Buddhist-Christian Studies 21.1 (2001) 57-62
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In Contrast to Sentimentality: Buddhist and Christian Sobriety
An invitation to reflect on the spiritual disciplines of another tradition is a welcome but difficult assignment. It is welcome because having studied, taught about, and engaged in various forms of Buddhist practice for forty years, I have learned more about what becoming a Christian means than I had anticipated. So much so that I'm tempted to wonder, in Chuang Tzu style, am I a Buddhist-Christian, a Christian-Buddhist, or just another person for whom labels don't suffice? It is difficult because spiritual practice, by exhuming the most elusive levels of human experience, teaches one that the inner life resists all attempts to define, let alone control--which is a good thing, for the more claims made about one's practice, the more self-deception thrives.
The one claim I would make about my experiences of Buddhist spiritual practice, through meditation and pilgrimage, is that they have aroused immense gratitude for the fragile gift of life, plus a healthy respect for Buddhism's "three poisons of anger, greed, and ignorance," for they prod us to realize our essential nature. The same is true about the inner life of a Christian, which is why I said "becoming a Christian," for it is a process of unfoldment, not something static or accomplished. In other words, understanding the obstacles to spiritual growth within oneself, yet keeping one's eye on the potential that already exists in one's makeup (the buddha nature, the interdependence of all reality, or the image of god), helps one to persist without seeming to "progress" toward fulfilling this goal.
This essay is a personal reflection; it does not attempt to be academic. The learner-seeker in me seeks to become one with what he is teaching-seeking. While teaching himself, he is always being taught by others in the reciprocity of life. Having "forgotten" his essential nature, he seeks to "remember," to become what he already is, painfully aware that he is often living a contradiction. As one talks about spiritual practice, the reference is typically to some activity set apart from ordinary life. Actually, in such practice one seeks to impart greater candor and depth to one's everyday existence through some sort of spiritual discipline, in particular by the act of attending to life through conscious awareness. And though one's inner life resists all tendencies to impose order upon it, discipline can forge channels through which new life breathes. [End Page 57]
Before discussing forms of Buddhist practice that have made an impact upon me, it makes sense to note some influences that came earlier and have remained indelible. Combat experience in the Marine Corps, compounded by exposure in North China in 1945-1946 to kinds of suffering I had never imagined, prompted me to see the world and myself from a very different angle. In succeeding years Augustinian, Kierkegaardian, and Niebuhrian reflections on man's capacity for evil and self-deception taught me to regard claims to virtue or innocence with suspicion, to say the least. These were made especially graphic by portrayals of human brutality embodied in the worlds of a Dostoevsky or a Faulkner.When first exposed to Buddhist worldviews at the age of thirty-five, I found a comparable absence of sentimentality. Here too was a compelling awareness of the roots of suffering within each person and as magnified in social institutions and values. It was an awareness and acceptance of violence, evil, and self-deception as an inextricable part of the human experience; of greed, ignorance, anger, and hatred as threads in the tapestry of the human condition, but that a doorway out of this chamber of suffering also exists.
In the varieties of Christianity and Buddhism that fed my imagination, I found sober realism coexisting with profound belief in the human capacity for transformation.While Christians and Buddhists depict this tension in their own ways, I detect no basic disagreement. The disease of ignorance and of...