Zen and Christianity may have much to offer each other and to learn from each other. But is it possible to be both a Christian and a Zen Buddhist? Author Ruben Habito seems to think so. Reviewer Samayadevi is more skeptical.
Ruben L F Habito was for many years a Jesuit priest serving in Japan. He studied with both Father Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle, a spiritual pioneer in inter-religious dialog and with Koun Yamada, a renowned Zen teacher. He thus brings a fascinating perspective on the interplay of Christianity, as experienced in Catholicism, and the practice of Zen.
Healing Breath is aimed at those seeking a healing spirituality in their own lives and guidelines for a practice that integrates the personal, social and ecological dimensions of life. He assumes a familiarity with Christian concepts, beliefs and traditions and an unfamiliarity with Zen practice. These are fortuitous assumptions on his part as they allow Habito to explain and teach the four characteristics of Zen and the three fruits of that practice.
The overarching thesis of Healing Breath is that the Zen practice of being still, listening to the breath, and calming the mind all conduce to an experience of the interconnectedness of all life, to “seeing things are they really are.” The healing begins with a (radical) change in how we see the world, a “shift not of strategy but of cosmology”.
In this “right view” the spiritual path is “one with the path of active socio-ecological engagement,” and “healing the world is not unrelated to healing our personal woundedness.” Zen is presented as a practice that resonates with a Christian belief system and is compatible with a Christian faith commitment. “Christian expressions and symbols and practices point to transformative and healing perspectives and experiences opened to on in Zen practice.”
There are many lovely gems in this little tome. In writing about the second mark of Zen practice, not being limited by words or concepts, he writes: “The human capacity to name things takes its toll on our mode of awareness.” The implication is that Zen practice leads to the limitless spaciousness of the Heart Sutra. What an invitation to go beyond our analytical mind (our comfort zone), and, to go deeper into pure unfettered awareness!
Habito sees the violence and destruction in the world being caused by the illusion of “I” and “other”, and Zen sitting, following the breath and calming the mind, as leading to the dissolution of that false dichotomy. “The fruit of concentration is that the separation between subject and object is overcome and we can see our true nature.” It is from that dissolution that compassion for all beings flows.
The “art of living in attunement with the breath” is how Zen is described. These are all appealing insights and pretty much propel me to my cushion, or to my breath, as I sit here writing. On my first reading I was not so taken with the invitation to sit zazen (I tried that first in 1970), but on a second reading I could not help but be inspired. Especially in the midst of Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the image of quiet sitting to quietly realize an innate connection with all beings is pretty irresistible. It can even color and perhaps guide the potential frenzy of gift giving celebrations.
In discussing the Six Point Recovery to healing, Habito lists “integrating the shadow side.” Pema Chodron also often writes of befriending what scares us, what we want to hide, deny, or push away. It is an essential element in healing, in claiming our wholeness, and it cannot be said often enough.
In the section on Rekindling After the Burnout, Habito suggests that the very sense of “I” doing “good” to achieve good “results” is that cause of burnout! Again, we are reminded of the Heart Sutra: “Not even wisdom to attain, Attainment too is emptiness.” The practice is not to distinguish between the giver and the gift and the receiver. That is a high calling and a description of freedom.
So far, so good. However, I should admit that I was once a deeply committed Christian. I have a Master’s of Divinity degree from Weston Jesuit School of Theology. I am intimately familiar with Christian symbols and concepts. I am also a committed, practicing, ordained Buddhist. As Habito explains, the Christian corollary of “living in attunement with the breath” is found in Genesis, in the Hebrew word “ruah,” meaning “the divine breath that is at the base of all being and all life.” This breath inspired the prophets to speak the word of God. Christian spirituality is literally a life led in the Spirit or Breath, of Jesus Christ.” Zen practice is then (seemingly) used to access this Breath of Christ, to allow us to “…become an instrument of this Breath.” I clearly have trouble with this. I find a quantum difference between realizing I am not a discrete, inherently existing entity but rather deeply one in “interbeing” (Thich Nhat Hahn’s neologism) with all life, and believing that my ultimate truth is to be an instrument of the Breath of Christ.
Habito suggests that the koan practice of Zen is a means to “dissolve the opposition between subject and object.” The task of the practice is to remove obstacles to that realization. But this is followed by the suggestion that that realization is similar to glimpsing “the universe from the eyes of God; the one who hears is inseparable from the Word that is heard.” The concept of a creator God is so discordant with my Buddhist insights, I find it almost disturbing to try to mesh them together.
The implication throughout is that Zen practice and Christian commitment are not only compatible, but mutually beneficial. My own experience is that while Zen practice gives me the tools of sitting, following the breath, and calming the mind, the fruits of that experience exist in their own right without the need of a Christian world view. For a Christian, Zen may be beneficial in facilitating and fostering centering prayer, and a stillness of the heart.
Buddhists and Christians have so very much to learn from one another. Habito mentions at the beginning, that ‘Placing ourselves within differing religious traditions to discover mutual resonance, (leads) not only to inner healing, but to global healing.” I wish and hope that might be so. I just have trouble finding the resonance.
Samayadevi is a 65-year-old mother of six, step-mother of four, and step-grandmother of eight. She discovered meditation when she was thirteen and has been practicing (erratically) ever since. Her spiritual path has led her through Catholicism to the Episcopal church and finally into Buddhism. She was ordained into the Western Buddhist Order this summer on a three month retreat in Spain.
Zen Christianity (aka, Christian Zen) has evolved into a vibrant new faith movement. Websites such as https://www.zenchristianity.uni.cc attest to this fact. The roots of Zen Christianity were laid by Jesus himself, sprouted in the Gospels and Letters, and reached full flower with the Christian mystics. As Christian mysticism encountered Zen, it was realized that the Spirit was breathing forth a bold new faith expression. The misconception is that Zen Christians are blending Christianity and Buddhism. In actuality, Zen stands outside both faiths, yet enriches each equally.
I read your review with a bit of a doubt- surely the review of such a book isn’t a place for giving your own view of whether it is possible to be both a Christian or a Zen Buddhist? Many say yes, other say no. The Western Buddhist Order has traditionally been very strong on the no, and I have to say that this perspective of sealing Buddhism off from other traditions is one of the reasons which made me personally step back from training with them. (I still maintain much love for them, I add!) Your perspective in this review brings nothing fresh to the discussion, but repeats almost mechanically the FWBO norm.
The fact that you were once a Christian is irrelevant to this book review- most people who change religion reject their old one… so mentioning your past lends a false weight to what you say. For example- many ex-husbands and wives might say critical things of each other, which doesn’t mean their perspective is correct!
You say in your last sentence:
“the fruits of that experience exist in their own right without the need of a Christian world view”… yes, this is the point. I don’t think this author is saying that one must be a Christian, so yes of course there is no need for you (or me) to hold a Christian world view. But that doesn’t mean that someone who does have a Christian world view will have the same perspective as you or me, and in fact may find both helpful and necessary.
So my reason for writing this is really just to niggle slightly that here you are not reviewing this book in its own right, but once again bringing forth a common FWBO polemic against Christianity with Buddhism. There is certainly a place for such a debate, even a strong and forthright and blunt one, but a book review is not the place for it!
Also, as a caveat, if you are going to be autobiographical then you should really add that you (I imagine) have little experience of specifically Zen practice, and not in this lineage. If you have no experience of formal koan practice, then how could you comment on the author’s experience of koan practice in relation to the author’s experience of “God”? I was on a Zen retreat with many teachers and Roshis recently, including the Jesuit master Robert Kennedy. All those masters respected Roshi Kennedy as a Zen brother, and respected deeply his Christian offering.
I would question the motivation in choosing someone to review a Christan Zen book who presents their perspective as:
“The concept of a creator God is so discordant with my Buddhist insights, I find it almost disturbing to try to mesh them together.” !!
Someone more in the middle ground would be more appropriate, surely?
With kindly mischief,
UK Zen Peacemaker Community
I thought I’d chip in a few thoughts. You asked: “Surely the review of such a book isn’t a place for giving your own view of whether it is possible to be both a Christian or a Zen Buddhist?” I can’t see what possible reason you could have for making such an assumption. A book reviewer of necessity has to evaluate the main premises of the work in question, and to question assumptions where necessary. Otherwise why not just reprint the blurb from the back cover?
“Your perspective in this review brings nothing fresh to the discussion, but repeats almost mechanically the FWBO norm.”
I find it helpful in human communication to treat other people as people, and not as representatives of some kind of group, which is unfortunately what you do here with Samayadevi. Samayadevi is giving her opinion of Rubito’s ideas. She’s a thinking, rational, individual human being and not a machine, and therefore she is not “mechanically” repeating anything. It so happens that she doesn’t believe that it’s possible to be both a Christian and a Zen Buddhist. This is something I happen to agree with, and with, I believe, good reason.
Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, for example — the Buddha saw no place for belief in a creator God. Christianity believes that this God will judge us after we die and send us either to heaven or hell. Buddhism believes in a round of rebirth, and that it’s our own actions that determine our fate. In Buddhism there is no judge. In Christianity there is a soul, which in Buddhism the existence of a soul is vigorously denied. In Christianity there is sin, while in Buddhism there is no sin. In Christianity there is the possibility of salvation due to the actions of an external agent, while in Buddhism (with the anomalous exception of Pure Land Buddhism) that’s not possible. It would seem to me that there are considerable differences between the two traditions. I’m not making any judgment here about which tradition, if any, is correct — just pointing out the differences, which are fundamental and enormous.
“The fact that you were once a Christian is irrelevant to this book review … so mentioning your past lends a false weight to what you say…”
Samayadevi said “…I should admit that I was once a deeply committed Christian” [emphasis added]. You seem to be assuming (without any evidence) that Samayadevi is mentioning her former Christian practice to boost her credibility. So why then does she “admit” it? Surely she’s warning people that she’s an ex-Christian and a current Buddhist? In other words she’s getting any possible biases into the open.
And I fail to see how her experience of Christianity (which includes a Master’s degree in divinity) would lend “false” weight to what she says. She nowhere claims or implies that her opinions hold extra weight because she has rejected Christianity, which is what you seem to be implying. The fact that she has studied Christianity in depth, however, adds a weight to her views that I think is very genuine.
You wrote: “You are not reviewing this book in its own right, but once again bringing forth a common FWBO polemic against Christianity.”
I fail to see anything polemical (i.e. strongly critical of Christianity) in what Samayadevi has written, and unfortunately you didn’t cite any examples of this alleged polemicism. And again, you take what seems to me to be the utterly contemptible (and inherently violent) position of treating Samayadevi not as an individual human being with opinions of her own, but as the mouthpiece of some organization.
“There is certainly a place for such a debate, even a strong and forthright and blunt one, but a book review is not the place for it!”
Again, an extraordinary statement. A book is a presentation of a set of ideas. A book review is an individual’s account of and comments on those ideas. It’s normal, and indeed expected, for the reviewer to critique the ideas presented in the book being reviewed.
“…you (I imagine) have little experience of specifically Zen practice…”
You “imagine”? You may be right, or you may be wrong. Samayadevi would have to answer that beyond what she’s already said, which is that she first sat Zazen in 1970. But it’s interesting that you “imagine” (with no apparent evidence) that she doesn’t have any experience of Zen. Why is that?
“If you have no experience of formal koan practice, then how could you comment on the author’s experience of koan practice in relation to the author’s experience of “God”?”
I’ve never heard any claims that koan practice leads to a different kind of awakening than any other form of Buddhist practice. Surely one need not be an expert on every form of Buddhist practice in order to know that the goal of Buddhism (i.e. where Buddhist practice leads) is not some kind of realization of a God in which Buddhism has no belief?
“I was on a Zen retreat with many teachers and Roshis recently, including the Jesuit master Robert Kennedy. All those masters respected Roshi Kennedy as a Zen brother, and respected deeply his Christian offering.”
Good. It’s great that Kennedy is deeply steeped in Zen practice, and good that he was welcomed. Many non-Buddhists benefit deeply from engagement with Buddhist practices. I have many non-Buddhists attending events that I run. I welcome them all as brothers and sisters in a spiritual quest. I don’t necessarily think that they’re all Buddhists, however.
Well that’s a direct comment on my motivation, which is why I decided to comment in the first place. The traditional Buddhist position on God is that he doesn’t exist, and that belief in a God can even be a spiritual hindrance. Samayadevi’s position is therefore entirely orthodox.
Samayadevi finds “discordant” the apparent belief that Buddhism is some kind of provisional path that leads ultimately to a Christian perspective. As someone who is well-versed in both Christian and Buddhist beliefs she’s also acutely aware of the many contradictions between the two systems, and she finds it “disturbing” to see these contradictions forced into some kind of false synthesis. That’s her honest opinion of the book. It would seem you disagree with her, which is of course fine. But you also seem to think that I have some kind of responsibility to find a reviewer who agrees with the book’s perspective (and thus suppress criticism) which I find rather disturbing.
And as for the middle ground — Buddhism doesn’t have any need for a God, and doesn’t believe that there is such a being. Most Buddhists simply do not believe in God. In that respect Samayadevi is very representative of Buddhist practitioners in general, but with the added advantage that she has studied Christianity in depth. In short, she is the middle ground.
Good to hear from you! You’re very right about your welcoming people of different faiths on your retreats- I remember very fondly an open retreat at Danakosa I supported you on, where a Catholic nun and a Witch became the best of friends… the last i heard the friendship continues well beyond the retreat…!
The trouble is that I don’t want to be too critical in a public space. so that’s why I didn’t go into more detail, and won’t now. However, I say once again, that – however individual Samayadevi may be, and no disrespect meant to her – that review was so predictably “old school FWBO”. If I had been asked to imagine what an FWBO reviewer would say, I could have almost written that review word for word.
Now, before you think I’m being too blunt again- I don’t have a problem with the FWBO holding this perspective, or many people in it- as you say, it is pretty orthodox. However, I think as a review site on an open website, readers of the website should know the context of the perspective you are giving. The FWBO has for most of its history had a VERY strong stance about Buddhism and Christianity being different, almost aggressively so… in contrast to many other Buddhist communities around the world, who hang more loose on the issue. (Sangharakshita actually criticises his traditional Buddhist teachers in India for not being strong enough against Christianity!) Readers of your review need to know that a richer range of debate exists within the contemporary Buddhist world, so that they may think and read more widely and reflect on their own experience.
My criticism of the review was not Samayadevi’s opinion, but that she doesn’t allow the author his own experience- in HIS experience, it IS possible to combine Zen and Christianity. Who is she to deny the depth of his experience? She predictably states, for her, such a position seems untenable… she could instead show some interest- “what is he experiencing when he says it, what does this mean? could his experience possibly teach me something? maybe there’s something about Buddhism and Christianity I could learn afresh from his experiences?” (not meaning that she need end up holding the same view. That would be to deny her experience too! I’m appealing for an encounter between experiences, rather than a levelling)
Instead she- and you- assume that YOUR understanding of Christianity is correct in relation to Buddhism. Maybe the author would also reject that kind of surface-Christianity also? Maybe not?
My feeling is that Roshi Kennedy is accepted among much of the Zen community not simply as a Catholic who finds Zen helpful, but as someone with as profound a realisation of Zen Buddhist Truth as any non-Catholic Buddhist. I don’t know though, I don’t know him well enough, I use him only as an example of a figure who perhaps can speak deeply from the heart of both traditions.
Personally, I would say that the longer I practice, the less I’m certain about the Buddhist-Christian question. I began with an equally orthodox FWBO view, for which I was much praised by Order Members in Glasgow, I remember! Over time I can no longer draw such clear conclusions- I’ve met so many profoundly experienced practioners in many religions- Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Paganism… I personally, feel we all need a little more humility and the patience to listen very very deeply not just to the surface words and philosophy, but to where those words and philosophies – and, crucially, PRACTICE – are coming from… to what the meanings behind the meanings touch on in their experience…
… and yes, I must be blunt- since you’ve challenged me a little on this – and say that traditionally the FWBO hasn’t done this, and has propagated throughout its membership a strong reinforced bias against the possibilities of “leakages” between our fixed religious categories! I don’t want to see this bias perpetuated across the intenet unchallenged!
So- to end, I apologise if I come across as not respecting Samayadevi’s individuality. But equally I would feel you would be dishonest not to own to your readership that the FWBO is particularly strongly opinionated in this area, and that this review is very much in the “party line” (I hope one no longer exists, as it used to forceably!) I certainly wouldn’t have wanted you to simply chose a reviewer who agrees with the book’s thesis, as you say- …but why not someone with an OPEN mind, willing to look at it BOTH ways, and leave it up to the potential buyer then to relate the review and the book to their own individual experience?
I hope you’re doing well over there- keep up the great work with the Wildmind recordings!
(Chris) Zang Starbuck
ps as an example of another Buddhist openly challenging this divison, I’ve just remembered Lama Tharchin, the old Canadian NKT lama, calling himself a Christian as well as Buddhist in a talk in Glasgow, and acknowledging with a smile that this would raise a few eyebrows!
That’s an untestable assertion and one that I don’t believe to be true. It’s also patronizing and insulting to the reviewer.
You say you mean no disrespect to the reviewer but you also say that she “almost mechanically” recites a “party line,” that she lacks an open mind, and that she’s unqualified to comment on Habito’s conclusion that Zen practice leads to an awareness of God. You’ve said that her deep experience of Christianity (the depth of her experience) is irrelevant to the review. I wonder what you say about people when you think you are disrespecting them?
I have to say that I find your ad hominem attacks to be dehumanizing and even violent. You seem to be incapable or unwilling to allow Samayadevi the right to have her own values and perspectives, and instead you seem to feel that your own perspectives and values are the only acceptable ones (“Who is she to deny the depth of his experience?”). Odd for a Zen “Peacemaker.”
That last statement I quoted is a doozy: “Who is she to deny the depth of his experience?” Please point out a single example of Samayadevi denying the depth of the author’s experience. This strikes me as being an utterly baseless assertion.
You’ve accused Samayadevi of “bringing forth a common FWBO polemic against Christianity” and yet you have declined to point out a single feature of Samayadevi’s review that is even mildly critical of Christianity, let alone polemical.
Are we reading the same review?
Look, the FWBO is made up of an immense variety of people of differing perspectives. You say:
Well, it’s nice to know what’s going on, eh? I guess I should maybe look up the FWBO Manual to find out what my next instructions are. Oh, wait. There isn’t one! Damn! I’m an individual who thinks for himself and makes up his own mind about issues. Bummer. I guess I’ll just have to keep on thinking for myself.
You’re absolutely correct that the culture within the FWBO is generally critical of Christianity, but have you ever considered that this is the result of self-selection rather than some kind of master plan emanating from a (non-existent) head office (there is no “head office”)? Sangharakshita is generally critical of Christian doctrine and history (although appreciative of some aspects of the tradition) and so people who are attracted to practice in the organization he founded tend to have a similar outlook. But not all. Some people in the FWBO have an attraction towards some forms of Christianity (and other religious traditions, including Sufism and Shamanism).
As for the “bias against leakages,” I’m not really clear what that means. I’m a Buddhist. I don’t have that much interest in Christianity (although I have written articles based on statements by Huxley, Kierkegaard, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr). Is that a problem? It’s a bias, for sure, but then we all have our biases.
Sangharakshita, as I’ve mentioned, is generally critical of Christian doctrine, but he’s never been closed off to other religious influences. He led a seminar on an Islamic text on friendship, gave a talk on a book by the Bishop of Woolwich, and seems to feel a deep sympathy with St. Jerome, who he’s written about or talked about quite a lot. He often quotes the Bible in talks and uses Christian concepts in order to elucidate Buddhist ones (e.g. comparing the Holy Spirit to Bodhicitta, or the Christian concept of brotherly love to metta). I think you put too much emphasis on this supposed lack of “leakage.” Perhaps that’s your own bias?
A review is just one person bringing his or her experience into an encounter with a book. It doesn’t have to be “balanced.” Of course there are other perspectives and of course the “Buddhist world” offers a richer range of debate than one person’s perspective does. The Buddhist world is a lot of people! A reviewer is not supposed to present some kind of survey of the sum total of possible Buddhist responses to a book — the reviewer is giving his or her personal response. You seem to have problems with this.
I must say that I see what I can only call a totalitarian streak on your writing. You treat other people not as individuals but merely as mouthpieces “mechanically” repeating what an organization is “propagating.”
You appear to deny the right of a reviewer even to assess the central contention of a book (“the review of such a book isn’t a place for giving your own view of whether it is possible to be both a Christian or a Zen Buddhist”).
You deny the right of an individual practitioner to question authority (“Who is she to deny the depth of his experience?”).
You indulge in ad hominem arguments in order to belittle someone you disagree with.
I find all this very sad, and I hope you find the peace in your life that allows you to let people have opinions contrary to your own without feeling that you have to denigrate and slander them.
You’ve also questioned my own motivation in asking Samayadevi to write this review (although incidentally I asked her because she’s an intelligent and thoughtful woman), and implied that I’m being “dishonest” (by which you seem to mean I’ve not posted some kind of disclaimer on my own website accusing myself of bias). I don’t find this very friendly or “peace-making” and your signing your comments with the word “love” seems, well, pretty bizarre.
I’m sorry, you seem to have taken my first email a lot more strongly than I intended it. I added the words “to niggle slightly” and signed off “with kindly mischief” to hopefully stress that my comments weren’t meant too strongly- I’m sorry too if my use of the word “mechanical” seemed too strong- i was using it more in terms of Sangharakshita’s “mind reactive” rather than as a personal attack on the reviewer- I have many, many reactive patterns in my mind , as I’m sure do we all! Actually my niggle in the first place was not in the review as a whole- is is interesting- but in your summary of the review before the reader even begins, because you draw stress to her rejection of the book’s central message more than she does.
You can happily remove both my initial and follow up comments if you feel they read too strongly.
As for my criticisms of the FWBO- let me stress, I think the FWBO is a fantastic movement, with a solid, wonderful, dynamic Buddhist core supported by its visionary and venerable founder, Sangharakshita. However, it has had several down-sides over the years, which happily have now just about been cleared away like the cobwebs they were… or like a teenager progressing through its teenage years into adulthood.
It is a matter of public and internal record that a coersive and somewhat manipulative attitude towards divergent views within the Order and those seeking ordination was a problem back then, so I don’t need to go into that, and I will publically say that as an outside observer now that all seems to have happily changed. Which proves it was never a core fault in the FWBO, just teething pains. However, i can’t go into depth as to how this relates to my criticism of this review without making detailed comments of my own knowledge of things that have been said and done, which I have NO wish to do… my original posting was just a plea for a fresher, more open-minded approach, not a wish to start criticising the FWBO in depth!
Also, I don’t mean that this review shows an FWBO polemic against Christianity (although there was one for many years!) I mean a polemic against correlations between Buddhist and Christian practice and experience… there certainly was strong one in the past, and from your comments to me it seems not to have changed, although I take your point about self-selection!
To give an example of this- I was told when becoming a mitra that if a mitra started going along to Christian church services, that would be a strong reason to remove them as mitras. It would be one thing to say that if a mitra started going to church INSTEAD of going to the Buddhist centre, but back then it was a bit more totalitarian in terms of what I called “leakages” (ie. a similar attitude was held towards visiting other Buddhists groups or questioning Sangharakshita’s views on other Buddhist traditions)
So- I think it would be better if you remove all of this, because I certainly don’t want any reader to read my words to you or about this review and go away with a bad impression of the FWBO. Perhaps we could communicate in private rather than public (you have my email with this posting) and clear up our respective wordings, so we don’t relate unclearly to each other. I mean you no disrespect, even whilst I am questioning how far you are perpetuating what I still would call a “party line”. I can question one aspect of your otherwise excellent website surely without coming across as “violent”?
Once again, and genuinely, with love and respect (I do respect you personally very greatly),
You say you didn’t intend your comments to be taken strongly. I can believe that, but I then I also have to believe that you suffer from an unawareness regarding the use of words, or perhaps an unawareness of your emotional intent. To use ad hominen attacks, to dehumanize a person you’re criticizing by suggesting that the views they express are not in fact theirs, but are some kind of “party line,” “mechanically” repeated, to refuse to engage with points that are directed at you, — those are violent actions. I have to think (if you do in fact intend to be playful) that you are simply blundering through life with little awareness of your actions, or that you are simply unaware of how disrespectful you are of others.
I’ve several times asked you to justify your use of the word “polemical” (which means strongly attacking) by citing a single example of polemical speech by either Samayadevi or myself, and you’ve failed to do so. I assume that you don’t reply to these points because you have no evidence, and because you are unwilling to admit that you are mistaken. But you’ve chosen not to engage with what I say.
As far as the mitra thing goes, the original intent of the mitra system was that a mitra (“friend”) was someone who had decided that they were a Buddhist, rather than a Christian, Jew, Muslim, etc, and that they had also decided that the Buddhist tradition in which they wanted to practice was the FWBO. In other words it was the recognition of a path already chosen, rather than an attempt to close off other paths to an individual. There was nothing even vaguely “totalitarian” (as you put it) in the intent (the execution is a different matter). If someone became a mitra and subsequently decided that they were in fact a Christian or some kind of Christian/Buddhist mix, then that called into question whether the person was actually a Buddhist, and because most people in the FWBO take the entirely orthodox position that it doesn’t actually work to be an atheist and a theist simultaneously, it became questionable whether that person could still be regarded as a Buddhist and therefore as a mitra. It’s possible for some (remarkable) people to deeply explore more than one spiritual path, but most people end up simply dabbling and are confused.
However, there was an unpleasant edge to the old mitra system because of the “judging” that we had to do in order to decide whether someone was in fact sincerely a Buddhist and whether they had in fact settled on the FWBO as the tradition in which they wanted to practice. We ended up, quite unintentionally, in a “policing” role that was not at all pleasant.
So quite some time ago (maybe seven or eight years?) we decided to make the “status” of a mitra self-defining. If someone wants to regard themselves as a Buddhist we’re happy to accept that self-definition. If they happen to be drawn to another spiritual tradition and, for example, they attend church, then that’s fine. I personally believe that there are strong contradictions and confusions involved in so doing, but I believe also that those things will come out in the wash of practice.
I wonder if you’re at all aware of the contradictions within that statement. You assume that I’m following a “party line” (that is, that I lack integrity and the words I say are the words I’m told to say rather than my own thoughts and opinions) and merely wonder “how far” this goes. But you mean no disrespect!
For the record, I’ve been an atheist since I was 11 or 12 years old, which was a long time before I encountered the FWBO or even Buddhism. It was a relief for me to encounter the notion in Buddhism that there is in fact no god and yet it’s possible for us as human beings to be deeply spiritual (the Buddha’s “party line”?) And if my beliefs — that there is no God, that Christianity while containing much of value also perpetuates delusions, and my conviction that Buddhism and Christianity are, for the most part and quite fundamentally, mutually exclusive paths — predate my involvement with the FWBO, then I wonder how this “party line” works. Did some agent from the FWBO reach back in time, reach into my mind, and subtly tweak my thoughts? That seems unlikely (to me at least). It seems more reasonably to assume that my views are in fact my own views, and not others’ views that I am merely repeating out of group loyalty, and that I’ve simply chosen (as I believe you, in all likelihood, have also chosen) to practice with people who, on the whole, have a similar outlook to myself.
May you find peace.