Theism and Me (or, On Being a Theistic Buddhist)

I’ve been cagey about discussing my religious beliefs on this blog, apart from that religious history I posted a few months ago. I’m a Unitarian Universalist, something which I’ve never hidden from anyone, but UU a bucket religion: it carries what you put in it.

Given that I cited CS Lewis as an example of the “thief in the night” conversion experience, I decided to read his most cited with the word “Narnia” on the spine: Mere Christianity. Now, I’m Unitarian in the classical sense: I don’t believe in the Trinity, nor do I believe that Jesus was divine or that he worked literal miracles. I’ve always leaned on the “symbolic interpretation” side of reading scripture. Yet Lewis was no fundamentalist, so I figured I’d see why he thought of himself as a Christian.

Here’s what I tweeted:

This presented itself most clearly in Lewis’s discussion of Christian morality, which I could sum up with “that’s how it’s been done for hundreds of years, why change something that works?” Which, no, that’s one of the worst “argument from authority” fallacies I’ve heard. A good example is an essay he wrote on pacifism (which isn’t in Mere Christianity): you shouldn’t be a pacifist, he argues, because none of the looming figures in civilization were pacifists. Uh, okay.

So, I’m definitely not a Christian, but that’s not the only flavor of theism out there. Thing is, the actual theology never mattered that much to me. What is appalling about CS Lewis’s work isn’t his theology, but rather how thinks how one should interact with others and one’s self. It’s what attracted me to Buddhism years ago: the Buddha was more concerned about easing suffering here and now than whether people had the right idea about God. (It’s why some claim Buddhism is a philosophy, not a religion.)

It was too bad that Buddhism was a non-theistic religion–

Oh, wait. Buddha doesn’t care whether you believe in God or not, as it’s not what’s important.

I first encountered Buddhism when I was in fifth grade: I read about the life of the Buddha in, I kid you not, The Cartoon History of the Universe by Larry Gonick. Buddha’s path to enlightenment and his setting the wheel of dharma in motion made a lot of sense to my young self, though I never investigated further. My interest resurfaced after college, when I left Neo-Paganism behind and wanted a religious tradition with a strong ethical foundation. I chose Zen (mostly the Soto tradition, thanks to Brad Warner’s Hardcore Zen) due to its simplicity, and zazen gave my mental health some stability when I needed it most.

The only time I recall ever feeling a sensation of numinousness, other than being in nature, was at the To-Ji temple in Kyoto, Japan, where I gawked at a four-story-tall Buddha statue that was older than the United States. I visited so many Buddhist temples in Japan I can’t recall them all. However, after my flirtation with taking on a job teaching English there, I forced everything remotely Japanese out of my life. Unfortunately, that included my Zen Buddhist practice, despite Buddhism’s origins in India, not Japan.

See, my Buddhist ethics never really left me, despite my brief departure from Zen. I’m flexitarian, with occasional periods of pure vegetarianism when I can manage it. I avoid extremes of any behavior. I drink little alcohol, apart from a serious binge at SUUSI a month ago. Those parts of Christianity that I love — the Beatitudes exemplifies these — parallel Buddhist teachings. I don’t know what kind of afterlife I believe in, because it’s not what matters.

I say I drifted away from Zen Buddhism because I needed comfort, but really I think I had trouble reconciling my belief in God with my Buddhist practice, as well as a need to divorce myself from my desire to move to Japan. In reality, there was no conflict. If God is ultimately just an empty form that humans fashion to their needs, does it matter that I believe in God and still practice the middle way? I’m willing to give it a shot, CS Lewis be damned.