Buddhism in the West
In the process of developing a form of Buddhism that is firmly located in contemporary western society, it is useful to explore how insights into, and analyses of, the ‘human condition’ usually associated with Buddhism, can also be found in the history of European/western thought – even if these perspectives have often been considered as marginal or outside the mainstream.
A few key historical encounters:
In the nineteenth century (and earlier) Christian missionaries brought back accounts of Buddhism – often describing it in very negative terms (a Unitarian minister referred to it in this way: ‘God is nothing; man is nothing, life is nothing, eternity is nothing. Hence the profound sadness of Buddhism.’) In 1879, Sir Edwin Arnold’s epic poem about the life of the Buddha, The Light of Asia, was published. It sold in enormous numbers (three quarters of a million copies) and portrayed the similarities between the Buddha and Christ. In 1893, the World Parliament of Religions, took place in Chicago. This marked the beginning of a more profound interaction between eastern and western religious communities. One of the participants in the conference, Soyen Shaku (a Japanese Rinzai Zen master) was subsequently asked to translate various key Buddhist texts for a western audience. His command of English was very limited, so he suggested his student, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, undertake the job. So began Suzuki’s long and very influential career as a voice of Zen Buddhist ideas and practice – an influence that increased enormously in America after the second world war.
It might be argued that Buddhism in the west is a product of colonialism – an appropriation of an eastern way of living by a more-powerful western culture. However, it could also be argued that Buddhism, in its migration to the west, is only continuing a process that began with the spread of Buddhism in earlier centuries from India into south east Asia, China and Japan. In a sense the colonisation might be by Buddhism of the west!
Buddhism & Christianity
In my book, Agents of Uncertainty, I argue that at the heart of many forms of mysticism, including Christian forms,
lies something apparently very simple: the mystery, wonder and sheer good fortune of being alive. Mystics of every tradition and time are fascinated by, surprised at, and deeply grateful for, the fact of being here. While the rest of humanity may take this fact for granted, letting it settle into the background of their lives, except in extremis, mystics have it in mind most of the time……
the awareness of being here and the sense of wonder and gratitude at being here, are ….. of primary importance. Being fully conscious of this life precedes and outshines any awareness of, or belief in, a transcendent reality. Awakening to the flux of being here is more important than any desire for, or belief in, being there, being somewhere else.
While many, if not most, studies of mysticism portray the mystic as someone seeking transcendence, aspiring to knowledge and awareness of a transcendent order – be it God, ground of being or pure consciousness – I would like to argue for a different emphasis in the way we think about mysticism, focusing particularly on the different ways in which mystics engage with the reality of this life, rather than with a reality that may lie beyond this life (whether expressed in terms of “heaven”, the “supernatural” or an “after-life”). While the latter approach emphasises ideas of perfection, the absolute and eternity, the former emphasises experiences of contingency, impermanence and change.
The influential German Christian mystic, Meister Eckhart, refers to the ineffable nature of God as ‘nothingness’, ‘unfathomable ocean’, ‘a way without a way, and ‘dark light.’ The unknown author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a late 14th century Christian text, tells his readers that the way to become aware of God, is to put away our thoughts ‘deep down in a cloud of forgetting’, only in this way can we enter the ‘cloud of unknowing’ that surrounds God. Only by reducing the endless chatter of our inner voices (the voices of the desiring wilful self) can we open-up to the presence of God within us. The anonymous author advises his readers to use a ‘word’, the shorter the better, as a chant or prayer. This repeated word is not a thought or argument addressed to god, but a simple device with which to ‘suppress all thought under the cloud of forgetting.’
If we accept the above approach to mysticism, it is not difficult to see similarities and connections between aspects of Christian thought and practice, and Buddhism. An example of this can be seen in the relationship between Zen and Christianity.
In his book, Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit, the Catholic Jesuit priest and well-respected Zen teacher, Robert E. Kennedy writes about the relationship between his two vocations. He points out that ‘Zen Buddhism need not be looked at as a religion at all, but as a way of seeing life that can enhance any religious faith. Yamada Roshi told me several times he did not want to make me a Buddhist but rather he wanted to empty me in imitation of “Christ your Lord” who emptied himself, poured himself out, and clung to nothing.’ (p.14)
Kennedy argues that Zen practice can be enormously helpful in developing contemplative prayer within a Christian context. He draws on the experience of the Trappist/Cistercian monk, Thomas Merton, who wrote extensively about parallels between Zen meditation and Christian prayer. Merton suggests that in zazen and many forms of Christian contemplation the ‘distinguishing, judging, categorising and classifying’ modes of thought are dissolved or let go of – a process of letting go that frees the self from its usual bonds of habit, reactive behaviours and acquisitive ways of being. By setting aside these modes of thought and behaviour, the Zen practitioner or Christian contemplative realises a ‘ground of openness’ that we might call Dharma in Buddhism, or God in Christianity. It is only by letting go of the habitual trappings or baggage of the ego-self that we encounter a more open, spontaneous, mindful way of living.
That there may be similarities between aspects of Christian practice and Buddhism is not to deny that there may also be profound differences.
Agents of uncertainty: mysticism, scepticism, Buddhism, art & poetry, John Danvers, Rodopi, 2012.
The New Buddhism: The Western Transformation of an Ancient Tradition, James William Coleman, Oxford University Press, 2002.
Zen and the Birds of Appetite, Thomas Merton, New Directions, 1968.
Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit: The Place of Zen in Christian Life, Robert E. Kennedy, Continuum, 2001.