Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Buddha" or "the Buddha"?

Someone asked about aspects of Buddhist belief as against some Christian practices they have witnessed:

"I will list my main problems really quickly here and I would like if someone could tell me what Buddha says, if anything, about these things.

1) Banning of literature: ...................

2) Discrimination of Homosexuals: ............................ Does Buddha teach against them strongly?

3) Discrimination of Women: ................. What does Buddha say about sexism?"

Whilst the questions address matters of great importance, censorship, homophobia and sexism, I see a communication problem built into the very way in which the questions are asked. For me, it is summed up in the question: "What does Buddha say?" The question lacks the definite article, "the" whilst maintaining an initial capital.

To call Gotama Siddhartha "Buddha" rather than "the Buddha" reveals a cultural context based on different assumptions from the Buddhist..

* "What does Buddha say?" I was taught that buddha is a description and not a name, nor does it apply to a single individual in history. This may seem 'picky' but many Buddhist teachers, including Gotama Siddhartha, refer to hundred or thousands of Buddhas. Christians may understand, intellectually, that the word "Christ" is also an adjective rather than a noun or name. How many of us, however, have really assimilated the implications. "Buddha" can be translated in many ways: enlightened, awakened and so on. As I understand it, it is descriptive of anyone who has fully and permanently achieved that state. "Christ" means anointed and is descriptive of David, anointed by Samuel, and, by extension, the Messiah, anonited by the Shekinah. What has happened is that these descriptive terms have become attached to a single individual. There is a difference, however. In books about Buddhism it is not unusual to find Gotama Siddhartha described as "the Buddha Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha". Rarely do we find Jesus described in a similar way, as one among many 'anointed'. Uniqueness is stressed in Christianity, and the finality of a complete revelation is taught from the outset. Thus, Jesus is referred to as "Christ", without the definite article, whereas the designation "the Buddha" reminds us that Gotama was one among thousands and, at the same time, has a particular and special place as the Turner of the Wheel in our generations.

When children have been taught that there is ONE Christ and he was/is Jesus, they will tend to assume a single transmission by a specific individual. Perhaps monotheism demands this approach: the once-for-all individual or event, arising but not contingent, is the 'seal of authenticity'.

Perhaps the heart of the difference is that Buddhism holds the truth that all sentient beings are potential Buddhas, Saint Paul's teaching that all will become "children of God" and "co-heirs", i.e. Christs, tends to be interpreted differently, maintaining a patriarchal, possibly imperial, hierarchy with "Christ-nature" belonging to only one individual. My encounter with Buddhist thought has caused me to reflect that there is a more universal and inclusive reading Romans 8:14-17 (".... we are children of God. And if we are children we are heirs as well: heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory") and Ephesians 3:6 ("pagans now share the same inheritance.")

(THINK-NOTE: "Sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory" seems to me another formulation of the Four Noble Truths: first, the truth of suffering; second the truth that we must see how we choose the suffering inherent in living; the third and fourth truths that suffering can be ended.

* "What does Buddha say"
Roman Catholicism acknowledges an unfolding revelation. Protestant Christianity tends to hold to a single 'deposit of faith" in the canonical scriptures. Buddhism has seen major development and re-directions as a result of many teachers over the millennia. Even today, a teacher like Thich Nhat Hanh is acknowledged as revealing new treasures, to borrow a Tibetan expression; the Buddhisms accept new 'revelations'. In the Christianities, new thinking, new approaches to the Gospel, new interpretations tend to be marginalised or 'excommunicated'. Modern examples would be the work of Cupitt or Matthew Fox who found that they were no longer welcome within the community.

This attitude towards new and original thinking, coupled with the canonisation of scriptural texts, leads the post-Christian to look for validation of beliefs or opinions in those texts deemed most 'original' or closest to words spoken by Gotama Siddhartha. Whilst Buddhists reserve great reverence for particular texts, it has to be noted that different branches of Buddhism revere different texts. There is no single definitive kerygma, other than, perhaps, the Four Noble Truths.

The difference with much of the more strident modern mainstream Christianity is that Buddhism has little or no problem with scientific theories such as cosmology or evolution. Scientific method is not seen as in any way inimical to Buddhist practice or beliefs. The Dalai Lama was asked in a BBC tv interview what he would do if science proved there was no rebirth. He replied that he would give up the belief but added a question: "And how are you going to prove it?" I have difficulty imagining a similar answer from a Christian leader about the Resurrection, unless it were Bishop Jenkins and his comments were generally condemned rather than examined with honest enquiry.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Still inspiring me

Over my 64 years, I have been lucky enough to meet a number of extraordinary people. When, in 2000, I was on a Spiritual Direction training course, we were asked to find an image for our personal spiritual journey. My own choice was a Monopoly board. Although I am still working through the different components of the board, I was clear that the "Chance" cards would be the names of people that I had met. Among them, of course, would be my parents and some of my teachers at the Lycèe and at Oxford, clergy who have directed my studies and friends. At the top of the list must be Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, whom my son Jack and I met in a private audience in April 2001. A photo of the meeting sits on my desk and my blog would not be complete without it.

Here is what I wrote shortly after returning to the UK:
This April, Jack and I spent just over two weeks in northern India. The journey was sparked off by the time we had spent, while Chris (my wife) was dying, two years ago, watching Martin Scorcese’s film Kundun about the childhood and adolescence of Tenzin Gyatso, the Fourteenth Dalai Lama of Tibet.

Tibet is currently occupied by the Chinese who are undertaking the systematic destruction of thousands of years of history, the genocide of the native Tibetan population and the eradication of the Buddhist way of life. Monks and nuns are tortured, humiliated and forced to break their vows. People may no longer even have a picture of the Dalai Lama in their homes. Since 1959, the present Dalai Lama has been living in exile in India. In 1989, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work, world-wide, travelling and speaking out for the freedom of his people.

There have been thirteen previous Dalai Lamas since Gedun Drub in the fifteenth century. Each one is believed to be the reincarnation of the previous one and the incarnation in the world of Chenrezig, the bodhisattva of compassion. A bodhisattva is an individual who has achieved perfection and could go on to Nirvana but chooses to return to incarnation out of love and compassion for all sentient beings. The title, Dalai Lama, is a Mongolian title given to the third Gyalwa Rinpoche (Precious Victorious One) when he reconverted the Mongols to Buddhism. It means “Ocean of Wisdom”.

I wrote to His Holiness’s secretary in May 2000, telling him about Jack’s wish, after his mother died, to see the Himalayas and meet His Holiness. The secretary emailed me back with a date of April 20th this year. I was stunned: who are we, after all, to be given a private audience with a man who is feted by presidents, popes, monarchs, etc.?

After visiting Delhi (mercifully for only 24 hours), Manali and Rewalsar, we arrived in Dharamshala where the Tibetan Government-in-exile has been set up. On 19 April , we celebrated Jack’s 11th birthday with a party at our guesthouse. Amoing us were a lot of the other pilgrims and researchers, Tibetan, American, Australian, Swedish and Indian whom we had met as we travelled.

The audience with His Holiness was due to last 15 minutes. He kept us for 45! He asked us about Chris and wept as we talked. He made jokes, spoke about his faith and said, to me: “Lord Jesus is your door. Lord Buddha is my door.” And he gave us presents: a small diptych of Christian icons, a thangka (painted representation of the Shayamuni Buddha) which he signed, writing (in Tibetan): “To Simon and Jack, in memory of your visit to Kundun”, and, for Jack, his Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism.

I am still assessing and integrating all that happened on our trip but I am convinced that I have met the truth of Christ’s promise in Matthew 28:20 in the person of the Great Fourteenth Dalai Lama and, through him, am learning the joy of seeing Christ in each sentient being that I meet.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Where to find real ecumenism?

For some years now, I have been a contributor to discussion boards. It all started when I came across a daily quotation, by email, from the work of Anthony de Mello, the Indian Jesuit who wrote extensively about ways of prayer. His work fitted my own growing sense that the old separations between religious traditions were impediments to spiritual growth in the modern world.

After a Yahoo group was formed to discuss the work, it became clear that our moderator did not want open debate and a few of us decided to form a more accepting and 'liberal' group. This group still, sporadically, functions.

After my visits to India in 1998 and 2001, I began contributing to Buddhist and Christian discussion boards. In both cases, I found a worrying degree of dogmatism and a level of personal invective that went directly against the basic principles of both traditions as I understood them.

Following a link in one of the more interesting posts, I began to post on Ezboard fora and, in due course, was persuaded to administer and moderate one of them.

As time went on, I found that there were like-minded people out there for whom the spiritual quest was important but who could no longer could accept the exclusivity that many other demanded. My own studies of Christian and Buddhist scripture, alongside a renewal of regular practice and retreats, led me to a number of conclusions that suggested new vistas of co-operative spirituality. Even apparently exclusive texts, like that often quoted from Saint John, opened themselves as possible inclusivity:

"No one can come to the Father except through me." (Jn 14:6)

Time and again, this verse was quoted as evidence that only by becoming a Christian could an individual gain salvation. The definition of 'Christian' and the meaning of 'gaining salvation' were both circumscribed and exclusive, sectarian.

Because I had become convinced that the Jesus message, like the BuddhaDharma, was inclusive rather than exclusive, I spent some time reflecting on the meaning of these words, particularly their sense in Greek. It did not take me too long to see that there was a completely different meaning that could be found. Elsewhere, Jesus calls himself "the gate of the sheepfold" (Jn 10:7) which chimed with words which His Holiness the Dalai Lama spoke to me at a private audience in 2001 when he said: "Lord Jesus is your door; Lord Buddha is my door."

As a result, I began to glimpse that Jesus could be revealing that liberation is here and now for all people, through him, whether they claim it or not. It is, for some, simply a random and anonymous gift, like alms dropped into a blind beggar's cup.

With that in mind, I began to re-read the gospels as inclusive.


When I share this vision of the teachings of Jesus and Gotama as inclusive and applying to all people, here and now, not depending on membership of any particular sect or group, I find that the idea is pretty unacceptable to many people.

There are those who are, themselves, members of a particular group such as a church. They are hostile to the idea that outsiders are also "co-heirs to the Kingdom". Others have rejected their view of Christianity and do not want to imagine that its root is other than that which they dislike.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Do I trail trouble behind me?

Yesterday I followed a link and came acroiss a Buddhist discussion board called BuddhaChat.

"Ah!" I thought. "Another chance to learn and to meet nice people who are engaged on the journey."

This morning, up early again, I started to read posts on the site and who should I come across but the self-styled "Zenmonk Genryu". He has managed, once again, to find a platform for his ideas. And there is the problem. Many of the thoughts that he posts are so much in line with my own that, for quite some time, on New Buddhist, I was taken in. The problem arises, however, when we begin to learn something of how he behaves in the real world. I have had enough conversations with some of those on whom he has fastened to have to believe that he is a dangerous and poisonous conman.

At the same time, I have been continuing my contribution to an Enneagram development group. Posting my belief that the Enneagram is a blunt and less-than-useful instrument unless we have an end in view, I seem to have raised something of a storm.

Perhaps I need to spend some time in Noble Silence.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

I use the Enneagram



When I first read Helen Palmer’s book, I had little difficulty in identifying myself as a Three - and I hated it. I rejected the whole notion, seeing it as just another attempt to put me into a box. It took me some years to realise that this reaction was an atavistic one, referring back to unfinished business from childhood, like so much else in life.

A few years after reading Helen Palmer, I was given some photocopied sheets about the Enneagram by a client working in esoteric studies. I hardly paid any attention, other than to reacquaint myself with some of the terminology.

It happened that a local counsellor, Judy, became a close colleague and friend. She was deeply interested in the spiritual path and had already been on the early Enneagram training at Emmaus House in Clifton, identifying her type as a Four. She found the Enneagram extremely useful in her work with clients and urged us to study it too. This was particularly after I had qualified as an NLP Practitioner, a therapy system that she found unsatisfactory and mechanistic, a "trail of techniques". She was, however, open to discussion in our group supervision sessions. I was at the point where I was needing to find some way of formalising my spiritual path for a time and had joined the congregation of a local Anglican church. Judy, on the other hand, was received into the Catholic church. Our friendship was strengthened by the fact that we shared a Spiritual Director, and a belief in the importance of a dimension to our therapeutic practice that we termed "spirituality" or "connectedness".

In 1998, I went to Emmaus House in Clifton for the first time (1). Over the next 2-3 years, I continued both formal and informal study of the Enneagram, finding within it the promise of the spiritual dimension that I had missed in the T.A., NLP and other therapy training that I had done. Indeed, it appeared to offer a spiritual dimension to my church attendance, which was more of a social than a spiritual communion.

My leaving organised religious practice occurred at the same time as I began seriously to meet the Dharma teachings of Buddhism. Looking back over the past seven years, there seem to be a number of events, adding to each other, which led me away from institutions and deeper into spirituality:

  • Our visit to Rewalsar and Dharamshala in India in 2001, culminating in a 45 minute private meeting with Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, at his home in MacleodGanj.
  • A two-year training course in Spiritual Direction run under the aegis of the diocese of Gloucester.
  • Leading house groups in the study of Saint John’s gospel.
  • My training, assisting and retreat times at Emmaus House.
  • A Week of Guided Prayer in the parish.
  • Reconnecting with Saint Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and the writings of Teilhard de Chardin, leading to a renewal of the enthusiasm that had led me into the Jesuit noviciate after university.

For the last few years, the Enneagram has receded into the background of consciousness, only coming back into awareness occasionally. It now seems to me that I continued to use insights gained from those studies, without fully acknowledging their source.

(1) Emmaus House