Thursday, November 24, 2011

Alan Watts: Buddhism and Christianity, part 1

Allen Watts was a pioneer in understanding religion. He was most famously known for his writing on Buddhism but he was also an ordained Anglican (Episcopal) minister.  In these videos he argues that Christianity and Buddhism are quite different but also shows how they are related. I think what he says has validity in terms of explaining the differences between main stream Buddhism and main stream Christianity. However, it is the point of this blog that it is possible to interpret Christianity in a way that is consistent with Buddhism. I believe Watts would have agreed with the message in this blog, it is just a question of taking what he is saying a bit further.

Alan Watts: Buddhism and Christianity, part 2


People with great humility often place themselves lower than others. This is because they are aware that much has been given to them (spiritually) and they are aware of the difference between where they ought to be, given what they know and understand, and where they are. They can put themselves lower than someone who knows less because the distance between where this person is and where they should be, given what they know, is smaller. This is why saint Francis could say that he was much worse than others, when actually he was a saint and the others were not. It seems it is a rule that the further one proceeds spiritually the greater this gap is. But there is a parallel understanding that also develops. This is the humility of no-self. Ultimately, real humility arises from abandoning a sense of self. Real humility has nothing to do with comparing yourself to others. It is about abandoning the will associated with our false self. There is a lot of confusion over this in Christianity, and also some in Buddhism. Humility is not about ranking yourself lower than others, although that is an outward result, as explained above. The actual sense of humility arises from abandoning a sense of self.

As it says in the Imitation of Christ (book 1 chapter 2)

The more and the better thou knowest, the more heavy, therefore, will be thy judgement, unless thy life be the more holy

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Parable of the Unjust Steward

And he said also unto his disciples, There was a certain rich man, which had a steward; and the same was accused unto him that he had wasted his goods. And he called him, and said unto him, How is it that I hear this of thee? give an account of thy stewardship; for thou mayest be no longer steward. Then the steward said within himself, What shall I do? for my lord taketh away from me the stewardship: I cannot dig; to beg I am ashamed. I am resolved what to do, that, when I am put out of the stewardship, they may receive me into their houses. So he called every one of his lord's debtors unto him, and said unto the first, How much owest thou unto my lord? And he said, An hundred measures of oil. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and sit down quickly, and write fifty. Then said he to another, And how much owest thou? And he said, An hundred measures of wheat. And he said unto him, Take thy bill, and write fourscore. And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely: for the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light. 

This Parable is generally considered problematic because it seems like Jesus is praising a selfish person. This is one of my favourite parables but I have never seen or heard the way that I interpret it. Here it is, please let me know if you have seen this interpretation elsewhere:

In the parable the steward acts in a good way for a selfish reason. However, most of the good things that get done are done for selfish or partly selfish reasons. Consider someone who gives to the poor in order to get into heaven, that is selfish, they are no different from the steward. Even when a good deed is motivated by true compassion it is extremely rare that it does not contain an element of selfishness as well. The fact is, more good gets done through selfishness than pure compassion. In relation to this the Dalai Lama has referred to the quest for enlightenment as enlightened self interest. It is vanity to believe that you can do anything without an element of selfishness. However, we have many religious, institutional, and cultural mechanisms to encourage us to do good works for selfish reasons. Ultimately, these structures are motivated by true compassion, but in an indirect way. What this parable is saying is that a good act is good in and of itself, independent of the motivations of the actor. We are all like the steward, we are all selfish, but when we do good things it is to be commended. We tend to make a distinction between people who have internalized systems to make them do good, and people who do good because an externalized system has caused them to do it. Really there is no difference. The saints knew this and this is why, despite their many internally motivated good deeds, they did not see themselves as any better than your average sinner


Hope is a bad thing in Buddhism because it is an attachment. Hope is considered a good thing in Christianity but the true meaning is not to hope for particular things, rather, hope refers to what Buddhist call motivation. Motivation in Buddhism is based on the hope of achieving enlightenment. Likewise, Christian hope refers to the hope of becoming One with God. So really hope and motivation refer to the same thing. Importantly this type of hope is not an attachment and is not selfish because in order to achieve it the self must be destroyed. At the same time, hope is a vision of good place that can be reached

Compassion is not an emotion

Compassion is not an emotion. It is a way of being that has it's own set of emotions, which have been categorized by both Buddhist and christian monks and mystics. Compassion can be applied to another person or to yourself. True compassion does not know the difference. Religions often focus on helping strangers or enemies because this is likely to arise only from true compassion. Helping friends or ourselves can arise from compassion or from selfishness. Because it is easy to get confused it is best to understand compassion through compassion to strangers and enemies. However, compassion applies to everyone, including ourselves

The fruit of silence is prayer

Here is something short by Mother Theresa. I found it really profound. Below is my attempt to draw out its meaning

The fruit of silence is prayer
The fruit of prayer is faith
The fruit of faith is love
The fruit of love is service
The fruit of service is peace

Real prayer, or deep prayer, comes out of silence, or emptiness as the Buddhists call it. This has to be experienced, it cannot be described. So the starting point for both Buddhism and Christianity is the experience of silence or emptiness. To the best of my knowledge and experience, the most efficient way of attaining more than a fleeting experience of this is through meditation.

Prayer is the expression of the insights arising from the experience of silence. The outward expression of prayer is a representation of the insight. It is usually in language but can also be visual, musical, etc., or an action. Often we are guided by the representations of others who have been there before us. Doctrine, theology, religious beliefs, are, when properly understood, meant to provide a framework for us to correctly represent and understand the insights from emptiness. Without a framework to help us it is unlikely an individual could progress very far in their lifetime. These frameworks are a scaffolding built over many generations and containing guidelines for representing deep insights developed by individuals who both achieved these states and had the genius to effectively represent them to others (but even these geniuses stood on the shoulders of giants, and the collected representations of generations)

Faith, as described elsewhere, is a confidence that your beliefs are true. True faith can only come from direct experience arising from emptiness. When this experience corresponds directly to a representation, then one may develop faith in that representation. However, confusion can arise because the experience from within silence can move very quickly to a representation, causing the person experiencing it to develop faith in the representation instead of what it represents. In Buddhism this insight has been represented in a number of different ways. One is someone who mistakes a finger pointing at the moon for the moon. In Christianity it is expressed through the often misunderstood idea of idolatry. Today, many Christians commit the sin of idolatry by believing that the bible is the word of God. God speaks only through silence. The bible is a collection of representations that have been useful for some people, at some time, in a particular context. It can continue to be useful if properly understood, but believing the bible is the literal word of God is idolatry and a terrible sin (ironically, this is all in the bible)

If everything has gone well up to this point, the fruit will be love or compassion. That is, the unfolding of emptiness in our lives leads directly to compassion. From a Buddhist perspective this is due to a reduction of ignorance, which is what prevents us from living in accord with our experience of silence. Ignorance also prevents us from having experiences of emptiness so as we lift ourselves out of ignorance we experience more, we gain more insight into our representations and are more confident in them. Fewer wrong representations and greater confidence in the right ones lead us to act more directly out of emptiness, which is to love. The expression of silence is always love.

Service to others and to ourselves (through our practice) is the natural and outward expression of love. The result of living in this way is peace

Fitness and the narrow path

The narrow path to God is the same as the the Buddha's middle way. Like some Christina monks, the Buddha practiced extreme asceticism but found it did not work because it made him too weak. In my view there are two aspects to this. The first is the case of creating extreme weakness. In this case your brain cannot function properly and you will not have the mental strength to focus. The second case has to do with compassion. If you are too weak you cannot help effectively in a difficult situation. A weak person cannot carry a sick child or go for days without sleep in an emergency. The middle way can likened to the path of a body builder - they must eat enough of the right foods to be strong, but not so much that they gain fat. The middle way, in my opinion, involves not acting out of hedonism but tending what your body and mind need to be healthy. This is an act of compassion toward others (so you can help and not be a burden) and to yourself (so you have the mental and physical energy to focus your practice). Of course, helping others benefits your practice just as your practice makes you more effective at benefiting others. In my opinion, modern asceticism should outwardly be similar to an athlete in training; that is, discipline in diet, sleep, and exercise, but the goal must be different- not to win or to look good. Therefore, one should not engage in any sort of competition or boast and one should dress down. The Buddha said, take food as medicine. By this he meant to be healthy. Taking food as an example, the narrow path exits between indulging in desire and showing off, whether that involves being proud of looking good physically or (as the monks caution) being proud of your ability to starve yourself. The middle way strives to be empty of these things. The goal is to be truly empty

Zen, Christianity and Abiding

As in Christianity, there are different forms of Buddhism. Zen is a form of Buddhism that emphasizes direct experience over all else. In Zen they say, Kill the Buddha, or, the Buddha is a piece of poo. This is because they want pracitcioners to focus on their immediate experience and not get caught up thinking about any aspect of the religion. In Zen, one deals with one's internal struggles by sitting with them, neither accepting nor rejecting them. In this way one is released (ideally) from the pointless suffering of desiring the moment to be different from how the moment is, allowing one to transcend the problem while still experiencing it. Here are some quotes from Shunryu Suzuki, one of my favorite Zen authors

In the beginner's mind there are many possibilities, in the expert's mind there are few.
Shunryu Suzuki 

Preparing food is not just about yourself and others. It is about everything!
Shunryu Suzuki 

The world is its own magic.
Shunryu Suzuki 

When you do something, you should burn yourself up completely, like a good bonfire, leaving no trace of yourself.
Shunryu Suzuki 

Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. But unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transience, we suffer.
Shunryu Suzuki 

In Christianity this idea exists as well and is sometimes referred to as abiding. Here is a good quote from Chapter 7 of The Imitation of Christ:

it is God's to give and to console, when He will, and as much as he will, and whom he will, as it shall please Him, and no further

In Buddhism the seemingly arbitrary ups and downs are attributed to fluctuations in Karma rather than to the mysterious topic of what pleases God. In either case, one thing is clear, there is no moral or ethical formula that brings reward. However, abiding in the moment, in mental silence, brings a transcendent reward, and it is out of that silence that truly moral and ethical actions arise.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Passover, Slaves, and Kings

I recently spent passover with the family of a Jewish friend of mine. They are atheists but still do the passover ritual, in part for their children. However, to emphasize that it should not be taken literally, they serve roast pork as the main course. To me the most important part of it all was the reading about being slaves and being kings. It is very simple and talks about moving from being a slave to being a king. The Jews were slaves in Egypt. When they left they were no longer slaves but they were not actually kings. Instead this was part of a new idea that was evolving, that a person who was free was like a king. The way I understand this idea is that the essence of being a king is that no one tell you what to do; the wealth and the power are just to assure this. So if you no longer obey your master you cease being a slave and become a king. There are a lot of important religious connotations to this. In particular, in ancient societies, the king was believed to be directly connected to the gods in some way and only the king could have this relationship with the divine. The kings subjects were dependent on the king to intercede with the gods and the kings decisions were believed to reflect the will of the gods. The idea that an individual, living in a tent in the desert, could circumnavigate this and have a direct relationship with his god gave that individual king-like status. So, in some ways, the passover can be considered, symbolically, as the celebration of the ascent of this idea.

However, the part in the reading that I thought was the most important was a very short bit talking about just before the Jews left Egypt, when they were still slaves but they had decided not to be slaves anymore and therefore they were also kings. They referred to this as the mystery of being slaves and kings at the same time. This idea goes much deeper and points to a separation between worldly and spiritual status. This deeper sense of the message can be viewed as the root of Jesus's message (remember, Jesus was a Jewish mystic). He literally declared himself to be a spiritual king. But people miss the more important point when they worship Jesus in this capacity. He was actually (according to me) inviting us all to be spiritual kings, just as the freed slaves all got to be kings; just as the Buddha declared that all humans are already enlightened.

This is a good book for understanding the claims that Jesus made about himself within his cultural and historical context

Monday, May 2, 2011

Osama Bin Laden

Osama Bin Laden was not a good Muslim. He killed other Muslims and he killed innocent people, both prohibited in the Koran. It's that simple. Christians that kill innocent people are not real Christians, the same is true for Buddhists (yes, there are bad Buddhists) and Jews, Hindus, etc. It's a messy world and people get hurt when other people struggle for justice. But indiscriminately targeting innocent people as a means to an end is wrong and will never lead to a good end, whether it is terrorism or state sponsored terrorism, it is deeply wrong.

Thursday, April 21, 2011


Wisdom comes from humility
Humility comes from failing
Failing comes from striving for something you believe in
Striving for something you believe in is a wise thing to do

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Double belonging

Double belonging: Buddhism and Christian faith

Theologian reveals how Buddhism helped him rediscover mysteries of Christian faith

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Buddhist Islam

I couldn't find anything about the benefits of combining Buddhism and Islam, although it was easy to find negative stuff (e.g., So I've decided to create something about it. I went to the Islam awareness session at my university and had some interesting discussions. One thing I found very interesting was the belief that there is some clear way of defining the religion of Islam. In this case everyone points at the 5 pillars of islam. So lets start there. The five pillars are (taken from Wikipedia)

Shahada - Shahadah is a saying professing monotheism and accepting Muhammad as God's messenger

Salat -Salat consists of five daily prayers

Sawm - Fasting - Ritual fasting is an obligatory act during the month of Ramadan

Zakāt - the practice of charitable giving

Hajj -The Hajj is a pilgrimage that occurs during the Islamic month of Dhu al-Hijjah to the holy city of Mecca

Pillars 2 to 5 are common practices in many religions and many people who identify as muslim do not practice them. Pillars 2 to 5 can be viewed as common practices of more seriously religious individuals. It is the specific forms of prayer, fasting, charity, and pilgrimage that make it specifically Islamic. Pillar 1 is different in that, although it can be interpreted as a practice, it is really a statement of belief. So is there anything in there that conflicts with Buddhism. The answer is no. The Buddha did not make any claims about the existence or non existence of a God or gods. Also, there is nothing in Buddhism that contradicts the Koran, IF the Koran is read and interpreted to make it so. So a Buddhist Muslim would be someone who believes that the Koran should be interpreted in a way consistent with Buddhism, and that Buddhism should be interpreted in a way consistent with the Islam. 

In fact, it is arguably the Sufi's who first articulated the idea that all religions have the same source. According to Wikipedia - The chief aim of all Sufis is to seek the pleasing of God by working to restore within themselves the primordial state of fitra,[19] described in the Qur'an. In this state nothing one does defies God, and all is undertaken with the single motivation of love of God. A secondary consequence of this is that the seeker may be led to abandon all notions of dualism or multiplicity, including a conception of an individual self, and to realize the DivineUnity. This is completely 100% consistent with Buddhism

Finding stuff on Buddhism and Sufism is much easier, here are the top three hits

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Fundamentalism for the masses

Fundamentalism is a relatively new phenomenon. People had fundamentalist beliefs before but there was no fundamentalist movement. Instead, fundamentalism was for non-experts, the not so engaged lay practitioners. It was a few simple beliefs and a simple form of faith that worked for many people at a time when most people were uneducated and illiterate. It provided a workable faith for the masses and maintained social order. But the thinking part was left to the educated, the Priests, the Mullahs, the Brahmins, the Lamas, etc., who did not take a fundamentalist perspective.  Their ideas were respected by the masses, but this is no longer the case.

It is a very dangerous thing to have uneducated, simplistic thinkers as leaders of religions Being well learned is no guarantee of being a good leader, but simplistic leaders will always cause trouble, no matter how well intentioned they are. A friend of mine experienced this when his warm and loving grandparents drove up from the U.S. with a bumper sticker that said, “Thank God for Aids,” (i.e., thank God for sending a plague to wipe out homosexuals).

Unfortunately, we live in an age where learning and scholarship is not always respected. We don’t ask the furnace repairman to design rockets for space exploration, so why do we trust people with the same level of education to interpret religious texts. Religious texts should only be interpreted by qualified people. Here is a test. IF a leader says that your religious text is literally true AND/OR that he or she can reliably interpret it in the right way, THEN they are NOT qualified.

Fundamentalism is not bad if it is understood that it is a simplified form of faith for the masses. The idea that fundamentalist views represent an accurate understanding is very, very dangerous

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


Different paths can be chosen but no path exists that does not contain inherent suffering. If you accept a path it means accepting the suffering associated with the path, but in accepting the suffering the suffering is greatly reduced and transformed.

I hope this is true

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Jesus, Science and Logic

Wise believers can tolerate large amounts of ambiguity in their beliefs. Belief in Jesus doesn’t make sense scientifically. So you can reject science in order to believe, or you can reject Jesus. However, wise believers transcend this division. Wise believers believe in Jesus as a reality, not as a metaphor or a wise teacher, they believe that Jesus is God. Just as belief in Jesus makes no sense scientifically, it also makes no sense theologically. The idea that there is one God but that Jesus was also God makes no sense (the Muslims are right here). So again, you can choose logic or you can choose to Jesus, or you can engage in tortured and complex theology to force the two together. However, smart believers transcend the whole thing. Belief in Jesus is neither scientific nor logical, but wise believers believe in Jesus, Science and Logic

Purgatory and Suffering

Both Buddhism and Christianity have Purgatory. A place where people go to be tortured in order to work out the bad karma or sins they have accumulated. The meaning of Purgatory is very important for dealing with suffering. You are in Purgatory if you embrace your suffering, if you accept whatever suffering you have in this moment as real, unavoidable, and possibly meaningful. You are in Hell if you deny your suffering and try to flee from it, mentally or physically. The torture of striving to flee when you can't makes things a lot worse. When we suffer we want a quick escape. This is no problem if there is a quick escape. Hand on a hot stove - take it off! But when there is no obvious escape we continue to mentally thrash around with no result. In contrast, if you accept where you are the pain from thrashing around disappears, reducing suffering and allowing thought, which may actually result in finding a way to further lower your suffering. Often with humans, our suffering has no physical basis and is based purely on not accepting where we are. In this case, accepting things may entirely remove your suffering. If you are suffering, ask yourself - Am I in Purgatory or am I in Hell?


Some books I would like to read (if I ever get time!!!)


Jesus visits Ottawa to promote the legalization of pot

Monday, February 7, 2011

Demons are good

The desert fathers often expressed things in terms of the actions of demons. This is actually a very useful practice. Say I am angry or wrathful. In the middle of it I am it, I am consumed by it, but the second I realize that a demon is tricking me, I gain control and perspective, I focus on the inner enemy and not the outer enemy. The demon is as scientifically real as I am. We are both creations of my brain.

I haven't read this book but I plan to

Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Evolution and Christianity

Discussions of Evolutionary Christianity.

Evolution and religion are not incompatible. I was surprised to find that there are even fundamentalist christians who believe in Evolution

Monday, January 17, 2011

Sara Palin is the anti christ

Who is the anti christ. In Chinese folk religion you often see a little shrine in a home or business. If it is on the floor there is an old man sitting in a chair. He is the earth god. But he is not a person, he is a position. He is the god of the local earth area. Various virtuous people who passed away in different areas can become the earth god for that area. Similarly, the anti christ is not an individual, it is a position that can be held by different people. Hitler was an anti christ and so was Stalin and so is Kim Jong-il. Even in the bible, St John said there are many antichrists. In my opinion, the anti christ comes into being when a person in a position of power confuses the power of the position with their own power. In essence, they believe they have power because they deserve it, and that this vindicates any decisions or actions. This is ignorance, in the Buddhist sense of the word. The anti christ is born of the co dependent relationship between ignorance and power. In my opinion, this is how Jesus understood the role of the messiah, to defeat the alliance of power and ignorance, which he did by embodying the opposite qualities, even to his death. The idea that the anti christ is a single individual who will usher in the end of the world is complete nonsense. However, if Sara Palin is elected president I will probably change my mind about this.