I am a Christian theologian who loves Buddhism.
Unlike some who turn to Buddhism because of trauma from a toxic or inadequate version of Christianity, my love for Buddhism is not a product of alienation. My religious family of origin is not ideal—no family is—but my first Christian home, the Mar Thoma Church, and now the Episcopal Church, have done right by me. They both convey to me a progressive, justice-seeking, and reflective Christianity, one that never demands that I sacrifice intellect in order to embrace faith.
So why the fascination with Buddhism?
I am drawn to Buddhist traditions not to correct felt deficits in my own tradition, but to deepen my experience of the world by entering into another way of understanding and living. I seek a new kind of wisdom that our age requires.
In an older era, a person was accounted wise if he or she attained to a practical mastery of one tradition. Think St. Francis of Assisi. But our age requires also (not instead of) a new kind of wisdom: the capacity to see the world through more than one set of religious lenses and to integrate into one life, insofar as possible, what is disclosed through those lenses. Think Mahatma Gandhi. His theory and practice of nonviolent resistance integrated ideas and practices drawn from Jainism, Christianity (Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in particular), and, of course, Hinduism.
For lack of a better phrase, I call this binocular wisdom, an extension from binocular vision, vision generated by both eyes, the only kind that yields depth perspective.
We need the depth perspective of binocular wisdom for many reasons. First, increasingly many among us incorporate into our lives religious practices drawn from more than one tradition. Christians who do vipassana meditation or yoga are increasingly the norm. What is less common is reflection about the meaning of multiple religious participation. Few ask how, for example, the Buddhist wisdom that drives vipassana and Christian wisdom enacted in the Eucharist might be held together.
We also need this kind of wisdom because interfaith marriages are becoming routine. A great temptation here is to downplay religious matters for fear of conflict. Or, the most insistent parent is permitted to win: all right, the kids can go to church and not synagogue. But what about the possibility of thinking about this kind of double life as a source of promise and not a divisive problem? We need binocular wisdom to pull this off.
And, of course, we also need binocular wisdom to address the vast global crises of our time such as the growing gap worldwide between the rich and the poor and ecological problems that no tradition can navigate alone. Christian teaching about the natural world as God’s good creation when taken together with the Buddhist quest to end self-seeking desire promises more than either tradition can offer alone.
How might such wisdom and integration work?
Let’s begin with a small example: “Life hurts.” That is my working, albeit non-standard, translation of the Pali phrase sabbham dukkham, the First of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths, which is customarily translated, “All is suffering.” The latter is the more accurate translation, literally speaking, although it suggests that neither pleasure, satisfaction, nor contentment is possible in life. That is a manifestly mistaken reading of Buddhist wisdom. One need only spend a few minutes around Tibetan Buddhist monks or enter a vast lecture hall in which the Dalai Lama is speaking to feel in one’s bones the profound joy that marks the lives of advanced practitioners.
So, what does the First Noble Truth show me as it is lived out in practice?
To say that life hurts is to name a truth that most of us spend every waking moment avoiding. Through mindfulness practice which, counter-intuitively, is the practice of leaning into life’s hurts rather than running away from them, I am coming to see daily just how much time I spend in futile attempts to evade regular visitations of pain. The memory of a lost love, the sudden intrusion into mind of some personal failing, the nagging anxiety of the undone task —mindfulness practice helps me to recognize and abandon my unrealistic quest either to avoid or to anesthetize myself from these jabs of hurt that visit me, often many times a minute.
By holding my aversion to pain in gentle, compassionate, and attentive regard — another way to understand mindfulness — I gain a measure of liberation (the standard translation of “nirvana”) from the conditioned, even addictive patterns that drive my behavior. Still more, the practice of compassionate regard is happily addictive, and it bleeds over into my disposition toward others. I am reminded that others too are making their way through twinges, jabs, and outright blows of suffering. The irritations, failings, and even the flat out nastiness of others are not about me but the disturbing fruit of unaddressed hurt.
What does this practice mean for my Christian life? As my own vipassana teacher, Gordon Peerman, an Episcopal priest who is also an advanced Buddhist practitioner, loves to say, “Buddhist practice enables me to operationalize the Christian calling to love my neighbor.” That sounds exactly right to me because it is confirmed in my experience.
I am no saint. But I am now somewhat less prone to irritation when my tween daughter insists on winning an argument. That is no advanced accomplishment on the road to mystic vision, but it is a lovely gift on the way toward a gentler life, a life that is all the more Christian for being Buddhist.
* John J. Thatamanil is currently Assistant Professor of Theology at Vanderbilt Divinity School. This Summer, he will move to Union Theological Seminary as Associate Professor of Theology and World Religions. He is the author of The Immanent Divine: God, Creation, and the Human Predicament (Fortress, 2006).