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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Says Who?

"You cant be both Christian and Buddhist."  It's a frequent refrain from both sides of the aisle, and it's compete nonsense.  My response to the statement is always a question, "Says who?"  That usually elicits either a very smug "me" or a list of theological reasons, so to speak, why it simply isn't possible.  To the smug answer my response is always to nicely ask who left them in charge of the tradition.  The theological reasons are always based in presumptions about my beliefs that simply aren't true.  The trump card, however, the ultimate response to the claim that you can't be both Christian and Buddhist, is the reality that I are one - no matter whether it's possible or not.  Which means, of course, that is is completely possible.  What's more, I'm not alone.  I have encountered plenty of people who identify as a blend of an Abrahamic faith and Buddhism.  From Buddhapalians to Jewbuhs, they are out there in droves.  I do admit, I haven't ever met a Buhslim or a Musdist, but they may be out there.

As far as Christian Buddhists go, the usual "big three" theological objections are the following:

1.  Christians believe that Jesus is the Son of God, and Buddhists don't believe in a creator God.  Although the Buddha refused to comment on the concept of God, Buddhists believe that the universe always has been and always will be.

1A.  My answer to this is that I do not believe that Jesus is the biological or unique son of God and I don't believe that Jesus understood himself in either of those ways.  He most likely believed that he was the son of God in the way that every human being is a son or daughter of God.  If by creator God you mean a God with a big old workshop filled with tools in which everything was created, then I don't believe in a creator God either.  I do believe that God has always been and always will be, and was the energy that caused our universe to come into physical being, which is pretty much the same as the universe having always been and always continuing.  Granted the form will change, but since Buddhists believe form is emptiness that shouldn't be an issue.

2.  Christians believe that Jesus died to save them from their sins and, except for Pure Land Buddhists, Buddhists don't believe in an external savior or power.  Rather, Buddhists believe that all people have Buddha Nature and need to clear away the obscurations currently concealing their Buddha Nature.

2A.  My answer is that not all Christians believe in atonement theology, and I certainly don't believe in it.  I am just fine with Buddha Nature, and find it to be amazingly parallel to the notions of Christ Consciousness (I actually prefer the term God Consciousness or God Nature) and/or indwelling Divinity being present in all human beings.

3.  Budhhists believe in reincarnation while Christians believe in one unique life.

3A.  Both statements are imprecise and therefore problematic.  Buddhists actually believe in rebirth, which is best understood as a less specific form of continuation than reincarnation, which is actually a Hindu belief.  In either event, there have long been - back to the earliest Church - Christians who believed in reincarnation.  The differences and the nuances are far from insurmountable.

Conclusions.  Of course, there are other objections.  The one thing all of the objections have in common is that they assume an orthodox or pseudo Christian perspective.  Jamyang Khyentse wrote a book entitled Why You're not a Buddhist that assumed an orthodox Tibetan Buddhist perspective.  Ironically, Tibetan Buddhism is the latest developing major school in Buddhism and is much different from Zen and Theravadan Buddhism.  Were the same standards applied to the then emerging Tibetan Buddhism by Zen and Theravadan Buddhists one cannot help but wonder if they would have been defined as Buddhist or not.

Once again we are confronted with the issue of what constitutes a gate keeper into a tradition.  Certainly, an individual teacher or Bishop has every right to determine who they accept as a member of their particular corner of their tradition.  However, traditions are broader than any one manifestation of a tradition.  So often, there is a drive to maintain orthodoxy that is partly understandable but partly a manifestation of an unhealthy desire to control what should be a living, growing thing that risks killing it.

We are in a period of evolving spirituality.  On the Christian side, the mainlines have imploded and what will emerge from the ashes remains to be seen.  On the Buddhist side, a uniquely American Buddhism is in the process of emerging.  Both traditions are evolving and very fluid, a word that applies to the entire contemporary spiritual landscape.  Try as they might, traditionalists will be unable to control the process.  The good news is that teachers like Tara Brach are finding ways to hold open a spacious presentation of an emerging American Buddhism that leaves room for people from diverse backgrounds and beliefs.  As someone from a Christian background, I appreciate teachers like Tara who resist the temptation to allow former Christians to poison a group by instituting an anti-Christian bias.  That bias has poisoned the Unitarian Universalist and New Thought movements as well as parts of the emerging American Buddhist tradition.  We need to be in a space where people are encouraged to deal with residual issues from their former traditions rather than carry them forward and inflict them on other groups.

In the end, whether individual people from their own perspective want to admit it or not, there are Christian Buddhists and Buddhist Christians and a collection of other blended spiritual perspectives.  That is always a good thing, because it indicates that people are interacting with their spiritual selves.  The worst thing that can happen on the spiritual path isn't experimentation, it's apathy.  As this process continues, those with a vested interest in their particular institution will resist the changes that emerge.  That speaks more to what people do when they sense they are losing their power than it speaks to this process.  Some are bound to take things to a place that is unrecognizable.  We need to recognize that is perfectly acceptable if our goal is that people find their authentic spiritual selves.  For those of us who have no choice but to ask the tough questions, it's an exciting time to be alive.


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