Presbyterian Men’s Breakfast
November 24, 2002


This morning we will go to the mountains with the Buddha. A useful reason for studying comparative religions, or belief systems is to learn more about your own. So let’s look at Buddhism, a religion that impacts much of the Eastern world. I want to give an overview of Buddhism, the varieties of Buddhism, the similarities to Christianity, and the important differences from Christianity. In the brief time we have, I hope I can at least whet your appetite.

Where did Buddhism come from?
2600 years ago a young prince in Northern India, Siddhartha Gautama “awoke”. For Buddhists to “awaken” means to be lifted up from service to the animal nature within us, and to understand what it means to be a full human being. “Buddha,” in fact, means, “the Awakened One.” At the time Siddartha began his quest, the Judaism of our Hebrew fathers was about 1000 years old. Greek philosophy had not yet emerged. It was still some 600 years before Christ. The prevailing religion in India at this time was Veda, a very formalistic, ritualistic religion controlled by an elite priesthood.

Gautama Buddha did not intend to found a religion, but to discover for himself the purpose of living, and how to live a proper life. As the young prince Siddhartha searched for truth and meaning he abandoned his wife and family and began a course of extreme asceticism. He got so skinny his hands could almost touch when pressed against stomach and back. He soon found all he could think of was subduing his body. The prince concluded that extreme asceticism in itself could not be the true path, since it required constant focus and attention on the body, and there is no wisdom in that. Maybe something our fitness-obsessed folks should think about.

After much meditation he discovered“ the middle way” of moderation. In fact the MIDDLE WAY is what he call his teaching. To this day Buddhism teaches avoidance of extreme asceticism and instead includes “joy” and “delight” as part of the four great principles. Think of the contented, happy look we often see on statues honoring Buddha. And we also note his girth! He practiced what he preached.

This all started around 600 BC For two hundred years Buddhism was a very minor cult until one of the emperors of India popularized it. It became a state religion in India, and spread to other Asian countries. We’re reminded of the parallels to Constantine and Christianity in the fourth century AD. Later, however, it declined in popularity in its birthplace India, which favored the Hindu religion. When Islam invaded India in the 12th Century winning many converts, Buddhism was gone as a force from India, but it had spread to all the other Eastern countries.

In about 500 AD, 1100 years after the Buddha first taught, Buddhism reached Japan, through China of course. In each area it mixed with the existing customs and local religions. Buddhism’s spread to the North, through China, Japan, Mongolia, Korea was of one type. The Buddhism of the southern countries, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, was a different type. Consequently, Buddhism is even more fragmented and splintered than Christianity. One difference between Christianity and Islam is Buddhists do not go to war against the unorthodox beliefs of other Buddhists. Wide tolerance is characteristic of Buddhism.

Also there is no fixed text as in Judeo-Christianity. Although there is an enormous amount of Buddhist writing, there is no Buddhist bible, though there are some texts that are deeply revered by some sects of Buddhism. And, there are the written sayings of the Buddha himself, which resemble Proverbs in form. In a simplification, Christianity stresses dogma and catechism. Buddhism stresses it is a path for you to discover.

The oldest form of Buddhism is called Theravada Buddhism. It was once the only form. Theravada Buddhism is a hard way to follow and requires personal training by a master. Only a few were able to get all the way to enlightenment and Buddha-hood. So a new way emerged in the first century AD, Mahayana Buddhism. Most Buddhism in the world today is a form of this Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana means "the greater ox-cart, or bigger vehicle" -- with room for more people. The Mahayana is a broader, more accessible way that recognizes not everyone can or is required to reach full enlightenment, and that it is sufficient to be on the path.

So what is Buddhism? Is it a religion? Buddha literally means "The Awakened One" in the Pali language of India. Siddhartha Gautama, taught how to wake up as a full human being and see the truth and meaning of life. The Buddha did not practice or teach this as a religion. He taught a way of living. The joyful “Lotus Path”, the glorious “Middle Way” was a philosophy of life, a way to become a fully realized human being. It was not a religion in the conventional sense of recognizing an intelligent deity, a divine. Only much later did some deify the Buddha himself, and see him as an “avatar” or representative of the divine. There is still difference among Buddhists on this issue. Buddhism also, like Christianity, mixed with local religious tradition. Unlike Christianity, Buddhist philosophy and teaching easily co-exists with other theologies.

The goal of Buddhism, to become awakened to the suffering that is the nature of life, and to feel and express compassion for the suffering of all in this life. The Eightfold Path is a journey through life to release oneself from the repetitive cycle of birth and death, perception and illusion, craving and aversion, fear and greed. These are the traps laid for us humans that keep our souls repetitively learning their lessons through Karma, or cause and effect experiences. In the final release, we achieve a state of bliss, a Nirvana of release from the illusion of this world into the bliss beyond carnal being. We see and experience truth, love, and compassion so great it transcends our imagination.

Nirvana is not later, it is here and now. We are clinging to the banks of the river of Nirvana. If we could let go of our cravings, aversions and illusions of “self” and go with the flow, we would experience freedom from suffering. Those advanced on the path are called Bodhisattvas. This is a state of greatly awakened consciousness. The Bodhisattvas’ role is to teach others and to exercise compassion - or love - to all of humanity and teach others how to do the same.

Sounds a lot like another religion, doesn’t it? But the Bodhisattva holds himself back from Nirvana. Why not go to heaven now? Because the role of the true Buddhist, once personally released from suffering, is to witness and teach the principles of living, release from suffering, and compassion for all mankind. The Bodhisattva chooses to stay part of mankind rather than living in perpetual bliss.
What is this teaching, the Dharma? I cannot teach Buddhist principles in the brief time we have, but I can outline some keys for you. And I’ll give you a few examples of Buddhist Dharma.

First Dharma teaching is the Four Principles.
The Dalai Lama teaches the four principles of understanding the universal suffering of all mankind are Suffering, Causation of Suffering, Cessation of Suffering, and the Illusion of Permanence. The Buddhist teaching can be summarized; quench the three fires of craving, fear and the illusion of permanence. Why not awaken here and now to what you are – and live accordingly. This is happiness.

Doesn’t that echo our Bible; “Today is the day of your salvation. The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand, in your midst, here and now. Repent, let go of your cravings and fears and believe on the Kingdom of Heaven. Seek ye first the Kingdom of Heaven, and then all these things shall be added to you.”

Dharma teaches the cessation of suffering can be achieved by following the Eight Fold Path: Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood; Right Effort, Right Awareness, Right Concentration; Right Thought, Right Understanding. Meditation is the basic learning method.

Faith and Works in Buddhism
The Bodhisattva is committed to service. The Bodhisattva does compassionate work, working for the enlightenment and relief from suffering of all mankind – because he cannot be bothered about himself. The varied branches of Buddhism describe this in different ways, but the resolution is: Only the man who is working for others will achieve results for himself – and – you cannot achieve results for others if you are not working to improve, and in the end perfect, yourself. Sounds like both are necessary. Doesn’t this echo in our own faith? The faith versus works debate?

A teaching from the Tao, or way of Zen. Zen Buddhism, refined by the Japanese, teaches to think “as if.” If you want to climb a mountain, begin at the top. For example, to behave “as if” one were serene in the dentist chair is a better way to be serene than a lot of study. If you behave “as if” you were serene, you will be serene. What does this sound like in Christianity? Jesus said, If you had faith no greater than a mustard seed you would move mountains. Yet it is hard for we humans to accept this. But when we do, we move mountains or climb to their top. But, as Jesus taught, we must have the faith to believe in that which we cannot yet see. A person believes a thing when he behaves as if it were true. It’s a simple statement, but at the heart of both Jesus’ and Buddhist teaching.

What about reincarnation? A key teaching of Buddhism is on the transmigration of souls. This means a soul does not die when the body does, but finds its way into another life, to complete its work, its purification. We in the West confuse this notion as reincarnation. This rebirth does not mean that “you” as an individual live again. Rather, the Buddhist believes the soul had you as its body at this stage of its journey through the endless cycles of birth and rebirth and the suffering attendant to that. This is more than semantics: Buddhists do not share our concept of an “individual soul” precious to a Divine Creator.

You all know that I’m very interested in Christian contemplation. And certainly we all hear a great deal about Buddhist meditation. Well, Buddhist meditation – whatever the particular method -- is similar to Christian contemplation, but with an important difference. The Tibetan word for meditation means “deliberately cultivated familiarity.” The Buddhist meditator seeks familiarity with emptiness, which is the Buddhist key to release from craving and aversion and illusion of false self. These are the things that western psychology and Christian meditation also seek. But here is a difference. The Christian meditator seeks these same things, but also seeks familiarity and friendship with a God.

Buddhism is a moral philosophy and a metaphysical system – for most sects of Buddhism there is no God, rather there is the ALL. What does that mean in practical terms? The Buddhist God IS the Universe. Our God is King of the Universe. While the Buddhist acknowledges the All, it is an “it”. Neuter. The Christian God is He. Father, brother Christ, Holy Spirit (which the Jews know as “She.”). We are sons and daughters, persons, with a personal God.
The Buddhist “All”, “Emptiness”, the “Nothing” does not speak. Our God not only speaks to people, he gives instructions, humor, advice, support, admonishment, correction and love. There are no prophets in Buddhism. Man recognizes his own wisdom.

The Buddhist goal is cessation of suffering, a detachment from all the illusions and cravings of this world. The Christian goal is this too, but also to give God praise and honor and glory and thanksgiving for his loving-kindness and mercy to us, and for the majesty of his creation.

While I admire the wisdom and morality and life guide of Buddhism, for me, our personal God, so personal he sent his own son to instruct us and die for us, this Personal God makes all the difference.


The Wheel of Suffering, Karma

If ignorance arises, reaction occurs
If reaction arises, consciousness occurs
If consciousness arises, mind and matter occur
If mind and matter arise, the six senses occur
If the six senses arises, contact occurs
If contact arises, sensation occurs
If sensation arises, craving and aversion occur
If craving and aversion arise, attachment occurs
If attachment arises, he process of becoming occurs
If the process of becoming arises, birth occurs
If birth arises, decay and death occur, together with sorrow, lamentation, physical and mental suffering, and tribulations.
Thus arises this entire mass of suffering.
By this chain of cause and effect – conditioned arising – we have been brought into our present state of existence and face a future of suffering.

Other thoughts to consider
Buddhist teaching is called Dharma. Buddhism has a great hold on the imagination of many people in the west. We hear about Zen and the Art of Motorcycle maintenance, we see smiling Buddhas, Jade Buddhas, we hear of Buddhist temples, Buddhist monasteries, Zen Buddhism, pagodas of China. We even saw the Beatles head for eastern Buddhist masters seeking enlightenment.

The Buddhist wants to get off the wheel of suffering.

The Christian welcomes both birth and death … Why??????

The Christian welcomes friendship with God.

The Buddhist sees the drop of water – the soul – flowing to the sea and becoming, recognizing it is one with the ocean. For the Christian, the drop of water flows to the sea and the entire ocean goes into the drop of water.

Our body does not have a soul, it’s the other way around. Our souls have a body.

The koan, a difference between Zen and Christian practice. Okay, this is a heavy one. The koan is a paradox – on the surface, that can coach a mind into seeing on it’s own.

The Buddhist welcomes the unimpeded inter-penetrability of all with all.
An example is the Kegon School in Japan and the Jijimuge Zen, teaching you to understand unimpeded inter-penetrability. This is “non-duality.” That means apparent contradictions are just two sides of the same coin. But think on Christian teaching: The Gospel of John teaches “I and the Father are one. Be in me as I am in the Father. That they all may be one.” This too, is an apparent contradiction that causes us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds, as Paul teaches in Romans.

Another teaching from the Buddha; We are all enlightened, able to know and see truth. The difference between the enlightened and he who is not, is the enlightened knows he is enlightened, the other does not know it. This is the recognition of wisdom within.

Dalai Lama teachings:

“Reverse habitual tendencies by deliberately cultivating new habits.”

“ Do no negative acts.
  Do positive acts.
  Understand Reality.
  Be liberated. ”

           -The Dalai Lama, August 1999, New York City