Monday, January 12, 2015

Christianity and Buddhism: The Journey of John B. Buescher

On page 165 of James Sire's The Universe Next Door (5th ed) there is a footnote mentioning an article by John B. Buescher entitled Everything Is On Fire: Tibetan Buddhism Inside Out from the Jan/Feb 2008 edition of Books and Culture.

Buescher was raised Roman Catholic but spent forty some years pursuing Buddhism.  He then returned to Catholicism.  His article has a number of poignant comparisons between Buddhism and Christianity. Here a few pieces I found especially noteworthy and moving--my favorite is in bold.

Tibetan Buddhism has attracted devotees in the West. Its teachers offer insights into suffering and methods for cultivating mental equanimity and compassion. It appeals to Westerners' utilitarian pursuit of self-betterment because it seems, at first anyway, to set aside the necessity of faith and to ask the inquirer only to try its methods and see the results. It says that one can become a Buddha, an "awakened" one, by one's own efforts. Its goal is enlightenment about a truth beyond the limits of contingent reality. It is as dubious about objective reality as certain currents of Western philosophy have become. It proclaims impermanence and emptiness, and so fits our experience of upheaval. It questions the reality of the "self." Nowadays the West does too, and often conceives even the Gospel as a manual, not for the personal development of holiness, but for the impersonal engineering of social justice.

The Dalai Lama is an advocate of interfaith dialogue. One fruit of such conversations is The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus, the edited transcript of the Dalai Lama's impressions of Gospel selections read to him at the 1994 seminar at the London Center of the World Community for Christian Meditation. In the introduction, the Center's director, a Catholic priest, writes:
When a Buddhist, perhaps especially a Western Buddhist, says that all religions are compatible because they represent the different personal or psychological needs of individuals, many may add or think "at different stages of their development." Behind this may be the feeling—which I never sensed at all in the Dalai Lama in either private or public discussion—that the notion of a personal God is acceptable, but that it represents a more immature, perhaps an earlier, stage of spiritual development, a kind of balancing third wheel on a child's bicycle.
The Dalai Lama, a good man, would not beat his hosts over the head with it, but that is indeed how Buddhists understand theism and even the various other schools or sects of Buddhism that they do not agree with. Such teachings, they believe, are potentially helpful to those who are not yet highly gifted but who will eventually, perhaps in a future lifetime, be able to comprehend and profit from the highest Buddhist teachings.

I am neither a Buddhist nor a prophet. I have reverted to the Catholicism that gave joy to my youth. How did this happen? Buddhism focuses on the life of the monk and nun, who have renounced the world in an effort to achieve enlightenment and thereby climb out of the cycle of suffering transmigration through rebirth. Compared to Christianity, it has only a rudimentary teaching on the governance of society or on the value of the family. Throughout Asia, Buddhist clerics usually have a lot to say and do at funerals but little or nothing at weddings and births. This sensibility has found fertile ground in the West, where we have spent the last few centuries attacking the principles that encourage the regeneration of the given structures of society—especially of marriage and the family.

As a result, I achieved an odd kind of enlightenment. Or a number of small ones that added up to this: I realized that what I most urgently needed was repentance. Not for the sin of holding on to an infantile form of faith, but rather for turning away from the Faith and looking to myself for salvation. After almost forty years, I saw the smoke on a mountain pass. God, I felt very strongly, had lit the fire. And the trail of smoke led back home. All these inferential steps I am describing make it sound like a series of trap doors shutting, but really it felt more as if, in the dark, a person I knew was drawing closer and closer to me in silence—"anthropomorphic" though that may be. I made the sound of one (closed) hand clapping (the breast). Mea maxima culpa. And I began the "yoga" of genuflecting before Him at whose name every knee shall bend.

In religion it is not enough for people to do the best that they can. That can never be enough. Our life is more perilous than that. Everything is on fire. We cannot put out the flames, for we too are engulfed. I pray to Jesus Christ not because he was the teacher who showed us how to do the best we can, but because he is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Miserere mei, Domine.
 At least two of us have found our way into this pew. Paul Williams, author of The Unexpected Way: On Converting from Buddhism to Catholicism, is a former practitioner and continuing scholar of Tibetan Buddhism. He is also a relatively new Catholic. He writes about why the two religions are irreconcilable. Buddhists are not theists. And, despite talk about the unknowable "Other," Christians most certainly are theists—at least those who have not decided that God is a projection of a limited mind. Williams also argues that reincarnation cannot ultimately provide a basis for religious practice because it reduces the significance of individual lives to a vanishing point.
Buddhism has always needed to shore up "conventional" truth—including moral truth—because it is undermined by the doctrines of selflessness, impermanence, and emptiness. This is why Chesterton wrote that Buddhism was not a creed but a doubt. It is plain to me that Buddhist sages are similar to Christians in their capacity to sin. Buddhism, however, by locating our suffering in ignorance, rather than in the will, and its cure in knowledge, makes it difficult to think that one who had really experienced enlightenment could sin. Buddhists are often inclined, I believe, not to recognize enlightened beings' sins as sins, but to explain them away as "skillful means," actions that, to the unenlightened, look like sins but that spring from someplace beyond good and evil. Christians have sometimes broached this sort of rationalization—"To the pure all things are pure"—but have generally hesitated to insist on it. Christian doctrine weighs strongly against it.