Monday, March 5, 2012

Living Buddha, Living Christ: Ch 4d

Late in this chapter, Hanh describes authentic teachers as those who have the capacity to "give birth to a disciple." He says that we are all spiritual descendants of the teachers who preceded us, and then he adds, "I try to practice [Dharma] in a way that allows me to touch my blood ancestors and my spiritual ancestors every day. Whenever I feel sad or a little fragile, I invoke their presence for support, and they never fail to be there." I was surprised by this. Don't Buddhists believe in reincarnation? If so, how is it possible for one to invoke the presence of blood ancestors? Aren't those blood ancestors now living as other beings?

When Hahn talks about the Dharma, it reminds me of the way Jews talk about the Law. He says, "The Dharma is our island of refuge, the torch lighting our path. If we have the teaching, we needn't worry."

Hahn says, "According to Mahayana Buddhism, the Buddha is still alive, continuing to give Dharma talks. If you are attentive enough, you will be able to hear his teaching from the voice of a pebble, a leaf, or a cloud in the sky." Hahn compares this to Christianity, and I do think there is a parallel here. Christians believe that Christ speaks to people through the Creation and conscience every day, we just have to listen. We should be able to see Him in a pebble, a leaf, and a cloud, for it is by his Word that these things exist, moment by moment.

Hahn says that the Buddha and Jesus both had a hallowed presence. He says, "When a sage is present and you sit near him or her, you feel peace and light. If you were to sit close to Jesus and look into His eyes - even if you didn't see Him - you would have a much greater chance to be saved than by reading His words." I agree with Hahn that Jesus had a "hallowed presence" and I do think some people experienced "peace and light" in his presence, but many people experienced fear, anger, and hatred. The hallowed presence is not always a comfortable one.

Hahn talks a little about hermeneutics. He says, "When I read any scripture, Christian or Buddhist, I always keep in mind that whatever Jesus or the Buddha said was to a particular person or group on a particular occasion. I try to understand deeply the context in which they spoke in order to really understand their meaning." He adds, "If we analyze [Jesus'] words to find the deepest meaning without understanding the relationships between the speaker and his listeners, we may miss the point." I agree with him completely.

To illustrate his hermeneutic, Hahn makes an interesting point about the circumstances under which Buddhist philosophy developed. During the Buddha's time, the notion of Atman (or self) was at the center of Vedic beliefs and was the cause of much of the social injustice of the day (the caste system, the poor treatment of the untouchables, etc). In response, Buddha emphasized the teachers of non-Atman (non-self). He did this by emphasizing connectedness and the interbeing of things. However, people took this teaching too far and began to worship the idea of emptiness. In response, Buddha said, "It is worse if you get caught in the non-self...than if you believe in the self."

All of this reminds me of 1st Corinthians 7, where it sounds like Paul is bad mouthing marriage. If we understand the social context of the time, however - a society where singleness was not valued and the individual's identity was totally wrapped up in his or her family - we realize that he is not attacking marriage, but providing counter-balance. Paul is going against the societal norms by saying, "It's okay to be single - if you're not married, don't worry about it." Some people, however, have read 1st Corinthians 7 out of context and concluded that God doesn't want his followers to get married. As Hahn says, we need to be mindful of context.

While I agree with the importance of understanding context, I disagree with the Buddhist teaching that, "to be attached to any to betray the Buddha." Just because it is important to understand context doesn't mean that there is no such thing as truth. Even the idea that we should not be attached to any doctrine is in itself a doctrine, and therefore it is a nonsensical idea. It is like saying, "Words have no meaning." Of course there are doctrines we should hold to. Hahn tries to use the example of the Buddha's emphasis (and then de-emphasis) on self as an example, but he contradicts himself when he says, "there is something more important than non-self. It is the freedom from the notions of both self and non-self." Is that a true doctrine? If it is, than the doctrine that we should hold any doctrines is not being followed. If it isn't, then what's the point in saying it?

Hahn talks about John 14:7 and says, "The way is Jesus Himself and not just some idea of Him." On this point I agree, but I don't agree with his follow-up point that, "true teaching is not static." Again, if true teaching is not static, what about the teaching that all true teaching is not static? Is that static? If so, then the teaching isn't true. If not, then the teaching ALSO isn't true (or at least it won't always be true, which, in this case, means it might as well not be).

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