A Reflection on Buddhism, Christianity and Unitarian Universalism

by James Ishmael Ford

Yesterday I posted a blog post in honor of the Feast of Sts Barlaam and Josaphat, where I mused on my fantasy of a Buddhist Christian, or maybe it would be a Christian Buddhist church. After which a friend linked me to an archive of newsletters for the UU Buddhist Sangha, which included this article by me written in 1998. In yesterday’s meditation I wrote of the lost Luminous Religion of China as one possible paradigm for such a thing. In this 1998 article I dig into other theological considerations from different sources. Whatever, as it turns out, seventeen years on and I still think about a marriage of Buddhism and Christianity…

For many, many years the Catholic church observed the feast of Sts Barlaam and Josaphat every November 27th. The Orthodox church also remembered these saints, on November 9th. No less a figure than the renowned eighth century doctor of the church, John of Damascus, wrote the definitive spiritual biography of these two holy men.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church briefly outlines their story. “It having been prophesized in the infancy of Joasaph (or ‘Josaphat’), the son of a heathen Indian king, that he would be converted to Christianity, he was shut up in a palace so that he should know nothing of the facts or evils of life. Thence he escaped, and was found and won to the Christian faith by the hermit Barlaam. For a time he ruled the kingdom with his father, but later retired to the wilderness with Barlaam.”

Wonderful story. But, then in the great nineteenth century rush of critical scholarship, people began to notice how this story of Barlaam and Josaphat was eerily like that of the Buddha. And indeed, it turned out, it was the story of the Buddha. So, by the beginning of this century, Christians quietly dropped this feast from their calendars.

From near the beginning there seem to have been connections between Buddhists and Christians. There are several references in antiquity to Indian “gymnosophists” visiting the west. Undoubtedly most would have been Hindu yogis. But by that time Buddhism had extended into what is today Afghanistan. So who knows whether some of these visiting “Indians” were not Buddhist monks?

And Christians returned the favor. Some scholars maintain the Pure Land school of Mahayana Buddhism was birthed out of the meeting of Chinese Buddhism and missionaries from the Nestorian church. This is disputed, but not beyond the realm of possibility. But it is fairly certain that from the beginning there has been a cross-fertilization of these great spiritual traditions.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that today there is much conversation and more going on between Buddhism and Christianity. This brief essay has mostly to do with that “more.” When I was a young Zen monk I was with a group who visited a Trappist monastery. There we found Christians who knew quite a bit about Zen meditation. Certainly they knew more about our disciplines than we did theirs. Since that time I’ve visited several Christian monasteries. Long ago I ceased being surprised to find stacks of zafus, traditional Zen meditation cushions, at nearly every one of those Christian communities.

In 1925, one of the first American Buddhists, Dwight Goddard visited a Christian-Buddhist monastery in Nanking, China, that had been established by Karl Reichelt. I once ran across a volume that described how in the years before the second world war, a Japanese Buddhist community had adapted a version of the Rule of St Francis to their practice of the Dharma.

Perhaps the most notable of spiritual cross-fertilizations between Buddhists and Christians has taken place within one particular branch of Japanese Zen, the so-called Harada-Yasutani lineage. It is a reform of the Soto school, having adapted a full koan curriculum from the Rinzai school. While quite small in Japan, it has had an inordinate influence on the shape of western Zen.

Philip Kapleau, Robert Aitken and Taizan Maezumi, three towering figures in western Zen, all trained within the Harada-Yasutani lineage. To study koan Zen in the west is almost certainly to study within this lineage. What is fascinating are the number of Christians who have completed formal training within this school and have gone on to become authorized Zen teachers. While not the only Zen school to authorize “Christian Zen masters,” it has led the way, counting in its various branches possibly twenty Christians, mostly Catholic priests or nuns, who have been authorized in some way as Zen teachers.

So, what is this all about? And, most importantly, perhaps, what are we facing today? Are we looking at some new Buddhist-Christian synthesis? In a “Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on Some Aspects of Christian Meditation,” Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger has warned Catholics that Buddhist spirituality is a seductive danger. And the Dalai Lama, looking with a jaundiced eye at Christian theism, warns “against people calling themselves ‘Buddhist-Christians,’ just as one should not try ‘to put a yak’s head on a sheep’s body.'”

We’ve arrived at a stage where the Benedictine monk, and Zen roshi, Willigis Jaeger can tell a gathering at an International Buddhist Christian Conference in Berkeley in 1987, “Many can argue whether a Christian can validly do Zen or teach Zen, or not. The fact is, I am doing it.” Perhaps a sheep with a yak’s head, but an eloquent yak-sheep, no doubt.

The primary difficulty rises in our understanding of the nature of God. Buddhism denies (or, perhaps more devastatingly, ignores) a Supreme Being who creates and sustains the world in the sense most Christians would understand as being “God.” And, closely related to this, Buddhism denies as delusional the belief in an immortal soul. These two fundamental differences would seem to make any Christian-Buddhist synthesis that impossible joining of yak and sheep.

But, still, it happens. I spoke briefly about this subject with a Catholic Zen teacher, Pat Hawk. He held up his hand palm out and said “Christian.” He then turned it so the back faced me and said “Zen.” A very zen expression, beautiful and graceful. But, when push comes to shove, does it work?

I don’t claim to know. Clearly there are moments in our lives when we can drop our conceptions, our notions, our ideas, and simply be present to what is. Many of us have experienced this, whatever the spiritual tradition within which we practice. At that point we can truly say we are neither Christian nor Buddhist. At that point all words fall away. Instead, we are simply present. I suggest this is Buddhist enlightenment, and maybe this can be Christian heaven.

People have struggled with their experience of this “full and yet empty present,” and tried to explain it in ways that make sense across culture and religion. Most notable of efforts at finding common ground are the writers in the Kyoto School of Japanese philosophical Buddhism. They have taken a great interest in the Christological hymn in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, Chapter 2, verses 5-12. The turning point for them is “kenosis,” the “emptying” of self, which they find suggestive of Buddhist sunyata, or emptiness.

A number of scholars have lept upon this possibility, following ideas first opened in the west by Thomas J.J. Altizer and other “death of God” theologians. It certainly is a rich vein to mine. The only problem, but a large one, is that it depends upon stretching the biblical use of kenosis in a way that occurs no where else in the original literature.

Others have sought the basis for dialogue and cross-fertilization in the shared images of compassion and love. Here we find that first category which bursts out of the unnamable experience of silence which Christians, Buddhists, and so many others have shared. Here I, too, find some great possibilities. But, what might come of it, I can’t even begin to imagine.

Which brings us to Unitarian Universalism.

Andrew Rawlinson, in his The Book of Enlightened Masters: Western Teachers in Eastern Traditions, writes one of the first surveys I’ve seen of this phenomenon of “Christian Zen.” He does it in an essay titled “Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle (and Christian Zen).” It is Enomiya-Lassalle rather than Thomas Merton, as many people might think, who opened the door to actual Christian-Buddhist practice. He was the first Christian to be authorized as a Zen master.

And Rawlinson’s study is among the first to delve, even if briefly, into the subject. In this essay he includes a table of Christians who have been authorized as Zen teachers. I found my own name in that table. I have been authorized to teach in the Soto school. And, I now am a spiritual director within the Harada-Yasutani school. The question is whether I should be counted as a Zen Christian?

Rawlinson lists me as a Protestant minister. Actually, I have little problem with that. In the shorthand necessary in a study as massive as his book, collapsing Unitarian Universalism into Protestantism is reasonable enough.

Of course, we Unitarian Universalists know this isn’t exactly true. Historically, we are children of the Reformation and specifically New England Congregationalism (if we skip over our Hungarian speaking cousins and the various independent and Presbyterian movements that became the English and Irish churches).

But, what are we theologically?

This is a question with which we’ve struggled for generations. And, I rather doubt we’re going to resolve it anytime soon. But, perhaps just because of that theological ambiguity, we are the perfect place for this Buddhist-Christian synthesis, or synergy, or whatever it is, to happen. If it is going to happen we seem the place and the people. We’re open to experiment. Many of us are non-theistic, in the traditional western use of the word. And, as a community, we’re thirsty for spiritual discipline.

Here I find myself a fairly typical Unitarian Universalist. I am drawn to the “kenotic God,” of Buddhist-Christian dialogue, as well as the divine darkness in The Cloud of Unknowing, the writings of Meister Eckhart and other apophatic mystics. Nonetheless, I simply do not believe in that creating and sustaining Supreme Being most westerners seem to mean when they use the word God. Nor do I believe in a soul as we usually use that word in western theology. While I do consider myself culturally and even heartfully Christian, by the standards of normative contemporary Christianity, I am not one. I’m too rationalist and humanistic to be accepted by nearly any modern Christian community. Except, of course, our own ambiguous Unitarian Universalism.

No wonder there is a Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship. We represent great possibilities within modern spirituality. Still, we need to be careful. Most of us in our liberal tradition may not think highly of Cardinal Ratzinger. He is head of what was once called the “Inquisition,” after all. But, he is not without insight. He suggests we need to be conscious of differences and resist mushing things together.

Victoria Urubshurow, a theologian writing in Buddhist-Christian Studies (volume 11, 1991), says in response to the Cardinal’s famous letter, “There is no doubt about it: important differences, even blatant contradictions exist between Christianity and Buddhism. Often the discrepancies stem not merely from problems of religious language, but from deep structural variations.”

We need to be wary of shallow eclecticism. What makes eclecticism subject to being shallow is that by its very nature it encourages us to simply pick and choose what is convenient or easy. If we avoid the difficult we not only miss the depths of a tradition, but we miss the possibility of our own coming to depth, to wisdom. On a genuine spiritual way we need the challenge of those difficult moments. They are what open our hearts and minds.

In this vein Urubshurow goes on to quote Thomas Merton. “There must be scrupulous respect for important differences, and where one no longer understands or agrees, this must be kept clear—without useless debate. There are differences that are not debatable, and it is a useless, silly temptation to try and argue them out. Let them be left intact until a moment of greater understanding.”

I suggest we Unitarian Universalists may bring about that moment of greater understanding. We have created a spiritual community that is one grand inter-religious conversation. We are Christians, Jews, Humanists, Neo-pagans, Buddhists, and many others, all of whom have agreed to come together as sisters and brothers.

Here we find, I believe, some great alchemy of heart, which allows us to be present each to the other, as well as to our own true selves. When we’ve talked and talked and finally have lapsed into a profound silence, I believe it is at that moment we find ourselves coming to something genuine.

It is this moment before conversation, before words, before ideas, that can be named both sunyata and the kenotic God. Here we find a moment pregnant with possibility. If we are willing to let our dreams fly and yet to ground ourselves in the practices of silence, together we may find a grand spiritual synthesis where Christ and Buddha are forgotten, but their realities remain.

When east and west are truly forgotten, we may find a wonderful field out of which some beautiful new plant may flower. It might even be like that mustard seed, the smallest of all seeds, that when planted and tended, becomes a great bush under which the birds of heaven may truly find rest.

Well, something of a homiletic extravagance! I am a preacher, after all. But, I look at the range of Unitarian Universalist Buddhism, and feel hope welling up from within me. What directions we’ll take, who knows? Will we retain many elements of our Christian and Jewish origins in our Unitarian Universalist Buddhism? Or not?

At this point it is impossible to say. Many UU Buddhists have had enough of our ancestral faith. Many of us want a simple and pure western Buddhism. Others among us feel the tug of our Protestant hearts. I am one of those. So, who knows? Where might this lead? Who knows?

But in this I have no doubt: as we go forward in the great conversations of east and west, Unitarian Universalism will be one of those places where the speaking and the listening will occur. And if we are to come to some place where we’ve gone beyond east and west, it will be within Unitarian Universalism. A yak-sheep? A wonderful mustard bush? Perhaps in our Unitarian Universalist churches we will restore the celebration of the feast of Sts Barlaam and Josaphat. I think it might be very appropriate.

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