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Buddhism vs Christianity

Posted on 23 July 2011, 17:42

Some were applauding me, others were troubled to the point of anger. But all wanted to discuss the same thing: the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity.

I’d been talking about mindfulness, which is the ancient new kid on the spiritual block in the west. Mindfulness is best defined as ‘awareness of your present experience with acceptance’ and this radical teaching lay at the heart of Buddha’s message. But are Christians allowed to be mindful? Or should we bracket it with fornication and flee from its presence screaming, with faces turned?

We’ll need to get beyond the labels. If we’re still at the bed-wetting stage of saying ‘Buddhism – euughh!’ or ‘Christianity – agghh!’ then we’re going to struggle. But if we’re able to reflect without hostility on the roots of these two spiritual heavy-weights, then good things await us. Buddhism is less a religion and more a psychology; the hard-won fruit of the world’s first self-scientist. Buddha asked: ‘Why am I unhappy?’ With bravery, he went on to dismantle everything in him which worked against happiness and at the heart of this was all that took him from the present moment.

While Buddhism mines truth from the inside, Christianity, as the contemplation of God in Christ, gathers it from beyond. Buddhism is about preparation, Christianity about revelation. Buddhism majors on awareness, Christianity on divine encounter. Buddhism is inner precision; Christianity, exuberance and abandonment. Buddhism says: ‘Clear the ground – flowers will grow.’ Christianity says ‘The garden’s beautiful – enjoy!’ And even three lines into this paragraph I was thinking how much the two need each other.

20th century figures like Thomas Merton and Anthony de Mello enjoyably explored this relationship. But no one wove the two so effortlessly together as Meister Eckhart in the 14th century. Buddha’s teaching on nothingness was also fundamental to Eckhart’s faith. ‘In true obedience,’ he said, ‘there should be no ‘‘I want this to happen or that to happen’’... but only a pure going out of what is our own.’ Buddha could not have put it better and nor would he have felt the need to try.

The nothingness of Buddha or the self-emptying of God in Christ? Beyond the labels there is the search and the search finds connections which stir life into our jaded religious forms; for it’s the overwhelming norm that Christ is hijacked and made dull by our neuroses. A bishop recently warned one of his clergy away from self-knowledge as ‘self-sacrifice must be the priority’. It’s true that Jesus, like Buddha, asked us to say goodbye to ourselves; but you can’t say goodbye to someone you’ve never met. Attempt it, and their rejected ghost will stalk you for the rest of your life.

To contemplate Buddhism and Christianity is to contemplate soil and flowers; though just who’s in charge of which becomes increasingly hard to discern and ever less important. It’s no contest.

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