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Buddhist subdeacon

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  • Robert J. Riley
    This morning at Solemn High Mass, at a local Episcopal church, the subdeacon was a Buddhist. Is this within the rules and regulations (not to mention faith)
    Message 1 of 60 , Feb 11, 2001
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      This morning at Solemn High Mass, at a local Episcopal church, the subdeacon
      was a Buddhist. Is this within the rules and regulations (not to mention
      faith) of the Episcopal Church (ECUSA)?

      The person who was subdeacon taught a course in Buddhism in a recent
      "Spirituality" semester of courses offered by parish members (something like
      "Communiversity" if you have that in your community). I did not attend this
      particular course. I thought the subject of the course was mere interest,
      but this morning, after performing as subdeacon, he told me, during the
      Reception following, "I'm a Buddhist." I'm sure he was serious. He has a
      fine tenor voice, and does a fine job of singing the Epistle.
    • atombomb
      Blessed be God. ... They are, but sometimes behind the positive appreciation, there is a quite strong sense of this is not the highest path , and ultimately,
      Message 60 of 60 , Feb 28, 2001
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        Blessed be God.

        Marnie wrote:
        > > but in nearly every book
        > > published under the signature of the Dalai Lama recently (usually
        > > transcripts of his talks), there is at least one comment which shows
        > > first of all that he has never really encountered Christ, and therefore
        > > doesn't understand Christianity
        > I suppose it's true that nobody can really understand Christianity from the
        > outside, but I've always thought the Dalai Lama's comments quite positive
        > and perceptive.

        They are, but sometimes behind the positive appreciation, there is a
        quite strong sense of "this is not the highest path", and "ultimately,
        it won't work". I looked for an example or two, but due to limited time
        couldn't find any. Those stronger statements are more rare, and he never
        really talks about Christianity at much length, even in his one book of
        commentaries on some gospel passages.

        There are other books also. Thinley Norbu has a response to JP2's
        "Threshold of Hope" called "Welcoming Flowers from across the Threshold
        of Hope"; and one needs also to read Theravada Buddhist statements.
        These tend to be much less appreciative than the DL's statements to the
        public and popular press. To a large degree they're based on
        misunderstandings, but there are some substantive issues.

        One problem is that the Christianity most Buddhists (including Western
        Buddhists) have encountered for the most part has been either of the
        fundamentalist evangelical sort, or institutional CofE or RCism, none of
        which is likely to impress a serious meditator.

        > Do you think there can be a valid understanding of any
        > religion by an uncommitted observer? Would a Christian's comments on
        > Buddhism also miss the mark in the same way, or is it something peculiar to
        > Christianity that it can only be understood by living it?

        Yes and no. Obviously, an uncommitted person is not going to be able to
        speak from a long experience of commitment. On the other hand, though--
        and this is something I often found very strangely lacking in
        Christian-Buddhist "dialogues"-- I think it really is possible to learn
        what the other believes and teaches, if only you're willing to take the
        other person seriously as actually meaning what s/he is saying. The
        problem always came from trying to fit the other's teaching into one's
        own point of view, either directly or by comparing it to some tertium
        quid which supposedly encompassed both (I call this latter approach the
        "triangulation method"). After watching perfectly reasonable and
        intelligent and indeed, highly trained people woefully misunderstand
        each other time and again, I came to formulate the following principle
        of ecumenical dialogue:

        "Everything speaks most clearly with its own voice, in its own
        language-- so listen, and learn it!"

        Understanding will arise from hearing; even synthesis. But facile
        "translations" and especially triangulation don't seem to be very
        effective at all; best not even to try.

        I think the main problem in an outsider's understanding of
        Christianity-- maybe for insiders as well-- is the Resurrection itself.
        Invariably, this is never understood (by others) as a real event-- it
        has to be a myth of some sort, right? Or if it is, it is understood to
        be a resuscitation, like that of Lazarus, only with a quasi-mythical
        "ascent" at the end. People need to grasp that the Resurrection really
        occurred and therefore that Jesus Christ really conquered death. And
        then the implications of that fact have to reverberate a bit. When they
        do, sooner or later, one comes to the realization that if he arose and
        conquered death, then his is alive here and now. Or so it is claimed.
        Well, if it's claimed, then how can I find out about this? So it becomes
        a question not even of whether one believes that it happened, but of
        whether one can encounter and thus come to believe in Jesus Christ
        himself, personally.

        There's nothing of the sort in Buddhism. There it's a question of
        working with your own embodied experience, to gain a thorough
        understanding of its true nature.

        For that reason, I do think that Buddhism is easier to "understand" from
        the outside. I write, "understand", because ultimately you can't
        understand without long experience of practice, and in that sense, we're
        all outsiders, even born Buddhists, until we attain to the full
        Awakening of the tathagatas. Nonetheless, it's possible, I think, to
        understand more readily because Buddhism presents itself as a
        verifiable, demonstrable system of psychospiritual ascesis, and it never
        departs from the discourse of psychology. Except in Zen, of course,
        which will always keep us clear about the fact that intellectual
        understanding of the Abhidhamma (canonical psychological texts) is not
        the same as direct experience of the Awakened mind.

        > > One of the issues is always eschatology....are we reborn after
        > > death into another life like this one, or do we go to the place prepared
        > > for us, to await our resurrection from the dead? In some ways, we will
        > > have to practice our faith the same way, either way, but in other
        > > respects, this eschatological difference will profoundly affect our
        > > pratice, and its motivation. Because the answer to the question, How do
        > > we ultimately get out of this? is different in each case.
        > I see the point. But what really significant differences in praxis would
        > this lead to?

        Prayer to Jesus Christ, for one. Eucharist, for another.

        And these are things that are not taken with sufficient seriousness in
        Buddhist-Christian dialogue. The Eucharist in particular is not a kind
        of add-on to our "spirituality", a kind of "Christian ritual", like the
        Buddhists may or may not choose to go to the Vesaka (Buddha's Birthday)
        celebrations. The Eucharist is the living heart of our religion, and
        that's why it's so deadly serious when churches break communion.
        Excommunication basically says, You've gone so far astray that at best
        we question whether you could really be called Christian in any but a
        sociological sense. But we say that this Bread and this Cup are
        themselves, as Irenaeus put it, the cure for death-- in his words, the
        "remedy of immortality" (pharmakon athanasias). In other words, death is
        not cured by meditation and "awakening". Thus we have very distinctive
        foundations for our (in some ways otherwise very similar)

        It's the foundation that's key. Upon this is erected the entire ascesis.
        The asceses themselves are in fact astonishingly similar-- both the
        fathers-- for instance in the Philokalia-- and the Buddhist teachers
        speak of the three basic passions of greed, hatred, and ignorance, from
        which all other evil arises, and prescribe similar methods for
        overcoming these. That's to be expected, in a way, because we got much
        of this language from the Greeks, an Indo-European people, and Buddhism
        also is Indo-European. And beneath that, Christians and Buddhists are
        both, after all, human beings, with the same kinds of issues. But it's
        the foundation that determines the ultimate value and reference of all
        that's built on it.

        Buddhism does have "sacraments", by the way-- especially in the Tantra--
        and American tantrists have even taken to speaking of their "liturgies".
        I'm not sure this is completely appropriate, since the word should
        connote the public act of an assembled body offering service to God (or
        in pagan terms, the gods). But the finality of all Buddhist ritual is to
        realize in oneself the truth of the teachings. The end of any tantric
        meditation is to dissolve the image of the god, to realize it really as
        a projection of your own interior potential, and to realize that
        potential (or rather, to realize it's already your own nature).
        Christian worship also aims at a personal realization, to be sure, but
        there is always a dimension of outright praise, thanks, and adoration
        directed to an Other. Thus, for us, the ultimate reality is that
        Community which has as its origin and principle the mystery of the
        All-Holy Trinity, and the sacraments are functions of this.

        In terms of meditation, Buddhist meditation occupies itself with two
        things, shamatha (tranquillity) and vipashyana (insight) (those are the
        Sanskrit words; perhaps you're more familiar with the Pali "samatha" and
        "vipassana"-- Pali could be thought of as Sanskrit with a Boston
        accent-- "dhamma" for "dharma", etc). Anyway, in shamatha meditation,
        one seeks to stabilize the mind; then once you've calmed down a bit, you
        direct and focus the attention on the body, feeling, mind, and mental
        objects with the purpose of gaining a thorough and complete insight
        (vipashyana) into their true nature. You'll find that it is impossible
        to do this and to pray at the same time, because the focus is directed
        in different ways. Though I find shamatha practice useful if my mind is
        agitated when I want to pray.

        I don't think Buddhist meditation is bad, by the way. I just strongly
        urge not to replace prayer with it. Prayer to Jesus Christ and
        examination of one's own body and mind are not the same thing!

        Anyway, maybe now you can see why I would disagree with the following sentence:

        > The recommended actions seem to be pretty similar whether or
        > not there is rebirth.

        In terms of ethics and whatnot, that's more or less true. But in terms
        of spirituality, there are some pretty hefty differences.

        >The motivation angle: to a christian it looks almost
        > as if the Buddhist believer acts justly with a view to obtaining credit for
        > the next life, but then of course that's what christianity looks like to
        > non-christians.

        I can agree with this, and consequently, if your desire is for "a better
        time after death", I would say there's little difference. In fact
        there's even some speculation that the development of Pure Land Buddhism
        (the most popular kind-- some 95% of all Japanese and probably Chinese
        Buddhists are Pure Land, and most of the others (Zen, etc) are "also"
        Pure Land, as the schools are not incompatible-- there's some
        speculation that the Pure Land developed partly as a result of contact
        with Nestorian Christians on the Silk Route. The idea of Amitabha
        Buddha's Western Paradise and the popular Christian conception of Heaven
        are rather similar. Nonetheless, what is the ultimate goal? Nirvana is
        not the same as Communion with the All-Holy Trinity. At least not in any
        way any Buddhist has ever talked about it to date.

        > While no doubt there are unsophisticated adherents of both
        > religions who operate on those lines, I'm quite sure that a devout Buddhist
        > would reject that kind of self-interest as a motive, just as a devout
        > Christian would.

        Not entirely. The Pure Land is a place "where there are no obstacles to
        practicing the Dharma", and hence, Awakening is guaranteed. Or, if one
        is thinking of rebirth in this world, one wishes to return as a human
        being, since only human beings have the right combination of wakefulness
        and suffering that allows for the practice of Dharma. Thus it is the
        practice of the Dharma that is the value, not simply self interest and
        pleasure, but love of truth. Similarly, in Christianity also, we can
        desire to "go to heaven" so as to be with Jesus Christ not just because
        that would be celestially groovy, but because he is the Truth.

        So of course, the following is true in any case:

        > To any person of mature faith, one acts
        > justly/compassionately simply because that is how one should act, regardless
        > of the putative benefits in the hereafter.


        > > Confusion results from trying to mix Christianity with other religions.
        > > It just does. "The surest way to arm the spirit of blasphemy against you
        > > is to study the writings of heretics," as one of the fathers wrote, from
        > > long experience of the spiritual life.
        > But Buddhists aren't heretics, are they? I'm puzzled by this - you're one
        > who has studied Buddhism deeply and with great respect, and yet you seem to
        > be advising that Christians ought not to enquire closely into such things or
        > be willing to learn from other faiths. Do we listen to people of other
        > faiths only with a view to refuting their errors?

        Not heretics, pagans. But if one shoe fits, the other will too.

        I do think that one needs more maturity than I have for this study to be
        properly fruitful. I used to live near a church in Berkeley that
        sponsored weekly lectures by a Buddhist teacher (i.e., a pagan priest).
        I really oppose this sort of thing, because I do think it will lead
        people into thinking that you can just sort of mix and match, and the
        result of that will be, as I say, just confusion. All but guaranteed!
        And I don't know how many Christian teachers have the depth to guide
        someone through the mine(mind)fields of Buddhism.

        Interestingly, Mount Athos has not been eager at all to meet the Dalai
        Lama or other Buddhist monks. I tend to think the Christian-Buddhist
        encounter will not really get underway until this happens. To some
        degree, we can probably attribute this to the insularity of Greek
        monastic culture, but it's not like the fathers there are just a bunch
        of uneducated spiritual hicks, or simply unaware. Something has to be
        prepared in depth, which they don't feel is in place yet. Meanwhile, I
        know Christians who are rushing ahead even to embrace even the Tantra. I
        suspect our subdeacon friend is not far from this group.

        > > I remember the nail driven right into my heart
        > > in just three words, when a Buddhist flat out said to me one evening
        > > that the gospel was "just not true". I struggled for years with that. I
        > > am not sure it's over, though perhaps now, due to his mercy, "I know my
        > > Redeemer liveth."
        > Interesting - did he/she mean factually or historically untrue, otr that the
        > gospel was spiritually unsound in the sense that it doesn't "work"? Why did
        > this trouble you so greatly, when as you said no non-christian is qualified
        > to judge these things? (I ask only to be informed)

        He simply denied the resurrection: Didn't happen.

        I don't know why-- the impact caught me by surprise as well. Perhaps God
        allowed it to show me that I was not so immune to doubt as I'd thought
        (this actually was a thought I'd had-- after all, I'm a pretty confident
        kind o'guy when it comes to these things, right?). Or maybe we were
        having a deep conversation-- you know, in the sense that sometimes a few
        simple words can be the tip of a whole iceberg-- and something tumbled
        in me and opened up-- to doubt that I'd had all along.

        He just point-blank denied that Christ had risen, and for some reason,
        perhaps because a chink had been opened by unsettled questions as to the
        relative value of meditation and prayer, doubt struck me that night as
        an almost physical stab, and I struggled with it for many years. Won't
        even say it's completely over-- though one time, years later, when I was
        praying, suddenly Christ was there, and afterwards the only thing I
        could say about it is that the cure to unfaith is faith. Confirms me in
        my idea that faith somehow has at least at some point to be a
        perception. The power of such a glimpse can last for a lifetime, but it
        has to be there. Otherwise we are completely defenseless, and Buddhism
        is very plausible. And that's why I think inviting pagan priests to
        teach in your temple can be spiritually disastrous for your flock.

        When I say pagan priests, I'm only half-joking. They do make offerings
        to other gods. Turns out-- I think we were all caught by surprise at
        this-- that they have a very complex and subtle theory of what it
        amounts to, much more than the Bible would lead us to believe, with
        jeremiads (or moseads or isaiads) against "idols" (I'm still not quite
        sure what to make of all that). Nonetheless, it's true that in
        worshipping the Buddhas, the Boddhisattvas, and so forth-- whatever that
        may mean-- they are not making offerings to the Father, Son, and Holy
        Spirit. Oh, yes, because I've thought about this for a long time, on the
        basis of some meagre experience, but experience nonetheless, I do have
        some ideas about how Buddhism can be seen in a provisionally positive
        light-- to put it superficially, St Paul does say after all that God has
        not abandoned the gentiles, but has left them a way of finding him; and
        one has to think about how a people might accomplish that, in complete
        cultural abeyance from the messianic revelation of Israel. But I think
        you can see where, despite his appreciation of Athenian philosophy as a
        kind of pedagogue for the Gentiles, if St Paul had identified philosophy
        with the Gospel, or vice versa, that would have been a pretty serious
        departure from the Gospel. And in fact this was the struggle of the
        Church for centuries and centuries: every single heresy you can name
        comes from some undigested bit of Hellenism. It all had to be digested,
        and it took a long time. In the end, the Church was left speaking Greek,
        but the Greeks had become Christians.

        > >So naturally, those of us
        > > who are perhaps more serious, turn to religions that actually do produce
        > > Dalai Lamas. Thus we encounter Buddhism-- and yet, not at a level where
        > > it really can address our deepest questions (serious theological ones),
        > > because we don't really have any personal experience of the dogmas we
        > > teach. "Trinity one in essence and undivided"? What's that? What's that
        > > "in the palm of your hand", as the Buddhists say? Anyone can define
        > > words, but what do they *mean*?
        > I wonder if interfaith encounters are best served by diving right into the
        > deepest, most idiosyncratic doctrines of each.

        In my experience, it would be. That's where the issues are, and nothing
        is served by skirting the issues and just being nice. Which is all we do
        when we limit ourselves to talking about agreeable and uncontroversial
        matters like the universality of suffering or the need for social

        > They're likely to be the
        > most mutually incomprehensible areas, even if they're precious and essential
        > to the adherents of that faith and must be dealt with eventually in any
        > serious engagement.

        And it's precisely here that mutual comprehension-- even of lesser
        issues-- must emerge.

        > It seems to me that Christians set themselves up for
        > futility and frustration by insisting adamantly from the outset that we have
        > irreconcilable differences from any other faith.

        Well, we might or might not have irreconcilable differences-- in some
        things, yes; in others, no, as I think I have indicated somewhat.
        "Differences" might not be the word though. What we have is a unique and
        distinctive Gospel (good "news") to offer, which as Isaiah said, no one
        has ever even thought of before, so astonishing is it. And yet, I don't
        think it will ever prove to be unrelated and foreign to any human being.
        It's just that we have to discern the ways that it responds to and is
        therefore connected with the genuine insights and concerns of other cultures.

        It never pays to be overly aggressive about this-- though it's amazing
        what you can say if you're honest about it-- but we must never forget
        that when we speak to another, somehow at the basis of all we say is an
        earnest desire that the other "be saved and come to a knowledge of the
        truth" in Jesus Christ. In other words, in interfaith dialogue, the
        stakes cannot be less than the complete conversion of the other. Either
        ours or theirs is the Truth. Because either what you have to say is the
        ultimate Fact, or it's not. And they certainly think theirs is. But they
        have no knowledge of the risen Lord.

        > It may be the case in the
        > long run, but perhaps there's ample mutually-intelligible ground for
        > exploration which would at least allow us the joy of discovering that we
        > care about the same questions in the same sort of way. Which is, heaven
        > knows, as far as we get most of the time in discussion with other
        > christians.

        I'm really convinced that there's more joy in discovering that we care
        about the same questions in different ways. The questions are often the
        same, because we're all human. And it's never good to forget that. But
        we have a different answer, one that no one has ever guessed in any philosophy.

        > >we do have Good News to share; it really is News, and not
        > > something that comes in a different package elsewhere. So we all know,
        > > as the apostles understood well enough, that not just an "encounter" but
        > > a coming-to-faith is required, and a conversion, and a baptism; and
        > > therefore, Buddhism's conversion is something we both have to think
        > > about. But because, as I say, Buddhists have rarely if ever met anyone
        > > who could speak to them at their own depth, the "encounter" that we
        > > often make so much of, so far has largely gone unrealized.
        > It does seem baffling that those Christians with the most zeal for
        > missionary endeavour are so often those without any obvious talent for it or
        > understanding of the issues.... particularly with so subtle a faith as
        > Buddhism, the Christianity purveyed by many a would-be evangelist does seem
        > painfully primitive and shallow, quite unequal to meeting the spiritual
        > hunger of any sensitive and intelligent person.

        Often those "primitive and shallow" people have a simpler, in the sense
        of more direct, appreciation of the fact I alluded to above-- that the
        stakes are always the participants' lives and eternal salvation itself.
        Educated people like myself are much less comfortable with this idea and
        always try to soften it or couch it in qualifications.

        > And yet, to bring about a
        > real encounter with Christ and draw someone to conversion, does the gospel
        > message need to entail a sophisticated exposition of doctrine, at least in
        > the beginning of the engagement?

        No of course not. Sophistication is often misleading, in fact. We have
        to cut through to the heart.

        > Isn't it more to the point that it gets
        > across the reality and love of God, and makes an evident difference to the
        > evangelist's own life?

        Yes, but I would say there are serious philosophical and theological
        principles that need to be worked through. Perhaps this is not so
        important for you or for me or for someone else, but ultimately, on the
        level of a whole culture, deep issues arise.

        St Gregory Palamas is considered to be the last of the fathers who had
        to devote their energies towards achieving a balanced synthesis of Greek
        and Hebrew thought. He died in 1458. That means it had taken 1800 years
        (from Alexander) for the Church to achieve this synthesis. To a large
        degree, because Buddhism is an Indo-European religion and has much in
        common with Greek thought, much of the groundwork for our encounter with
        Buddhism has already been laid in patristic synthesis, but I don't
        expect the rest to be worked out any time soon.

        For one thing, Buddhism does not have a concept of the "person", in the
        sense that we do-- for ours was hammered out only in the Christological
        controversies of the first few centuries AD. A thousand
        misunderstandings will continue to arise from that, but mutual
        recognition of the reality pointed to by this term will be very
        fruitful, I think, for both religions, and for dialogue. And I think the
        Buddhists are right, by the way, about the inherent emptiness of "self".
        So there are areas that it might be useful to discuss. But one has to be
        clear about who one is, to do it.

        Probably we'd get too far away from liturgy if I went into any of those
        potentially fruitful areas, though; and besides, my time's up.


        John Burnett
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