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Robert Wright’s Buddhism

This weekend I began reading Robert Wright’s new bestseller, Why Buddhism Is True [1]. So far, it’s quite enjoyable, and I’m learning a lot. Wright says in the beginning that his book does not explore the religious and metaphysical claims of Buddhism. Rather, he’s interested in it from a naturalistic point of view. That is, he focuses on Buddhism as an applied philosophy of life, specifically on Buddhist meditation techniques. Wright has been meditating for many years now, and says it has improved his life greatly.

By “true,” Wright means that, in his words, “Buddhism’s diagnosis of the human predicament is fundamentally correct, and that its prescription is deeply valid and urgently important.” His approach is not to convert people to Buddhism — it is not clear from the text, at least as far as I have read, that Wright would describe himself as a Buddhist — but rather to share therapeutic insights from Buddhism.

For me, it’s a source of frequent pleasure in reading this book to see how consonant much of Buddhist teaching is with Eastern Orthodox Christianity. This is not true theologically, to be sure, but I find that I keep coming across things in the book, and thinking, “But we have that in Orthodoxy too.”

Wright talks about meditation as a way of becoming aware of ones desires — desires that cause suffering. Desires — feelings — are not a reliable guide to reality, according to Buddhism (on Wright’s account, anyway). Wright talks about why natural selection has set us up to desire certain things in certain ways, but also why fulfilling desire can never satisfy us for more than a brief period. This is especially exacerbated by the modern environment, for reasons Wright explains. Finally, pursuing happiness is one certain way never to achieve it.


All of this is shared with Christianity, at least in theory. As I read the book, I’m also reading it as someone who knows Dante, and who was liberated from his own suffering by reading the Divine Comedy. That’s a book that defines sin, as Augustine does (and as Eastern Christianity does to a great extent) as disordered desire. From what I can see so far, Buddhism is about learning how to separate oneself from one’s desires, and not to be mastered by them.

Again, this is all in Christianity. Wright discusses Buddhist meditation techniques for dealing with these things, and it’s instantly striking to me how much it’s like Orthodox hesychasm [2], a mystical prayer tradition that has no real counterpart in the Christian West. Wright’s book is helping me to understand better the meaning of a phrase one often hears in Orthodox circles: “Orthodoxy is really an Eastern religion.” What it means is that the texture of Orthodox spirituality has more in common with the mind of the East than the mind of the West. I don’t want to say much more about this now, because I’m still reading the book. But I will say that many of the things Robert Wright found in Buddhism to help him deal with his own struggles I have found in Orthodox Christianity, especially with the Jesus Prayer — and I am eager to share that knowledge with other Christians. There is a wealth of spiritual wisdom — practical things, things that you don’t have to be a monk to do — that can draw you much closer to God, and towards the inner stillness that all of us need, especially in this busy, loud age.

The Orthodox writer and broadcaster Kevin Allen explains here many of the points of commonality between Eastern Christianity and other Eastern religions, and where Eastern Christianity differs. [3] It reminds me of something Kyriacos Markides wrote — I believe in this book [4] — that dissatisfied Westerners who go in search of spiritual depth in contemplative Eastern religions would be startled to learn that there is a similar mystical tradition within Christianity … but it is best articulated in the Christian East.

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92 Comments To "Robert Wright’s Buddhism"

#1 Comment By at the soundcheck On September 12, 2017 @ 7:39 am

I once went on a Catholic retreat in the forests of Texas on Lennon’s Watching the Wheel. After something like that, you don’t get stirred up about Imagine.


#2 Comment By BCZ On September 12, 2017 @ 8:41 am

The links across Eastern and Western Ancient traditions is profound. There is plenty of work that shows how the list of virtues arrived upon by these traditions has substantial overlap, along with key arguments. Stoicism and Buddhism are often compared, for instance… with no small amount of effort to find links between Zeno (founder of stoicism) and Eastern influences from the Asian subcontinent.

There is a strong argument that a pretty robust proto-ethical system could probably be derived from examining these similarities.

#3 Comment By blackhorse On September 12, 2017 @ 8:42 am

re “I disagree that Christianity shares this with Buddhism. Christianity is about reorienting desire back to God.” When a Buddhist lets go of desire, what is left but God? Western Christianity, btw, could learn much from the concept of disordered desire. The focus on the tress of particular sins causes many to miss the forrest of appetite (gospel of wealth), pride (dominionism), anger (judgment of enemies) and ignorance (self- satisfaction).

#4 Comment By Prof CJ On September 12, 2017 @ 9:07 am

Whether “A Course in Miracles” study groups are allowed at
Catholic parishes depends on the local bishop. Some allow them, others don’t. Catholicism is more open to the idea of
continuing revelation, i.e., revelation that did not end with the Bible. For example, the Diary of Sister Faustina of Poland is
now officially recognized, and the devotion to the Divine Mercy that Sister Faustina proclaimed is now practiced around the world. Private revelation is studied by the Vatican. Sometimes it is accepted (e.g., Lourdes) and other times it is rejected (e.g., Marian apparitions in Medjugorje). The late Father Groeschel famously rejected the private revelation contained in A Course in Miracles. On the other hand, some bishops see no harm in studying what the Course contains. I never said that Enlightenment can be had on the cheap. But, spurred by the psychedelic revolution of the ’60s and the Beatles’ embrace of TM, people have become impatient. They want results quick, and the newer meditation or contemplation techniques can produce results (but not enlightenment) in a matter of weeks. These can, of course, be combined with the standard Catholic practices like the Adoration of the Holy Eucharist.

When one mentions Catholicism, many people immediately think of Italy. You like Italy (and so do I), and I feel that much of what people find appealing about Italy (and not just great art) has something to do with the fact that Italy has been steeped in the Catholic tradition for two thousand years now. Conversely, Russia and Ukraine have now been non-Communist for 26 years, and Russia’s murder rate was already very high in the years preceding the Bolshevik Revolution. By their fruits you shall know them. I may be wrong but I think that Eastern Orthodoxy is too otherworldly to be effective on the social level. Conversely, liberal Protestantism is too this worldly and hence is easily reducible to SJW-ism or agnosticism. In my opinion Catholicism has the right balance, and, of course, the Jesus prayer is practiced within Catholicism as well.

#5 Comment By MDelagos On September 12, 2017 @ 9:15 am

I am a big admirer of Robert Wright and even use his earlier work, The Moral Animal, as a “coming of age” book with my kids. I was not planning on reading his new book as I don’t have much interest in Buddhism but after this review, I am inspired to do so.

There are undoubtedly psychological benefits to meditation or contemplative prayer, but don’t make it out for more than it is. You will never, ever, understand God or the Divine Mystery, even in part. You can only ever experience a sense of the numinous and that will ever be fleeting and tangential. The ‘mysterium tremendum’ is at the heart of every experience but it’s all we can do to simply acknowledge it’s there. Anything more you say about it is your own arbitrary projection and diminishes it. If you are seeking the mystic experience as an end to itself, you will either be frustrated or enter a cycle of self-delusion.

The proper role of meditation/prayer is to discipline the mind so you can function better in the world. Go explore, create, and contribute to the story of the world’s becoming. You are an intricate part of it and your life causes ripples in it. Joyfully participate and find the way to make good ripples.

#6 Comment By Bob Taylor On September 12, 2017 @ 9:58 am

Sara said it beautifully, in the view of this Calvinist.

The Devil has so many beguiling, even persuasive, counterfeits, and the world is a constant battleground in which these seducing spirits work unrelentingly to divert people’s attention from the fact that the truth is in Jesus alone.

#7 Comment By Ken Zalewski On September 12, 2017 @ 10:03 am

I don’t think mysticism is more accentuated in the Christian East than the Christian West. The Roman Church has it’s own contemplative tradition best expounded by St. John of the Cross and St. Teresa of Avila. We westerners might call this wordless type of prayer contemplation, meditation or mental prayer, but the point is to eventually move beyond words to a silent absorption in the presence of God.

Also, from a Christian perspective, we need to be careful about equating Buddhism and Christian contemplation, as did Thomas Merton. Buddhism seems to be more of an emptying of the mind and senses whereas Christian Contemplation silences the senses and goes further to be “filled” by God. It is Christ-centered. The mystics if the Church experienced an ‘infused contemplation’ where their senses and body were totally absorbed with God. Very different than Hindu or Buddhist meditation.

#8 Comment By Richard Ranger On September 12, 2017 @ 10:48 am

Rod –

Some really interesting comments here. A question: Is part of the appeal of Eastern religiosity (to include not just Buddhism, however encountered, but other Asian-origin faith and spiritual traditions) something that exists not just because these traditions may be unfamiliar and exotic, but because to a great many people who have encountered what they understand to be Christianity, at least as applied, the Christian faith they encounter proclaims what to do, not how to be. Long before Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, much Christian expression and proclamation was sublimated to the needs of The State, which meant using the mechanics of the Christian faith to shape willing little workers to serve whatever regime was in power. The original Reformation was in significant part a rebellion against this, though the Reformed churches quickly followed the practice of the Roman churches in shaping themselves to serve the regimes of which they were a part. Within Christianity there remain lines of teaching that seek to tie themselves as closely as possible to the Christian faith and the Gospel as originally proclaimed, and those lines of teaching (a poor choice of words, but I’m typing this quickly before getting back to work) have in common – among other things – an understanding of the Christian faith as a way to BE, not what to DO. Two among these are the Anabaptist and Franciscan traditions, and I’m prepared to concede that there is much in Orthodoxy that offers a similar understanding of the Christian faith. So, too, Dante. For the Church (or the believer) to pursue such modes of belief can be truly radical. Yes, I think (in response to one commenter above) that it is an act of orienting the soul toward God as the answer. s, it is not MTD, and it is not sublimating the Christian faith into putting on the mask of merely “being a good person”, or in trying to sell such a watered down faith to one’s children.


#9 Comment By dave On September 12, 2017 @ 10:55 am

Well this is interesting, thank you. Hope you are able to rest, Dreher.

#10 Comment By Neigedoi On September 12, 2017 @ 11:00 am

The Other Side, thank you for introducing me to Fr. Barnabas Powell. This week’s sermon was refreshing teaching on the nature of the church. I grew up in an evangelical denomination and am a member now of another evangelical denomination, but in recent months I have become interested in the teachings and practice of the Orthodox church. I will be returning to listen to more of Fr. Barnabas.

From this week’s sermon:

Lady came up to me, she said “Father, I didn’t enjoy that service at all.”

I said, “Well, great news; we didn’t do it for you!”

There’s an audience of one in this house and he sits on the throne of heaven. You all have your part to play, whether you do it or not is your business. But if you are ever going to experience the church as church, it is going to have to be as you abandon the self-centered, psychotic, narcissistic notion that the church is to design herself to make you happy. It doesn’t exist that way.

#11 Comment By Court Merrigan On September 12, 2017 @ 11:15 am

Intellectual Buddhism, stripped of its cultural roots by folks like Robert Wright, is heady stuff. Sort of like Scripture or Catholic doctrine taken in isolation from its actual, historical application in the real world. Actual Buddhism, though, as practiced in its homelands, is a stew of superstition, accreted tradition, and politics that has about as much to do with Gautama Buddha as Joel Osteen has to do with Jesus Christ. It’s pretty in places, and the incense smells nice, but it has all the spiritual depth of a JC Penney (except, of course, for its devout practitioners, especially the old, who find great meaning in the old traditions, while the young stare at their cell phones). That said, it is also pretty forgiving and non-evangelical, which I always find refreshing.

Also @Siarlys, your orthodox Jewish scholar is fundamentally misinformed. The Buddha considered an all-powerful deity (he was a Hindu, after all), but dismissed it out of hand. It’s right there in the very first sutras.

#12 Comment By Ray On September 12, 2017 @ 11:49 am

Of all the metaphysics of the various great traditions of the world, Hindu and Islamic metaphysics are the closest.

#13 Comment By KD On September 12, 2017 @ 11:53 am

Here is the OCA blog on apatheia:


Obviously, Orthodox apatheia is going to be Christocentric.

Also, ignorance becomes sin, suffering becomes damnation, etc., but it all lines up pretty well, the point being renunciation is at the center of all major world spiritual traditions.

NOT all religions are one, but a necessary but not sufficient condition.

Be careful with Buddhism and Western Buddhists, a lot of quotes taken out of context and a lot of representations about Buddhism that would not hold on the ground in Burma or Japan or Dharmasala. Idols, prayer wheels, and long treatises on metaphysics abound. Check out Dharmakirti and tell me about Buddhists rejecting speculative metaphysics!

#14 Comment By Turmarion On September 12, 2017 @ 11:54 am

Khalid Mir: Any thoughts on why Buddhism (or Eastern religions) have been so popular in the west since the 1960s (unlike Islam which is in many respects closer to the Judaic heritage)?

During my late teens and much of my twenties I was very much taken with Buddhism, beginning when I read the Dhammapada when I was 18. I never joined a sangha or actually practiced meditation or other Buddhist practices at that point, but Buddhist thought, at least, was so central to who I was that a lot of friends assumed I was Buddhist.

I eventually became Catholic, as long-timers here know, and I have practiced both specifically Buddhist and Christian meditative/contemplative methods on and off since my thirties. I still, in some ways think more like a Buddhist than like a Christian, although it’s not as pronounced as it once was.

In partial answer to Khalid’s question, I’ll quote myself from [6] on my blog:

1. [The Dhammapada] showed me that religion didn’t have to be emotional. Though there is a thread of joy woven through the Dhammapada, it presents the typically Theravada view of religion as ultimately based in analyzing the mind. The Evengelicalism typical of my childhood milieu is very emotional, “hooked on a feeling”, all about how you feel. For a more cerebral type averse to emotional manipulation such as I, the Dhammapada was a bracing antidote…. [T]he calm, dispassionate air of the Dhammapada is something I was in desperate need of then.

2. It showed me that religion could be an active choice. The emphasis throughout the Dhammapada is on what you do, on making the effort to take the path. Once more, very much different from the “born again” Christianity of my youth with its emphasis on the powerlessness of the believer. I’ve come to appreciate the [7] more as I’ve aged; but once more, the way presented by the Dhammapada was a welcome relief at the time.


4. Finally, the Dhammapada showed me that there was grace, beauty, and holiness outside the Christian fold, and that one did not have to rigidly cleave to one faith with no appreciation for or input from other sources.

I would add that the Christianity of my youth was very judgmental, and Buddhism, especially as presented in the West, is not. Finally, as Rod says, I think the mystical aspect is something very welcome to those living in the very non-mystical modern West. Those are my thoughts.

#15 Comment By KD On September 12, 2017 @ 12:03 pm

In terms of the similarities between Buddhism and Orthodoxy and certain strains of Catholicism, I think it has everything to do with the importance of monastic institutions in these traditions.

Monks are monks, whether they are born in Vietnam or France or Kentucky, but until perhaps a few decades ago, the monastically inclined individual in France joined a Catholic Order, the one in Greece joined an Orthodox monastery, and the one in Vietnam joined a Buddhist monastery.

Monks, living within a specific social institution, face a certain set of practical obstacles and share similar concerns, so I think you can observe some morphological similarities, even though arising from different historical causes. Also, I think certain personality types are attracted to that kind of lifestyle, which makes for certain similarities.

I think this is why you can detect a similar “feel” in these traditions, even though they have little to do with each other, and when they do, the result is usually a heightening of differences rather than syncretism.

#16 Comment By Will Harrington On September 12, 2017 @ 12:48 pm

Just a note on the connection between Buddhism and Christianity. People forget about the Church in Asia, but it is worth noting that the texts that serve as the foundation of Zen Buddhism were translated into Chinese by a Christian monk and that there was an Assyrian Church of the East diocese of Tibet sometime around the twelfth century. It probably ended around the time that Genghis Khan ended the Empire of Xi Xia, which was likely the center of the Churches presence there, though I admit I’m just speculating. The point being that a form of Eastern Christianity was present in China, Tibet, and Central Asia at the same time as Buddhism and there were definite interactions an influences.

#17 Comment By DonChi On September 12, 2017 @ 1:26 pm

For what it’s worth, a fair amount has been written about Jesus’ supposed missing years, with some evidence that he spent time in a Buddhist monastery.

As for earthy desires, there are many different sects of Buddhism, obviously, and whereas some seek total detachment from earthly desires, others acknowledge the complexity of being a human animal and see a spiritual purpose to our nature:

“Buddhism divides the benefits of practice into the “conspicuous” and the “inconspicuous.” The new job, the conquest of illness, the successful marriage and so on are not separate from a deep, often painstaking process of self-reflection and inner-driven transformation. And the degree of motivation generated by desires can lend an intensity to our practice which ultimately reaps spiritual rewards. Bonno soku bodai—literally, “Earthly desires are enlightenment”—is a key tenet of Nichiren Buddhism.”

#18 Comment By Hound of Ulster On September 12, 2017 @ 4:16 pm

St. Clement of Alexandria(?) mentions Greek-speaking Buddhists (most likely from Baktria, a Greek-speaking state in Afghanistan and Tajikistan) as potential opponents/interlocutors of Christians in the 3rd century. I also don’t doubt for a second that St. Antony the Great was at least partially influenced by second- and third-hand stories of Buddhist monasticism when he blazed the trail of Christian monasticism. Again, to say that Christianity developed it’s practice and vocabulary in a complete vacuum is to totally not understand how human beings and the ideas they carry with them work and interact.

#19 Comment By Quizman On September 12, 2017 @ 5:35 pm

//but it is worth noting that the texts that serve as the foundation of Zen Buddhism were translated into Chinese by a Christian monk //

[8] was a Buddhist.

Also, be suspicious of old translations of Christian monks of Sanskrit texts. They did not have an equivalent ‘language’ to describe some metaphysical contexts and often fell to known benchmarks. Sin, Salvation and other similar concepts that you find in translations of Hindu & Buddhist texts are a result of this sort of misrepresentations.

Some Hindu philosophers have fought a valiant battle in trying to rectify these errors – given that English is the lingua franca of the globalized elite – but it is a losing battle against the Penguins and Random Houses of the world who prefer dubious translations such as those by Wendy Doniger.

A Buddhist scholar who has spent a lifetime studying and translating texts is Dr. Alex Berzin. He has access to various lamas in Dharmashala and therefore, his translations are considered the most reliable.

That being said, one of the most fascinating books on the similarities (and lack thereof) between Buddhism and Judaism is [9] by Dr. Rodger Kamenetz.

In the late ’80s, early ’90s, a bunch of Rabbis of various denominations went to Dharmashala to meet with the Dalai Lama and other monks and to discuss religion and this book is an outcome of those discussions. You can see an hour long interview of the author “25 years after the journey” [10]

Of course, there are many similar Hindu schools of thought (related to meditation, metaphysics) as well, notably [11]

#20 Comment By blackhorse On September 12, 2017 @ 5:43 pm

“these seducing spirits work unrelentingly to divert people’s attention”… hence the practices of mindfulness and contemplative prayer, to discern said spirits (hint: they are the working of your mind).

“the truth is in Jesus alone” Christ is a revelation in faith. Best to leave it at that.

#21 Comment By blackhorse On September 12, 2017 @ 5:49 pm

re “Jesus’ supposed missing years” The story of the temptation in the wilderness has a Buddhist twist to it. The temptations to hedonism, dominion and luxury correspond to the hungry ghost, asura (pride) and human hell states.

#22 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On September 12, 2017 @ 5:52 pm

In contrast the predominantly Catholic group of countries in Central Europe – Czechia, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and
Austria – have extremely low rates of social dysfunction, and are almost as conservative as Russia. Most also suffered under Communism. Until someone explains
why Eastern Orthodoxy seems to have practically no effect on people’s morality in Russia and Ukraine, it will difficult for me to think of Orthodoxy as an attractive possibility”

None of those countries, except maybe Poland, are really that conservative. They’re conservative on race / ethnicity / immigration issues, but not on the sex stuff that concerns Rod. Russia for example has a bigger fraction of people telling pollsters “premarital sex is OK” and “adultery is OK” than America does.

In contrast, the southern Orthodox states of Georgia, Armenia, and Greece are more conservative (Greece has among the lowest divorce rates in the world, and Georgians apparently consider Russians to be ridiculously promiscuous). I think the real division here is an ethnic rather than religious one, between Slavic nations and their southern neighbors.

#23 Comment By KD On September 12, 2017 @ 6:26 pm

The problem is that Calvinism is anti-monastic, and it developed in the social milieu of merchants, who didn’t want to have to pay for ceremonies and wanted to profit from usury.

Obviously, monasteries are no good, because they are expensive for the laity to support, better to save your pennies, collect interest off the backs of the poor, and hang with the rest of your “Elect”, patting yourselves on the back for your “faith”. What two things is Geneva famous for, again?

#24 Comment By minimammal On September 12, 2017 @ 6:27 pm

This is really interesting to me since, beginning in my teenage years, I was attracted to Buddhism as a more “sophisticated” alternative to Christianity. Later, I became involved in a Japanese Buddhist congregation which eventually, ironically, led me back to the Catholicism of my upbringing.

I would agree that Buddhism is “true” in that its pronouncements on human nature and existence make sense. Everything is impermanent, and suffering, due to desire and attachment and the inability to accept this reality, is the essential nature of human existence. It makes sense that we must end desire to end suffering and that this can be accomplished through continual self-reflection and self-denial, all of which is convergent with Christian thought and practice.

When I was still involved with my Buddhist congregation but on the cusp of returning to the Christian faith, I met a friend of mine who is a convert to the Orthodox Church, and he told me all about the “Eastern” qualities of Orthodoxy, including hesychasm. I liked these qualities and I enjoyed the beauty and ancient-feeling mysticism of the Orthodox liturgy when I accompanied my friend to mass. However, I felt drawn back to my roots and, in some ways, I actually enjoy more of the “Western” aspects of Catholicism, as much as I still admire the East, including Orthodoxy.

One issue I had with Buddhism is that, even though it is based entirely on the premise of denying the self (anatta or “no self” is a central tenet), the ways of achieving this are, ironically, rather self-centered, if not selfish. Buddhism does not have the charitable tradition or the emphasis of agape or “selfless love” that Christianity has. In Theravada Buddhism, liberation is based entirely on merit, which, if you’re a layperson, is primarily achieved through donating food to monks and getting various blessings from them. No such merit is earned through simply helping your fellow man and you are essentially destined for rebirth (albeit, perhaps, in a better form) unless you are a monk. Mahayana Buddhism (the branch of Buddhism I have experience with) offers the potential of liberation for the common people through the intervention of enlightened deities called bodhisattvas, but, again, not much emphasis is placed on the conduct of the individual. The individual earns the gift of merit from the bodhisattva’s accumulated store through (more or less) entirely devotional means.

I was involved in Jodo Shinshu, a sect within the larger school of Pure Land Buddhism, which takes devotion to the extreme. Pure Land Buddhism teaches that adherents can attain enlightenment through devoting themselves to Amida Buddha and being reborn in his Pure Land. This devotion takes the form of constant repetition of what in Japanese is called the nembutsu, which, again, in Japanese, is Namo Amida Butsu or “I take refuge in Amida Buddha.” Jodo Shinshu takes this devotion a step further and teaches that adherents need only recite the nembutsu once with pure faith or shinjin and they need only this faith completely detached from any devotional practice or even virtuous living (Amida will save even the worst sinners who have faith in him) to be reborn in the Pure Land. Clearly, this shares superficial similarities with Christianity, especially the faith-based practices of some Protestant denominations, and when my Orthodox friend first told me about the Jesus Prayer, it reminded me of the nembutsu. However, I eventually found this sect of Buddhism lacking because it didn’t prescribe any rules of conduct for virtuous living and was solely based on devotional practices.

I ultimately found Buddhism to be detached, cold, impersonal, and not life-affirming and rediscovered the unique message of Christianity. Christianity teaches that creation is fundamentally good and that individuals are created in the image of God and are thus imbued with dignity and an eternal soul. Buddhism teaches that existence is illusory and that individuals are impermanent like everything else without any eternal aspect of the self. What Buddhism ultimately teaches boils down to the age-old desire, like the equally ancient quest for immortality, to become a god.

While not expressly a God, a buddha is a being that transcends all earthly limitations and even the fabric of time and space. Interpretations of enlightenment and Nirvana differ from school to school and sect to sect, but all sects depict buddhas as omnipotent and omniscient beings capable of extraordinary supernatural feats. In short, they are gods in everything but name. As I said above, there’s nothing new in this belief that, through extreme self-abnegation and ritual practices that one can become a god or an immortal or some other superman.

Christianity is unique among “world religions” in teaching that God humbled Himself by becoming man out of His pure love for humanity in spite of our tendency, because of the free will He lovingly gifted us, to choose evil over Him. Christianity is unique in saying that God, as the Son, Jesus Christ, suffered and died for humanity so that we may choose Him over evil, and that the way to Him is not merely a strategy of rejecting the material world but requires following the example of humility and selfless love for others, even to the point of self sacrifice, that Christ taught us. Christ is a greater savior than Amida Buddha. He may ask for more than faith in Him and what He asks may even be very difficult to achieve, but what this path towards Him ultimately promises is greater than the bliss of Nirvana or any pure land.

Having said all that, I feel I benefited in some ways from my foray into Buddhism. Faith had always been something I struggled with, and being involved with Jodo Shinshu helped me to get over that stumbling block; I then simply had to learn to put my faith in Christ. Buddhism also encouraged my reception of natural law which I found provided a better understanding of sin, wherein sin is living in error to how God naturally intended we should live and thus orients us away from God, rather than the idea of sin I had previously, in which sin consists of so many marks on a tally sheet that God then damns us for. The latter makes God the bad guy, the big angry guy in the sky who’s always smiting and damning people, while the former places the culpability for sin squarely on our shoulders and emphasizes that our salvation is ultimately based on our choices and whether we choose to live according to God’s will and design for us or damn ourselves. To that effect, I remember in one of Rod’s posts about Dante he mentioned Dante’s image of sins being ropes that bind souls and pull them down to Hell which need to be severed so that sinners may rise toward God, which reminded me of the Buddhist conception of desires as being fetters that bind people to illusory existence and ceaseless suffering and liberation being the cutting of those fetters. The basics of Buddhist philosophy have a lot of truth in them, but, in the end, a gilded Buddha is no substitute for the Risen Christ who promises true and eternal “enlightenment” for all those who place their faith in Him and live as the Father commands.

[NFR: What a fascinating comment. Thank you. — RD]

#25 Comment By Mark On September 12, 2017 @ 7:58 pm

I sometimes wonder if Eastern religions don’t simply shed light on a purer sort of science lost to the Abrahamic traditions (perhaps going back to the Tower of Babel?) over the centuries -but nonetheless universal to humankind. Tough to beat Chinese medicine and Aruyvedic medicine; meanwhile, the West seems to have little use for herbology these days (despite the biblical precedent).

Such ideas as “the nous” (might this be “the third eye”?) come to mind -as well as the posture and breathing techniques associated with the Jesus Prayer. The Indians show us the chakras (; the Chinese show us the acupuncture meridians. But there are things in the Greek Orthodox tradition that seem to be impacted by a similar science as well; one seemingly lost to the West.

#26 Comment By blackhorse On September 12, 2017 @ 9:57 pm

“Christianity teaches that creation is fundamentally good” A selling point for a lot of Christian’s is that the world is bad, fallen. Nor does Buddhism say it is not good. Confused, perhaps. The jewel in the lotus.

“Christianity is unique among “world religions” in teaching that God humbled Himself by becoming man” Fwiw, the Bhagavad Gita is based on a similar premise.

#27 Comment By Brian in Brooklyn On September 12, 2017 @ 10:59 pm

James asks:

“Can someone expand on this. Is this ‘becoming aware of ones desires’ something like what I assume therapy is like, ie to get you to the realization of something like ‘what I really had been searching for was not romance but friendship’ or something?

Becoming aware of desires is a process that occurs in tandem with an important Buddhist insight—the lack of the inherent being of all things. In this way, nonattachment from desires is understood as acknowledging that these desires are not a manifestation from/indicator of a permanent self, but desires that arose as a result of certain causes and conditions occurring, and that as those causes and conditions change, so will the desire.

A Western model of being would understand desire more along the lines you outline: that the initial apprehension of a desire did not perceive the true essence of the desire—that it had another meaning/significance. In fact, some people who adhere to the Western model often cite various desires as proof that an inherent self does exist: I desire therefore I am. It was the Buddha’s wisdom to demonstrate that causes and conditions gave rise to desire and not an inherent self. Buddhism does not seek to kill/repress/deny/disown/cease the production of desires, but rather acknowledge their true arising and then offer a framework in which to interact with them—a framework focused on benefiting all sentient beings and not in individual desire fulfillment.

#28 Comment By Khalid Mir On September 12, 2017 @ 11:57 pm

Thank you, Turmarion. Some very interesting thoughts.

I know next to nothing of Buddhism and so I can’t really comment. From the *outside*, though, what you say about the emphasis on pluralism, intellectuality (or the lack of emotions), and ‘inwardness’, does make a lot of sense. I’m just trying to think through how that ties in with what Rod said about ‘tiredness’.

For what it’s worth, the only parallel I can think of is the retreat from the public world to private pleasure or study in late antiquity.

#29 Comment By Khalid Mir On September 13, 2017 @ 12:35 am

Interesting thoughts, Rod. Perhaps the interest in Sufism and “spirtuality” (rather than religion) testifies to similar sentiments?

I think you’re right: materialism will always tire us out because it’s the wrong kind of craving. On the other hand-and this is the only line I know from Wittgenstein-life and religion are full of colour!

I’m surprised you could read M.H.! Haven’t read him and won’t. He always comes across as a miserable so-and-so.

Someone had, very interestingly, mentioned that the appeal of Buddhism over Christianity rested in the fact that the latter was “passive”. I wanted to share a few lines with you from G. Rose’s wonderful ‘Paradiso'”

‘”Thou has covered me in my mother’s womb”

This Hebrew news holds me and lets me go free, whereas the Greek aspiration to return the soul to its divine source fetters me for aeons in a body cursed and to be abandoned.’

#30 Comment By Fran Macadam On September 13, 2017 @ 12:43 am

Concur with much of what “Minimammal” wrote. I feel that while the analysis of what ails us is cogent and more developed than how we analyze our motives and thought processes in the West, and therefore true, where Tibetan Buddhism falls down is in having no explanation for why we self-deceive that is convincing, and is lacking in methodology that enables a state of freedom. I think these weaknesses come from the rejection of theism (understandable in a reaction to Hinduism) but nevertheless offer the Christian reason to question stances held by western Christians that are inimicable to their own spiritual growth.

#31 Comment By JonF On September 13, 2017 @ 6:33 am

Re: Obviously, monasteries are no good, because they are expensive for the laity to support,

Originally monasteries were supposed to be self-supporting via the “labora” party of ora et labora. In the early Middle Ages some were even centers of economic dynamism and innovation (distillation for example). By the late Middle Ages however too many monasteries had become dependent on the labor of the peasants on their lands (accumulated through deceased land owners willing acreage to the monasteries) and not so much through the work of the monks themselves, many of whom became lazy and self-indulgent, even outright debauched.

#32 Comment By Pat On September 13, 2017 @ 8:06 am

I’m glad some calvinists posted here, because they save me the labor of outlining how some sections of the church have tried to suppress any interest in meditation or enlightenment.

It is absolutely true that christian meditative practices are incompatible with calvinism. I found the idea of a calvinist god to be a great stumbling block in my practice of contemplative prayer, not because I still believed the stuff about attracting demons’ attention through meditation that I was fed by calvinists of my youth, but because I discovered I did not want to get any nearer to the calvinists’ god.

One of the great advantages of buddhist meditation is that it doesn’t either promise or threaten that it will bring you closer to god.

#33 Comment By Hector_St_Clare On September 13, 2017 @ 12:09 pm

Tough to beat Chinese medicine and Aruyvedic medicine;

Tough to beat them at what? It’s fairly easy to beat them at, you know, curing disease and extending life, which is part of why life expectancy in India and China (like everywhere in the world) wasn’t all that high until they adopted modern scientific medicine. (Yes, nutrition and sanitation had a lot to do with that too, but they too depended on modern scientific theories as well).

N.B., scientific medicine isn’t particularly a ‘western’ or ‘european’ thing (in particular a lot of the groundwork for it was done by medieval Islamic physicians). And traditional Chinese medicine is not without merit: they successfully identified some treatments, such as wormwood for malaria, that have been verified and further developed by modern scientists. We should be very careful before stating that it’s ‘tough to beat’ traditional Chinese or Indian medicine as a whole, however.

#34 Comment By Brian in Brooklyn On September 13, 2017 @ 12:18 pm

minimammal writes:

“Buddhism does not have the charitable tradition or the emphasis of agape or ‘selfless love’ that Christianity has.”

Mahayana Buddhism has the bodhisattva tradition which is centered on the attaining of compassion and development of skillful means in order to achieve liberation for all sentient beings. In my tradition, Tendai, bodhisattvas are not deities. In one fashion, I am a bodhisattva since I have taken the bodhisattva vow to work for the enlightenment of all creatures, with my own enlightenment understood as a by-product of this effort and not its focus. Also, any sentient can achieve enlightenment which is a difference with Theravada as minimammal notes; in fact, Mahayana Buddhism developed in part as a reaction to this aspect of Theravada. Thich Nhat Hanh’s Engaged Buddhism is a further development along this line.

Jodo Shinshu, minimammal’s tradition, derives from Tendai. It was started by Shinran who was a Tendai monk for twenty years, but frustrated by Tendai doctrine and practice. In his writings, he tells of how he could not master his passions, and the form of Buddhism he established jettisoned/altered the traditions so that 1) enlightenment now could be achieved by a sincere expression of belief in the Amitabha Buddha. A person no longer had to take refuge in the Dharma, the Sangha and the Buddha. All she had to do was sincerely chant the Amitabha’s name and she was enlightened. In this way, devotional practices were no longer practiced (as meditation was) to separate from the ego; rather they took on the aspect of praying to a god; which ties into the second great change 2) the notion that Amitabha is the Cosmic Buddha, an eternal being who reaches back toward sentient beings to encourage them to achieve enlightenment. On a basic level, Jodo Shinshu stands Tendai on its head and is 180 degrees removed from its predecessor’s practices. There in nothing within the Pali Canon that supports an understanding of the Buddha as eternal/divine (Buddhism can go toe-to-toe with Christianity over denomination/sect differences/disagreements). Many threads ago I posted that just as there was a Prosperity Gospel, there was a Prosperity Buddhism—Pure Land Buddhism was what I was referring to.

minimammal’s description of his sect as taking devotion to the extreme has always been my perception of Pure Land Buddhism (admittedly as a non-practitioner). Devotions now tie a person to their egos rather than separating them from them. Also, dispensing with the need to take refuge in the Dharma and the Sangha obviates the need to work for the enlightenment of all sentient beings—now it is all about the individual. As minimammal notes, virtuous living as embodied by adhering to the Noble Eightfold Path is superfluous. I can understand why this version of Buddhism led him to experience it as “detached, cold, impersonal, and not life-affirming.”

But I must disagree with minimammal when they state that “What Buddhism ultimately teaches boils down to the age-old desire, like the equally ancient quest for immortality, to become a god.” A Buddha may be an enlightened person, but that does not make him supernatural in any way. That said, there are Buddhist traditions that sometimes treat Buddhas as divine (as Robert Wright says in his book—paradox is central to Buddhism. If you lack a taste for it, do not go near the shrine).

The reason for this paradoxical position arises from how Buddhism spread. In brief, as Buddhism spread, its adherents did not seek to convert people. The metaphor I use is that Buddhism sat down next to other belief systems and talked and mingled. For this reason much of Japanese and Tibetan Buddhisms (in particular) have a strong animist flavor. There was never a move on the part of Buddhism to dislodge, but rather to supplement. In the development of American Buddhism today there is a debate about how Buddhism (pick your sect) will/will not incorporate a pastoral component with its teachings/practices. From my perspective as a Mahayana practitioner, the pastoral component is a rational/necessary/obvious addition. Agreement is not universal on this point.

As a result of this method of spreading, Buddhisms did arise that, as minimammal notes, depicted Buddhas “as omnipotent and omniscient beings capable of extraordinary supernatural feats.” Buddhisms arose which incorporated local deities, hungry ghosts etc. into their cosmologies. As I express it: these Buddhisms reverse-engineered local customs into their practices (much like Christian theologians reversed engineered Platonic and Aristotelian thinking into Christianity). For me, this approach prioritized the hope that the more a person practiced the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, the more questioning she would be toward her local beliefs. This path is opposed to the one where people are converted wholesale and told to abandon their culture and beliefs for a new system that is being presented. Both approaches have their pitfalls in my view, with the “talk-and-mingle” style being the better choice.

Lastly, as Buddhism does not have the concept of sin, when I read minimammal’s thoughts on sin—“…sin is living in error to how God naturally intended we should live and thus orients us away from God”—I think that in Buddhism error arises when a person does not live in accord with the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, since by doing so, a person gives rise to suffering, not only for himself, but also for others. minimammal points out that in Christianity, it is the Father who commands; in Buddhism it is co-dependently arising reality that does so. In each instance, it is a question of discerning what is being commanded.

#35 Comment By James Hartwick On September 13, 2017 @ 2:07 pm

@Brian in Brooklyn

Thanks for the explanation. It seems Buddhism is concerned with awareness of the nature of desire, rather than with any particular desire. Definitely a different paradigm than the one(s) I’m used to.

#36 Comment By Jane Kerber On September 13, 2017 @ 2:30 pm

Dear Rod,

I applaud your persistence in attempting to call to readers’ attention the troubling situation Christians are likely to encounter in the near future, and have a difficult time understanding why the response is not simply unequivocal, resounding agreement.

On the matter of Buddhism, however, I hope you would reconsider your approach. Our responsibility, as followers of Jesus Christ, is to seek his righteousness, to be conformed to Him as we strive diligently toward a more Christ-like character, enabled by the Holy Spirit. That is not accomplished by numbing our minds. In the words of 1 Peter 5:8, “be on the alert.” 1 Thessalonians 5:17-18 “pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks.” The problem of illness that is spiritual in origin in addressed in the letter of James. In Philippians 4:6 we are told to be anxious for nothing, but to make our requests know to God through prayer and supplication. The prayer and thanksgiving to which we are called is an active mental process. In the Psalms, our meditation is to be, not on nothing, but on the Word of God–day and night. The Holy Spirit convicts us of sin, gives us peace, teaches us through the Word of God, and confirms our adoption into eternal life, but only, ever in the name of Jesus Christ. Just as we are given leeway to engage in homosexual acts, even though they are prohibited, so we are given leeway to engage in esoteric spiritual practices, although they are, likewise, forbidden to the believer.

The similarity, if any, between other religious traditions and Christian faith is, at best, superficial. At worst, we are failing to distinguish between genuine teaching and a clever counterfeit. 1 John is clear in its teaching that everything we need for salvation has been given to the saints, and there is nothing further for which to look. We should be showing those within Buddhism a greater light, not adopting their practices. That these elements have established themselves within Eastern Orthodoxy does not make them scriptural. The Bible is full of warnings that we must guard our faith against unbiblical elements. In the third letter of John, the believers are the ones who are being put out of the church, which means that church affiliation is no guarantee of correct doctrine or practice.

The nexus between meditative practices and the occult are well documented. We are not protected from the exposure simply because we call ourselves Christians. Rather, we are told in 1 John 4:1 to test the spirits. Perhaps anyone who is engaged in these practices, who is seriously in doubt about their permissibility, might consider, beforehand, a prayer that renounces the influence of any spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ is the incarnate Son of God (1 John 4:2) and repeat that prayer at frequent intervals. That does not eliminate the problem of unscriptural mind-numbing, but will at least evidence a desire not to unwittingly open the door to spiritual influences that are not of God. We are not equipped to discern these matters for ourselves, because, as we are told in 2 Corinthians 11:14, even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.

#37 Comment By S P Robinson On September 13, 2017 @ 3:23 pm

I don’t struggle with describing myself and a Christian and a Buddhist, apart from being too poor an adherent of either faith to brag about being an examplar of either. I don’t see any incompatibility between the two either, unless one takes an offensively radical view of Christian exceptionalism. There are otherwise no contradictions between Christianity and Buddhism. Buddhism is agnostic as to God or gods, and does not worship any such except as a type of technical exercise. Yes, the Buddhist analysis of the human condition is true, and well matched by the Beatitudes. The depth of epistemological truth in Buddhism probably couldn’t be adequately conveyed to a mountainside full of Galilean peasants in the course of a hot afternoon, but I don’t doubt our Lord knew it and agreed with it.

From a phenomenological point of view I tentatively identify the Ground State of the Universe with the Holy Spirit, having been blessed to experience both.

In my view the difference between the two religions is the difference between works and grace. Buddhism is a highly technical system of works, by which a skilled and observant practitioner over the course of a lifetime can attain salvation. An unskilled, sinful Christian sinner can attain the same in an afternoon, through Grace alone.

#38 Comment By S P Robinson On September 13, 2017 @ 3:34 pm

Brian in Brooklyn, I don’t find the Christian concept of sin and the Buddhist concept of error to be inconsistent with each other. Differences of emphasis (and particularly of later interpretation) but essentially the same thing, I think. Or at least, while people are free to interpret them as being different, I don’t think it’s logically necessary to do so.

#39 Comment By Hound of Ulster On September 13, 2017 @ 7:56 pm

My previous comment seems to have been eaten…sigh

Would this discussion be more straightforward if we considered Christianity in it’s most traditional forms (organized liturgy, formalized hierarchical governance, with organized monasticism, defined borders between clergy and laity) to be an ‘Eastern religion’ more than a ‘Western religion’?

#40 Comment By Jerry On September 13, 2017 @ 8:44 pm

Debates about which religion is true always seem to me to be debates about which culture is correct. I don’t see how any religious doctrine or practice can be separated from the cultural environment around it. Nor do I see how you could resolve the question of which culture is superior. Any criteria you can name for evaluating a culture is dependent on one’s own cultural assumptions, so I don’t see how there could possibly be an “a-cultural” position from which to evaluate the question. Saying that everyone ought to adhere to the “true” religion strikes me as absurd as saying that everyone ought to be Italian or everybody ought to be Japanese.

#41 Comment By Jon On September 13, 2017 @ 8:59 pm

All of this comprises nothing but distractions from the task at hand which is reaching back into ourselves for that which is our foundation and which anchors but also transcends us. The rest is commentary — background noise and nothing more!

While it is entertaining to speculate about similarities and differences between religions and the possible but speculative historical connections, it is nothing but the fascination one might have peering at the shape of a diadem and the way it refracts light. There are all sorts of ‘isms in the world, but what really matters? This is what might be lost in such speculation.

This is where we disagree. We can choose to remain trapped in our preoccupation with ideology (including intellectualized accounts of religious traditions which extrapolate philosophy from the core) or we can put aside these toys that merely serve our amusement.

It is time to get back to work each moment being so precious that when lost to such empty speculation as comparative religion it becomes irretrievably gone.

We can begin with looking at Mary Cassatt unfinished pastel portraits of mothers and their children. The point to the fleeting of time but also in their mundane concerns suggest something more, something magically occurring and then we might take that turn inward to see what is hinted in her work. Of course this is just an example.

One may also read a poem but then start to see life through the eyes of a poet and then . . . And here is another hint. From another time and place and of course culture, Basho observed the leaping of a frog into the sound of water. And then . . .

#42 Comment By Ben Shimbo On March 5, 2018 @ 10:24 pm

My personal view is: Śakyamuni Buddha felt that we have evolved physically in a normal manner, but have not kept up evolving mentally. We still possess the fear of being eaten by lions and tigers, but unconcerned about the threat of U.S. Congress being over-loaded with Republicans and having chosen Donald Trump as our leader. We are still frightened by the sudden sight of a coil of rope we perceived as a venomous snake.
And for that reason, the Buddha taught us that we are overly attached to our ego, which precludes the effective development of our mental capacity to recognize the real threat to our lives. The composite effect of what you refer to as “natural selection” is, from my point of view, the cause of our overly-egocentric disposition. I believe that the Buddha was able to recognize the regressive societal effect that this has on us, and therefore, came up with the doctrine based on identifying ourselves as a part of humanity, or becoming one with humanity. Intuitively, I feel that his profound insight deserves to be shared by all of us, and crosses over religious lines. I could think of two books, both fictions, that attributes empathy and altruism as the foundational nature of human beings. They are The Secret Life of Bees written by Sue Monk Kidd and several books written by Marilynne Robinson. And I’m sure that there must be many others philosophical writers that share this belief.
Another Buddhist term I might comment on is the Sanskrit term śūnyatā which you refer to as “emptiness”. I believe that “emptiness” is the word used by the eastern culture as the English translation, but I prefer to define it as “wrong perception of ourselves.” The eastern culture attributes feelings to word, just as the western poet do. But I feel that my choice is the better literal definition of śūnyatā.
I might also throw in my comment on your reference to the term “incarnation”. My understanding as applied to Buddhism, the term simply means that our inter-generational continuity is provided for by our genes and memes. The memes provides for a smooth adaptive acceptance of our prevailing culture.
My background was formed from my parents who were both immigrants from Japan and I was born in Seattle, Washington. My primary interest in Buddhism was always from a philosophical viewpoint. So, other Jodo-shinshu members may have a very different feelings about the meanings of terms that I have defined above.