Human beings can’t resist wondering whether the grass is greener on the other side. This, IMO, explains why Mac fanatics sometimes peck at Windows PCs, Americans fantasize about living abroad, and even the most devoted Coke drinker probably sips a Pepsi every now and then. It also explains why I’ve been trying to understand Buddhism for over a decade, even though I have no desire to leave the Christian faith.
One thing I’ve found is that both the Buddha and Jesus have the same problem: their disciples aren’t always the best at explaining their teachings. Now, so far as I know there is no Buddhist equivalent of the Westboro Baptist Church (thank God!). However, there have been endless attempts to condense the Buddha’s message into quick, easy-to-digest sound bites. This has led to countless books and articles that sum the Enlightened One’s message up as follows:
- All is suffering
- The cause of suffering is desire
- If we end all desire, then we end our suffering
- We can extinguish our desires by following the Noble Eight-Fold Path, a prescription for life that involves rigid moral strictures that eschew all pleasure
For years I have pondered these four precepts, trying to make sense of them. The problem I kept running into is that none of them are true. Here’s what I mean:
- Life isn’t all suffering; rather, it’s a mélange of all sorts of experiences. Some of them are absolutely delightful, a few are intensely painful, and the vast majority are somewhere in between.
- Desire is hardly the cause of all suffering. In fact, many times desire ends suffering. For example, let’s say that I have an agonizing toothache. I desire to be free of it, and this desire leads me to go to the dentist, who promptly ends my suffering.
- If desire is what I’m trying to get rid of, then what about my desire to be free of desire?
The Noble Eight-Fold Path made the most sense of all four of the Noble Truths to me. It was getting through the first three that flummoxed me to no end. Usually after struggling with something for so long I would simply conclude the whole affair was nonsense. I was tempted to do this many times regarding Buddhism: declare it rubbish, toss it in my mental trash can, and think about something else.
But that didn’t quite seem right to me. How could a man so totally wrong about life inspire such devotion? So I pushed on, seeking to engage Buddhism on a deeper, more existential level. As a result of these efforts, this is how I now understand the Buddha’s basic teachings:
- The world is deeply flawed, with pain and sadness linked inextricably to joy and pleasure. Because of this, even our happiest moments don’t last forever. This is a fact about the world that we cannot change, no matter how loud we yell at God.
- Because the world is so messed up, it’s foolish to think we can either change it in a fundamental way or derive lasting satisfaction from it. Those who try to do either of these things ultimately shoot themselves in the foot. That’s why stoners end up sick and homeless and idealistic social workers turn into cynical jerks. It’s also why ministerial students, myself included, burn out.
- When we accept the world the way it is, we realize that our desires to either change it (in a fundamental way) or derive happiness from it are doomed to failure.
- At that point, we can find joy and peace of mind by looking “behind” the world. This is what the Buddha was talking about when he discussed Nirvana. It’s an experience of utter bliss, utter compassion, and utter freedom from the things that torment us.
- The essence of this transformation cannot be expressed in words. We can call it Nirvana, the beatific vision (as St. Augustine referred to it), Cosmic Oneness, or whatever. All of these terms are both a help and a hindrance to understanding the experience. Let’s stick with “Nirvana” as the term of choice.
- Nirvana can be obtained through practicing a number of mental and spiritual disciplines. These include:
- Wishing the best for all people (even the ones we despise)
- Learning to appreciate quiet, both inside and outside our minds.
- Not obsessing over material possessions.
- Using our critical faculties to separate truth from nonsense.
- Living a balanced life.
- Being honest about our own shortcomings instead of rationalizing them.
- Taking the long view.
- Calming our emotions so that they don’t make us do stupid things.
- Repeating the Serenity Prayer often. It goes like this: “Lord, give me the courage to change the things I can, the willingness to accept the things I cannot, and the wisdom to know the difference.” That will both minimize the world’s effect on us and enable to do what good we can while we’re in it.
I hate to say it this way, but what I have written above is “Buddhism for me.” It makes eminent sense and in no way contradicts anything Jesus said. It fact, it overlaps with much of Christ’s teachings and illuminates them.
The takeaway for those of us in the Christian church includes the following nuggets of wisdom:
- Spiritual ideas have innately subjective elements that cannot be removed without destroying their ability to affect human lives. In this sense, it’s perfectly fine to say that a particular teaching is “true for us.”
- It’s impossible to turn religion into anything remotely resembling a branch of science. It’s ultimately a subjective encounter with a reality that is Wholly Other.
- Language can never convey all that is true.
- Anyone who thinks that the Buddha, Confucius, Muhammad, Lao Tzu, etc., are in hell for not being Christians is just plain wrong.
BTW, before I studied Buddhism, I wouldn’t have said that they are “just plain wrong.” I would have called them assholes. But what good would that do?
Oh, one more thing: for those who are interested in this topic I recommend a book entitled “Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian.” The link to its Amazon page is posted below.