Sermon perpetuates Buddhism myths

Photo courtesy Rick Treur.
Photo courtesy Rick Treur.

Pastor Mary Hulst, Calvin’s esteemed chaplain, preached a sermon for February 10‘s LOFT (Living Our Faith Together) service that answered questions about Christianity’s exclusivity and the radical nature of the Christian doctrine of grace.

For the most part, the sermon was evocative and reflected the best of the Reformed tradition’s commitment to the idea of God’s gratuitous mercy and forgiveness. However, when she addressed the question of Christianity’s uniqueness in what I will crassly call “the religious marketplace,” she made what I think to be an unfortunate error in presenting other religions.

In particular, she made some claims about Buddhism that, as a person who actively studies and even practices aspects of Buddhist faith in a Christian framework, made me deeply uncomfortable.

Pastor Hulst said, “Now, in Buddhism, which is not so much a religion really as a philosophy of life, the idea is to detach from everything because once you’re attached to things, you start to suffer … You don’t want to suffer, so you detach and you meditate and you think about how you are just not attached to the whole world. You’re just detached and you’re not going to suffer.”

There are a few sweeping claims made in that short statement, and I want to address each in turn.

1. Buddhism is not a religion, but a philosophy of life.

2. The central point of Buddhism is to escape from suffering because suffering is undesirable.

3. Buddhists detach themselves from the world through meditation.

First, the claim that Buddhism is not a religion has varying degrees of truth depending on how one defines a religion and on what kind of Buddhism is being addressed. Buddhism generally does not place ultimate value on a God, but there are many traditions in Buddhism, particularly Mahayana sects, that accept the existence of countless divine beings. The Buddha himself acknowledged the existence of the Hindu gods with which his culture was familiar.

Most of Buddhism’s many expressions, however, problematize absolute devotion to a supreme being. To me, this does not disqualify Buddhism from being a religion. While Zen and some forms of Westernized Buddhism de-emphasize rituals, written texts and doctrines in favor of individual experience (and even those traditions, I would argue, qualify as religious), this is not the case for the vast majority of Buddhists in the world.

Buddhists build temples, venerate saints, read sacred texts and recite prayers. They follow a religion. Whether they believe in a singular being or beings as the ultimate value in life is beside the point. Would we deny that Christianity is a religion just because we spend so much time at Calvin talking about our faith as a worldview? Buddhism does have its own philosophical views, but so do all world religions.

Second, Buddhism’s doctrines about suffering are complex and multifaceted. While Pastor Hulst’ statement gets to aspects of how the Buddhist tradition approaches the question of suffering, it implies that Buddhism is somehow escapist or world-denying.

It might be easy to get this impression from some practitioners of more individualistic Western Buddhism. What Buddhism requires, however, is not a denial of the world but an embrace of it, a holistic knowing  and experience of the universe as it truly is.

A fine online introduction to Buddhism defines attachment succinctly: “On one hand it is trying to control anything and everything by grabbing onto or trying to pin them down. On the other hand, it is control by pushing away or pushing down and running away or flinching away from things. …  we try to make internal and external things and experiences into ‘me and mine’ or wholly ‘other’ than Me.”

Everything in the world is impermanent — possessions, friendships, our ideas about God and the Earth itself — and trying to elevate any one of these things from something to be accepted or enjoyed to an object of clinging is to deny that essential fact. Buddhism teaches not to ignore but to accept without judgment, to live with a compassion and grace that knows no distinctions between self and other, weak and strong, male and female, or any of the other categories we impose on the world.

In Christian terms, suffering is extinguished when we stop building idols and worshipping them. Buddhists would simply say that ultimate devotion to a Great Being or attachment to your own self are also forms of idolatry. When you achieve enlightenment in Buddhism you are not an island unto yourself, free of the cares of the world. You are integrated more fully in a unified and intimately interconnected web of existence to which all things are bound.

Finally, Pastor Hulst spoke about meditation as the way that Buddhists release themselves from suffering. There are strong lines of truth in this statement. Meditation is highly valued by many sects of Buddhism, including Zen, which is the most visible and popular form of the religion in the West.

However, some traditions in Buddhism enact their enlightenment through other means either in addition to or instead of meditation. Jodo Shinshu and other forms of what is called Pure Land Buddhism, for instance, hold that achieving salvation is a matter of merely accepting the free grace of Amida, a Buddha who vowed to save all sentient beings if he achieved enlightenment. These sects have no other practices because they are, like Christianity, based on the idea of free grace. Tibetan Buddhism involves the practice of complicated and in many cases secret rituals.

The problems in the claims that our chaplain made come from their unwarranted generalizations. I understand that time was limited, that it was not a primary point in the sermon, and that we need to work with generalizations in order to converse much of the time. I do not believe that Pastor Hulst made these statements vindictively or meanly, but I find that these same myths recur again and again when I encounter Christians talking about Buddhism.

Buddhism is a tradition that goes back two and a half thousand years and spreads over multiple continents and countless cultural expressions. We know that we cannot say, “all Christians believe in infant baptism” or “Christians don’t believe in making images of Jesus” since we have significant and longstanding streams in our faith that contradict those things. Making sure that we treat other traditions with similar nuance is a good first step to fostering understanding and respect.

About the Author

Jonathan Hielkema

Jonathan Hielkema is a Chimes staff writer for Chimes for the 2013-2014 school year. He prefers to write about any and all of his main interests, which include jazz music, leftist politics, religion, film and gadgets. He is a history major and a Japanese minor and plans to pursue a graduate school degree after graduation. Anything to keep him writing.

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