Saturday, February 13, 2010

Hair Shirts

Buddhism has a lot of practices designed to take you gradually to an enlightened state or to a state where you can suddenly become enlightened (as in Zen). Some of this does exist in the monastic practices of Christianity but not as much. When Thomas Merton discovered Buddhism what impressed him were the methods, not the message. In fact, he initially had difficulty reconciling the message with his own Christian beliefs. But, he immediately recognized the methods as valid and in some ways more sophisticated. He wanted to use those methods to improve himself as a Christian. Christianity focuses on copying Jesus, which can be difficult because his practices were all quite extreme, similar to a fully enlightened Buddhist master. For example, in Buddhism they teach a gradual approach to developing compassion where you start by having compassion for yourself, then someone you care about, then a neutral person, and then someone who irritates you. In contrast Jesus’ example is to love your enemies, to give them your coat, to let them strike you, get crucified, etc. For Saint Francis the greatest joy arose from being verbally and physically abused, while he maintained a loving state in the name of Jesus.  A lot of the self-torture practiced by Christian monks had to do with following Jesus and jumping straight into the deep end. Unfortunately, for people who had not attained the right understanding this often led to confusion and being seriously messed up. So I do not think the really nasty monkish practices of Christianity are needed if Buddhism is in the mix.

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