How Zen Buddhism has Made me a Better Christian

Sermon on the Mount, by Harry Anderson

Nearly a year ago I checked out a book The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh from my local library. I checked it out because of an interest in meditation, but it wasn’t exactly what I was looking for; it focused more on general mindfulness in life than on the actual practice of meditation. However it did introduce me to the tradition of Zen Buddhism, which I immediately was captivated by. Since then I have studied Zen consistantly. Although I certainly am a novice (at best) I have found everything that I have read both inspiring, and life changing.

Friends and family have all reacted differently to my study of Zen. I was born and raised LDS (Mormon), and am still a member. (If you are not familiar: Mormons are a Christian based faith, if you want to know more here is the wikapedia article on the LDS Church) The reactions from fellow ward members, family and friends to finding out that I have been studying another religion in detail can pretty easily be broken down into 3 categories:

  1. Mild interest.
  2. A slight concern that I was being pulled away from the LDS Church.
  3. Outright horror that I was rejecting Christ and jeopardizing my soul.

None of these responses have ever bothered me, because I always knew that all 3 come from a place of care for me and my wellbeing. That being said I consider the last two to be somewhat misguided. The reason for this is simple, my study of Zen by far has strengthened my faith and understanding in Christ. It has made me a better Christian. It has taught me how to study scripture from the Christian canon in a way that I have never before done so. It has allowed me to come to a place that I feel I am better able to recieve personal revelation. The benefits of Zen in my life go on, although this post is about how it has changed and improved my Christian faith, it has also improved my life in many other ways as well.

A few have asked me why I feel it is neccessary to look outside of my current faith for answers about that faith, and about the nature of God. The example I like to cite to this question is that of C.S. Lewis, a man respected by members of every Christian faith. C.S. Lewis was a champion for Christianity, and religious faith in general. He has contributed to my faith, and I am sure to countless others’ as well. He was also a member of The Church of England. So I would rhetorically ask the same question of anyone who is not a member of The Church Of England that has benefited from the teachings and writings of C.S Lewis: Why do they feel it neccessary to look outside of their current faith for answers about that faith, and about the nature of God?

The answer to the question I am often asked, and the similar rhetorical question I respond with is simply this: I believe that any person regardless of what religious traditions they may hold, can have something to teach us. C.S. Lewis was not Mormon, but we are each Christian and so I can learn from him in respects to the similarity of belief in God and Christ. Similarly although niether Thich Nhat Hanh — and by extension Siddhartha Gautama Buddha were not Christian, we each are believers in a higher truth, and so I can learn from them in respects to that similarity. We are asked to be the best we can be, if there are traditions or teachings in other religions that could bring us closer to Christ, who are we to cast them aside, who are we to reject that because we don’t understand it, or because we fear it.

So is it possible to be a member of two religions? Possibly. Of course if they have teachings that contradict each other it is probably not possible, but I do not see any major contradictions between Zen Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhist do not have a God. They do not worship any one God in the way Christians do, and they do not worship the Buddha. Therefore there are no issues regarding the commandment to not worship other Gods in Christianity. Most of the teachings given to us by Christ sound quite similar to those given by the Buddha. Not only do most of the Buddha’s teachings not conflict with Christian beliefs, instead they compliment eachother in a strong symbiosis.

Another great book by Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ, explores how one can strive to live as both Buddha and Christ did. In it he explores the question of following two religions: “But can a person have two spiritual roots at the same time? Can both of them learn Christianity and Buddhism and practice both traditions? We know that when someone does not have any root, he or she will suffer tremendously. But what about the question of having more than one root? Before I met Christianity, my only spiritual ancestor was the Buddha. But when I met beautiful men and women who are Christians, I came to know Jesus as a great teacher. Since that day, Jesus Christ has become one of my spiritual ancestors. As I have mentioned, on the alter of my hermitage in France, I have statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas and also an image of Jesus Christ. I do not feel any conflict within me. Instead I feel stronger because I have more than one root”. Thich Nhat Hanh has also speculated that a more western form of Zen is necessary for it to take hold in the West as it did in the East. I believe strongly that the western form of Zen he talks about is Zen as an assistant, and perhaps even as a partner to the Christian teachings we already have.

This is how I view Zen Buddhism, as a catalyst to my Christian beliefs, as an additional set of teachings to enable me to live a life similar to that of Christ.

In Christianity we are guided towards salvation through Christ, but in the teachings of Buddhism we are guided towards enlightenment — essentially a perfect understanding and view of the world around us, viewing everything as it is truly is. The Buddha spent several decades teaching attainment of this goal, and Zen masters have added other methods of attainment in the nearly three thousand years since his death. I believe that attainment of a form of enlightenment to be possible, and to be a powerful step to living as Christ did. Although many of these concepts and teachings have changed the way I think, three stand out to me as powerful aides to Christianity:

  1. Mindfullness
  2. Interbeing
  3. The Dangers of Knowledge

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the initial teaching that sparked my interest in Zen. It is simple to understand, but very hard to put into practice. However the benefit of that practice is somewhat beyond explanation.

A more technical term for mindfulness is metacognition — or thinking about thinking. Mindfulness means being consciously aware of every action you take, of every thought that you have.

Buddhism teaches that if we are not aware of the present moment, then we are not truly alive. I agree strongly with this teaching. If you were to watch a funny movie, but the entire time be distracted and not pay attention to the movie, you would likely not be able to truly say that you watched and enjoyed the movie. I believe the same is true with life. If we do not spend every moment of the day aware of our thoughts, actions, and joy, then how can we truly say that we have had thoughts, really took those actions, and really had joy?

My favorite parable to explain the benefit of mindfulness is one often given by Thich Nhat Hanh — about drinking tea and washing dishes. If you are planning to have others over for tea later, and spend all of your time as you prepare the tea thinking of drinking the tea, then you are not really preparing tea, you are living in the future. Thinking about drinking tea in the future is not drinking tea, it is an illusion. The time spent preparing the tea is wasted. Worse because you are not in the habit of being mindful, you will likely not be able to maintain mindfulness as you drink the tea, you will think only of doing the dishes after, and as you do that you will think of going to sleep after that. If in every moment you only contemplate and look forward to the next moment, then the current moment is wasted.

The parable of doing dishes spoke especially strong to me because of my job at the time. I worked at In-N-Out Burger, and spent a large part of my shifts washing dishes. Although I consider that job to have been an important stepping stone for myself, and I was very lucky to have it, I struggled with it emotionally. I wanted desperately to be a software engineer (my current occupation), and I felt like I was stuck. Those moments when I was doing something trivial like washing the dishes I would get caught in my own thoughts. I would reflect on where I was, where I wanted to be, and how far I needed to go to get there. These thoughts were very destrucive. Even worse I spent hours of my life effectively as a drone.

Both the future and the past are only things of our imagination. Neither truly exists, the only reality is the present moment. Studies in psychology and of cognitive science have shown that our memories are completely unreliable. Memories often have stronger emotions attached to them than we actually felt at the time, and worse we often mix them together, unaware that we are remembering multiple events as one, or even events that never actually happened. People have been known to “remember” experiencing events that were actually only described to them. When we live in the past we live in something that is mostly fabricated. Although we can learn from it, dwelling too much in the past is a waste of the current moment. The same can be said for the future. The reason that mindfulness teachings spoke to me so strongly is that at the time I lived almost exclusively in the future. I thought of things I wanted to do one day. I day-dreamed. There is nothing wrong with planning for the future, but living in it is destructive. The future we imagine is not real, which makes it so much more tempting to spend time in it. In the futures that we create in our mind everything can be perfect, it is easy for a possible future to be everything that we want, but it too is an illusion. The only thing that is real is the present moment, and so that is where Zen teaches us to live.

After reading about mindfulness my attitude towards my job, and specifically washing the dishes changed. I started to look at washing the dishes (and other similar tasks) as a chance to practice mindfulness. I focused on what I was doing, and tried not to think of anything else. I focused on the dishes. After a while of doing this, I realized that I was no longer trying to be mindful while washing dishes, it came naturally. I came to enjoy washing the dishes, and my job much more. Mindfulness is what brought me towards Zen, and improved my life greatly. I highly recommend that anyone not familiar with the subject look further into it, here is a link to the book that introduce me to the concept: The Miracle of Mindfulness.

Mindfulness is my favorite teaching of Zen. It has changed my life in various ways, but as it relates to Christianity it has taught me a better way to live like Christ, and from it I have learned to appreciate every moment of life as a blessing from God.

Christ died and suffered for our sins; of course such a great gift deserves our gratitude, but at times I feel we let it distract us from other gifts he gave us that also have value. Among these other gifts is his life and example. Christ was required to live a perfect life in order to take the burden of our sins for us, the consequence of this is that the life of Christ is a perfect road map as to how we should live. Yet, most of us stray from this map all too often, myself included. In some cases this is due to willfully throwing the map aside, but I think that in most situations the mistake is simply forgetting that we are trying to follow the map. Nearly everyone has experienced moments of rage. In those moments we often do things we would not usually do. We do this because we forget that we are striving to live as Christ did. If we had remembered that we were to be like Christ, then we would likely not do things we later regret.

This is the second gift of mindfulness. If we are aware of every action that we take every moment, aware of our emotions in every moment, and aware of our thoughts in every moment, then we cannot forget that we have a map to follow. We will always be aware of the map, and always be aware of the things pulling us away from it. For most people living a life similar to that of Christ does not come naturally. The only way to live that way then is to change our behavior. Changing behavior is very difficult, and yet possible. Mindfulness is the key to a change in behavior. If in every moment we can remember that we are trying to live a better life, then we have taken the first step to doing so.

As my ability to be mindful grows, so does my remembrance that I should be living as Christ. With this teaching I have been able to slowly start to change my behavior, most noticeably I have learned to keep calm in heated situations. Because I am more aware of my own thoughts, I am better at watering only the thoughts that will lead to a better life. I am able to make decisions that usually would happen subconsciously on a conscious level instead. In every moment that I am mindful I have the chance to question if my thoughts and actions mirror that of Christ.

Another quote from Thich Nhat Hanh (I am going to overquote him in this post, I have read from various other authors on the subject of Zen and Buddhism, but he has moved me more than any other) “People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth.” We consider walking on water or on air to be a miracle, but isn’t mere existence even more of a miracle? Isn’t simply being alive the greatest miracle we could ask for? And yet we spend nearly our entire lives in a state of unawareness that we being blessed with every moment. We get so caught up in life, that we throw away the vast majority of our life by not truly experiencing it. Mindfulness is the cure to this wastefulness.

Interbeing

Interbeing teaches us that there is no separation between individuals, or between objects. Everything that exist depends on everything else in existence. The universe as we know it is interdependant. On an literal level this is easy to see. A tree cannot survive without the sun, water, and earth. Humans cannot survive without oxygen, water, food, and other humans. Nothing that exist is independent of other objects.

This is often described as saying that a table is made entirely of non-table elements. Everything that a table is made of, is not a table. Without the tree, a table could not exist. Without nails or screws, a table could not exist. Without a carpenter to build it, a table could not exist. But trees, nails, and carpenters also rely on countless things themselves for existence. Those things themselves rely on countless others, and so on. By this association every object and person in existance to some extent relies on every other object and person to exist. By harming or changing any one thing, you also change all things dependent on that thing, and the things dependent on those, and so on. This is why Zen teaches us that there is no true separation between objects, animals, or people.

We have a tendency to view our bodies as being “us” and other people’s bodies as being “them”. However in reality these perceptions are not completely accurate. At any given time there is a certain amount of oxygen and water in our bodies, that water may even be trapped within our fat cells. It can be said that those cells are a part of us. However eventually we breathe out and release the oxygen in our bodies, and we expel the water from our bodies. When we do so it is quite plausible that the same air will be breathed in by someone else in the very near future, and given time it is all but guaranteed that it will be reabsorbed. The same goes for water, although it make take longer to be reused. Even cells die often and are recycled. Furthermore both “me” and “him” rely on countless things around us to live. We both rely on the same air, same sun, same water, same society, and same culture. Without those things niether of us would be who we are in this moment. We share more than we could ever imagine.

Although it is sometimes easy to see that certain things depend on others for existence, interbeing teaches that all things are dependent on all other things, even if the connections are not observable. Those connections can be direct, or indirect. Ultimately because everything in existence exists coherently, all things are connected in more ways than are visible.

This brings a very new, more literal meaning to two of my favorite scriptures: Mathew 5:44 “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” and Mark 12:31 “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. There is none other commandment greater than these.” If you consider no separation between things, then love of your neighbor is literally love for yourself, and love of your enemy is love for yourself. Love of an enemy and love of a close friend are the same. Conversely, hating an enemy and hating a close friend are also the same. This is an essential teaching in Zen, and it also one of the main teachings of Christ.

Once again this can be viewed two ways, one on a deeper more spiritual level, and secondly on a very literal level. In a literal sense any emotion put into the world will affect the world. If a person goes throughout their day in a Christlike way, then they will touch all of those they come into contact with with love. If that same person goes thorough their day in a negative way, then they will still touch all of those they come into contact with, only this time with hatred.

It might seem that being rude to someone you don’t know or even just do not like will not affect you or the ones you care about, but I think that this is untrue. You may not see how that effect will ever make its way back to you or someone you care about, but eventually it will. When we are kind to people we create a kinder world, and when we are unkind we create a harsher world.

In this way “loving your enemy” actually is love for yourself, and for all of humanity. I have seen a lot of people post online with hateful comments towards a group they disagree with, or consider to be their enemy. The people posting these things think that it doesn’t matter because they don’t care for the feelings of those they disagree with, or consider to be lesser. Even if not caring for those that disagree with you was appropriate however the consequences of this unkindness cannot be seen.

Firstly that person is now even more alienated from the person that insulted them, and will feel justified in retaliating, furthering divide and creating even more hate.

Secondly it is impossible to know how that hate will be redirected. The person who receives the negative emotion will likely treat those around them worse off because of their hurt and anger. You do not know if it will be the cashier at the store they visit next, one of their family members, a coworker, employee, or a random stranger that will be the victim of the anger you inspired.

We just faced an extremely divisive election, and I know that a lot people do not support the new president. I would include myself in this group. However when I see others post hateful things about him online it worries me greatly. Not just out of concern for the president, but for all of the people’s lives he will inadvertently affect. This is a man who will affect the lives of all of us. There may even come a time when he has to decide whether or not to use a weapon that will end millions of lives. If he is treated poorly he will be less humane, less full of compassion than if we all showed overwhelming compassion towards him. Even if you do not care for the president, I hope that you care for the civilians of other countries whose lives will be endangered by a less compassionate American president leading the military. I hope that you care for the people of this country who will be affected by the president’s demeanor, as well as his actions. This same attitude can be applied to anyone in power. To be clear I do not mean that we cannot criticize our politicians or even people in our personal lives; instead I believe that we should try out absolute best to do so in a way that is constructive and causes no offense, as is the spirit that Christ taught.

Before I understood the teaching of interbeing I could never comprehended why someone would love their enemy, and in all honesty I never gave these verses much thought. Now that I understand interbeing, I have a renewed faith that these are Christ’s most important teachings — and although I a most certainly have much improvement to make, I have noticed that this teaching has already influenced the way I hold discussions, especially around politics, as well as the way I think about those I disagree with. Interbeing implies what Jesus taught, that we should “do unto others as we would have them do unto us”, but it further implies that what we do to other’s is also done to all of humanity.

The Dangers of Knowledge

The Buddha was extremely worried that people would confusing his teachings with what he taught about. After his enlightenment he refused to teach others what he had learned because he feared he could not convey it properly, and that misconceptions about his teaching would only hurt people’s ability to achieve liberation.

To prevent his followers from becoming confused by his teachings, the Buddha taught that his teachings are like a finger pointing to the moon. The finger could be instrumental in showing the moon to another, but even so it would be absolutley ridiculous to ever suggest that the finger was the moon. Confusing the finger with the moon would detrimental, because one who thought they had already found the moon would quit looking, and not able to see it when it finally was visible to them.

In Zen all teachings are considered ultimately useless without application. For this reason many Zen masters have stated that Zen is not a religion, not a philosophy, but instead is a practice. Mistaking the teachings of Zen for that which Zen exist to help find is a dangerous mistake, and I believe the same is true of Jesus’s teachings. Without application any teaching is useless. “Love thy neighbor” means nothing. Actually taking the time to love and care for your neighbors is the true teaching of Christianity.

I think that all too often people get caught up in scripture. This is how the parable of the finger and moon applies to Christianity. Scripture is the finger, pointing us to God’s will, however scripture is not itself God’s will it is only a direction towards it. Scripture is of course important, but only to the extent that we apply what we read to our lives. Without that application is is nothing more than religious dogma. If someone looks to the finger pointing at the moon and doesn’t use it to find the moon, the finger is meaningless. If someone looks to scripture and doesn’t use it to live in a Christlike way, the scripture is meaningless.

In a similar parable the Buddha taught about a man whose entire family was killed by robbers while he was in town. The robbers also burned all of the bodies beyond recognition. On his return he went into a depression, and spent the next year in sadness carrying the ashes of his family around his neck. What he did not know however is that one of his son’s had been taken prisoner by the robbers, and later escaped. When his son finally made his way home, his father became enraged that someone was pretending to be his son, after all he knew his son to be dead. The son plead with his father, but the father was not able to let go of what he believed to be true, and eventually the son left.

Another story demonstrates the same point: Mara, Buddhism’s Satan figure, and his assistants were watching a man practice walking mediation, when the man stopped and picked something up. One of Mara’s companions asked him what was picked up, and Mara replied “A piece of truth.” The questioner replied “Doesn’t this bother you when someone finds a pice of truth, O Evil One?” Finally Mara responded “No. Right after this they usually make a belief out of it”

Both of these allegories demonstrate the danger of overconfidence in knowledge. Even the greatest religious scholar has more to learn about the teachings of the Christ. However if we become sure that our way of thinking is the correct way, or the only way then we disable any chance for ourselves to grow and improve. If what we know is absolute then we stunt any chance at spiritual growth. I try my hardest to not allow myself to have any religious beliefs that I “know” to be true. To do so would only stop me from growing spiritually. I have beliefs I hold strongly, that I have faith in, but I always try and be in a state to accept changes or re-evaluate my beliefs. I don’t want to be like the man who couldn’t recognize his son because of he was stubborn.

Buddha taught that his teachings were like a raft, useful for crossing the river, but if you carried it with you beyond that you would only slow yourself down. The biggest threat to enlightenment is counter-intuitively the teachings about how to achieve enlightenment. I think that to an extent the same can also be true about Christ’s teachings. They provide a guide to unmeasurable happiness, but in their misinterpretation can also be a roadblock to such hapiness. The reason these teachings can be so dangerous is because of how powerful they are. The teachings of Christ are probably the most profound words spoken on earth, and therefore so many people feel strongly in them. Misdirected though that power can be dangerous. On my first applying this teaching of skepticism of strong beliefs to my understanding in Christ, I egotistically thought “that is a teaching that a lot of people could benefit from”. About a half second later I realized how ridiculous it was that I thought something would be good for other people, and at the same time completely exonerated myself from any form of self reflection.

I could write much more about how Zen has helped me in my personal life, and as a Christian, but I think this post is long enough as is. A relative recently asked me what I though about the Buddhist sutras and their and importance relative to the Bible. I’m still not sure if I have an answer for that, but what I do know is that I was taught growing up that if you read scripture, you would know if it was true by the presence of the spirit as you read. I believe I received that for the scriptures I grew up reading. Recently I have read several religious texts and scripture from various religions, and I haven’t felt the same feeling I did with the Bible, until I read the Buddhist sutras. I don’t know exactly what the relationship between The God of Israel and Zen Buddhism is, but I believe there is one. I also believe that the Buddha’s enlightenment, his teachings, and many of the teachings based on his life since then were inspired by the same God we worship as Christians.

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