Monday, December 27, 2010

Forgiving Hitler

The Desert Fathers personified a lot of temptations as demons. The demons try to prevent us from attaining true humility. The temptations are related to the deadly sins, which take different forms, but I want to focus on anger. Anger is a deadly sin if it involves judging another human being. Christians are not supposed to do this; instead they are supposed to love their neighbor. But what if someone is really bad? Isn't it necessary to judge him or her, so that they can be dealt with? The answer to this is NO! The demons associated with anger are very tricky, because they convince us that in getting angry and wanting justice, that we are in the right and even that we are making the world a better place. But, this is a lie. Unfortunately, Christianity does not have a clear theory about how to think about this (although it does have stories and examples). Buddhism, however, does have a clear explanation. It is that there is no self. Everyone is a momentary coming together of cause and effect. So, no one can be judged. Each action is the product of countless cause and effect chains coming together. Therefore, if someone does bad things we should pity them because they are trapped by negative cause and effect, and we should always forgive them. In this way of thinking there can be no blame, which means that everything is forgiven. Instead of justice there is the right action of reducing the amount of negative cause and effect (i.e., bad karma) in the world. This could involve strong and even violent actions, and it can involve a type of anger - that created by outrage at the suffering of others. But as soon as thoughts turn to justice and vengeance it becomes the deadly sin of wrath. Consistent with this, Christian sources distinguish between anger, which is an emotion, and wrath, which involves judgment and the desire for revenge. I have read that Dante described wrath as the love of justice taken too far, but this does not go far enough. Justice is a slippery slop covered in demons. It is best to avoid all thoughts about justice (or to label them as ignorant).

Taking responsible action is a better way to think about righting wrongs. I saw the Dalia Lama in Ottawa and I wanted to ask about anger but someone else asked, which was fortunate because it was unlikely that I would have gotten the chance. The Dalia Lama was clear that anger in itself is not bad, but it can lead to bad things. He emphasized that the world is not black and white but instead contains a lot of gray areas, so that it is often impossible to react in a perfect way, to create only good karma and no bad karma. Instead, he said we must make responsible choices with as much foresight as possible, and try to minimize bad karma and promote good karma as much as possible. He said that in his opinion, going to war against Hitler was probably the responsible thing to do, i.e., Hitler would have spread so much bad karma that it was the right choice to use violence to stop him, even though that violence did produce bad karma.

I also heard Hitler discussed at a Christian panel discussion at the university where I work. Someone asked if Christians believe in forgiving then should they forgive Hitler? The panel members all said no, that there were limits to forgiveness. I was going to speak up and argue that Hitler should be forgiven but I realized there were a lot of people there that could not hear this message and I didn't want to upset them more than they already were. But actually Hitler should be forgiven. He was just an unfortunate man who had his head filled with hatred and then through more cause and effect, ended up in a position where he could act on it. There are many confused people in the world who would do terrible things if they had any sort of power. Occasionally, through cause and effect, one of them gets into power and really bad things happen. But when you examine them you find that they are full of wrath, that they believe that they or their people have been treated wrongly, and they want revenge and justice. In the I Ching it says that demons tempt us by encouraging us to take up the instruments of evil for a righteous cause, referring not to weapons but to ideas about justice and revenge.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Christmas and the Desert Fathers

I found the first book in the series below at a used book shop and immediately bought it. The Desert Fathers are the founders of the Christian Monastic tradition. The message of the Desert Fathers is simple - humility,  humility, humility. By this they mean silence and what Buddhists refer to as emptiness. This made me think. A lot of people argue that the date of Christmas was chosen to replace a Roman sun god/solstice holiday. But I think the date has a deeper, symbolic meaning. The solstice is the darkest, coldest time of year (in the north - I live in Canada ). This is very much like the desert, a bit  desolate and inhospitable. The solstice is also the point of change, when decrease turns to increase. In Tibetan Buddhism the point between change is called the Bardo and in the Bardo is where you experience emptiness. The Desert Fathers did not attempt to stay permanently in an ascetic state, because the ascetic state is not the point. Transitioning in and out takes you through the Bardo and if you are aware of it, then you can experience emptiness, which they called the kingdom of God, or God's love, or a oneness with Jesus. Christmas, the celebration of the birth of Jesus, is all about transitions - from darkness to light, death to life, etc. A huge misconception in Christianity is that the point is always to transition from something bad to something good. The point is the moment of transition itself, and what lies in it.

Is this a historical fact? Is this the actual reason that Christmas is on the winter solstice. I just made this up but it makes sense to me.

Merry Christmas

The Sayings of the Desert Fathers (Cistercian studies 59)The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks (Penguin Classics)The Desert FathersThe Wisdom of the Desert (New Directions)

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Judge not!

There is very little direct wisdom in the bible. The wisdom comes from traditions of how to interpret it and also from the insights of individuals. This is also where the stupidity comes from. So how can you tell the wise from the stupid. The Buddha said all teachings should be tested by our experience. Likewise, Jesus said that a tree shall be known by the fruit that it bares. The bible and other religious texts produce meaningful insights only when intelligent individuals test the interpretations and find what works and what doesn't. An obvious example of a problem is when a tradition/text contradicts itself. For example, if Jesus says "judge not" and then a tradition of interpretation uses a text to pass judgement on different individuals, something is wrong. For example, the letters of Paul are often used to condemn homosexuality. This seems like a contradiction, so was Paul wrong? Possibly, but scholars argue it was more likely that one or more other people wrote those letters. But even if Paul did write the letters it wouldn't matter because it doesn't make sense. Judge not means judge not. Passing judgement on others, and even on yourself, is a sin. Buddhists should also not judge. Since everything is a product of cause and effect and dependent co-arising, there can be no judging, it just don't make sense in that framework. People think they need judgement for motivation and control, but the better way is through compassion.

Here is a very good book discussing the fact that Paul's letters were very likely not all written by Paul

The First Paul: Reclaiming the Radical Visionary Behind the Church's Conservative Icon

Thursday, November 25, 2010

How to read the bible and think about Jesus

I just replied to a response addressing a very important issue - how to read the bible and how to think about Jesus. Here are two books I highly recommend on this topic. What I said is here. Of course, since this is the Buddhist Christianity blog, I believe the best way to interpret these things is in a way consistent with Buddhist principles.

Reading the Bible Again For the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously But Not LiterallyMeeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Luke 14:26 (New International Version)

“If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.

Like the Buddha, Jesus tailored his message depending on who he was talking to. Remember, he wasn't trying to write a book, he was trying to get communicate with specific people and specific groups. In this case Jesus was being followed by a large crowd so he was trying to shock them, to challenge them. Jesus was not like some two bit tele-evangelist, trying to get as big an audience as possible. Instead he tried to drive people away, for their own good. So he gave them a teaching that is easy to misunderstand.

What does hate mean here? The hate is directed at specific relationships, that were embedded in tradition. Mother is role and a position, so is father and brother, and this is what must be hated. Not people, but roles. The roles are in you, it does not refer to other people. It is about how we think about other people, our attachments and preconceptions that put other people into roles. We are to love other people but we should hate and despise our own tendency to place people into roles, because this prevents us from truly loving them. When someone is in a role they are not themselves, they are the role. You cannot truly love someone who plays a role for you, because you see them through the role you have placed on them.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


This is a talk about imagination by a colleague of mine. Please watch this to see what I mean about how the way imagination works shapes the way we imagine Jesus, or the Buddha

Difficulties along the path

When I go to Buddhist workshops most people say their reason for taking up Buddhism is to find happiness, peace, and/or fulfilment. This motivation is good because it brings them to the spiritual path, but it will take them only so far up the path before this desire becomes a road block. I'm not sure why, but in North America, Buddhism tends to avoid focusing on the difficulties associated with the path. I have found that Christian monastic sources can be helpful here because they focus strongly on the suffering and difficulties associated with the path. Perhaps they emphasize this part too much and are therefore not very popular. At any rate here is what Thomas Merton had to say about it. Note that his answer to this question is 100% consistent with the Buddhist answer.

"- the desire which we cherish, in the secrecy of our soul, as our "heaven" sometimes turns, when offered as a solution to common problems, into everybody's hell."

"- it would be singularly unfeeling as well as dishonest for me to suggest that peace, joy, and happiness are easily found along that most arid stretch of man's spiritual pilgrimage: the life of contemplation."

"- One of the strange laws of contemplative life is that in it you do not sit down and solve problems: you bear with them until they somehow solve themselves. Or until life itself solves them for you. Usually the solution consists in a discovery that they only existed insofar as they were inseparably connected with your own illusory exterior self. And consequently another law of the contemplative life is that if you enter it with the set purpose of seeking contemplation , or worse still, happiness, you will find neither. For neither can be found unless it is first in some sense renounced. And again, this means renouncing the illusory self that seeks to be "happy" and to find "fulfilment" (whatever that may mean) in contemplation. For the contemplative and spiritual self, the dormant, mysterious, and hidden self that is always effaced by the activity of our exterior self does not seek fulfillment. It is content to be, and in its being it is fulfilled, because its being is rooted in God."

Thomas Merton
from chapter 1 in this book

The Inner Experience: Notes on Contemplation

Friday, November 5, 2010


In the imitation of Christ it recommends setting an intention in the morning and reviewing your behavior at night, in part to see if you followed the intention. The practice of generating intention is also found in Buddhism. For example, many sources recommend generating intention before starting meditation so that the intention carries through the meditation. In cognitive psychology we generally understand intention as setting a goal. Human behavior appears often to be goal directed and some believe that we have a special brain module for remembering and managing our goals. So the practice of setting and maintaining intention can be viewed as an attempt to strengthen our ability to maintain a particular goal against our tendency to switch to more habitual goals. Research shows that humans can be extremely clever and resourceful at attaining goals, but it also shows that we are not so clever at choosing goals. This makes sense from an evolutionary point of view since in the past our goals where simpler and more immediate, e.g., get food, get shelter, run away, try to have sex. So our ancestors only needed to be good at achieving goals, the actual choice of goals was obvious. Now we have more freedom but our minds are pulled in different directions by our consumer culture. Setting intention helps us to focus. 
Ritual and daily practices are meant to help us maintain intention. Meditation strengthens our ability to maintain focus and thereby maintain intention, so meditation is very important. There are not many practices for increasing internal focus in Christianity. However, there is the Heart Prayer, which is an excellent practice. A really good source for this, and also an entertaining read, is The Way of the Pilgrim

The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way.

Jesus in America

I just replied to a post on my blog about Buddhism and Islam. It is about the fact that the more conservative elements of Islam seek to define what Islam is so that they can point at other Muslims who do not believe what they do and call them bad Muslims. Now I am looking at Christian blogs about the difference between Buddhism and Christianity and I see the same thing - Christians narrowly defining what it means to be a Christian and then contrasting this with a superficial or wrong version of Buddhism. It is ironic that a lot of this comes from Protestant America. Protestantism was founded on the idea that people could work out for themselves what being a Christian means and the people who founded America where searching for a place where they could be free to do this. Ironically, the first thing they did was to force everyone to obey their ideas about Christianity. The first episode of the PBS series, God in America, provides a good portrayal of the actual historical events.

There is no set definition of what it means to be Christian. You do not need to believe that the Bible is literally true, you do not need to believe in heaven, and you do not need to believe that Jesus died to atone for our sins or that he is the only route to salvation. Many Christians do not believe these things. For more on this I have posted a number of christian sources

God in America

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Islam and Christianity and Buddhism

I was just looking at books on Islam and Christianity for the entry below this and I had difficulty finding books to support my claim that there is very little difference between Christianity and Islam. In fact there are a lot of books that say the opposite. So I am writing this to make my position clear. There is always a difference for fundamentalists because, for some reason, fundamentalists need to believe that they are right and everyone else is wrong. So let's put them aside. Otherwise, Islam and Christianity are diverse religions with a very high amount of overlap. Strangely, a lot of people seem to think that Judaism is closer to Christianity than Islam. I believe that most scholars would say this is false. Most importantly, both Christians and Muslims accept the teachings of Jesus. There are differences in interpretation but these differences are no bigger than the differences that exist within Christianity and within Islam. In my opinion,  people confuse the differences between Islam and Christianity with the differences between Arabic and Western culture.

So, in my opinion, most of what I say in this blog applies equally to being a Buddhist Muslim. There does not seem to be much on this on the web but here is something interesting I found through a quick google search, and also some books

Islam tolerates all “people of the Book,” which is defined as people who accept a creator God. Islamic law, specifically during the Arab rule of Sindh from the eighth to the tenth centuries CE, however, extended the concept of “people of the Book” to the Buddhists there and granted them the same status and rights as the Christians and Jews under Arab rule had.

Common Ground Between Islam and Buddhism: Spiritual and Ethical AffinitiesBuddhism and Islam on the Silk Road (Encounters with Asia)

Imagining Jesus

I was watching a video of a colleague of mine talk about research on human imagination and I realized that this research has a lot to say about how we imagine Jesus, or if we can imagine Jesus. More or less, what the research shows is that we imagine things by altering reality. So the more something deviates from reality and from what we are familiar with the more difficult it is to imagine. Believing in Jesus might involve imagining that he actually did magical things and/or it could involve imagining him doing magical things as part of a metaphor. Both literal and metaphorical meaning require that we use the same system of imagination. This means our understanding is limited by the limits of our imagination.

One thing that I find interesting is that there are a lot of people who believe in God but then find it illogical to believe in Jesus. Jews, of course, don't believe in Jesus in the same way that Buddhist and atheists don't believe - it is simply not part of their belief system. However, Muslims and Christians believe in Jesus. If you didn’t know that Muslims believe in Jesus I have put some book suggestions below. Muslims believe that Jesus was a messenger from God (or Allah, which is another name for God, if you don’t know that Allah and God refer to the same deity please refer to the books below). However, Muslims do not believe that Jesus was literally the Son of God, so Muslim fundamentalists and Christian fundamentalists do not agree on this, but they do agree on the virgin birth (so it’s really a technical argument about the meaning of the word “father”). Muslim fundamentalists also do not believe that Jesus is God, because that makes no sense. How could Jesus be a man and also God and also his own father at the same time. In fact, as I have pointed out elsewhere, a lot of Christians do not believe that these things are literally true either, again because it is not logical. Instead they believe that Jesus was a messenger, and that these things have a metaphorical meaning.

So here is my point, once you believe that God is real you have just taken a gigantic metaphysical leap. You have entered a realm where logic is not the rule. Instead, it is the limits of imagination that shape things. Logic enters only in that it constrains our imagination.

From a Buddhist perspective, the emphasis should be on that which helps you, rather than that which is logical. The Buddha compared theological thinking to a net that traps you. Some people are trapped in a net that makes it impossible to imagine Jesus and others are trapped in a net that makes it impossible not to. But in actuality, logic cannot provide insight on this. It is a trap.

Islam for DummiesA History of God (History Channel) (A&E DVD Archives)A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bad Buddhists, Persecuted Christians

In this story, Christians are being beaten and persecuted by Buddhists. I don't know the background but it is definitely the case that having a Buddhist cultural background is no guarantee that you will be a good Buddhist. Homogeneous cultures often include belief in a single religion. In these cases, religion gets very confused with culture. For example, people often confuse Arabic culture with Islam. In Asia, some culturally homogenous Buddhist groups can be quite intolerant and even racist. One of the advantages of Buddhist Christianity is that it forces one to sort out what is culture and what is the essence of the religion

Strange stuff

An article warning Christians not to practice yoga because of its connections to Buddhism and Hinduism

Crazy advice for Christians dating Buddhists

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Restaurant Theory of Religion

Here is a question put to the Dalai Lama (from
Q: Do you think it is possible to be both Christian and Buddhist at the same time?
A: I ... [previoiusly--see later] replied to this question indirectly when I said that belief in a Creator could be associated with the understanding of emptiness. I believe it is possible to progress along a spiritual path and reconcile Christianity with Buddhism. But once a certain degree of realization has been reached, a choice between the two paths will become necessary. I recently gave a series of teachings in the United States and one of these teachings was about patience and tolerance. At the end there was a ceremony for taking the Bodhisattva Vows. A Christian priest who was in the audience wanted to take these vows. I asked him if he had the right to, and he replied that yes, of course, he could take these vows and still remain a Christian.

I think this is a reasonable answer, especially if we understand that "a certain degree of realization" means a considerably advanced state compared to the average practitioner. To be a monk, for example, would require choosing a dominant practice, since you would be engaged in that practice all day long. However, even at that point it would still be possible, and I think beneficial, to understand how another path could lead in the same direction.

However, there is another sense in which religions should not be mixed. Traditional religions, such as Buddhism and Christianity, are associated with a lot of art, music, story, ritual, architecture, philosophy, etc. These go together and make an artistic whole that can promote strong religious experiences. In this sense, religions are like different types of food. Very few people would mix Italian and Chinese food in the same meal because it would wreak the flavours. But it is OK to go for Italian food one night and Chinese food on another night. It is also OK to favour one food over another. For example, in China, most people eat Chinese food every day, but I also noticed that a lot of people (in China) like to go for a pizza every once in a while.

Food of Bodhisattvas: Buddhist Teachings on Abstaining from MeatSharing Food: Christian Practices for Enjoyment

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

End of days

Another similarity between Christianity and Buddhism is a sense of urgency. Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven being immanent. By this I think he means two things - (1) that we are literally close to it, that it is a state that we can touch on now, and (2) that life is very short so we have only a short time to transform ourselves to live in the kingdom, both now and after death (more on the meaning of the afterlife in another blog). Buddhism also takes this point of view. Dogen said life is like bolt of lightning, meaning it is over very quickly. Again in Buddhism we see a pressure to transform before it is too late, to achieve enlightenment in this life. Like with the attitude toward family we see a break here with older religions such as Judaism and Hinduism (note I'm not saying they don't have this but that it is not emphasized as much)

So life is short and meditation and (real) prayer are hard. Therefore there is an urgency in these paths

It is true, the world, this world, will end, when you die. This is often symbolically portrayed in stories about the end of the world, such as Revelation. These are stories about the fact that you will die and the people you love will die. It is also the case that our civilization could end due to natural disaster and/or our own folly (e.g., nuclear war, global warming). This has happened in the past and we can realistically imagine it happening in the future. So these stories are also cautionary tales about the fragility of our society. Also, because we are social animals we care about others sometimes as much or more than we do about ourselves. These stories are also about the others that we love and reminders not to take our relationships for granted because they can disappear with no notice.

The point of the end of days is to focus on the now and on what's important. Treating such stories as if they truly portray the events leading to the end of the world is a complete waste of your short time on earth and can actually be dangerous. You might as well believe that Arnold Shwarzenegger movies are true.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


One similarity between Jesus and the Buddha was that both advocated non traditional views of family. The Buddha left his family, including wife and child, to seek enlightenment, although when his son was old enough he had him join him as a monk. Jesus had his family around him and they played an important role in the early church, but he was clear that family ties meant nothing to him and were not to be regarded as important. One clue about this comes from the Buddha's advice to an untouchable (the lowest class in Hinduism) who wanted to follow him. Because the boy had younger siblings that he supported, the Buddha requested that he wait until they were able to support themselves and then join him (which he did). This shows that, although traditional family roles have no special meaning, we should be compassionate toward our families. We are all in situations where, due to our relationships, we have much more influence over some people than others. Life (or karma) presents us with certain opportunities where our actions, compassionate or otherwise, have a much bigger effect. Therefore, we have to treat these situations with extra care. Family can be viewed in this way. It is an opportunity where compassionate actions can have a profound effect. However, it is also the case that family can oppress and damage individuals. In the past, the family you were born into determined most things and you were stuck with it. Becoming a monk or a nun was, for most people, the only way out, which was important since families can be controlling and abusive. Now many of us have the option of divorce if things are not working out. Officially, the Catholic Church does not believe in divorce. Given Jesus's attitude toward family, I do not think this is right, especially when abuse is involved. To a certain degree it is admirable to tolerate personal suffering out of compassion for others. In families this often happens when two parents do not get along but stay together for the sake of the children. However, this type of situation is very tenuous, and requires careful judgement. If the effect of this on one or both parents can no longer be hidden from the children then it is time to consider another arrangement that is better for the children. Children are innocent and their well being should always be the top priority

So here is my understanding of this - Traditional family roles are not important but compassion is. We should make decisions concerning family based on compassion and not fixed views about what a family should be.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010


Unbelievable, take a short summer break and I can't even find my own blog on google. I'll try to post once a week and hopefully this will put me back on google. Seriously, I think this is an important topic.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

christian approaches to other faiths

This is a useful book with a very positive section about Buddhism. The Buddhist part more or less agrees with the position of this blog, that practising Buddhism can enhance and clarify the Christianity for some people.

Christian Approaches to Other Faiths: SCM Reader

Monday, July 12, 2010

Present with pain

In Zen there is a focus on the moment, on being totally present and at one with whatever you are doing. In his book, Son of Man, Andrew Harvey writes,

Never imagine as your take the journey into me that there is any pain or bewilderment that you could suffer that I have not also suffered, sometimes even more dreadfully and completely than you can comprehend. So you never have to hide your heart and its terrors and pains from me, for I know them all, grieve for them all, cradle them all, am here beside and around you as you suffer them: I am in you always to call on for wisdom, clarity, revelation inspiration, the strength to weep and the strength to go on. Don’t you understand yet? I am the divine in the human and the human in the divine

In Zen one practices being present while sitting, walking, and bowing. It is also practiced in the arts and in the martial arts. But this passage refers to a more difficult level of practice – to be present and one with your pain, your misgivings, and your failures. This is very difficult to do and can be dangerous as a misstep can lead to depression and despair - there is a reason we distract ourselves from problems, losses, failures, and all of the other things that hurt us. Tich Naht Han recommends being present with these feelings, holding them without judgment.  This passage is about the same thing, but it is done through faith and identification with Jesus. By understanding that God, in the person of Jesus, has experienced failure, loss and betrayal, it is easier to do this. From a Zen point of view, the moment is always an expression of the divine, no matter what it is filled with. From a mystical Christian perspective, you are one with Jesus when you accept your suffering in the moment.

Son of Man: The Mystical Path to ChristThe Miracle of MindfulnessSavor: Mindful Eating, Mindful LifePeace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life

Friday, July 2, 2010

Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are a recent discovery that dramatically altered the established views on how the brain works. Basically, mirror neurons fire when you experience something or when you perceive someone experiencing the same thing. That is, mirror neuron systems do not understand the difference between you and someone else. In my opinion, mirror neurons are also centrally involved in deep spiritual experiences. I will post more on this in the future but the point I want to make right now is that there is a clear neural basis for experiences devoid of any notion of a self. Here is a good introductory video:

This discovery is quite literally fuelling a revolution in terms of how scientists explain compassion and love. A number of books have come out on this. I am working on a paper related to this as well. But in the meantime here are some of the recent books on this

Mirrors in the Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions, Emotions, and ExperienceMirroring People: The New Science of How We Connect with OthersMirror Neuron Systems: The Role of Mirroring Processes in Social Cognition (Contemporary Neuroscience)Mirroring People: The Science of Empathy and How We Connect with OthersAction to Language via the Mirror Neuron SystemOn Being Moved: From Mirror Neurons to Empathy (Advances in Consciousness Research)The Mirror Neuron System: A Special Issue of Social Neuroscience (Special Issues of Social Neuroscience)Mirror Neurons and the Evolution of Brain and Language (Advances in Consciousness Research, 42)Action to Language via the Mirror Neuron SystemNeuroscience meets dance/movement therapy: Mirror neurons, the therapeutic process and empathy [An article from: The Arts in Psychotherapy]