It’s a fair enough question: Why Buddhist Christianity? The answer is that, for many of us, Christianity just isn’t Christianity any more. Fundamentalism has perverted Christianity into some kind of salvation game, wherein all that matters is “getting saved.” The truth is that Jesus never used that kind of language, never saw salvation as a life-after-death proposition, though he did talk about eternal life. Contemporary Christianity has thrown out the prayer example of Jesus, which was essentially meditation, and replaced it with the belief that the Divine can be manipulated if only we use the right word and are persistent enough. Silence, rather than the hallmark of prayer throughout the majority of the history of Christianity, is now suspect for fear that a fictional, mythological devil will attack us while we are silent.
The truth is that, if there is a devil, it is our ego. This notion that there is a permanent, unchanging “me” that I have to protect and preserve at all costs – even for eternity – has turned much of Christianity into an obsessive-compulsive self-love fest. The pastor’s job is to convince us that we might slip into eternal non-existence if we are not vigilant, and don’t contribute 10% of our pre-tax income into the collection plate. We purchase our salvation in this model, though it would be denied by the religious authorities of our day (read “Pharisees”). While there certainly are corners of Christianity that are exceptions to the above, they exist largely unnoticed. What the public know, and what the media report, are those segments of fundamentalist Christianity that have chosen to identify themselves only as “Christian,” and in so doing have so muddied the water around the term that more moderate to progressive people are reluctant to use it.
I identify as a Christian Buddhist because I believe in the teachings of Jesus, but not the perversion of those teachings by the last 1700 years of institutional religion in general and the last 150 years of fundamentalism in particular. I do not believe in Original Sin, I believe in Buddha Nature or what I sometimes call either “Original Divinity” or “God Nature.” I do not believe that we have some need to be saved from some external force, but rather that we most need to save ourselves from our dysfunctional feelings, thoughts, and behavior – which all spring from within ourselves! Our stories, our dramas, and our fictions stand in the way of seeing the inter-connectedness of all of life. To solve the problem, we need to work with our minds in meditation – just as Jesus did. We don’t need to say a particular sinner’s prayer, or confess regularly to a priest, or learn to stand on our heads, we just need to sit. We don’t need to sit in full lotus, or half lotus, or with our ankles behind our ears – we just need to sit, and if we can’t sit because of back problems we can lay down when we sit!
It’s also important to notice that the teachings of Jesus and the teachings of Buddha (for that matter, the teachings of all the great Masters) have a great deal of overlap. Jesus taught karma when he said we shall reap what we so. He taught compassion and loving kindness when he said to love our neighbors as ourselves, through countless parables, and through his own examples of interacting with others – most especially those whom his society had labeled outcasts.
What about the notion of God? I don’t believe in a theistic God. In other words, the notion of the old guy with the long white hair and beard sitting on the clouds is absurd to me. The Buddha didn’t believe in a creator God separate from the creation, and neither do I. To believe in such a God is to be a deist, one who believes that God wound up the clock that is our universe and now just sits back and listens to it tick. I also don’t believe in an interventionist God who moves people around like chess pieces on a board.
Have you ever noticed that in the Bible God is never seen? God’s backside is seen, but not God’s face. To me this means that we see evidence of God, but not necessarily Godself. I have experienced God many, many times – always through the evidence of God that I encounter in other people, in relationship, and in nature. I will leave the precise location of God and other debates about what I consider to be insignificant philosophical issues that have no impact on the experience of God to those who feel inclined to debate them. Regardless of what such people “decide” about God, it will never change the reality of my experience of God. I am more than content with a God that cannot be separated from what I often call the creation (by which I mean all that is) because it is in the creation that I encounter God – and I encounter God as love, compassion, kindness, and a host of other relational experiences.
Buddhism provides me with the tools that also exist in Christianity but have been obscured or lost through centuries of concrete thought. The great mystical traditions of the monasteries were largely thought to only be accessible to monastics – in both Buddhism and Christianity. Christianity still suffers from an anti-monastic bias, while Buddhism has come to believe that mystical experience is available to anyone. Perhaps most importantly, Buddhism allows free inquiry and challenges. The way Christianity is practiced in our time seldom does.