A Christian Journey into Buddhism
by Elizabeth J. Harris
Buddhism starts with a question: Why is there something in human existence that is twisted, out-of-shape, violent, and unsatisfactory? This writer says that this is a question that resonated with her immediately.
Anuradhapura, an ancient city in Sri Lanka, boasts one of the oldest trees in existence. It is believed to have grown from a cutting of the very tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. It was in the shrine room next to this tree, in 1984, that my journey into Buddhism began. It was my first time in Asia. I was with a mainly Christian group that was visiting Sri Lanka to learn about the country. At Anuradhapura, I separated myself from the group to sit on the floor of the shrine room with other devotees, facing a large image of the Buddha. As I was looking, the image seemed to become surrounded by cosmic light. It was as though the Buddha were speaking to me, inviting me to learn more about Buddhism. I came out of the shrine room rather stunned, but determined to take this further.
The opportunity soon came. In 1985 I learned that there was a Christian institute in Colombo, the Ecumenical Institute for Study and Dialogue, which had built accommodation for Westerners who wanted to study Buddhism. After applying for a scholarship from the World Council of Churches, I arrived in Colombo in 1986. I was thirty-six years old. I was already interested in meditation, social justice, and conflict transformation. I had also become convinced that crossing religious barriers was as essential as crossing cultural ones.
I had planned to stay a year. In the end, I remained over seven years, going ever deeper into Buddhism, eventually completing a doctorate in Buddhist Studies. From the beginning, my aim was not simply to study the Theravada Buddhism of Sri Lanka, but to immerse myself in it in order to see the world through Buddhist eyes. I wanted to "pass over" into Buddhism in order to "come back" into Christianity with new perspectives. So, as well as doing academic study, I joined a women's meditation group and spent time at a meditation center in Sri Lanka's central hills. I took part in the acts of devotion at my local Buddhist temple and met Buddhists who were involved in conflict transformation within Sri Lanka's bitter ethnic war. Above all, I made friendships with Buddhists, which led, for instance, to joining a Buddhist pilgrimage group to Kataragama, a place holy to both Hindus and Buddhists. In this way I met some of the many faces of Buddhism in Sri Lanka--the philosophical, the devotional, the contemplative, and the socially engaged.
As I immersed myself in Buddhism, three things happened. First, I discovered teachings and practices that resonated with, or shed new light on, my own religious convictions. My heart leaped in recognition of these. Second, I met differences, which challenged and sometimes disturbed me. Third, I found practices that were complementary to the Christianity that had nurtured me, practices that I could draw into my own spirituality.
I came to love reading translations of the Pali texts of Theravada Buddhism. The Pali Canon is at least ten times the size of the Bible and holds a tremendous variety of texts within it. Theravada Buddhists believe that the Canon is the closest we can get to the words the Buddha actually spoke. They believe that after the Buddha's death, his teachings were transmitted orally for a couple of hundred years, before being written down in Sri Lanka in the third century B.C.E. As I read these texts, a down-to-earth, practical, realistic teacher emerged from them--the Buddha.
Buddhism starts with a question: Why is there something in human existence that is twisted, out-of-shape, violent, and unsatisfactory? It was a question that resonated with me immediately. I had long been concerned about such things as the gap between rich and poor in the world, the number of wars and conflicts, environmental degradation, and the rampant consumerism of the rich. Never had I looked at the world through rose-tinted spectacles. And Buddhism's answer also resonated--namely that the dukkha, the pain of existence, was caused by egocentric craving, rooted in greed, hatred, and delusion. There is one text in the Pali Canon that speaks of the world as "smothered, enveloped, tangled like a ball of thread, covered as with blight, twisted up like a grass-rope" with craving.*
Buddhism's view of the world simply struck me as true. It gave me tools with which to analyze and understand what I found unsatisfactory about the world. For, as I looked at the world, I could see greed everywhere. There was the structural greed for profit present in many forms of international capitalism. There was the individual greed present in consumerist lifestyles.
The message of the Buddha in this context was: "The way you see the world is wrong. Happiness does not lie where you think it does. Change. Realize that everything you own is impermanent--your wealth, your youth, your relationships. Stop placing yourself at the center. Stop relating everything to 'I' and 'mine.'" The arrow simile in the Shorter Discourse to Malunkyaputta in the Majjhima Nikaya (Sutta 63) particularly appealed to me. In it, one of the Buddha's disciples complains that the Buddha had not answered some of the most important metaphysical questions in life, such as whether the world was eternal or the soul was the same as the body. The Buddha replies with the following story. A man is wounded by a poisoned arrow. Family members bring a surgeon, but the man will not allow the surgeon to touch him. Instead, he demands the answers to a stream of questions such as: What kind of man wounded me? What was his name? Where did he come from? What kind of bow did he use? It is obvious that the person will die before the questions are answered. The Buddha's message to his disciple, therefore, was that plucking out the poison within us, the poison of greed, hatred, and delusion, was the most important religious task.
This activist message leaped out at me as vital in our world. It also led to the second area of Buddhist teaching and practice that resonated with me: meditation, or mental cultivation. There is one intriguing text from the Canon that goes like this:
Monks, there are to be seen beings who can admit freedom from suffering from bodily disease for one year, for two years, for three, four, five, ten, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years; who can admit freedom from bodily disease for even a hundred years. But, monks, those beings are hard to find in the world who can admit freedom from mental disease even for one moment, save only those in whom the asavas ("corruptions," such as ignorance) are destroyed. (The Book of the Gradual Sayings, Vol. II, Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1992, p.146; Anguttara Nikaya Text ii, 143)"Was it true?" I asked myself. Do we all suffer from some kind of mental disease? I came to the conclusion that we probably do, although "disease" was not a word I liked. Most of us live in a self-made mental prison because we refer everything to the self and what the self likes and dislikes. The task of meditation, I discovered, was to cut through this by learning more about how our minds and hearts worked.
One of my teachers of meditation was Godwin Samararatne, then director of the Buddhist Meditation Centre, which I visited. One meditation practice he encouraged was "bare attention." It is a form of vipassana, or insight meditation, through which one seeks to be completely aware of everything that is happening in the mind and heart in the present moment. Nothing is repressed and nothing is judged. Everything that arises in the mind, the emotions, or in the physical body is watched and simply allowed to pass.
I found this to be an incredibly powerful practice. Most of us react in an automatic way to what life throws at us, drawing on patterns laid down from our childhood. Bare attention, I discovered, could help me cut through some of this. It could help me discover when and how such things as envy, anger, or pride arise in my mind. And that could open the door to changing what was unwholesome. One phrase that Godwin Samararatne used was that it could help us "make our demons our friends."
Meditation is not absent from Christianity. The Christian contemplative tradition has flowered in many centuries and places. However, I now believe that Buddhism has much to teach Christians about mind cultivation. Buddhism can complement and enrich Christian practice.
What resonated with me most, though, was what Buddhism had to say about compassion and love. I have written before in Dharma World of my experience at the Sanju-sangendo Hall in Kyoto, dedicated to the bodhisattva Kannon. The Hall is filled with row after row of Kannon images. Each has multiple arms, representing Kannon's ability to save multiple worlds. When I stood in that hall, I was awe-struck by the vision or message that the images embodied: that at the heart of the world's violence there is a strong, irresistible force of compassion. I was reminded of the Christian emphasis on the overflowing love and grace of God.
Theravada Buddhism does not recognize bodhisattvas such as Kannon. However, loving kindness and compassion are given great emphasis. The liberation from greed and hatred that Theravada Buddhism talks about is a liberation into compassion. Cultivating compassion and loving kindness as an antidote to greed, therefore, is very important. Many Theravada Buddhists practice a meditation on loving kindness daily.
The root of this is an ancient text, which contains this striking verse:
Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so, let him cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings.It is important within this kind of meditation not only to extend loving kindness to those we like but also to those we do not like. This resonated in my mind with the teaching of Jesus that we should love our enemies and do good to those who hurt us. But I discovered that Buddhism went even further than this in its imagery. In one Theravada discourse, the Buddha speaks of the kind of mind that those who have renounced home and family should have and he ends with this illustration:
Let his thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world: above, below and across, without any obstruction, without any hatred, any enmity.
(From the Metta Sutta, the Sutta on Loving Kindness, from The Sutta Nipata, translated by H. Saddhatissa, London: Curzon, 1985)
Bhikkhus (monks), even if bandits were to sever you savagely limb by limb with a two-handled saw, he who gave rise to a mind of hatred towards them would not be carrying out my teaching. Herein, bhikkhus, you should train thus: "our minds will remain unaffected, and we shall utter no evil words; we shall abide compassionate for their welfare, with a mind of loving kindness, without inner hate. We shall abide pervading them with a mind imbued with loving-kindness; and starting with them, we shall abide pervading the all-encompassing world with a mind imbued with loving-kindness, abundant exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill will." (From: The Simile of the Saw, The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya, translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1995, p. 223)
So, I discovered, to my delight, that Buddhism, as Christianity, emphasizes that the forces of compassion and love are stronger than the forces of violence and greed. This is where Christianity and Buddhism are one, where they can speak with one voice and act together for a more just and peaceful world.
In addition to the resonances, there were a number of elements within Theravada Buddhism that I found difficult. The worldview they represented and the worldview I had come from were just so different. Rebirth--the belief that we are born again and again, until we gain liberation--was one of these. I found this belief at a popular level and in the texts. The full implications of it amazed me. For instance, in the Therigatha, a canonical text of verses and stories from the early Buddhist nuns, there is the story of Ubbiri. Ubbiri, before she became a nun, was made a queen because of the beauty of her daughter. But the daughter dies. Ubbiri repeatedly goes to the cemetery to weep. One day the Buddha reveals himself to her there and the conversation goes something like this:
Why are you crying? (The Buddha)
I cry because of my daughter, Exalted One (Ubbiri)
Cremated in this cemetery are 84,000 of your daughters. Which one are you weeping for?
Against this background, working for liberation from rebirth takes on even more urgency, but it was a world that I found difficult to comprehend and still do.
Another area of initial difficulty was anatta, non-self. When the nineteenth-century Christian missionary to Sri Lanka, Rev. Daniel Gogerly, discovered anatta as he was translating the Pali texts, he was horrified. He had thought Buddhism spoke of the reincarnation of the soul, but here, he believed, was a doctrine that denied continuity across births, by denying that there was a soul. It fed into his view that Buddhism was nihilistic. I was not horrified by anatta, but I was, at first, mystified. I couldn't believe that Buddhism denied that there was a self, a person. Soon, however, I realized that the difference was not as great as I thought. Buddhism and Christianity could touch on this as well. For what Buddhism was talking about was a wrong concept of self, a concept of self that causes havoc in our world and leads away from the path of compassion.
Theravada Buddhism says that we are verbs rather than nouns. Everything inside us changes. Nothing is static. Nothing should be clung to. The original doctrine was diametrically opposed to the emerging brahminical belief that the human soul, as essence, was one with Brahman. The Buddha said that things just did not work that way. The human body and mind were governed by a process of cause and effect. All parts of us were interdependent--Mahayana Buddhists might say that all parts were empty. I realized that the doctrine had a very practical meaning, as well as a philosophical one: to help us see that clinging to self-interest, the "I," leads to suffering and pain and that getting rid of the "I" releases compassion and joy. "Get rid of the 'I' and compassion will flow" was the message.
Christianity also stresses the importance of letting go of "self." Methodists, at the beginning of each year, make a new Covenant with God in a special service. During the service, they say, "I am no longer my own but thine." Although Theravada Buddhism is non-theistic, there are touching points here. In fact, Buddhism has made me see just how radical the Christian emphasis on letting go of self is.
"Passing over" into another religion in order to "come back" should never be undertaken lightly. It is for the few rather than the many. For me, it meant letting go, for a time, of much that had formed my religious identity so that the wisdom of Buddhism could flower within me. Anyone who does this will not "come back" to the same place. I certainly did not. Now, twenty years later, I still define myself as a Christian, but Buddhism has irrevocably changed me. I revere the Buddha as a wonderful teacher and often find myself thinking in Buddhist ways. I also seek, through meditation and the practice of loving kindness, to pluck out the greed in my own mind and heart. And the journey is not finished. My visit to Japan as part of an interfaith group from Britain, on the invitation of Rissho Kosei-kai, was a wonderful extension of it.
Some might conclude that I must be a Buddhist-Christian. This is not, however, a term I would use myself, because it does not respect the differences between the two faiths. Buddhism and Christianity overlap in many ways. At the mystical level, differences may disappear altogether. But this is not the level where most Buddhists and Christians meet. In Sri Lanka, for instance, Buddhists are quick to point out the differences between the two religions, particularly in areas of divinity and rebirth. I must respect this. I would, therefore, prefer to say that I am a Christian who also reveres the Buddha and chooses to draw from Buddhist spiritual wells. I am convinced that the commonalities between the two religions are stronger than the differences, and that, where differences exist, these can be opportunities for growth rather than confrontation. For our minds are finite. None of us can grasp the totality of truth. We are all on a pilgrimage and can learn from one another. And I have learned much from Buddhism to help me on my journey.
* Anguttara Nikaya, ii, 213
Elizabeth J. Harris is the secretary for interfaith relations for the Methodist Church in Britain and an honorary lecturer at the University of Birmingham. This essay is based upon a lecture she delivered before the Horsham Inter Faith Group, England, in May 2005.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2006 issue of Dharma World.
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