Buddhists and Christians


Chiang Mai: A very nice short flight here from Bangkok yesterday, 1 hour 10 minutes. They serve a small meal; it was like going upstairs to have lunch in the clouds, then it’s time to come down again. During the flight I was able to have a discussion with somebody I met there about Christianity and Buddhism – is there ‘something’ there (God) or is there not anything? And ‘not anything’ implies something that cannot be verbalised.

It is a bit like tight-rope walking for me as a Western Buddhist and now 30 years in Asia but still subject to the conditioning of the Church and childhood memories of it in the West. With my Christian companion here, there is agreement on many things. The main thing we agree about is that human beings may experience a certain kind of realization that there is no ‘self’, no identity, nothing there; nothing in the mind/body organism, it’s a construct. There’s a feeling of ‘lack’, and the shock that comes with this discovery causes dismay, distress, etc. Christians say the realization of emptiness is the absence of God, and this knowledge facilitates the entry of God, the creator of everything. This is what fills the emptiness; a significant turning point for all Christians.

Buddhists encounter this feeling of ‘lack’ in the same way but will not ‘fill’ it with anything, rather, they contemplate the emptiness of it in depth; examine the associated emotional reactions with mindfulness and come to see that, this is how it is. Śūnyatā, the emptiness, the lack of ‘self’ is everywhere and in all things. The understanding that everything is without ‘self’ helps Buddhists to contemplate the constructed nature of the mind. It’s possible to see the whole picture; how everything works and where we go from here. It’s an open-ended, investigative approach that may lead to an understanding of the non-duality of the observed world and the observer of it, together as a oneness. What the Christians call God must be inside this, because it is all-inclusive. There cannot be anything outside of it.

Christians will depend on the attachment to a belief in God for guidance and that’s how they see the world; they might say that ‘emptiness’ for the Buddhist is the Buddhist sense of God? And Buddhists could consider it this way, but the Buddha didn’t see any point in going further with that because the important thing is to make sure you are seeing reality correctly; anything else is getting caught in wishful thinking. Necessary because working only with belief and faith and no pragmatic teachings means there are all kinds of things that can go wrong with it. Christians are focused on the experiential aspect; Buddhists say conceptualizing a God leads to attachment, tanha; the desire for, and attachment to, ideas and ideals, views, opinions, theories, conceptions and beliefs. [Dhamma-taṇhā, Walpole Rahula].

If I say the word ‘God’ to myself, something comes into my mind, the word ‘God’ has an immediate emotive effect. Certain assumptions arise and the mind is already closed around it; it’s a ‘special’ thing. When Christians talk about God, what they’re referring to (I think) is the God they are creating in their own minds – their loving devotion to a personal god: a deity who can be related to as a person, but God is beyond everything that is conceived or thought about. There is no adequate analogy, words cannot describe it. It cannot even be imagined because it is beyond space and time. Buddhists stay separate from the God concept because to become involved with it means making assumptions about a kind of consciousness that is totally different from ordinary mind states. This is not to say there is no God, for me, at this time, it is impossible to express in words what God could be.

Then there’s a stewardess announcement, the plane is starting its descent, please put your fold-away table up, arm rest down, and chair forward. I get lost in the directions for a moment; a small clutter of prepositions, then were on firm ground again.

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‘Both Jesus and the Buddha were pointing to something that could not be found in the context of ordinary ‘mind’, the Buddha’s goal was to strive to realise the unconditioned, the unoriginated, the deathless, that which is free from mortality. So did the Buddha find God? Was it this that he called Nibbana? God is not Nibanna, because when we speak about ‘God’ we start getting ideas in our head about what God is and that is very far from the unborn, the unconditioned, the uncreated, the unoriginated, the deathless. All these words tell you nothing. What comes into your mind? Nothing. Anything you might say or try to put into words to describe God is an image in the mind. There are no words for it.’ [Ajahn Jagaro]

‘God is God only in relation to man. God appears in the material world like the reflection of the moon in a pool of water, as part of the illusion that is the context of man searching for God with his mind. What man sees becomes “God” (gender neutral; “He” only for explanatory purposes). He is Omniscient, Omnipresent, Creator of the world. He is both immanent and transcedent, full of love and justice. He may be even regarded to have a personality. He is the subject of worship.’ [Wikipedia Brahman page]

Image: Peter Henderson

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