A few weeks ago, on the Tricycle Community, I was delighted to see some pictures of HE Gregorios, of the Eastern Orthodox Church, and Sung-Jin Sunim, from the Jogye Order, together during the anniversary celebrations of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Korea, visiting a temple and drinking tea. As Jack, who so kindly posted the pictures, originaly taken by his friend Fr Daniel Na, said, the contrast, and lack of contrast, between these two monks is amazing.
It reminded me a lot of last year’s 400-kilometer silent ochetuji pilgrimage, carried out with prostrations after every three steps, from Jirisan to Imjingak, jointly undertaken by Venerable Su Kyung, head monk at Hwagyesa Temple, and two Korean Catholic priests, Fathers Paul Moon Kyu-hyon and Simon Chun Jong-hun. They were joined in the pilgrimage by some 10,000 people, and the purpose of their journey was to help promote the cherishing of life and peace.
Father Mark Kim In-kook, from the Catholic Priests’ Association for Justice, said that the pilgrims “showed what religious communities in our society can do for the common good”, and their joint action seems to me to be a fine example of how Buddhists and Christians often work together in a spirit of friendship.
In contrast, many of the English-language Buddhist blogs often express a surprising degree of hostility towards Christianity. But this mostly comes from young converts with little experience of life in Buddhist countries and often with uncomfortable experiences of the Church. Such people are naturally keen to draw boundaries between the Buddhism they’ve adopted and the faiths they’ve left behind.
Of course sometimes it is perfectly necessary to point out differences between Buddhism and Christianity, especially when addressing an audience unfamiliar with one or the other. It is often thought necessary to explain, for example, that Christianity is a religion in which the Truth is revealed, with the job of the follower being to believe, whereas in Buddhism one is to experience truth for oneself.
And yet even this, one of the most basic distictions often drawn, if looked at from a slightly different angle, seems almost to disappear. Yes, Buddhists are to experience truth directly through the practice of wisdom, ethics and meditation, but the Dharma was first revealed through the Buddha. Is that really so different from Christianity, in which the central truth, of God’s love in this case, is first revealed, but which is then to be experienced in the everyday lives of Christians, and developed in ongoing daily practice?
Father Laurence, in The Good Heart, describes this practice:
through meditation, we begin to experience the indwelling, the fact that Jesus is not only a historical teacher from the past, but now has an inner existence within each human being, as well as a cosmic presence.
The Dalai Lama, in the same book, talks about Buddha-nature and how to perfect it, and compares the Christian ideal of becoming one with the father with how enlightenment is described as becoming of one taste with the dharmakaya.
But my central point here is not about the nature of enlightenment or the relationship between revealed and experienced truths, or even about the ways in which Buddhism and Christianity share certain features. My point is that Buddhism stands on its own three feet, and while some western practitioners automatically and instinctively look for points of contrast with Christianity, focusing on areas of convergence is a much healthier approach.
So whilst I had a very different experience of the Church to Carl (during my similarly left-wing youth I often found myself on peace marches and marches for freedom in South Africa and Latin America etc, side by side with good church people, and the Church certainly does more to help the poor than any other organisation I can name), I very much welcome the way he embraces his spiritual heritage.
Thich Nhat Hanh, in a book called called Teachings on Love, has written that: Buddhist practice can offer effective means to heal, reconcile, and reunite with one’s blood and spiritual families, in order to discover the precious gems in one’s own traditions. Thanks to the practice, people will see that Buddhism and their own spiritual tradition have many things in common, and therefore it is not necessary to reject their own spiritual tradition.
I don’t think Thich Nhat Hanh here is calling for waves of western Buddhists to return to Christianity. What he’s suggesting is that practitioners make peace with all our traditions, to look for what we can embrace. In this we are lucky to have so many great examples. Father Laurence and the Dalai Lama. Venerable Sukyung and Fathers Paul Moon Kyu-hyon and Simon Chun Jong-hun silently walking across Korea. HE Gregorios and Sung-Jin Sunim. People whose default position is to find areas of convergence and genuine friendliness.