Thursday, December 22, 2011

Living Buddha Living Christ: Chapter 1

Ch. 1: Be Still and Know

In this chapter Hanh explains what he believes are the foundations for good interfaith dialogue and securing peace in the world. He starts with a significant claim:

"People kill and are killed because they cling too tightly to their own beliefs and ideologies."

I understand what he's getting at here - he's saying that if we believe we are right and that everyone else is wrong, we are more likely to demonize those outside our group and treat them with contempt. Therefore, if we want to eliminate man's inhumanity to man we need to become less attached (and less certain of) our beliefs.

And yet, ironically, Hanh is encouraging us to think a certain way. As mentioned in my previous post, it is impossible to escape exclusivism entirely. Even inclusivism is a form of exclusivism because it believes it is right and that the exclusivists are wrong. Hanh is encouraging us not to believe in exclusivist religious ideas, but not believing in exclusivist religious ideas - that is, choosing to reject such ideas - is in itself a form of belief, and it is a belief that must be held tightly in order to be sustained.

People don't kill because they hold too tightly to beliefs and ideologies - people kill (and are killed) because they hold too tightly to the wrong beliefs and ideologies. Hanh has beliefs as well. If he didn't, he wouldn't be able to write this book. Do Hanh's beliefs lead to peace? Perhaps they do. But we can't pretend they aren't beliefs.

I don't think the key to achieving peace in the world is to encourage an absence of beliefs or ideologies. I think the key to achieving peace in the world is to encourage people to cling tightly to the right beliefs and ideologies.

I have a similar criticism regarding what Hanh calls "The Second Precept of the Order of Interbeing." He says, 'Do not think the knowledge you presently possess is changeless, absolute truth. Avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. Learn and practice nonattachment from views in order to be open to receive others' viewpoints.' Again, what's easy to miss is that this precept is also a view. Should it be held tightly? If so, the precept contradicts itself. If not, it is meaningless. Is the knowledge that knowledge is not changeless and absolute in itself changeless and absolute? Either answer - yes or no - is problematic for Hanh.

Although Hanh now views Jesus as one of his spiritual ancestors and Christianity as one of the world's "beautiful flowers," this was not so from the beginning. Hanh was biased against Jesus because the colonization of his country (Vietnam) by the French was deeply connected with the efforts of Christian missionaries. He associated Christianity with violence, insensitivity, and disrespect for his spiritual tradition. Hanh says, "It was only later, through friendships with Christian men and women who truly embody the spirit of understanding and compassion of Jesus, that I have been able to touch the depths of Christianity." Among these friendships Hanh includes Martin Luther King Jr. and Father Thomas Merton, both of whom worked alongside him in an interfaith peace organization in the 60s.

Here Hahn affirms two things most Christians who are serious about sharing their faith eventually come to realize: (1) Personal encounters with Christian hypocrisy play a significant role in detracting people from faith in Christ, and (2) Genuine friendships with non-Christians are powerful mediums for communicating truth about Christ. As Paul said, without love we are only clashing cymbals. Hahn was persuaded of the beauty of Christ through relationship, not through force. Of course, thus far it does not appear that Hahn has the exalted view of Christ that a Christian would want him to have, but he seems closer to embracing such a view now then he did back in his early days. This shift was caused by seeing the love of Christ made manifest through relationships.

Hahn says that we lack the ability to make peace with other people because we lack peace with ourselves: "If we are at war with our parents, our family, our society, or our church, there is probably a war going on inside us also, so the most basic work for peace is to return to ourselves and create harmony among the elements within us - our feelings, our perceptions, and our mental states." I agree with Hahn that a lack of peace with ourselves leads to conflict with others. This last semester, I found it more difficult than usual to be patient when having spiritual conversations with non-Christians. This might be partly due to the fact that, after 5.5 years in ministry, I'm starting to get tired of saying the same things over and over and hearing the same illogical arguments against Christianity, but I think it's more due to the fact that I've lacked peace within myself. When I feel secure about my place in the world, my role in society, and my personal identity, I'm more likely to be patient, kind, and forgiving. If not, I might be short with you (and if you tell me that "Truth is Relative," I might be more interested in trapping you with logic than gently helping you to see things in a different light).

I think most Christians would agree with this, but the Christian does not say to look within for the answers. Yes, we are not at peace with the world because we are not at peace with ourselves - but the chain of brokenness doesn't stop there. We are not at peace with ourselves because we are not at peace with God.  

Hahn says that the secret to creating harmony among the elements within us is meditation, or, "looking deeply." He says, "we must recognize and accept the conflicting elements that are within us and their underlying causes...when we have peace within, real dialogue with others is possible."

I agree that there is a lot of value in being aware - particularly self-aware - and that awareness can help to reduce conflict both within and without, but only insofar as that awareness is accurate and true. Nietzsche thought he was very aware, and his awareness led him to conclude that all is meaningless. Did that awareness provide him with the resources needed to find peace with the world and himself? Considering that his life ended shortly after a mental collapse and a public disturbance in the streets of Turin, I doubt it.

The Buddhist says to look within for the answers. The Christian says to look to God for the answers. The question is: when the ideas represented by these words are put into practice and experienced, are they really any different? Hahn doesn't think so. Both views, he says, exercise faith - and ultimately that faith is in the same thing. The Buddhist has faith, as he describes it, in the soul's ability to awake to it's own capacity for love and understanding. The Christian, he says, has faith in God - the One who represents love, understanding, dignity, and truth. When you stop concerning yourself with the specificity of language, you find that these ideas blur together.

I'm sympathetic to what Hanh is saying here because I've wondered about it myself. When we have dialogue about different religious ideas, everything we say is communicated through words, and words are sounds that represent ideas - often intangible - that aren't always adequately represented by the sounds. Is it possible that our experiences - inadequately represented by the words that describe them - actually have more in common than we think?

This, of course, isn't just a concern when it comes to talking about religion - it's a problem inherent to all communication - but verbal expressions regarding spiritual beliefs and experiences are more susceptible to misunderstanding than communication about, say, the way a room is decorated or how your friend is dressed. In spite of this, I'm not convinced that Buddhists and Christians are expressing the same ideas and having the same experiences. I still think the idea (and the experience) of looking within is different than looking to God, although I think I understand why Hahn thinks they might be the same.        

The part of this chapter I found most fascinating is when Hanh talks about the concept of interbeing. Interbeing, Hahn says, is something we become aware of when we "look deeply" - that is, when we are "still" as the Psalmist tells us to be. When we look deeply, Hahn says we observe something or someone with so much concentration that the distinction between observer and observed disappears. Hahn explains, "When we look into the heart of a flower, we see clouds, sunshine, minerals, time, the earth, and everything else in the cosmos in it. Without clouds, there could be no rain, and there would be no flower. Without time, the flower could not bloom. In fact, the flower is made entirely of non-flower elements; it has no independent, individual existence. It "inter-is" with everything else in the universe."

Awhile ago, I wrote a blog post about an orchestra, and I realize now that one of the things I was trying to express was an awareness of interbeing. An orchestra is an amazing example of the interconnectedness and interdependence of things. Some Christians might get uncomfortable with this kind of talk because it sounds pantheistic, but I don't think we need to be afraid of it. The physical creation is all related and interconnected, and that is part of the wonder of it.

And yet, even though all physical things are related and - at their essence - similar, distinctions still exist and I don't think they are an illusion. I am not you and you are not me. Hahn might disagree with this statement and encourage me to "look more deeply" to realize the error of my thinking, but if I am Hahn and Hahn is me I should already be looking just as deeply as Hahn. The fact is, we all have different consciousnesses - different souls - and that makes us distinct from one another. That's why we have different experiences. If we "look deeply" it shouldn't result in elimination of the idea of distinction, but it should lead us to realize the interrelatedness of distinct things. Love - which is essential to the nature of God - is what happens when distinct beings relate to each other as they should. If all is one, love is not possible, because love is diversity (distinct elements) in service to unity (the whole). If we remove the concept of distinction, love is lost.

I should probably refine these thoughts more, but I'll stop here for now.

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