Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship
God, Jesus and Buddhism
This issue of UU Sangha has an emphasis on the interaction of Buddhism and Christianity. I suspect we will visit this theme in UU Sangha more than once so here is a first attempt to address the topic. I'd be very interested in articles in response to some of the views presented here which are likely to be controversial.
Events at General Assembly
Wayne Arnason has agreed to give a talk for our UUBF program at the 1998 General Assembly in Rochester, New York. His title is "What Did the Buddhist Say to the Humanist?" Wayne's description of the talk is:
"We know what the Buddhist said to the hot dog vendor ('Make me one with everything!"). but is there anything that UU Buddhists have to say to UU Humanists? With so much in common why are these two non-theistic, this-worldly, human-centered traditions type-cast into 'spiritual' and 'non-spiritual' camps?"
Look for it on Friday, June 26, at 1:30pm
Following Rev. Arnason's talk and a discussion period, we will have a general meeting of the UUBF to discuss general issues of interest to the organization and membership as well as discuss future directions.
Becoming a Tax Exempt Organization
I have been looking into registering the UUBF as a 501c(3) non-profit corporation. This would give subscribers/members the benefit of making their contributions tax deductible. If anyone out there is a lawyer and can help with this, please let me know!
New Bank Account!
I've applied for and received a tax id number from the IRS so now I can receive and deposit checks made out to UUBF or UU Buddhist Fellowship or UU Sangha. You will no longer need to mail me checks made out in my name. Our bank account has grown as we have been adding new subscribers but our funds are still low. Any early subscription renewals or donations would be very helpful!
Faithfully yours, Sam
A Reflection on Buddhism, Christianity and Unitarian Universalism
by James Ishmael Ford
For many, many years the Catholic church observed the feast of Sts Barlaam and Josaphat every November 27th. The Orthodox church also remembered these saints, on November 9th. No less a figure than the renowned eighth century doctor of the church, John of Damascus, wrote the definitive spiritual biography of these two holy men.
The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church briefly outlines their story. "It having been prophesized in the infancy of Joasaph (or 'Josaphat'), the son of a heathen Indian king, that he would be converted to Christianity, he was shut up in a palace so that he should know nothing of the facts or evils of life. Thence he escaped, and was found and won to the Christian faith by the hermit Barlaam. For a time he ruled the kingdom with his father, but later retired to the wilderness with Barlaam."
Wonderful story. But, then in the great nineteenth century rush of critical scholarship, people began to notice how this story of Barlaam and Josaphat was eerily like that of the Buddha. And indeed, it turned out, it was the story of the Buddha. So, by the beginning of this century, Christians quietly dropped this feast from their calendars.
From near the beginning there seem to have been connections between Buddhists and Christians. There are several references in antiquity to Indian "gymnosophists" visiting the west. Undoubtedly most would have been Hindu yogis. But by that time Buddhism had extended into what is today Afghanistan. So who knows whether some of these visiting "Indians" were not Buddhist monks?
And Christians returned the favor. Some scholars maintain the Pure Land school of Mahayana Buddhism was birthed out of the meeting of Chinese Buddhism and missionaries from the Nestorian church. This is disputed, but not beyond the realm of possibility. But it is fairly certain that from the beginning there has been a cross-fertilization of these great spiritual traditions.
So it shouldn't be surprising that today there is much conversation and more going on between Buddhism and Christianity. This brief essay has mostly to do with that "more." When I was a young Zen monk I was with a group who visited a Trappist monastery. There we found Christians who knew quite a bit about Zen meditation. Certainly they knew more about our disciplines than we did theirs. Since that time I've visited several Christian monasteries. Long ago I ceased being surprised to find stacks of zafus, traditional Zen meditation cushions, at nearly every one of those Christian communities.
In 1925, one of the first American Buddhists, Dwight Goddard visited a Christian-Buddhist monastery in Nanking, China, that had been established by Karl Reichelt. I once ran across a volume that described how in the years before the second world war, a Japanese Buddhist community had adapted a version of the Rule of St Francis to their practice of the Dharma.
Perhaps the most notable of spiritual cross-fertilizations between Buddhists and Christians has taken place within one particular branch of Japanese Zen, the so-called Harada-Yasutani lineage. It is a reform of the Soto school, having adapted a full koan curriculum from the Rinzai school. While quite small in Japan, it has had an inordinate influence on the shape of western Zen.
Philip Kapleau, Robert Aitken and Taizan Maezumi, three towering figures in western Zen, all trained within the Harada-Yasutani lineage. To study koan Zen in the west is almost certainly to study within this lineage. What is fascinating are the number of Christians who have completed formal training within this school and have gone on to become authorized Zen teachers. While not the only Zen school to authorize "Christian Zen masters," it has led the way, counting in its various branches possibly twenty Christians, mostly Catholic priests or nuns, who have been authorized in some way as Zen teachers.
So, what is this all about? And, most importantly, perhaps, what are we facing today? Are we looking at some new Buddhist-Christian synthesis? In a "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation," Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has warned Catholics that Buddhist spirituality is a seductive danger. And the Dalai Lama, looking with a jaundiced eye at Christian theism, warns "against people calling themselves 'Buddhist-Christians,' just as one should not try 'to put a yak's head on a sheep's body.'"
We've arrived at a stage where the Benedictine abbot, and Zen roshi, Willigis Jager can tell a gathering at an International Buddhist Christian Conference in Berkeley in 1987, "Many can argue whether a Christian can validly do Zen or teach Zen, or not. The fact is, I am doing it." Perhaps a sheep with a yak's head, but an eloquent yak-sheep, no doubt.
The primary difficulty rises in our understanding of the nature of God. Buddhism denies (or, perhaps more devastatingly, ignores) a Supreme Being who creates and sustains the world in the sense most Christians would understand as being "God." And, closely related to this, Buddhism denies as delusional the belief in an immortal soul. These two fundamental differences would seem to make any Christian-Buddhist synthesis that impossible joining of yak and sheep.
But, still, it happens. I spoke briefly about this subject with a Catholic Zen teacher, Pat Hawk. He held up his hand palm out and said "Christian." He then turned it so the back faced me and said "Zen." A very zen expression, beautiful and graceful. But, when push comes to shove, does it work?
I don't claim to know. Clearly there are moments in our lives when we can drop our conceptions, our notions, our ideas, and simply be present to what is. Many of us have experienced this, whatever the spiritual tradition within which we practice. At that point we can truly say we are neither Christian nor Buddhist. At that point all words fall away. Instead, we are simply present. I suggest this is Buddhist enlightenment, and maybe this can be Christian heaven.
People have struggled with their experience of this "full and yet empty present," and tried to explain it in ways that make sense across culture and religion. Most notable of efforts at finding common ground are the writers in the Kyoto School of Japanese philosophical Buddhism. They have taken a great interest in the Christological hymn in Paul's Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter 2, verses 5-12. The turning point for them is "kenosis," the "emptying" of self, which they find suggestive of Buddhist sunyata, or emptiness.
A number of scholars have lept upon this possibility, following ideas first opened in the west by Thomas J.J. Altizer and other "death of God" theologians. It certainly is a rich vein to mine. The only problem, but a large one, is that it depends upon stretching the biblical use of kenosis in a way that occurs no where else in the original literature.
Others have sought the basis for dialogue and cross-fertilization in the shared images of compassion and love. Here we find that first category which bursts out of the unnamable experience of silence which Christians, Buddhists, and so many others have shared. Here I, too, find some great possibilities. But, what might come of it, I can't even begin to imagine.
Which brings us to Unitarian Universalism.
Andrew Rawlinson, in his The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions, writes one of the first surveys I've seen of this phenomenon of "Christian Zen." He does it in an essay titled "Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle (and Christian Zen)." It is Enomiya-Lassalle rather than Thomas Merton, as many people might think, who opened the door to actual Christian-Buddhist practice. He was the first Christian to be authorized as a Zen master.
And Rawlinson's study is among the first to delve, even if briefly, into the subject. In this essay he includes a table of Christians who have been authorized as Zen teachers. I found my own name in that table. I have been authorized to teach in the Soto school. And, I now am a spiritual director within the Harada-Yasutani school. The question is whether I should be counted as a Zen Christian?
Rawlinson lists me as a Protestant minister. Actually, I have little problem with that. In the shorthand necessary in a study as massive as his book, collapsing Unitarian Universalism into Protestantism is reasonable enough.
Of course, we Unitarian Universalists know this isn't exactly true. Historically, we are children of the Reformation and specifically New England Congregationalism (if we skip over our Hungarian speaking cousins and the various independent and Presbyterian movements that became the English and Irish churches).
But, what are we theologically?
This is a question with which we've struggled for generations. And, I rather doubt we're going to resolve it anytime soon. But, perhaps just because of that theological ambiguity, we are the perfect place for this Buddhist-Christian synthesis, or synergy, or whatever it is, to happen. If it is going to happen we seem the place and the people. We're open to experiment. Many of us are non-theistic, in the traditional western use of the word. And, as a community, we're thirsty for spiritual discipline.
Here I find myself a fairly typical Unitarian Universalist. I am drawn to the "kenotic God," of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, as well as the divine darkness in The Cloud of Unknowing, the writings of Meister Eckhart and other apophatic mystics. Nonetheless, I simply do not believe in that creating and sustaining Supreme Being most westerners seem to mean when they use the word God. Nor do I believe in a soul as we usually use that word in western theology. While I do consider myself culturally and even heartfully Christian, by the standards of normative contemporary Christianity, I am not one. I'm too rationalist and humanistic to be accepted by nearly any modern Christian community. Except, of course, our own ambiguous Unitarian Universalism.
No wonder there is a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship. We represent great possibilities within modern spirituality. Still, we need to be careful. Most of us in our liberal tradition may not think highly of Cardinal Ratzinger. He is head of what was once called the "Inquisition," after all. But, he is not without insight. He suggests we need to be conscious of differences and resist mushing things together.
Victoria Urubshurow, a theologian writing in Buddhist-Christian Studies (volume 11, 1991), says in response to the Cardinal's famous letter, "There is no doubt about it: important differences, even blatant contradictions exist between Christianity and Buddhism. Often the discrepancies stem not merely from problems of religious language, but from deep structural variations."
We need to be wary of shallow eclecticism. What makes eclecticism subject to being shallow is that by its very nature it encourages us to simply pick and choose what is convenient or easy. If we avoid the difficult we not only miss the depths of a tradition, but we miss the possibility of our own coming to depth, to wisdom. On a genuine spiritual way we need the challenge of those difficult moments. They are what open our hearts and minds.
In this vein Urubshurow goes on to quote Thomas Merton. "There must be scrupulous respect for important differences, and where one no longer understands or agrees, this must be kept clearwithout useless debate. There are differences that are not debatable, and it is a useless, silly temptation to try and argue them out. Let them be left intact until a moment of greater understanding."
I suggest we Unitarian Universalists may bring about that moment of greater understanding. We have created a spiritual community that is one grand inter-religious conversation. We are Christians, Jews, Humanists, Neo-pagans, Buddhists, and many others, all of whom have agreed to come together as sisters and brothers.
Here we find, I believe, some great alchemy of heart, which allows us to be present each to the other, as well as to our own true selves. When we've talked and talked and finally have lapsed into a profound silence, I believe it is at that moment we find ourselves coming to something genuine.
It is this moment before conversation, before words, before ideas, that can be named both sunyata and the kenotic God. Here we find a moment pregnant with possibility. If we are willing to let our dreams fly and yet to ground ourselves in the practices of silence, together we may find a grand spiritual synthesis where Christ and Buddha are forgotten, but their realities remain.
When east and west are truly forgotten, we may find a wonderful field out of which some beautiful new plant may flower. It might even be like that mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, that when planted and tended, becomes a great bush under which the birds of heaven may truly find rest.
Well, something of a homiletic extravagance! I am a preacher, after all. But, I look at the range of Unitarian Universalist Buddhism, and feel hope welling up from within me. What directions we'll take, who knows? Will we retain many elements of our Christian and Jewish origins in our Unitarian Universalist Buddhism? Or not?
At this point it is impossible to say. Many UU Buddhists have had enough of our ancestral faith. Many of us want a simple and pure western Buddhism. Others among us feel the tug of our Protestant hearts. I am one of those. So, who knows? Where might this lead? Who knows?
But in this I have no doubt: as we go forward in the great conversations of east and west, Unitarian Universalism will be one of those places where the speaking and the listening will occur. And if we are to come to some place where we've gone beyond east and west, it will be within Unitarian Universalism. A yak-sheep? A wonderful mustard bush? Perhaps in our Unitarian Universalist churches we will restore the celebration of the feast of Sts Barlaam and Josaphat. I think it might be very appropriate.
The Reverend James Ishmael Ford is minister of the Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, in Chandler Arizona. He may be contacted electronically at firstname.lastname@example.org
the Buddhist Way
from Lifelines: Holding On (and Letting Go) Forrest Church
"No one can say that eyes have not had
enough of seeing, ears their fill of hearing." ECCLESIASTES 1:8
The world's great religions offer differing interpretations of suffering, but all acknowledge that it lies at the very heart of human experience.
In the Buddhist scriptures, there is a parable about a woman whose child died. In her disbelief and anguish, she accosted a local guru, begging him to intercede and return her child to life. He agrees. "All you have to do," he says to the distraught woman, "is bring me a grain of rice from a household that has escaped the curse of grief." With great hope, she goes through her village, door by door, and then through the neighboring village, only to hear story upon story of suffering and loss. Finally she returns to the guru, no less in pain, but far wiser, more compassionate, and willing to accept her human lot.
Prince Siddhartha Gautama, the man who became the Buddha, was born into royalty. His father was king of a tiny state in northeastern India. Many legends grew up surrounding Siddhartha's birth. In one his mother, Maya, was visited in a dream by a white elephant, the Indian equivalent of the Holy Spirit, who touched her side and quickened her womb. Upon hearing this, her husband called on his wisest counselors, seeking their interpretation of her dream. They prophesied the birth of a remarkable child, one destined to be either a world ruler, or, should he choose the path of religion, a universal savior.
Like most fathers, the king hoped that his son would amount to something when he grew up. Accordingly, he sought a way to guarantee that the boy would choose politics over religion. The wise men told him that there was only one way to ensure this. He must shield Siddhartha from all acquaintance with old age, sickness, and death.
And so Prince Siddhartha lived his youth in ignorance of the world's ills. Not only were old age, sickness, and death veiled from his sight, but every imaginable sensual delight was lavished on him so that he would never be tempted to explore outside his bubble world. His father gave him three palaces, one for each season of the Indian year, and distracted him with dancing girls, jugglers, storytellers, and gaming companions. Whenever Siddhartha desired to venture into the outside world, his wish was granted, as were all his wishes, but with this one condition. The way was carefully plotted, hisroute swept clean of all reminders of mortality, and the streets festooned
with banners and populated with playing children and dancing youths.
One day, as usual, Siddhartha and his charioteer drove out into the world in his gilded chariot. But when they reached the country roads, his eye caught sight of something wildly at variance with anything he had ever seen before: a bent old man with a wizened face, hobbling along with a cane in his hand.
"What sort of man is this, if indeed it is a man?" Siddhartha asked his driver.
Not knowing how to evade the truth, his companion replied, "This is a man in old age. Once he was a babe, then a youth, and then a man in full strength and beauty. But now his strength and beauty are gone. He is withered and wasted. It is the way of all flesh."
The next day, the specter of a sick person, prostrate, groaning, and emaciated, appeared along their route. When Siddhartha asked, "What manner of person is this?" his charioteer could only reply that each of us is prey to sickness in this life.
Finally and inevitably, despite his father's precautions, the young prince and his driver encountered a funeral procession. The attendants following a corpse on a bier were weeping, tearing their clothing, and beating their breasts. Again, in response to Siddhartha's bewilderment, his companion explained, "It is death. He has been taken from those he loves, and from his home. His life is ended." The prince asked, "Are there other dead people?" To which the charioteer replied, "All who are born must die. There is no way of escape."
Such was the nature of Siddhartha's first awakening. Having come face to face with his mortality and all the suffering and illness that it entailed, he found his life despite all its pleasures-hollow at the core, empty of any consciousness of ultimate things. And so he began his pilgrimage.
The Buddha's journey led him to seek a way beyond suffering, a truth that would leave him invulnerable to life's certain pains. The Christian path is different. Through the passion of Christ, the gospels teach that redemption entails sacrifice. Vulnerability is the keystone of Jesus' gospel. But both scriptures have this in common: The beginning of enlightenment comes through an encounter with suffering and death.
In perhaps his most famous sermon, the Buddha painted human life as a soul on fire. Everything visible is in flames. Our lives run the gamut from pleasure to pain, from lust and fascination to sorrow, grief, and despair. The passions we experience are kindled by desire. "The ear is in flames, the tongue is in flames; the body is in flames; the mind is in flames." He believed that, to put out the fire, we must quench desire. "Free from desire" we are delivered. "Rebirth is at an end, perfected is holiness, duty done; there is no more returning to this world."
In Western thought the closest philosophy to Buddhism is the cosmic pessimism of Stoicism, a Greek school of philosophy that flourished around the time of Jesus. Taking as their model the death of Socrates, the Stoics fashioned a stark response to life's exigencies. "We must get rid of this craving for life," wrote the Roman philosopher Seneca, "and learn that it makes no difference when your suffering comes, because at some time you are bound to suffer." As a philosophical attitude, the Stoics proposed apathy, a word that now carries the negative connotation of not caring but then suggested freedom from the vulnerability inherent in feeling. Detachment was their antidote to desire and the inevitable disappointments that would follow all attempts to love and prosper. Accomplished Stoics were nothing if not courageous in the face of tragedy and loss. They also knew that if we care too much about anything beyond our control, we leave ourselves open to the whims of fate, even at our moment of greatest happiness or triumph.
In contrast to their contemporaries the Epicureans (not hedonists like their modern namesakes, but devotees of moderation), the Stoics played on a larger stage. They embraced duty, not pleasure, as the goal of life, and this duty was owed to God. Good Stoics didn't avoid risk or conflict simply because they might fail or be wounded. They sought to free themselves from unproductive concern about the inevitable reversals of human fortune.
Despite the underlying basis of pessimism that informs Buddhism and Stoicism, both combine a realistic assessment of suffering with a social conscience, the former driven by compassion, the latter by duty. Each faith is unintentionally life-affirming, for life is enhanced by the efforts of their most noble adherents.
Similar dark currents flow through Christianity, even if the results are not always this ennobling. I think of St. Hillary. Distressed that his daughter was being sought in marriage by a nobleman, and committed to extricating her from the snare of earthly pleasures, Hillary begged her to reject her suitor's proposal. When she balked, he countered by praying for her death. Months later, when she actually did die, he rejoiced unceasingly.
This story has an even grimmer codicil. Hillary informed his wife that, through prayer, he had delivered their daughter from the arms of lust and mammon into the arms of God. She begged him to release her as well, and so the two of them prayed together day and night for her deliverance. According to legend, God obliged.
At itsmost severe, which we witness here, the obsession with transcending human feeling is life-denying. Take away the speculative prospect of an afterlife, and one is left with the radical pessimism of someone like the nihilist philosopher Schopenhauer, who, in his book The Vanity of Existence, wrote that "human life must be some kind of mistake." Even wrapped in the more noble cloak of Buddhism and Stoicism, the proposed deprivation of feeling and passion (as a means to liberate us from the inevitable suffering that accompanies human attachment) represents a negative life force. Yet, life denial remains a completely plausible response to life's pain, one far from restricted to the annals of religious asceticism or human pathology.
The Greek historian Herodotus tells the story of the Trausi tribe in Africa. "When a child is born to them, all its kindred sit round about it in a circle and weep for the woes it will have to undergo now that it is come into the world, making mention of every ill that falls to the lot of humankind; when, on the other hand, a man has died, they bury him with laughter and rejoicings, and say that now he is free from a host of sufferings, and enjoys the completest happiness." In this same spirit, the Preacher in Ecclesiastes writes, "So, rather than the living who still have lives to live, I salute the dead who have already met death; happier than both of these is he who is yet unborn."
However perverse this may seem, it does add a patina of realism to the picture of life we too often try to paint for ourselves. As with the pastel icon of Jesus that hung over my bed when I was a child-pink-faced, cloaked in baby blue, and sweet with a halo-even when it comes to our saviors we tend to wish away the darkness. Then, when darkness falls, we are not prepared. The Trausi and their soulmates may rob from life its joy, but at least they acknowledge the inevitability of pain.
I don't accept this nihilistic, or nirvanic-both words suggest nothingness-resolution of our human quest for enlightenment and salvation. But the truth it points to cannot be gainsaid. Life is painful, and passion or desire, when thwarted, can be agonizing. The message of Genesis and the story of the Buddha's enlightenment are in this respect one.
Once we understand this truth, how do we respond? Siddhartha's pilgrimage led him first to self-abnegation. He deprived himself of every possible stimulus, including food. Meditating for hours, sometimes days at a time, he attempted to cleanse his body and mind of all desire.
A similar quest for complete freedom from every attachment bedeviled the early Christian Desert Fathers. To escape, or deny, all human passions, which they believed separated them from a pure love of God, they retreated to the desert and devoted their lives to prayer and self-discipline. There was only one remaining problem. Sometimes, the harder they tried not to think about sex and food, the more powerful these images became. When this happened, judging from the extant sayings of certain Desert Fathers, more than a few of them ended up hating themselves all the more for their weakness, assuming that human nature could be controverted by an act of will. The wisest of the Desert Fathers, recognizing this as a form of pride, preached a gentler gospel, accepting of imperfection. But many held hard to purity, only to find themselves broken on the rocks of their own inevitable need.
Siddhartha, now the Buddha Gautama, grew out of this phase. His enlightenment followed on the recognition that the more preoccupied we are with our demons, the stronger they grow. Under the Bodhi tree he realized that abstinence weakens the soul by making it more vulnerable. The true way cannot be gained, he later preached, "by one who has lost his strength." Gautama's return to the world he sought ultimately to escape represented an incomplete conversion. Women, most poignantly his wife, continued to threaten his peace of mind and led him, initially, to exclude them from his circle of followers. But he did begin to eat again, took his body a little less seriously, and finally, responding to his wife's noble importunity, even accepted women, with some restrictions, onto the training grounds for Nirvana.
Over time, the Buddhists developed two schools. One followed the narrow road, holding to the extinction of desire as a direct ticket to Nirvana, the end of suffering. The other, Mahayana Buddhism, proposed a different ideal, the Bodhisattva, one who would continue to return through one incarnation after another until no other creature remained unenlightened. Bodhisattvas chose to reject the ultimate comforts of Nirvana until all suffering, not only their own, was expunged from human experience. This school of Buddhism holds that none of us lives unto ourselves alone. We share one another's suffering and pain. So long as others suffer, we too must suffer with and for them.
The Reverend Forrest Church is the senior minister of the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City. This excerpt is reprinted with permission from his book Lifelines: Holding On (and letting go) Beacon Press 1996. He may be reached via email at: info@Allsoulsnyc.org
MINDFULNESS. Do you know the term? We've been reading about it in the Tuesday morning book group's examination of Living Buddha, Living Christ. The book is written by Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. Mindfulness is a fascinating, and a helpful, concept. If I can summarize the meaning of mindfulness, it is this: pay attention!
"Our effort," says Thich Nhat Hanh, is "to practice mindfulness in each moment-to know what is going on within and all around us." Let me give you some examples. 7'he seasons. As a schoolboy walking to and from school every day, I was so very aware of the changing of the seasons. I noticed everything - the budding trees, the baby birds, the change from mud season to spring season to dry season. But, alas, then came buses and cars and a removal from "mindfulness" of the seasons. And I do miss it. I catch just a bit of that old feeling walking to the church, around the town green. Are you mindful of the seasons? 7'hose in need. Are we mindful of our children's distress, our friend's anxiety? One of my most powerful memories is of the time when a friend in seminary dealt with the suicide of the school's custodian. Afterwards, only afterwards, so many of the seminarians realized that they had indeed heard the soft cries for help. But, they realized, they had not paid attention. The presence of God. I have this hunch that God is very polite, unwilling in this age to bash us over the heads with thunderbolts or flashfloods. Rather, God wants to invite us to relationship. God hints of greater things to be. God lures us to a better world. Perhaps most importantly, God is with us in times of crisis, sharing our struggle and our distress. The God who is revealed in Jesus Christ can say to our, hassles of life "been there, done that." And this God can see us through our problems. He (or she) is present with us.
"Our effort," says Thich Nhat Hanh, is "to practice mindfulness in each momentto know what is going on within and all around us."
"When there are wars within us," he says, "it will not be long before we are war with others, even those we love. " Imagine what it would be like if we could be more attentive to the things we should embrace. "With the energy of mindfulness," he says, "we can calm things down, understand them, and bring harmony back." I hope so. I pray so.
The Reverend Tom Wintle serves the First Parish Church of Weston, Massachusetts. His article appeared in the Church newsletter, First Parish Post and is reprinted with his permission. He may be contacted via email at email@example.com
Buddhism and God(s)
(This article is extracted from an online conversation about theism and Buddhism which began with this post by James Ishmael Ford)
"Historically, Buddhism must be said to be a-theistic. That is, whatever truth there may be to God or gods, Buddhism is not directly concerned with those issues. Rather, the Buddha seemed to see himself as a physician who saw our human illness of anguish and prescribed a cure for that awful disease. And, so, in that, Buddhism is fundamentally a "humanistic," certainly, a this-worldly, spiritual path.
"On the other hand, being a theist has not stopped some people from becoming very wise Zen buddhists & on occasion, even teachers. One of the people I most admire is Ruben Habito Roshi, a former Jesuit and a genuine Zen master in the Harada/Yasutani school. ( who Leads the Maria/Kannon Zen Center in Dallas)."
While there certainly were what might be called "atheistic" tendencies in early Buddhism, characterizing the Buddhist tradition as a whole in that way seems to me to be pretty wide of the mark.
Of course it is possible to define the two terms, "Buddhism" and "theism" in such a way that Buddhism is "atheistic." As the mad-hatter (I think it was) said, "words mean whatever I want them to mean." But the result, it seems to me, tells us more about the mind of the writer than about Buddhism or theism, or even about the enormous variety of views of divinity in Western religious and theological traditions.
I take it that in ordinary language "theism" has to do with belief or faith in one or more gods deities, or divinities. "Polytheism" would appear to be one form of "theism," as would "pantheism," "naturalistic theism," "humanistic theism," "process theism," and a host of other "theisms," many of which have been and are found in UU circles. Some Buddhists, myself included, will reject forms of theism which assert the reality of a god who created the world as traditionally and mythically understood in the West. We would also reject many other characteristics of God as taught in Western classical theism.
But it is a simple fact that the great majority of Buddhists do invoke, pray to, chant the names of, and otherwise worship gods. From its very beginnings, the Buddhist tradition "converted" Indian gods to suit its own purposes, chiefly as protectors of Buddhism, but also as messengers and the like. Virtually nowhere in the Chinese canon is the reality or importance of gods rejected. And people in East Asia do worship a wide range of Buddhist divinities, some of which have their roots in Indian divinities, some of which are more strictly Buddhist, particularly, the Eternal Shakyamuni Buddha, Amida Buddha, Mahavairocana and Kwan-yin. The Tibetans have a more complex set of gods. And even in much more religiously conservative Teravadin countries, especially I guess Thailand, there is no shortage of gods. Even the Thai King is one!
If quantity of divinities had anything to do with it, one would have to say that, compared with Jews or Protestant Christians, Buddhists on the whole are much more "theistic!"
In much of the Mahayana found in East Asia, where there is an ultimate or "eternal" Buddha, there are affinities with some forms of Western theism. I've promised to do a paper for a conference next summer showing the strong affinities between the Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Sutra and the Whiteheadian/Hartshornian conception of God. There are also important differences. But they are much more similar to each other than either is to Aristotle's "unmoved mover" or to Shankara's "Brahman-Atman." It is not reasonable, I believe, to call any of these disparate views simply "a-theistic."
It will already be apparent that I mean by "Buddhism" something quite different from what some others may have in mind. By "Buddhism" I do not mean a set of ideas or teachings in my mind, or any kind of "essence" not imbedded in history, or even something that happened a long time ago in India, but rather an incredibly rich religious tradition, begun some 25 centuries ago in India and later to be found flourishing in a variety of cultures and situations quite different from those of its Indian beginnings. Buddhism, as I see it, has a history on earth, embodied in teachings to be sure, but also in such things as temples, texts, rituals, and other practices and, especially, all sorts of people, including monks and nuns.
Serious questions are now being raised, at least in Japan, about whether or not Zen is really Buddhist. But arguments that Zen is not Buddhist are clearly based on very narrow understandings of Buddhism as a very limited couple of teachings. In the end, while some may think it an aberrant form of Buddhism, I don't think hardly anyone will accept the idea that it simply is not Buddhist - and this is precisely because Zen has long been a part of the historical tradition called "Buddhism."
Some "Western" Buddhists seem to like, or assume, what Cantwell Smith called the "big bang" theory of religion, in which "Buddhism," for example, is what the founder taught or believed, that is, something not so much in my mind as in the mind and teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha. Such a view is grounded, I think, in a very Christian assumption - an assumption to the effect that what the historical Buddha taught is somehow more true and more important than what developed later. This can be the ideal in a religious system in which it is believed that the religion and its text is a revelation from God. From such a point of view, the religion is a deposit, a revelation, delivered to humans whole and complete, once and for all. No real enhancement is possible, only corruption.
Buddhism, especially the Mahayana, is very different. There the Buddha is seen, not delivering a revelation, but discovering the truth - truth that can be discovered by others, and, in the Lotus Sutra and elsewhere, discovered by everyone. In the Mahayana, Buddhism, the Buddhist religion, is understood to be developing, not as a process of corruption, but as a blossoming or flowering. The tradition, like the Buddha, uses, and by its own reckoning should use, upaya, appropriate means, to teach the Dharma, depending on the situation and the ability to understand of those being taught. It is not incidental that the Lotus Sutra, actually the "Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Dharma," understands itself to be a flowering of the Dharma. Roots are important of course, without them you would not have any tradition at all, but without flowers and fruits the roots would not be good for much.
To assume that a tradition should be limited to what the originator of the tradition said would be like criticizing Kant for not repeating what Socrates said, or modern physics for not repeating Aristotle, or contemporary Unitarian Universalists for not sticking to what was believed and practiced in 1825.
While I do have certain ideas or sensibilities which can reasonably be regarded as "theistic," I have no special interest in defending "theism," either as a term or as a system of belief. Certainly it would be any more appropriate to characterize the Buddhist tradition as a whole as "theistic" than it is to call it "atheistic." But I am passionately interested in defending Buddhism, and think it does that living tradition a great disservice to regard it as somehow a part of Western enlightenment rejection of Christian ideas, and in that sense "atheistic." To understand Buddhism as atheistic is, I think, to employ those two terms in ways that are extremely narrow, un-generous and, therefore, un-liberal.
Dr. Gene Reeves Gene Reeves, process philospher and former Dean of Meadville/ Lombard Theological School, recently retired from the University of Tsukuba in Japan and continues to live in Tokyo to teach and write about the Lotus Sutra at Rissho Kosei Kai and in a variety of Asian Chinese Buddhist communities. His mailing address is:
Taiyoso, 1-17-4 Wada
Suginamiku, Tokyo 166-0012 Japan
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