Monday, October 20, 2008

Considering Buddhism

Sorry about the long delay; I've had a couple of weeks of reruns. The next few weeks will be sermons dealing with Christianity's engagement with religions of the world, working with some of the thoughts in Adam Hamilton's Christianity and World Religions. Hope you enjoy!

The smiling image of Siddartha Gautama, who was later called the Buddha, is one of the best-known faces around the world today. So it may surprise us when we learn that Buddhism is less a religion than a philosophy, and that very few Buddhists actually worship Buddha the way we Christians worship God.

About four hundred years before Jesus was born, Siddartha lived as a prince in a small province of what is now India. His father loved him and wanted him to live free from suffering, so he had just about every luxury you could imagine for that day and time. But when he was 29, Siddartha wondered about the meaning of life and what his purpose was, like a lot of people do when Mister Three-Oh shows up at the end of the block headed their way.

Now, this part of the story may be a legend or it may have roots in history, but it’s designed to explain part of Siddartha’s understanding of the world. He took a chariot ride out into the city and saw a very old man, almost unable to move or fend for himself. Since his father had shielded him from even seeing suffering, he had never seen this kind of infirmity before. He asked the charioteer if this was the fate of all humanity, and the charioteer said, “Yes, all people grow old.”

On two subsequent trips into the city, Siddartha saw people who were very sick and he saw a funeral. Both troubled him greatly, and when he asked his charioteer about them, he got a similar answer each time. “All people suffer from illness.” “All people will one day die.”

Siddartha had never had much thought about the fact that his life would end one day – how many people under 30 do? But the understanding fed what philosophers call angst, anxiety about how widespread suffering is in human lives.

His dad tried to buy his son some cheering up with a big party, but that didn’t work. Siddartha decided that since immense wealth and indulgence couldn’t cure him of his angst, he would try the path of poverty and self-denial. He fasted and denied himself until he was down to eating a single grain of rice per day, but he found that didn’t help him either.

One day about six years later, while meditating, Siddartha had a vision that helped him understand how he could handle the reality of suffering in the world, and he began to teach this way. It was a path to enlightenment, or understanding, and in his language, enlightenment is called budh. So Siddartha became the Buddha, or the Enlightened One, and spent the years until his death at 80 teaching his philosophy.

Buddhism is very complex and has a lot of different interpretations, so what I’ll focus on is only a piece of it. Not every Buddhist would agree with what I would say about this piece, and there is room for a whole lot of discussion. The key that Siddartha found to ending his angst was to detach himself from things.

See, suffering is a reality of life and neither wealth nor poverty insulate us from it. But the reason we suffer is that we are attached to things or ideas or people and we worry about them or what will happen to us if we don’t have them. If we have money, we like using it and what it can buy and we might worry about what will happen if we don’t have it any more. That worry, if it’s strong enough, may cause us quite a bit of anxiety and make even the pleasures of our wealth meaningless.

But if we detach ourselves from these things – if we say that whether we are wealthy or not will make no difference to us, and then live that out – then we don’t worry about them and we don’t suffer. To follow the Way of the Buddha is to detach ourselves from concerns about this life so that they can’t cause us anxiety, worry or misery. Our eventual goal, through cycles of death and rebirth, is complete detachment so that our energy simply dissipates into the energy of the universe. This is the Buddhist idea of nirvana, the ultimate goal of human existence.

Now, as a Christian, I find a lot of value in this aspect of the Buddha’s teaching. I think Christian people are just like most other people and they attach themselves to things, people and ideas way too often, and those attachments don’t always serve us well. We see Paul talk in Philippians about his great joy in knowing Christ, a joy so great it overcomes the fact that he’s in prison when he’s writing. And here in Romans he talks about the worries of the present world being nothing compared with the great glory of knowing Christ.

Christians could do well to detach ourselves from some of the things we cling to. But the difference between the idea of detachment in Buddhism and what Paul writes about is that we detach ourselves from these things so we can attach ourselves more completely to God.

And we proclaim that God didn’t solve the problem of human sin by backing away from it. He didn’t take up residence in the space Bette Midler set up for him in her “From a Distance,” so far away from us that all our problems are invisible. Instead, he plunged right into the middle of the mess, becoming human and becoming a part of the damaged creation he wanted to save.

That’s where our teacher gives us a different lesson than Siddartha gained from his experiences. We can share some of what our Buddhist friends may believe about the need to set aside our often too-extensive connections with this world. But as Christians we need to understand that we take one step past the place where we empty ourselves, to the place where we then allow God to fill us as he has promised.

1 comment:

Pablo Antuna said...

Very nice appreciation of Buddhism from a different point of view. I think that you really understood what the Buddha tried to convey to his followers.

In some sense, Christianity teaches something similar. We have to detach ourselves from (some) things we love in this world and cling to the Lord. As he said to the rich young man: "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

Pablo Antuna
Buddhism Through Buddhist Eyes