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A Christian Reaction to Buddhism

Ethan Nichtern is one of my favorite people, and has an exceptionally clear and gracious understanding of the path he represents. As any wise teacher, he understands that wisdom is rooted in our personal life experience, and so that each of us arrives at wisdom in our own time.

As Nichtern presents in “The Road Home”, Buddhism is a technology for self-introspection and other-relation. Adherents are taught a method for analysis of the operation of their mind. Given Ethan’s lucid description of that method, we could advance a critique of Buddhism through categorical comparison with records of objective and subjective experience. I am hesitant to do this because I know from personal experience that Ethan is reticent, as many spiritual practitioners, to expose deeper truths to minds that have not attained a certain strength and discipline. I believe that he leaves much unsaid about spiritual experience.

I am absolutely convinced that Buddhism is a powerful technology for spiritual self-assessment. While it might seem like a matter of no lasting consequence, just learning to sit in stillness for ten minutes is an important manifestation of both mental strength and discipline. The concern that must be addressed of any spiritual teaching, however, is what guides the application of that strength. Nichtern asserts that most of us are conditioned with self-destructive perceptions, and that when we learn that the world does not actually behave according to those perceptions, we are released into a playful and compassionate exploration of life’s possibilities. However, I have experience with people that attain a certain power and enter into childish exploitation of others. Nichtern does not, by my assessment, advance a proof that exploitation is excluded by Buddhist practice.

But he does offer an experience, describing a night flight cross-country to an empty home. Overcome with sadness, he begins to weep, and does so without self-judgment. Nichtern does not describe his submission as leading to any catharsis, except a certain satisfaction that he was open to the experience of the moment. So why does he advance this as a moment of profound self-connection? What was he connecting to that made this experience stand out from any other?

Perhaps simply that at its deepest throes, he heard his father’s voice reiterating a wisdom believed fervently to be profound, “I live in the center of my awareness.” To me, this is the key: the love that others tender to us is not bound by time or space. It is delivered in the form that we have conditioned ourselves to receive it, in the moments of our greatest receptivity. Love alone has that power, the power to heal and strengthen our souls.

Those that practice exploitation do so at the cost of that great benefit.

I don’t know how Ethan would respond to this characterization. Buddhism is, at its core, a method for linearizing our reaction to experience with the goal of subjecting it to analysis. But we know that is not the way that the mind works. The mind is a parallel-processing device, with many threads of interpretation and analysis combining to produce a reaction. For this reason, Buddhism may be the province of rational thinkers capable of forcing reaction through the logical circuitry of the cortex. In Nichtern’s development, I certainly find support for that conclusion. Even as a Ph.D. physicist and having processed previously the wisdom of Thich Nhat Hahn, I can only read a chapter at a time before needing to rest.

From the Christian perspective, human intelligence is a key and essential capacity in bringing love into the world. Christianity holds, however, that while our lives appear to drown with sorrow, this reality is suffused with a divine love that will nurture us if we honor its constraints, foremost of which is that we not use its power willfully to cause pain. This gift and covenant is what Christians honor in their worship of “God.”

Now, as I have said, I find much in Nichtern’s writing that suggests that he has experienced the power of this love. So why the reticence? Perhaps it is found in his assertion that Buddhism is not a religion, in that it does not “tell people what to believe.” But it is exactly a connection with divine love that is needed by those that cannot draw upon mental discipline, but must rely upon the urgings of their hearts.

Nichtern characterizes the problem of karma, or negative conditioning, as a problem of self-trust. Through the development of that trust, he records that he eventually recognized the full depth of his father’s love, and perhaps thus freed himself from the negative conditioning of growing up in a broken home. Did he understand the experience that way? In other words, has he learned to trust in the love of others?

Buddhism strikes me as a tradition rooted in a failure of that trust. It asserts that we must first learn to love ourselves before learning to enter confidently into relation with others. Christianity takes the opposite approach. It teaches, “Abandon yourself to divine love. Surrender yourself to trust in that presence. Allow it to guide you, heal you, and use you to do great works of healing in the world, and thus to enjoy the admiration and gratitude of others.”

I find this to be compelling. The reason that we have to work so terribly hard to understand our reaction to our perceptions is because we are trapped in our viewpoint. It is so much easier for an outsider to see us in the context of our relationships. If that outsider is trust-worthy, they can offer us insights that would take us years to achieve on our own. So why not draw upon the strength of the only completely trustworthy guide, the presence of divine love that awaits our embrace?

I know that in human relationships, Nichtern would identify with this truth. When I met him at a Buddhist Geek’s conference, he stood out as the contrary voice that insisted that growth to maturity required the sangha, or spiritual community.

Considering that context, Nichtern does allude to the burdens of the role of the disciplined mind. I expressed them once to another Buddhist who complained that his meditative practice was regressing. He found himself struggling to prevent extraneous thoughts from entering his mind. I suggested that he simply send them metta, or an offering of acceptance and love. I then explained that in my experience those voices were not extraneous, but the thoughts of people reaching out for strength. I encouraged the gentleman to embrace this new and incredibly important stage of his practice.

The final stage of Buddhist discipline, the Vajrayana tradition of Tantric practices, organizes the collaborative generation of reservoirs of positive intention. At the workshop during which he warned me against the path of the “suicide bodhisattva”, Ethan introduced the practitioners to White Tara, the Buddhist manifestation of loving kindness. While many Christians might have considered this to be an invitation to demonic worship, I recognize it as just another engagement with the divine emissaries that Christians characterize as angels. Consequently I believe that Buddhism must come in contact with the power of the ultimate “suicide bodhisattva”, Jesus of Nazareth.

A truth that I am fairly certain Nichtern has not internalized, or reserved in his writing to this point, is that our bodies are wonderfully designed to channel love to create healing. Submitting to the action of tears, feeling deeply our sorrow: those are practices that inform love when and where it needs to do its work. Christ was the ultimate manifestation of this truth: after preaching that there was nothing we can do either to alienate God or to gain preferential claims on his love, Jesus surrendered body, mind and spirit to the purpose of healing humanity of the self-destructive consequences of the predatory programming that we brought forward from our Darwinian past. In his resurrection, he delivered compelling proof of the power of love for those that rely upon their hearts, and thus must trust in faith.

In the eventuality of their encounter with Christ, I am confident that the power of the Buddhist collective and its Tantric constructs will be a magnificent aid to those of simple faith. I am also confident that Nichtern, whether or not he understands it as such, already guides others to the love that secures their peace of mind.

9 thoughts on “A Christian Reaction to Buddhism

  1. This was brilliant. I hope u write a book soon. I was raised catholic then was biddhist, I have studied and read all religons. I Think all have many similarities. My father is a hard core catholic, I will send him quotes that he will love. That are not from catholic people. Of he learns that , he changes his mind. I Feel its Much Like the 9 blind men and the elephant.

    They all are touching the same thing, however one believes it to be a trink, another says a leg etc. I certain you have heard this.

    When I start reading your stuff it is very hard to stop. HARD to put down the computer.

    This was my favorite part of this brilliant piece

    “The reason that we have to work so terribly hard to understand our reaction to our perceptions is because we are trapped in our viewpoint. It is so much easier for an outsider to see us in the context of our relationships. If that outsider is trust-worthy, they can offer us insights that would take us years to achieve on our own. So why not draw upon the strength of the only completely trustworthy guide, the presence of divine love that awaits our embrace?”

    • Thanks for offering your insights. It’s hard enough to understand one spiritual point of view. People find a certain security and turn there focus elsewhere. Trying to link them all together is a lot of work. Your comments are really valuable to me.

  2. I didn’t quite read through this post until today…busy with relaunching my first two books with new titles and cover and publishing for the first time, my third one; so was a bit distracted. You write well, with deftness of thought and gravity. I like that..

    ‘…to expose deeper truths to minds that have not attained a certain strength and discipline. I believe that he leaves much unsaid about spiritual experience.’ This is exactly why I’m also reserved in how much I divulge and I don’t mean this in sanctimonious, self-righteous way. It’s just very difficult to share spiritual subject matters with anyone when we don’t know where they are at, exactly.

    As the person above suggested, you should write a book, indeed. Your writing has substance.

    • Congratulations on your books. I wish you success with them. I’ve been on a rocky road with my own.

      This is going to be a little rambling. I got really distressed this afternoon – hot sweats and headache. There’s a lot of threads to the conversation we’ve established, and I’m not sure that I can pull them all together.

      The most structured exposition of my thought is out at http://www.everdeepening.com. I tend to be less concerned with “truth” and lineage that many disciplined thinkers, and I think that is a deterrent. People want some assurance that they are standing on solid ground. But humanity undertakes, every now and then, a deep phase change in our spiritual understanding. Believing that another such is pending, I consider the assurances and think: “We’re standing on ice that’s about to turn to water. Perhaps we better learn to swim.”

      I don’t know why I am compelled to undertake this work. The messages that I get from the spiritual realm are that this is my problem to figure out how to solve. When a piece of the puzzle falls into place, I know that I do receive a lot of support. However, to this point, except in extremis, it hasn’t had any material manifestation.

      Here’s an amusing story: a woman showed up in my dreams one night, thinking that she could help me by showing me the quantum realm. We started diving into the wall of the room, and I simply bounced off. She came back and wondered aloud “I wonder why that happened.” I consoled her, “Because it’s not a view of reality to which I can subscribe.” Ten years later, I’ve published ideas here that suggest an alternative to quantum mechanics.

    • Thank you for your comment. As long as we are in this world and in these physical material bodies, we will suffer some degree of ontological agony or dissonance. It’s only when we become deeply rooted and grounded in our aim and object (whatever that means for people) then we can progress and be guided to achieve our objective.

      Not all paths lead to the same goal and as I mentioned before, everyone follows a path according to their nature. Thus, my path is not for the mass, though it’s available for any soul, inclined.

      I get the message from your dream and I’m not here to enforce my way of life on anyone. I’m not a guru or elevated spiritual master. (I was just fortunate to have one such very rare and special personality in my life). Rather, I simply present, on the table, what I know and have realised to be the truth and let people make up their own minds or hearts. So to that end, I can only wish that you find what it is you aspire for.

      May your desires be fulfilled. Blessings and light…

    • Re: the dream – I know how lonely a journey it is to commit to spiritual and intellectual discipline.

      Thanks for your gift of good will. I am reciprocating as best as I can.

    • Yes, I totally understand. As one advances in spiritual life, it becomes lonely at one stage, but as you pass through what a wise person once termed or rather called his book ‘the dark night of the soul’ it then becomes a lighter journey. The Sanskrit phrase for that title is what we call anartha nivritti, which is the cleansing stage.

      Spiritual growth has many levels and dimensions as you know already. A comfortable illusion, is not something many of us want in any shape or form, which is why from early childhood I started soul-searching on deep levels, which finally brought me to my now departed spiritual master.

      Whatever you aspire for, may it be to your ultimate benefit. I can’t impose what I know, but I’m here to share if anything will be of the remotest benefit. I can only reflect what my guru has mercifully revealed to me. So to that end, I leave it up to you 🙂

    • To be brutally honest, my aspiration is to be the tall nail that selfishness wears itself out trying to pound flat. As that process progresses, people will eventually find the courage to stand up with me.

      I subscribe to the wisdom of the I Ching: it isn’t about me in this life. I did what I needed to do a long time ago. When the work is finally brought to fruition, people must be able to say “We chose this ourselves.”

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