Skip to main content

Buy the Print Edition of Radical Second Things!

Thomas Merton and the Synergy of Christianity and Buddhism

I have a new article at the Hampton Institute! Colin Jenkins has been allowing me to contribute there for a bit over a year now. He has encouraged me several times to write more religious material and I was initially reluctant because I didn't think I had enough knowledge about it yet. I feel much more confident and this point and I can proudly say that this is only the start of more to come:

I had a very interesting conversation with a good friend recently. My friend is a lifelong Catholic who has attracted more recently to evangelical faiths of the "personal savior" variety. I mentioned to him Thomas Merton, who he had never heard of, much to both my surprise and his.

My friend is more on the fundamentalist spectrum of things, which is okay - unlike many progressive Christians, I don't think fundamentalism is completely out of bounds. I told my friend about the parallels between Buddhism and Christianity, and he began to say he was "worried" that Merton was trying to equivocate the two faiths when Christianity is the "ultimate truth." As a whole, however, my friend was receptive and was very interested in the idea that Buddhism, founded in a much different part of the world at a much different time, formed very similar theological practices and outlooks.

In Merton's last address, in Bangkok, Thailand, he said that as Western Christians who have an "openness with Buddhism, with Hinduism and with great Asian traditions, we learn more about the potentiality of our own traditions because they have gone from the natural point of view so much deeper in to this than we have."

When Merton met with the Dalai Lama in the late 1950s, His Holiness was the subject of vicious international bullying and harassment - as Merton put it in his last address, the Dalai Lama "made every effort to coexist with the Chinese government and he failed." He had been expelled from his own country, Tibet, and met with the most baseless forms of disrespect from Chinese politicians. Much of Western notions of Buddhism may have been shaped around that experience. The Buddhists of Tibet became a pet project of many American celebrities, and the 1990s were a crescendo for Western sympathy with Tibetan Buddhists. Perhaps due to the fall of the Soviet Union and a general lack of problems at home in the United States, there was a renewed focus on Chinese mistreatment of Tibet. Buddhist convert Richard Gere campaigned quite a bit for the cause, and films and fundraising occurred, with the Dalai Lama receiving a great deal of adoration. One of my favorite film portrayals is Seven Years In Tibet - in that film, we see the Dalai Lama put an extra effort in to provide olive branches for Mao Zedong, only to see those branches stomped out. It is hard not to sympathize with the story of Tibetan Buddhism; and, to some level, Buddhism as a whole has entered a narrative similar to that of Native Americans and their spirituality - unable to fight back against a more powerful force of exclusion and modernity.

Many new age mystics seem to approach Buddhism as some sort of unitary philosophy, free of the rough edges and exclusion of other faiths. Buddhism almost seems like the "safe" religion - not demanding a belief in any one God or divinity. The Buddhist notion of suffering and of loss is not for everybody, however. It is quite blunt and harsh. It talks very somberly about certain realities, preaches restraint on many levels, and doesn't provide some of the more hearty promises found in other religions.

In Christianity and Buddhism, a late 1960s book by Buddhadasa Bhikkhu, Bhikkhu says that neither the Buddha nor Christ sought to create utopia. They both accepted that the world and mankind were imperfect. He cites scripture - "Do not suppose that I have come to abolish the law and the prophets: I did not come to abolish, but to complete." (Matthew 5:17)

In a recent book by Jeff Bridges and Bernie Glassman, Glassman, a Zen master, cites that Buddha proclaimed very bluntly that life is suffering. Siddhartha Gautama lived a life of privilege before he attained enlightenment, and his seclusion and meditation was in no small part a response to the inequality that he saw. It is hard not to see similarities between Gautama's disgusted response to inequality and his participation in it and Christ's proclamation to his followers that "what you do to the least among you, you do to me." It also is not difficult to see a similarity between Buddha's proclamation that 'life is suffering' and one of the narratives most critical to Christianity - Original Sin.

Buddha says that life is suffering and, in Christianity and Buddhism, Bhikkhu says that the most desirable outcome for which humans who realize this must strive for is "overcoming evil or mental impurity or defilements." In the Buddhist narrative, evil can be easily pinpointed as whatever causes suffering. Christianity doesn't combat this narrative but actually gives it a basis that Buddha, who never claimed to be any sort of messiah, did not provide. The notion of Original sin explains that: while not all people are necessarily evil, they all have evil and the capacity for evil in them. Bhikksu reiterates this critical theological point when he says "each individual professing any religion has the problem of overcoming the evil." In other words, a central theme between the two is that evil is something all people of all nationalities and origins are faced with and must reconcile for themselves.

Beyond just simple theology, the similarities between Buddhism and Christiniaty go much deeper, including but not limited to their respective origins. Its place of origin, India, Buddhism is the fourth most popular religion. This rejection of Buddhism naturally pushed its adherents up through China and throughout Asia, where it enjoyed much more success. Christianity, likewise, proved much more successful in Europe than it did in its place of origin, the Middle East.

If you've ever been in a Buddhist temple, you may have noticed some eerie similarities with Catholicism in particular. The decorative robes, the shaved heads, chanting, and prayer beads all are quite similar, as are the institutions of monasteries as productive cooperatives in which a pursuit of truth is married with production for the community at large.

Merton never completed his exploration of eastern religion. This likely was not because he felt unfulfilled by his own faith, but rather because he recognized that the search for truth was universal and had been explored much similarly and to similar conclusions throughout the world. Far from negating the truth of Christianity, Christians should look to Buddhism for enhancement.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

"Life is Much More Than Bratwurst:" A Chat With Rummelsnuff

A note - Blogging isn't free. Right now I provide gifts to my writers as a way of thanking people for writing. I would like to be able to afford to give them some sort of renumeration, even if it is small, for making this blog what it is. I'm in talks with a friend who may be able to help connect this blog, which has been in existence for one year now, with more religious communities dedicated to interfaith dialogue. Your donation will do a lot toward making that happen.




Rummelsnuff is awesome. If you don't know, he is Roger Baptist - a bodybuilding German singer who has toured abundantly in support of his music - an unusual composite of German industrial, drinking songs and electronica. Roger was nice enough to do an interview with me and took the time to answer in English, not his first language. Thanks so much, Roger!

First off, you have quite the physique? Can you tell us about your diet, your regimen, etc.?

Maybe I am lucky to like exactly the stuff, which is good for mu…

Eagles of Death Metal Go Alt Right

Hey all - remember writing is not free! If you want to see more of this, be sure to donate.


Back in 2010, I, along with my friend Alex Knepper, wrote about the prospective rise of the Alternative Right movement – a political organization of well dressed and well presented white supremacist who bring all of the hate, free of swastikas, shaved heads or all the usual turn offs of that ideology.
Alex’s article is up still at Frum Forum, a website of former Bush advisor David Frum. As one friend told me, I not only was right but more right than I thought I’d be about all of this. The world is changing very fast and it would take a profound change in human nature for the response to that change not to include a bit of reaction.
It’s much worse that I thought it would ever be. The forthcoming nominee of the Republican party blatantly flirts with white nationalists on his Twitter account, retweeting their material with abandon and refusing to condemn when pressed on it. Jesse Hughes, the lead …

"Proud Boys" and the Alt Right in the Bay Area

Now that NBC News picked up the Proud Boys story, here is something I wrote for a local Bay Area newspaper about them earlier in the fall. The newspaper was hesitant to write about the subject, as seems to happen when I want to write about the Alt Right. I interviewed Paul Bazille, a member of the Proud Boys group and everything. If the headline on the story seems different than this link, that's because I've changed it from what the newspaper wanted to one more appropriate for the story. Writing about this is frustrating - I'm torn between wanting to accurately portray the source, who put trust in me, and not wanting to seem sympathetic to the Alt Right, which I am certainly not. What that frustration turns in to is just not writing about it at all. The picture I took is from an anti-Alt Right protest in Berkeley.



Could a replay of Charlottesville occur here? The Bay Area has many of its own icons of a racist past that may be ripe for removal. UC Berkeley’s Barrows Hall, …

RST on Facebook

About Radical Second Things

Michael Orion is a blogger, writer, artist and photographer based in the Bay Area. Besides his maintenance and promotion of Radical Second Things, he contributes to the San Francisco newspaper SF Western Edition, where he writes about local non-profit organizations.

Mark Cappetta is a practicing Catholic and active LGBT activist. He has been instrumental in keeping Radical Second Things and updates the Facebook account almost daily.

Eva Gnostiquette is an artist, programmer, "future scientist," bi-trans girl and graphic designer. She voluntarily helped to create the first print issue Radical Second Things and designed our beautiful banners. Thanks so much, Eva!

Jordan Denato is a professional artist based out of Iowa. He took the initiative to illustrate both Jennifer Reimer's story and Michael Orion's Oscar Romero work. He has his own art studio, Tar and Feather Studios, and is a critical part of Radical Second Things.

Radical Second Things is a liberation theology themed blog that has clear cut goals - we see the structural decline of the United States and much of the west and hope to present alternatives that will offer "a preferential option for the poor" as more become vulnerable.

© 2017 Radical Second Things