Many of you know at least some pieces of my spiritual/religious history, but I’ll share it in a relatively short but pithy snippet: I was raised a frozen chosen, then was set on fire by people who wouldn’t dance. Afterwards, I threw out the baby with the bathwater, danced among trees, and walked on the path for a while. I sat on cushions then rediscovered church with a bunch of transcendentalists, then went to seminary, communed with these mystics, and these, and these, joined the last house on the left, and have gone on journeys.
Out of that panoply of religions and spiritual traditions, two have stuck: my deep abiding with Buddhism, and the long embrace of Jesus. I feel as comfortable (and as uncomfortable) in a room full of silent meditators, as in a room full of people singing about Jesus.
There is so much about these traditions that are different. Their origins are from entirely different cultural/historical/political streams, and their manifestations in this particular time and cultural moment in the United States can hardly be more different. And although I might appear to an observer to be sitting in silence in my room, I might be doing mindfulness meditation or centering prayer (or some other kind of prayer) and they do completely different things inside of me.
There have been some great books that talk about the ways in which both of these traditions have similarities. One of my favorite books of this genre is Thich Nhat Hanh’s book “Living Buddha, Living Christ.” A salient quote:
“When we understand and practice deeply the live 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.”
I think this book is my favorite because it seems to me that a lot of Buddhists seem to be able to understand Christianity better than most Christians understand Buddhism. The funny thing about my history is that it was, without question, my Buddhist practice that sent me back to church.
I have hemmed and hawed about this for the last almost eight years, but I have realized finally that I truly am a small-u “unitarian.” That is, although at the present moment, I am not a member of a Unitarian Universalist congregation, I consider myself a unitarian in the theological sense. I don’t think Jesus is God or part of God, except in the way that we all are a part of God. I think Mary got pregnant before she was married, by rather ordinary means. I don’t know whether or not Jesus actually rose after 3 days of being dead – I’m certainly open to the possibility, but I kind of doubt it. I don’t think that Jesus was any kind of sacrifice for our sins, and believing in Jesus saves us from hell. Nor do I think God is in any way sadistic as that would suggest.
Most people would say that means I’m not a real Christian, but I would beg to differ. Jesus doesn’t need to be God to me. What Jesus is to me is an extraordinary teacher. Someone who was of that relatively small handful of people throughout history that have the deepest insight into life, human beings, and reality than anyone. He was a prophet and a rabble-rouser. And to my mind, just about the best thing we could do as human beings on this planet is follow his example, and really listen to what he taught, not simply worship him. Most of us who call ourselves Christian have sort of a hard time of this, surprisingly. I am, luckily, at present pretty allergic to worshiping Jesus, so I’m stuck having to just try my best to follow his lead.
Both Jesus and the Buddha provide amazing examples and teachings of how to live a compassionate life full of generosity and joy. And, of course, they are not the only ones. There are many other paths to that same life. But for me, that’s one of the things I find so compelling about the two together – they get there by somewhat different means, both valid, both full of love and consciousness.
And, at the same time, as the title suggests, embracing both fully is a balancing act. Not at all inside of myself – there it’s easy. But outside, in the world, where people often have a hard time understanding how I can fully embrace both, because they are so different. But, in so many senses, they aren’t.