Gary Guinn

Literature of the Ozarks

Living Buddha, Living Christ

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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7 Comments

  1. Shelley Noyes

    May 13, 2015 at 11:35 am

    Gary! Not listening to conservative views, and dismissing them as just, well, stupid, is something that I do that I KNOW is not loving. I struggle with this every day as I continue to work within a church-owned college that is taking it good-old-time warming up to the radical idea of Jesus: INCLUSION! And I know I don’t have respect for my parent’s conservative views (Fox News on a loop 8 hours a day…)–I dismiss them as uneducated and unwilling to accommodate any new information they might hear on this journey of faith. I. HEAR. YOU. Thanks for posting this. Miss you and MaryAnn!
    Shelley

    • Hi, Shelley! Boy, do I identify with what you said about thinking bad thoughts about radical conservatism. It’s a daily struggle for me. But I am learning from Thich Nhat Hanh that real dialogue only occurs when both parties are willing to listen deeply and respectfully. That is very hard for me when I hear Christians spouting views that are so far from the loving, inclusive Jesus that I try to follow. But, hey, I have to love myself even when I’m being angry with those folks or think bad thoughts about them. Changing our hearts is a long process. And I’m not responsible for their hearts, only for mine.
      It was great to hear from you. Thanks for your thoughts. And say hi to Dan and Sadie (who must be a teenager giving you grey hairs by now).

  2. Scarlett Bush

    May 13, 2015 at 2:18 pm

    I’ve certainly been struggling with my knee-jerk reaction to dismiss Christianity. I’m still a follower at my core, both because of my church community and because that is the way I was raised. However, I have a bitterness in me against faith and religion. Not because I’ve been burned or because of some vendetta, but because at its core, Christianity is taught as an exclusive faith that doesn’t leave much room for people of other faiths who are often much more devout followers (and potentially people) than I’ll ever be. Yet because I’m baptized or have at one point called Jesus my savior, I’m “saved” and others are damned. This makes me frustrated and cold towards the spirituality I’m considered to be a part of. I honestly want Christianity to see itself as one of many ways to God, but I’m afraid that is an impossible thing to hope for.

    • Hi, Scarlett. I dismissed Christianity for quite some time, though I still pretended to follow. Finally it was, as with Thich Nhat Hanh, finding people who reflected the non-judgmental and truly inclusive love of Jesus that allowed me to provisionally believe again. So I really identify with what you say here. The book I’m commenting on, Living Buddha, Living Christ, addresses that issue of exclusiveness beautifully. And I have found that Grace Episcopal Church is a place where everyone is welcomed and loved–believers, non-believers, believers of very different stripes, gay, straight, men, women–it doesn’t matter. So there is hope.
      On a similar note, that old straw about being “saved” at some particular time, being “in” while the “unsaved” are “out,” has gone far by the wayside for me. Nobody is saved. We are all being saved, some more apparently than others, through the gradual dying to our old illusions, instilled into us by our culture (including the church), and being “reborn” into our true selves, by following the source of love. For me, that source is Jesus (and Buddha). For Thich Nhat Hanh that source is Buddha (and Jesus). And it’s a process, not an event.
      Keep the faith. Love is real. Thanks for your thoughts.

  3. Wow, Gary! What a powerful testimony you have posted here, and I LOVE it. My walk was frankly very tested by living in the area where you and I met and by many people who called themselves Christian. I do believe most were sincere believers, although some used it to bully and abuse those who were different or suspected of being different. Grace Episcopal helped me to peace with both my faith and my fellowship down there. If I had not gone through my years there, I would not be the man and Christian I am today, and I thank God (and folks like you) for that journey.

    • Hi, Mark. Grace Episcopal has been a life saver for Mary Ann and me, a place of real grace. Thanks for you thoughts. Say hi to Angie for us.

  4. Usually, I don’t read long posts, but it had been worth the time. Nice article.

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