Crossing the Threshold of Liberation
In March of 1995 some Polish Buddhists wrote me a letter asking questions about some remarks on Buddhism found in Pope John Paul II's book Crossing the Threshold of Hope. It is not difficult to show that those remarks are, unfortunately, based on misunderstanding of the Buddhist teachings. However, any clarification when presented to non-Buddhists who are not open to Buddhist teachings may result in more controversies. To avoid such undesirable consequences, I did not offer a reply to that letter but sent them my works instead. The Catholic Hope is based on faith; it may not spread to people of other faiths. The Buddhist teaching is about Liberation which is a state that can be realized by anyone through practice. As a full-time practitioner, I have had some thoughts that are important regarding the actual quest for Liberation; hence, I thought, if I were to write a book, I would entitle it Crossing the Threshold of Liberation. However, I was too busy with my Dharma activities to undertake such a project.
Then I had several dreams which inspired me to work on this project. In one of these dreams I opened curtains to enable more people to attend a wedding banquet which was adorned with two large tree-shape artifacts on the wall--one covered with a white spherical area and the other had a statue of Jesus on the Cross. To me the white spherical area represents the Buddhist teaching of Buddha Nature.
The Buddha taught us how to become free from the sorrows of greed, hatred and ignorance. Based on experiences of such freedom, a sense of happiness and hope naturally arises. The essential principles of Buddhist teachings are No Attachment and Opening Up. Consequently, Buddhists are tolerant of other faiths and often assimilate indigenous beliefs. There has never been a Holy War or Inquisition in the history of Buddhism.
In 1991 I gave a public lecture on Impermanence at the Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia. After explaining the reasons for adopting a chanting practice I encouraged the audience, most of whom were from a Western cultural background, to build the habit of chanting the Prayer of Jesus. This illustrates the openness of Buddhist teachings. Furthermore, from a Buddhist point of view, the Prayer of Jesus is also part of the Dharmakaya, therefore it may also lead to the experience of the totality of the Dharmakaya. In other words, the chanting of the Prayer of Jesus may also lead to Enlightenment.
I studied the Pope's Crossing the Threshold of Hope carefully, taking notes and recording my remarks along the way. In this work I will comment on the Pope's remarks on Buddhism as found in that book. The scope of this work encompasses far more than these few comments; a comparison of Buddhism and Christianity has been made, along with some suggestions offered to Christianity. My thoughts on the actual quest for Liberation are presented in the last chapter bearing the same title as this work.
In August 1991 Pope John Paul II favored me a letter acknowledging the receipt of my publications. This letter is included at the beginning of this book. Through reading the Pope's book I have learned that he has great faith in Mary. On my altar I also have a statue of Mary holding the baby Jesus, a present from my youngest sister who is a Catholic and once served as the secretary to the Archbishop in Taiwan. The Pope's favorite message is "Be not afraid!" With the blessing of the Buddhist protector Bodhisattva Wei-Tuo, I have distributed photos of the Giving of Fearlessness. This photo and two Chinese seals, carved by Upasaka Tan Seong Yeow and means respectively the Seal of Protector Bodhisattva Wei-Tuo and No Fear, are also included at the beginning of this book. It is interesting for me to notice these mysterious karmic connections and similarities to the Pope's message.
To people with modern academic training my presentation may appear to be subjective here and there. However, I chose to proceed in the direct way from the stand point of a practitioner. Religious insight can be gained only through devoted practice. By adhering to a critical attitude one is already taking the proud position of demanding proof. To realize spiritual truth, humility and openness of mind is a necessary prerequisite, therefore anyone interested in speaking about religions should first gain some insight through practice, otherwise much unnecessary research will be conducted in ignorance of spiritual experiences.
During the period of writing this book I have received inspirational dreams that signify how improvements to my work can be made, and I have followed the guidance accordingly. I am grateful to my Guru and Buddha for such guidance and other signs of blessing.
I hope that this work of mine will improve the understanding of non-Buddhists, especially the Christians, about Buddhist teachings. I also hope that my suggestions to Christianity will be appreciated by Christians whose emphasis is on the teachings of universal love and salvation. Through realization of what we all have in common--a quest for spiritual growth to attain Truth, and understanding of each other's teachings, may we live in harmony and peace, and learn from the virtues of each other's ways.
1. How Should One Understand Religions
Under the name religion there are many kinds of human activities. I am concerned here only with religions that are well beyond primitive worship of the supernatural and are advocating universal salvation beyond the scope of locality, time and other discriminating factors. A religion should be based on spiritual experiences that transcend the ordinary sphere of human sensory, emotional and conceptual experiences. A religion is a way to reach reality beyond the confines of human sense organs without resorting to artificial means. It is a way of life whereby one may grow spiritually and live in peace and harmony.
Religions as teachings attempt to reveal extraordinary experiences and insight of reality to people. In such attempts, ordinary means of communication is often used, however, due to the limits of such means of communication barriers are sometimes encountered or created. It is unwise to lose sight of the spiritual quest because of inevitable entanglement caused by the limiting nature of concepts and theories, hence, instead of debating over theology and philosophy, it is better to try to gain insight through devoted practice. Unless one is practicing under the guidance of an experienced teacher, one needs the guidance of principles and theories to conduct practice and live a religiously correct way of life. Thus, to study and gain a proper understanding of the theoretical teachings of a religion is also indispensable in most cases.
In general, the theoretical teachings of a religion should be adopted and followed in its entirety. When a religion is looked upon as revelation this complete acceptance is reasonable. If we insist on requiring the teachings to meet certain standards of normal human understanding, then we will never be able to go beyond the limits of our senses. The various parts of a system of religious teaching may not withstand close scrutiny and philosophical analysis; nevertheless, in the absence of a new system of teaching based on revelational experiences, it is still better to simply follow the established route because the essence of religion can be attained in this seemingly inadequate way.
To a devoted practitioner the essential teachings of a religion will gradually become apparent over the years, and hence the theoretical difficulties may be overlooked. To an outsider or newcomer who lacks enough spiritual experiences to be totally convinced, the theoretical difficulties or parts of the teachings that stand in conflict with scientific knowledge may become an insurmountable barrier. It is important to understand that religious teachings were revealed to people of a certain spacial and temporal sphere, consequently, its presentation is couched in the knowledge and beliefs of that particular time and culture. The essence of religious teachings is for all eternity, therefore we should be concerned only with the essential part which was applicable to those people then and still applies to us now.
Religions are well aware of the limitations of their verbal or literal teachings, therefore they have to wisely pay particular attention to such difficulties lest they be bolted down by theories. The Catholic Church is fully aware of the theological difficulty in the teaching about evil and hell as eternal punishment which are hard to understanding in the scheme of a loving and almighty God. Consequently, the Catholic Church chooses to remain silent on the question of who will go to hell. We should respect their honesty in showing the limitation of their knowledge. In Buddhism, it is often emphasized that Buddha did not utter a word for people to hold onto, even though he preached for forty-nine years and the collection of Buddhist teachings is voluminous. No one should charge Buddhism with being paradoxical on this account. The key to understanding lies in reminding oneself of the inherent limitations of language and formality, and of the need of adopting practices to attain spiritual truth which lies beyond the confines of concepts and ordinary experiences.
Some preachers will occasionally convey to their followers a subjective interpretation of religions other than their own as being either inferior to or a branch of their own religion. Nevertheless, the only justification for their interpretive claims is their conjecture based on their faith in their own religion. It would be wise to refrain from such self-centered labeling. However, if such claims are based on spiritual experiences, even though it may not be accepted by many as trustworthy, it may still inspire serious practitioners to further their spiritual quest, and hence it is worth putting forward
2. How to Conduct a Dialogue between Buddhism and Christianity
Religions claim to teach the truth. Judging from the teaching of one religion, other religions are either incomplete, incomprehensible or false. People's faith in a religion is often beyond rational explanation, consequently dialogues between religions are very difficult to conduct, and have often resulted in accusations and denouncements. Thus, the presumption of one religion over the other usually hinders a fair understanding of both, and renders communication impossible. How can we overcome such difficulties?
It seems to me that a meta-religion study can pave way for helpful dialogue between religions. Three steps are involved in this approach
- 1. Recognize the general features and functions of religions considered as systems of salvation.
- 2. Describe the particular features of each religion under study according to the general framework established above.
- 3. Compare the religions and try to recognize their similarities and their differences, especially distinguish between fundamental differences and differences resulting from the fundamental differences.
In this way an unbiased comparison may be achieved, and consequently a dialogue aiming at learning from each other's skillful means and working toward harmony will be possible.
According to the considerations mentioned above, I venture to formulate the following criteria as the first step of my meta-religion study.
A religion as a system of salvation consists of the following main features:
- 1. It provides a view of life and of the world, pointing out the futility of worldly ways.
- 2. It provides an explanation for the causes of worldly sorrows.
- 3. It reveals the existence of eternal transcendental states that are reachable.
- 4. It provides guidance on how to attain eternal transcendence.
A religion as a system of salvation may have the following main functions:
- 1. It serves as a spiritual refuge for its followers.
- 2. It is a source of strength and comfort for its followers.
- 3. It guides its followers through life.
- 4. It cultivates its followers spiritually.
In the following chapters I will try to describe Buddhism and Christianity regarding these main features. Then, it will be easier to make an unbiased comparison as to their main features and how they differ in fulfilling the main functions. Before proceeding further on this project we also need to remind ourselves of the following.
Both Buddhism and Christianity are religions based on spiritual experiences. They have withstood the trial of time and spread to many parts of the world; this is mainly due to the fact that their respective spiritual lineages have remained connected with their respective spiritual sources. Therefore, neither should be considered as merely a system or theory of spiritual quest. Both religions believe in the redemptive power of their spiritual heritage, and are helping people to look beyond worldly knowledge and considerations. Both religions teach about the sorrows and evils of the worldly ways, about the impermanence of human existence, and about eternal liberation from mortal existence with its many pitfalls. The similarities between Buddhism and Christianity constitute grounds for improving mutual understanding.
It is well known that there are fundamental differences between Buddhism and Christianity. Of course, it is worthwhile to study the differences in order to attain the truth, nevertheless, in so doing one should avoid harsh criticisms which would lead to purposeless controversies and confrontations. An ideal approach is to explain the differences in neutral terms, and leave the judgment and choice to the readers. Recognizing that harmony is sought after by both religions, I believe that this is a sensible approach to the hot potato of comparing the differences.
Through comparative study of these two religions, and for that matter, of any religions, one hopes to offer constructive advice and thereby promote harmony and spiritual growth. Ideally, it may even shed some new light on the direction toward attainment of truth.
3. A Layman's Introduction to Buddhism
Keeping in mind the general characterization presented above of the main features of a religion, a brief introduction to Buddhism is presented below in layman's terms.
Buddha taught about Suffering and Impermanence, not as a pessimistic view, but as an objective observation of life and the world. In life, impermanence is the rule and suffering is inevitable--sooner or later we all face sickness, senility, lost of loved ones and death. The world we live in is subject to natural or man-caused calamities, and human relations are often far from perfect. In fact, all sentient beings suffer in the impermanence of life.
Sentient beings may be classified into six realms: heavenly beings, asuras, human beings, animals, hungry ghosts and hell beings. The Law of Cause and Effect applies to all; the conditions of a sentient being is determined, to a various extent, by his past activities and the activities of others. Acting under the dominance of self-centeredness, sentient beings are caught in the web of their mutual interactions, and they continuously become entangled from life to life, creating transmigration into the six realms.
Buddha wanted to achieve Liberation from the suffering of life-and-death in transmigration, so he left his family and his country for an ascetic way of life. Through devoted practice he realized that the root of suffering is our sense of a self and its consequent limitations imposed by our self-centeredness. He also realized that the path to achieve Liberation is not the extreme ascetic practices, but a middle path balanced by wisdom and compassion. In terms of practical application, the Buddhist wisdom is No Attachment, while the Buddhist compassion is Empathic Service leading toward Liberation.
Through his wise and diligent practice Buddha attained the Liberation from suffering by completely uprooting its source--a usually unrecognizable sense of a self, and thereby became eternally free from greed, hatred and ignorance. Such an attainment is usually called the Full Enlightenment. From the clarity of such an originally pure state, Buddha conceived of interpretations of reality which serve not only to explain our experiences but also to guide us toward restoring our original purity.
The world we experience is conditional, dependent on everything interacting upon everything else. When this truth is understood there is no one cause that can be considered as the determinant factor of the universe. Holding on to an image of a self is due to ignorance of the transient nature of phenomena. Liberation is possible precisely because suffering is also conditional and changeable. Seeing the conditional nature of things and thereupon willingly letting go of attachments, we may remove the stains of worldly considerations and entanglements, and attain freedom by returning to our original purity. In this purity all are felt to be one, and hence, compassionate service to all sentient beings becomes a mandatory way of life. Our original purity is called Buddha Nature or Blank Essence in Buddhist theories. Its realization is a limitless state encompassing all phenomena and is called the Dharmakaya.
The conditional nature of things also implies that Liberation may be attained through changes made with determined efforts. It is easily understood that changing a life-long habit of self-centeredness may take years of conscious endeavor. The usual procedure prescribed for Buddhist practitioners involves observance of rules of conduct, cultivation of meditation practices and gaining of insights. Rules of conduct are needed to help practitioners go straight toward purification and selfless service. Meditation practices help calm the mind from wandering, keep the mind from dozing off, and maintain attentive awareness and concentration. Meditation is also employed to strengthen the insight as taught by Buddhist teachings. Furthermore, it is only during profound meditation that delusions and attachments buried in subconscious may surface and be recognized as insubstantial. As one's original purity is gradually restored through following the Buddhist way of life and continuing on the path of devoted practice, wisdom and compassion will naturally awaken, rise up, and imbue one's daily activities. One's view of life and of the world will broaden as one's self-centered interests and considerations decline. One's care and kindness will not be confined to personal relationships or profit motive, but will naturally pour out to all sentient beings. Consequently, one lives in peaceful serenity with a deep sense of happiness and freedom.
Based on the introduction presented above, the main features of Buddhism may be summarized as follows:
- 1. Life is impermanent and suffering is inevitable; sentient beings are transmigrating in suffering.
- 2. The root of suffering in transmigration is our sense of a self.
- 3. Enlightenment as complete freedom from self and transmigration is attainable.
- 4. Buddhist practice and compassionate service are to be adopted as a way of life in order to attain Enlightenment.
4. The Basic Features of Christianity
The fundamental Christian teachings are succinctly presented below in my own words. This presentation is stated as my understanding of the Christian teachings; hence, it differs from the Christian churches' formulations in that it is not stated as articles of faith, but as seen from an outsider's point of view. Nevertheless, this is not a non-believer's critical account, but an empathic and objective restatement. I have seen Jesus in my dreams several times, and following the teaching of my late Guru, Yogi C. M. Chen, we have offered fire sacrifices to the saints of Christianity on every Christmas and Easter for the past twenty-three years. Thus, it is clear that we do respect the Christian saints. I will give further explanation later in this work.
The ultimate reality is perfect and limitless, beyond human understanding. Based on revelations, theology is formulated to guide people toward harmony with the ultimate reality which is called God, and according to human reasoning, God is considered to be the First Cause, the Creator of all there is. The purpose of all lives is to realize union with God, the ultimate reality.
Human lives are full of sorrows, and these miseries are results of our pursuing self-centered interests instead of the glory of God which is essentially universal compassionate love. The root of all unsatisfactory conditions of our worldly existence is the fundamental ignorance imposed by the limitation of human knowledge and its consequent inability to appreciate the satisfying way of living in accordance with God's love. Evil is the rejection of God's love; and participation in evil through activities constitute committing of sin to various degrees. The fundamental ignorance of relying on human knowledge and judgment, instead of following God's commandments, is theorized as the original sin, an unfortunate spiritual inheritance due to the cultural upbringing of all human beings.
To redeem all human beings of their sins so that they may earn eternal life in the union with God in Heaven, God has incarnated in Jesus of Nazareth and, through his complete sacrifice in crucifixion, made possible the redemption of all human beings. Jesus resurrected three days after his death on the cross. Human beings may receive this Grace of redemption only through an act of faith in Jesus. Without Jesus' grace, one will fall into hell and suffer in eternal condemnation.
To ensure living in selfless obedience to the will of God, a Christian should love God above all else, love others as oneself, follow the commandments, pray regularly to the Lord and attend church meetings. In case of violation of commandments, a Christian should repent and seek forgiveness from God, usually through confession made to a priest. In this way a Christian secures his admission to Heaven upon death.
Based on the introduction presented above, the main features of Christianity may be summarized as follows:
- 1. Human existence is finite and full of miseries, even more so due to the presence of sins and evils.
- 2. Human miseries are rooted in the original sin of following self-centered interests and disobeying God's commandments.
- 3. Union with God in Heaven is the supreme purpose of all lives and will be a happy and eternal life.
- 4. Jesus, through his sacrifice by crucifixion, has made redemption possible for all who have faith in him as the incarnation of God. A Christian may secure his place in Heaven by living a life of universal love in accordance with God's commandments.
5. A Comparison of Buddhism and Christianity
5.1 The Common Theme of Buddhism and Christianity
The ultimate reality is limitless, undefinable and beyond normal human experiences and understanding. Everything is within this ultimate reality. Human beings are suffering because they have lost unity with the ultimate reality due to obstacles created by themselves. Following the guidance of revelations these obstacles may be removed through spiritual practice, and a happy reunion with the ultimate reality will be achieved. The above generalization seems to characterize the basic theme of both Buddhism and Christianity.
5.2 The Fundamental Difference between Buddhism and Christianity
In order to bridge the barriers between the finite human conditions and the limitless ultimate reality, various approaches have been offered by teachers based on revelational experiences. These teachings may be classified into two main types: mystical experiences and conceptual formulations. In Buddhism, mystical experiences are emphasized in Chan (Zen) and Tantra; while in Christianity there is an abundance of such accounts in the life stories of Jesus and saints. Mystical experiences are beyond normal comparison; hence, I do not look for differences in this sphere.
In the realm of conceptual formulations, Buddhist theories are usually based on one universal concept, be it Blank Essence (Sunyata) or Buddha Nature, which underlies all there is. The introduction of such a concept serves to render ineffective the boundaries among all concepts. The essential function of this fundamental concept is to remove limitations imposed by the concept of a self because such a concept lacks proper referent. The fundamental concept is considered only as a transient pedagogical tool, but not as referring to the incommunicable ultimate objective. In this way, Buddhist teachings have employed a concept, a tool based on the duality of subject/object distinction, as a convenience only, without committing to any dualistic position. Furthermore, in Buddhist teachings such employment of dualistic tools as convenience is not necessary as can be seen from the teachings of Chan and Tantric masters.
In contrast, the Christian theology is based on the concept of God which refers to the ultimate reality, however inadequate this reference by a concept may be. Even though there are two schools of theologians holding different views of the omnipresent God as existing-out-there or existing-in-all, they all consider the concept of God as referring to the ultimate reality. The theological view of God-in-all is closer to the non-duality teaching of Buddhism than the God-out-there view; nevertheless, in reference to God as the Creator of the universe, the existence of subject/object duality is implied. Even though in Christian teachings the achievement of union with God is described as beyond subject/object distinction, it is not for us mortals to enjoy on this earth but can be realized only after admission to Heaven. Thus, it is fair to say that the Christian theological teachings have been formulated in terms of the duality of subject/object distinction.
Based on the above observations, the fundamental difference between Buddhist and Christian theoretical teachings seems to lie in the way their fundamental concepts function at a meta-language level. The Buddhist approach is to use theories only as pedagogical tools, without involving ontological commitments, to free people from the subject/object distinction; while the Christian theologies are based on the existence of God as the ultimate reality. The Buddhist approach is consistent with the non-duality and incomprehensibility of ultimate reality; while the Christian teachings are dualistic on earth and becomes non-dualistic only in Heaven.
Another way to appreciate the fundamental difference between Christian and Buddhist theoretical teachings is to recognize two distinct views about the use of concepts. One view holds that concepts, although based on the subject/object distinction, can still make meaningful reference to ultimate reality; while the other view holds that concepts, being dualistic tools, are inadequate in guiding toward ultimate reality, and if adhere to literally, may even become hindrance to the attainment of union with ultimate reality.
The fundamental difference described above may be readily recognized by philosophers and theologians, but too subtle for many people to appreciate. What makes it worth emphasizing? What difference in spiritual achievement would it lead to? Let us examine the consequent differences, first, in their functions as salvation systems, and secondly, in the spiritual achievements they may lead to.
5.3 The Difference in Their Main Functions as Salvation Systems
5.3.1 As a Spiritual Refuge
The existence of an almighty and perfect Lord capable of and intending to bestow the grace of deliverance is very reassuring and easy to inspire religious fervor. In Buddhism, Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are often venerated also in a similar light by Buddhists, even though at the philosophical level such a view is qualified by the understanding that Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are also selfless and without absolute independent existence. How can Buddhas, being without absolute independent existence, serve as spiritual refuge? The answer is: Not only Buddhas, but all things are without absolute independent existence; and when this truth is understood all the sorrows and anxieties rooted in a sense of self will vanish in time through the cultivation of Buddhist practice and selfless, compassionate service. In short, the existence of an absolute being provides a refuge that inspires religious fervor; while the lack of absolute existence means a refuge based on awakening to truth. In Buddhism it is recognized that a human being may become awakened to the truth without prior knowledge of the Buddhist teachings.
5.3.2 As a Source of Strength and Comfort
When a person encounters suffering or tragic incidents, religious faith usually can provide a strong sense of strength and comfort, and thereby making the adjustment to reality easier. However, to followers of a religion advocating the love for mankind of an almighty God it is not easy to understand why such a God would allow the occurrence of suffering and even more so the existence of evil. Theology may provide explanations based on the need for human beings to have free will so that their choice of loving God above all else is a genuine choice, or on the original sin of a creature disobeying the Creator, or on the omnipotence of God resides precisely in His ability to allow the humiliation of His incarnation being crucified in order to redeem the world. Nevertheless, to unborn babies, why abortion? How does such a life exercise free will? Where does such a life go after abortion? How could Jesus's blood redeem such a life? And after all, one wonders if these are problems unanswered by incomplete teachings or difficulties encountered by inadequate theologies.
In contrast, understanding the relative and conditional nature of all phenomena would result in a tolerant and accommodating attitude and a strong sense of responsibility for one another because our lives are determined by how we treat one another and interact with the environment, including the realm of supernatural. In this way, strength is based on understanding and acceptance of facts, and comfort is derived from people's mutual assistance based on a sense of being in the same boat.
5.3.3 Providing Guidance through Life
The only purpose of a Christian life is to love God, follow His commandments and fulfill His purpose of redeeming His creatures so that they may share His glory of everlasting life in Heaven. When one accepts this teaching without reservation, one becomes free from individual self-centeredness and devotes one's life to the service of God and the propagation of His teachings. In this way, one may live a happy life of universal love, be of service to others and help improve the situation of human existence. This approach works well in case of complete faith and infallible teachings. However, when the situation is complex, the teachings are incomplete or not convincing, the religious leaders exhibit wrongful conduct, or the followers are prone to outside influences; then the system can hardly provide satisfactory guidance and loses its influence on the real issues of life.
Although in Buddhism there are also rules of conduct to be followed, they are considered only as helpful means to regulate one's life toward Liberation. The fundamental teaching is not about adopting some goal or purpose, but rather to understand the selfless nature of all things. In this light, one's liberation is achieved through conscious cultivation of right views, right conduct and right livelihood. There is no need of transcending one's self-centeredness through focusing one's life around a higher life or goal. The reliance is not so much on authority but rather on insight of things as they are. As the world is changing, reliance on the teachings of selflessness, no attachment, tolerance, compassion and wisdom would provide a more flexible and convincing guidance to life.
5.3.4 Cultivating Spiritual Growth
The Christian goal is to share the glory of God in the union with God in Heaven; hence, a Christian's spiritual growth is to be measured by his love of God, his service to God and the sharing of God's love that he has attained. In other words, it is to be measured by his universal love and compassionate service. There is no limit on earth to a Christian's growth along this path. Nevertheless, a Christian's basic attitude is always confined to that of a creature needing the guidance and sanctifying grace of the Creator. This kind of attitude may unduly limit the full development of one's potentials because of the lack of independence to stimulate one's best performance.
The Buddhist goal is the liberation of all sentient beings through full and harmonious development of wisdom and compassion; hence, a Buddhist's spiritual growth is exemplified by activities of wisdom and compassion in life. This may seem too abstract to make sense objectively; however, a Buddhist may experience the peace and empathy resulting from practicing no-attachment and selfless service. Buddhists also rely on Buddhas and Buddhist teachers for guidance, but none of these teachers can impose an absolute dominance on anyone when the teaching on no-self is properly understood. In a famous and widely recited Buddhist sutra, the Diamond Sutra, it is stated that the teachings are like rafts in that they serve only to convey passengers across the river but not to burden them afterwards. Thus, it is obvious that the Buddhist path thoroughly cultivates unlimited spiritual growth.
5.4 The Difference in Their Ultimate Spiritual Achievement
The Christian goal is a return to the Creator, a union with the ultimate reality. Such a union is beyond time and transcends worldly happiness infinitely. This union is taught to be beyond subject/object distinction even though some theologians regard the absolute dichotomy of the Creator and His creatures to be a fundamental distinction that is logically impossible to transcend. As a spiritual path, how can a soul being led through life on earth by faith in such a fundamental distinction, achieve the opposite in Heaven? Besides, in the face of several religions, all based on spiritual revelation and lineage and claiming to proffer the true teaching from the Creator, how does anyone decide who is the Creator of all or if they are different aspects of the Creator? Awareness of any one of these problems would cast shadows of doubt over the possibility of union with the ultimate reality.
The Buddhist approach has avoided all these difficulties. A Buddha is not one contending to be the creator of anything. A Buddha is simply a sentient being fully awakened to the truth of the conditional and relative nature of all phenomena. Seeing and living in accordance with the truth, one is liberated from attachments and becomes able to transcend suffering; and great compassion arises out of selfless empathy for all sentient beings. Consequently, an enlightened being's life is devoted to showing the path toward Liberation as living in the light of universal truth. As a consequence of living in accordance with universal truth, supernatural abilities may develop naturally; nevertheless, the Buddhist emphasis is always on the cultivation of wisdom and compassion, and on no-attachment to spiritual attainment. Such a thorough teaching on no-attachment, even to the extent of teaching the pedagogical nature of its wordings, is consistent with the goal of attaining liberation in the non-dual ultimate reality.
In conclusion, both Christianity and Buddhism aim at union with the ultimate reality which is beyond the subject/object dichotomy. Buddhist teachings have taken into consideration the possibilities of independent spiritual awakening and of hindrance created by attachment to the wordings of the teachings. Consequently, when the Buddhist teachings are properly understood one will not become cornered in a position based on duality. Christian teachings center around the absolute God as the Creator of all, and Jesus, God incarnate, as the sole Redeemer. Accordingly, a Christian may be saved only through complete faith in and reliance on God. Consequently, union with the non-dual ultimate reality is taught to be attainable through faith in a fundamental duality.
6. From a Buddhist Practitioner's Point of View
The comparison made above between Buddhism and Christianity is a meta-religion study; in other words, it is an evaluation made from an onlooker's point of view. Such an approach has the advantage of being objective; nevertheless, to a subject which cannot be adequately represented by theories and involves the mystery of faith, devotion and supernatural realms, judgments made from an onlooker's point of view might be superficial and incapable of doing justice to the core of the matter. Consequently, there is a need, if this study is to be pertinent to practitioners, to review the comparison from an insider's point of view. As a Buddhist practitioner--not in the sense of a sectarian epithet but a description of my practice--I would like to offer my views in the following.
6.1 Spiritual Reality beyond the Nominal Boundaries
Some people are superb in theories but clumsy in practice; some are marvelous in action but have difficulty with words. One's spiritual merit is not a matter of expressions and acts but rather a matter of sincerity and practice. Similarly, the usual distinction of being a Buddhist or a Christian is not a proper indicator of spiritual merit; rather, the measure of an individual's spiritual merit should be based on sincerity, tranquility and compassion. There is no reason to be proud over the choice of one's religion--for a Christian, all glory belongs to God, hence there should be no personal pride; for a Buddhist, pride is a sign of holding onto a sense of self, hence one should try to eradicate it.
Although I am a Buddhist, I have dreamed of Jesus several times. Another Buddhist, Professor Chin Tang Lo, University of Hawaii at Manoa, confided in me that he also saw Jesus in a dream. Around 1975 when I began to study Buddhism on my own, I also went to Christian churches and studied the Bible. However, it was not during that time that I dreamed of Jesus, rather, the dreams of Jesus occurred around 1980 after I had chanted Amitabha Buddha over four million times. In one of those dreams Jesus appeared in a long white robe and gave me a short white robe with some messages from Chinese Buddhist Sutras written on its lining. How do we understand such a dream? The key point in understanding such phenomena is the realization that spiritual reality cannot be confined by conceptual, and hence artificial limitations.
Yogi C. M. Chen, my late Guru, revealed that he once received in a dream a gift box said to contain a statue of Guan Yin (Avalokitesvara), but upon unwrapping it turned out to be a statue of Jesus. His friend, the late Professor Garma C. C. Chang, had a similar dream except that it was said to be a statue of Jesus but turned out to be that of Guan Yin. Yogi Chen taught that these dreams revealed that Jesus is a transformation of Guan Yin. The dream I had and described above seems to provide yet another indication that Jesus is related to Buddhism in spiritual reality. According to Buddhist teachings, a Bodhisattva would appear in whatever form suitable for the conversion and salvation of sentient beings, and the process of salvation may take many life-times; therefore, it is not surprising that a transformation of Avalokitesvara would have taught, not the ultimate philosophy of Buddhism, but a simple theory of redemption through faith and observation of commandments.
The dreams mentioned above are revealed so that spiritual practitioners may appreciate their significance. No sectarian motivation is involved in these statements, and it is completely different from unfortunate practices of biased belittlement of others' religions. May the readers see the subtle difference.
6.2 Transcendence of Self-centeredness
If we understand the key issue to be gaining freedom from self-centeredness, then it may be appreciated that the Christian teachings, when embraced without reservation, also constitute an effective path of escaping from the narrow confines of a person's self. In case the profound insight of selflessness or the conditional nature of all phenomena is beyond the understanding of the person seeking spiritual salvation, faith in an almighty and benevolent Lord seems to be a wonderful alternative. Furthermore, when one engages in lifelong service of universal love the theoretical differences and distinctions would sometimes simply lose meaning; thus, the transcendence of the subject/object distinction may be accomplished even through a system based on such a distinction. Logically, this sounds contradictory or paradoxical; Spiritually, this is how mystery functions over worldly limitations. In Buddhism this is called awakening in the midst of the world.
The Pureland School of Buddhism is also based on the profound teaching of no-self, no-attachment, and no-form. Nevertheless, to many ordinary people who lack sophistication in philosophical training, the Pureland teachings do resemble the Christian approach if the basic differences in their world-views could be put aside for a while. In Christianity, Heaven, God, Angels, faith, will and commandments outline the quest for eternal happiness. Similarly, in Pureland teachings the key ingredients are Pureland, Amitabha Buddha, Holy beings, faith, will and practice. Of course, the Pureland teachings are not limited by this similar structure, but can be expanded to provide profound philosophical insight including the teachings that Pureland can be here and now and that Pureland exists where the mind is pure.
As a Buddhist practitioner I have had many spiritual experiences that are supernatural. To practitioners like myself, the reliance on Buddha is in practice indistinguishable from the Christian reliance on an almighty and benevolent Lord. The guidance and support a Buddhist practitioner may receive from supernatural beings is as real as the tangible objects in the realm of our senses. Self or no self, the spiritual reality IS. When one is sincere in working toward transcendence of one's self the spiritual reality will reveal itself as much as one is free from the dominance of self. An effective path to escape from self is through compassionate service. Through selfless service one naturally learns the openness of the world and thereby grows out of the tiny cell of self-centeredness.
6.3 The Pitfall of Formality
Faith should be based on spiritual insight of reality. In the absence of such insight due to the spiritual immaturity of the masses, the revelations are preserved and propagated through lineages and institutions. The main pitfall of institutionalization of spiritual teachings is the excessive adherence to formality and authority. Sectarianism also arises from adherence to formality. A sense of righteousness and the related judgmental attitude toward the outsiders is also based on and enhanced by irrational adherence to formality. Religious groups and practitioners should constantly reflect on their practice to make sure that their concern is devoted to union with ultimate reality instead of worldly comparison and competition.
If one is sincere in reaching the ultimate truth, one should be open to other views and others' questioning. If what one believes is the truth, there should be no need to force its acceptance on others. To propagate the ultimate truth one needs simply to help others see the light. Understanding of truth cannot be achieved through force, hence there should be no coercion involved. All who claim to teach the truth should at least act in accordance with these basic principles.
If a Christian associates only with Christians, then the universal love of God will not be realized. If a Buddhist associates only with Buddhists, then the teaching on Boundless Mind is not put to practice. In real life, who do you prefer to associate with or trust? It is not so much what the person claims to follow but what the practice is. Do not create a division based on ignorant submission to formality. The ultimate spiritual truth is that we are all in limitless-oneness; whatever we do to hurt others is in spiritual reality an act of self-destruction. Life is fragile; we cannot afford to be unkind to one another but need to help each other through cooperation.
7. Clarification of Misunderstandings about Buddhism
In the book Crossing the Threshold of Hope by Pope John Paul II, there are several references to Buddhist teachings or terminology that are obviously based on misunderstandings. Below I will quote those passages from that book, with key points underlined and page numbers cited in square brackets, and provide brief comments. In this way, I hope the misunderstandings will be resolved and proper understanding reached.
1. It must be clear for those who accept Revelation, and in particular the Gospel, that it is better to exist than not to exist. And because of this, in the realm of the Gospel, there is no space for any nirvana, apathy, or resignation. [p. 21]
Comment: Nirvana is complete freedom from suffering and the causes of suffering, and hence, it is beyond the realms of transmigration in the cycle of life-and-death. Look at the life of Sakyamuni Buddha! After he attained Enlightenment he did not become apathetic to or resign from the world of suffering, instead he devoted the rest of his life to teaching people from all walks of life how to obtain ultimate liberation from suffering. To associate nirvana with apathy and resignation is obviously a mistake. God is beyond the suffering in the world, but that kind of transcendental state does not justify labeling apathy or resignation to His existence. If the supreme transcendence of God is understandable, so should the possibility of nirvana without apathy or resignation be.
2. Agnosticism is not atheism; more specifically it is not a systematic atheism, as was Marxist atheism and, in a different context, the atheism of the Enlightenment. [p. 39]
3. Buddhism is in large measure an "atheistic" system. [p. 86]
Comment: Buddhism may be classified as atheistic only in the sense that, due to the absence of a proper referent of a self, it is impossible to justify the identification of a Creator. In fact, the ultimate Buddhist question is not about the existence or nonexistence of the Creator, rather it is asking, how could anyone make a proper reference to any absolute independent identity? In the Buddhist Sutras there are many conventional references to heavenly beings; therefore, if the subject of atheism is not limited to the God but to gods, Buddhism cannot be considered atheistic.
4. Less still is He similar to Buddha, with his denial of all that is created. Buddha is right when he does not see the possibility of human salvation in creation, but he is wrong when, for that reason, he denies that creation has any value for humanity. [p. 43]
Comment: The Buddhist teachings aim at resolving problems at the onset of formation of problems, while the Christian approach is within a given context prescribed by the revelations. Consequently, the Buddhist teachings emphasize the artificial nature of conceptual distinctions and how to attain freedom from such prejudices, while the Christian teachings center around infusing faith in and the defending of fundamental tenets. From the Christian point of view, Buddhist teachings have been brought down to the question of creation and its value, even though in fact Buddhist teachings are focusing around direct experience of reality beyond and before the concept of creation. To say that Buddha was for or against creation is simply missing the point of Buddha's teachings.
5. The various schools of Buddhism recognize the radical inadequacy of this malleable world and teach a way by which men, with devout and trusting hearts, can become capable either of reaching a state of perfect liberation, or of attaining, by their own efforts or through higher help, supreme illumination. (Nostra Aetate 2) [p. 80]
Comment: The state of perfect liberation is supreme illumination in the sense that all ignorance and consequent sorrows have been eradicated and therefore can no longer cast any shadow of suffering. The Buddhist teachings are abundant with philosophical analyses and dialogues, and in the records of Chan school there are many anecdotes denouncing Buddhas, Sutras and all established formality; in contrast, it is the Christian teachings that require more devout and trusting heart of their followers.
6. Buddha? (Title of a chapter) [p. 84]
Comment: A question mark indicates lack of understanding or doubt. Lack of understanding may be remedied by careful study with an open mind, while doubt may be removed only through understanding the teachings and putting them to practice. Buddha teaches selfless and compassionate service through the activities of his life; did he not set a paradigm of universal love as taught by Jesus?
7. Nevertheless, it needs to be said right away that the doctrines of salvation in Buddhism and Christianity are opposed. [p. 85]
Comment: I have shown earlier that Buddhism and Christianity may share a generalized scheme of salvation. Their differences do not lie in opposing doctrines but in the fundamental approach to providing remedies for human suffering. When Buddhist teachings are thoroughly understood there is no substance to the artificial boundary of subject/object distinction; how could there be any opposition in that state of unity?
8. Nevertheless, both the Buddhist tradition and the methods deriving from it have an almost exclusively negative soteriology. [p. 85]
9. ...a purely negative "enlightenment." [p. 87]
Comment: In the teachings of earlier Buddhism, emphasis was more on the path of purification; nevertheless, the teaching on compassion was conveyed through examples set by the Buddha and his main disciples who travelled far and wide to spread the teachings to people of all kinds. In the teachings of later Buddhism, Mahayana and Tantra, compassion is always emphasized as the foremost element of the quest for Enlightenment. There is nothing negative in these teachings. As to teachings that point out the sorrows of worldly lives, the Bible is no less an abundant reservoir; hence, this kind of teaching is certainly not considered negative by the Pope. The remaining question is: what is negative in Buddhism? When Buddhism is thoroughly understood, the teachings are not assertions about but merely indicators toward the ultimate reality. As indicators the teachings can only be neutral but not negative or positive, and their pedagogical functions are at the discretion of a teacher based on spiritual experiences.
10. The "enlightenment" experienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man. To liberate oneself from this evil, one must free oneself from this world, necessitating a break with the ties that join us to external reality--ties existing in our human nature, in our psyche, in our bodies. The more we are liberated from these ties, the more we become indifferent to what is in the world, and the more we are freed from suffering, from the evil that has its source in the world. [pp. 85-86]
11. ...we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world world. To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process. [p. 86]
Comment: Buddha never taught that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering. Rather, it is the fundamental ignorance of a sense of self that is taught to be the source of all sorrows and suffering. In Buddhism it is taught that the world is pure when the mind is pure. All the teachings in Buddhism pointing out the sorrows and impermanence of worldly existence can easily be found in the Bible. To free oneself from the dominance of self, a temporary retreat from the world may be helpful for spiritual development; nevertheless, such retreats are not in themselves the ultimate goal. When one is free from conceptual and emotional self-centeredness, one experiences limitless-oneness with all there is. Consequently, one spontaneously devotes one's life to the service of all for their well-being. Freedom from attachment does not result in indifference to the world, but self-centeredness does. In fact, freedom from attachment is the real opening to the world as it is. Compassion for and selfless service to all sentient beings is a key ingredient in Buddhist teachings; how could such teachings lead to indifference to the world?
12. Carmelite mysticism begins at the pointwhere the reflections of Buddha end, together with his instructions for the spiritual life. [p. 87]
Buddha's teachings point to the ultimate reality without creating limitations by the wordings. Any ending of Buddha's teachings exists only in the eyes of the beholder.
The comments offered above are succinct and may not be readily understood by people who are not familiar with the profound philosophical teachings of Buddhism. Nevertheless, they serve to outline the key points where misunderstanding has occurred and hopefully shed light on the real features of Buddhist teachings. May misunderstanding be removed and understanding increase.
8. Shedding New Light on Christian Teachings
Ideas foreign to the teachings of a religion should not be arbitrarily grafted into it because the spiritual mystery is coded in the original teachings. However, it is permissible to interpret the teachings based on spiritual insight. Furthermore, it is also proper to improve the teachings by correcting mistakes that are due to cultural limitations, as long as the spirit of the fundamental principles are preserved or expanded. Keeping these considerations in mind, I offer the following suggestions to Christianity:
8.1 Original Purity instead of Original Sin
According to the Christian teachings, since Adam and Eve sinned, all human beings, with the exception of Mary and Jesus, are sinners. This is a negative view of human nature. In contrast, Buddhist teachings are based on the original purity of all there is, including human nature. This is a positive view of human nature. Nevertheless, it is also possible for Christianity to emphasize the positive aspect of human nature in accordance with the Bible. According to Genesis, God fashioned man of dust from the soil, then He breathed into his nostrils a breath of life, and thus man became a living being. In the breath of life which is essential to us as living beings, we are as pure as God. This original purity should be incorruptible because it is of God. Thus, we should be confident in the positive aspect of human nature. Furthermore, in the original purity of the breath of life from God lies the natural unity transcending the Creator/creatures distinction.
Emphasis on original sin divides human beings from God and casts shadows on our lives, while emphasis on original purity unites human beings with God and brings hope to our lives. When both are acceptable in light of the Bible, which course should we take?
8.2 Oneness in Universal Love instead of Reliance on the Creator
For a Christian the only salvation is through complete love for and devotion to God. Only in the name of Jesus and through the redeeming power of His crucifixion and resurrection can the original sin of each individual be cleansed. This complete reliance on God enhances the dualistic distinction between the Creator and His creatures. In Buddhism, our sorrows are rooted in the illusive concept of a self, and through practice it is possible to free ourselves from the limitations of such illusions and regain our original purity. Buddha may show us the correct path to such liberation, but we do need to walk the path ourselves. When we become liberated all distinctions evaporate, and we are one with Buddhas.
If Christianity emphasizes original purity instead of original sin, the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus becomes the paradigm of practicing universal love even at the sacrifice of one's worldly life and regaining unity with the ultimate reality through returning to original purity. Jesus remains an inspiration and guidance to our practice of universal love; and we can easily sense unity with Jesus through practicing universal love. The worldly sorrows are understood to be born from lack of universal love and an abundance of selfishness. There is no longer any need to blame Adam, Eve or the serpent; nor to doubt that the ultimate responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the Almighty. We simply need to spread the message of universal love by living a life of selfless service.
8.3 Freedom from Self-centeredness of Human Beings
In Christianity the Bible is considered to be the Word of God in the sense that the authors are writing in accordance with revelation and inspiration from God. Nevertheless, it is not impossible that such writings are mixed with limitations of the authors. Perhaps, due to human limitations, the God of the Bible is only an inadequate description of the ultimate? Perhaps, due to the self-centeredness of human beings, human beings are placed above all other living creatures on earth?
In Buddhism it is taught that all lives as sentient beings are equal, and hence the Buddhist compassion is for all sentient beings including the sinners in hell, the ghosts in purgatory, all members of the world ecology, and all beings in Heaven. To practice universal love and salvation, should one not enlarge the sphere of compassion in this way?
8.4 The Universal Salvation by the Holy Spirit
"The Christian churches form the mystic body of the Holy Spirit, and salvation is to be conducted through it, in it but by the Grace of Jesus." This teaching may be expanded to say: The omnipresent and omnipotent Holy Spirit will conduct salvation directly to individuals who have faith in the original purity of their holy nature and would live a life of universal love and service. In this way the Holy Spirit would not be unduly limited by the views of its mystic body on earth.
9. Crossing the Threshold of Liberation
What would be the threshold of liberation? My late teacher, Yogi Chen used to quote the great Tibetan Yogi Milarepa as teaching: Impermanence is the Gate to Buddha's teachings. How does one enter this abstract gate into the mansion of Buddha's teachings? Renunciation is the act of crossing over this threshold.
Renunciation of a Buddhist practitioner is not an escape from life or society. Rather, it is a retreat from worldly engagements so as to concentrate on Buddhist practice because such practice will eventually bring lasting happiness to all.
The liberation that Buddha attained transcends transmigration because it is achieved through eradication of the root of sorrows--a sense of self. It is not an easy task and will take a person's full engagement to reach some noticeable results. Anything less than full devotion and top priority will not yield the ultimate result of complete liberation; therefore, renunciation is the crossing through the threshold of liberation.
Renunciation does not necessarily mean formal participation in the clergy. Some monks or nuns return to laity eventually, with or without giving up the quest for complete liberation. Some monasteries are so busy with building construction, guest entertaining, organizing of followers, etc., that their monks or nuns have only little time for study or practice. Some Buddhists endeavor to join the clergy and then found themselves not knowing what to do next except to read Sutras, so they begin to wonder if they made the right choice. Some became monks or nuns in childhood, and later in life desire the lay life. Some are ardent in the pursuit but find the rules of conduct difficult to observe. In short, renunciation for the quest of liberation is not a matter of formality. The practical consideration is to seek an environment where one may devote one's energy wholly to Buddhist practice.
Renunciation involves understanding of the essential principles of Buddhist teachings, faith based on inspirational and supernatural experiences, sincere devotion to working for the well-being of all sentient beings, realization of the fragility and impermanence of life, and continuous and tenacious endeavors and practice. It is a choice that fundamentally changes a life and is connected with the ultimate liberation of all sentient beings. May all who are aspiring toward renunciation understand it properly and then carry it out!
The spiritual growth is not a matter of how you look to others, nor a matter of popularity; it is what you truly are to all sentient beings for all eternity. If you are sincere and constantly remind yourself that you are facing all sentient beings for all eternity, then your practice will slowly take shape into significant spiritual transformation.
When Buddha attained Enlightenment he achieved complete renunciation of the worldly life, but then he stayed amidst people to provide guidance. When Buddhist liberation is attained one achieves complete renunciation without leaving the society. Amidst the worldly life, the root of attachment has withered while the tranquility and openness of liberation is blooming. The ultimate union of renunciation and liberation is like a lotus flower standing amidst mud but above the muddy water. May we all enjoy the beauty of such a lotus blossoming soon!
By Dr. Yutang Lin