- If the Buddha Is So Great, Why Are These People Christians?
Since I began to study Buddhism as a Swarthmore College undergraduate and recognized my worldview as Buddhist, I have been puzzled about Christians who care about the Buddha. Why would a Christian care about the Buddha? I don’t care a whit about Jesus, hence my difficulty in fathoming how a Christian could get all caught up in the Buddha. To put it another way, especially when I was first “turned on” to Buddhism (it was, after all, the seventies), I had trouble understanding why people who had studied Buddhism extensively, and whom I respected as otherwise quite smart and sensible, seemed to be doggedly determined to stay Christians! All of my Buddhism teachers in the course of my undergraduate and graduate study (with the notable exception of Walpola Rahula) fell in this category, it seemed—though we never really discussed it. Why didn’t we discuss it? I did wonder about how they could dedicate their professional lives to—and be such effective teachers of—a tradition they did not believe in. If they were so taken by Buddhism, why did they hang on to Christianity? If they were Christians, why did they study and teach Buddhism? I guess I assumed it would be impertinent to pursue this question with my teachers and mentors; they were probably (justifiably) somewhat embarrassed by this backwards attachment to Christianity in the face of an obviously superior religion, Buddhism.
Why was I so ready to pitch Christianity and take up Buddhism, and my Buddhism teachers were not? Unlike these mentors, by the time I began my study of Buddhism I had already rejected the Christianity in which I was raised. I don’t know why exactly I rejected Christianity so decisively; I had not experienced any trauma in Sunday school and had always loved the community my church provided. But during my junior year in high school I came to the point where I felt certain that I did not believe, nor had I ever really believed, a single word of the Christian creed I could recite so flawlessly. From that time until I discovered Buddhism, I made science-and-rationality my religion. In retrospect, I find it telling that the science I immersed myself in was astronomy—where there was plenty of room for mystery and wonder as I gazed two nights a week through Sproul Observatory’s powerful [End Page 129] twenty-four-inch refractor telescope into the night skies, in the coolest job a college student ever had. I will forever be an advocate of college course-distribution requirements, since it was these—and a friend who confided that “religion courses are not too bad”—that led me to take my first course from Donald Swearer. That same friend avers that I became a religion major because of my work at the telescope. Whatever the explanation, I felt fortunate to have run across Buddhism, to have found a mentor who could teach it so well, and to have discovered a religious path I could embrace enthusiastically. So why did my teacher hold back? Now there was a mystery.
I have confessed before in the pages of this journal that my motives for participating in Buddhist-Christian dialogue and cross-religious discussions in general might seem ignoble, or at least not up to the usual expectations of this group. For some reason, my total abandonment of Christianity in my teen years has stuck (well into my forties, anyway). I honestly do not expect my predominantly Buddhist worldview to be enriched by learning more about Christianity. Nevertheless, I am fascinated with and continually enriched by other people and their religions. Despite my aversion to Christianity, I see that Christians are people, too. In fact, I am surrounded by Christians who, for better or worse, operate out of a Christian worldview. I am convinced we need each other, that we must work together to make the world a better place, especially in terms of the environmental crisis and social justice issues. So I am stuck with needing to understand Christians, especially the ones (such as the members of this...