An open letter to a Christian Friend
By Evelyn Ruut, The Buddhist Channel, Dec 5, 2009
After a conversation in which I was challenged rather vehemently to give accounting of the reasons behind the choice I made 16 years ago to begin to study Buddhism, and having left my Christian background and prior belief system behind, I determined that it might be OK if I sat down and wrote the reasons down on a one to one, personal level to try to help my friend and others to understand why I have chosen the spiritual path which has become such a big part of my life.
I realize that you are confused by my choice, and that is mostly because you know nothing at all about Buddhism, (excepting perhaps that there was once a man named Buddha who founded a religion). Well, of course it is a lot more than that, and it is a deeply satisfying, deeply spiritual, loving and compassionate faith which is extremely all encompassing.
We have no godlike super being who decides to send beings to hell, nor do we exclude anyone, even the worst of sinners can become a Buddha. Christians believe that everyone is born in original sin, and that all are in need of salvation and cleansing. Buddhists believe that all living beings have buddha nature within them, but through conflicting emotions and indulging in the 5 poisons, anger, greed, jealousy, hate, and ignorance, and thus perpetuating our suffering have forgotten how to allow that stainless perfection to be evident and foremost in our lives. But we all have it. Christians believe that we are all sinners in need of redemption, Buddhists believe that we are all Buddha's who have forgotten it for the moment. Christians believe that someone died for your sins. Buddhists believe that no matter what anyone does, you are irrevocably responsible for your own actions, and that all actions have consequences, good or bad correspondingly.
Christians believe that your fortune or lack of one, your talents, appearance, parents, circumstances, health are all at the whim or will of God in that one lifetime. If you are born retarded and lay in a crib drooling, unable to recognize anyone, until the day you die, that is your luck of the draw, and God's will for you. Buddhists believe that your fortune or lack thereof, your luck, your appearance, your talents, all are the result of past actions, good or bad. If you were a good person you will be born into good circumstances, if you have harmed others or created difficulties for others and thus have a great karmic debt, you might be born with handicaps or difficulties. It is commonly believed that the particular kind of difficulty you experience in life is directly related to the type of troubles you may have created in your past life or lives.
Christians believe in one lifetime per soul and an afterlife of either Heaven or Hell. Buddhists believe in lifetime, followed by lifetime, etc. etc etc. Each lifetime is like a grade of school to us. No lifetime is ever wasted. The ones you have loved in past lifetimes, will be present for us to love and care for again in the future. Likewise, the difficulties, your enemies and those whom you have harmed will present themselves to you again and again. Over and over, each lifetime bringing its own particular wisdom and its own experiences to your inner soul. Each incarnation is precious, and even if you were born in a horrible condition, dying almost immediately, it may have the benefit of teaching you how precious a human life is, but there is no wasted anything. No vast furnace of souls in untold agony for eons, only instead, like nature, nothing wasted, everything recycled and renewed. That is the way of the universe and it is also the way of the soul. This gives infinite hope for all beings.
The teaching of the Buddha was broken down into 4 noble truths, They are so simple and yet so vast. The first truth is that of Suffering. Life is suffering. It hurts to be born, it hurts to die. We suffer when we lose that which we want, and we suffer when we want what we can't have. There are innumerable kinds of suffering, many levels from the physical to the psychological, but its fact is a certainty. The second noble truth is that there is a cause to this suffering. Our desire, our craving which can never be satisfied is the cause. The third truth is that there is an antidote to suffering. The fourth noble truth is the path, the method, which ends the suffering.
If you have all eternity and innumerable lifetimes to be born again and again, this also has a dark side. We are essentially powerless on our own to offset the pain and misery of life. The only way out is to put an end to the suffering by ceasing to produce negative karma, working to help other living beings in any way we can, ceasing to cause hurt or pain to others. This is not so easy. It may seem easy with those who love you, but your worst enemy may present him or herself again and again in your lifetimes in sometimes very significant positions in relation to you until you are able to find a way to forgive and negate the bad energy and overcome it with love and kindness and compassion. We believe there is a reason why people incarnate near each other, usually to help each other. Even if that seems very painful at times, it is nonetheless, exactly what you deserve, and exactly what you need to learn, if only you choose to recognize it.
Christianity recognizes only human lives. Buddhism recognizes the lives of animals, plants, and various types of spirit beings, some of low and some of higher order. Buddhism feels that you can incarnate in almost any form depending on what level mentality you are living on. Have you known in your life some people who thought just like jungle creatures, predatory and selfish, and also people who are so loving and gentle and selfless that they seemed almost to be higher than ordinary humans? Look at Mother Teresa, a woman so good that she has dedicated her entire life to the care of others. What particular religion she is, what sect, all becomes secondary to the wonderful work she does. She is respected by all. There is room in my Buddhist philosophy for her, whereas a fundamentalist Christian might say she is going to hell because she is a Catholic.
Back here on earth, the enormous diversity of human existence and experience has left me personally, completely unable to accept the one lifetime theory. This belief in one lifetime and then heaven or hell, is so very limiting, that to a Buddhist it almost seems insulting to try to limit God, the whole experience of being, and all the various forms of being into such a small space. I am not a teacher, nor am I especially good at explaining concepts, but I must tell you from the bottom of my heart, I truly cannot accept Christianity intellectually in the face of all I see and have seen. I am sorry if this is not to anyone's liking, but it is nonetheless, true. There have been however, Christians who have actually achieved enlightenment according to some Buddhist teachers. Some especially who have lived within the contemplative traditions, meditating for many years. I see no problem with any one else being a christian, and I applaud them if they were completely lacking beforehand in any spiritual practice. For example a heroin addict or murderer or thief who becomes a Christian is definitely on an up-trend. Also, as long as it works for you, stick with it. When it doesn't anymore, stop beating yourself up for not being a good enough Christian and find what resonates of truth in your own mind. This is a particularly difficult aspect of Christianity I have noted as a trait indigenous only to religious practices; In no other endeavor does the consumer blame himself for product failure. Christians never tend to see the flaws in the system, but due to the belief in original sin, see themselves as the fault. If something is not working for you, perhaps it is time for a change.
For myself, I have major problems with certain other basic concepts of Christianity. For instance, I dislike very much the sacrificial principle. I find it unneccessary, irrelevant, and downright cruel for the countless little animals which were sacrificed of old, and even more unconscionable the later concept of any one person dying for anyone else's sins, as being especially meaningful to either party. I see enormous hypocrisy in all the Christian holidays, not having basis in real history, but founded in ancient pagan ritual and symbolism and given a new name. What good can possibly come of lying to ones children about a mythical person who brings them toys at winter solstice, a person who drives a sled in the sky with flying reindeer (who don't really fly), and having no basis in the history of the religion. The same for cutting down various varieties of pine and decorating it indoors with bric a brac. Other than being fun, and pretty, which is reason enough I suppose, it really has no relation to historical Jesus. No ones knows actually historically speaking when Christ was born. It was just convenient to connect it to the solstice, since people celebrated then anyway. What can rabbits and eggs have to do with the purported resurrection? Nothing. They are fertility symbols of pagan origin and connect to all the rites of spring fertility celebrations in many cultures. They just have no meaning at all to historic Christianity, and this is how Christians celebrate their holidays. I am all for the use of the pagan rituals however, since they have more historic validity than most of the Christian religion itself. Also, contrary to what many Christians believe, the Bible is no miracle book. More people have been subjected to misery as a result of the teachings of that Bible than from all other causes of human suffering. Misquoted, misinterpreted, irrelevant to modern society excepting in the most abstract of ways, and yes, edited. I believe that the preservers of the so called Bible, eliminated any books which didn't jive with whatever they might have had already, and may have included a word here and erased one there in order to keep it as a tool with which to control people and get their money. This is and always has been the main goal of religions in the world.
I see Christianity as ignoring all the other living beings both human and otherwise who have lived from time immemorial, all the sincere pagans, Jains, Hindus, Native Americans, Buddhists, Taoists, Shintoists, and countless other religions too many to name, and consigning them all to a nasty hell, regardless of age, sincerity, culture, goodness or lack thereof. This narrow view, coupled with the one life concept, leaves a very cruel universe as the creation of this cruel Christian God. There is very little redemption, very little compassion and no real hope in this religion which claims to redeem, but only enslaves its own. It claims to give hope, but only to Christians, and everyone else should go to hell.
Buddhists believe that even if you are a horrible person and die as such, you will come back again and again, and having suffered the results of your bad karmic past, with each new circumstance and each new life, you may get the chance to learn to trust again, and learn not to be unkind, but grow in wisdom and learn to love and help others instead of harm them. You may get to live ten thousand years as a tapeworm or a series of poisonous snakes if you are a really bad guy, but ultimately there is hope for all. We are taught that all living beings have at one time been our mothers, our lovers, our children. We should love all beings with that same kind of love and protection and care like a mother cat gives its kittens, a mother bird gives its chicks, etc. Not just other buddhists. To a buddhist, all beings are not divided into denominations, or into saved and not saved, or into species and sub species. All beings are all beings. All living things are sacred. This sacred view of life is very purifying, very holy, very wonderful. It includes bugs, birds, deer etc. etc. etc.
To a Buddhist, you have no choice but to forgive all those who have harmed you. You could be that person's child or parent or significant other in your next life. We all have to take care of each other. Chronological age is irrelevant. You have seen old people who are very ignorant, and children who are very wise. That old fool could be a younger soul, that little child could be a wise old being who has come to take care of its foolish young parent. This concept is hard for Christians to understand, which is hard for me to understand since Christianity is supposed to be a loving and forgiving religion, yet I have seen more angry Christians who cannot forgive than Buddhists, and more intolerance in the name of christianity than anywhere else.
An anecdote about forgiveness; When I asked my Teacher about someone who made my life miserable, I was told to dedicate all my practice to that person! To pray daily for their wisdom and their benefit and make offerings of incense and water and food to them symbolically every day on my shrine! Think about that. You can't stay angry long doing that. My teacher tells me that the greatest cure for anger and hatred is compassion. You cannot stay angry with someone for whom you feel compassion. They are the product of where they came from, and if they are unpleasant and you are not, it is because you have greater wisdom, and they have less. Thinking like this should help one to feel compassion and neutralize ones anger. By the way, Buddhists believe that anger is almost the worst kind of sin. The very worst is harming others, but anger gives rise to all sorts of misery in the world. We feel that anger is almost a mental disease to be worked against with most diligent effort. Look at the Dalai Lama. Such kindness, wisdom, gentleness. No anger.
A great problem I have with Christianity is guilt and blame. There is so much of it throughout all of Christianity. It seems to be a religion which glorifies pain, guilt, suffering, and remorse. These may have a small redeeming value in that one must feel remorse for past actions in order to remediate, but Christianity fosters remorse when you haven't even done anything. You just had to be born in sin to feel guilty. This is not constructive psychologically. I rather prefer the imagery that Buddhism provides of the gentle man who gave up all his riches and went into the forest to find a way to end all suffering on earth. To advance and evolve the human mind to its greatest potential. To teach all beings to love one another and achieve full realization, enlightenment.
Historically Buddhism is about 530 years older than Christianity, it is better documented as to dates and persons. According to the 1997 World Almanac, there are 1 billion Christians on earth, (about 80% of which are Roman Catholic) about 800 million Muslims, 500 million Hindus, and although there are only 350 million Buddhists, and they are much more tolerant. Buddhists do not make war. No person in the history of Buddhism has ever been converted by force. This is a fact! Buddha did not claim to be God. We do not particularly care if you have a God or not. All of our so called deities are people who actually lived, who accomplished great things with their minds. We honor them by using visualizations and prayers and meditations to advance our own minds with wisdom and compassion in search of enlightenment and supreme realization and to bring all beings to enlightenment. We have a vow we take called the Bodhisattva vow, in which we promise never to accept enlightenment until all living beings have been enlightened and thus freed from the cycle of Samsara, the wheel of life, after life, after life, and thus also freed from suffering. Buddhists are very spiritual and selfless people.
In Buddhism, all people, men and women are equal spiritually. In some ways one can achieve more in a certain lifetime as a man, and the same is true sometimes as a woman. I always hated the Middle Eastern attitudes toward women which seemed to bleed through into Christianity, it being essentially a middle eastern religion. I regard the Middle East in almost its entirety as a giant sewer in the way it treats women. I will not cover my hair nor will I walk behind a man, nor do I believe that a man has power over me. The major Christian churches are still wrangling over whether or not a woman can be a minister or priest or whatever. Bullsh*t. I bid a most happy farewell to those attitudes a long time ago. Read St. Paul if you want to hear some real woman hating nonsense. He really seemed to believe women to be inferior beings. Not to mention his unrealistic views on divorce, marriage, gays. In today's society he would be considered a most narrow minded man.
Most of all I love the hope and the joy of Buddhism. It is a religion filled with great optimism and happiness and expansiveness. I believe that I will see my grandmother again in the eyes of perhaps a grandchild not yet born. I believe that when my parents die and I die, that sometime in the unseen future, we will be born together again with new chances. The roles may be reversed, or not, but those whom I have loved I will love and have again in my life. We are old souls in new lives, again and again.
It is a belief of great hope and joy. The world is a sorrowful place, and it is also a joyful place. Souls leave and rest and come back again. The world you pollute now, will haunt you in your next life, so take care of the earth and the animals and the plants. Give love. Forgive. Reach out. Be generous. Cultivate wisdom, not money. All children are your children, all people are your family. Make no enemies. Make peace wherever you can. Radiate Love for all beings. Visualize universal love and kindness, world peace, whatever you want. We Buddhists believe that these kinds of thoughts have power and can effect real change in the world.
A religion is only a tool to that end. Ultimately it can be described so simply as to say that Christianity saves some and damns others; Buddhism saves all!
This is good, very very good. And that is why I am a Buddhist. I hope it has helped you to understand a little about my religion, and I also must apologize if there has been anything I said here that offended. This was not my intent, but merely to convey what I was feeling when I made the change. Lest you think it was overnight, believe me it was a gradual process, like falling in love. Eventually I one day just realized that I was more Buddhist than anything else, and made it official. The one thing I pray most is that in all my lifetimes yet to come, that I will have access to this precious teaching. To me it is the key to the cosmos.
I wrote something a couple of years ago called "Why I am not a Christian" it goes further into the issues which I found unacceptable to live with when I was making my decisions. I can provide a copy for you if you are interested, as a matter of curiosity. Since then my attitudes have mellowed greatly, as you may see with this letter which I have written today. But since you asked me why, I feel that it is important for you to have some understanding of the thought processes I went through. I hope you will realize that none of this was meant in any way as a personal criticism. If it works for you, it ain't broke, so don't fix it. It didn't work for me and this is why I felt the need to change my religion. I have never regretted it, ever.