29 August 2004

The Buddha and me

A close family friend asked me the following question in an e-mail:

You are still involved with Buddhism, is this a contradiction of thefaith you are studying? I am ignorant when it comes the philosophies and faith of the Buddhist. Please educate me on this point.

I thought my answer was worthwhile to incude in the blog:

Well, I'm definitely no longer a practicing Buddhist, though I was for three years and I feel that I gained a lot from it--among other things, I don't think I could ever really have been a practicing Christian without being a practicing Buddhist first. The reason for that is also the reason why I don't really think there's a contradiction between Buddhism and Christianity: Buddhism is a set of spiritual practices, but not really a system of beliefs or of faith. It doesn't say anything one way or the other about God or gods. It's completely agnostic.

Buddhism is essentially a set of practices (different types of meditation) to work on training your mind to tend less toward anger, greed, and other sins (the Christian term) and to tend more toward compassion, patience, and other virtues. There are basically two things that would count as "beliefs" in Buddhism--reincarnation and karma. Neither is (in my opinion) essential to Buddhism (meditation works whether you believe in them or not), and I didn't really believe in them for most of the time I was a practicing Buddhist anyway. (Karma, or the law of moral cause and effect, is found in the Bible--Proverbs 11:18 and lots of other places--but with the important caveat that God's grace trumps blind justice.) There are also lots of stories about various people--historical and otherwise--who developed great virtues and great control over their sinful tendencies, but these stories are also not a metter of faith and are much like the parables of Jesus or the stories of the Christian saints.

But despite that I don't think there's anything wrong with Buddhism, I realized two things about it a couple of years ago which told me that it 's not the path for me. First, since Buddhism is essentially all about meditation practice, it takes a lot of discipline to be a good Buddhist and practice consistently. I don't have that discipline. (There's a whole tradition in Christianity that's very similar to Buddhist meditation--contemplative prayer--that I may vary well pursue when I'm older and less flighty. St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, Meister Eckhart, Fr. Thomas Keating, etc.)

The second thing was that Buddhism seemed to be missing something I needed. It wasn't until I returned to the Episcopal Church that I found out what it was I was missing--two things, actually. Our rector talks about three aspects of the Christian faith--worship, discipleship/formation, and mission/service. Buddhism is all about discipleship/formation; it has no aspect of worship (being agnostic) or mission (a fact which the Dalai Lama has taken Buddhists to task for again and again).

So I'm not longer a practicing Buddhist, but I keep the things I've learned from it as part of my spiritual equipment, so to speak. :-) And like I said, I think it was only because I had first practiced a spiritual discipline that didn't require belief that I could take the leap of faith and affirm the Christian creeds. Now I can't imagine living outside the context of a faith relationship with God, including worship, thanksgiving, prayer, and service, but six years ago I could never have gotten past intellectual problems with Christian belief. But last year, I could take the leap of faith, jump into Christian, and say "I believe, Lord, help my unbelief."

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