Thomas Merton told Brother David Steindl-Rast, shortly before Merton died: ” I do not believe that I could understand our Christian faith the way I understand it if it were not for the light of Buddhism.”
One of the ideas that Buddhists, Contemplative Christians and secular science seem to agree on is that time is relative and that eternity is always happening right now in the present moment. So let’s imagine we have written to the Buddha to ask him to give Buddhist insights into the parallels and differences between Buddhism and Christianity, so that we might deepen our own Christian faith. After all, we are all in this together at each eternal moment; and all three perspectives of Buddhism, Christianity and science agree that truth anywhere is truth everywhere.
The Buddha’s Response
Dear Contemplative Christian Friends,
Thank you for your questions. Let me start with the parallels on a basic level. Buddhism has three central ideas that are referred to as the three jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. Christianity has three similar pivotal ideas. Buddha nature is similar to the Christian understanding that everyone is made in the image and likeness of God; in other words, the Christian belief is that every person has this divine essence within them just as every person from a Buddhist perspective would have Buddha nature within them. The Dharma has a broad definition that is difficult to capture but certainly includes teachings and practices taught by me for Buddhists to follow. Dharma can be translated as Duty or Way, just as following Jesus has always been known as the Way. Thirdly, the Sangha refers to the community of fellow Buddhist practitioners. In Christianity you think of it as the Church, the community of fellow seekers following the Way of Jesus.
The central issue for these two religions, or any religion for that matter, is — how do we as human beings encounter the experience of existence? In my enlightenment experience, I realized the key issue underlying this question is how do we understand the nature of suffering and the cause of suffering. In Christianity the issue is of suffering and the cause of suffering is condensed into one idea — sin, or falling short (in Greek, harmatia).
The Human Dilemma of Suffering and the Nature of Reality
In his book Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Thomas Merton says: “Both Christianity and Buddhism show that suffering remains inexplicable, most of all for the man who attempts to explain it in order to evade it, or who thinks explanation itself is an escape. Suffering is not a ‘ problem’ as if it were something we could stand outside of and control. Suffering, as both Christianity and Buddhism see, each in its own way, is part of our very ego-identity and empirical existence, and the only thing to do about it is to plunge right into the middle of contradiction and confusion in order to be transformed by what Zen [Buddhism] calls ‘ the great death’ and Christianity calls ‘dying and rising with Christ’.”
In order to understand this human dilemma of suffering, and the responses to it of Buddhism and Christianity my enlightenment experience helped me realize that we must first understand the nature of reality. I experienced that the cause of all suffering (samsara) was appearance. You will understand this in modern terms as the fact that all human perception is filtered through ordinary ways of knowing based on one’s history, one’s culture, one’s biases, etc. We don’t directly see the world, we see a world of filtered form or appearances, and this filtering causes misperceptions which result in the attachments and aversions that cause our suffering.
Christianity sees existence in a very similar way; particularly as described by the temptations that Jesus faced in the wilderness. Those temptations, as summarized in Welcoming Prayer, are: the need for power and control, the need for security and survival, and the need for esteem and affection. All suffering, or if you will sin, arises because we are seeing from our ego personality structure separated from seeing from the Ground of Being. Separated from seeing from unity with God, our personality structure filters and distorts reality through the lens of our personality structure’s instinctual needs. Shorthand: separation = (distorted seeing) sin = suffering.
Buddhism and Christianity present similar understandings of what to do with the problem of suffering or sin. Through the practice of meditation Buddhists learn to experience existence as not just form but also emptiness. When our capacity to be aware is clear, that is when the ego personality is not filtering existence then our inner experience of our perception is emptiness. When the world is experienced through this perspective, there is no suffering. Because all perception is relational (science shows us we only understand the nature of a particle depending upon the location from which the particle is observed), when we observe reality from the unity of our beingness what is experienced is the is-ness of everything without attachment or aversion.
Similarly for Christians, the answer to sin is to repent, or metanoia, which means to see in a new way. In other words, Christians are also asked to see without the mind filtering reality by the ego’s needs and instead to see from a state of unity with everything. This is described as seeing with the mind of Christ. Through Christian contemplative practices, the Christian seeker gradually becomes able to see through a less filtered lens, and not through a glass so darkly. This was the path of early Christians, who went to the desert where the very emptiness of the desert let the external reality of the landscape help illuminate the insight of being able to see with a clear mind, with the mind of Christ. This contemplative tradition was reinvigorated during the medieval years within the monastic traditions. It was during those years that the book The Cloud of Unknowing was written, which became the primary source for Father Thomas Keating’s development of the contemplative practice of Centering Prayer.
For both Buddhist and Christian as the human capacity for awareness becomes less and less filtered by the ego’s personality structure one’s Buddha nature is more readily experienced, or seeing with the mind of Christ, as the case may be. Both traditions would affirm that the totality of how a human being encounters existence is an experience through a personality structure, which filters reality causing suffering, or sin, and a Buddha nature, or image-and-likeness of God nature, which is pure.
The process of spiritual growth in both faiths is developmental, and so, as one reaches mid-life, Buddhist and Christian contemplative practices are designed to help the seeker live more from one’s Buddha nature or, more and from one’s divine image-and-likeness of God nature. As this developmental process unfurls a person becomes more and more able to experience peace, joy and the minute by minute unfolding of being-ness. The other thing that seems to happen, and Buddhist enlightened beings in the common era may be copying you Christians here, is that individuals who experience liberation from appearances, or suffering, are quite naturally called to be of service through self-emptying love to help others who are struggling on their life paths. In the Buddhist tradition this is known as striving to be a Bodhisattva. In the Christian tradition, this is striving to be Christlike. In both traditions what is essential is to use the energy of striving to focus on the practices that are going to allow for a clearer, freer mind, and at the same time to let go of any clinging to a goal of being enlightened or Christlike. In other words, not let the ego hijack the process of spiritual maturation.
This process of spiritual growth is difficult because as one becomes freer and freer of the personality the seeker feels like he or she is falling into emptiness. When there is no awareness of a self and no sense of identity as a separate self this can be terrifying. This is why in Christianity the spiritual path is called entering the narrow gate. In Buddhism it is exemplified by images of fierce animals guarding the entranceway to Buddhist temples. Because, as Merton reminds us, the change in perception is so profound both Buddhism and Christianity use the image of dying and being born again.
Each tradition also stresses the benefit — of changing the way one is perceiving reality — is to experience a new kind of life now. For Buddhists it is the achievement of enlightenment, or Nirvana, in this life. For Christians it is described as entering the Kingdom of Heaven now. This new way of seeing — being in the Kingdom of Heaven — was a central theme of Jesus’ preaching ministry. By the phrase “Kingdom of Heaven,” Jesus meant a particular level of human consciousness and way of seeing, not simply a place to which Christians were destined after death. Only later during the terrible conditions of life in the Middle Ages did the medieval church begin to focus on an afterlife destination. Both religions posit a continued existence after death.
Buddhists attack the problem of experiencing loss of identification with one’s personality straight forwardly and teach about an understanding of no-self. However, that doesn’t make the process of going through emptiness any easier for anyone to do. This journey requires a great deal of commitment. For a Buddhist this commitment comes from experiencing their Buddha nature, the Dharma and the love and guidance of a teacher and support of their sangha. For Christians this is faith in Christ, experiences of God’s love, and support of one’s church community.
The good news is that as this process unfolds emptiness itself begins to be experienced as not empty but the entry way to a life-giving source of unbounded beingness, from which arise love, support and intelligence. So as the ego structure, which one has always depended upon, is diminished the seeker gradually begins to experience that there is something even more powerful beneath the experience of no-self to illuminate and enliven one’s experience of life. This is an experience of presence generated through being-ness and the unity of perception.
The Gethsamni Encounter
Twenty years after Merton’s death, an interfaith dialogue was organized called The Gethsamni Encounter: A Dialogue on the Spiritual Life by Buddhist and Christian Monastics. In the transcript of the discussion which was later turned into a book, a Buddhist monk at the conference quoted with approval the following remark of Merton: “At the center of our being is a point of nothingness which is untouched by sin and by illusion, a point of pure truth, a point or spark which belongs entirely to God, which is never at our disposal, from which God disposes of our lives, which is inaccessible to the fantasies of our own mind or the brutalities of our own world.”
Differences between Buddhism and Christianity: Practices, Ways of Knowing (Epistemology), and Spiritual Information
One of the biggest differences between Buddhism and Christianity is the greater focus in Buddhism on practices and epistemology. Buddhist meditation practices are designed to help a practitioner have a quiet mind and when focused in attention a curious mind. Buddhism like Christianity acknowledges that there are three different ways of knowing: sensate awareness through the body, emotional awareness through the heart and mental awareness through the mind. Buddhism does not ask its followers to take any of the tenets of Buddhism on faith. Rather Buddhism stresses practices which will help its followers go beyond knowing about Buddhism as learned information to experience the teachings of the Buddha directly.
Both traditions see the totality of a human being as containing a learned ego or personality structure whose limited perspective causes suffering or sin; and an eternal essence of Buddha nature or divine image-and-likeness of God from which arise truth, love and goodness. This is the point Merton is describing as a point of pure truth, that provides eternal connection to God. In both traditions practice is needed like an athlete going to the gym and doing a certain number of repetitions with weights so that when she is out on the field playing she easily taps into the capacity to play with strength and grace. To complete the metaphor contemplative practices allow Contemplative Christians in the ordinary day to day experience of life to access their divine essence which enables them to tap into the field of beingness from which arise truth, love, beauty and goodness.
The same experience would be true for the Buddhist practitioner, though she would call the experience tapping into her Buddha nature. Spiritual knowledge for Buddhists is not given much credence unless it is learned from direct experience. While Buddhism encourages all three ways of knowing, it stresses the need to inquire into the nature of the experience that gives rise to inner knowing. How do you know what you know? For example, say a practitioner has a deep meditation and thereafter has some insight about the meaning of his life, Buddhism urges the practitioner to inquiry into that knowing, how did it come about, what was his bodily, emotional and mental experience of it; what lies beneath it and so on.
Christianity on the other hand, but not Contemplative Christianity as Merton has given witness to, seems to rely for the most part on people learning information about the Christian faith. It does have rituals that are designed to allow a Christian to experience the meaning of Christian precepts; that is to know them directly. The celebration of the Eucharist or Communion is the most central of these rituals. Unfortunately, it seems for many to be a trite container that does not generally allow for a person to experience inner knowing. However, I understand from Contemplative Christians that after they have been on the contemplative path awhile, done their reps in the gym of contemplation so to speak, participation in what once seemed like tired worn out church rituals, especially Communion, may all of a sudden create opportunities for a direct inner knowing experience of Christ.
Finally, what wisdom would you offer to Contemplative Christian seekers?
I would suggest the take-home learning for a Christian from a Buddhist is: first, don’t neglect the practices that allow you to experience becoming empty of your ego self so you might experience the boundlessness of your Christ-like nature; and secondly, recognize that the mental function in the West has become largely a tool for planning, analysis and worry while its true gift is to curiously explore the nature of reality. Your human-ness, your separation from God, is not an enemy, rather it is the vehicle by which to open moment by moment to explore both emotionally, bodily, and mentally your lived experience. The more we experience our own lives as being grounded in and a part of the unity of everything the more we experience the support of beingness and its gifts of beauty, compassion and truth.