Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Christian Buddhism?

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My article "Christian Buddhism?" -- which appeared today on Buddhist Geeks -- looks at how some people are bringing together Buddhist practice with elements of the more familiar Judaeo-Christian traditions most of us grew up with. In the article I profile a teacher named Clark Strand who is exploring this ground in Woodstock, NY, and I explain Strand's view on why it makes sense to utilize our Judaeo-Christian roots to plant Buddhism more firmly in our culture.

Here's an excerpt from the article:

Our Judaeo-Christian roots are indigenous to the soil of American culture in a way that the exotic flowers of Asian Buddhism simply are not. According to Strand, the best way to help Buddhism truly flourish here is to graft it to those roots, not to try to dig them up and replace them.

I left behind the Southern Baptist faith of my childhood nearly three decades ago. But despite all that distance from my earliest roots, and despite having embraced Buddhism as the spiritual path that makes the most sense to me, the stories and iconography and teachings of Christianity and Judaism are still more familiar and often more resonant for me than the culturally foreign imagery and metaphors of Buddhism. Like the Cherokee rose, they have been growing in me longer, and they are better adapted to the soil of my mind.

That core of our earliest exposures to Christian or Jewish beliefs and practices might lie deeply buried in us, so deeply that we can be unaware of its presence—especially if we buried it there intentionally, out of rebellion against our upbringing. But the fact that we don’t often look at it doesn’t mean it’s not still there.

As Strand and I each found, in some cases all it takes to penetrate those outer layers and bring that long-buried core to the surface is a single moment of sheer existential terror, which sweeps away all other considerations. In that surge of naked fear, when it’s all you can do not to soil your underpants, who will you instinctively call on? Shakyamuni? Amitabha? Amitayus? Akshobhya? Avalokiteshvara? Kuan Yin? Padmakara? The Rigden King? Vajrasattva? Vajradhara? Vajrayogini? Vajratopa? Yeshe Tsogyal? Green Tara? Black Mahakala? White Manjushri? Samantabhadra? Kuntuzangpo? Or maybe just plain, old, fuzzy, formless, nameless God—the one you grew up with?

And let’s be honest: in that moment of total helplessness, when you are praying for mercy, will all the elaborate conceptual and philosophical distinctions you’ve made between these different traditions really matter one iota?

The article sparked quite a few comments from both sides of the aisle. In response to some of those comments, I posted this observation (among numerous other comments):

It's interesting to see the mix of reactions to this story. Seems like most of the positive comments are coming from people who share this kind of experience, and appreciate seeing it talked about openly. And it seems like the negative comments are coming from sort of judgmental-sounding Buddhists who don't share this experience and think other people shouldn't be having it either. Judgmental and opinionated Buddhists probably have a lot in common with the Religious Right folks who have given Christianity such a bad name.

There's much more in the full article, along with many good comments that provide food for thought.


louise & carver said...

Thanks for this. I have been a practicing Shambhala buddhist for 5 years now. Although I am deeply moved by both the teachings and the practice, I have never been able to relate to the tibetan imagery of the shrine, nor have I connected with the other tibetan cultural aspects of the community. I have struggled with not throwing the baby out with the bath water over this issue. lately I find myself wanting to further explore my relationship with God, although not in the Catholic form that I was raised in. anyway, it was comforting to read something about this issue that was written with compassion and and open heart and mind. with appreciation.

Dennis Hunter said...

Thanks, Louise. I'm so glad it was helpful. This article certainly provoked a lot of discussion -- both support and opposition.

I have to admit that I chuckled at your comment, because I think in Shambhala the culturally Tibetan aspects *are* relatively toned down for the benefit of Westerners. There's still quite a bit of cultural stuff, but next to some other sanghas it's minimal. You should try going to a place like KTD! ;-)