the here and now.
Siddhartha sojourns with the ascetics for a few years, yet finds such extreme self-denial unsatisfying, and leaves their company. He welcomes the arrival of Gotama, and listens carefully to him; but, in the end, he cannot agree fully with his teachings, and chooses not to be one of his disciples. Siddhartha then swings from asceticism to self-indulgence in his search for truth and fulfillment. He plunges freely into the pleasures of sexual love, wealth, and luxury. However, eventually, the emptiness and the corroding influence on his soul from living so dissolutely drives him to take to the forest. There he lives the rest of his life very simply, in the company of a ferryman, who teaches him to listen to and learn from the river. By the time he grows old, Siddhartha concludes that love is the most important thing to pursue. He increasingly becomes disillusioned with any kind of teaching, with ideas, and even words themselves. Increasingly, he is drawn simply to “action.” Concepts, theories, and articulated philosophies are not as valuable as simply focusing on the manner in which one lives, and the affect one’s life has on his or her soul. Sadly, the intellectualism and spiritual barrenness of Hesse’s day obscured the relevance of the Christian faith for his life’s deepest longings and questions. So much of what he was looking for, and what he came to believe about the tremendous importance of love, simplicity, humility, and gentleness, was already right at hand had he only been able to experience the love of God and leading of the Holy Spirit. He went searching for truth but did not take Christ with him. The real contribution of the novel, in my opinion, is not in where Siddhartha ended up. The jewel of the story is not in Hesse’s blend of spiritual beliefs taken from multiple religions and his own imagination and experience, having created his own eclectic spirituality, as all “Blenders” do (see the first article in this series, “How do Christianity and Buddhism Mix?”). Rather, what inspired me was his portrayal of an authentic spiritual journey, as far as it went. Siddhartha faced his own dissatisfaction with life and religion as he knew it, and sought help and a better understanding. He thoughtfully and respectfully engaged those who thought differently than he. He was open to learning from others. He was willing to experiment with different ways to live out his beliefs and convictions. He was willing to change, and he didn’t stop pursuing the truth until he found what he was looking for. Or should we say, …until he found a way of being in the world that he could live with. You may not be satisfied with where Hesse’s Sidhhartha ended up on his spiritual journey, as I am not. Yet are you willing to search as sincerely and earnestly as Siddhartha did to find answers that truly “work” for real life, for your life and relationships, in the here and now?
Spiritual pilgrims on the Camino, en route to Santiago de Compostela, Spain
Final thoughts Different religions define their spiritual goals and methods differently, but every major religious tradition affirms what most of us know from experience: The journey necessarily involves movement and change, and little happens without a sincere and dedicated investment of ourselves in the process. From a Christian point of view, spiritual growth depends upon God as well as us. We can only grow by God’s grace and activity in our lives through Christ and the Holy Spirit; and our part is to seek to know, love, and serve God—and love our neighbors as ourselves—in ever deeper and more profound ways throughout our lives. An authentic spiritual journey, then, will be marked by honesty, openness, intentionality, and earnestness—and, over time, real growth in how we think, how we live, how we relate to God, and how we love. In Scripture, we’re also taught to seek union with God as our ultimate destination, to look to Christ as our guide, and to depend on the Holy Spirit as our source of strength and power. As we experience life-giving changes that reflect Jesus Christ and the fruit of the Spirit, we will know that God is at work, Christ is leading us, and that our efforts have been worthwhile.
Questions to ponder
• How much do I want to grow closer to God and to live more authentically?
• How could I be more honest, open, intentional, and earnest in my spiritual journey?
• What help do I need from the Holy Spirit in order take the next step?
Since first interviewing Buddhist monks in 2007, I have become increasingly aware of the contributions of Buddhist philosophy and practice, not only for Buddhists but also for Christians. (See “What I learned from the Buddhists.” ) Now that I am teaching theological students in Southeast Asia on a regular basis, my interest in benefiting from Buddhism and in learning how to do contextual theology continues to rise as well.
Intellectually, Christianity and Buddhism are largely incompatible, but just as Christians have something most Buddhists do not, Buddhists have something Christians often do not, or need more of. For example, how many Christians know how to effectively practice deep breathing in order to relax the body and reduce anxiety? How many know how to comfortably and confidently access their inner wisdom? How many have an ability to detach themselves from the desires and preoccupations that bring them suffering? How many genuinely value humility, patience, and mutual respect, in ways that actually lead to kinder, more peaceful relationships? Certainly, many Buddhists do not possess these qualities either, but as a well developed, psychologically oriented, practical philosophy, Buddhism offers many helpful tools that are not accessible to most Christians.
Looking to the East is nothing new for occidental thinkers and seekers alike, though a concerted effort by Christian theologians to look to Eastern culture and religion for new insights into God and how God works is relatively recent. Yet, for many Christians, especially in the West, just the suggestion that we might have something to learn from Buddhism makes them feel uneasy, or outright furious. The notion flies in the face of traditional mission philosophy, not to mention (conscious or unconscious, stated or unstated) assumptions about Western cultural, intellectual, or religious superiority. So let’s talk about the issues.
Our first question is: How can devoted Christians beneficially draw on the wisdom, insights, and practices of Buddhism (or any other religion)? I don’t mean, at this point, what are the specific benefits that Christians should seek? (I addressed some of these contributions earlier and will again in the coming articles.) Rather, here, we are focusing on, how should Christians think about encountering another faith? What are the options? What are the issues?
Among those who are truly curious, open, and willing to listen to those whose culture and religion are different than theirs, I see three different groups emerging.
The Blenders. Blenders are eclectic syncretists, who consciously try to wrap their arms around both Buddhism and Christianity, thus creating a hybrid religion of sorts. Such individuals may call themselves Buddhist-Christians (or Christian-Buddhists), believing that, in spite of contradictions and tensions that exist between the religions, their spiritual experience is best explained or best advanced by embracing them both side by side, or some hybridization of the two.
The Borrowers. Many Christians in the West have been exposed to Eastern thought through the media and popular literature, and wind up mixing and matching various beliefs, whether or not they realize they are doing so. They do not significantly alter their basic Christian world-view or faith, but they freely take from Buddhism whatever they think might be helpful to their life. They may embrace various insights (e.g., the power of attachments to produce suffering in human lives) or adopt helpful practices (e.g., meditation) as “add-ons” to their faith and spirituality. Often such borrowing is done without any rigorous intellectual theological reflection, and thus Borrowers are often unconscious syncretists. (Post-modern scholars generally argue that all religious people, including Christians, are syncretistic. They just don’t know it.)
The Inspired. Then there are those for whom an encounter with Buddhism or another religion becomes a catalyst to look more deeply into their own faith tradition. They are inspired to see if they have missed something that may have always been there but has been lacking in their experience. Spiritual growth for the Inspired, stemming from the encounter with Buddhism, will still look, sound, and be very Christian, in the best sense of the term. Yet, at the same time, if you listen carefully, you will notice that the Inspired develop a larger, more inclusive worldview. They are more compassionate, sympathetic, and understanding. They care less about adherence to rules and traditions, and more about being “the real deal,” as one of my friends like to say about those who genuinely love God from their hearts and want to be an effective, fruitful servant of Jesus Christ.
Does it matter which path one takes in seeking to benefit from Buddhism and other religions? I think it does. Regardless of whatever degree of syncretism may secretly exist in everyone’s faith and spiritual practice, Christians still have the responsibility to reflect on what they believe, why they believe, and where they are going to look for spiritual truth, wisdom, and power. Our view of God, of how we may know God and relate to God, and of how God works in human lives, will all greatly affect our beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions. I am not talking just about intellectual reflection, but integrating reason and experience.
In the end, every attempt to blend religions falls short of providing a secure spiritual foundation to build upon. I want to learn whatever I can from the wisdom and cultures found in the East, but Christian-Buddhist syncretistic blends tend to be so subjective that they resemble a host of individual, self-made religions. A Blender’s faith will likely depend mostly on his or her personal feelings and experiences in a vacuum, betraying fidelity to Jesus Christ in some way, and divorced Christian community reflection over the centuries, thoughtful examination of the implications of the competing worldviews, and a balanced interpretation of Scripture.
The second route is less radical and seems fairly popular in some circles. Open to benefit from whatever might enhance their lives, Borrowers gratefully embrace meditation, yoga, ancient rituals, or anything else that they find helpful or meaningful in some other religion, but which is unavailable in their own tradition. Unconcerned about, or simply oblivious to, whatever underlying beliefs may be at odds with their Christian faith, they focus more on the immediate benefits of the borrowed ideas and practices that they are enjoying. I wonder, though, how often these “add ons” wind up being a distraction from spending time and energy seeking a more dynamic relationship with Christ and from learning how to live by the Holy Spirit. Personally, I feel more relaxed when I meditate, and my body feels better after yoga, but the most life-changing spiritual experiences I have ever had usually involve being consciously aware of God; heart-felt, honest prayer; or hearing God speak to me through Scripture.
Most of the time, my journey looks like the third path. I’m on a quest for greater understanding about God, myself, and how human beings function and best flourish psychologically, socially, and spiritually. I am open to learn from any credible source, and will gratefully borrow insights and practices from other religions, providing they genuinely cohere with how the Spirit speaks to me through Scripture, prayer, and my relationship with God in Christ.
I especially value dialoguing with those who offer alternative answers to ultimate and existential questions, because they help me to think more deeply and thoroughly. Yet, I do not journey as a lost soul. All along the way, I understand my identity as defined by my faith in and relationship to Jesus Christ. My quest is part obedience and part longing to better know, love, and serve God. I want to experience more and more of the abundant life Jesus offered to his followers, and if an encounter with different cultures and religions will help me to see something I’ve been blind to or ignorant of, I welcome the opportunity to learn and to grow.
What about you? How do you seek to learn from “others” in ways that truly move you forward in your spiritual journey and relationship with God?
A suggested prayer: “Loving God, sometimes I feel overwhelmed and confused by all that I do not know or understand, and I want so much more for my life and relationships. Please help me to see what I need to see; give me courage to face truth wherever it may be found; and fill me with wisdom to know how to best learn from those whose beliefs do not fit neatly into my way of thinking or being in the world. I want to know you as you truly are, and to experience more of the abundant life Jesus came to give his followers. Please continue to lead me deeper into this life. In Christ’s name… Amen.”
This posting is Article 1 in a series of articles on “Benefiting from Buddhism.”
This is the third in a series of postings on my recent trip to China.
The Troubling Surprise
To me, in spite of all the obvious and subtle differences between China and America, and between an atheistic/syncretistic religious environment and a predominately Christian-influenced Western world, I was surprised at how at home I felt in many places we went. The children laughed, played, teased and fought with each other just like in every place I’ve ever lived or visited. Teenagers liked hanging out with their friends, buying the latest style in clothes, and clinging to their boy- or girlfriends in public. Young adults seemed consumed with selling in the market places, getting ahead, and marrying. Older people were concerned about their kids and grandkids, their standard of living, and comforts. People seemed more or less just as friendly as anywhere else, just as courteous (or not), just as forthright (or not), and so forth. On the surface, age, personality, social status and economic means seemed to be just as big determinants of behavior for the Chinese as they are for us in the U.S.
I don’t know what I expected to experience, but why was I so surprised that human beings in China acted like human beings everywhere else in the world? At first I was even a bit crabby to discover how “normal” life could be with virtually no visible or verbal reference to God or faith in Christ anywhere I could see. Again, I don’t know what I was expecting. Was I disappointed that “communists” (or people in a Communist country) didn’t have horns or that their society wasn’t in disarray?
No,what was really bothering me was that my own society, rooted in the Judeo-Christian religious and moral tradition, didn’t seem to be that different or better. My crabbiness came from suddenly realizing that a) Christianity has not transformed our way of life as I had imagined and would hope, and b) what we are transporting to China is not our best selves, but our humanistic, materialistic philosophy of life.
As a Christian, I would hope that my life would be so thoroughly characterized by Jesus Christ that others would be able to visibly see a difference in how I live, what I think, and what I value. I would hope that the love of God would shine through me so vividly that others would experience Christ through me and be inspired to seek out God for themselves.
To be fair, over the years, I’ve seen many Christians live out their faith in compelling ways—generously giving of themselves and resources to help others, faithfully enduring false accusation and persecution due to their faith, serving sacrificially, forgiving and being gracious to others. Not one of them is perfect, but I can see the difference their faith is making in their life, and how others benefit from their spiritual growth. My own life is different as well, because of my faith and spiritual growth over the years. Yet, is it different enough that others can see and feel the reality of God through me? Are our lights shining brightly enough for others who do not know God as a God of love, and Christ as Savior and Lord, to see the reality of God through us?
I suspect that regardless of whatever our official beliefs may be, we Christians often undermine our spiritual vitality and witness to others by our materialism, faith in human capabilities and technology, status-seeking, and power-grabbing. We’re so close to our way of life—I’m so close—that we often cannot see how much these secular and self-serving values affect us.
A Flash of Insight
The flash of insight I got since coming home is that syncretism is simply not just a phenomenon of Asia (or Africa or anywhere else where ancient traditional religions are still widely practiced). And godlessness—not knowing, honoring or serving God—is not just a phenomenon found among atheists or agnostics.
Christians can also be syncretistic. Christians can also live in ways that appear to be godless. I realize that this insight is nothing new to most of us, but the power of its truth hit me a new way while I was in China.
When it comes down to it, I’m not really concerned with the question, why are so many Chinese people increasingly like Americans? What I’m really wanting to know is this: why doesn’t our faith in Christ and relationship with God make us more noticeably different? If Christ is truly the Savior of the world, who calls us to radically re-orient our lives to follow him and serve God’s purposes, and the Holy Spirit is in us transforming us, then why do so many American Christians act so much like nonbelievers?
In Christ, we have forgiveness of sins, a personal relationship with a loving God, hope for eternity, and a sense of God-given purpose—concepts largely absent in Chinese religion. Through the Bible, we have wisdom for personal and community living. Chinese have Confucius, but not the teaching of Jesus, the prophets, and apostles. Most of us wouldn’t trade these huge gifts for anything. Yet, have we gone far enough? Is it time we think more seriously about how to take the next step in integrating our faith and our life?
Jesus warned us in the parable of the sower:
Others, like seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word, making it unfruitful. Others, like seed sown on good soil, hear the word, accept it, and produce a crop—thirty, sixty or even a hundred times what was sown.” (Mark 4:18-20, NIV)
In the years ahead, I hope many Americans and Chinese will become close friends. It’s already happening through an increasing number of students and tourists visiting one another’s country and through this year’s Olympics in Beijing. In spite of our many differences, we have much in common, too, that can be celebrated and enjoyed.
At the same time, I hope my life increasingly looks different from those who do not believe in God and do not follow Christ—not for my sake, but for theirs. Materialism is empty. Humanism can be misleading. Syncretism is confusing, contradictory and ultimately undermines a healthy relationship with God. Godlessness is false and dangerous, often leading to more suffering. Only Christ can rescue us from ourselves and lead us into the fullness of life God intends for us. My life has hugely benefited from understanding these things and growing spiritually. My prayer is that I can step up my faith and faithfulness so that others will be able to see better what truly makes me tick and gives me hope.
What do you think American Christians need to do differently to reflect the light of Christ more vibrantly in the world?
This is the second posting in a series of reflections coming from my recent experience in China.
Chinese Religion and Culture
Historically, politically and religiously huge differences still exist between East and West, in general, and China and America, in particular. In contrast to less than 250 years of history as a nation, China has had 2100 years of emperors, beginning in 221 B.C. with the Qin (pronounced “Chin”) dynasty, finishing with the Qing (pronounced, Ching) dynasty in 1911, followed by not quite 100 years of two different forms of “republican” government. Since 1949, the People’s Republic of China has been officially “communist” and ruled by a Central Committee. Mao Zedong sought to eliminate (or minimize) all traditional and foreign religions, and members of the Communist party are supposed to be atheists. However, for the masses, other religions are more or less tolerated and capitalism has been embraced to various degrees, as the country has increasingly opened up over the past 15-20 years.
Chinese religion and philosophy are rooted principally in Confucianism, Daoism (Taoism), and Buddhism, with the three often co-existing side by side, sometimes even within one temple. The couple of guides that were willing to talk to me about how Buddhism is practiced helped confirm what I have read. In China, as well as in South East Asia, “Buddhism” as practiced is mixed with traditional religions, including beliefs in many gods and spirits in trees, stones and other inanimate objects, having been highly influenced by Taoism (emphasizing inner communion with nature) and undoubtedly other traditional religions. Ghosts and spirits are widely believed in as well.
A handful of animal figures represent key Chinese beliefs or values. The dragon is seen as both a dangerous and benevolent divine-like figure (in contrast to Western views of dragons), symbolizing power. The Phoenix represents the high value placed on longevity on life. Fierce mythological, winged creatures (guardians) are frequently depicted in sculptures and art.
As opposed to Theravada Buddhists (see “What the Buddhists Taught Me” under the category of “Inter-Faith Dialogue at https://spirit-ledleader.com/?p=24), Mahayana (major way) Buddhism is practiced in China. Mahayana Buddhists are likely to view Buddha as a spirit to whom they can pray and who can come to help them. Like Hindus, Chinese Buddhists are likely to believe “in all the gods” (as one Chinese Buddhist informed me). Perhaps the closest parallel to Christians’ belief in a loving, gracious God who sent his Son for the redemption of humanity may be found among those Mahayana Buddhists who see Buddha as benevolent, helping those who pray to him and inspiring enlightened Buddhists, called, Bodhisattvas. Refusing to enter Nirvana, Bodhisattvas choose to return to human incarnation to serve humanity until all reach enlightenment.
The Communist government has been officially atheistic since 1949, and during the Cultural Revolution (1965-67, especially), the Red Guard attempted to sweep away belief in the gods, including the traditional religious beliefs held by the masses. Religion was even outlawed for awhile. Today many young people consider themselves atheists, but practically, syncretistic forms of religion (a mixing of religious beliefs and practices from various traditions) exist in many places. In the past ten years, the number of Chinese people saying they are religious has tripled, and now represents over 30% of the population.
These shifts are very promising for the future of China, in my opinion. Largely stripped of the cultural dependence on superstition and ancient religious practices, a spiritual vacuum has been created.
But who and what is going to fill this spiritual vacuum? Where will they turn for spiritual wisdom and guidance?
So far, I’ve been able to identify three or four really good reasons to engage in inter-faith dialogue: to learn from more about other religions from real adherents, to promote peace and harmony among different peoples, and to work together to address common societal problems, such as poverty or hunger. Tony Jones suggested a fourth to me based on his experience: to seek a special experience of God in the midst of the interaction and dialogue.
Evangelism, then, is different from inter-faith dialogue. Each has its place, but it’s important to know what your goal is when talking to others. When I visited Thailand, for example, my goal was not evangelism, but learning and growth. Thus, I focused on listening rather than talking, except when asked a question. At times I had an opportunity to express my own faith in Jesus Christ and appreciation for my personal relationship with God. I also had a number of opportunities to express my deep appreciation for Jesus’ role as Savior, because, in contrast, Theravada Buddhists rely entirely on themselves for their hope of reaching Nirvana. Most of the time, though, I just listened and tried to let God speak to me through the encounter, since that is why I went. I hoped for more interaction, but few of those I interviewed seemed interested in what I believed or might say. Surprising and disappointing.
Interfaith dialogue also raises some very important questions that all Christians need to address. Just what is God’s involvement in the 4 billion plus people in the world who do not place their faith in Jesus Christ, and what is their ultimate fate? They’re not new questions, but they have taken on new urgency as our world has gotten so much smaller. (Buddhists, Hindus, Muslims living next door; internet connecting us nearly everywhere in the world, better information about the values and practices of other religions, etc.) We simply cannot ignore the question of how Christianity fits in with all the other world religions, unless we want to render ourselves irrelevant in an increasingly cosmopolitan world.
But there are no easy answers here. Along with points of connection, which are more numerous than many acknowledge, there clearly seem to be irreconcilable differences. For example, is God relevant or irrelevant in life? Do we need a savior or is our ultimate hope (liberation perhaps) entirely dependent on ourself? Is Jesus the only way to forgiveness and eternal life, or are other prophets/saviors/teachers equally reliable?
If you’re an “exclusivist” the answer is easy: Jesus/Christianity is the right way, and everyone else is wrong. If that position feels uncomfortable, since it leaves about 4 billion people in deep doo doo, you might posit that Christ is actually saving nonChristians in some mysterious, hidden way (the “inclusive” view). Or more popular still among some is assuming that somehow all religions are different paths to the same end (the “pluralistic” view).
The issue, of course, if those who conceive of Christianity in exclusive terms are right, is how could a loving God pass over two thirds of the world? Is God truly just and loving if so many are bound for eternal damnation, since they have so little hope of hearing the Gospel message in terms they can understand and receive? However, according to traditional scriptural interpretation, there are numerous passages to suggest just such a dismal scenario.
Pluralism, on the other extreme, seems to offer the best hope for promoting peace among religions/peoples and affirming the relative goodness (or lack thereof) in all human beings (including Christians). It also seems more plausible to many that God would be at work throughout the world and not just among one third of its population. But as attractive as it sounds, where is the basis for believing in pluralism, other than in our wishful thinking? There are verses that can be found to support the possibility of universal salvation in one form or another, but what do we make of all the other verses that suggest otherwise? Meanwhile, no other major religion suggests there is universal salvation/liberation outside of their own belief system either.
Philosopher-theologian John Hick (see particularly, A Christian Theology of Religions) has been working for decades to create a meta religious view to incorporate all religions under one big umbrella. Basically, he starts with his conclusion: there must be a way for all religions that promote true transformation and social concern to be authentic responses to God/Reality. He then sets out to show how there is indeed this common thread in all religions and to dispense with assertions about Christian uniqueness. Where exclusive teaching is found in any religion (which turns out to be nearly every religion), it is to be rejected in favor of Hick’s hypothesis, because he is committed to his conclusion from the onset. Now before you throw stones at his position, take up his challenge: find an alternative explanation for why 2/3 of the world pursues God/Reality more or less as urgently as Christians do and why they have more or less the same moral code and same level of morality! (His book is a must read for anyone who is seriously grappling with this issue. Countless books and articles have been written challenging him, and you can find many references to these in Hick’s footnotes.)
For me, I am in process on these issues. My main concerns are these: 1) If God is a God of love and grace revealed in Jesus Christ, what is the plan for the majority of the world who don’t know God this way? 2) Why do so many who hear the Gospel still prefer to stick with their own religion? There are obvious social, political, and cultural barriers, not to mention a lot of misinformation about Christianity, but why doesn’t the Holy Spirit seem to get through to more people? 3) Are Christians truly more spiritual, moral, or “transformed” than those of other religions? Most of the true believers from various Christian sects, so-called cults, and other religions, with whom I have discussed spirituality and morality, seem quite similar to people I’ve met in traditional Christian churches. Some are more devout, more moral, more generous, more kind–almost, more “Christ-like” than a good many Christians. There are reasonable answers to each of these questions, but my encounters with others is leading me to stay open to broader possibilities than I would once consider.
I have other issues, but too many to address here. My main point is that there are many valid questions for the exclusivist position that demand thoughtful answers. The inclusivist and pluralist positions are not panaceas, though. We are dealing with very challenging questions for those who both take Scripture seriously and who also are willing to face the truth about reality all around us. I don’t think our goal should be to try to come up with easy answers as much as it is to learn how to listen better to others and to talk about what is real in our lives, not just what we might believe in our heads.
So, please join me in seeking to be honest about what we’re experiencing and learning. Be authentic and open. Be loving, gracious, and kind. Seek to listen and learn. If the Christian God is all that we Christians claim our Lord to be, we have no need to fear genuine questions, meeting people who are different, and engaging in sincere conversations and dialogue with them–for all the reasons listed in the first paragraph.
Caveat: However, I do recommend engaging in inter-faith dialogue from a well grounded position. Or to put it in Jesus’ words, be sure to “abide” in him if you want your life to bear much fruit (John 15).
What I mean is this: Along the way of exploration, questioning and seeking answers, keep seeking to grow in your knowledge of and love for God. Do not lose sight of the main Christian goal of transformation: not just to become a better person, but to become more like Christ (Romans 8:29; 12:1-2). Keep seeking to be Spirit-filled and Spirit-led. Staying grounded spiritually is safer for you, and will make you a far more effective dialogue partner! You’ll actually have more to share.
What about all the other religions? I don’t know what to think for sure, and probably never will in my lifetime. But I’m going to keep asking the questions, seeking answers, and engaging others who believe differently than I do, while staying close to the God I already know along the way. Let’s be humble enough to learn from others, acknowledging that we don’t know everything about God/Ultimate Reality. We stand on a solid Rock that moves with us. Let’s not be afraid of the quest or the encounter with “others”.
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.