Why Should Christians Study the Buddhist Way?
(Or Other Non-Christian Ways?)
Paul O. Ingram
Pacific Lutheran University, Emeritus
My first encounter with the Buddhist Way happened in 1961 during the spring semester of my senior year at Chapman University. I was enrolled in an undergraduate course in History of Religions. The course’s instructor was Ronald M. Huntington, an artist of a teacher who was also a master organist and rigorous academic. The way he introduced his students to History of Religions was something I tried to emulate in my own work with undergraduate students. Whenever he lectured on the Hindu Way or the Buddhist Way students would swear he was practicing Hindu or Buddhist. The same experience happened when he lectured on Islam or the Jewish or Daoist or Confucian or Aboriginal Ways. It was professor Huntington who aroused in me an interest in the Buddhist Way that continues to this day.
Of course, I can only speak for myself, but my engagement with both the Christian and Buddhist Ways has been creatively transforming. Buddhist teachings about interdependence still help me appreciate that Christian faith also rests squarely on the reality of interdependence. As a process theologian and historian of religions, the Buddhist Way brought me clarity about Whitehead’s portrayal of the interdependence of all things and events at every moment of space-time. We literally co-create who we become through uncountable webs of interdependent relationships: with family, friends, and other human beings we care about, both living and dead; with all life forms with whom we share Planet Earth; with every atom and sub atomic particle in the universe because, as cosmologist Carl Sagan liked to put it, we are all “star stuff.” And for Lutheran process theologians like me, God is so incarnated within all things and events—past, present, or future—that nothing is ever separated from God or anything else in the universe, at least according to the Prologue to the Gospel of John and Whitehead.
Second, The Buddha’s teaching of non-self rings a truth that crosses all religious boundaries. We are not permanent substantial “souls” or “selves” that remain self-identical through time. We are a continuous series of interdependent relationships, none of which are permanent. Clinging to any thing or event is the cause of the First Noble Truth: all existence is suffering. Accordingly, we must learn not to cling to permanence in any way, shape, or form, by which Buddhists are instructed to train themselves to accomplish through the “skillful means” of a number of forms of meditation. The Buddhist doctrine of non-self (ānatman) helped me apprehend that nowhere in the Tanak or the New Testament is there any notion that anything possesses a permanent substantial “soul” remaining self-identical through time that survives the death of the physical body—a notion that originates in the substantial metaphysics of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy through which theologians of the third century interpreted the New Testament.
Of course, all religious Ways assume distinctive worldviews. The worldview presupposed by the Buddhist Way is formulated through the doctrines of universal suffering, impermanence, and non-self, also known as “the three marks of existence”—all of which the Buddha is said to have summarized by the Four Nobel Truths and which are interpreted according to an amazing collection of Buddhist schools that have evolved for over twenty-five hundred years. Here lies the source of the amazing pluralism ingredient in the history of the Buddhist Way.
Amazing pluralism is also ingredient in the Christian Way. Just how many Christological doctrines underlay Christian theological reflection and practice, the vast majority of which do not reflect the New Testament’s depiction of the historical Jesus’s teachings and self-understanding? Similarly, how many versions of the historical Buddha and his teachings are there? Which historically constructed version of the historical Jesus or the historical Buddha actually come close to reflecting the actual life and teachings of Jesus or the Buddha?
For Buddhists, answering these questions requires serious study of Buddhist history, teachings, and practices as these have evolved over the past twenty-five hundred years. Likewise, for Christians, answering similar questions requires serious study of Christian history, teachings, and practices that have evolved over the past two-thousand years. Finally, the study of both the Buddhist and Christian Ways can liberate Buddhists and Christians from clinging to any image of the historical Buddha or the historical Jesus. Or in the words of a number of Zen teachers I have encountered, clinging to a socially constructed image of the Buddha is “killing the Buddha.” Likewise clinging to a socially constructed image of Jesus is a re-crucifixion of Jesus. Which leads to my second point.
The central “skillful method” the Buddha instructed his monastic and lay follower to practice was the discipline of meditation. The exact elements of the Buddha’s own meditational practices are unclear, although he probably engaged in some form of meditational yoga. But the point is that meditation is absolutely necessary for the attainment of awakening—with the possible exception of Japanese Jōdō Shinshū (True Pure Land School). The sort of experience engendered by meditation is one in which the sense of duality—subject/object, good/bad, pleasure/pain, good/evil, self/other, male/female—disappears for a brief moment of time. Judging from how numerous Buddhist texts and eminent Buddhist masters describe it, Awakening is an absolutely contentless experience that transcends the ability of language to capture. Such experiences are encountered in all the world’s religious Ways, in Christian tradition generally referred to as “apophatic” or “unitive mystical experience.”
But here’s the hiccup. Anyone practicing meditation receives from that practice what a particular tradition trains them to expect to experience. After all, Zen Buddhist nuns do not normally experience union with “Christ the Bridegroom,” not do Benedictine nuns experience “Emptying” or satori through the practice of contemplative prayer. Religious human beings experience from a religious Way what that that particular tradition trains them to expect to experience. Interpretation is always part of what a person experiences through either a Buddhist system of meditation or a Christian tradition of contemplative prayer. So, if someone experiences a unitive experience like that involved in the practice of meditation or contemplative prayer, one understands the meaning of that experience through the conceptual categories of the tradition that trained them, both in terms of what he or she expects before the experience occurs as well as what he or she expected after the experience has occurred.
For me, this fact makes it absolutely necessary to engage in serious study of Buddhist meditational traditions in dialogue with Christian contemplative traditions. Buddhists and Christians living in the twenty-first century live in different historical-cultural contexts than Buddhists in the sixth century BCE or Christians living in the first century CE. My point is that tradition is only a guide, not something to cling to or absolutize in a manner similar to how Cristian fundamentalists absolutize doctrines about the historical Jesus. Or as a distinguished Zen scholar, Masao Abe, once told me, we should not “stink of Buddhism or Christianity.”
I hope the following account of an event that took place during an international conference on the Lotus Sutra in 2001 hosted by the lay Buddhist group, Risshō Kōseikai (Society for the Establishment of Righteousness and Harmonious Exchange), will illustrate what I mean.
The conference attendees were invited to a Sunday morning service at a local Risshō Kōsaikai kyōkai, or “church.” The congregation was seated in neat rows on tatami mats separated by and aisle, while we visitors sat in chairs in the rear. The service began when the minister, dressed in a black robe, entered as a group of young people processed down the aisle singing a hymn praising the Lotus Sutra. (Many Japanese Buddhist lay movements picked up the Protestant style of this service from missionaries in the nineteenth century.)
Prior to his sermon, the minister invited a middle-aged woman to give a testimony. She tearfully recounted the conditions of her life prior to her conversion to the Buddhist Way because of the influence of Risshō Kōseikai missionaries working door-to-door in her neighborhood: her experiences of physical and emotional abuse by her husband, her long years of drug addiction, her rejection by her children and relatives, her life of poverty as a prostitute. But after her conversion to the Buddhist Way, she said, her “bad karma was turned into good karma:” her husband no longer abused her, she “recovered” from drug addiction, her children and family now love her, and she no longer needs to engage in prostitution to make economic ends meet. In other words, this woman blamed herself for her own abuse.
Then in a much too long sermon in Japanese, so did the minister. As I sat listening to his sharp condemnation of the woman’s life prior to her conversion to Risshō Kōsaikai as he reconfirmed her blame for her abuse, I whispered to my friend, Mark Unno, “Am I hearing this correctly?”
Mark, who is an eminent Pure Land Buddhist, whispered, “Yes, shut up!”
After the service ended, we were invited to meet the minister for tea and pastries. Mark went directly to the minister and dressed him down for using Buddhist teachings and practices in such a patriarchal and sexist manner to condemn a troubled woman whose husband and other men in her life had so wrongly abused her.
From the perspective of my worldview, while the testimony of this woman was about her experience of creative transformation after she converted to the Buddhist Way, I also witnessed first-hand the power of creative transformation in the prophetic words and actions of a Buddhist scholar and friend. Christian tradition has too often been a source of oppression of women by male clergy and laymen. Sadly, misogyny is rampant in all the world’s religious Ways.
Finally, study of the Buddhist Way—in fact each of humanity’s religious Ways—leads, often in unexpected ways, to experiences of creative transformation. There is immense satisfaction in comprehending the nuances, movements, philosophical debates, the origins of the numerous schools of Buddhist teachings and practices, what to look for in the practice of meditation, the connections between the Buddhist Way’s evolution and its creative influences in the history and politics of the cultures in which the Buddhist Way has taken root—and the list goes on. In fact, there is immense satisfaction in the study of any religious Way. The more one comprehends a religious Way’s history, the less parochial and self-centered one’s own faith and practice becomes. This is the case whether one is a Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, a follower of the Daoist or Confucian Way or both, or a Buddhist.