Alexandra Alter, Miami Herald: Armed with snacks and prizes, Audrey Bloom is trying to coax an answer out of her 17 students. ”So who can tell me what duhka means?” she asks, dangling a set of golden bells from India before a semicircle of confused faces.
”Suffering,” a handful of her adult students call out, correctly identifying the Sanskrit term. For the last hour, Bloom has been illuminating the similarities between Buddhism and Christianity at Miami’s Unity on the Bay, a non-denominational Christian worship center.
To the casual observer, the 2,500-year-old religion of Gautama Buddha bears scant resemblance to Christianity. But as Buddhism becomes increasingly popular in the United States — outpacing Episcopalianism with as many as four million members — a growing number of Christians are exploring Buddhist practices while remaining within their own tradition. Christian-Buddhist meditation groups, retreat centers, books and websites attest to the growth of the trend.
”Times are so scary that people are looking for spiritual discipline that offers some kind of detachment and peace amid all this chaos,” said Rita Gross, co-author of Buddhists Talk about Jesus: Christians Talk About the Buddha (Continuum International Publishing Group, $15.95). “People might find a basic meditation practice very helpful, and Buddhism is very chic right now.”
But spiritual fusion isn’t as easy as whipping up Cuban Chinese or Jamaican Indian.
On almost every level, the two doctrines clash. Christianity holds that a divine creator fashioned the Earth in seven days; Buddhists believe the universe — thought to be one of many — has no beginning. Christian doctrine maintains the dead will be resurrected on judgement day, while Buddhism, like Hinduism, posits that individuals will be reborn until they achieve spiritual liberation. And while some say Buddha and Jesus offer similar messages of peace and compassion, one is an enlightened sage who offers a contemplative path to liberation, the other, the sole savior.
But the glaring theological contradictions don’t impede Ruben Habito, a Zen Buddhist teacher and a practicing Jesuit, from finding common ground between Buddhist and Christian mystical experiences.
”There is a way one can, in a single life, be faithful to two faiths,” said Habito, a professor of world religions at the Perkins School of Theology in Dallas, who recently led a week-long meditation retreat with 35 people, and offered the Catholic Eucharist after the evening meditation.
Prominent Buddhist leaders like the Dalai Lama and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hahn have written about the shared goals of the two faiths, as well as Christian authors.
But it’s not just scholars and religious leaders who are driving the conversation — a quick Internet search unveils a smattering of Christian Buddhist listservs and support groups.
And Christian Buddhist meditation groups have sprung up in Massachusetts, Texas, Minnesota, and Washington.
Christians who are not comfortable in a strictly Buddhist setting seek nirvana at the Empty Bell, a Christian Buddhist retreat center in Watertown, Mass. The center, founded 10 years ago by Robert Jones, a Roman Catholic and Buddhist practitioner, has attracted a Christian base of followers.
”We have all stayed in our own tradition but been changed by Buddhism,” Jones said.
The popularity of Buddhist practice among Christians has grown substantially during the last two decades, said John Cowan, author of Taking Jesus Seriously: Buddhist Meditations for Christians (Liturgical Press, $16.95).
A Roman Catholic and Zen Buddhist who teaches meditation in churches throughout the Midwest, Cowan said it took a meditation practice to help him understand the Gospels.
‘Jesus said, `The kingdom of God is right before you but you can’t see it.’ A meditation practice gives you a glimpse of that,” he said.
Many agree it’s Buddhist meditations and chants, not doctrine, that attract Christians.
”Buddhists have a lot of good techniques, and those techniques don’t have to be tied down to Buddhist philosophy,” said Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and an expert on Buddhism in America.
It’s also a matter of convenience. Buddhist meditation centers, which have doubled to more than 1,000 in the last 15 years, vastly outnumber Christian retreat centers, making them a draw for those seeking a contemplative spiritual practice.
The Rev. Annette Jones, pastor of St. John’s On The Lake First United Methodist Church, became interested in Buddhism while working as a pastor in Houston in 1990. A counselor to people dying of AIDS, Jones turned to Buddhist philosophy, where she found practical ways of dealing with death, particularly the Buddhist doctrine of impermanence and the meditation on dying.
”I remembered from my seminary days that Buddhism used dying as an entrance into meditation and self growth,” she said.
After getting a Ph.D. in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy at Rice University in Houston, Jones moved to Miami Beach in 1999 to take the pastor’s post at St. John’s, where she began teaching a course on Buddhism and Christianity.
On Monday nights, Jones and up to 12 students squeeze into the church office to practice a form of Tibetan Buddhist meditation that includes mantra recitation, yogic breathing, and concentrating on the Tibetan letter ”A.” There’s little mention of Christianity.
”As far as I’m concerned, what has to fit is the inner experience,” she said.
Some seekers have entered Christianity through Buddhism. After 15 years of Buddhist practice, Susan Postal was baptized as an Episcopalian in 1985 after she experienced ”a reconnection with Christianity” during meditation. Postal, who continues to act as a Zen meditation teacher, said a number of her students are practicing Catholics, and several are lapsed Catholics.
Many are apprehensive about meditating at first, she said. ”When they first come to the zendo, they feel a little guilty and wonder if they’re being a good Christian,” she said. “Once they see that it’s just sitting, they relax a bit.”
But some Christians disapprove of mixing and matching Buddhist practices with Christian doctrine. Russell Moore, the dean of the school of theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., said the two faiths are completely at odds.
“Those who claim to be Christian Buddhists don’t take Buddhism or Christianity very seriously,” he said. “Christianity believes in a personal God and the resurrection of the dead, and Buddhism totally rejects that.”
Some of the congregants from Miami’s Unity on the Bay, despite their teacher’s best efforts, are still having a hard time grasping the connections.
”Buddha is a way-shower, does that sound familiar to anyone?” Bloom prods, receiving blank stares. Jesus, they are reminded, is also a way-shower or spiritual teacher, according to the philosophy of Unity.
Seated next to an altar adorned with a statue of Buddha, flowers and incense, Bloom is the picture of patience, as serene as the Buddha himself. She queries them once more.
“Buddhism sees itself as a practical spirituality, does that sound familiar?”
This time, she gets a few knowing laughs. But many seem caught up in the differences between Buddhism and Christianity. In particular, they seem baffled by the Buddhist concept of selflessness.
‘We are told, `Know thyself,’ and Buddhism says, ‘Know no self,’ ” a member of the class, LeGrande Green, offers cheerfully.
”So if you believe in both, you’re schizophrenic,” a woman across the circle mutters. Well, it’s only their second class.
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