Tag Archives: Hinduism

A way Christians and Buddhists can be friends

Tim Geoffrion (a spiritual director/coach) interviewed Buddhist monks a decade ago while he was teaching Christian theology in Thailand and briefly in Myanmar. As a result, he became aware of helpful contributions Buddhist philosophy and practices offer, not only to Buddhists but also to Christians. (See “What I learned from the Buddhists.” ) 

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Dalai Lama lays a wreath where MLK was assassinated.

Many of us are in regular contact with adherents of both Buddhism and its cousin, Hinduism, primarily through yoga. We see Buddhist monks on the street all the time, and many of us are fond of Richard Gere.  In the U.S., .07% of the people are Buddhist, 1% in Philly. 1% in the U.S. are Hindus, 7% in Philly. I mention Hinduism because  Siddhartha Gautama, founder of Buddhism, was a Hindu, and though the religions are clearly distinct, they have similarities. Many Catholics and Evangelicals find Buddhism attractive, as a philosophy, because of it’s demanding, principle based, self-denying, personally-responsible practice. Without looking to closely, apart from its god-less center, Buddhist-like Christianity is common. So many of us have many connections.

Intellectually, Christianity and Buddhism are largely incompatible, but just as Christians have something most Buddhists do not, Buddhists have something Christians often do not, or need more of. As we often teach among the Circle of Hope, Christians need to know how to effectively practice deep breathing in order to relax the body, reduce anxiety and open up to spiritual experience. Buddhists specialize in this. Buddhists develop capacity to  comfortably and confidently access their inner wisdom. They develop their ability to detach themselves from the desires and preoccupations that bring them suffering. They value humility, patience, and mutual respect, in ways that actually lead to kinder, more peaceful relationships. Of course, it is true that many Buddhists do not regularly practice such things or possess such qualities. They may keep incense burning before a statue of Buddha just like other people might keep a candle burning in front of Mary, and that’s about it. But as a well developed, psychologically oriented, practical philosophy, Buddhism offers many helpful tools that are still mysteries to many Christians.

Tim Geoffrion being schooled by a Thai friend.

Looking to the East is nothing new for Western thinkers and seekers alike, though a concerted effort by Christian theologians to look to Eastern culture and religion for new insights into God and how God works is relatively recent. Yet, for many Christians, just the suggestion that we might have something to learn from Buddhism makes them feel uneasy, or outright furious. The notion flies in the face of traditional mission philosophy, not to mention (conscious or unconscious, stated or unstated) assumptions about Western cultural, intellectual, or religious superiority. So let’s talk about the issues.

A first question is: How can devoted Christians beneficially draw on the wisdom, insights, and practices of Buddhism (or any other religion)? I’m not trying to write about what specific benefits you should seek from Buddhism. Many of you are probably doing just fine without thinking about that subject at all, as am I, for the most part.  I am being more general. How should Christians think about encountering another faith?  What are the options? What are the issues? How do we keep faith with a spirit of generosity?

Among those who are truly curious, open, and willing to listen to those whose culture and religion are different than theirs, I see three different kinds of reactions.

The Blenders. Blenders are eclectic syncretists, who consciously try to wrap their arms around both Buddhism and Christianity, thus creating a hybrid religion of sorts. Such individuals may call themselves Buddhist-Christians (or Christian-Buddhists), believing that, in spite of contradictions and tensions that exist between the religions, their spiritual experience is best explained or best advanced by embracing them both side by side, or some hybridization of the two.

The Borrowers. Many Christians in the West have been exposed to Eastern thought through the media and popular literature, and wind up mixing and matching various beliefs, whether or not they realize they are doing so. They do not significantly alter their basic Christian world-view or faith, but they freely take from Buddhism whatever they think might be helpful to their life. They may embrace various insights (e.g., the power of attachments to produce suffering in human lives) or adopt helpful practices (e.g., meditation) as “add-ons” to their faith and spirituality. Often such borrowing is done without much theological reflection, and thus Borrowers are often unconscious syncretists. Post-modern scholars generally argue that all religious people, including Christians, are syncretistic. They just don’t know it. So they may have that thinking in the mix, too.

The Inspired. Then there are those for whom an encounter with Buddhism or another religion becomes a catalyst to look more deeply into their own faith tradition. They are inspired to see if they have missed something that may have always been there but has been lacking in their experience. Spiritual growth for the Inspired, stemming from the encounter with Buddhism, will still look, sound, and be very Christian, in the best sense of the term. Yet, at the same time, if you listen carefully, you will notice that the Inspired develop a larger, more inclusive view of Creation. They are more compassionate, sympathetic, and understanding. They care less about adherence to rules and traditions, and more about being “the real deal,” someone who genuinely loves God from their hearts and want to be an effective, fruitful servant of Jesus Christ. Maybe Thomas Merton would be in this category.

I think it matters which path one takes in seeking to benefit from Buddhism and other religions. What postmodernists call syncretism is probably a reality for many people: the media mashes up cultures and beliefs for us all day every day. For true seekers, I think it is possible that they are faithful to Jesus long before they know it, just like a Tibetan monk called Merton a “rangjung, a naturally arisen Buddha.” Regardless of all the connections humanity has in our spiritual searching, Jesus-followers need to reflect on what they believe, why they believe, and where they are going to look for spiritual truth, wisdom, and power. Our view of God and view of self are basic to how we live. How we know God and relate to God, and how we receive God’s work in our lives, affect all our beliefs, thoughts, feelings and actions. I am not talking just about intellectual reflection, we all need to integrate reason and experience in community to find our true self on the true path.

We are relating to Jesus, the Son of God. Jesus said, “Can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, ‘I am God’s Son’? If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father” (John 10:36-8). The incarnation of God is Jesus begins our exploration.

In his book God in the DockLewis is quoted as saying, “If you had gone to Buddha and asked him ‘Are you the son of Brahma?’ he would have said, ‘My son, you are still in the vale of illusion.’ If you had gone to Socrates and asked, ‘Are you Zeus?’ he would have laughed at you. If you had gone to Mohammad and asked, ‘Are you Allah?’ he would first have rent his clothes then cut your head off. If you had asked Confucius, ‘Are you Heaven?’ I think he would have probably replied, ‘Remarks which are not in accordance with nature are in bad taste.’ The idea of a great moral teacher saying what Christ said is out of the question. In my opinion, the only person who can say that sort of thing is either God or a complete lunatic suffering from that form of delusion which undermines the whole mind of man.”

From our secure base, reattached to our Parent through the work of Jesus, we can explore all sorts of beneficial goodness built into creation and imagined by humanity.  But every attempt to blend religions as a means to provide this base falls short of providing a spiritual foundation upon which to build. I think I have learned a lot from the wisdom and cultures found in “the East.” But Christian-Buddhist syncretistic blends tend to be so subjective that they resemble a host of individual, self-made religions. A Blender’s faith will likely depend mostly on his or her personal feelings and experiences in a vacuum, betraying fidelity to Jesus Christ in some way, and divorcing the Christian community’s reflection over the centuries that provides thoughtful examination of the implications of the competing worldviews, and a balanced interpretation of the revelation in the Bible.

The second route is less radical and seems fairly popular in some circles. Open to benefit from whatever might enhance their lives, Borrowers embrace meditation, yoga, ancient rituals, or anything else that they find helpful or meaningful in some other religion, but which is unavailable in their own tradition. Unconcerned about, or simply oblivious to, whatever underlying beliefs may be at odds with their Christian faith, they focus more on the immediate benefits of the borrowed ideas and practices that they are enjoying. I wonder, though, how often these “add ons” wind up being a distraction from spending time and energy seeking a more dynamic relationship with Christ and from learning how to live by the Holy Spirit. I feel more relaxed when I meditate, and my body feels better after exercise, but the most life-changing spiritual experiences I have ever had involve being consciously inspired and led by God as I wait in the silence; involve heart-felt, honest prayer and worship; or involve hearing God speak to me through the Bible and my brother and sisters in Christ.

Most of the time, my journey looks like the third path. I’m inspired. I’m on a quest for greater understanding about God, myself, and how human beings function and best flourish psychologically, socially, and spiritually. I am open to learn from any good source, and freely and respectfully borrow insights and practices from other religions (just like I am borrowing many thoughts from Tim Geoffrion today), providing they genuinely cohere with how the Lord speaks to me through the Holy Spirit, the body of Christ and the Bible. I have a relationship with God in Christ that guides my explorations.

I value dialogue but I do not journey as a lost soul. All along the way, I understand my way is laid out by my faith in and relationship to Jesus Christ. My quest is part obedience and part longing to better know, love, and serve God. I want to experience more and more of the abundant life Jesus offered to his followers. It seems inevitable that part of my experience will be encounters with different cultures and religions; they will help me open my eyes and mind. I respect fellow seekers and I welcome the opportunities.

As you consider your own journey, here is a prayer Tim Geoffrion suggests:

“Loving God, sometimes I feel overwhelmed and confused by all that I do not know or understand, and I want so much more for my life and relationships. Please help me to see what I need to see; give me courage to face truth wherever it may be found; and fill me with wisdom to know how to best learn from those whose beliefs do not fit neatly into my way of thinking or being in the world. I want to know you as you truly are, and to experience more of the abundant life Jesus came to give his followers. Please continue to lead me deeper into this life. In Christ’s name… Amen.”

This post was retooled from Tim Geoffrion’s helpful series: Benefiting from Buddhism.

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So, Mr. Perry, Are the Mormons Christians? — and does anyone care?

There is a puzzling theological and political debate going on in the Rick Perry presidential campaign. His advisors call Mitt Romney’s Mormonism a non-Christian cult, but Perry distances himself from the designation in public. It is not clear why they cast suspicion on President Obama’s rather orthodox Christian faith, which is even comes complete with a conversion experience and everything. Some evangelical power brokers close to Perry say that Romney’s views are more “biblical” than the president’s. Sigh.

A “new-improved” Jesus

Mormons have always claimed to be Christians. They say they are “new improved” Christians with a latter-day revelation that occurred in upstate New York. They have never made a secret about what they believe. (Well, they scrub out the weirder parts when the missionaries come to your door, or at least they used to). One of my friends was at Hill Cumorah, in New York, where Joseph Smith said he found the tablets which he magically translated into King James English. The faithful put on a pageant there to tell the whole story. The Book of Mormon, on Broadway, has a song that sums things up nicely.

The Mormons claim to be Christians, but they have their own Jesus — a new-and-improved one discovered in 1823 by direction of an angel who lead Smith to golden plates engraved by Central American prophets in 400 A.D. using “reformed Egyptian” which Smith translated with the aid of a seer hat — or something like that. The story tells of lost tribes of Israel coming to America and Jesus appearing to them, and a lot more.

It is not unusual for Jesus to be “improved.” Islam includes Jesus, but a Jesus who was a prophet, not the incarnation of God, who did not die on the cross but was taken by God to heaven before he did. Hindus can easily and often do accept Jesus as an enlightened guru whose message of love is like Buddha’s; some say he grew up in India. Christian Scientists teach that Jesus is divine, but not God.

Do Christians even care who Jesus is, at this point?

The issue for Perry seems to be that Christians are very mixed up as to what they know about Jesus.

What’s more, isn’t it true people in general gave up on knowing anything for sure a long time ago? Postmoderns have a tough time with “this or that” – so much so that the Occupy movement is somewhat proud of refusing to have a positive statement of what they are about and is relatively content with being a deconstruction machine.

Many Christians are just as postmodern; so why not bring in the Mormons? They are nice and they call themselves Christians. Why not bring in all the “tantric” influences around? What’s really wrong with a guru Jesus as long as he believes in love?

Today, I think I will just bring up the issue rather than answering too much. What do you think? (Mr. Perry, you are welcome to chime in).

The Tantric Propaganda in Green Lantern and Elsewhere

Lately, I have had a belated crash-course in the Tantric foundations of the myth-making of our media-driven culture. Today, I am especially interested in the redundant retelling of the myth of the “hero” with which I am surrounded.

All one has to do to find this hero myth is look at the IMDb synopsis of Green Lantern and there is it again:

In a universe as vast as it is mysterious, a small but powerful force has existed for millenniums. Protectors of peace and justice, they are called the Green Lantern Corps. A brotherhood of warriors formed by the different races from entire universe green lanternsworn to keep intergalactic order, each Green Lantern wears a ring that grants him superpowers. But when a new enemy called Parallax threatens to destroy the balance of power in the Universe, their fate and the fate of Earth lie in the hands of their newest recruit, the first human ever selected for the Corps: Hal Jordan.

Hal is a gifted and cocky test pilot, but the Green Lanterns have little respect for  humans, who have never harnessed the infinite powers of the ring before. But Hal is clearly the missing piece to the puzzle, and along with his determination and willpower, he has one thing no member of the Corps has ever had: humanity. With the encouragement of fellow pilot and childhood sweetheart Carol Ferris (Blake Lively), if Hal can quickly master his new powers and find the courage to overcome his fears, he may prove to be not only the key to defeating Parallax he will become the greatest Green Lantern of all. 

Christians generally think this story-telling is just innocent fun. But it is also  philosophy. It is propaganda. It is worldview shaping. And if one would like to have a robust Christianity that is not consumed by the power of ascendant myths, then it should be seen as an alternative religion. The hero myth calls for faith. It is mainly faith in determination and willpower, in finding the courage to overcome one’s fears and master newly-discovered inner powers (with the help of your soul mate) – and to be the savior.

Esalen and the conquest of Christianity

Jeffrey Kripal, in his book: Esalen: America and the Religion of No Religion, talks about the man who popularized the invasion of this hero myth, Joseph Campbell.  Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey begins “with a Tantric parable from The Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna. Campbell tells the story of a vegetarian tiger cub raised in a flock of  goats who has to be shocked into his own tiger-identity by another tiger, who forces him to transgress his own conditioned feelings of disgust and social propriety in order to eat meat. Campbell summarizes the moral of the parable as the secret of his entire lifework. The moral of the story is, ‘that we’re all really tigers living here as goats. The function of sociology and most of our religious education is to teach us to be goats. But the function of the proper interpretation of mythological symbols and meditation discipline is to introduce you to your tiger face.’”

Kripal summarizes Campbell’s criticism of all religions that claim absolute, exclusive or literal truth. “A conservative Hindu’s belief in the actual existence of Krishna or an orthodox Christian’s belief in a literal resurrection are just as misplaced and mistaken as an orthodox Jew’s or Muslim’s claim to an exclusive monotheism (or the land of Israel). They are all goats fooled by their social systems, not tigers awakened into their deeper human-driven natures through transgressive acts.” The original trailer for Green Lantern shows how the writers were faithful to this idea and the foundational hero myth more clearly than what the movie ended up being.

I am trying to find ways to talk about these things with the people I know and meet. Most of them are not dashing out to read the Gospel of Sri Ramakrishna any time  soon. But then, they don’t have to, since his teaching is being transmitted through every media outlet. The “transgressive act” that is usually recommended is to slough of the goat-training of Christianity and become one’s Green Lantern-like tiger self. We are taught that the true religious community is not gathered around the Savior, Jesus, it is a gathering of all the heroes from around the cosmos who are protecting the universe from being subsumed under some exclusive power (in Green Lantern, it is  Parallax — highlighting the power of misperception — calling Neo). You can see where this goes; Jesus becomes another Hinduized Green Lantern, if he is anything.

I want to talk about this some more, because I think a lot of my loved ones have a religion that is going Tantric under the influence of this incessant propaganda. Myths with which they are unfamiliar are being presented as “new” or “evolved.” Their faith in Christ is seen as “old” or “undeveloped.” Without some decent awareness and some healthy dialogue with the big voices of the media, it is easy to be swept away into their fantasy land. Test out what I am saying when you are watching whatever you watch on a screen in the next month (especially cop shows). See how many times you encounter Joseph Campbell’s “hero.” See how many “goats” become “tigers.” Count how many times the word “hero” is mentioned in relation to the 9/11 celebrations. Ponder the training of those famous Filipino inmates.