I am very grateful to have had the privilege to join the SSU study abroad trip to Asia as it spent the last three weeks in Thailand. Joining with great fellow travellers and welcomed by a diversity of gracious and friendly hosts from Chiang Mai University and the Mountain View Guest House, I was able to experience a culture quite unlike any I had known before.
One aspect that I especially appreciated was being able to experience firsthand aspects of a Buddhist culture. Encountering again and again the complexity and contradictions that make up an ancient faith gave me new eyes with which to consider the complexities and contradictions within Christian cultures of which I have been a part.
Looking at its history, it is easy to understand the value of Buddhism as a response to a Hindu culture that tended to be divided between a harshly ascetic path or the more common life filled with a mixture of pleasure and suffering. The Buddha offered a middle way that provided a path to free people from ever-present suffering. It provided a philosophy of life that steered people away from self-centred desires and taught them how to use meditation to empower them to live and think well.
However, the purity seen in the history and philosophy of Buddhism is generally not seen in practice. For the most part, people seem to need practices and rituals which are less abstract and rational. So we see all kinds of religious activity in the temples which the monks tell us “is not really Buddhism at all.” The monks tell us, “we don’t pray to the Buddha – we simply pay respect and then meditate,” and then we pass a sign in a temple that says, “3a.m. – Pray to the Buddha.”
These kinds of contradictions are not unlike those we see in Christianity. We have showy cathedrals with gilded crosses to remember the Christ who taught humility, and I often think that this “is not really Christianity at all.” Or I consider many of the traditions that Christians split churches over or those who “believe for a new Cadillac” (or Lexus nowadays, I suppose), and think that it must be very complicated to get a true picture of the teachings of Jesus based on what Christians practice.
One of the things I learn from this is that the purity of profound teaching and lifestyle – whether Christian or Buddhist – is not easily accessible and empowering for most people, and so it is very easy to add layers of ideas and behaviours that make up a good part of our religions that are not really true to the spiritual heart of the faith. Our challenge is to diligently, creatively and prayerfully develop practices that are accessible and empowering and that genuinely represent the heart of Jesus.