BOISE, Idaho — Bill Burns knows it is easy for unncommitted Christians and others to get interested in Buddhism — especially when the Dalai Lama visits America this month.
Burns left the Church while in college and turned to Buddhism. His story is not unique. Many people growing up in the Judeo-Christian West are fascinated with the “wisdom of the East.”
“I never got involved directly with a temple but made a few attempts to learn meditation and to connect with a local group,” said Burns, who returned to the Church and now is a parishioner at St. John’s Cathedral in Boise. He speaks of several aspects of Buddhism that he and other Christians find so alluring.
“The cosmology and psychology appealed to me in that it offered what I thought to be a freer mindset,” Burns said. “While Buddhism affirms many of the constraints on personal behavior that traditional Catholicism holds, it does so without the emphasis on personal sin.”
Americans might get the wrong idea when they see the Dalai Lama in the news. The highest profile Buddhist in the world during a six-city speaking tour in Maui, Hawaii, April 24, is concluding his stay May 9 in Amherst, Mass.
He may appear appealing as a kind of pope with no dogma. In Buddhism, “The varying schools have different levels of doctrinal constraint, which gives nominal Christians the impression of freedom, more options to choose from, more malleability in their belief system.”
There are not likely to be any major protests during his visit, as there often are when the Pope tours America, or press releases from anything like “Buddhists for a Free Choice.” But just as papal visits can evangelize non-Catholics, will the Dalai Lama’s words here plant seeds of conversion among non-Buddhists?
Anthony Clark, an assistant professor of Chinese history at the University of Alabama and a noted Catholic expert on Buddhism, urges Catholics to show respect but not receptivity. “As Catholics, we should not allow our respect to evolve into a belief of sameness,” Clark said. “We’re not the same.”
That sentiment is echoed by Father Walter Kedjierski of St. Catherine of Sienna Church in Franklin Square, N.Y. “The first thing the Christian must do is recognize that Buddhism is Buddhism, not Christianity,” said Father Kedjierski, a student of Asian religion and culture who has written on evangelizing Buddhists. “Buddhists think in very different categories, process things in very different ways, and understand the spiritual in a way that is very different from Christianity.”
This blurring of faiths obscures many important differences.
Most important among them, said Clark, is the view of salvation. “Simply put, for a Christian, we have one life and an eternal soul, and salvation is really perceived as the beatific vision: living in God’s presence forever,” Clark said. “The Buddhist message is that we have many lives but a soul that will end. The idea in Buddhism is that life is suffering and the way to get rid of suffering is to get rid of desire and to eventually achieve nirvana, which means extinction.”
Added Father Kedjierski: “The goal for Buddhism is to escape the cycle of samsara, the constant reincarnations, and achieve the extinction of nirvana. While the Christian hopes to be ‘born again,’ the Buddhist hopes not to be born anymore. This is indeed quite a huge difference.”
Suffering is seen differently, too. For a Buddhist, says Clark, life is suffering and suffering is bad. Thus the need to end desire and, eventually, self, so that suffering ceases, too. But Christians, he adds, embrace suffering to form them and bring them closer to Christ. “So for the Christian,” Clark says, “we have almost an opposite view.”
Father Kedjierski points to another difference — some Buddhists, like Therevadans, deny God’s existence. “Some will believe in God or gods, some will not,” he says. “Some will believe in what might seem like prayers and devotions, others will not. “
The permanency of truth also can be denied. “Catholics believe in particular, unchangeable, ineffable truths — such as the idea that Christ is the one savior of humanity and God is a Trinity of persons,” Father Kedjierski says. “Buddhists shy away from such ideas because Buddhists believe that all permanence is an illusion and that one should not become attached to truths as if they are permanent. When one is taught to free oneself of the notion that any truths are unchangeable or permanent, Christianity is clearly threatened.”
No surprise, then, that “the idea of sin is really not a part of the Buddhist vocabulary,” as Father Kedjierski also notes.
Burns mentions another difference: “While Buddha is considered a savior,” says Burns, “the emphasis is solely on the individual’s journey and not a larger community. Both Buddhism and Catholicism talk about The Way, but The Way is narrow in our faith. In Buddhism, The Way is purely in the method, not in the path.”
Buddhists, though, might not acknowledge such.
“With Christianity,” Clark said, “our doctrines, our beliefs, seem to be foreground. What Buddhists believe is somehow veiled behind what they do. For a Buddhist to tell someone, ‘You don’t exist, you won’t exist,’ it’s too big of a leap. That doctrine needs to be brought about very slowly.”
Anyway, said Father Kedjierski, “Most Buddhists certainly would not be comfortable attacking the contentions of other faith traditions in some sort of a debate. The emphasis they place is upon the simple spreading of the teachings of the Buddha.”
Buddhist modes of evangelization, then, tend to be by example, not word.
“The way Buddhists evangelize is by bringing peace to people so that in their peacefulness they’re prepared for the doctrines of Buddhism,” Clark said. “They really do preach by example.”
The Buddhist love of beauty, though, is a way to reach out to adherents of the Eastern religion, he said. “Bring to them peace and beauty, and they would be attracted to it and be converted,” Clark said. “[This is] one of the more important reasons to make the liturgy beautiful as Catholics. A beautiful liturgy is a way that we evangelize in the same way Buddhists do.”
Father Kedjierski, who in 2005 published an article called “Evangelizing Buddhists through the Cross” for Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, occasionally engages Buddhists in faith discussions at St. John’s University in Queens, N.Y., where he is an adjunct instructor. He tries to present Buddhists with “an alternative view to the issue of suffering, using the cross of Christ as an example that Jesus took on suffering and showed us that there is a way to overcome it, not just escape from it.”
Clark, meanwhile, focuses on logic, truth and sense.
“One of the tasks of Buddhism is to deconstruct logic to tell us that logic doesn’t exist,” he said. “One of the best ways to fight that is to say, ‘I understand your point, but logic does exist and there is an ultimate truth, and ultimate truth can be established through science and math and the like.’”
He also discusses existence itself and the Christian belief that each of us has just one life, saying, “Offer Pascal’s great wager. What if Christianity is true? That’s at least an opening question.”
And one to which, despite similarities between the two faiths, no same answer exists.
Anthony Flott is based in