I have been a student of religions my entire life and for the last ten years I have been a super Christian in Christian ministry BUT I feel something lacking. I have dabbled with Buddhism many times over the years and I must admit I achieved a certain level of peace...eventually, however, because it makes sense to me that God exists, I reverted to Christianity...I have done this over and over. I would like to be able to settle down on one way of looking at life. I have enjoyed reading and studying the Dhammapada, practicing Vipassana, and doing my best to do well in life...and then I vacillate toward Christianity again. I would appreciate your input. I like simple and practical answers especially because as a minister of the Gospel I work the poor and they have no time for pie in the sky answers to any of their challenges or suffering. I look forward to hearing from you soon.
Torn Between God and Buddhism
Dear Torn Between God and Buddhism,
I will answer your questions as best I can.
1. The first issue raised by your email is the question of the compatibility between Buddhism and other religions, in this case Christianity. The standard Buddhist response is that they are totally compatible. That one can be a practicing Buddhist and a practicing Christian because Buddhism is a way of life, has no God, and no creation story.
While that is true, I do see an inherent conflict between the two. One of the basic tenets of Buddhism is that we are all one. Whereas one of the basic tenets of most religions, including Christianity (and even the various branches of it vis a vis each other), is that their way to God and salvation is the only way. (As an aside, I read with surprise recently that the Catholic church, at least while Vatican II had influence, recognized that all faiths, and even atheists, can find God and be saved and that it is who you are, not the religion you practice, that is important!)
Since there is nothing in the Buddha's teaching that negates the existence of God, I think the answer to this conundrum … that you believe that God exists but that is not part of Buddhism … is that one can both believe in God and in Jesus and in his teachings and be a practicing Buddhist so long as one believes that we are all children of the same God regardless what your religion, that Christianity is not the one true faith, and that we are all one, we are all equal. The core morality of all religions is the same … do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Unfortunately, none of the religions puts that into practice except among their own, if then.
Personally, I no longer believe that God exists, which is why I am no longer a practicing Jew, but that is another story. If a creator of some type exists, it is certainly not the God of the old and new testaments, the God you can pray to, the God that watches over us and either rewards or punishes good v bad conduct. Nor is it the all-powerful amoral God of the Book of Job.
2. With regards to helping the poor, I have often been struck how the very poor, at least in times past, had a rich spiritual life regardless of their material deprivations. That was because they accepted their lot in life, had no expectations, and thus were not caught in modern man's trap of wanting what they don't have, of wanting to be someone other than they are. Today, with the advent of global information, television, and the internet, I fear that all that has changed and that there are very few poor now who live in such spiritual peace.
There is obviously little one can do to ease their material suffering (see below). But I do think one can help them spiritually/psychologically, show them the path to experiencing peace and happiness, not by praying to a God who cannot help them, or believing in a heaven which can only be experienced after they die, but by teaching them the truths of Buddhism, all of which are discussed in various posts …
- that we are all born essentially perfect with the true Buddha nature inside us,
- that all the things that cause us mental anguish, fear, frustration, and suffering are caused by how we have learned to react to reality by our family, peers, and our culture and that these thoughts are illusion not reality,
- that even in the worst of situations, if we are present free of these thoughts, there is much in our lives to derive peace and joy from if only we accept ourselves and our life as being exactly the way it is at this moment and are open to receiving all that the present moment has to give us,
- that our greatest joy comes from fulfilling our purpose in life which is to offer others joy and to help relieve the suffering of others, experiencing others' joy as our own.
This is a return to a simple life, free of the madness and craving that is our modern culture.
With regard to the very real deprivations of the poor, in one of my books, The Self in No Self: Buddhist Heresies and Other Lessons of a Buddhist Life, there is a subchapter titled "The Four Basic Needs and Our Duty to Address Them." While the standard teaching is that all our needs are a product of the mind and are cravings, I suggest that there are four basic needs that are not a product of our ego but are essential to human life … food, freedom from pain, warmth/nurturing, and physical security. I go on to say that billions of people around the world do not have these needs met on a regular basis and they suffer … not spiritual suffering, not our mind's samsara, but real pain. And it is the duty of all of us in this insanely rich, competitive, "I"-oriented world to do what we can through government reform as well as charity to try to end this want of the four basic needs.