Could Christianity's future lie in Buddhism's past? This is a possibility that's been haunting me lately, but in a good way, I think.
One big critique, understandably, of postmodern views on Christian spirituality is that there's too much time and energy spent deconstructing old systems and ways of thinking that need to be torn down or reimagined, while lacking the same effort to build up something more helpful — more Christ-like — in its place.
This is true, and I'm as guilty of it as anyone. In my current spiritual practices as part of the current year I'm calling “My Jesus Project,” I'm trying to more fully understand what we mean when we talk about following Jesus. So it might seems strange to some that I would look to Buddhism for help in rebuilding my daily walk along the path of Christ.
Author and monastic Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a book years ago called Living Buddha, Living Christ, that had a profound impact on me. At the time, I was “A-B-C,” or “anything but Christian.” I had been thrown out of my church of origin for asking too many questions, and up to that point, I assumed there was no way I could ever associate myself with Jesus or the Gospel again. Thankfully — if surprisingly — it was a Buddhist monk who reintroduced me to Jesus.
In his book, he draws many parallels between the life, teaching, and practices of Jesus and those of Siddhartha Gautama, later known as The Buddha after achieving enlightenment. For Jesus, I imagine a similar experience of enlightenment coming to him during his monastic retreat into the desert. And as I seek my own moments of illumination during My Jesus Project, it occurs to me that Buddhism has much to teach us about where we might take Christianity in the 21st century.
One of the greatest weaknesses of modern Christianity has been the focus on the individual. This comes more from our individualistic culture than from Christianity itself. Though we focus on personal (often translated as sexual) sin, the idea of sin within the Hebrew Bible was more corporate. There was more of an interdependent, tribal culture, and as such, so were the shortcomings. We've also focused too much on personal salvation or a “personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” which has also led to such bastardized interpretations as the false gospel of personal prosperity.
In Buddhist practices, one must learn to let the self die, in a manner of speaking, in order to create a deeper, more meaningful relationship and interdependence with others and the rest of creation. This is actually more consistent with ancient Jewish and Christian thought than our modern, egocentric version of Christianity.
Seeking Wisdom, not Knowledge
If you were like me growing up, you were taught to be “armed with the Word,” which basically meant knowing your Bible inside and out — or at least just memorizing it — so you'd be ready to argue with anyone who refuted it in any way. Meanwhile we didn't spend much, if any, time actually experiencing the “real world.” Though our present culture values amassing a wealth of knowledge, or expertise, it actually does very little to prepare us to live in a Christ-like way beyond the church walls.
Wisdom, unlike knowledge, comes as a byproduct of lived experience. Something happens, and as often as not, we screw up. Then we reflect, learn and change our attitudes or behaviors moving forward. Christianity, however, too often teaches us to entrench ourselves in self-righteousness, seeking instead to change others to be more like us. (God forbid we would be changed by someone who isn't a Christian.) But true wisdom means we learn and are affected by all of our experiences, and use that wisdom as an opportunity to do and be better in the future.
Right-Heartedness Over Right Belief
When someone joins a Christian church, or before they get baptized or commit their lives to Christ, we inevitably ask them with three telltale words: “DO YOU BELIEVE...” But Jesus didn't ask people what they believed, or to recite some creed before following him or going and doing for others what he did for them. He was more concerned with the nature of their hearts than any claim of belief.
This is where a fundamental tenet of Buddhism serves us very well. We're taught that right hearts lead to right thoughts, and this, in turn, leads to right action. But it all begins with the orientation of our hearts, how we see, receive and respond to the world. We're not sent out into the world so much to coerce people into like-thought; rather, we're charged with going out and offering ourselves fully and sacrificially in humble service to others, regardless of who they are, what they believe or what the result might be for us.
We seem to become pretty fixated on some false correlation between our faithfulness and the lifespan of our churches and denominations. We know we're doing God's work if our churches are full, budgets are met and we can hand off a healthy institutional legacy to those who come after us. But Jesus preached the destruction of the temple not just to freak people out; he was warning them not to cling to tightly to all the trappings of religion around them that would inevitably crumble and fail.
We can learn much from the Buddhist artistic discipline of creating mandalas. These elaborate sand-art designs sometimes take weeks or more to make, with several monks attending to them many hours each day. And though our instinct is generally to preserve and even defend something beautiful, the mandala is intentionally destroyed not long after it is finished. The sand is returned to the earth and the only remaining impression of the mandala is in our consciousness. It's a humbling exercise in letting go — one from which we can learn a great deal.
Care for All Creation
We Christians have been greatly affected by the industrial revolution in ways that have negatively impacted our relationship with the rest of creation. This, combined with an over-emphasis of disdain for our own bodies and sexual identities, has created a sense of disembodiment that also causes us to feel less interdependent on each other and less dependent on all of nature. The notion of dominionism falsely teaches within some Christian circles that the planet is ours to use as we please. And some even go so far as to suggest that anything we can do to help hasten the end-times gets us that much closer to heralding God's kingdom on earth.
Buddhism, however, teaches simplicity, humility and intentional care for all of creation. Practices of mindfulness and humility help us loosen our grasp on personal desire and avail ourselves to the excesses and insensitivity of our habits. When we regain a healthier sense of our own places within a much larger, very delicate ecosystem, we not only treat our surroundings with more care; we treat ourselves with greater care as well.
Christian Piatt is the author of postChristian, Blood Doctrine, and the Banned Questions book series, among others. He is engaged in a year-long effort called My Jesus Project to more deeply and honestly follow the life, teaching, and example of Jesus through prayer, study and action. Follow along his journey, and even join in, at www.MyJesusProject.com.