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Buddhism Embrace Jesus, Famous Buddhist Tells West


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004

Thich Nhat Hanh, who will visit Vancouver this summer, wants various religions to engage in inter-spiritual dialogue with each other

The world's second most famous Buddhist is heading to Vancouver this summer with a message that may resonate among West Coast residents, who are on the front line of blending Western and Asian spiritualities.

Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh, a peace and environmental activist second only to the Dalai Lama in global renown, doesn't want all North Americans to become Buddhists.

Thich Nhat Hanh, author of scores of books, is happy if Christians remain Christians, Sikhs stay with Sikhism and atheists hold onto secular humanism.

However, the 84-year-old monk urges all people to engage in interspiritual dialogue. He believes it will strengthen their commitment to their own founders' authentic teachings.

While Buddhists make up one of the fastest-growing religions in B.C., self-described Christians remain the largest cohort -comprising about 54 per cent of the provincial population, according to the last census.

But many West Coasters who identify as Christians are casual about it. They may believe Jesus had a special relationship with God, but many don't bother to show up often to church to explore such teachings.

Nhat Hanh -who will lead a fiveday retreat at the University of B.C. Aug. 8 and give a public lecture at the Orpheum Aug. 14 -reached out to Christian searchers and the wider spiritual community in his bestselling 1997 book, Living Buddha/Living Christ.

In Nhat Hanh's accessible writing style, Living Buddha/Living Christ describes similarities between the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha and those of Jesus of Nazareth.

Both Buddha and Jesus, Nhat Hanh says, were contemplatives.

Both were wisdom teachers who had transformative experiences in their early 30s.

Both began renewal movements in their own traditions, Hinduism and Judaism.

Both taught ways to respond creatively to life's temptations and sufferings.

Both are considered exalted, if not divine.

Nhat Hanh is not the first to emphasize connections between Buddha and Jesus.

So did Hanh's old colleague Thomas Merton, the late American Catholic monk who was deeply influenced by Buddhism and who has a strong following in Vancouver.

Noted University of Oregon Bible scholar Marcus Borg is another who has joined Nhat Hanh in highlighting Buddhist-Christian similarities. His book is Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings.

Since Nhat Hanh is a celebrated meditation teacher, one of the first things his followers stress is how both Buddha and Jesus practised "mindfulness."

In anxious North America, mindfulness is a meditation style through which practitioners avoid distraction by becoming more aware of the present moment, and more calmly engaged in the world.

Nhat Hanh compares Buddhists who practise mindfulness to Christians who yearn to embody the holy spirit, which they believe is God's healing presence.

Mindfulness points to a mystical overlap between the two traditions.

"When we understand and practice deeply the life and teachings of Buddha or the life and teachings of Jesus, we penetrate the door and enter the abode of the living Buddha and the living Christ and life eternal presents itself to us," Nhat Hanh writes in Living Buddha/Living Christ.

In addition, Nhat Hanh emphasizes that Buddha and Jesus ran counter to today's me-first individualism: Both stressed the value of community and sacred meals.

Nhat Hanh's suggestions about how the teachings of Buddha and Jesus often dovetail may not satisfy theologically conservative Christians, who believe Jesus is the only son of God and the exclusive route to heaven.

Nevertheless, that has not stopped Nhat Hanh from saying Buddhists can be open to the mystical eucharist, in which Christians ingest the blood and body of Jesus in an act of cosmic interconnectedness.

Another compelling writer on the subject of Buddhist-Christian relations is American religion professor Jay McDaniels, a Christian who has practised Zen meditation for decades and taught several times in Vancouver. He is becoming an influential figure in China.

McDaniels' website, wittily titled www.jesusjazzbuddhism.org, includes many references to Nhat Hahn, while offering evocative entry points for anyone wishing to learn more about the promising parallels between Buddhism and Christianity.

In an online conversation with an admittedly "nervous" evangelical friend, McDaniels writes about how one need not fear the key Buddhist concept of "No Self," which teaches humans have no static, substantial selves.

"No Self" proposes there is no enduring essence to humans as we journey from birth to death. Or, as McDaniels says: "We never step in the same river twice, and we who do the stepping are never quite the same either. This is really good news. It means that, even if we have made mistakes in the past, we are never doomed by our pasts."

God, says McDaniels, is always with us in the flux of life, luring us to goodness and beauty. McDaniels knows a Roman Catholic nun who embraces the concept of "No Self." She says: "Christianity and Buddhism agree that spiritual pilgrimage involves an absolute letting go, or dropping away, of all that a person knows of self and God."

Another Western port of entry into Buddhism comes from an extremely busy advertising agent, who happens to meditate. She tells McDaniels she is drawn to Buddha and Jesus because they were not bent on amassing wealth.

Buddha and Jesus inspire the marketing executive to tone down her drive to achieve and keep up appearances, and instead focus more on helping others and delving into deeper realms.

In addition, McDaniels, who is inspired by mathematician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, writes about a Methodist physicist who values the "spirit of enquiry" in Buddhism. "For her a religious orientation must 'make sense' intellectually."

Troubled that some churches discourage questioning, the curious Christian physicist believes Buddhism will help her develop a nondogmatic approach to religion, which will lead her to a more compelling Christianity.

In addition, McDaniels points to another profound connection between Buddhism and Christianity, which tends to be found beyond the more intellectual world of Zen Buddhism, as practised by Nhat Hanh.

Zen does not propose the existence of a God. But the same cannot be said of Pure Land Buddhism, which is the largest branch of Buddhism in East Asia. Pure Land Buddhism speaks of a divine reality, called Amida Buddha, which is akin to the one embraced by Jesus.

It may be a surprising piece of common metaphysical ground. Says McDaniels: "Pure Land Buddhists speak of a heavenly Bodhissatva - Amida Buddha - who receives and listens to prayer, and who is filled with love. I believe that what Christians mean by 'God' is similar to what Pure Land Buddhists mean by 'Amida Buddha."


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