September 18, 2017


Thinking Out Loud


I've been wondering recently about if, under slightly different circumstances, I might well have been a Buddhist.

I know about as much about Buddhism as most of the people that attend my church know about their religion, and yes, I do realize that is a totally unsubstantiated statement, more than a bit cynical and probably tinged more heavily with arrogance than I would like to admit, but it is an unavoidable impression that I've come away with after more than thirty years as a catechist. I have taught religion to my child and to other children, although only long enough to know that I am not particularly good with kids, at least not in the setting of Catholic religious education. A full 99% of the kids in religious education classes don't want to be there (also-unsubstantiated hyperbole for the general population perhaps, but an accurate description of the classes I've taught), and are not interested in exploring their spiritual reality when all their hormones are exhorting them to explore their corporeal reality or the corporeal reality of the item of interest two seats over. I don't know if Buddhists have the same problem, but I suspect they do. Mostly, I've dealt with adults -- sincere individuals who are earnestly looking to make sense of this whole God thing. They are at a point where, for diverse reasons, they have come to see the Catholic Church as a source of some essential information that they need to make sense of their lives.

Of the various philosophies that I've looked at, I can honestly say that Catholic Christianity makes the most sense to me, and it is in the arms of Holy Mother Church that I feel comforted and comfortable, but had I been raised in an area where I would be more familiar with saffron robes than Roman collars, might I be more likely to go to refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha?

It seems to me that one of the reasons I am sympathetic to Buddhism is that I don't personally know any Buddhists, so I've got no bad experiences with Buddhists, and I've not had a Buddhist mangle an explanation of Buddhism the way I've heard well-intentioned, good-hearted but thoroughly misinformed Catholics explain Christianity. I try to look at Buddhism objectively, but I know that's not really likely -- any time I look at what another religion believes, I automatically hold it up against Catholicism for comparison. I am not looking to fault what others believe; rather, I'm trying to reconcile what I see in them to what I already believe. It's almost if I am looking for some kind of unified field theory of religion. That's not always fair.

For example, I think that the Four Noble Truths are laudable and even comfortably compatible with, say, Ignatian spirituality. At the real risk of being grossly over-simplistic, the Noble Truths say that we suffer in this life because of our inordinate and misguided appetites, and that suffering can end with an understanding of wisdom and ethical conduct. St. Ignatius, in what is referred to as The First Principle, says that the human person is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord, and by doing so, to save his or her soul. All other things on the face of the earth are created for human beings in order to help them pursue the end for which they are created. It follows from this that one must use other created things, in so far as they help towards one's end, and free oneself from them, in so far as they are obstacles to one's end. To do this, we need to make ourselves indifferent to all created things, provided the matter is subject to our free choice and there is no other prohibition. Thus, as far as we are concerned, we should not want health more than illness, wealth more than poverty, fame more than disgrace, a long life more than a short one, and similarly for all the rest, but we should desire and choose only what helps us more towards the end for which we are created.

When I look at the Noble Truths and the First Principle, there appears to be a single truth seen through two facets of a compound eye. I have, since I was child, heard the words "to thee (Mary) do we cry, poor banished children of Eve, to thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this valley of tears." Catholics are keenly aware that the world in which we live, while created by God and inherently good, is damaged by the actions of man -- not evil, but disordered. You don't have to believe in a god to see that. The second law of thermodynamics pretty much says the same thing: put up a tower of brick and it will inevitably fall down. In fact, make a brick, and if you wait long enough, it too will eventually crumble. It's the whole entropy thing that keeps us constantly having to fill potholes in our roads and eventually drains us so completely that even down to the cellular level we stop doing anything. And then we move on. There is disorder in the world and we all recognize that and try to figure out ways of dealing with it. For Buddhists and Catholics, that means cultivating a healthy detachment from the physical realities.

Like a Buddhist monk, I'm bald -- partly by choice, partly by nature. I choose to shave my head, but if I didn't, I wouldn't have all that much hair left anyway. I could succumb to a misguided sense of vanity and try for a "comb over," but really, I wouldn't be fooling anybody. (I understand that in Japan those that do this are called "bar code men," because top of their head looks like a UPC code.) Unlike the Buddhist monks, I do not shave my head to imitate The Buddha, but neither do I do it as a fashion statement. I do it because I accept that I am getting old, and I do not wish to bother with maintaining an ever diminishing patch of hair. It is for me an example of "Right View," one of the steps along the Eightfold Path. The "right" in Right View (and in Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration) is not right as opposed to wrong -- it is more in the vein of proper or appropriate. It is the state achieved when you have an insight into the way things truly are. I am, I sure, trivializing the concept of Right View when I compare it to my experience of accepting the aging process. Right View is a spiritual and mental discipline that takes years to develop properly, but even a simple reading of the Eightfold Path ought to sound reasonably familiar to any Catholic, or indeed any "right thinking" individual. Right Speech consists of not lying, not slandering, not gossiping, and not being rude -- seems pretty much like the Commandment against bearing false witness (either eighth or ninth commandment, depending on your church.) I have to admit that Right Speech has a more positive spin to it than the "thou shalt nots," but the prohibition against false witness has always included the prohibition against slander and gossip, and as far as I can tell, the intention is the same. Right Speech can fit very nicely into Christ's ultimate commandment to love your neighbor, but once again, you don't need to be Catholic or Buddhist to come to an understanding of what you ought to do.

Buddha Shakyamuni and his followers put a lot of thought into the whole subject of what we ought to be doing, and they came up with some pretty clear and good advice, but there does seem to be a more relaxed sense of what to do with advice. To be a Buddhist, there is very little required except the desire to know what Buddhism is. The most common advice that I've seen for how to become a Buddhist is to start reading about Buddha and go hang around a temple. If you come to agree with the idea that there is suffering in the world and have come to see the potential of Buddhism to provide a solution to that suffering, you may "take refuge" in the Three Jewels -- in Buddha, the Dharma (his teachings), and Sangha (the spiritual community of Buddhists). Buddhists are fond of likening suffering to a disease and Buddha to a doctor, Dharma a medicine, and Sangha a nurse who helps administer the medication. Taking refuge is a baptism of sorts, a point of initiation into the community, after which one can consider oneself a Buddhist. There can be a ritual associated with it, or not. Taking refuge is a personal resolution to follow the ways of Buddhism that arises from an inner conviction and is not conferred by a public ceremony, but still, there is value in actually openly declaring one's intentions. Marriage is like that. The relationship that is at the heart of marriage begins long before the wedding, and exists even if there is no ceremony, but that relationship is honored and strengthened when publicly declared. ***

The optional nature of taking refuge seems to illustrate an interesting cultural difference between East and West. In Catholicism, Baptism is necessary for achieving the goal of religious life; in Buddhism, not so much. We Westerners have a "quid pro quo" mentality where we tend to look at salvation as being bartered. The "born again" experience is like that -- accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior, and you gain salvation. Some denominations go so far as to say that's an iron clad, no refund kind of deal. Eternal security it's called; once it's done, it's irrevocable. Catholics don't really identify with a born again moment. Salvation is worked out over a lifetime, the individual free to accept or reject Christ on a moment to moment basis, with the decision becoming irrevocable only at death. Baptism, much like taking refuge, is the acknowledgement of a source of truth and an acceptance of and by a community of like-minded people, and while the normative means of baptism is a ritual washing with water, the Church allows other possibilities. Those who are killed for their decision to become Christian, even if they have not had the ritual performed, are said to have received "baptism of blood." Those who earnestly pursue what is right and just and whose understanding of God may be incomplete or confused from our perspective may nonetheless receive a "baptism of desire."

The problem with (and the unfairness of) this comparison is that while there is a degree of compatibility with how Buddhism and Catholicism see human behavior, the reason for and the goal of this behavior is totally different. Buddhism has no particular explanation of or for that matter interest in where we came from. Creation, the beginning of things, is meaningless in the context of the Buddhist understanding of life being an ongoing cycle of birth and death. Life was, and is, and shall be until the Dharma can be understood and assimilated, and then the individual can break all the bonds that tie her to that cycle, and allow her to understand and experience existence beyond the self -- the drop of water entering and becoming the sea. Or something like that. The old phrase "make me one with everything" actually conveys as much about this Nirvana as I can do, and even Buddha said no matter what you imagine Nirvana to be, it will be different than that. But if in Buddhism it is self that causes suffering and the abandonment of self that is salvation, in Christianity it is the self that is exulted. The unique, indestructible soul is brought into existence by a loving God and will one day live forever in a restored paradise -- "I believe in the resurrection of the dead and life in the world to come" is how it is stated in the Nicene Creed that is proclaimed at every Mass, and has been for more than a thousand years. It is their respective answers to the question of where we came from and where are we headed that divides the two religions, and is possibly at the root of the question of whether I could be comfortable as a Buddhist.

I don't like too many dangly bits in my understanding of the universe. I'm comfortable with the fact that I don't know everything, and even reasonably resigned to the idea that there may well be things that are unknowable, but the idea that the universe just is, and perhaps has always been, is uncomfortable for me. The age of the universe is generally accepted to be approximately 13.8 billion years. That's the span of time looking back to the Big Bang, to the singular point of separation between was and wasn't. I am of the old school. Along with the Greeks and Thomas Aquinas, I believe that the world exists as a result of what the world was, and that world came about from what went before, and while the beginning of that chain of events is too distant from me to see, I believe that there was a beginning, a first step, a first cause. That First Cause is God. As to the nature of First Cause, there is much speculation.

I am culturally predisposed to see that First Cause as an entity, a warm, loving being of infinitely different makeup than myself, a being capable of bringing into existence all things, all life, by an act of will, apparently just because It wants to. This creative act should not be considered a mere fait accompli. Creation is ongoing, the world held in place by an act of will, like the sound brought into existence by a skilled musician, a note struck and held only as long as the musician wills it so. In the Christian ethos, total submission to the will of God allows the individual to become the presence of God in the world, a participant in creation.

It is tempting to compare this submission of self to this cause to be similar to Nirvana, but unless you are looking for that unified field theory of religion, it really isn't fair. Buddhists don't believe in God. Not that they are atheists. As Barbara O'Brien, author of Rethinking Religion puts it: "Buddhism is sometimes called an 'atheistic' religion, although some of us prefer 'non-theistic' -- meaning that believing in gods really isn't the point, even if there are some."

I've probably misrepresented Buddhist though, and I hope that I've not offended anyone, because I sincerely admire what I think I know of their beliefs. Even though I don't personally know any of them, it seems to me they're good people. I was just wondering, you know? I think I might have been comfortable as a Buddhist, if things were different. Can't say for sure.

And might it have made a difference if I was a woman? I wonder.

*** There is another issue that would enter into a conversation of marriage, and that would be the Catholic concept of sacramental marriage. Whereas Buddhists see marriage as a personal and legal matter, a sacramental marriage elevates the relationship to a sign of the presence of God in the world and a channel of God's grace ... but that is another discussion.

Article © Bernie Pilarski. All rights reserved.
Published on 2016-08-15
Image(s) are public domain.

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