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15: Comparing Buddhism and Christianity by Means of the Framework

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    The last eight chapters have applied the framework of ways of being religious in a comparative study of those ways in two major religious traditions, Buddhism and Christianity. One objective has been to further understanding of the relationships between the two religions, but the primary objectives have been to illustrate the power and promise of the framework in such an application and to show how the framework is meant to be applied. This final chapter offers several concluding reflections on the results of the application.

    First, the correlation of examples from each of the two traditions in Chapters 9 through 14 is not meant to represent the only sort of correlation that might be carried out through use of the framework. As pointed out before, individual religious phenomena and specific subtraditions sometimes combine or fuse more than one way of being religious. Instances of fusions of the same two or more ways of being religious could fruitfully be compared. For example, the peculiar fusion of a kind of sacramental aesthetic simplicity found in some of the Zen-inspired traditional arts of Japan could fruitfully be juxtaposed with the spirit of Shaker craftsmanship or the sort of manual craftsmanship one finds in the Cistercian monastic tradition. A different fusion found in the Zen-inspired martial arts (which were also influenced by Taoism and Confucianism) could fruitfully be compared with the arts of chivalry and warfare found among medieval Christian religiousmilitary subtraditions (and the ambivalence of members of other, more mainstream subtraditions of Buddhism and Christianity toward them).1 Still another would be a correlation, say, of the combination of this-worldly asceticism, activist proselytizing, and identification of worldly prosperity with what is taken to be conformity to ultimate realityo found in Japanese Sokka Gakkai Buddhism and a similar combination found in the Mormon tradition and in certain forms of American Evangelical Protestantism (and, here too, the ambivalence of members of other, more mainstream subtraditions of Buddhism and Christianity toward these practices). Reference to the ambivalence of other subtraditions to those last mentioned suggest possibilities of correlating, say, criticisms made of Buddhist variations on the ways of, say, mystical quest and right action by followers of the way of devotion in Buddhism (e.g., Jodo-shin-shu) with criticisms made of Christian variations on these same ways by followers of a way of devotion in Christianity (e.g., Evangelical Protestantism). The possibilities are almost limitless. The main point is to juxtapose instances of the same generic way or ways of carrying on religious life. Comparisons should not be limited to supposedly pure instances of any given way. It is worth recalling that some of the excerpts above are not of pure. instances.

    Second, application of the framework has brought out not only how diverse and complex both Buddhism and Christianity are, but also how they are diverse and complex in quite similar ways. Consequently, much of the initially overwhelming complexity (though likely not all of that complexity), apparent to an outsider, may begin to seem much more familiar and less overwhelming once one gets past its initial strangeness to glimpse the generic patterns. Thus, so far as one comes to understand that it is the way of right action that is primarily being pursued in the Catholic Worker Movement, one will not experience the frustration of trying to interpret it as addressing the concerns of the way of mystical quest or the way of reasoned inquiry. Similarly, so far as one understands that the way of shamanic mediation is primarily being pursued in Shugendo, one will not try to make sense of it as addressing concerns of the way of devotion or the way of sacred rite. Taken as whole traditions, all of the generic religious functions associated with the different ways (such as meeting the specific existential needs identified in Chapter 2) are served in Buddhism and Christianity, though not by all their subtraditions. (Of course, any given expression may serve still other functions.) The framework helps to identify and specify these functions and facilitates a kind of commonsense assessment (of the sort proposed in Chapter 5) of how well these functions are being served in given instances. Although Chapters 7 through 14 did not attempt to identify specific instances of degenerate and corrupt expressions of any given way in each religious tradition, it is not hard to imagine how there may be (or recognize that there are in fact) such expressions-indeed, of the specific practices cited in those chapters. Although the book cites and quotes examples from among the best expressions of these traditions, readers who know these traditions firsthand should have no trouble identifying less than ideal expressions of each.

    Third, the juxtaposition of the sometimes strikingly similar examples in the last six chapters makes credible the possibility that there are valuable lessons to be learned from the collective experience of followers of a given way (or ways) in one tradition by followers of the same way (or ways) in a completely different religious tradition. The point is that Buddhist religious life is not simply a product of the unique, distinguishing traits of Buddhism, or Christian religious life simply the product of the unique, distinguishing traits of Christianity. It is in every case also partly a product of Buddhists and Christians wrestling with generic features of one or another way of being religious. And what a group of Buddhists in practical experience with a given way over time comes to learn works well or does not work well is often a very similar, if not identical, lesson a group of Christians had to learn in pursuing the same generic way, and vice versa. Such lessons could very well be shared between religions and solutions adapted from one tradition to the other without compromising what is essential to either tradition (such as a specific posture for women in meditation, a devotional attitude of gratitude for meeting the frustrations of everyday life, or a rational strategy for introducing by means of paradox a truth that must be grasped in an intuitive way). In this way the framework of ways of being religious facilitates a mutually enriching dialogue between religions.

    Fourth, seeing praiseworthy examples of the several different ways of being religious from Buddhism and Christianity alongside each other-for example, the Sarvodaya and Catholic Worker movements, the Shugendo practitioners and the Word of God Charismatic community, Zen Tea Ceremony and the Eastern Orthodox Divine Liturgy-clearly illustrates how, in certain respects at least, all six of the ways belong to each religious tradition taken as a whole. Each way has an integral role to play in each tradition-Dr so it appears from a comparative frame of reference. The other ways do not suffice to serve the functions of that one way within the whole tradition. If one way is not present, functions specific to that way will not be served, or at least not effectively served. This is not to say that each way should be given equal voice or even that each way is somehow equivalent to other ways in significance and value to the whole of a religion. That would be a theologicalo judgment that would appropriately be reached, if at all, only by knowledgeable insiders. My point is that each way has some claim, however limited a claim, to some place in the whole tradition-if only on the basis of the fact that praiseworthy instances of each way (praiseworthy on the basis of commonsense considerations) have historically emerged in each of Buddhism and Christianity that serve religious functions not served by other ways.

    Fifth, given the rather extensive structural similarity ofexpressions ofBuddhism and Christianity brought out by the framework of ways of being religious, what does all this imply about differences between instances of the same way in each of the two traditions and, more generally, about the differences between Buddhism and Christianity as whole traditions? Are they really just different paths to the same ultimate goal, different ways of meeting the same existential needs, as some have maintained? Could it be that Buddhism and Christianity are not ultimately contradictory but rather ultimately complementary in the sense that both are in some sense true and valid? These are difficult and complex questions to which there are no simple answers. If anything, the framework has helped to bring out how difficult and complex these questions are. Occasionally what has appeared on the surface to be a great difference, on closer and empathetic investigation, has turned out to be not such a difference after all. In other words, we have learned not to make sweeping judgments on the basis of apparent differences. We have found many profound similarities and commonalities, but not in all respects. The differences have not all dissolved-far from it. Significant differences remain, which have been made somewhat clearer by the use of the framework applied here. These differences need to be taken seriously. They are not simply summarized; however, they differ somewhat with each different way of being religious. For example, the apparently personal "face" of ultimate realityo in Jodo-shin-shu (i.e., Amida Nyorai) is different from the personal "face" of ultimate realityo in Evangelical Protestantism (Jesus Christ as Personal Lord and Savior), but that difference is not the same as the difference (however related it may be at a deeper level) between the "supernatural power" of Fudo-Myoo in Shugendo and the "supernatural power" of the Holy Spirit in the Word of God Charismatic community.

    There is a serious danger in concentrating so much on generic features of religious life that the features distinctive to each tradition fail to be given their due. In other words, we must also learn not to make sweeping judgments on the basis of apparent similarities. Are Buddhism and Christianity just different paths (or sets of paths) to the same ultimate goal? It depends on what is meant by ultimate goalo. Generically conceived, both traditions set forth paths (or sets of paths) to at-onement with ultimate realityo. In that functional sense, they are clearly aiming at the same functional goal. And this functional goal can be further differentiated in terms of the same specific existential needs (discussed in Chapters 2 and 3) functionally served by instances of any one way of being religious in each of the two traditions. But what have we said when we have said that? Remember, the phrase, "ultimate realityo," is simply a place-holder, a variable; the phrase does not directly identify a substantive reality. It simply defers to the specific religious tradition to fill in the blank. Thus, although both Buddhism and Christianity pursue at-onement with ultimate realityo, the ultimate realityo in either tradition is to all appearances something quite different. (It is not only not the same thing in each case, but many Buddhists would deny that nirvana-or sunyata, tatagatha, tatathil, Dharma, or Dharmakaya, for that matter-has the metaphysical status that God has for most Christians, and vice versa.) My point is that the ultimate nature of ultimate realityo cannot be determined in generic terms (i.e., on phenomenologically noncommittal grounds). It cannot be determined apart from an affirmation of religious faith. Any such determination is necessarily made at the level of specific theologicalo convictions at which particular people arrive in the context of particular traditions and particular social and cultural circumstances. (This is not to say that someone could not attempt to develop a set of specific theologicalo convictions within a generic vocabulary. Several have already tried to do so. But then, despite appearances, it would not be a phenomenologically based generalization over all religious traditions; it would still be simply one more set of theologicalo convictions among others.)

    More substantively, both Buddhism and Christianity consider egoism a vice. More than a vice, each conceives it (though not in identical ways) to be a condition opposed to at-onement with ultimate realityo. Thus both traditions aim at the transcendence of egoism, and their different subtraditions seek to realize this goal in a variety of ways.2 Are all ways within Buddhism equally effective in reaching it? Are all equally effective within Christianity? It seems to be impossible to tell in the abstract and overall. And surely it depends to some extent on the ability of any given way to serve in this capacity for a given person or personality type. Moreover, as indicated in Chapter 5, practice in each of the ways is capable of degenerating along the parameter between selflessness and egoism-which is to say, any given way by itself is not necessarily effective in combating egoism, let alone transcending it. Very much depends on how fully a person gives herself to the authentic practice of that way and to the process of transformation it is supposed to involve. Is Buddhism more effective on the whole than Christianity in transcending egoism, or vice versa? If it is difficult (if not impossible) to answer this question with regard to specific ways and subtraditions, it is even more difficult (and for all practical purposes impossible) to answer it with regard to whole traditions.

    Buddhism and Christianity speak of the condition of the supposed transcendence of egoism in strikingly different ways. Buddhism speaks of the dissolution, even the extinction, of the grasping center of egoism, which Buddhists call the ego. What remains upon dissolution is said to be nirvana (which itself is a negative characterization, denoting a "blowing out" of the flame of egoistic desire) or "one's original Buddha-mind" (which is supposed to be not-other than the original Buddha-mind of any one else). Christianity largely speaks of transformation or transfiguration, of an "old man" and a "new man," of "life according to the flesh" which must die and "life according to the spirit" which is brought to new birth, and of not radical union but an intimate personal relationship of communion of the person with God in Christ in community with other persons. Can these alleged transformations be said to be the same, or are they ultimately something different? It is not easy to say, and this author is not prepared to say so here.3 In any case, the framework of ways of being religious is not designed to provide an answer to this question and, no matter how thoroughly it is applied to the study of Buddhism and Christianity, it is not, by itself, able to answer it. Such a framework does, however, go a long way toward sorting out much of precisely what has to be sorted out to come up with a responsible answer.

    Worship of God (the Holy Trinity) in Christianity is surely not the same thing as worship of Buddha. The two foci of worship are different, and the respective central stories telling of each are significantly different. Making allowances for the different ways of being religious and pairing examples of worship within the same way of being religious within the respective traditions, the very feel of worship differs-though perhaps not as much as one might first suppose. For example, the Tea Ceremony feels different from the way the Divine Liturgy feels. So also does offering puja to the image of the Buddha feel different from offering gifts of bread and wine to Christ for him to transform them into his Body and his Blood. Nevertheless, much (certainly not all) involved in the worship of each is quite similar, if not the same. Depending on the subtradition of worship, some experiences of worship in Buddhism are closer in feeling to certain experiences of worship in Christianity than others. Much, as has already been mentioned, depends on matching the same or similar ways of being religious. There are no easy generalizations to be had. At their best, both the Tea Ceremony and the Divine Liturgy are profoundly sacramental: they are experienced by participants as rendering present to participants the realitieso to which they allude. Even taking all of these things into consideration, one can still say that worship of the Buddha in Buddhism functions quite differently from the way worship of God (the Holy Trinity) does in Christianity. According to what many Buddhists say, the goal of Enlightenment is not itself expressed or realized in worship of the Buddha; worship here acknowledges the goal as embodied in the Buddha and honors the Buddha as teaching the way. Perhaps this is because most worship in Buddhism is nonsacramental or not fully sacramental in the full sense of sacred rite-though sometimes it is, as in the Tea Ceremony described in Chapter 14. In Christianity, the goal of at-onement with God is itself said to be expressed and realized (at least in a kind of foretaste or anticipation) in worship. The Christian tradition says that worship shall never end, that in Heaven worship will be full and complete in ways that are impossible in this life. In Buddhism, by contrast, worship of the Buddha is one of those things said to be like a raft that, once one crosses to the other shore, one leaves behind.

    As a result of the kind of comparative study facilitated by the framework, is it possible for a devout person in one tradition to affirm without contradiction the validity (and truth) of the other tradition? Is it possible for one outside both traditions to affirm without contradiction the validity (and truth) of both? One might, of course, say yes to both questions, and many persons do. The crucial issue is whether they can do so without contradiction, and whether avoidance of contradiction does not empty the claim of significance. Much depends on what is meant by "affirming the validity (and truth)" of a tradition and what is meant by "a truly devout person in a tradition." On the one hand, it is certainly possible to find persons who seem to themselves and to all appearances "truly devout" yet who are abysmally ignorant of their own tradition-indeed, who may hold to views that, were they fully brought to light, flatly contradict orthodox expressions of the tradition to which they suppose they belong. Thorough knowledge of the tradition without illusions is needed to address the issue squarely. On the other hand, it is also possible to water down the meaning of the phrase affirm the validity of a tradition, so much that one who says it means nothing more than that one acknowledges that others believe and follow the tradition and that one chooses to accept and tolerate that fact. Belief alone, according to this view, makes a tradition valid regardless of its content and, as long as a person believes it, a tradition could not possibly be invalid or wrong for the person who believes it. The same, of course, would have to hold for one's affirmation of one's own tradition, thus emptying the term validity of objective significance altogether. The question would still remain, however, whether the objective contents of the two traditions, empathetically understood, were logically compatible. Is it possible to construe each tradition, without compromise to any crucial doctrine, in a manner that allows validity and truth to be recognized in the other tradition?

    This main issue can be clarified and resolved only insofar as knowledgeable and devout representatives of a tradition are able to come together in honest dialogue in which they move past superficial appearances, misunderstandings, and idiosyncratic interpretations, but also beyond having to establish their own faith to be superior or presuming that there can be no fundamental disagreement. The objective would be for dialogue participants to enter empathetically in depth into each other's respective practice and experience to learn what of worth and meaning the other finds there, and to ponder what is thus found in light of their own tradition-forged sensibility for meaning and worth. Then and only then will we be in a position to reach clarity about, and resolution of, the issue. Happily, just such dialogues have recently been taking place between Buddhist theologianso and Christian theologianso and between Buddhist monastics and Christian monastics.4

    Notice that such dialogues are precisely along the lines indicated by the framework of ways of being religious. The framework indicates still other fruitful dialogues that could take place, for example, between Buddhist social activists such as those in the Sarvodaya Movement and Christian social activists such as those in the Catholic Worker Movement, between Evangelical Christians and Pure Land Buddhists, between Buddhist shamanic healers and Charismatic Christian healers, and between Christian sacramental liturgists and their Buddhist counterparts. This author is not yet prepared to project a resolution of the issue, though enough has begun to emerge from these dialogues to indicate that some progress is being made. The framework of ways of being religious clearly indicates a way forward. It is a path well worth exploring-for Buddhists and Christians to be sure, but no less for believers of every tradition. It does not promise utopia. It does promise a measure of greater mutual understanding and respect, allowance for many of our differences, and the possibility of significant cooperation in addressing the pressing problems of the world we share in common. Surely that is sufficient reason to venture forward.

    This page titled 15: Comparing Buddhism and Christianity by Means of the Framework is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Dale Cannon (Independent) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform.

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