Buddhist Approach to Doctrine
(Teachings/Theology are Relative Truth)
By Mike McMahon
According to Buddhism concepts cannot be applied to the deep reality of life, they can only point us to a deep and enlightened experience of reality. In fact the central goal of Buddhist meditation is our liberation from our tendency to confuse concepts with reality. For Buddhism, salvation, enlightenment, the kingdom of God, occurs when we are able to "see through" the artificial divisions created by using concepts to describe reality, and experience the non-dual nature of reality- nothing exists seperately, but every aspect of existence is intimately connected to and a part of every other aspect of existence. Non-dualism means, even though in our day to day life, we experience, and must live in a world of separate entities- people, places and things- at the deepest levels of reality their is no seperation between all aspects of reality. The goal of Buddhist practice is to open ourselves to experience this deep level of reality (as a Christian we might call this deep reality God) where we are intimately connected to everything, so that it can feed us and nourish us, and help us overcome our fear and loneliness.
The teacher and poet, Thich Nhat Hahn, points to this Buddhist approach to doctrine in the first two of the mindfulness trainings for his Order of Interbeing:
1) Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory, or ideology, even Buddhist ones. Buddhist (Christian, Jewish, etc) teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill, or die for.
2) Aware of suffering created by attachment to views and wrong perceptions, we are determined to avoid being narrow-minded and bound to present views. We shall learn and practice non-attachment from views in order to be open to others' insights and experiences. We are aware that the knowledge we presently possess is not changeless, absolute truth. Truth is found in life, and we will observe life within and around us in every moment, ready to learn throughout our lives.
Buddhism holds that the doctrines of Christianity and Buddhism (and all religious faiths), were created by people in response to their raw life experience. These doctrines were the product of the heartfelt "living with" and "reflection upon" this experience in order to see clearly, to respond to life with open heart and mind, to see God in all things, and to keep this faith alive for future generations. Father, Son and Holy Spirit then, are concepts emerging from experience. They have the beauty, integrity and inspiration of deeply religious experience, but if we believe concepts are fundamental and if we become attached to them as if they were reality (as if reality could be divided into separate entities) then we have gone in the direction of suffering. Buddhism considers all concepts (beliefs, theology, philosophy, science) as tools, created by people to help us in our relationship with life, reality.
Our suffering happens when we confuse the tool with reality, when we live as if the conceptual reality IS the world. Dividing the world into self/other, good/evil, heaven/hell, birth/death or God/creation creates the illusion of division which is our suffering. Buddhist teaching attempts to use concepts to liberate us from delusion. That liberation takes us to a reality in which all parts of creation are experienced as aspects of one whole (holy) existence. It is not undifferentiated, because this existence is always manifesting as infinitely varied, but interdependent and inter-penetrating forms.
Buddhism and Christianity are not fundamentally opposed from the Buddhist perspective. Their differences are relative, like the difference between a lotus and a lily, a cathedral and a temple. They are different, not in their fundamental nature (from the Buddhist perspective all
aspects of reality have the same nature) but in their outward form and structure, their manifestation- how that nature expresses itself.
From the Buddhist point of view the only thing that is real is the present moment- everything else is just a thought. This "everything else" includes all theology, philosophy, science, concepts and beliefs. This "everything else" is the human response to that reality- our ongoing experience of life in the present moment. All human spirituality, Christian, Buddhist, Islam, represent a response to this raw life experience. These spiritualities are the stories, songs, prayers, rites, teachings, created by people (as we Christians we would say, inspired by God) in response to life. They represent the determination of the human heart to respond to life's challenges not with fear, greed, anger, but with love, faith, and understanding. Just as it is God's nature to produce an abundant variety of flowers, also it is the generous and creative nature of God to produce varied rich and beautiful spiritualities. Like the Christian cathedral, the Islamic mosque, the Jewish temple, the teachings are architecture.
Like the temples, these teachings are beautiful architecture, created with great love by our ancestors. Because the teachings were built with care and love, with great attention to life, the teachings are "true", just as a temple built with care and love is "true". You can build the temple a hundred different ways, all of them can be "true" if they are built with care and love and attention. A temple carelessly built, without love, without attention to life, will not be "true". It might be dangerous for us to spend time in such a temple.
They built the temples with stones, they built the teachings with words and ideas. We were
never meant to live in the temples, but to go there for nourishment and support. Nor were we meant to live inside the teachings. Jesus was born into the temple of Judaism. But he did not remain there. When questioned for contradicting Jewish law by healing a woman on the Sabbath, he replied "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath". In other words, the teaching about the Sabbath was created to help us become more loving, more aware. The teaching is a tool for us to use- it is not absolute truth to which we are bound. The teachings can help us realize the kingdom, but only if we do not become attached to them, only if we don't try to dwell inside them. All words, concepts (including science) and beliefs are too small to contain the truth of the deep reality and mystery of the cosmos, of God's creation. The temple of stones cannot contain the kingdom of God, neither can the temple of words- the teachings. We will not find the kingdom there. We will only find the kingdom in the living out of life in the present moment, in the moment by moment cultivation of a heart of
love for all creation.
In Matthew 22:37-40, Jesus said the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself- all the law and the prophets hang on these two. One of the precepts of Thich Nhat Hahn's Buddhist community states: Aware of the suffering created by fanaticism and intolerance, we are determined not to be idolatrous about or bound to any doctrine, theory or idealogy, even Buddhist (or Christian) ones. Buddhist (and Christian) teachings are guiding means to help us learn to look deeply and to develop our understanding and compassion. They are not doctrines to fight, kill or die for.
As long as these teachings emerge from a heart of love, care and devotion, they will be "true" (not absolute truth, but relative truth- the relative expression of the power, goodness, beauty and integrity of God/being/reality). Life (our body, our self, our soul, reality) is the ceaseless, dynamic expression of this God. To overcome our suffering, we must "break through" (let go of our clinging to) our identification with our small self only; we must cultivate an identification and intimacy with all aspects of creation in each moment.
I believe the acknowledgement of the relativity of theology is one of the great challenges of western spirituality- especially Christian. In particular, the Christian notion of Christ as a totally unique being, the sole path to God, is a barrier to mutual appreciation and understanding among the religions of the world. I think it behooves Western theologians to explore the Eastern, non- dualistic approach to reality which hold all concepts as relative.
In conclusion I offer a short parable:
Adam and Eve had just been born into the Garden of Eden. The beauty and majesty of creation filled their souls. The sights and sounds, the forms, colors and textures, the way that each aspect of existence participated in and created every other aspect of existence- all revealed itself as wonderful and miraculous. They felt deeply the communion of all of life, experienced themselves as being inextricably part of this communion. Truly, this was the Kingdom of God!
Over time they began discriminating among aspects of creation. They said: "I like this flower better than that flower." (they bit into the fruit). "This flower is wilted" (they chewed the fruit).
"I don't like it" (they swallowed the fruit). "This fresh flower is good, this wilted flower is bad ." (they digested the fruit and assimilated it into their bodies).
Through the repetition of careless discrimination, this discriminated view of life took on a reality of its own. Because they always dealt with life in those terms, those terms became the reality. They
could no longer perceive life independent of their thoughts about it. They became trapped in a limited view of life, interpreting phenomena in terms of what was useful/not useful, pleasing/displeasing, to the small, ego- centered self. They lost the ability to touch the absolute beauty of creation it its
pure, undiscriminated state. Thus, eating of the forbidden tree, Adam and Eve created the realm of Good and Evil.
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