Common Ground: The Contemplative Conversation (Part 13 of a 13-Part Series)
I have now written more than twenty thousand words on why Christian-Buddhism is a bad idea. More to the point, I’ve rebutted—quite successfully, I think—any notion that you can derive the Buddha’s teaching from the Bible. Notice, however, that I’ve limited my argument all along to the Bible—that is, I’ve stuck to the Old and New Testaments and made no attempt to draw in the Christian contemplative tradition. There is a good reason for that.
As noted, Christian-Buddhists are invariably mystical in orientation, even if they’ve never practiced meditation for even fifteen minutes. This is inevitable because the mystical experience transcends orthodoxy; all contemplative schools share certain characteristics and practices—e.g., their focus on solitude, silence, ethical purity, development of concentration and the like. The human brain, being what it is, responds to like stimuli in like ways, and so you would expect that practices pursued in, say, a convent in France, would give similar results when tried in a cave in the Himalayas. And indeed, it is so.
I would like now to offer some suggestions for the exploration of common traits between Christian and Buddhist contemplative traditions. These suggestions are offered especially to those who come from a Christian background, and so may not feel inclined to dispense with Christianity even though genuinely interested in Buddhism—in other words, to self-described Christian Buddhists.
First, if you’re going to study Buddhism, take it for what it is, not for what you want it to be. In other words, start with as few assumptions as possible and never assume you understand. You probably don’t.
Second: don’t mix the various Buddhist schools. They are very different, have different aims, methods, and views. This is not to say they are necessarily at odds with each other all the time, but you need to know their differences and why those differences exist.
Third: a good understanding of Buddhist history is important. Try to understand origins, and how things developed. For example, the only texts that can possibly lay claim to representing the historical Buddha’s teachings are the Pali Suttas and Vinaya, though every school claims legitimacy as a matter of course. In this day, with education and scholarship what they are, nobody has any business pretending the Lotus Sutra represents the historical Buddha’s teaching. It doesn’t.
Fourth: practice meditation. If you’ve not done at least several retreats you are ill placed to make any kind of a judgment about anything. The Buddha’s teaching is not a belief system, it is an applied psychology. So do your best to apply it.
Finally, if you want to understand how all this relates to Christianity, and discover whether there really is any overlap between your tradition and the Buddha’s, don’t bother with the Bible or even Jesus. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: the Bible is not useful as a guide to contemplative practice, and Jesus, whatever he was, has not left much behind that is contemplative either. This may not be his fault; perhaps the early Church worked it this way through the suppression of more revealing texts (e.g. the Gospel of Thomas). I don’t know. That’s for Christians to ponder.
Christianity though, to repeat myself yet again, has an extremely rich contemplative tradition, and it seems to me a study of the methods and attainments of its practitioners would be a very worthwhile endeavor. Interestingly, the Eastern Orthodox tradition is actually more open to the mystical elements of the religious life than is the Catholic or Protestant, though the names of its saints will not be as familiar to most readers. Explorers of this terrain would do well to become familiar with notable texts of the various saints and mystics—not so much with their theology, but with their methods and results, specifically their meditation practices and the states obtained thereby. In other words, an empirical and phenomenological bias is called for if a comparison with other traditions—in this case Buddhism—is going to be made.
What I’m suggesting here is hardly novel or original. There are many classic texts comparing traditions, for example Mysticism East and West by Rudolph Otto, who compared Meister Eckhart with the Hindu sage Shankara. Also, D.T. Suzuki, the famous Zen proponent, wrote Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist. Of course, Ken Wilber has created a veritable cottage industry out of comparing mystical traditions, though his approach is extremely ideological—he clearly subscribes to the Hindu Advaita Vedanta tradition (Atman=Brahman) over everything else, and completely misconstrues Theravadan Buddhism. Still, his remarks on Christian contemplatives may help illuminate the path for some.
A far better approach is that taken by Jeffery Martin of Harvard whose research is in the area of spiritual transformation. He directs the Center for the Study of Non-Symbolic Consciousness, which has interviewed hundreds of people who claim to have undergone significant changes in their everyday experience of consciousness and its relationship to thought and self. This is an exciting line of research, one I’m following closely. See here and here for his interview on Buddhist Geeks. Finally, I would also recommend Dharma Overground, where people from all traditions share their meditative experiences and discuss practices for spiritual development. The approach taken on the site is via empirical reportage, and is strictly non-ideological.
So if one is going to pursue this comparison of traditions, Christian and Buddhist, it is important to recognize where the “gold” is—in the first hand accounts of contemplatives, not in the writings of the Biblical Prophets and Apostles—and then to dig deeply. Get to know that material very well, then do the same for the Buddhist tradition. I’d say you have at least five to ten years of reading ahead of you, depending on how fast you are. Happy trails!
P.S. If you’d like an edited pdf of this series of posts, it is now available here.