When Dharma Parts Ways: A Non-Theism Redux

Over the past couple of months, folks have taken to asking me why I because a Buddhist, and another more pertinent question for some: Why can’t I still be a Christian and a Buddhist? This question is especially relevant among Episcopal and other liberal mainline circles where many would say there are a significant number of crypto-Buddhists in their congregations. So is it possible to be both a Christian and a Buddhist? Well, in a way, yes, and in a way no. As with a lot of questions in Buddhism, the answer that can be put to paper is murky, and is meant perhaps only as a hint to the individual reader as opposed to a definitive answer.

When Dharma Parts Ways

In many respects, at least at the surface level, Buddhism agrees with a significant part of Christian teaching (especially in its mystical variations). Buddhism and Christianity both encourage introspection, altruistic acts, and so forth. Both took a radical approach to the locally dominant religion in their contexts. Buddhism was a radical revolution within the Hindu society of its time, likewise, Christianity was a radical revolution within a Jewish context. Both systems presented a completely new way of approaching the world and our interaction with it. Much as I’d like to believe that this agreement continues as we go deeper into both systems, the reality is very different.

As I explored Buddhism and studied, and went deeper, I was impressed by all the change that was going on in my life. I was better able to deal with everything that goes on, to respond in a more loving way to others, and indeed to be more available to others. I’m by no means perfect, but I feel happier and decided that I wanted to really pursue the path of Buddhism. In the beginning, I wanted to maintain that precarious bridge of being an “Episco-Buddhist” or a “Buddha-palian”. A Buddhist teacher that said to me once: “It’s ok to be whatever you want to be, but if you want to be a Buddhist, you eventually have to ask yourself, ‘is this or that concept in accord with the Dharma or is it not?'” That was a profound question to me, because Buddha said that we could accept as truth anything, if it agrees with reason and it is conducive to the good of myself and others. Buddhism is full of paradoxes, but this one is one that matters for both Buddhists and Christians.

Non-Theism And Why It Matters to Buddhist Practice

The point where I felt the choice needed to be made was the point of Non-Theism, and I think this is one of the most important areas where Dharma parts from Christian doctrine. Buddhism is a starkly non-theistic tradition in contrast to the major religious traditions of the world. In fact, Buddhism, doesn’t really fit into the mold of a religion, but it doesn’t really fit in to the mold of a “spirituality” or “philosophy” either. Anyway, core to the Four Noble Truths which are the foundational underpinnings of Buddhism, is the concept of non-theism, and that we are the cause of our own suffering. Be it our Karma from a past life, or the stupid decision we made last weekend, we are ultimately the cause of our own suffering. As a corollary to this, the only person that can unravel our suffering is ourself. Fundamentally, the Buddhist path is about working out our own liberation, while depending on no entity external to our own mind.

Of course, someone will inevitably bring up the point that Buddhists take refuge in Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and that this seems to be a kind of a “theistic” statement or action. Refuge is a moment when we say “that’s it, I’m out of answers, I can’t figure this out, I have nowhere else to turn”. This point is common to both Buddhists and Christians, but it’s the next bit that counts. For Buddhists, the Buddha is an example of someone who made it. He is not God, he is not our savior, he is nothing but an example and teacher. That’s it. Furthermore, the Buddhist approach to refuge is “show me how to work out my own liberation”. In effect, the Buddha gives us our medicine and tells us how to heal ourselves.

This matters to the practice of Buddhism, because the core of Buddhist practice is working with yourself to obtain your own liberation, and to work with your own mind. Buddhism is about changing your fundamental viewpoint. Transformation does not occur from blessings that are showered from above. Instead, transformation occurs when we begin to learn how to see clearly, and understand that appearances are what ultimately cause our suffering, and not the broken TV or the breakup, or whatever else.

For the Buddha-Palians

For my Buddha-palian (Buddhist/Christian) friends, first let me say that you can be whatever and whoever you want to be. Buddhists have very deep respect for everone and whatever path they are on. If you practice meditation and it has given you some benefit, by all means, keep on doing it. If the teachings of the Dharma have helped you cope with whatever life circumstance has come your way, then, use those teachings. And you know what else, it’s ok to call yourself a Christian and use the timeless teachings of the Dharma to your own benefit and the benefit of those around you. At some point, however, a choice has to be made: are you a Christian or are you a Buddhist? You don’t have to make the choice here and now, but eventually, there will come a point in your own practice where you will have a crossroads. It’s ok to sit in the intersection for a while, but eventually you’ll have to make your move. The cool thing from a Buddhist perspective is, whatever choice you make, it’s all good. You don’t have to forsake what you’ve learned in the past and dump it all in the dumpster. But whatever you do, practice your faith with your whole heart.

Sarva Mangalam (May All Beings Benefit)

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