Tuesday, February 18, 2014

On Comparing and Not Comparing Buddhism and Christianity

I'm taking a class on Buddhism this semester. Specifically, the class concerns the branch of Buddhism known as "Theravada," or "The Elders' View," designated thus because it claims to be that interpretation of the Buddha's teachings that was held and set out by those who were closest to him; after his passing, they gathered and chanted his teachings and agreed among themselves as to the wording of his teachings.

Now, one might read that sentence and say, "Oh, so it's sort of like what the apostles did after Jesus died and rose and ascended." Yes, there may be some similarities, but I've been trying not to make such comparisons while taking this course. Though it may sometimes aid understanding to relate some aspect of Buddhism to Christianity, I think more often it may be a hindrance. Conflating ideas in the two systems makes them lose their distinctiveness; if you translate the Buddhist term arahant (one who has become enlightened) as "saint," you drag all the connotations of that English word into the Buddhist word. Then you're no longer trying to understand Buddhism on its own terms, but instead are engaging it by mapping Christianity onto it. And then you'll go on to say how really similar all the world's religions are, how they're all true in their own way, etc. etc., when in fact you only say that because you're seeing Buddhism (and the rest of the world's religions) through Christian-colored glasses. While it's important to recognize truth wherever it exists, when we re-write other religions in Christian terminology, we're not helping that cause, only muddying the waters. We end up fulfilling the maxim of Msgr. Ronald Knox: "the study of comparative religions is the best way to become comparative religious."

That said, one tiny element of my reading struck me, and I thought a comparison would be beneficial precisely because it is true but likely to be rejected. In his book Theravada Buddhism: The View of the Elders, Asanga Tilakaratne describes the method for meditation. He says quite strongly that the one meditating "needs to find a suitable place for meditation and sit cross-legged with an erect body." Needs to? Needs to? How interesting. Many a Western person would read that and say, "The Buddhist understands the great importance of physical posture in maintaining a certain mindset. If you want to pay attention to something, have your body at attention: sit up, breathe deeply. If you slouch in your chair in class, you won't listen. You need to make your body ready for your mind to work. This makes perfect sense."

BUT if you were to tell many a Western person that there might be a preferred posture for praying or for engaging in that supreme act of communion with God, receiving the Eucharist, i.e. on one's knees, many of the very same Western persons who had just enunciated the universal proposition that there is a link between one's physical posture and one's mental state will suddenly make an about-face, and become indignant, and declare with deep feeling, "I may approach my God however I choose. It makes no difference whether I pray kneeling or sitting or standing on my head! It's all the same! God can hear me just as well! Quit trying to impose your preferences on me, you patriarchal, fascist conformist!"

Hmm. What a stark difference. What seemed an obvious and universal truth of human existence and operation in one context is suddenly objectionable in another context. But that truth can become obfuscated in our own familiar situation by cultural baggage and associations of thought. For some people, the thought of praying or receiving the Eucharist on one's knees conjures up images of a "pre-Vatican II mindset" of alleged rigidity and harshness and every other negative term one can associate with a religion, when it ought to convey reverence and humility and devotion. All that baggage obscures their view of the simple undeniable fact that there's a link between one's physical disposition and one's mental disposition. Anyone can see it; but sometimes your so blinded to your situation at home, you have to look at the neighbor's to see things as they are.

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