| by Jenny Stewart
( October 27, 2014, Canberra, Sri Lanka Guardian) On the face of it, it would be impossible to find two religions more different than Buddhism and Christianity.
Christians believe that there is a God, whereas Buddhism has no god. The Buddha pointed the way, whereas Jesus said that he was the way. Christianity promises believers eternal life. Buddhism’s highest state, the state of enlightenment, is freedom from being reborn.
On the other hand, there are compelling similarities. The spirit of compassion, bodhicitta in Sanskrit, is as central to Buddhism as that of love is to Christianity.
While their objectives may be different, there are prayers in both traditions. Christianity has its saints, who exemplify faith. Tibetan Buddhism has saintlike figures, Bodhisattvas, whose example selflessly illuminates the way, the dharma.
But it is at the personal level that these questions take on practical significance. For those seeking to deepen their spiritual practice, it seems reasonable to ask, in what ways can the two traditions be brought together? Is it possible to be a Buddhist Christian, or a Christian Buddhist?
It seems easier to think about this problem from the Buddhist perspective rather than the Christian one. Buddhism is not an exclusive religion. It is possible, according to the Dalai Lama, to practise Buddhist principles while still being a Christian.
Some Christians would agree with this. But even they would not suggest that Buddhists consider practising Christian principles while remaining Buddhist. It seems that Christianity wants all of you.
And this, I think, is precisely the difficulty for many Australians who are interested in pursuing the life of the spirit, but find it difficult to believe in God, or at least, the way God is presented to us through standard forms of Christianity.
Buddhism does not tell you that you have to believe in anything. It is a technology of the mind, as much as it is a religion. And as I and many thousands of Australians have found, learning even basic practices can be a liberating experience.
But beyond the initial liberation, there are difficulties. While there is immense variation among the various schools of Buddhist thought, there is a core of correctness within each one. And there is work to be done. The point of the practice is to control one’s mind, an arduous, indeed endless, discipline.
It is here, I think that western adherents often come to grief. If you really know what you are doing, like the Catholic priest Ruben Habito who studied and practiced Zen to the point of deep realisation, it is possible to work fruitfully across the two traditions.
For the layperson, though, there is a point beyond which it seems impossible to go. Buddhism in its various forms seems to be a religion for the specialist, and the mental discipline and time required to make progress are daunting for most of us.
There are also cultural issues. While at least some Western women have become revered teachers, the ordinary female practitioner faces entrenched sexism from imported Asian gurus. Of course, Christianity is sexist, too, but in its more liberal forms at least, it offers women more opportunities to become involved.
Christianity has the great virtue that Christians will take anyone — even me — or you. There is nothing special about us, and if we can will ourselves into faith, its blessings are equally available to all of us.
Buddhism asks more, but also less, of its followers: more, because there is so much to be learned; less because there is so little self-critique involved. I have met Dharma gymnasts, who can recite the words of the latest guru, some of them can even recite thousands of mantras into the night — but they fall into the difficulty that entraps so many of us — the confusing of form with substance.
Christianity is a warm religion, where Buddhism is cool, cerebral. Christianity is a religion of narrative, of prophecy, of human failing and human glory. The Bible is a book of stories about humanity’s relationship with God (or the other way around if you are more orthodox in your views). While there is much accessible, and very helpful, dharma writing, the Buddhist sutras are impenetrable discourses on the absolute. There is also the undeniable beauty of Christian liturgy, music and art to consider.
Yet Christianity, particularly in its more orthodox forms, seems to be fading in Australia. For many, the historic failure of the churches to acknowledge responsibility for the damage caused by their pedophilia amongst there personnel, has confirmed an aversion to organised religion.
For others, the rituals of church, of ‘signing on the dotted line’, seem to preclude sensible questioning, let alone doubt. The mainstream churches have interpreted this reluctance to mean they must work even harder to attract newcomers into the fold. Perhaps, rather than redoubling its outreach, Christianity might acknowledge that it is still a work in progress.
Each person, as the best teachers acknowledge, follows his or her own spiritual path. My Dad’s death took me towards Buddhism, my Mum’s back to Christianity. I hope that the spiritual gifts of both traditions will help me prepare me for my own, whenever that may be.
Dr Jenny Stewart is Professor of Public Policy in the University of New South Wales at the Australian Defence Force Academy.In 2011, Jenny founded the experimental public policy website, JONTIPPA (The Journal of New Thinking in Public Policy and Administration) www.jontippa.com.