Reviews: Becoming Enlightened and Jesus & Buddha: The Parallel Sayings

lamaBecoming Enlightened

Becoming Enlightened is a practical introduction to and handbook for anyone wanting an understanding of the practices and beliefs of Buddhism.

The information in the book is presented in prose, and twice again in “contemplations” or abbreviated lists itemizing the information. The first of these lists appears in the chapter initially presenting the information, and then all the contemplations are repeated again in a single chapter at the end of the book for quick reference.

Buddhist practices emphasize selflessness, altruism, kindness, tolerance, and compassion. Topics regarding karma, death and reincarnation, the impermanence of life, being a positive force for change, and developing wisdom are discussed.

Speaking of Buddha, the Dalai Lama states,

People the world over, regardless of whether they are Buddhist or not, are aware that there was someone called Gautama Buddha, praised for his profound and unique presentation on the nature of persons and objects and for his related teaching of the altruistic intention to become enlightened, in which others are cherished more than oneself. (page 216)

This accessible and matter-of-fact approach of presenting the steps for advancing toward enlightenment in every area of life is designed to assist the reader with making the practical day-to-day changes. For the non-Buddhist, it is an illuminating look into the philosophical underpinnings and practices of Buddhism.

It was written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, Ph.D., who was his translator for ten years.

borgJesus & Buddha: The Parallel Sayings

Editor Marcus Borg set out to list parallels between Jesus and Buddha’s teachings and lives, by demonstrating parallels between their sayings and in the events surrounding their lives. He outlines parallels in numerous areas of their teachings and life stories, such as compassion, wisdom, materialism, inner life, and temptation, to name just a few.

 

The primary purpose of the parallels collected in this volume is not to make a scholarly case for similarity. We would need to include many more, as well as the debate whether and to what degree the dissimilarities count against similarity. Rather, the purpose of this collection is to provide opportunity for reflection and meditation. . . .

And so I invite you to ponder the parallels between these two enlightened teachers of an enlightenment wisdom. The path of which they both speak is a path of liberation from our anxious grasping, resurrection into a new way of being, and transformation into the compassionate life. (Editor’s Preface, page 11)

However, we take exception to his conclusions on the basis of three points:

  1. While there are a few points of comparison, many of these may be attributed to being generally accepted truths. However, many of the so-called parallels are weak at best.
  2. The author’s assumptions are deeply flawed in that he presents the parallels as though the texts he is quoting from have equal veracity. He fails to note that the New Testament authors were disciples of Jesus and eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection, while the sayings attributed to Buddha and the writings about Buddha were not put in written form until centuries after he lived, and many of the events attributed to Buddha as miraculous and which appear to be parallel to Jesus’ life are known to be myths that developed over the centuries and were not documented facts about his life at all.
  3. Rather than Buddha being an influence on Jesus, the author fails to observe that Solomon may have been an influence on Buddha, since Buddha would have had access to Solomon’s writings as a Prince of northern India. This premise is explored in R. E. Sherman’s book, Buddha and Jesus: Could Solomon Be the Missing Link?

The editor offers this book as a volume for meditation, but the basic premise is so flawed as to nullify the value of this exercise.

Reviews: Sharing Your Faith with a Buddhist and Asia’s Religions

Sharing Your Faith with a Buddhist

thirumalai
Sharing Your Faith with a Buddhist contains an extensive description of the beginnings of Buddhism, and of the assorted forms of Buddhism and their distinctive variations by country, including very practical and appropriate approaches to take for sharing Christ with adherents to each major type of Buddhism.

Madasamy Thirumalai describes the teachings of Buddha as a “social program,” which is “geared more toward individuals than toward society.” (page 12)  While Christ offers us eternal life, “Gautama Buddha’s way focuses on extinction.” (page13)

Nirvana, appearing at the end of karma, is a condition of total freedom—total annihilation of self-beyond which there is no future birth. It is the total extinction of all desire and a final, complete release from suffering, including no consciousness (there is total peace, but no consciousness of peace). This is the goal of human beings—to have no existence. (page 29-30)

While Buddha’s individualism appeals to Westerners, Thirumalai compares the intellectualism and aloofness of Buddha to Jesus being actively involved with people and a servant to others. (38, 49-50)

The ministry of Jesus was, is, and will ever be for those who are lacking in spirit and body. Gautama Buddha represents an elaborate philosophical superiority, whereas Jesus represents the selfless servant-hood that focuses on the poor, the needy, and the dregs of society. This does not mean Gautama Buddha was haughty or boastful about his caste or his socioeconomic background or his spiritual attainment. It does mean his dominant feature was intellectualism, not service to others. (page 50)

He further contrasts “between the Buddhist insistence upon high attainments and the Christian demand for simple faith,” and presents Christianity as “message of hope and comfort rather than [the] despair and fatalism” of Buddhism. (page 61)

Additional topics covered are Idols, Relics, Animism, Pantheism, Polytheism, Magic, Divination, and Spirit Possession.

Madasamy Thirumalai is a professor of world religions and the academic dean at Bethany College of Missions in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He has been a believer in Jesus for over 20 years, and he writes with knowledge and an intimate understanding of Buddhism, because he grew up in India and earned his Ph.D. in linguistics at the University of Calcutta, and he taught in universities in India.

chang

Asia’s Religions: Christianity’s Momentous Encounter with Paganism

Like a man who has been rescued from the desert and tasted his first glass of water, Lit-Sen Chang writes of six different Asian religions: Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism, Zen, Hinduism and Islam, with relationship to Christianity. Two chapters are devoted to each religion. The first puts forth an understanding of the religion describing the basic tenets, historical texts it is based on, and its influence on the world. This is done with an eye to comparison and contrasts with Christianity. The second chapter critiques the faults of each religion and ultimately how they pale in light of the life, death and resurrection of Christ, His sacrifice for the sins of mankind, and the hope that brings.

As a result, the study of pagan religions has too long been in the hands of non-evangelical or secular scholars who have stressed the similarities between Christianity and the non-Christian religious rather than emphasizing the supreme uniqueness of the Christian faith. (page XXXV)

Indeed, faced with Christ’s resurrection, all religious philosophers should give up all their disputing and vain imaginations. (page 26)

Throughout the book, he demonstrates that all of these Asian religions are paganism and states, “the chief characteristic of paganism is auto-soterism” (page 243) that is the effort of self-saving (versus the mercy and saving grace of God through Christ).

Christianity, unlike other natural ethnic religions, is not a set of philosophical systems or ethical teachings: but is “the way of life,” . . . (page 265)

Born in China and reared in a family rich in Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, he writes not as one who has studied these religions, but as one who has lived and been completely immersed in them. Intent on improving the life of people in China by promoting the culture and religion of his people, he became a lawyer and a university professor, teaching in numerous universities. During the war against Japan (1937-45), he became a political leader, and eventually a key adviser to Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, advising him on matters related to the war and national reconstruction. In 1949, he was invited to lecture at a leading university in India on Buddhism. The following year, he underwent a conversion of faith, and committed his life to proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Serving in various capacities in other educational institutions, he later attended Gordon Divinity School, in the United States, and received a Bachelor of Divinity (1959). He spent the remaining years of his life writing of the Christian faith.

Tibet, Tibet: Book Review

At age 16 Mr. French met the Dalai Lama in 1982 when His Holiness visited the Catholic school for boys he attended. He was quite fascinated by the Dalai Lama’s style and exoticism. “Joy poured from him; there was no trace of piety, the great Christian virtue.”[1] Later French’s fascination led to his becoming one of the leaders of the Free Tibet Campaign and editor of the Campaign’s magazine.[2]  “The Tibetan cause became a central part of my life, and many friendships and relationships developed from it.”[3]

And it was, and is, a very worthy cause. In 1950 the Communist Chinese invaded Tibet. They destroyed 6,000 monasteries and killed 1.2 million people, one-fifth the entire population. Only 70 monasteries remained.[4] The Communists looted the monasteries, confiscating their money, gold, carvings and grain reserves.[5] They told the villagers that “religion was poison and monks were parasites.”[6] And the Communists made sure that the monks who remained were of ill repute.[7]

Before finishing the book Mr. French was very empathetic toward, if not fully persuaded about, Buddhism.

For me, Tibetan Buddhism was a workable approach. Leaving the Roman Catholic faith of my childhood was not hard. Buddhism appeared to create contentment among its followers, and reincarnation seemed a fair explanation of what happened to the spirit after death. So my admiration was partially utilitarian: it felt good to be around Tibetans, and if their religion brought good to them, it was worth pursuing….It was the Buddhist explanation of life, the universe and everything that drew me, rather than the ritual or the theology.[8]

In spite of the empathy and admiration of Tibetan Buddhism evident in his book, French had numerous reservations about it. Tibet, Tibet emerged out of “a gradual nervousness that the idea of Tibet, particularly the views of Tibet campaigners, was becoming too detached from the reality of what Tibet was like. So I did a long journey through Tibet in 1999.”[9]

In a book review by Pico Iyer published in The Los Angeles Times, Iyer described French as a “scrupulous and disciplined writer” who “has a decided gift for inspired and heartfelt research and a knack for coming upon overlooked details that are worth several volumes of analysis.”[10] Tibet, Tibet is a treasure trove of historical and sociological observations about Tibet and its communist oppressors.

So, what reservations did French cite about Tibetan Buddhism? Here are the primary ones:

1) “The outward aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, and the celibate male hierarchy running the show, were what I found least appealing, although I still respected the Dalai Lama.”[11]

2) “As I studied Buddhism more closely, some of the failings began to show, and I noted the schisms, bigots, frauds, hypocrites and predators that you would find in any ecclesiastical system.”[12]

3) “I was put off too by the tone of many of the foreign converts, who thought they could strip the tradition of its tough ethical underpinnings. They were implausible, with their showy accountrements of conversion, their beads and bracelets, their devotion to instant spiritual empowerment, their reliance on airport-hopping teachers who were not always taken seriously by Tibetans.”[13]

4) “…there were the prominent blunders: the teacher and promoter Sogyal Rinpoche, served with a lawsuit for seducing a student; and the Nyingmapa monk Penor Rinpoche who, in the most dubious circumstances, identified the high-kicking Hollywood action hero Steven Seagal (Marked for Death, Hard to Kill) as a reincarnation of the seventeenth-century master Chungdrag Dorje.”[14]

5) “I was also cautioned by the Dalai Lama’s own refusal to proselytise. 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: ‘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.’”[15]

The book does not provide further elaboration on why the Dalai Lama is so reticent to encourage Westerners to convert to Buddhism. This is a very important question. My own research led to comments from two other sources:

1) The Dalai Lama has said that “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.”[16]

2) What kind of difficulties might the Dalai Lama be referring to? Lorin Roche, Ph.D., a meditation instructor who has counseled thousands of people who have engaged in prolonged, intensive meditation, offered his own list on his website.[17] It includes: 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, 7) psychosis, and 8) suicide. His web posting, “The Dangers of Meditation,” is an astonishingly revealing and thorough document.

Obviously, Dr. Roche’s list does not refer to issues involved in practicing short sessions of meditation, since he himself strongly advocates it. The challenge is that anyone hoping to attain liberation and enlightenment must engage in prolonged, intensive meditation. It is an essential part of the route to Nirvana. That is the conundrum that Buddhism presents to Westerners attracted to it. People in the West are so conditioned to indulge in worldly gratifications that highly disciplined self- denial is extremely difficult and debilitating. And the self-imposed isolation that such marathon meditation requires is psychologically perilous, especially for people who already have major issues.

No wonder the Dalai Lama doesn’t push conversion to people in the West. And yet, it is obvious that he wants Westerners to have a very positive view of Tibetan Buddhism. Why? He wants our support of his efforts to free Tibet.


[1] Patrick French, Tibet, Tibet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003), 17.

[2] Ibid., 29.

[3] Ibid., 22.

[4] Ibid., 63.

[5] Ibid., 43.

[6] Ibid., 44.

[7] Ibid., 63.

[8] Ibid., 24.

[9] Interview: “Nandini Lal on Patrick French,” Outlook Magazine. www.outlookindia.com/fullprint.asp?choice=1&fodname=20030310&fname=french&sid=1, dated March 10, 2003. Retrieved November 1, 2012.

[10] “Himalayan Descent,” The Los Angeles Times. articles.latimes.com/2003/oct/19/books/bk-iyer19, dated October 19, 2003. Retrieved November 1, 2012.

[11] Op. cit., French, 24.

[12] Ibid., 26.

[13] Ibid., 26.

[14] Ibid, 26-27.

[15] Ibid., 27.

[16] Mary Garden, “Can Meditation Be Bad for You?” Humanist, September/October 2007, thehumanist.com/magazine/september-october-2007/features/can-meditation-be-bad-for-you. Retrieved November 22, 2010.

[17] Lorin Roche, “The Dangers of Meditation,” www.lorinroche.com/dangers/homeless.html. Retrieved September 18, 2010.

Reviews: Buddhism for Dummies and Rogues in Robes

 

Buddhism for DummiesBuddhism for Dummies is a user-friendly, extensive presentation of the fundamental teachings of Buddhism. It can be read from cover to cover, or it can be used as a reference book by turning to the section you are interested in.

It provides an introduction to Buddhism, discussing whether or not it is a religion, a philosophy, or a practical way to conduct your life.

If Buddhism is not primarily a belief system and is not centered upon the worship of a supreme Deity, then why is it classified as a religion at all? Because like all religions, Buddhism gives people who practice it a way of finding answers to the deeper questions of life, such as “Who am I?” “Why am I here?” “What is the meaning of life?” “Why do we suffer?” and “How can I achieve lasting happiness?” (page 11)

Further, it surveys the history of Buddhism from the life and teachings of Buddha through Buddhism today, and the practical application of Buddhist thought. Almost a third of the book is devoted to walking the Buddhist path toward enlightenment, and there is a section on ten common misconceptions about Buddhism and ten ways Buddhism can help you deal with life’s problems.

Although the authors have tried to simplify the terms used throughout in the book, a glossary of useful Buddhist terms is provided at the back of the book. Additional resources are listed as well.

Rogues in RobesRogues in Robes gives a detailed history of Buddhism in Tibet and examines the historical basis leading to the conflict over the selection of the 17th Karmapa, leader of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism. It is a story filled with political upheaval in Tibet and the sometimes deadly intrigue in the various Tibetan Buddhist schools.

When a Tibetan Buddhist leader dies, he leaves clues as to where he will next incarnate so that he can be found and trained to take up his duties again. When the sixteenth Karmapa, head of the Karma Kagyu lineage, died in 1981, the search for his successor soon began. This is the story of the politics and intrigue involved in finding him, not a simple task as it turned out, as told by a Western student of Lama Ole Nydahl. (back cover description)

In 1956, author Tomek Lehnert was born in Poland, and he studied Civil Engineering at the Polytechnics of Gdansk and English literature at the University of Poznan. He became a practitioner of Buddhism in 1983. He has traveled extensively, and has translated Buddhist lectures into Polish and Spanish for more than ten years. He is a student of Lama Ole Hydhal.

Reviews: Living Buddha, Living Christ and Buddha’s Not Smiling

Living Buddha, Living Christ was written by scholar, activist and Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who espouses drawing upon the truths (“fruit”) of many traditions.

Fruit salad can be delicious. . . . To me, religious life is life. I do not see any reason to spend one’s whole life tasting just one kind of fruit. We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions. (page 1-2)

Through the practice of deep looking and deep listening, we become free, able to see the beauty and values in our own and others’ traditions. (page 7)

Hanh believes that Buddha and Jesus are both teachers devoted to leading their followers to a way of life that encompasses generosity, compassion and a mindful way of life, and that, “If the Buddha had been born into the society in which Jesus was born, I think he, too, would have been crucified.” (page 55)

When we understand and practice deeply the life 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. (page 56)

He further teaches that Buddha and Christ live on through us as we practice a mindful life following after whichever tradition we grew up in. He states,

No single tradition monopolizes the truth. We must glean the best values of all traditions and work together to remove the tensions between traditions in order to give peace a chance. (page 114)

I do not think there is that much difference between Christians and Buddhists. Most of the boundaries we have created between our two traditions are artificial. Truth has no boundaries. Our differences may be mostly differences in emphasis. (page 154)

This book blends the teachings and beliefs of Buddhism and Christianity into a plea for each person to faithfully and mindfully practice their religious tradition, to draw upon the truths of all traditions, and to be aware that whatever course we take, the result will ripple out into our families, communities, and the world. However, we encourage the reader to understand that when Hanh writes about Jesus, he is defining him in Gnostic versus biblical terms.

Buddha’s Not Smiling is an examination of the Karmapa controversy. Following the death of the 16th Karmapa, leader of the Karma Kagyu sect of Tibetan Buddhism, two candidates were put forth, Ogyen Trinley Dorje and Trinley Thaye Dorje, who each have been enthroned and have been independently serving as the Karmapa.

At issue are the methods used to select these candidates (political and/or traditional), and it has caused division and controversy amongst Buddhist leaders. Ogyen Trinley Dorje, who was recognized by Tai Situ, the third ranking spiritual leader of the Karma Kagyu school, and who has the support of the Dalai Lama and the Chinese government, and Trinley Thaye Dorje, who was recognized by the 14th Shamar Rinpopche, one of the second-ranking spiritual leaders in the Karma Kagyu school, and the support of Khenpo Chodrak Tnephel Rinposhe, the abbot of the Rumtek monastery until it was taken over by followers of Ogyen Trinley. He is now based in New Delhi. There are numerous other supporters of both, too many to list here.

This book examines the conflict between the Karma Kagyu school and the Dalai Lama’s exiled government. Historically, the Karmapa has never been chosen by the Dalai Lama, as its lineage dates two centuries earlier than that of the Dalai Lama. This book presents the Karma Kagyu as resenting the interference of the Chinese government and the Dalai Lama in their affairs. The author, Eric D. Curren, expresses his desire to be objective, but it should be noted he is a student of Shamar Rinpoche, and therefore, some bias may exist in his writing.

In February 2011, a gathering of 5,000 people attended an event in Sikkim state in India where they burned copies of this book. Sikkim is a landlocked Indian State in the Himalayas, where it borders Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan, and West Bengal.