Forgiveness in Christianity and Buddhism

Joseph S. O’Leary has written a blog on “Buddhism and Forgiveness.”[i] He writes in an effort to come up with a solution for the ongoing hatred and violence in Northern Ireland, and he believes that the solution lies in Buddhism’s attitudes about forgiveness and not in Christianity’s.

O’Leary writes,

Christianity is based on the idea, or rather the event, of divine forgiveness: ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world with himself’ (2 Cor. 5.19). That is correlated with mutual forgiveness between human beings: ‘Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’ (Eph. 4.32). . . .

O’Leary goes to comment that in Christianity to be “set right” one must be right with God and with one another. He states that the result ought to be, “the construction of a loving community.” He then poses the question:

Why was this gracious reality so little actualized in Northern Ireland? Even now, when a measure of rational political coexistence has been achieved, there is little cordiality or friendship between the Christian communities of the area.

He then proposes that the solution may be found in Buddhist thought. O’Leary expounds on a preemptive form of forgiveness, by not taking offense in the first place, regardless of the infraction against the person.

The emphasis falls not on forgiving but on the foolishness of taking offence in the first place:

’He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me’ – in those who harbor [sic] such thoughts hatred will never cease.

’He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me’ – in those who do not harbour [sic] such thoughts hatred will cease. (Dhammapada 1.3-4; trans. Radhakrishnan)

Harboring thoughts and memories of abuses is discouraged, and the realization that each of us is a flawed person, temporarily residing on this earth, is encouraged. If such mental purity could be fully realized, peace can occur. However, attaining such purity has been a very rare, if not impossible thing to maintain.

An underlying assumption in the article is that because the people of Northern Ireland are predominantly Catholic and Protestant that Christianity itself must be faulty, rather than the problem of violence and unforgiveness stemming from the exercise of free will.

The assertion that Buddhist teaching on forgiveness is more effective presupposes that Buddhist countries are strangers to violence. History indicates otherwise. See “Violent Intolerance in Buddhist Burma.”[ii]

[i] Joseph S. O’Leary, “Buddhism and Forgiveness,” retrieved March 18, 2014. All quoted sections of O’Leary’s blog retain his reference notes. The East West Insights blog focuses on the section entitled “Buddhist Approaches to Forgiveness.”

[ii] R. E. Sherman, “Violent Intolerance in Buddhist Burma,” East West Insights, June 10, 2013.

East West Culture Clash

In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions. Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you?  Homeless inside yourself. —The Dalai Lama[1]

Some Eastern Buddhists have sizeable reservations about their Western counterparts. This is surprising to many, in light of all the favorable press Buddhism has received. Haven’t countless people found calm in this hectic world through meditation? Buddhists desire world peace and compassion for all people, and they want to take an open stand for nonviolence. Buddhism is exotic and inviting. It shuns the violent, materialistic culture of the West. It offers the opportunity to tailor a unique path to becoming a better person, and, ultimately, to attaining enlightenment. Why would the Dalai Lama be hesitant about urging Westerners to become Buddhists?

Beginning Buddhism is easy. You choose the kind of meditation that feels good to you, and you select what you will meditate on. However, converting to Buddhism isn’t just about beginning. It’s about going deep into meditation and sustaining that depth . . . for a lifetime.

Many elements of Buddhism strongly attract people in the West. Elements of Buddhism very similar to Judeo-Christian teachings resonate with them. They think, Here is a wise, practical path to follow—without the constraint of submitting to an exacting God.

After delving more deeply, Westerners encounter some of Buddhism’s Eastern elements and usually balk, selectively. They pick and choose what they will practice and what they will ignore. Yet this cafeteria-style approach to spirituality may not work well. Many Western Buddha-seekers end up homeless—alienated from the Western traditions in which they were raised, and yet unwilling to adopt the Eastern ways of Buddhism sufficiently.

Patrick French, the author of Tibet, Tibet, noted: “I was . . . cautioned by the Dalai Lama’s own refusal to proselytize. After long observation, he had decided that conversion usually led to confusion, and that without the support of the prevailing culture, it was hard to maintain your spiritual practice.”[2]

The Dalai Lama did elaborate on his precautions. He said, “Westerners who proceed too quickly to deep meditation should learn more about Eastern traditions and get better training than they usually do. Otherwise, certain physical or mental difficulties appear.”[3]

Difficulties? What difficulties? Lorin Roche, Ph.D., a meditation instructor who has specialized over the past three-plus decades in counseling people who have engaged in prolonged, intensive meditation, has noted some of these. They include depression, a feeling of being lost, trouble adapting to life in the city, finding it hard to be intimate with another person, weird health problems and panic attacks.[4] Westerners have much higher expectations for happiness in this world, so there is a much greater sense of loss when someone commits to retreat from this world.

Dr. Roche teaches a form of meditation he believes avoids these problems. Just keep it simple, brief and consistent. Perhaps Buddhism is like a pain killer. Taking a few tablets can do a lot of good, but swallowing a handful of pills and you better get your stomach pumped.

Dr. Roche does not see any need to convert to Buddhism or Hinduism to meditate more effectively. Most other major religions have long traditions in meditative practices. There is much that Westerners can learn about meditation . . . in order to strengthen their own form of Western religion. So why not leave it at that?

You may doubt that the Dalai Lama said the things quoted above. After all, hasn’t he spent decades traveling the globe as the world’s most visible Buddhist? While this is certainly true, what is not often fully appreciated is that one of his chief objectives has been to serve as a rallying point for the cause of the liberation of Tibet.  Portraying Buddhism in the most positive light possible aids him in furthering the cause of the autonomy and welfare of the Tibetan people, for whom he has served as “the temporal and the spiritual leader” for more than half a century.[5]

We all have much to learn. Imagine Jesus giving a warning to American Christians similar to the Dalai Lama’s precautions. He might say, “I do not think it advisable to blend my teachings with Western culture.” And he would be dead on.

 


 

[1] Patrick French,Tibet,Tibet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 27.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Mary Garden, “Can Meditation Be Bad for You?” Humanist, September/October 2007, www.thehumanist.org/humanist/MaryGarden.html, retrieved November 22, 2010.

[4] Lorin Roche, “The Dangers of Meditation,” www.lorinroche.com/page8/page8.html, retrieved September 18, 2010.

[5] “His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet,” www.dalailama.com/, retrieved April 11, 2011.

Different Concepts of Hell

A common misconception is that Buddhists do not believe in hell. While this may be true of some Buddhists, the Buddha offered specific teachings about hell.

In “Devaduta Sutta”, the 130th discourse of the Majjhima Nikaya, Buddha teaches about the hell in vivid detail. Buddhism teaches that there are five (sometimes six) realms of rebirth, which can then be further subdivided into degrees of agony or pleasure. Of these realms, the hell realms, or Naraka, is the lowest realm of rebirth. Of the hell realms, the worst is Avīci or “endless suffering”. The Buddha’s disciple, Devadatta, who tried to kill the Buddha on three occasions, as well as create a schism in the monastic order, is said to have been reborn in the Avici Hell.

However, like all realms of rebirth, rebirth in the Hell realms is not permanent, though suffering can persist for eons before being reborn again. . . . Buddhism teaches to escape the endless migration of rebirths (both positive and negative) through the attainment of Nirvana.[i]

*****

The Narakas of Buddhism are closely related to diyu, the hell in Chinese mythology. A Naraka differs from the hells of Abrahamic religions in two respects: firstly, beings are not sent to Naraka as the result of a divine judgment and punishment; secondly, the length of a being’s stay in a Naraka is not eternal, though it is usually very long.

A being is born into a Naraka as a direct result of his or her accumulated karma and resides there for a finite period of time until that karma has achieved its full result. After his or her karma is used up, he or she will be reborn in one of the higher worlds as the result of karma that had not yet ripened. . . . Physically, Narakas are thought of as a series of cavernous layers which extend below Jambudvīpa (the ordinary human world) into the earth. There are several schemes for enumerating these Narakas and describing their torments.[ii]

 

Buddhist hell (naraka) in Burmese representation.[iii]

Ngaye (Naraka) in Burmese art

In Dante’s Inferno, he detailed his belief in nine distinct different levels of hell (see image below).[i]

Dante's Inferno: Levels of Hell

Conservative Christians beliefs about hell are well summarized in this excerpt from the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible.

While the duration of punishment in hell is eternal for all who have chosen that destiny for themselves, there are degrees of punishment proportional to the degrees of guilt of each individual. Only God is able to determine what those degrees are, and he will assign the consequences with perfect justice according to the responsibility of each one. Evidence of such gradations in future punishment is found in Scripture (Mt 11:20-24, Lk 12:47-48, Rv 20:12,13; cf. Ez 16:48-61). An obvious comparison is made in these texts between the differing intensities of punishment that are involved in the contrasting privileges, knowledge, and opportunities.[i]

The Buddha taught in his First Noble Truth that “life is suffering”. His view of life on earth seems similar to Dante’s portrayal of the First or Second levels of hell.


[i] Walter A. Elwell, General Editor. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. (Baker Book House, Grand Rapids, 1988), Vol. A-I, 955.

[i] “Circle of Hell in Dante’s Inferno,” Bing, retrieved February 25, 2014.

[i] “Hell in Buddhism,” Wikipedia, retrieved February 25, 2014.

[ii] “Naraka,” Wikipedia, retrieved February 25, 2014.

[iii] “Ngaye (Nakara) in Burmese Art.” Wikipedia, retrieved February 25, 2014.

How Knowledgeable are You about Buddhism?

Below is a little true/false quiz to help you assess how knowledgeable you are about Buddhism. Mark each statement as true or false.

True/False Quiz

  1. The Dalai Lama publicly encourages Westerners to convert to Buddhism.
  2. There are no serious precautions one should take before practicing Buddhist meditation.
  3. The Buddha believed that there are many ways to become enlightened.
  4. No nation with a government headed by Buddhists has ever initiated a war with another country.
  5. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has attained enlightenment. He is confident that he will not reincarnate.
  6. Buddhist nuns are subject to about the same number of monastic laws as monks are.
  7. Buddhist beliefs are highly compatible with science.

Discussion

All seven of the above statements are false, or at least are seriously in question. Let’s look at each one in turn.

The Dalai Lama publicly encourages Westerners to convert to Buddhism. He has been quoted as saying, “In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions.  Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you?  Homeless inside yourself.”[1] How could that be? Don’t forget, another top objective of the Dalai Lama is the liberation of Tibet.  Portraying Buddhism in the most positive light possible increases support for that cause. Regarding new converts in the West, he is all too aware of numerous difficulties with many of them (see discussion of the next statement).

There are no serious precautions one should consider before practicing Buddhist meditation. The Dalai Lama has been cited as saying, “Westerners who proceed too quickly to deep meditation should learn more about Eastern traditions and get better training than they usually do. Otherwise, certain physical or mental difficulties appear.”[2] Dr. Lorin Roche has noted the following hazards of engaging in intense prolonged meditation: 1) depression, 2) a feeling of being lost, 3) trouble adapting to life in the city, 4) weird health problems, 5) bipolar disorders, 6) panic attacks and 7) psychosis.[3] Why? Renunciation is much harder for Westerners, who have so much, than it is for Asians, who often have comparatively little to give up. Secondly, meditation involving emptying your mind may make room for various odd things to enter.

The Buddha believed that there are many ways to become enlightened. In three successive proverbs, the Buddha said, “The best of ways is the eightfold; the best of truths the four words; the best of virtues passionlessness; the best of men he who has eyes to see. This is the way, there is no other that leads to the purifying of intelligence. Go on this way! Everything else is the deceit of Mara (the tempter). If you go on this way, you will make an end of pain! The way was preached by me, when I had understood the removal of the thorns (in the flesh).”[4]

No nation with a government headed by Buddhists has ever initiated a war with another country. A clear counterexample is Burma (Myanmar), whose population is very predominantly Buddhist. Burma’s history has been characterized by frequent, lengthy warfare or oppression, both internally and with surrounding nations, from the Pagan Empire (AD 1044-1287) until our present time.[5]

His Holiness the Dalai Lama has attained enlightenment. He is confident that he will not reincarnate. The Dalai Lama has been practicing techniques to greatly hasten progress toward enlightenment, and yet he is quite uncertain what his fate will be after he dies. “The rehearsal of the processes of death, and those of the intermediate state, and the emergence into a future existence,” he wrote, “lies at the very heart of the path in Highest Yoga Tantra. These practices are part of my daily practice also and because of this I somehow feel a sense of excitement when I think about the experience of death. At the same time, though, sometimes I do wonder whether or not I will really be able to fully utilize my own preparatory practices when the actual moment of death comes!”[6]

If the Dalai Lama is uncertain about what his next life will be, he is not enlightened, for the enlightened Buddhist is supposed to know that he will enter nirvana when he dies and that he will not reincarnate as another sentient being. Furthermore, the Dalai Lama’s words highlight his uncertainty, even though he describes the state of enlightenment as including: (1) omniscience, with “full comprehension of all that can be known,” and (2) victory, since “you have overcome all problems and have achieved realization of all knowables.”[7]

Buddhist nuns are subject to about the same number of monastic laws as monks are.  Buddhist nuns have 311 vows to take, in contrast to the 227 for monks.[8] Buddha’s view of women was, to put it bluntly, archaic. For example, one of his proverbs was, “So long as the love of man towards women, even the smallest, is not destroyed, so long is his mind in bondage, as the calf that drinks milk is to its mother.”[9]

Buddhist beliefs are highly compatible with science. Buddhists believe, as do Hindus, that the universe has always existed. It was never created. This conflicts with the Big Bang theory of the creation of the universe.[10]

Closing Thoughts

How did you do? If you are like most Americans, your knowledge of Buddhism may have been affected by media coverage colored by sympathy for the plight of Tibet and the Dalai Lama. While such sympathy is very well founded, it can affect objectivity.


[1] Patrick French, Tibet, Tibet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 27.

[2] Mary Garden, “Can Meditation Be Bad for You?” Humanist, September/October 2007, www.thehumanist.org/humanist/MaryGarden.html, retrieved October 5, 2011.

[3] Lorin Roche, “The Dangers of Meditation,” retrieved October 5, 2011.

[4] Dhammapada, 273-275.

[5] “Burmese Kingdom,” Wikipedia, retrieved October 5, 2011.

[6] Dalai Lama, “Introductory Commentary,” The Tibetan Book of the Dead (New York: Penguin Classics, 2005), xxviii.

[7] Dalai Lama, Becoming Enlightened, 221.

[8]“Patimokkha,” Wikisource, retrieved October 5, 2011.

[9] Dhammapada, 284.

[10] “Big Bang,” Wikipedia, retrieved October 5, 2011.

How to Meditate Better

“In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Buddhism. Changing religions is not like changing professions. Excitement lessens over the years, and soon you are not excited, and then where are you?  Homeless inside yourself.” The Dalai Lama[1]

Some Eastern Buddhists have sizeable reservations about their Western counterparts. This is surprising to many, in light of all the favorable press Buddhism has received.  Haven’t countless people found calm in this hectic world through meditation? Buddhists desire world peace and compassion for all people, and they want to take an open stand for nonviolence. Buddhism is exotic and inviting. It shuns the violent, materialistic culture of the West. It offers the opportunity to tailor a unique path to becoming a better person, and, ultimately, to attaining enlightenment. Why would the Dalai Lama be hesitant about urging Westerners to become Buddhists?

Beginning with watered down Buddhism is easy. You choose the kind of meditation that feels good to you, and you select what you will meditate on. However, converting to Buddhism isn’t just about beginning. It’s about going deep into meditation and sustaining that depth . . . for a lifetime.

Many elements of Buddhism strongly attract people in the West. Elements of Buddhism very similar to Judeo-Christian teachings resonate with them. However, after delving more deeply, Westerners encounter some of Buddhism’s distinctly Eastern elements and often balk, selectively. They pick and choose what they will practice and what they will ignore. Yet this cafeteria-style approach to spirituality may not work well. Many Western Buddha-seekers end up homeless—alienated from the Western traditions in which they were raised, and yet unwilling to adopt the Eastern ways of Buddhism sufficiently.

Patrick French, the author of Tibet, Tibet, noted: “I was . . . cautioned by the Dalai Lama’s own refusal to proselytize. After long observation, he had decided that conversion usually led to confusion, and that without the support of the prevailing culture, it was hard to maintain your spiritual practice.”[2]

The Dalai Lama did elaborate on his precautions. He said, “Westerners who proceed too quickly to deep meditation should learn more about Eastern traditions and get better training than they usually do. Otherwise, certain physical or mental difficulties appear.”[3]

Difficulties? What difficulties? Lorin Roche, Ph.D., a meditation advocate who has specialized over the past three-plus decades in counseling people who have encountered problems after engaging in prolonged, intensive meditation, has noted some of these. They include depression, a feeling of being lost, trouble adapting to life in the city, finding it hard to be intimate with another person, weird health problems and panic attacks.[4] Westerners have much higher expectations for happiness in this world, so there is a much greater sense of loss when someone commits to retreat from this world for a real stretch of time.

Dr. Roche teaches a form of meditation he believes avoids these problems. Just keep it simple, brief and consistent. Perhaps Buddhism is like a pain killer to Westerners. Taking a few tablets can do a lot of good, but swallowing a handful of pills and you better get your stomach pumped.

Dr. Roche does not see any need to convert to Buddhism or Hinduism to meditate more effectively. Most other major religions have long traditions in meditative practices. There is much that Westerners can learn about meditation from Buddhism . . . in order to strengthen their practice of their own particular form of Western religion. So why not leave it at that? Actually converting to Buddhism is a much more serious and mentally traumatic thing for Westerners to do than is commonly appreciated.

You may doubt that the Dalai Lama said the things quoted above. After all, hasn’t he spent decades traveling the globe as the world’s most visible Buddhist? While this is certainly true, what is not often fully appreciated is that one of his chief objectives has been to serve as a rallying point for the cause of the liberation of Tibet. Portraying Buddhism in the most positive light possible aids him in furthering the cause of the autonomy and welfare of the Tibetan people, for whom he has served as “the temporal and the spiritual leader” for more than half a century.[5]

We all have much to learn. Imagine Jesus giving a warning to American Christians similar to the Dalai Lama’s precautions. He might say, “In the West, I do not think it advisable to follow Christianity—if that means subordinate my teachings to the base parts of Western culture.” And he would be dead on.


[1] Patrick French, Tibet,Tibet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 27.

[2] Ibid., 27.

[3] Mary Garden, “Can Meditation Be Bad for You?” Humanist, September/October 2007, retrieved November 22, 2010.

[4] Lorin Roche, “The Dangers of Meditation,” LorinRoche.com, retrieved September 18, 2010.

[5] “His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet,” DalaiLama.com, retrieved April 11, 2011.

To Eat Meat or Not to Eat Meat?

Religious leaders attempting to follow specific rules of conduct are often the object of criticism regarding hypocrisy. For example, the Dalai Lama has been criticized over his consumption of meat, when it is generally understood that monks are vegetarians due to their belief in non-violence. After all, in Buddhism the first precept is, “I undertake to observe the precept to abstain from harming living beings.”[i]

Even Paul McCartney, former Beatle, outspoken vegetarian and animal-rights activist, and practitioner of Transcendental Meditation, has written a letter to the Dalai Lama entreating him not to eat meat, which causes suffering to animals.[ii]

While the Dalai Lama has received criticism from the vegetarian community “for continuing to eat meat, while promoting non-violence,” it is on the advice of a doctor that he has begun eating “small amounts of meat after developing gall bladder issues and hepatitis.”[iii]

There are divergent views on vegetarianism in the various schools of Buddhism, however, in the Pali Canon, Buddha declared meat-eating to be karma neutral.[iv] In general, monks are to accept the food given to them with this caveat: they should not eat meat if they believed it was killed specifically for them to consume.[v]

Recently, the New York Times ran an article on the forbidden treat of Tibetan beef dumplings (sha momos). In Tibet, the tradition of meat-eating is deeply ensconced. Because of the inhospitable terrain of the country, it is not conducive to growing vegetables. Due to the Chinese invasion of Tibet in the 1960′s, many Tibetans live in India and the U.S., and eating sha momos gives these exiles a strong cultural tie to their homeland.[vi] Being Tibetan, the Dalai Lama may also crave this connection to his homeland, as he escaped into exile from Tibet in 1959.[vii]

As an international religious and political figure, the Dalai Lama has struck a compromise for his health’s sake, and eats “vegetarian in Dharamsala and meat dishes when he’s on the road and it’s offered by his hosts.”[viii] However, the question on many people’s minds is whether compromise is acceptable in their leader.


[i] “The Precepts,” TheBigView.com, retrieved February 27, 2012.

[ii] “Paul McCartney Tell Dalai Lama He’s Wrong to Eat Meat,” WhyFame.com, retrieved on February 22, 2012

[iii] “Dalai Lama Says Eating Meat Not Always Against Monk’s Principles,” Vegetarian Star (July 29, 2010), retrieved February 22, 2012.

[iv] “Buddhist Vegetarianism, Theravada,” Wikipedia, retrieved February 22, 2012.

[v] “Buddhist Cuisine/Buddhism and Vegetarianism” Wikipedia, retrieved February 27, 2012.

[vi] Julia Moskin, “Tibetan’s (Forbidden) Special Treat” The New York Times, (February 21, 2012), retrieved February 22, 2012.

[vii] “A Brief Biography” DalaiLama.com, retrieved February 27, 2012.

[viii] “Dalai Lama Says Eating Meat Not Always Against Monk’s Principles” Vegetarian Star (July 29, 2010), retrieved February 22, 2012.

Where was God in the Philippines?

In early November 2013 Typhoon Haiyan, the deadliest typhoon ever to hit the Philippines, struck and killed approximately 5,982 people. Assessed as a Category 5-equivalent super typhoon on the Saffir Simpson hurricane wind scale, it reached a maximum of 196 mph. Estimated to be the fourth most intense tropical cyclone ever observed, UN officials believe 11 million people have been affected and many are left homeless.[1]

Buddhists, Atheists, and Christians view catastrophic events differently. 

A Buddhist viewpoint would be that life is impermanent, and that we ought to treasure every moment. In view of typhoon Haiyan, Vietnamese Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh said,

This is the best that we can do for those who have died: We can live in such a way that they can feel they are continuing to live in us, more mindfully, more profoundly, more beautifully, tasting every minute of life available to us, for them.[2]

For atheists, cataclysmic storms are regarded as proof that God does not exist. Following Japan’s tsunami, author and activist Sam Harris said,

Either God can do nothing to stop catastrophes like this, or he doesn’t care to, or he doesn’t exist. God is either impotent, evil or imaginary. . . . Take your pick, and choose wisely.[3]

It takes a real measure of chutzpah to stand in judgment of God, as Harris does. In the Book of Job, God asked Job questions such as whether it was Job’s place to correct Him, or are His ways inscrutable and mysterious?

The Lord said to Job:

“Will the one who contends with the Almighty correct him?
Let him who accuses God answer him!”

Then Job answered the Lord:

“I am unworthy—how can I reply to you?
I put my hand over my mouth.
I spoke once, but I have no answer—
twice, but I will say no more.”

Then the Lord spoke to Job out of the storm:

“Brace yourself like a man;
I will question you,
and you shall answer me.

“Would you discredit my justice?
Would you condemn me to justify yourself?
Do you have an arm like God’s,
and can your voice thunder like his?
Then adorn yourself with glory and splendor,
and clothe yourself in honor and majesty.
Unleash the fury of your wrath,
look at all who are proud and bring them low,
look at all who are proud and humble them,
crush the wicked where they stand.
Bury them all in the dust together;
shroud their faces in the grave.
Then I myself will admit to you
that your own right hand can save you.[4]

You asked, ‘Who is this that obscures my plans without knowledge?’
Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know.[5]

Human beings are very presumptuous. We expect a well-ordered universe that caters to our personal preferences. The truth is that we should be grateful that, against all odds, the earth presents an environment that is generally habitable, and often favorable, to human well being. That the earth is so is the result of a mind boggling series of “just right” characteristics of the environment earth provides for us.

Consider the following: 

  • Temperature: Human beings, animals and plants can only survive in a limited temperature range. To maintain the needed range, the earth is the right distance from the sun, and the sun is relatively stable.
  • Atmosphere: The earth’s atmosphere is about 100 miles thick. This protects the surface of the earth from radiation. The needed ratio of oxygen to other gasses in the air is present for sustaining life.
  • Energy: Light from the sun provides the energy for chemical reactions in cells necessary for life.
  • Nutrients: The chemical composition of earth is conducive to nourishing life.
  • Water: All life requires water to exist. In addition to drinking water, there is the appropriate ratio of ocean water to earth.
  • Location: Due to earth’s location in the solar system, Jupiter acts as a guard for the earth, protecting it from constant bombardment of asteroid and comet strikes.[6]

We forget that all of these result in a range and mix of weather which produces a nurturing environment for vegetation and animals. Weather variation is a part of this, including rare extremes. All these characteristics were staged and set in motion by God.

God designed the Garden of Eden as an ideal place for people to dwell where typhoons would never occur and only asked that we not eat one type of fruit in the garden. Mankind chose to opt out of this idyllic existence to “do it our own way.” God backed off, permitting us to be exposed to the challenges and risks of living on this earth. God is still present, but God doesn’t force himself on anyone. God waits patiently for us to turn to God individually when we realize that we are far from sufficient in and of ourselves.

In 2 Corinthians, we are reminded to be grateful that God comforts us during difficult and tragic times, so that we can comfort others, and that when we are steadfast in faith and partake of sufferings, we will also partake of the consolation to come.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm, because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.[7]

Daniel Burke, CNN Belief Blog Co-editor, poses the following questions,

How should we make sense of such senseless death and destruction? Was God in the whirlwind itself, as the Bible hints, or present only in the aftermath, as people mobilize to provide food, water and shelter?[8]

Perhaps God is in it all. He is in the whirlwind, which is part of the amazing earth He created, and He is present in the aftermath of a devastating storm. We can be like His hands and feet when we provide food, water and shelter, and comfort those who suffer.


 

[1] “Typhoon Haiyan,” Wikipedia.org, retrieved December 12, 2013.

[2] Daniel Burke, “Where was God in the Philippines?” CNN Belief Blog, retrieved December 12, 2013.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Job 40:1-14 (NIV).

[5] Job 42:3 (NIV).

[6] “What Makes a World Habitable?” Lunar and Planetary Institute, and “What is it about Earth that makes it just right for life?” Science.howstuffworks.com, retrieved December 16, 2013.

[7] 2 Corinthians 1:3-7 (NIV).

[8] Daniel Burke, “Where was God in the Philippines?” CNN Belief Blog, retrieved December 12, 2013.

Buddhism & Christianity: Thought Provoking Analogies

Christian apologist C. S. Lewis[1] once observed that the spiritual life of a Christian is like the opportunities and risks available to an egg.  If an egg never advances beyond just being an egg, it will rot and decay.  It is designed to hatch, become a bird, and take flight.  A major problem with Christianity is that too many of its followers:

  1. never really break out of their shell, or
  2. if they do, they don’t spread their wings, or
  3. if they do, they try to fly by relying on their own power and direction.

The third option is much like a bird leaping from a tree branch without spreading its wings. It will plummet even though it wants to fly. The opportunity to receive the uplifting wind of the Holy Spirit is always available, but it requires not only an initial leap of faith but also the ongoing, moment-by-moment surrender of one’s life to God.  Without that surrender, the believer’s behavior can easily become a blight on the reputation of Christianity.

Practicing Buddhism is much like swimming,[2] while attempting to be a Christian is like flying. If a way can be found to fly safely, it is a more efficient way of getting around.  However, an air crash draws much more attention than a drowning.  Like meditation, swimming is incredibly repetitive and inward focused.  Like seeking the direction in which the spirit of God is leading you as a Christian, the flying bird can easily be blown this way or that by puffs of wind.

Initially, the Buddhist aspirant is hopeful of experiencing substantive empowerment and freedom from suffering.  Practicing deep, prolonged meditation can noticeably reduce stress levels and have a calming effect. So far, so good. After a while, however, another reality begins to set in.  Making progress spiritually as a Buddhist is very slow—to the point where the feasibility of achieving liberation comes into question.  To use the swimming analogy, it is often refreshing initially to dive into the water and begin swimming.  However, attaining enlightenment is much like swimming the 26 miles from Long Beach to Catalina Island.  Most can swim out from the shoreline and make progress for a while, but only a very select few have trained to the point where they can go the distance. And so it is that while Buddhism has initial appeal, over the long run at most a select few seekers somehow endure to the end, hoping to attain enlightenment. It is all a very conscious, concerted act of the will.

Christians would argue that becoming liberated (i.e., saved) by sheer human effort is not possible.  It would be like swimming from California to Hawaii.  No one, by good works, can traverse the 2,400 miles of ocean to get there. Rather, becoming saved is like entrusting yourself to a ship or jet to transport you there.  You have to board, committing yourself to the entire journey.  You can’t wander out on the wings during flight, or dive into the ocean for a bit to swim part of the way.

And so we see that in some ways these two great religions are quite different. Each has easy  as well as challenging aspects.


[1] “Coming In Out of the Wind,” July 8 reading, in C. S. Lewis, A Year with C. S. Lewis: Daily Readings from His Classic Works, edited by Patricia S. Klein (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2003), 208.[2] Buddha used this analogy when describing his path, referring to it as “entering the stream.” Dhammapada 178, in Harischandra Kaviratna, trans., Dhammapada, Wisdom of the Buddha, 1980, Theosophical University Press Online, retrieved October 5, 2011.

Wrathful Deities

Across many religions is the belief in demons, or malevolent spirits that may do harm or inhabit a person, resulting in the need for exorcism. Some believe that they may be the spirits of the recently deceased, returned to earth to take care of the unfinished business of their lives. So, when one sees the statues or images of the wrathful deities of Buddhism, one might automatically assume they are demons.

Demons and Idols

A demon is a malevolent, disembodied spirit. These may be the spirit of a deceased person, of a fallen angel, or a spirit which possesses a person, resulting in the need for exorcism. In Judaism and Christianity, a demon is an unclean spirit. They may be summoned and possibly controlled.[1]

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus healed the demon-possessed. One example is in Mark 5:1-20, where Jesus drove out a legion of demons from a man who had been cruelly plagued with them for years.

This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.[2]

The demons, called Legion, begged to be sent into a herd of pigs. The pigs then raced down into a lake and were drowned.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis[the Ten Cities] how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.[3]

The Apostle Paul warned against sacrificing to idols or worshipping them, and against having anything to do with demons.

Do I mean then that food sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but the sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God, and I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord’s table and the table of demons.[4]

And he admonished that,

The Spirit clearly says that in later times some will abandon the faith and follow deceiving spirits and things taught by demons.[5]

The Apostle John wrote that during the End Times,

The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk.[6]

Protectors

In Tibetan Buddhism, wrathful deities are “enlightened beings”[7] that are ferocious in appearance. These personifications of evil are meant to protect and to assist sentient beings into enlightenment, as well as symbolize the effort it takes to overcome evil. They are considered:

. . . benevolent gods who symbolize the tremendous effort it takes to vanquish evil, the violence that is a fundamental reality of the cosmos and the human mind and protect the faithful by instilling terror in evil spirits.[8]

History

The worship of wrathful deities began in the 8th century. The magician-saint Padmasambhava is believed to have conquered them and forced them to act as protectors of Buddhists and the Buddhist faith. Hinduism is the source of some of the deities.[9]

Hinduism includes numerous varieties of spirits that might be classified as demons, including Vetalas, Bhutas and Pishachas. Rakshasas and Asuras are often also taken as demons.[10]

Iconography

Images or statues of the wrathful deities, which are ferocious and hideous in appearance, are used to protect Buddhists from evil influences, and as a reminder to eliminate passion and evil in their lives. They are meant to frighten evil spirits, and to be “roosting places”[11] or temporary dwellings for evil energies to reside in. The evil energy is sent into them through the use of mantras.

These icons can be in the form of masks, scrolls (paintings), or sculptures, generally depicting the deity with short, thick limbs, a great number of hands and feet, and several heads, with a third eye and disheveled hair. Atop their heads they wear crowns made from skulls or severed heads. They may be treading on animals. Their wrathful expression may be an angry smile, which includes long fangs. From their noses may be a “mist of illnesses”[12] like a terrific storm blowing.

Categories

Some of the wrathful deities fall into three categories, the Herukas (promoting detachment from the world of ignorance), the Wisdom Kings (protectors of the Five Dhyani Buddhas, a feature of Japanese rather than Tibetan Buddhism), and the Protectors (protectors of one of the three: the World, a Region or the Law).[13]

Initiations (Empowerments)

Initiation or empowerment ceremonies are conducted to confer the blessings of a particular deity and to authorize a follower into the various stages of meditation specific to or associated with a particular deity. A highly respected lama conducts the elaborate ceremony. The empowerments are directed at three specific areas, the body, speech and mind, and involve taking extensive vows. These are not to be undertaken lightly, as Bruce Newman warns in his book, A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism: Notes from a Practitioner’s Journey. He calls it the “point of no ‘return.’”[14]

Offerings

Two types of offerings may be made to the deities. “External” offerings are made in the form of 

. . . a cemetary [sic] flower, incense of singed flesh, lamp burning human fat (or a substitute), scent of bile, blood (usually symbolized by red water) and human flesh (usually symbolized by parched barley flour and butter realistically colored and modeled).[15]  

“Internal” offerings are made in the form of

. . . a skull cup containing a heart, tongue, nose, pair of eyes, and pair of ears. In Tibetan texts, these are human organs, but in actual ceremonies barley-flour-and-butter replicas are used instead.[16]

Demons or Protectors?

For the Buddhist, wrathful deities can be likened to big, scary bodyguards standing watch over their path to enlightenment, and the statues or representations are repositories for evil, but from the Judeo/Christian point of view, these deities embody the earmarks of a demon, not to be sacrificed to, worshiped or followed.


[1] “Demon,” Wikipedia.org, retrieved October 22, 2013.

[2] Mark 5:3:5 (NIV).

[3] Mark 5:18-20 (NIV).

[4] 1 Corinthians 10:19-21 (NIV).

[5] 1 Timothy 4:1 (NIV).

[6] Revelation 9:20 (NIV).

[7] “Wrathful Deities,” Wikipedia.org, retrieved April 2, 2013.

[8] “Wrathful Deities,” Religionfacts.com, retrieved April 2, 2013.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “Demon: Hinduism,” Wikipedia.org, retrieved October 22, 2013.

[11] Nitin Kumar. “Wrathful Guardians of Buddhism: Aesthetics and Mythology,” ExoticIndia.com, February 2001, retrieved April 2, 2013.

[12] Ibid.

[13] “Wrathful Deities,” Wikipedia.org, retrieved April 2, 2013.

[14] Bruce Newman. A Beginner’s Guide to Tibetan Buddhism: Notes from a Practitioner’s Journey. (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2004), 31, 35, 38.

[15] “Wrathful Deities,” Religionfacts.com, retrieved April 2, 2013.

[16] Ibid.

Different Spiritual Journeys

Two throngs gather at the base of the southern tower of the Golden Gate Bridge. Fifty Buddhists wearing maroon wetsuits prepare to swim 1 ¼ miles in the chilly waters beneath the Bridge to the Marin Headlands near the Bridge’s northern tower. After crossing, it is a short hike to a very secluded retreat center in a hidden cove.

Close by a group of fifty Christians have gathered to begin their march across the north shore of San Franciscoto Fisherman’s Wharf. There they will board the ferry “Faith” to Angel Island. The island is a beautiful nature preserve in the middle of the Bay. It has 25 miles of hiking trails with panoramic views of the Bay and San Francisco and several uncrowded beaches.

A monk addresses the Buddhist swimmers. “Blessed monks, you are about to embark on a noble journey to the Nirvana retreat center. First you must swim over a mile in the cold waters of the Straits of Bad Karma, crossing quickly before the tide comes in. Otherwise, you will be swept into the Bay by powerful currents. It is critical that you keep repeating your mantra as you swim: ‘The water is warm. I am a strong swimmer.’ You must gauge your own ability to complete the swim. If you feel that you cannot make it quickly across, you should turn around and swim back. Once you make the crossing, you will only need to hike a few blocks to Nirvana. Thoughts about it must fill your mind.”

A young monk, new to the Sangha, poses a question. “Blessed Dasbala, shouldn’t we just walk across the Bridge instead? We would only need to walk about two miles. The water is 55 degrees. Even with wetsuits, few of us will be able to brave the cold without experiencing hypothermia. After all, the Christians nearby are going to cross the Bay in a ferry.”

“Ignorant one! We would never be able to overcome the disgrace of taking the same path as thousands of reckless, speeding cars. Nor would we do so easy a thing as to take a ferry. We must take the path of tranquility, meditating as we swim and working off our bad karma.”

A few muffled groans waft through the air, laced with salt water smells. Dasbala surveys his followers with piercing eyes as he shakes his head in disappointment.

A block away a huddle of fifty Christians listen to Pastor James: “Today we will journey to the paradise of Angel Island aboard the ferry ‘Faith.’ First, however, we must march four miles across the northern shore of San Franciscoto Fisherman’s Wharf, where the ferry is docked. We will carry the banner, ‘Praise God’ in front of us as we march. We may encounter significant opposition and ridicule.”

The Buddhist swimmers stoically walk out to the end of the pier. They rapidly wave their arms back and forth to loosen up and warm themselves, taking deep breaths. Then, one by one, they dive into the water. Some let out shouts of shock after plunging into the chilly water. Within minutes, about half of them begin swimming back to the dock, some shivering uncontrollably as they ascend the ladder at the pier. After twenty minutes, all but one of the swimmers have turned around. 

An hour after starting the sole remaining swimmer reaches the rocks by the Bridge’s north tower. Looks of joy cover his face. He gazes back, but doesn’t see any swimmers in sight. Shivering, he scampers over the rocks and onto the trail to the retreat center. There he finds an empty meditation room in a setting of complete peace and solitude. “Nirvana!” he whispers happily.  

The Christians begin their march, parading their banner and singing, “Praise God from whom all blessings flow, praise Him all creatures here below, praise Him above ye heavenly host, praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.” As they approach Fisherman’s Wharf their route is blocked by a throng of protesters waving signs saying, “Phooey on God! We have Sinbad’s Fudge,” and “Powered by Devil’s Food Fudge.” The protesters entice the marchers with little wrapped bits of fudge, tossing these into the midst of the marchers. Some of the Christians catch these and pocket them while others, wary, let them fall to the street.

When the Christians get to the pier at Fisherman’s Wharf, Pastor James addresses them: “Our ferry is about to take us safely on a 40 minute crossing to Angel Island. You must dispose of any fudge you have before you board. Otherwise, you must stay here. We will search your pockets and backpacks.” A few line up to board, but the others hang back, fretting over their fudge. Only a dozen finally board.

When the ferry docks at Angel Island, a dozen Christians disembark. There a sumptuous banquet awaits them, with a broad array of savory dishes. For dessert, however, there is no fudge. Only some amazing angel food cake.