I live in the heart of the Bible Belt. When this article is published, many of my family and friends will fear I am destined for hell. Some Christians, like many others, misjudge what they do not understand. Some simply scratch their heads when they hear of a Christian examining Buddhism, meditation, or even just alternative experiences and faiths. Other Christians will have much stronger objections than that.
I know this well, for there was a time when I was one of them.
My journey into examining Buddhism and developing a practice of meditation began when a marriage counselor, a Christian, suggested I read the writings of Richard Rohr. His works Everything Belongs and Falling Upward make reference to the renowned Trappist monk Thomas Merton, whose engagement with Buddhism led me to read books by the likes of Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama. The more I read, the more I found I had little grasp of Buddhism and its many schools. But I noticed how the teachings of the four noble truths and eightfold path were in many ways—though not all—consistent with the teachings of Jesus and Christian doctrine.
For instance, the Buddha’s teaching on right view affords a deeper understanding of Jesus’s warning not to be “conformed to this world but be transformed” (Romans 12:2) and to “let my mind dwell on whatever is good, right, and pure” (Phillippians 4:8). My thinking has transformed in such a way that I perceive my peers’ negative reactions as arising from their own attachments rather than as deliberate efforts to hurt me. By stewarding my mind skillfully, I am better equipped to avoid misjudgments or dwell on difficult circumstances that might otherwise result in unskillful means of dealing with pain.
In my pursuit of mindfulness I have found myself giving thanks for all things at a far deeper level. I’m more thankful for simple things as I eat a piece of fruit, walk in the woods, and endure the trials of life. Yes, as I become more mindful I am even grateful for difficulties and pain, as they allow me to access greater compassion for those going through their own hardships.
Releasing attachments, meanwhile, has bolstered my belief that I should “not store up for [myself] treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19). The biblical observation of how “the earth should change and . . . the mountains slip into the heart of the sea” (Psalm 46:2) has been illuminated by my understanding of impermanence, as has the admonishment to forget “what lies behind and reach forward to what lies ahead . . . press on” (Philippians 3:13). Striving to maintain a beginner’s mind opens me to a faith in Jesus beyond the preconceptions that I’ve carried since I was a young man. Finally, after so many years, I see genuine Christianity anew.
These teachings have made their way into my thinking, and my library, during a family and marital crisis that has led me to fundamentally question whether my experience is, in fact, consistent with the belief system to which I’ve adhered for so long. Lately, the tumult in my life has seemed immune to my usual remedies: the Bible, prayer, and the fellowship of other Christians. In my study and meditation I began to see how much of my life was the result of living up to others’ expectations, how little I forgave myself, and how much, even as a Christian, I was prone to harsh, if unspoken judgment of myself and others.
But as I’ve noticed this tendency in myself, my questioning has grown to include not just my habits but my faith. I recently confessed to my wife, son, and daughter that I had begun to wonder whether God even existed. To be sure, these concerns were, and remain, disconcerting to those who have known me as an elder in the church, a Sunday school teacher, and an apologist for the Bible and Christianity. They were and still are dismayed. I can see their pain, their concern, and their suffering, just as I’ve become acutely aware of my own.
As I write these words, I sit in a one-bedroom apartment, having separated, about eight weeks ago, from my wife of 31 years. In Christian circles, at least those in which I have fellowshipped, worshipped, and in whose tradition I have raised my children, such a decision is considered cowardly, selfish, and sinful.
I have, in short, failed at what is for many the litmus test of Christian manhood.
But amid this chaos, I have nevertheless returned to my faith, albeit in altered form. While Buddhism does not acknowledge a creator God, I am comforted by the Dalai Lama’s words of encouragement to Christians to allow Buddhism to make them better practitioners of their faith. For many Christians, that call would mean I return to my wife. But in the reflective wisdom of Buddhism, I have seen more clearly the message of Christ’s forgiveness.
Though my grappling with divorce is hardly complete, I find myself clearly seeing the pain and suffering of others when they react to me in anger, while recognizing that I am not bound to judge them as they might judge me. I recall the words of the Apostle Paul: “I do not even judge myself.” These are healing words from a man who considered himself “chief among sinners,” and who, according to the Bible, presided over the stoning of Stephen, a disciple of Christ, before Paul’s own conversion from his Jewish faith.
Rest assured, my words are not an attempt to reconcile Buddhism with Christianity. In my own experience I find it difficult to reconcile some of my choices with my beliefs about either path. I am imperfect. And yet in the silence of meditation, I encounter what Buddhists would call the compassion of Avalokiteshvara and Christians call “the peace of Christ.” I have seen the struggle of others in a new light as I realize how my own grasping for permanence in religious vocation and in my marriage has caused both myself and others so much pain. Similarly, I see how my lack of compassion has stranded me on the throne of judgment. As I seek the grace of family and friends, I long to reciprocally grant them grace in their pain, failings, and fear.
I no longer find it necessary to believe the Bible is literally true. Its truth is sufficient, though I often struggle to understand it. I see the message of Jesus—to love my neighbor as myself—more clearly, and pray that I become more like him each and every day. But I see the contradictions in my behavior and my belief, just as Paul did in his writing in Romans 7:15 when he admitted, “what I am doing I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do.” And as I sit in meditation, to quiet the storms of my mind, I find his presence there to comfort me as I endure the tough love of some of my Christian friends.
Upon reading this, many Christians will suggest I have taken words of the Bible out of context, that I have distorted the words of Jesus, Paul, and other writers. Perhaps they are correct. I pray not. But I am reminded of the words of the disciple Peter, one of Jesus’s inner circle, the cornerstone of Jesus’s church, in his description of Christ: “And while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, he uttered no threats” (1 Peter 2:23). I pray I will respond the same way to those who might revile me.
While I have yet to entirely reconcile my faith with my newfound Buddhist outlook and meditation practice, I long to live as Jesus did in understanding and compassion, comforting those who suffer. I will do it in prayer, in study, and in sitting.
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