As I have mentioned in other articles on this blog, the 21st Century will be, and already is to some extent, characterized by increasing interspiritual dialogue. Catholic writer Wayne Teasdale has coined the term “Interspirituality” to describe this meeting of the world’s major religious traditions. One of the most significant encounters between faith traditions is the one beginning to occur between Buddhism and Christianity.
British historian Arnold Toynbee, one of the greatest minds in his field of study, has said that when history looks back on the 20th Century, it will not be atomic power or the personal computer that will be seen as the most significant event. According to Toynbee, the most vital occurrence of the century just ended will be the meeting of Christianity and Buddhism. If you reflect on Toynbee’s remark for a moment, you will see that he must have had something incredible in mind when he uttered those words. Certainly, the computer and atomic power have had major impact. At least as of now, we must still ponder what the significance of the exposure of Christianity to Buddhism and vice versa might be.
Buddhism is a remarkable tradition and one that most Christians are fairly ignorant about. Many sincere believers think that Buddhists are godless atheists who sit around mumbling and bowing before idols. Not only is this a highly false view of Buddhism, it is also highly insulting. Buddhism has produced some of the greatest minds in the history of humankind and continues to do so. I have studied Buddhism deeply for over 30 years and can say without reservation that I consider this vital tradition one in which all Christians could learn a great deal about love, compassion, and overcoming self-centeredness – all consistent, by the way, with the central teachings of Jesus.
Whenever I post something of an interspiritual nature two things happen. First, I get nasty comments from Christians who feel that I am at best an apostate or, worse still, a brother of Beelzebub himself. I would ask that if you are considering leaving such a comment, please refrain. I say without reservation that I do not hold to the notion of Christian exclusiveness and I am well aware of all of the scriptures used to support such a view. “No one comes to the Father except through me,” and on and on, and etc. I don’t think Christ was referring here to himself as a person, but as a process. I don’t want to get sidetracked into that discussion here. The second thing that happens is the number of views on my blog dips for a few days as readers who don’t agree with my take on other religions feel that somehow I might pollute their minds. If this is how it has to be, well, so be it. I think the issue of religious tolerance is highly important in our age and if some believers do not think their faith is strong enough to handle exposure to another tradition, I can do little to change that.
With that said, let’s move on.
Fanaticism is rightly identified as one of the curses of our world. Fanatic followers of any sort of doctrine, political, religious, economic, or sociological, can create chaos and turmoil in our world and often do exactly that. Even the most superficial survey of history will bear this out.
Whenever a group feels that they possess the one and only truth, the result is they want it to be your truth as well. This has especially been the case in the Islamic and Christian traditions, although religious zealots can be found in just about all traditions.
One of the most attractive characteristics of Buddhism is its lack of dogmatic insistence on its validity. From the beginning Buddha stressed the importance of tolerance of other traditions and also the necessity of verifying principles for oneself. His primary advice could be summed up like this: Try it and see.
Another reason Buddhism has been less prone to religious intolerance and violence centers on the reality that Buddha never claimed to be a God or god, however you might want to define that term. Buddha only claimed to be a man, albeit an “awakened” man. Through the enlightening revelations that came to him while meditating under the famed Bodhi tree, Siddhartha realized that we are all part of an interconnected web of existence and to do violence to or exert undue pressure on any one aspect of this web would have deleterious effects on every other part. All of these principles cited above are reasons why Buddhism is such a tolerant faith as a whole.
One final aspect to consider is the place scripture holds in the Buddhist tradition. Although the various sutras (suttas) are considered sacred writings, they are not to be considered infallible or above questioning. Once again, Buddha stressed the need for seekers to verify the veracity of his teachings, which later became scripture, for themselves. How refreshing when you think about it.
In contrast, “People of the Book,” a term often used to describe Jews, Christians, Muslims, and to some extent, members of the Baha’i’ faith, have a view opposite of Buddhists. The Torah, the Bible, the Koran, and the sacred writing of Bahaullah are seen as “the Word of God.” In the Christian tradition, a significant number of denominations require its members to adhere to the view that the Bible is not only the literal Word of God, but that it is also infallible and without error.
Viet Namese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize by Martin Luther King, has developed 14 Mindfulness Trainings for his world wide community known as the Order of Interbeing. If one studies these 14 points, he or she comes away with a positive impression of what it means to be a truly spiritual person. The first of the 14 Mindfulness Trainings is pertinent to the subject at hand:
Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.
The “First Foundation of Mindfulness” reminds us that no teaching, even those of the Buddha, is perfect. With this in mind, along with Thich Nhat Hahn’s belief in pacifism, it is easy to see why the Order of Interbeing does not condone fighting, killing, or the willingness to die for a philosophy.
Given the age in which we live, not only is such a view as espoused by the First Foundation refreshing, it may, indeed, be a necessity. I know that I have learned much from my study of Buddhism and, if the truth be known, it was through the study and practice of Buddhism that I finally came to appreciate the Christian tradition I had grown up in.
As we move forward during this exciting and challenging century it is imperative that we fully understand that we are part of a global community. Economics, politics, religion, culture, and all other aspects of humanity’s collective existence are part and parcel of a larger reality – a reality in which all the parts are interconnected and interdependent. Now more than ever, one part cannot be affected in isolation from the other parts. This is not some arcane, cosmic theory; it is a fundamental fact. The crude but accurate analogy I often use is raisin Jell-O – yes, you read that right – raisin Jell-O. If you take your index finger and thump one of the raisins, all of them move.
If we indeed live in such a global collective it stands to reason that we should do all that we can to understand each other, including our various religious worldviews. Any other approach is both myopic and theologically incestuous.
(c) L.D. Turner 2008/All Rights Reserved