Living Buddha, Living Christ is the title of a book written in 1995 by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh, who has a world-wide following as a voice for peace. Very early in the book, he says that his “path to discovering Jesus as one of my spiritual ancestors was not easy.” Nobody should be surprised to find that the reason for this difficulty was the aggressive  and sometimes violent treatment of Buddhists by Christians in their attempt to “spread the gospel” in Vietnam.

Thay (Teacher, which is what his friends and students call Thich Nhat Hanh) says, “It was only later, through friendships with Christian men and women who truly embody the spirit of understanding and compassion of Jesus, that I have been able to touch the depths of Christianity.” These people, he says, “have made me feel that Lord Jesus is still here with us.”

I wonder how many of us can say something very similar to this. I  certainly can. I am able to believe in God only because of knowing people who embody Christ. I created quite a stir a year ago, near the end of a four-year study of Old and New Testaments, church history, and theology, by saying flatly, “Nothing good has ever come out of theology.” I had come to believe that theology, as it has been practiced by every religion that I’m aware of, has led to division and violence within religious communities. I’m not ignoring the fact that theology has the potential to lead people to do loving, compassionate things, as would the study of Matt 25 or James 2. But the history of the church is in large part the history of powerful men and groups of men (and usually only men) using theology to alienate, exile, and do violence against men (and women) who disagreed with their reading of the Bible.

As Thay says, it can be harder to have an honest and loving dialogue within one’s own religious community/tradition than with a different community/tradition. I confess that this is one of my own biggest struggles–to love, accept, and listen deeply to those in the Christian community who are at the other end of the spectrum from me. As a very liberal/progressive believer, I fall easily into the trap of dismissing very conservative believers (which most of the people from my early life are) as simply heartless and legalistic and narrow minded. I said this was a confession, didn’t I? But Thay says, “By respecting the differences within our own church and seeing how these differences enrich one another, we are more open to appreciating the richness and diversity of other traditions.” In other words, I may not be able to truly appreciate Buddhism if I cannot appreciate and value Christian conservatism.

I think this is where I say to conservatives, “Forgive me for not listening deeply and not opening my mind to consider what you have to say.” There. We have all heard that confession is good for the soul, so my soul is a little better now. Thank you.

I’m going to continue to share from my responses to Thay’s beautiful book. I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to re-post any of these discussions.

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