Bridging the Gap
Disclaimer: Please do not interpret my thoughts and opinions on the matters of religion as attacks on others’ religious values, ideals, or creeds. Though I identify my way of thinking and acting in accordance to the Buddhist faith and philosophy, I am not just Buddhist; I am a Christian, a Jew, a Taoist, a Muslim, a Hindu, and so on. Without one religion, no other would ever have existed. For this reason, I owe my values not just to one religious institution but to all of them. So when I may seem over-critical at times, it is only in the interest of showing you a new perspective, not to say that your current perspective is wrong. Secondly, I am not a theologist and do not have the proper background to make overarching claims about all world religions as a scholar would—therefore I will base this article on the two religions I know best, experientially, Buddhism and Catholicism (or Christianity as a whole). Though these are only two out of many world religions, I believe them to be the most opposite out of all, thus making a wonderful foundation for this essay on the bridging of the gap between Eastern and Western thought as well as between all religions as a whole.
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I was raised Catholic and was a very religious individual growing up; my parents would read us the children’s version of the Bible every night before going to bed, went to mass (almost) every Sunday, and I even attended a Jesuit high school. And what’s more is I didn’t hate it. In fact, I loved Christianity and the messages that were taught through Jesus’ life, actions, and many sermons. I still love them today. However, the older I grew the more I started to see that others within the Church did not view the story of Jesus as interpretable as I did; many understood that Jesus and his story was to be taken in the utmost literal sense, down to the telling of humanity and Earth’s ultimate destruction. I felt something very wrong in how steadfast some would stand by the teachings of Christ without asking any other questions about what exactly Jesus was getting at. In other words, I realized I wasn’t part of the Church—I was interpreting the Bible much differently than others being raised Catholic.
Following years of internally scrutinizing the Catholic faith, the several “priest scandals” reared their ugly heads in news programs, talk shows, and online banter. This, however, wasn’t the last straw for me—it was how people treated the matter from within the Church itself. There were cover-ups, the “slap on the wrist” of the fathers that abused those children, and a sense of lethargy amongst the Church that sent me adrift from Catholicism—how could a group of clergymen, who adhere so strongly to a particular set of ideals, not only do the very things they preach will send you to Hell, but lie to their followers about the wrongs they committed? Nobody could answer this question. Nobody wanted to try.
This was about the time I started learning more about Eastern philosophies and religions. Slowly over the next two or three years of high school, I started burying myself deep into the completely opposite spectrum of religious teachings, namely that of Hinduism and Buddhism. I only learned the basics of Hinduism; that we are a part of an endless cycle of death and rebirth; Karma lords over us and foretells whether we are to be born an elite or born a peasant; that we all have an “atman” (equal to a westerner’s common take on the “soul”) that which carries its Karmic debts from death to rebirth; and that one can escape the cycle of Samsara if by accruing enough Karmic abundance so that one could be born high enough in the spectrum of society so that the gods could release you from Samsara (or something like that, it’s been a while since I last studied Hinduism). Within Hinduism, however, there was still something wrong due to the atman and Karma. Social discrimination was a solidified part of life in India because of the very notion that justice isn’t necessary when one is in charge of one’s own circumstances, namely due to Karma. Just like my critique on Soto Zen temples in Japan, you can’t help but feel something wrong about the upholding of Karma when it promotes injustice in the world.
Finally, I began studying Buddhism. Immediately, I fell in love with the story of the Buddha, just as I loved the story of Christ. And without studying anything deeply, I already had begun to see the glaring similarities of the two religious figures—compassion, heralding the end of suffering for the sake of humanity and everything as a whole, healing the wounds of our sins, teaching the masses despite the backlash of the community, and, most of all, their own stories of self-sacrifice. It was entirely evident to me that both men were saying the exact same things, but in entirely opposite ways. The revelation I had later on, after initially studying Buddhism, was seen through the understanding that these two opposing religions—Buddhism and Catholicism—actually contained the exact same core teachings. I became a witness to the bonding of opposing halves into one whole; the disagreements of life seen in religion were sewn together in the fabric of a whole reality. Without one religion, no other would have ever existed. Without Judaism, Christianity never would have risen, and neither would have Islam. Without Hinduism, Taoism, and Jainism, Buddhism would not have come to fruition. Isn’t it amazing how each religion depends on another? How the East and the West’s religions formed separately yet with the same ultimate goals of happiness, salvation, and comfort? If we lose ourselves in the quest for attaining perfect knowledge of the world, we lose the point of being religious in the first place; we’d have lost the very Holy Spirit of which Jesus taught or the Nirvana towards which Buddha tried to point us. In order to exemplify my claims of the parallel teachings (and lives) of Buddha and Jesus, we’ll examine four key quotes and aspects of each teacher and their corresponding faith.
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Anatman and Selflessness
“Wherefore, monks, whatever is material shape, past, future or present, internal...thinking of all this material shape as ‘This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self,’ he should see it thus as it really is by means of perfect wisdom. Whatever is feeling...whatever is perception...whatever are the habitual tendencies...whatever is consciousness, past, future or present, internal...thinking of all this consciousness as ‘This is not mine, this am I not, this is not my self,’ he should see it thus as it really is by means of perfect wisdom. Seeing it thus, monks, the instructed disciple of the pure one turns away from material shape, he turns away from feeling, turns away from perception, turns away from the habitual tendencies, turns away from consciousness; turning away he is detached; by his detachment he is freed; in freedom there is the knowledge that he is freed and he comprehends: Destroyed is birth, brought to a close the Brahma-faring, done is what was to be done, there is no more being such or so.” (Buddha on Anatman, no self)
“If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross, and follow me. If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake and for the sake of the Good News, you will save it. And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul? If anyone is ashamed of me and my message in these adulterous and sinful days, the Son of Man will be ashamed of that person when he returns in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” (Mark 8:34-38)
Here we have two quotes—one from Buddha and the other from Jesus—discussing what would appear to be two different things: “Anatman” and the freedom of non-attachment to the world, and the abandonment of worldly possessions and selfishness in reverence of the “soul”. Here’s my argument: the soul is not the self, and anatman is not the abolishment of the soul; when interpreted in such a way, Buddha and Jesus are proclaiming the same “good news” or “ultimate truth”— abolishing what separates you from reality will bring you into freedom, salvation, Heaven, Nirvana, or however else you wish to name “it”. To turn “away from material shape… perception… habitual tendencies… [and] consciousness” is the same as “turning from your selfish ways”, for “if you try and hang on to your life, you will lose it.” As a Christian faces damnation for his selfish acts and sinful indulgences, so too will a Buddhist lose the ability to truly live when he allows himself to be absorbed in his attachment to the non-reality of life. And just what is that non-reality? The belief of a separate self. For the Christian, salvation comes through the dissolving of selfishness in favor of God and the soul. For the Buddhist, enlightenment comes through the dissolving of self in favor of wholeness with the Universe and the non-duality of life.
Furthermore, to say the soul and the self are the same is problematic and illogical; to say I have a soul doesn’t mean my soul is different from your soul—in fact, this is exactly the opposite of what Jesus is saying. He says to abandon selfishness, not reinforce it with the concept of soul being only your soul. If you still think “soul” and “separate self” are equivalent, think about these questions: Are selfishness and self strictly separate or can they be the same thing? Am I being selfish if I were to hide food from others that are hungry, or am I acting in favor of the self? Can one be selfish without a self? Can one believe in a self and at the same time act completely selflessly? Finally, how can one think selflessly if one is convinced the self is his self and no one else’s; wouldn’t that always lead down the road of acting in favor of the self, in other words acting selfishly? Think about it.
The Golden Rule and Unity with All
“Comparing oneself to others in such terms as ‘Just as I am so are they, and just as they are so am I,’ he should neither kill nor cause others to kill.” (Sutta Nipata, 705)
25And one day an authority on the law stood up to put Jesus to the test. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to receive eternal life?”26What is written in the Law?” Jesus replied. “How do you understand it?” 27He answered, “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul. Love him with all your strength and with all your mind.’(Deuteronomy 6:5) And, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ ”
28“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do that, and you will live.” (Luke 10:25-28)
I feel this comparison is fairly obvious, so I will only touch on it briefly. Every major religion has some formation of the “Golden Rule” expressed by the main teachings therein (again, I’m no theologist, but Wikipedia certainly has done a fine job cataloguing religious citations of the golden rule). If this alone is not special to you, let us examine the Golden Rule from the perspective of Unity.
Again and again, Christianity teaches us to love one another as we would love ourselves. I don’t believe the saying is only emotionally deep but rather metaphysically deep. What is it to love, anyway? Is it to simply feel the admiration for another thing? If you were instructed to love another as you love yourself you’re being asked to do something much greater than simply appreciate somebody else. It’s my belief (and maybe yours) that “love” is the deepest emotional admiration one has for someone or something that connects the two into one whole. We’ve heard this concept time and time again—when two are wed, they become one; when two make love, they become one; when two connect on a deeper and spiritual level, they become one. In other words, to love the world and all within it as you would love yourself is the exact same as saying, “Demolish the self, and you will realize you are everything and everything is you.” This is why “adulterous ways” are sinful—to cheapen love is to use sex purely for pleasure where it otherwise would be a wonderful and beautiful experience; it would mean acting out purely in the interest of pleasing the self, not experiencing the world as a unified whole. So to demolish the self is to act out within the world with compassion and love; to love thy neighbor as thyself is to dissolve the line between “you” and “me” in order to act out within the world with compassion and love.
Eternity resides right here, right Now
“So don’t worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring its own worries. Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34)
“Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” (Buddha on Mindfulness)
Jesus rarely spoke on mindfulness when compared to Buddha and the many teachers who taught the Dharma once Buddha died, but when the topic of living in the Now was given attention, Jesus sounded uncannily Buddhist. The whole concept of eternity has been skewed by the human concept of time. Time, in its simplest definition, is the measurement of reality according to atomic age. It’s our way of saying X happened Y “years” ago. But if you really challenge yourself and dissect the concept of time, you’ll start to see it unravel. Time is just an idea. Nothing more. So when Jesus says, “tomorrow brings its own worries,” he’s saying that there is no “tomorrow” in existence. Only today exists, therefore only worry about today. In other words, be in the Now, the reality that we so easily miss. Time—a second, a minute, an hour, a day, a week, a month, and a year—is a measurement, a tracking of reality, not reality itself. If you want to know what reality is, don’t stare at a watch as the second hand ticks away. (It’s no wonder we are all obsessed and terrified of death—when we watch every second pass, we watch the death of time with every tick!) Instead of watching a clock, go up to a gong and knock it as hard as you can—then, simply listen. That is reality. That which is eternal never dies not because it lives forever, but because it is outside the bounds of time—that which is outside the bounds of time is… (Just listen and you’ll know.)
The Kingdom of God and Nirvana
To close this segment on the parallels between Christianity and Buddhism, I will discuss the two “pinnacles” of each religion—Heaven and Nirvana. Often times Christians mistake the idea of Heaven to be a literal place that you are transported to after death. Jesus, however, said the exact opposite:
“My Kingdom is not an Earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)
What’s more is that Jesus often said that, “the Kingdom of God is among us,” or, “within your heart.” What exactly is going on here? How can the Kingdom be both not of this world yet already among us and in our hearts? I can tell you how simple it is: Love Jesus, love God, love the world, and you are saved. Of course this takes years, perhaps even a lifetime, to achieve, but it’s still achievable, and it’s still that simple. But how can the Kingdom both exist and not exist on Earth? Well, this very same question is asked in Buddhism: how can Nirvana never exist within concept and time but already be present in our existence? Perplexing, is it not?
In Buddhism, Nirvana is the release from the endless cycle of death and rebirth and the cessation of suffering therein. But, here’s the kicker: Nirvana resides right under our noses, amongst the ever-turning wheel of Samsara. How? Nagarjuna, the Buddhist philosopher of the Madyamaka (the “Middle Way”) taught that the Buddha was trying to say Nirvana and Samsara is the same thing—the only difference is how we view it. What is the right perception? The perception that we aren’t even aware is possible or exists—the perception that we are not separate beings, but rather always united with the Universe. And we can reach this perception of reality simply by losing our sense of self and uncovering the innate compassion and love for the world and everything within it, just as it is. Sound familiar yet? The Kingdom of Heaven is both not of this world, yet already among us. Nirvana is both outside of Samsara, yet is Samsara and already buried deep within us. Do you see what I’m getting at?
To be saved by Jesus is as simple as accepting Jesus as the savior; to reach Enlightenment is as simple as accepting the world as it is in compassion for all things as they are. I believe each statement reaches the same point by addressing opposite paths. Accept one as the sole savior, or accept all as the entire salvation itself. Either way, you end up losing the self in favor of the “soul” or the “unity with all things”, and you reach the pinnacle of each faith—you’ve entered the Kingdom of Heaven, or you’ve become Enlightened. Each is incredibly significant, but each is always available to all of us.
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When Jesus spoke of such things, it was indeed a powerfully different interpretation of the Old Testament; so much so that he was willing to die for it and the sake of everyone else’s suffering. It was the ultimate act of compassion. In Buddhism, countless stories about Buddha and his previous lives tell us how compassion’s ultimate act is the self-sacrifice. Even before his final meditation and becoming a perfectly enlightened being, Siddhartha set on a path of absolute pain, sacrifice, and practice in order to save himself and others from the suffering that happens within the world—it’s only when Siddhartha gave up everything and succumbed to suffering out of compassion for all else he became a Buddha. The two men faced countless social rejections, endured many hardships, but ultimately became the heralded figures of legend to which the world still listens and worships today.
Now, I realize I’ve only made a few striking comparisons between the whole of Christianity and Buddhism, and that there are so many more dissimilar qualities about each faith. That’s fine. I’m not asserting that they are identical religions; in fact I’d say Buddhism and Christianity are exact opposite religions. There is an ultimate God figure in Christianity where none exists in Buddhism; there is an ultimate destination of Heaven and Hell in Christianity that does not exist in Buddhism; there is a centralized Church in Christianity where there are only teachers, monks, and monasteries in Buddhism, loosely connected with certain ideals and leaders (the Dalai Lama for Tibetan Buddhists); Christianity does not adhere to the idea of death and rebirth; and on and on I could go. What I am asserting, however, is that through opposite means, each religion is teaching the same thing, as does every major religion on this planet—the Golden Rule, peace and love for all in existence, acceptance of both the good and the bad, realizing we really aren’t alone, and the dissolving of the boundaries we have created for ourselves so that we may re-engage with the divine eternity that exists right Now.
So when I say that I am Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, Islamic, Taoist, Hindu, and so on, I say that I am not alone. I say that my thoughts and perceptions of this world are not alone. I say that your religious faith is equally as engaging, enlightening, and powerful as my own. I say that without each other, the various religions of the world would not be as they are today. We all know that each religion has its flaws, and from those flaws arise problems—genocide, Jihads, social discrimination, abusing religious ideals for power, misleading groups of people to feed megalomaniac complexes, and the list goes on. Although these things happen, it is no excuse to say one religion is worse than another or better than another, but instead it serves as a reminder that to think such things leads to the very ends we wish to avoid. To think, “Your Karma got you where you are, thus I don’t need to help you,” is wrong and leads to social discrimination. To think, “Jesus is the only savior and we must fight and conquer all else’s saviors,” is wrong and leads to religious wars like the Crusades.
The truth is much simpler than fighting for the holy land, the right answers, or the right god. The truth is much more peaceful. The truth is that we all wish to be happy, to be one with all, and to live in the moment. If we didn’t religion would not be important—nor would self-help books, psychologists or psychiatrists, mediums, writers, artists, philosophers, nor scientists. We are all in this together because we are all already together; we just haven’t realized it yet. And that’s the beauty of living life—to realize that I am you and you are I, and I love you so very, very much.