Over the course of many years, I've been fortunate enough to travel to distant lands and learn about the remarkable race of man in numerous different contexts, including his religions, traditions, and mythologies. The teachings of Buddhism have had a profound impact on me.
Let me say right off the bat that I am not a Buddhist, nor do I consider myself to be undergoing some transition toward Buddhism. I was raised through my childhood in a Christian household, and I continue in a Christian faith, striving continually to practice my faith through service, patience, love for my neighbor, and love for my enemies as well. Along the way I learn of my weaknesses and strive to overcome them.
As I have learned many of the teachings of Buddhism, I have remarked at how much in harmony they are with the things I already believe. Fortunately, the flavor of Christianity that I follow holds as one of its teachings that there are wonderful pearls of truth and great, inspired leaders to be found outside my faith, and to embrace those truths when they are found. The Buddhist faith, in like manner, is non-dogmatic as well, having as one of its founding doctrines that "All things are Buddha things", or that godliness and divinity can be found everywhere, when perceived through an enlightened eye. This is not to say that I embrace all Buddhist teachings, only some of them, as they have felt right to me.
I think, therefore, that any Buddhist practitioner who might hear me say: "I delight in many Buddhist teachings and I have adopted some of them as part of my spiritual being, nevertheless I continue to abide as a happy Christian", that such a person would be delighted that I have found a Christian lifestyle that is pleasing to me, and that I have enriched my lifestyle with some of the teachings of the Buddha. I would hope that other Christians might feel the same way too.
Here I present some of the Buddhist teachings that I enjoy. Along the way, I provide a few comments of my own. When commenting, I use italics to distinguish my comments from the teaching that I am quoting (or paraphrasing).
The Good Heart - Subtitled: "A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus" In this book, his Holiness, the Dali Lama, reads and comments on selections from the New Testament, comparing the Christian way to the Buddhist way. It is a transcript of a conference held in remembrance of the Benedictine monk, John Main. A number of the Teachings that follow were gleaned in part or in whole from this book.
Oriental Mythology - By Joseph Campbell. This book is actually a synopsis of all the major religions of the Orient, including Hindu, Jainism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucian teachings. It begins long ago in Egypt, and proceeds up to very recent times, ending with Mahayana Buddhism in Tibet circa 1950.
Seven Years in Tibet - This movie tells the story of a German mountain climber who met and befriended the Dali Lama. We see what he learned, and how he grew from his learning. If you are a Westerner (European, Canadian, American, Latino), this is a good way to become introduced to Buddhism.
Kundun - A movie that documents the life of the Dali Lama, beginning with his birth, and ending with his flight to India where he lives to this day as a political refugee.
"On the surface, the waves come and the waves go. But underneath, the sea is always still."
-- I heard the Dali Lama say this when he was on Larry King Live, although I suspect his Holiness was quoting a much older source.
"When the master points to the moon to teach them of the heavens, the wise student will see the moon, and the foolish student will see the master's finger."
-- In some schools of Buddhism there is a great test of spirituality that each student must undergo: After meditating and praying for a long time in front of a statue of the Buddha, the teacher will smash the statue before the student's eyes. This is done to determine how well the student has learned the true nature of the Buddha.
"Our enemies can be our greatest spiritual teachers."
-- Attributed to the Dali Lama. Profound words when one considers the afflictions that the Tibetan people have suffered.
-- From a Christian perspective, this might be compared to the effects of sin and the process of repentance.
For more insight on the Noble Truths, hit this link.
The three Kayas (or "bodies") of Mahayana Buddhism teaches us of the three manifestations or "embodiments" of a perfectly enlightened being.
-- From a Christian perspective, the "Truth Body" could be compared to God the Father, the "Body of Perfect Resource" could be compared to the Holy Ghost, and the "Emanation Body" could be compared to Jesus Christ.
-- Note that these Two Truths compare very closely to the Christian teachings of 'Heaven' and 'Earth', respectively. The last, the "Relative Truth", is particularly profound as it helps to explain why we would suffer from feelings of nostalgia, longing for a time that has come and gone and is no more.
The origin of the Buddha is revealed in the life of a Prince, Shakyamuni Gautama. As a child, his father the King visited an oracle to hear his son's life foretold. The oracle prophesied that the young prince would become either a great leader, or retire to a life of asceticism and become a great teacher.
Anxious to have his son follow in his own footsteps (and reticent for his son to become a monk), the King raised his son in the royal court, surrounded by rich foods, luxurious clothing, delightful entertainments, and the constant pleasures of women. The King was careful to never let his son behold any dirty, pitiful, or sorrowful thing.
One day, when the Prince had grown out of his youth and was becoming a man, the gods touched his mind and filled him with a desire to visit the farthest reaches of the kingdom. Quickly, the Prince called a chariot driver and set out on the road. Little did the Prince know that the chariot driver was actually one of the gods in disguise.
As the chariot traveled along the way, one of the gods descended and took upon himself the form of an old man, shaking, bent over with age, and leaning on a cane for support. As the Prince approached he asked the driver "What is that?" The driver replied "That is old age, the ruination of vigor and the enemy of youth."
The chariot turned a corner and another of the gods descended, taking the form of a leper, blotched, disfigured, and completely deprived of health. Pointing from the chariot, the Prince asked the driver "What is that?" And the driver answered "That is disease, the destroyer of health and strength."
At length, the chariot came to the edge of the kingdom and another of the gods descended, cloaking himself in the body of a dead man, stiffened and laying in the dirt, waiting for the carrion birds to feast upon his corpse. Shocked, the Prince asked "What, by the gods, is that?" Solemnly, the driver replied "That, my Prince, is death, the ruination of life and the final state of both King and peasant."
The Prince was harrowed in his soul by these visions of pain, and his heart burned to know the cause, and the end of this suffering.
-- Buddhist texts describe the greatest sufferings to be: old age, disease, and death.
The Prince Gautama leapt from his chariot and told the driver "Return to the Royal Court without me, I am going to find wisdom and fulfill my destiny." "But, my lord," the driver protested "if your father the King sees me return without you, he will have me executed for not complying with his strict commands to look after your safety." The Prince thought for a moment and replied "Tell my father that we were waylaid by thieves who seized us and bound us. They stole our horse and chariot, took me away for ransom and left you to die in the woods. Tell my father that at length you escaped and--with the help of the gods--made it back to the Court." The driver smiled, pleased that the Prince would concern himself with the well-being of a humble servant. "It is a cunning story, my lord, now go and find your wisdom."
The Prince then slapped the horse on the flanks, causing it to race off into the woods. He bid goodbye to his faithful driver, and sojourned out past the frontier of the kingdom and into the wild lands.
Gautama journeyed for a long time, meeting many people along the way and growing in wisdom and experience. At length he found himself on a path that led to the Navel of the Earth, the wellspring of all life and vegetation upon the Earth. As he trod along the path he was blessed by the gods who gave him great instructions, preparing him for the trials that were to come. After many days, he arrived at the end of the path and beheld a great Bo tree that grew from the Navel of the Earth. Humbly, he sat down beneath it and began to meditate.
Not many moments passed until the God of Lust and Vanity appeared before him, tempting him with his fair sons and daughters. They paraded before him, the sons showing off their keen reflexes and strong backs, and the daughters displaying their comely bodies and lovely hair. "Behold these, your Highness, are they not beautiful in every way? Would you not have a body, handsome and virile as one of my fine sons? Would you not take one of my soft and delightsome daughters as your love?" But Gautama shut his eyes and turned them all away, meditating again on the great truths the gods had taught him.
When Gautama opened his eyes again, he beheld the God of War and all his terrible armies standing before him. Fierce soldiers threatened him with swords, hideous beasts held up the severed heads of their slain enemies, and the God of War himself rode upon a great war-elephant. "Will you yet remain in this place, young Prince, when my armies come to destroy you?" Then the terrible God threw his war-spear directly at Gautama's heart. Reaching out, with a perfect stillness, Gautama touched the spear and turned it into a Lotus flower. Enraged, the armies besieged him all at once, hurling stones and spears to kill him, but a golden Cobra emerged from the Earth like a young sapling, and spread his hood to deflect the blows. Defeated, the God of War departed.
Finally, Gautama beheld a third god appear: the God of Social Duty. "Come now, young Prince," the God tempted, "how can you sit here, oblivious to the needs of the troubles of your people? Have you not heard the news? You have tasks to attend to, countrymen to lead and friends to appease!" But Gautama, unswayed, reached out with a finger and touched the ground, making intercession with the Earth. In reply, Mother Earth was heard to say "My son has a right to sit here." His temptations unanswered, the God of Social Duty retreated.
Having overcome these trials, Gautama received a vision wherein he beheld all things upon the Earth that had ever been or ever would be. He then beheld that all these Earthly things are created from a union of two complementary halves. Indeed, that all things that exist have their opposite, and their complement that make them whole. Understanding this, Gautama beheld that each pair of beings on this Earth that joins to make another descends from, and is part of, One Great Source, and celebrates that Source in their joining. When he understood this, Gautama became One with that Source, and was Gautama no longer, for he had become the Buddha.
In the midst of this great realization and transformation, the Buddha was given one last test. A god appeared before him and said "You have obtained wisdom that no man before has ever obtained, seen things that no other man has seen. What will you do then." "Return," the Buddha replied, "and teach what I have learned." The tempter laughed. "But how will you be able to communicate what you have learned? The people you have left behind are as children! They have no patience to hear what you have to teach. Even if they hear, they can not begin to comprehend what you have experienced. And even if they could comprehend, they would not believe it." The Buddha smiled and replied "Some will hear, and some will desire to obtain this wisdom. It is for them that I will return, and show them the way, that they might learn for themselves." The god smiled, pleased that the Buddha would concern himself with the well-being of his fellow me. The Buddha then departed, returning to his homeland to fulfill his destiny as both a great teacher, and a great leader.
-- One cannot help but note the abundance of parallel symbols between this account of the Buddha's enlightenment and the Judeo-Christian story of the Garden of Eden. We have the Navel of the Earth playing the role as the garden, the Bo tree playing the role of the tree of life, and the cobra in the role of the serpent. One notable difference is that where the serpent in the story of Eden is a tempter and beguiler, the cobra is here portrayed as a helper and protector--perhaps even a divine protector. It is typically only in Western faiths that snakes and other reptiles are presented in a dark or evil role, many primitive and Oriental traditions view snakes as divine and magical.
Another comparison that can be made between the three trials faced by the Buddha to the three temptations faced by Christ when he sojourned in the wilderness prior to his ministry. Any attempt to draw a one-to-one comparison between Christ's temptations and the Buddha's trials will be somewhat strained, nevertheless we can make some rough comparisons: The God of Lust compares to the Devil's temptation of bread ("If thou be the Son of God, command that these stones be made bread"), both temptations appealed to physical appetites; The God of War compares to the Devil's temptation upon the pinnacle of the temple ("If thou be the Son of God, cast thyself down"), both were situations of danger that required an exhibition of faith and passive rejection of the danger; The God of Social Duty to the Devil's temptation before the kingdoms of the world ("All these things will I give the, if thou wilt fall down and worship me"), both of these attempted to lure the hero away from his ministry by presenting powerful, compelling distractions that would take him back to the mundane world.
I find it particularly interesting that the third trial faced by the Buddha seems somewhat mild in comparison to the previous two. I guess the message there is "If the big things don't get you, maybe the little things will."
There is also a strong Christ-Buddha parallel between the declaration of Mother Earth ("My son has a right to sit here") and the declaration of God the Father at Christ's baptism ("Behold my beloved son in whom I am well pleased"). It is interesting to note that the story of the Buddha uses the much older, more primitive imagery of Mother Earth (Gaia) as a divine, mediating power, where the story of Christ uses the Zoroastrian / Jewish imagery of a Heavenly Father.
As the Buddha was returning to his homeland from the Bo tree, a farmer saw him approaching. The farmer was amazed at the brilliant and glorious appearance of his countenance, for the Buddha was still glowing from his enlightenment.
Curious, the farmer asked "Are you a god?"
"No," replied the Buddha.
"Well, then are you a man?" the farmer inquired.
"No," replied the Buddha.
Perplexed, the farmer asked "Well then what are you?"
The Buddha smiled and answered "I am awake."
-- The term "Buddha" literally means "awakened one" or "he who is awake". One can easily see the connection to the word "enlightenment".
-- During his ministry, the Buddha taught the people many parables in an effort to help them understand the true nature of life and how suffering grows from attachment. I can't help but make the connection to Jesus, who also taught in parables.
A parable is told that describes our life here on Earth as taking place underneath the expansive branches of a giant tree known as the Wish Tree. At various ages of their lives, people will make wishes and the Wish Tree will grant them, giving the wisher whatever he most desires. Children who live under the Wish Tree wish for candy, and they receive it. Young men wish for money, and they receive it. Middle-aged men wish for power and authority, and they receive it as well. Finally, the very old will wish only for death to come and end their lives, and their wish is be granted as well.
One day, there emerged under the wish tree a little boy who was born with disfigured legs and could not walk very well. As he hobbled under the tree, people would push to get past him and become angry with his slow gait. "Get out of the way!" they would say "We want to get on with our wishing!" Finally, they became so impatient with the little lame boy that they threw him out, condemning him to live on the dry, empty Earth outside the branches of the Wish Tree.
The boy was very sad, and wept that he had been treated so badly. Time passed, though, and having nothing better to do, the little lame boy began to observe the workings of the Wish Tree. His perspective outside its expansive branches offered him a great advantage in seeing exactly how the Tree worked.
The lame boy observed that, in addition to giving the wisher what he most desired, the Wish Tree would give the wisher something else besides, something that the wisher wasn't counting on. Little children, along with the candy they wished for, received rotten teeth and sick stomachs. Young men, along with the money they wished for, received bills to pay and angry creditors. Middle-aged men, along with the power they wished for, received the scorn, envy, and spite of the people they governed; they became unpopular figures and no longer had any close friends. And lastly, the old men, along with the death that they wished for, were born again and condemned to begin their life of wishing anew.
When the little lame boy saw all these people living their lives, endlessly wishing, never fulfilled, and constantly suffering, he felt sad again. This time, however, he was not sad for himself, but sad for the people he saw. Feeling pity for them, the boy also made a wish: He wished that the people could just be happy.
But of all the people who were assembled there, the only one who truly was happy, was the little lame boy.
There's a Buddhist parable I once heard told by the Dali Lama about a woman who's young son suddenly died and it greived her horribly. She was very saddened and asked the Buddha to please tell her how she could be relieved of her grief. The Buddha told her that she must go to a house in the village where no one had ever lost a loved one and share a meal with them.
So, she prepared a large basket of food and went from house to house, offering each person she met something to eat, informing them of the loss of her son, and asking if this was a house where a loved one had not died. She spent all day doing this, but every house she visited was once inhabited by a family member or friend who was missed sorely by the other members of the household. She learned their names, she learned of their personalities and good deeds, and she learned that she was not alone in her grief.
By the end of the day, the food she prepared was consumed, but her grief was gone as well. The next day, she returned to the Buddha and thanked him for the lesson he had taught her.