Catholic Scholars Say Seekers Needn’t Look East to Find What They’re Looking for
April 22-28, 2007
BOISE, Idaho — Bill Burns knows it is easy for uncommitted Christians and others to get interested in Buddhism — especially when the Dalai Lama visits America this month.
Burns left the Church while in college and turned to Buddhism. His story is not unique. Many people growing up in the Judeo-Christian West are fascinated with the “wisdom of the East.”
“I never got involved directly with a temple but made a few attempts to learn meditation and to connect with a local group,” said Burns, who returned to the Church and now is a parishioner at St. John’s Cathedral in Boise. He speaks of several aspects of Buddhism that he and other Christians find so alluring.
“The cosmology and psychology appealed to me in that it offered what I thought to be a freer mindset,” Burns said. “While Buddhism affirms many of the constraints on personal behavior that traditional Catholicism holds, it does so without the emphasis on personal sin.”
Americans might get the wrong idea when they see the Dalai Lama in the news. The highest profile Buddhist in the world during a six-city speaking tour in Maui, Hawaii, April 24, is concluding his stay May 9 in Amherst, Mass.
He may appear appealing as a kind of pope with no dogma. In Buddhism, “The varying schools have different levels of doctrinal constraint, which gives nominal Christians the impression of freedom, more options to choose from, more malleability in their belief system.”
There are not likely to be any major protests during his visit, as there often are when the Pope tours America, or press releases from anything like “Buddhists for a Free Choice.” But just as papal visits can evangelize non-Catholics, will the Dalai Lama’s words here plant seeds of conversion among non-Buddhists?
Anthony Clark, an assistant professor of Chinese history at the University of Alabama and a noted Catholic expert on Buddhism, urges Catholics to show respect but not receptivity. “As Catholics, we should not allow our respect to evolve into a belief of sameness,” Clark said. “We’re not the same.”
That sentiment is echoed by Father Walter Kedjierski of St. Catherine of Sienna Church in Franklin Square, N.Y. “The first thing the Christian must do is recognize that Buddhism is Buddhism, not Christianity,” said Father Kedjierski, a student of Asian religion and culture who has written on evangelizing Buddhists. “Buddhists think in very different categories, process things in very different ways, and understand the spiritual in a way that is very different from Christianity.”
This blurring of faiths obscures many important differences.
Most important among them, said Clark, is the view of salvation. “Simply put, for a Christian, we have one life and an eternal soul, and salvation is really perceived as the beatific vision: living in God’s presence forever,” Clark said.
“The Buddhist message is that we have many lives but a soul that will end. [B --This is not accurate. "An-atman" differentiates the Hindu idea of Atman, an individual soul. Buddhist notion is that this is essenceless. See Kamalasila quote, above]
The idea in Buddhism is that life is suffering and the way to get rid of suffering is to get rid of desire and to eventually achieve nirvana, which means extinction.” [B --Suffering is inherent in samsara, the relative world in which we live, subject to birth, sickness, old age, and death. Beyond this, our habitual mental tendencies cause further suffering. Through various mental practices which work with mind, this suffering can lessen. This is how Buddha became enlightened, and, enlightenment takes one beyond the suffering of samsara.]
Added Father Kedjierski: “The goal for Buddhism is to escape the cycle of samsara, the constant reincarnations, and achieve the extinction of nirvana. While the Christian hopes to be ‘born again,’ the Buddhist hopes not to be born anymore. This is indeed quite a huge difference.”
Suffering is seen differently, too. For a Buddhist, says Clark, life is suffering and suffering is bad. Thus the need to end desire and, eventually, self, [B- Mahayana POV is "self" is not truly existent] so that suffering ceases, too. But Christians, he adds, embrace suffering to form them and bring them closer to Christ. “So for the Christian,” Clark says, “we have almost an opposite view.”
Kedjierski points to another difference — some Buddhists, like Theravadans,
deny God’s existence. “Some will believe in God or gods, some will not,” he
says. “Some will believe in what might seem like prayers and devotions, others
will not. “ [B - Buddhism is not theistic. Translations problems mislead in this respect.]
The permanency of truth also can be denied. “Catholics believe in particular, unchangeable, ineffable truths — such as the idea that Christ is the one savior of humanity and God is a Trinity of persons,” Father Kedjierski says. “Buddhists shy away from such ideas because Buddhists believe that all permanence is an illusion and that one should not become attached to truths as if they are permanent. When one is taught to free oneself of the notion that any truths are unchangeable or permanent, Christianity is clearly threatened.”
No surprise, then, that “the idea of sin is really not a part of the Buddhist vocabulary,” as Father Kedjierski also notes. [B - yup]
Burns mentions another difference: “While Buddha is considered a savior,” says Burns, “the emphasis is solely on the individual’s journey and not a larger community. Both Buddhism and Catholicism talk about The Way, but The Way is narrow in our faith. In Buddhism, The Way is purely in the method, not in the path.” [B - Hunh?]
Buddhists, though, might not acknowledge such.
“With Christianity,” Clark said, “our doctrines, our beliefs, seem to be foreground. What Buddhists believe is somehow veiled behind what they do. For a Buddhist to tell someone, ‘You don’t exist, you won’t exist,’ it’s too big of a leap. [B -- this is not what Buddhists say, actually.] That doctrine needs to be brought about very slowly.”
Anyway, said Father Kedjierski, “Most Buddhists certainly would not be comfortable attacking the contentions of other faith traditions in some sort of a debate. [oops. well, I'm not attacking the contentions of other faiths, per se. I'm objecting to un-Christian behavior in some Christians, and objecting to behaviors that harm other beings]. The emphasis they place is upon the simple spreading of the teachings of the Buddha.”
Buddhist modes of evangelization, then, tend to be by example, not word.
way Buddhists evangelize is by bringing peace to people so that in their
peacefulness they’re prepared for the doctrines of Buddhism,” Clark said. “They
really do preach by example.” [B --this is why needles doesn't enjoy blog he called too 'edgy.']
The Buddhist love of beauty, though, is a way to reach out to adherents of the Eastern religion, he said. “Bring to them peace and beauty, and they would be attracted to it and be converted,” Clark said. “[This is] one of the more important reasons to make the liturgy beautiful as Catholics. A beautiful liturgy is a way that we evangelize in the same way Buddhists do.”
It's a very civil and respectful article. Yay. Way to go!
On the subject of conversions, Jacqueline of Advice from Abushri , in a post entitled "Yaks & Camels" (from her discovery of an article about how to convert Tibetan Buddhists illustrated with a picture evangelizers believe is a yak, but is actually a picture of camel) points out:
Among the many challenges evangelical recruiters might face in their efforts to sway Western Buddhists is that most Westerners who have crossed over are already well aware of the doctrinal premise of other world religions.
Buddhism itself is also exceptionally fluid in its cultural integration. For instance, some Christian monks may also practice zazen (Zen meditation), an advanced practitioner in the Tibetan lineages may also be immersed in their Judaism.
Belonging to other wisdom traditions is not perceived problematic to following the Buddhist path.
The other aspect that might prove daunting is the notion of karmic ripening. Individuals who connect to Buddhist teachings and teachers already have a karmic link that predisposes them to being receptive to these teachings.
While Christianity, Judaism, and Islam do not recognize the tenet of reincarnation, an astonishing number of people believe in some form of reincarnation, even people not remotely interested in any spiritual path.
Reincarnation, sometimes translated as rebirth, does not involve an individual soul. A reasonable metaphor is for the process is when a flame of a candle is passed to another candle. A process, not an object, not a 'thing'.
Which reminds me of several friends who even as children growing up in the white-bread suburbs of America felt unaccountably drawn to symbols linked to Buddhism -- as a Western child's first painting unaccountably being a picture of the Potala, the Dalai Lama's palace in Lhasa, or one's favorite childhood book being not "The Wizard of Oz" but "The World's Great Religions," with a cover illustration of a mysterious golden picture of the Buddha. Or Tenzin Palmo, who as a child growing up in England didn't believe in God, but wanted to become a nun. [And did.]