Buddhist Bishop is newest permablogger! I am honored and grateful to be part of this continuing conversation. I have deep roots as a Mormon, going right back to the start. So in that sense I am pretty much a fully invested Mormon, because I have some real skin in the game. I love much about this church –this is my church and my people. At the same time I find myself way out on the edge, but mostly on the inside edge, albeit sometimes just barely. I love to talk and write about church stuff –doctrine, history, practice, etc. I have spent 10 years before the mast as a bishop or branch president, all in Spanish language units. My wife and I currently live in Guatemala, where we both grew up. We returned not long ago after I retired from Texas A&M University as a professor and extension specialist, working on issues of watershed health.
What about that title?
First, it’s great alliteration. It is a rhetorical device that will make you will remember me and what this whole Buddhist Bishop thing is all about. I am not formally a Buddhist, but I am an amateur devotee, and I am an LDS bishop, so the moniker may be a bit whimsical, but it is a good representation of who I am.
Buddhists are fond of saying that you can belong to any religion or belief system and still be a good Buddhist, and in my experience, this is very true. A bishop with Buddhist leanings can be totally true to LDS Restoration practice and teachings, and perhaps even be a pretty good Buddhist.
What follows are a few ways I see that Buddhist teachings help to awaken me. I am no Buddhist scholar—this is strictly seat-of-the-pants Buddhism. The bishop part is pretty much seat-of-the-pants as well!
Clarity of Vision and Compassion
A fundamental Buddhist practice revolves around seeing clearly, and understanding the truth of our circumstances. Truth is knowledge of things as they are, and as they were, and as they are to come (D&C 93:24). A Buddhist would be very comfortable with this scripture. A Buddhist would then ask what is it that obscures our vision, and what is it that allows us to see clearly? Resentment, grudges, unforgiven offenses, and more are what cloud our vision, and what makes it difficult to see, for example, the humanity of those we perceive to have offended us. Loving kindness, what we might call charity, affords us the clearest vision of what is real. Charity allows us to see with the “eyes of compassion”:
Waking up this morning, I smile.
Twenty-four brand new hours are before me.
I vow to live fully in each moment
and to look at all beings with the eyes of compassion.
Thich Nhat Hanh. The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching
I am sorry to say that Buddhists put much more emphasis on compassion than we do. The “be ye therefore” that we pay most attention to is perfection (Matt 5:48), but there is also a “be ye therefore compassionate” (Luke 6:36-New Living Translation). Compassion in my opinion is at the very center of Christian and Restoration scriptures, right where it needs to be so that we can be reminded frequently of the transformation we need to be making. We just need to open our eyes and look a little closer.
Sin versus Right Living
Some Buddhists like to say they don’t really conceive of sin in quite the same way Christians do. But Buddhists do put serious emphasis on “Right Living”, which includes right speech, right effort, right meditation, and more. If Right Living is a thing, then it stands to reason that there is such a thing as Wrong Living, or what we might call sin. This idea of right living, however, does provide a little different perspective on dealing with sin and errors.
Consider one sin for Mormons –not paying tithing. A standard LDS way to deal with this is a call to repentance. Elder Bednar in Oct 2013 issued such a call: To those of you who presently are not obeying the law of tithing, I invite you to consider your ways and repent. A little bit of a hard edge on this, but something we are used to hearing. A Buddhist invitation, on the other hand, might suggest a clear-eyed look at one’s finances, analyzing the “enoughness” of one’s circumstances, and giving enough of one’s surplus such that it constitutes an actual sacrifice. Sacrifice brings forth blessings, as we all know so well. In the end, tithing/ sacrifice is the principle. Do we contribute because we want to avoid the punishment, or because sacrifice is transformative?
Here and Now
Mormons like to dream of their mansion above, but Buddhists like to pay attention to the here and now. Mormons see the end goal as exaltation in the celestial kingdom. Buddhists say the kingdom of heaven is right here, right now. This contradiction might see irreconcilable, but Mormons do like to speak of trying to make their homes a little bit of heaven. The here and now, then, is not completely foreign to Mormons. Enjoy the shining moments –don’t we have a hymn about that?
Lastly, suffering. Thich Nhat Hanh says that “we need suffering in order to see the path.” Similarly, Rumi said that light enters where the wound is. Without suffering it seems it is difficult for us to learn. Latter-day Saints know well how the refiner’s fire works. We know about rough stones rolling. Buddhists say we must embrace and “touch” our suffering. To suffer and not know we are suffering is insufferable. Clarity of vision comes back into play here –examining why we are suffering is the first step to alleviation of suffering.
And much more…
There is so much more to Buddhism than can be addressed in this small space. Nothing that I have covered here is a direct contradiction to our scriptures. In the end, the paths of the Boddhisattva and the follower of Christ converge and lead to illumination. But it is not just that there is no great contradiction – Buddhist teachings enable us to see our own scriptures so much more clearly.
Training in Buddhism should be required of all church leaders. I would wager that Dieter Uchtdorf often takes a page or two from Buddhism for his talks!
The study of Buddhism is facilitated by slogans and watchwords, devices to aid memory: the Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eight-fold Path, the Three Doors of Liberation, etc.
How familiar are you with the teachings of Buddhism? I have left out so much –mindfulness and meditation for example. To those of you who have studied Buddhism in any degree, what do you find of value? How has Buddhism influenced your relationship to the Church? What would Brother Joseph have done with Buddhism?
Having served among a strong Buddhist population in my mission, I learned that at a minimum, if you can’t bless others then at least don’t do harm to them.
Sounds great. I’m really looking forward to your future posts.
I have found that one doesn’t really understand one’s own language on a deep level until one has studied another; similarly, one doesn’t understand one’s own faith tradition until contrasted with another. Buddhist teaching certainly provides the Christian with a useful contrast. “Prove all things, hold fast what is good”, and all that. My recommended reading for Christians would be to read the Dhammpada (Eknath Easwaran’s translation has useful introductory remarks and a commentary); the Platform Sutras; the Sutta Nipata (4th chapter/section in particular); anything by Stephen Batchelor; and for an introduction to Buddhist thought with none of the baggage or Sanskrit/Pali verbiage, there’s no better book than Alan Watts’s ‘The Wisdom of Insecurity’. Then compare all this great stuff by rereading the Sermon on the Mount with dewy fresh eyes.
The Buddhist teaching I like and aspire to most is Right Living; do the right thing for the right reason, not for an expected outcome or response. This lack of expectation allows me to avoid a transactional approach of acting in order to get a blessing.
We can learn much from other religious traditions and cultures. Certainly Buddhist Right Living, doing “the right thing for the right reason,” is an adage we can learn from. Other concept we can learn from is Process Theology, everything is in a state of flux. And the Baha’i religion’s syncretism, the ability to absorb important principles from other religions. To name three. None of these need threaten our own faith, and will enhance it.
Beautiful! And welcome.
I have done some learnings of Buddhism, but not deep. There are a few thoughts that I have formulated only to realize they are found in Buddhism . I do feel there is much to be learned from this and I do have a few books in the stack of books to read on this subject.
In Buddhism, who decides what constitutes “right living”? Do ancient Buddhist texts already spell it all out or does “right living” evolve over time for them? Is it more of a personal thing? Can two Buddhists disagree on what constitutes “right living” and still both be considered good Buddhists? Right now, I’m not interested in spending a ton of time researching Buddhism on my own by reading the materials suggested above, but I would love to have a cursory understanding, hence the questions. I enjoyed reading the post by Buddhist Bishop and found the ideas quite interesting. Thank you!
No, Buddhists , at least the one I follow, do not like to engage in doctrinal debates. i appreciate Cellarius’ list of “deep” buddhist literature, but my impression is that most folks in the West are introduced to Buddhism by westernizers, for the most part. This might include people like Sharon Salzburg, Pema Chodron, and Jack Cornfield among many others. And the are some great teachers from the orient who bridge east and west, such as Thich Nhat Hahn. Also the Dalai Lama. You definitely do not have to be a Buddhist “master” investing a life time of study to benefit from Buddhist teachings. A little easy reading about Buddhism will go a long way!
All that I say should be qualified—I’m neither Buddhist, nor Mormon, merely a spiritual utilitarian (truth is not my metric, but rather how useful an idea/practice is in fomenting, say, the fruits of the spirit). Buddhist teaching refuses to answer questions about the nature of the soul, heaven and hell, etc. (Not entirely true—like Christianity it features many schisms and permutations; some of which appeal less to me, some more). The strain I’ve found useful is not interested in metaphysical questions; rather, it hones in on the experience of human suffering and then offers a robust series of mental exercises and philosophies that aim to transform the way one experiences suffering. (To put it in Christian terms, the Way of the Cross is the way whereby mortal suffering is transformed into bliss, is apotheosized and made holy; I see Buddhist practice as another way, or possibly even a complementary way to achieve this.)
Sin, in the Buddhist context, are pretty much exactly equivalent to Christian values (prohibiting theft, murder, violence, sexual sin, etc.) but they do not perceive them in the same way, removing much of their sting—they are merely impediments to experiencing the sort mind a Buddha would have. (Again, I would argue that certain strains of Christian thought attempt the same thing, for we are saved in our sins not from them; we don’t have to be perfect to become perfect, we are perfect because God accepts us in our sins—rain and sun fall on all equally, and all that.) I suppose among the advantages of Buddhism are its practices. That is to say that Christianity has many useful mental structures (Grace chief among them), but many of their practices don’t actually lead to transformation (a pouring forth of the fruits of the spirit). By contrast Buddhism has many and numerous practices to achieve these things—and are happily quite secular in nature for the most part (watch your breath; watch your thoughts).
As to the specifics of bwbarnett’s questions:
In Buddhism, who decides what constitutes “right living”?
Buddhist scripture/teaching offers guidelines—Words of Wisdom—intended to reduce the experience of suffering; but indeed, the Gotama suggests that in the end, the individual must determine the way of right living for themselves. The Buddha doesn’t not ask us to have faith that these words of wisdom are valid, but asks us to test them. Only on testing them can one know their truth. Eventually, however, one must take off the training wheels, and live in the spirit. (The end of Jesus’ teaching as well, in my reading thereof.)
Do ancient Buddhist texts already spell it all out or does “right living” evolve over time for them?
Right living has evolved over time as Buddhism encountered new cultures and ideas. Which is just to say, they are open to the workings of the spirit. Still, the basics remain—non violence, avoid sexual sin, avoid intoxicants, mindfulness, etc.
Is it more of a personal thing? Can two Buddhists disagree on what constitutes “right living” and still both be considered good Buddhists?
At its higher levels, I would say it is a personal thing (just as in Christianity). Two Buddhists can disagree and be good Buddhists, but the ‘true’ Buddhist is one that is no Buddhist at all, but one who ‘follows the Spirit’ so to speak. (As of this writing Wikipedia lists 30,00 Christian denominations, for example. Buddhism has similar proliferations).
Anyway, long story short, I was happy to throw all Christian teaching into the rubbish bin, until Buddhist thought gave me eyes to see and ears to hear. I can’t say that that’s enough to recommend studying it, and one can certainly achieve certain so-called ‘Buddhist’ insights into the human condition using only Christian texts, but studying religions other than one’s own put one’s own tradition in very high relief, gives the tired old texts new life, opens one to the spirit.
I think we have a lot to learn from Buddhism – I have appreciated your comments in the past and look forward to future blogs.
“Buddhists are fond of saying that you can belong to any religion or belief system and still be a good Buddhist, and in my experience, this is very true”
Agreed! My mother’s best friend was a practising Buddhist . After my mother died some years ago I maintain friendship and correspondence with her friend. I concur that aspects of Buddhism align closer with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as compared to a hard-line, emphasis on sin approach.
Your description of Truth is one of my favorite scriptures and I reference it almost more than others (Alma 9:12 being favorite, a promise to know the mysteries of God if you soften your heart; but if you harden your heart, lose what knowledge you once held).
Merely avoiding darkness does not necessarily mean advancing to light. Progressing toward the light is automatically leaving darkness without even tainting one’s soul with whatever exists in that darkness.
The great commandment is to love your neighbor. Oh, for sure the first great commandment is to love God; but how is that to be done? By obeying the second great commandment! So it all distils to the second great commandment; loving your neighbor. The sacrifice that is worthy is a broken heart and a contrite spirit.
In the kingdom of God is no sin; no darkness, not even a mention of sin or darkness. Such things cannot exist in the presence of the light. Consequently, and for reasons I do not here describe but which are powerful in my mind, it is clear to me that the final judgment is consideration of the charity or love each had for others; the dark things you or I did won’t be inspected, won’t be visible, nobody wants to see it.
The consequence of sin is simply to have less light.
Where I am not sure about Buddhism is the role of dark; it exists and must exist. It is HERE, but not in heaven. Dark is both a force but also personified; evil is not simply the absence of good or light; it is a thing, not merely a not-thing. Fortunately real evil is rare and frightning.
Gulielmus Cellarius —your are right on! You have articulated very well my own approach to Buddhism, and Mormonism for that matter. Thanks very much for your thoughtful reply. The more I learn about Buddhism the more I can appreciate my own Mormon roots. It is all about transformation, which ever or both paths. Right living keeps you on the path, but the path is not the destination. (unless of course you fall off the path altogether — then you gotta focus on right living to get yourself out of the ditch)