Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Of Buddha and the Gospel

The Abbey of Our Lady of
Gethsemane, site of the first
Catholic Buddhist Dialogues
The death of actor/comedian Robin Williams has dominated the news yesterday and today and Hollywood has certainly lost a brilliant artist, but I have to admit that while I admired his incredible range of talent, I was not a fan.  About ten years ago I was with friends when we saw him in a three hour stand-up marathon.  I remember sitting there, roaring with laughter for the first hour until I suddenly realized that his humor was anything but funny.   It was not a good hearted poking fun at our private and social inconsistences but rather rooted in a pool of tremendous and intolerant rage that was striking out against people who saw things differently from him, including religion and especially the Catholic Church.  Now I have no problem with pointing out institutional flaws—including that of the Church—and, in fact, I think humor can be an excellent forum of the precise sort of constructive criticism that keeps us all honest.  What disturbs me is anger—and rage in particular—because anger moves us from rational beings to the sort of hateful firebrands that divide and pit us against one another.  Our mission as Christians is to bring creation together into one in Christ; division undermines this mission of proclaiming the Kingdom of God.    
In the years after the Second Vatican Council, the Holy See (much to the annoyance of the Katholic Krazies) opened up official dialogue not only with other Christian denominations, but with the other great World Religions.  The Catholic Buddhist Dialogue was entrusted to a panel of Catholic Monks and Nuns—mostly from the Benedictine and Cistercian traditions—who meet with a corresponding group of Buddhist monastics.  Their first meeting was in 1996 at the Cistercian (Trappist) Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemane in Kentucky, once home to the famous spiritual writer, Thomas Merton, who through his books and lectures introduced many Catholics, including myself, to Buddhist thought as a sort of lens through which Christians can bring the Gospel of Jesus Christ into sharper focus. 
The status of Buddhism as a religion is somewhat questionable.  Buddhism is non-theistic in as that it does not posit the existence of a God.  Neither does it deny the existence of God; the question of God is simply not considered in Buddhist thought.  It might be better described as a philosophy and in particular as a “philosophy of life” as its primary focus is the concern for attaining human happiness.  Much like the tradition of our Catholic mystics, and especially Saint John of the Cross, Buddhism teaches that desire for things—wealth, possessions, relationships, to love and be loved, power, prestige—is the source of all unhappiness.  True happiness is found in no-thing.  As I said, this echoes the insights of Christian mysticism, and indeed, echoes the teachings of Jesus that in order to attain eternal happiness one must leave behind mother and father, spouse and children, houses and wealth—whoever loves these things more than me (Jesus) is not worthy of me.  (Matt 10: 37ff)
Now I want to make it perfectly clear that, while I have always found Buddhist thought to enrich my own spiritual journey, I find Christianity to be greatly richer in what it offers than Buddhism.  Buddhism focuses on the avoidance of suffering whereas Christianity teaches us to embrace suffering—and particularly to embrace the suffering of the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters—and to reach out to alleviate their suffering.  (Buddhism, in its doctrine of compassion also teaches that we should alleviate the suffering of others, but alleviating the suffering of others is subordinate to the avoidance of one’s own suffering, or can be seen as the fruit of having attained a state where one is now beyond the power of suffering because one has attained that freedom from desire, whereas Christianity more encourages us to pro-active in addressing the pain of others.)    I think this explains why Christians have always been somewhat more pro-active in both in building hospitals, schools, orphanages and other charitable institutions as well as working for societal reform to eliminate the root causes of poverty, disease and other conditions that afflict humankind.  That being said, I still think there is much we—Christians, Jews, Muslims, agnostics, secular humanists—can learn from the Buddhist tradition. And one of those things is addressing anger.  
In that first encounter of Catholic and Buddhist representatives at Gethsemane Abbey eighteen years ago, Buddhist scholar Pandith Vajiragnana said:
There is no way in Buddhism that we accept anger as a good thing. Under no circumstance is it accepted as a good thing. Besides anger, at the root of our mind is also selfish love or attachment.
Anger is a tremendous force for evil and despite all our western talk of “righteous anger” or justified anger, I sincerely doubt that anger qua anger can be used to produce any good results.  While a certain measure of social change may be attributed to the anger triggered as a reaction to racism or other injustices, I wonder how lasting change founded in anger can be.  It seems only to give rise to the anger of opposing forces.  The increasing polarization of our society and the rise of such anger-drive  movements as the “Tea Party” with their rabid opposition to immigration reform, their intense personal hatred of President Obama, their fascination with guns and violence, their intransigent refusal for political dialogue and collaboration that keeps bringing our government to standstills is, I believe, a reaction to the social “progress” that has been achieved by anger-drive movements on the left that worked for needed social change but did so from a position of outrage and anger rather than from a deep conviction of building a more open and just society.  I am of an age where I can remember the anger of the riots in 1968, the anger of Stonewall and the anger of burning flags and burning draft-cards.   Pictures of aborted fetuses and pictures of bloody-coat-hangers represent the irrational anger on each side of the abortion debate.   I remember standing at a rally at the US Capitol and hearing Knights of Columbus denounce Cardinal Bernadin in the most angry and derogatory of terms for his call for “Common Ground” and dialogue with those with whom we disagree.  And I think one of the greatest crimes in our history was how J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI disguised the non-violence of Dr. Martin Luther King and had him portrayed in the media not for the apostle of non-violence he was but as a communist trying to bring our country to revolution.  
We are a society consumed by anger.  How much of our entertainment is anger-driven whether by video games or television or movies or contemporary “music?”  Our societal fascination with guns and the artificial “need” it has created for semi-automatic and automatic weapons is only one more expression of how anger is poisoning our society.   We have countless instances of road-rage, domestic violence, sexual abuse—all anger driven. 
 We cannot deny that anger is in  our makeup.  At that same 1996 meeting at Gethsemane Pandith Vajiragnana said:

People have different temperaments, and one of those temperaments is informed by anger.  Anger is in us all, so we need to recognize it, then, what to do?  The Buddha very clearly said that anger cannot be appeased by anger.  It is to be appeased by love.  So, we must practice love.
So said the Buddha.  So also said Jesus.  As his disciples we must learn to tame our anger as we must tame the other vices that original sin has woven into our character.  We can’t deny our anger—it is most dangerous when we claim it has no power over us.  We must tame it by cultivating the virtue of compassion whereby we try to come to a patient comprehension of the forces that drive those who are different from us, who think differently, who hold different values.  We must not, as Pope Francis likes to remind us, judge others but seek to understand them.  This does not mean that we will let go of our own values and commitments, but rather that we try to bring them into some sort of dialogue.
Mental Health Professionals claim that one of the roots of depression is anger that is not well managed.   Anger, when not given proper outlet, can overwhelm the psyche and turn into depression.  This is perhaps the root of the tragedy that overwhelmed Robin Williams.  It is a great loss.  We need to wake up to the perils of anger and learn to convert our anger into compassion. 

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