Why I study Buddhist Philosophy to understand my Christian Faith
For the past several years now, I have been studying Buddhist philosophy to help me articulate and understand my own faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. From those that know me, I can immediately hear an objection: “You were a Greek Orthodox Priest for over 30 years; what more do you need?”
Well, there’s the rub. As a priest, one schooled in “theology” and all manner of ecclesiastical knowledge, I have to say that the two prevailing lenses through which the Christ has been viewed for the last two thousand years – Judaism and Greek Philosophy – leave something to be desired, at least for me. Not that both have not provided a tremendous amount of useful material through those centuries. They have indeed, but the appearance, teaching, and meaning of Jesus Christ seem to me to be so radical, so impossibly transformative, that it is worthwhile to look through another lens, if only to enrich one’s experience of the blesséd Lord Christ. I found Buddhism, which is certainly not a religion, though it does possess religious modalities, incredibly useful. Thinking, reading, meditating, and practicing this perspective has been life-changing for me, and drawn me closer to the Christ of the Gospel.
Nevertheless, this is a daunting enterprise, and one that I take very seriously. When I look around at the Christian world – the Catholic Church struggling to come to terms with pervasive child abuse in a clerical culture that is a veritable petri dish of corruption – the American Evangelical tradition that is selling its soul for the pottage of political access to perhaps the most corrupt politician in American history (and I apologize in advance to all those who accept the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue as some sort of messianic fulfillment) – and the general malaise in Christian theology that has reduced most everything to the study of historical forms, I see a pressing need for new and transformational ways of thinking.
Thus, my encounter with Buddhist philosophy. I wrote about it in the introduction to my book, “The Gospel of Love: A Meta-Translation.” I am writing about it now in the sequel that is currently underway, “The Kingdom of Love: Living on Earth as it is in Heaven.”
I hope that this blog will invite people to share their own experiences and open up a dialogue to challenge conventional, tired thinking. Let me begin by re-stating what I wrote above: Buddhism is not a religion (and for that matter, neither is Christianity). But for the moment, let’s stick with Buddhism.
A marvelous definition of Buddhism comes from the mouth of one of Shakyamuni (the Sage of the Shakya Clan) Buddha’s first disciples, Assaji:
“Of those things that arise from a cause,
the Tathagata [another title for the Buddha] has said ‘this is their cause,
and this is their cessation.’
Thus the great Mendicant teaches.”
In Sanskrit (transliterated):
ye dharmā hetu-prabhavā hetuṃ teṣāṃ tathāgato hy avadat, teṣāṃ ca yo nirodha evaṃ vādī mahāśramaṇa
So the philosophy of Buddhism is about reality, and how reality works – the cycle of cause and effect that is called “evolution” in the modern world and “karma” in Buddhism. Actually, Buddhism is more of a science of the mind than a philosophy, at least in the conventional sense. Buddhism reflects what the historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama of the Shakya Clan) discovered in his own spiritual search for the answer to the meaning of existence.
The teaching, or “dharma,” that came forth from his experience and his subsequent instructions and preaching over forty years constitute the scripture of Buddhism, known as sutras(from the Sanskrit for thread – think of the English “suture”). This dharma investigates the very nature of reality, using the mind like a drill to penetrate the deepest and most profound meaning of existence. This is not opposed to any teaching of the Lord Christ. It is another tool, another lens by which the meaning of Jesus can be made even more accessible to the contemporary human being.
There will be many who will have either no interest in a new perspective, or because of some Dantesque fear of hell and everlasting damnation, are not prepared to try. But for those who are not afraid to explore their faith, I dare say there is much to be learned from Buddhism that is positive and affirming of the Gospel of the Lord.
Time and time again, the Lord Jesus sought to open the minds and hearts of his fellow Jews who had not only hardened their hearts against the core message of love, but had fragmented into differing and sometimes warring factions: Pharisees, Sadducees, Herodians, Zealots, Samaritans, and the entirety of the priestly caste. And although they are not mentioned in the New Testament, we know of another group, the Essenes.
Well, today, Christians are more divvied up than the Jewish Community of Jesus’ day. And within Catholicism, Orthodoxy, Oriental Orthodoxy (Coptic, Armenian, Ethiopian, Syriac) and Protestantism, there are seemingly endless formal and informal divisions and equal doses of divisiveness.
So where does this leave the individual Christian? I remember as a child watching the late Billy Graham, that unparalleled rhetorician of the American Evangelical tradition. His message was clear and very consistent, and he always encouraged the participants in his revivals to stay with their home church. I believe there was wisdom in this and that for the contemporary Christian, the exploration of Buddhist science can do the same. It can unwind you from the gnats at which we all have a tendency to strain, and save us from swallowing camels! Whether it is the one thing that we lack (Mark 10:21), or the one thing needful (Luke 10:42), a new lens can clarify our vision for an even deeper journey.
The last thing I would advocate for is a new version of Christianity, one more tear in the seamless robe of Christ. But I firmly believe we have a dire need for a new experience of it, one that affirms your presence within your church community of legacy, or, in my case, choice. I look forward to sharing some of my own experiences, and ways of understanding and practice that I hope will enhance your life.
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