I wish I had read Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Naht Hanh years earlier. It had been on my reading list for ages, but I didn’t pick it up until a few months ago. Hanh describes, with a poetry that only a Zen master like himself can produce, how the teachings of Gautama Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth parallel each other.
I say this because I still flounder on this question: am I a Unitarian Christian who also follows the Buddha, or am I a Zen-leaning Buddhist who also loves Jesus of Nazareth? (The correct answer is actually that I’m a Unitarian Universalist; more on that below.)
I’ve explored my proto-Christian side for months now, and while it’s been fruitful, I still keep returning to the rituals and worldview of Buddhism. There are many complicated reasons why, but I’ll outline a few below.
1. Christianity’s Problematic Nature
There’s no way around it: there’s a lot baked into Christianity, from when it was adopted as the official religion of the Roman Empire through today, that will never sit well with me. The Gospel accounts are still used as fuel for anti-semitism. The very notion of eternal consequences for finite, petty actions, is still part and parcel of the faith of most Christians today. And let’s not forget the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the entirety of the Calvinist movement.
I was never going to be anywhere close to a mainstream Christian — I’m theologically Unitarian, come on — but this awful legacy cannot be avoided.
True, Buddhism does have its problems. But Buddhism’s flaws sit better with me than Christianity’s.
2. Bad Teachers
I think my misgivings last year, following the election, were exacerbated by what I was hearing from certain Buddhist teachers. Shortly after election day, an article — maybe it was Tricycle, but possibly another outlet — presented statements from different teachers, all with a similar message: nothing is permanent, embrace what’s happening, learn to love the new President.
It was not at all what I needed to hear.
More recently, I revisited some teachers I used to follow on the web … and it turns out, they’re dicks. Not just regarding the election trash fire, but about many other aspects of the world.
Many western Buddhists are politically engaged right now. But that wasn’t whom I was hearing from after the election. I have friends who are practicing Buddhists, and none of them have said we just need to embrace what’s happening (and none of whom are dicks). It’s okay to feel like you’re burning, because we really are living in a trash fire. The challenge, then, is to move from a place of compassion, not anger and pain.
3. False Dichotomy
Returning to Hanh’s book. One of the teachings of Buddhism that I’ve found the most useful is the rejection of duality. There is no “notebook” and “pen,” but a continuum of matter that flows from the notebook, through the ink on the page, into the ink reservoir of the pen, and the pen itself. Things are interconnected in ways which we have to ignore to go about our daily lives. So many things that appear separated really aren’t, and things which seem whole are actually made of a continuum of smaller pieces.
Hanh’s point is that Christianity and Buddhism, while separate religions and founded in very different cultures and places, are connected in myriad ways.
4. Not The Right Question
However, if I had to pin down my faith, I always classify myself as Unitarian Universalist first, and Buddhist or Christian second, because that’s how I express it. I attend service at my local UU church almost every Sunday. While I meditate semi-regularly and I turn to prayer on occasion, my participation in the UU community is the dominant religious force in my life. I’m lucky that my faith encourages seeking wisdom from all religious traditions.
To answer my initial question: I’d call myself a UU, a semi-dedicated Buddhist, and someone who looks to Jesus on matters of social justice.
But really, my spiritual life most resembles this manga.