15 April 2008

Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism

HT to Steve "Emergent Village Blogmeister" Knight for pointing at this very interesting blog post from Kimberly Roth on JesusManifesto.com. Kimberly makes some good observations about the two religions, and asks some even better questions. Before I get to her excellent questions, I felt I should note that this:

However, there is a flip-side to Tibetan Buddhism. There is work involved, and peace comes with a price. The Tibetan people serve multiple deities, some of whom are full of vengeance. Their religious practices are in part, to appease the deities en route to obtaining enlightenment. Monks create intricately detailed mandalas to house deities and guide meditation. Followers walk the streets of Tibet endlessly spinning prayer wheels in an effort to gain the attention of the Buddha of Compassion. Tibetans perform physical rituals, such as stopping to bow every few steps, in an effort to relieve personal suffering. Street children, widows and crippled men line the streets.

isn't entirely accurate, at least according to what I was taught by my Lamas when I was a practicing Tibetan Buddhist. Sometimes my teachers seemed to regard the "deities" of Tibetan Buddhism much in the way that many postmodern Christians talk about the "principalities and powers" and the angelic and demonic forces described in Scripture - as having a reality that might be said to lie in psychological and/or sociological and/or supernatural phenomena, or all or none of the above (and maybe dividing reality into categories like that is hubris anyway). But since the Buddha taught that the "real" world is, more or less, a creation of our minds, the perspective of my teachers ended up tending in a direction paralleling a modern liberal Western view of such phenomena: it all comes down to psychology, and the "demons" or "wrathful deities" that need to be appeased or overcome (not to mention the Buddha of Compassion who must be cultivated) are, ultimately, "all in our heads", so to speak.

In other words, it's a bit more nuanced than the way most Westerners might think of serving, appeasing, or wooing multiple deities. But Kimberly's ultimate point in his paragraph (that Tibetan Buddism demands work) is certainly true, it's just that IMHO this is more because each of us has "vengeful deities" in his head that he must work to overcome (and, significantly, in the Buddhist view there is no loving Deity to grant him grace in this labor), as opposed to this work being required to appease a multitude of external vengeful gods.

(And if I were to get really nuanced, I'd note that Tibetan Buddhism is Tantric, and Tantric philosophy might be poorly summarized as "the only way out is through", which means that those wrathful deities are actually compassionate deities in disguise, guiding you out of your negative tendencies by taking you through them. But that's another story.)

(Also, I will concede that Kimberly's take on these things might well correspond pretty closely to the way the average Tibetan in Tibet might describe the situation. Most of my teachers were Tibetan, but they had spent years learning how to translate their teachings to best be received by Westerners.)

ANYway - you can see I'm done with that "what I really think" series and back in my familiar land of parenthetical remarks, disclaimers, and general mealy-mouthedness. Did you miss me?

So what I wanted to say, apart from quibbling, was that Kimberly's post gets down to this question:

Christians have been given the gift of true peace through a relationship with the Son of God. We do not have to do good works to earn our salvation, but through Christ’s sacrifice and the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to love other people with God’s love. When we fail to live up to the standard Christ demonstrated for our life, or when those around us mess up, there is still grace… grace that reminds us we are human… grace that reminds us we are loved… grace that picks us up, dusts us off, and encourages us to keep going. It truly is a wondrous faith.

Why, then, is it that the world is not enamored with faith in Christ?

Why is it that the world seems so taken by Tibetan Buddhism?

Why isn’t Christianity the religion of peace?

Wow, that's a damn fine question. Kimberly's got some good thoughts on the subject. How about you?


Huw said...

I think it's because we don't push the work aspect enough: Christianity - like all relationships - demands work. That work must happen or the relationship isn't real - at all. We tend to act (and teach, at least in some corners) like God did his part in Jesus and that's the only part necessary.

Bah! Humbug. No one can be in relationship without constant work. And no one can be in relationship with God without being in relationship with his neighbour. And That Last Part takes a *LOT* of work.

Christianity isn't a religion of peace because we're not willing to do the work to make it so. And the world is taken with Tibetan Buddhists exactly because they are willing to do the work and be seen, in an unapologetic way, to be doing the work. What Christian religious leader has ever offered to step aside because of untrue accusations from his enemies?

(This complaint is not true of all Christians, of course. Certainly is of me...)

Elizabeth M. said...

Claiming that Buddhism is "of works" and Christianity is "of grace" is as misleading as saying that Buddhist practices (such as spinning prayer wheels, doing prostrations, etc.) create mindfulness of everyday grace whereas Christians are satisfied with merely claiming the blanket of grace for themselves. Thank you for always striving for a more inclusive view, Mike.

Scott Childress said...

mike - thanks for the insight....

its amazing what perspective someone like you (who has been on both sides of this) is able to add to the discussion.

great post.

Monk-in-Training said...

"Christianity isn't a religion of peace because we're not willing to do the work to make it so. "

Huw, I think you said it best.

Lord, have mercy on us, help us to pray for those who we call enemies, help us to be carriers of Your peace into the world, to forgive, as You have forgiven us.

Anonymous said...

As a person outside of the USA the reason is pretty obvious.

Perhaps you may have got the wrong end of the stick... Christianity IS a religion of peace. The trouble is that many people who call themselves Christians don't really understand that the USA (this is the case in some other countries too) are not the chosen people. They have swallowed a belief in a religion of nationalism.

People. The president lies... the economy is built on militarism... and much is expected of you when you are blessed.