Monday, October 27, 2008

Was Jesus a Buddhist?

Of course not!
There are some who speculate that Jesus was influenced directly by Buddhist thought, either through the work of Buddhists traveling west to spread the word or through Jesus traveling east in the missing years of his twenties. I don’t think there is evidence to support either of these claims. Having said that I would also say that my more recent engagement with Buddhist thought has brought “mindfulness” to my attention (pun intended), and I can’t help but think that Jesus exhibits mindfulness to a remarkable degree.

What is mindfulness? Sylvia Boorstein, in her book It’s Easier Than You Think writes that mindfulness is “the aware, balanced acceptance of present experience” (60). Daniel Goleman expands on that a bit. In the most recent issue of Greater Good he writes that it is “a moment-by-moment awareness of one’s internal state and external environment” (11). It has to do with paying attention, calming oneself and being attuned to the feelings of others. Thich Nhat Hanh writes: Right Mindfulness is the energy that brings us back to the present moment. To cultivate mindfulness in ourselves is to cultivate the Buddha within, to cultivate the Holy Spirit. (The Heart of Buddha’s Teaching, 64) Daniel Goleman’s spouse, Tara Bennett-Goleman offers the most expansive notion of mindfulness in her book Emotional Alchemy. Mindfulness entails “harmony and simplicity, a mind alert but at rest, clear attention to the moment” (26). She goes on to write: Just as quieting our tumultuous thoughts offers one such tool for sorting out the jumble in our mind, other qualities of mindfulness provide powerful means for exploring our emotional lives. Among them are spacious clarity, calmness and equanimity, freedom from self-judgment, confidence and courage, intuition and trust, freshness and flexibility. Perhaps most important for emotional alchemy is a sustained investigative awareness, the ability to inquire with openness into an emotion until its meaning is revealed (29).

When reading many New Testament stories through the lens of some traditional Christological categories, one often assumes that Jesus knows things because of his divine nature. At least that is how I often read such stories. Then I got to thinking – however Jesus was divine, he was fully human and his prescience can be attributed to awareness, sensitivity, openness – in short, to mindfulness. “But Jesus, aware of their malice…” (Matthew 22:18) – the question about paying taxes. In the story of the paralytic man healed by Jesus, Jesus first offers forgiveness. Yes, the story really is more about Jesus having the authority to forgive, but might it also be about Jesus mindfully discerning that what this person needed as much as anything was forgiveness? Perhaps my favorite example is the story of the woman who touches Jesus in the crowd. In Luke’s telling (Luke 8:42-48), Jesus is in the midst of a crowd, and is responding to one man’s plea for help when a woman touches him. He knows it, but the disciples don’t understand his degree of mindfulness. He senses that he is being touched and senses the deep need of the one who touched him.

In Jesus we encounter a person of deep mindfulness. To nurture Christlikeness may include nurturing mindfulness. I happen to think it does. I also think we can learn something from the Buddhists about how to do this.

Trying To Create Beauty,


Friday, October 3, 2008


In an episode of MASH, one of my favorite television shows, a shamanistic Korean wedding is arranged over the objections of some of the camp personnel – Majors Burns and Houlihan primarily. When Capt. Hawkeye Pearce asks the camp chaplain, Father Mulkahey what he plans to do, the priest tells Hawkeye, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.” Hawkeye replies, “You spiritual thrill-seeker you.”

That story came back to me recently as I continued to ponder a sermon I delivered a few weeks ago. The sermon was about spiritual types, and the typology I used was based on the work of Corinne Ware. The essential idea is that you can have two continuums – one that runs from “thinking/head” to “feeling/heart” and one that runs from “katophatic/concrete/known” to “apophatic/abstract/mystery.” Ware asserts that people tend to prefer certain forms of the spiritual life based on the four quadrants.

Quadrant I (head/katophatic) people function with a head spirituality that focuses on feeding the intellect, on tangible and intellectually compelling images for God, on ordered worship. Words are very important. Quadrant II (heart/katophatic) people function with a heart spirituality. They, too, like tangible and concrete images for God, but not to stimulate their thinking but rather to warm their hearts. Personal spiritual renewal tends to be important. Spontaneity in worship, experience in worship and prayer are important. Quadrant III (heart/apophatic)people operate with a predominantly mystic spirituality. They are interested in experiencing God, but see God in mystery and silence. Meditative prayer is attractive, and worship should have moments for quiet and silence. Quardrant IV (head/apophatic) people have an activist orientation to the spiritual life. They want worship to inspire them to change the world. Justice is prominent in their spirituality, and they may think that action should be the essence of prayer.

These are broad categories and like any typology, it can be misleading and misused. At its best, it reminds us that we are not all alike, that different things may feed our souls and spirits, and that we need to be open to being stretched.

When I first took this inventory, I ended up with almost equal numbers in each quadrant. That’s not all that surprising given my background. I grew up in a United Methodist Church, but my dad’s family was catholic and we attended a number of Catholic weddings. I was frankly fascinated by some of the worship, the hand movements, they mystery. In junior high school I had a heart-warming Christian experience which I understood in fairly traditional Christian terms. When I was in junior high school, I also discovered that I had a talent for logical thought. I have a deep appreciation for meditative practices and have used meditative prayer with some frequency. I believe God’s dream for the world goes beyond individual transformation to include transformation of the world toward more justice, toward reconciliation, toward peace. I now find that my soul is fed by high church liturgy and by the simple ringing of a meditation bell and silence. I am more of a feeling person – higher F than T on the Myers-Briggs inventory, but I love to discuss ideas. I have marched for justice and peace and reconciliation and visited my legislator with the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, and have meditated in silence on a zafu.

For me, then, this typology is a way I have of describing my own spiritual journey. In one way, it began in quadrant III, with they mystery of grace embracing me in baptism before words. My conscious spiritual journey began, though, in quadrant II – my heart-felt experience of God’s love in Jesus Christ when I was in eighth grade. I became a part of a local Jesus people church in the months following – a heart spirituality. Frankly, I drifted for a time in late high school, but this God, this spiritual journey would not leave me alone. In later high school and college, I engaged in a deep intellectual search. I majored in philosophy and psychology, and these intellectual endeavors were part of my spiritual journey. When I entered seminary after college, it was as much to continue my spiritual journey as to move toward ordained ministy, though that calling came along the way. I loved theology – Paul Tillich, Reinhold Niebuhr, Rudolph Bultmann, H. Richard Niebuhr, Dorothee Soelle, John Cobb and process theology. Quadrant I became more like home. But some of the best theology recognizes its limits, the limits of language when discussing the Divine. During my time of searching, I had spent some time getting to know other religious traditions and was especially drawn to Zen Buddhism – which was, as I understood it, an interesting combination of intellectual work and heart work. Along with my study of theology, I began to find resources within the Christian tradition that included meditative prayer, a place for mystery and silence. Another discovery in seminary was the whole tradition of Christian social concern, a social gospel. While in college, I had become politically interested and active, and now I began to integrate this into my Christian faith journey.

So here I am, open in many ways to the movement of God’s Spirit. Maybe this is a sign of some kind of spiritual attention deficit disorder. Maybe I am a spiritual thrill seeker of some sort. I rather like having this kind of multi-faceted spirituality, and I know I need to tend to each side if I am to continue growing. I can get stuck in one quadrant or another for too long. At best, I will continue to mine the richness of the spiritual life in these diverse ways while appreciating the differing ways others are spiritually nourished.

Trying To Create Beauty,


Coming to With Faith and With Feathers, thoughts on Paul Newman