Buddhism and Wisdom (and Lawyers)

As I wrote yesterday, I am in Malibu, where I am participating in the annual conference of Pepperdine Law School’s Nootbaar Institute on Law, Religion, and Ethics.   The theme for this year’s conference is Wisdom Law and Lawyers.  I was very excited about this conference and not only to escape the winter cold of the Twin Cities or because some of my good friends are among the other speakers.

Yesterday morning began with a wonderful keynote address by Jonathan Burnside, who spoke about the relationship between law and wisdom.  The first panel of the morning addressed Practical Reason, Wisdom and the Law.

I spoke on the second panel of the morning on the subject of Religious Traditions and Wisdom.  My talk addressed the Buddhist understanding of wisdom and how that might speak to issues of law, lawyers and justice.  Specifically, I addressed questions such as: What does Buddhism teach about the nature of wisdom?  How, if at all, do those teachings relate to, or perhaps enrich, a Christian understanding of wisdom?  And how does a Buddhist understanding of wisdom impact our view of the law and the legal profession?

One of the reasons I was excited to be part of this panel is that, by and large, the study of law and religion is a field that has been dominated by discussions focused on the western religious traditions. Theologians and legal scholars have devoted attention to law and religion in the Christian, Jewish and Islamic contexts. Only recently have some scholars started focusing on law from a Buddhist perspective. (Indeed the first comprehensive book on Buddhism and Law was only published last year.)

One of the the points I made in my talk is that Buddhism embodies a preference for resolving conflict in a way that recognizes the interconnectedness/ interdependence of all beings. Rebecca French, who has devoted significant attention to Buddhist conception of law, suggests that the US legal system, which tends to produce winners and losers, gives “little thought” to the interconnectedness of people and how the decision affects all the individuals involved in the case.” In contrast, she writes, “Buddhists believe that you can’t have closure in a case unless all parties are in agreement with the decision, and unless the whole network of people affected by the case is compensated. From this process, you have a social catharsis; you have a feeling that society has been healed.” The Dalai Lama, speaking at a program on law, Buddhism and social changes several years ago, spoke of the need to employ reconciliation and mediation before going to court.  While I don’t think this is the only, and maybe not even the most important, thing Buddhism contributes to how we think about law and justice, I do think it is something worth thinking about.

I hope to share some more thoughts about the conference in subsequent posts.


Original Goodness

I’ve made the point a number of times in talks I’ve given that it makes an enormous difference whether we view our starting point as sin or grace. A column in the current issue of Shambhala Sun (which contains my review of Brad Warner’s There is No God and He is Always With You) expounds nicely on that same theme.

We are a mixture of wisdom and neurosis. Everything we think, feel, perceive, say, and do has both an awakened and a confused aspect.

So, we are a mix of good and bad. This we all know. The important question is which we really are, which is the deeper reality of human nature. Which is more original, as it were, the sin or the goodness?

How we answer that question will define our path to becoming better people – whether we are struggling against our basic nature or trying to realize it.

What the author of the column describes as the Buddhist path to becoming a better person proceeds from the notion that it is the goodness that is more original. “The Buddhist path to becoming a better person is about being who we really are.”

Although not a Buddhist, I proceed from the same premise. If I take seriously the idea of being created in the image and likeness of God, and believe that God looked on his creation and judged it “very good,” than it is the goodness that is more original.

That means that our task is not struggling against our basic nature, but uncovering what Thomas Merton, Richard Rohr and others term our “true self.” Our task is to peel away the false layers of ourselves so that we can be who we really are.

At Present I Know Partially

I’ll be flying back to Minneapolis this morning from Boston, where I’ve had three days of book talks. Saturday evening, I spoke at Kurukulla Center for Tibetan Buddhist Studies, which was the first time I’ve spoken about Growing in Love and Wisdom in a Buddhist center.

Not surprisingly for a Buddhist center in the United States, many of the Buddhist practitioners in the audience were people who had been raised in a Christian tradition. Some others were Christians who have incorporated some aspects of Buddhism or Buddhist meditation into their practice. (One was a Congregationalist minister who was looking for language to be able to present some Buddhist concepts in a way her congregation could understand.)

As always the question and answer portion was engaged, thoughtful and left me with things to continue to ponder.

One of the things that came out of the dialogue were reasons many had left their Christian communities (both Catholic and Protestant). Sadly, many of those comments reflect a failure on the part of Christian Churches to share enough about the contemplative strand of our Christian tradition and others reflect genuine grounds of criticism of catechesis or our own failures to live up to our Christian ideals.

One of the questions that evening helped me articulate another reason that I do not identify as a Buddhist-Christian. (There are several reasons that is the case; and the question comes up often.)

Someone has asked me what I had originally found most profound in Buddhism. Before addressing the “most profound” part, I started by saying that what had first attracted me to Buddhism was the Buddha’s insistence that no one had to believe anything because he or anyone else said it. Rather, the truths he had realized were open to all through their own meditation experience. If you sit, this is what you will realize.

Coming from a tradition where, as a teen, it seemed like the answer to every question I had was “it’s a mystery” or “you just have to take this on faith,” that was very appealing. I embraced the Buddhist notion that I could know all fully by my own meditation practice.

Only as I was sharing this on Saturday night did I articulate that it is in this that I truly am no longer Buddhist. I believe firmly in the necessity of experiencing God in prayer (and not just talking about or reading about God.) But, I have also come to believe that, in the words of the First Letter to the Corinthians we heard at Mass on Sunday, “at present I know partially.” I have come to believe that in this life there are things I cannot fully understand, that my ability to comprehend certain things awaits the point at which I reach full union with God. It is only then that “I shally know fully, as I am fully known.”

A Christian Faith Enriched By Buddhism

“A Christian Faith Enriched by Buddhism.” That is the title of the blog post I wrote for Huffington Post, which which had asked me to explain in 700-800 words how Buddhism has enriched my Christian faith.

Yikes – that question occupies an entire chapter in the manuscript I have just completed on my conversion from Catholicism to Buddhism back to Catholicism. The task of distilling what I expressed in 13-15 manuscript pages into a shot essay was not simple. But I think I managed, with some success to at least convey something of both how necessary Buddhism was to my ability to return to Chrsitianity and the ways in which it has influenced my spirituality.

You can judge for yourself how successful I was by reading the whole piece, which was posted by Huff Post yesterday. You can find it here.

Focusing on Practice and Experience

I just read a piece on America’s website written by a Jesuit who was asked by a Buddhist group in San Francisco to sit with them and then give them a talk about Thomas Merton and his dialogue with Buddhism. Early in the column, the author, John Coleman, S.J., observed that “Merton who early on in his career showed a keen interest in dialogue with the religions of Asia ( Hinduism, Sufism as well as Buddhism) tended to think such dialogue should, primarily, focus on practice and experience and less on doctrine or beliefs, as such.” (The column is well-worth reading in its entirety.)

I would not advance the proposition that doctrine and belief are unimportant. But, as a meditator and as a retreat leader, I agree with Merton’s conclusion that there is richer fruit when inter-faith dialogue focuses more on practice and experience.

That is the thought behind my forthcoming book, Growing in Love and Wisdom, which presents adaptations of meditations drawn from the Buddhist tradition for Christian prayer. (The book will be out the end of October and can be pre-ordered at the links on the sidebar.)

Like Merton, I believe there is much drawn from the Buddhist tradition that can benefit Christians. As then Cardinal Ratzinger recognized in a 1989 letter to Catholic bishops issued by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, “genuine practices of non-Christian meditation” may “constitute a suitable means of helping the person who prays to come before God.” Similarly, the 2000 letter Dominus Iesus acknowledges that prayers and rituals from other faith religious traditions may be “occasions or pedagogical helps in which the human heart is prompted to be open to the action of God.”

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be posting dates and locations of book talks/signings. I hope to meet some of you at them!

The Centrality of God

I just returned from several days in New York, where I presented both an evening program on Thursday, Growing in Love and Wisdom, on the subject of my forthcoming OUP book of that title, and a weekend women’s Lent retreat on the theme of A Lenten Pilgrimage. Both were wonderful experiences.

Since Thursday evening’s program was about adapting meditations drawn from the Tibetan Buddhist tradition for Christian prayer, not surprisingly, several questions both during the Q&A portion of the program and afterward were about my conversion back to Catholicism from Buddhism. (That is a subject that will be addressed in much detail in the book manuscript I’m finally about to get back to now that the meditation book is in production.)

One woman, someone who described herself as not having given up Catholicism but who primarily practices Zen Buddhist meditation, came up to me after the program to express surprise at my return to “traditional Catholicism.” She was surprised by my mention at one point about the Sacrament of Reconciliation (the primary source of her “traditional” label, I think, since I don’t tend to be labeled a traditional Catholic all that often) and wanted to know what was missing in Buddhism that I had to come back to Catholicism.

I’ve addressed the subject of Reconciliation in posts before, and I shared with the woman some of what I’ve written here in the past. (See e.g., here.) I also shared with her (to her surprise) that the Tibetan Buddhist tradition has a confessional practice for monks and nuns that doesn’t look very different from the Catholic sacrament. I engaged in the practice many times while I was a Buddhist nun.

As to the “what was missing” question, my immediate answer was the centrality of personal relationship with God. My years as a Buddhist were incredibly worthwhile and important to my spiritual growth. But, although I never before framed the question to myself the way the woman did, what was missing in Buddhism for me was the centrality of God. For some people, that may not matter, and their spiritual lives can be complete in ways that don’t require God at the center. But not me. I came (albeit after a lot of years) to realize that without God something was missing. And not just a something that could be replaced by something else. But the something that is irreplaceable and without which nothing else could make sense. The something that defines everything about who I am – that is the ground of my being.

Maybe that does make me traditional. But, if so, that is a definition of traditional that I’m completely comfortable with.

By the way: You can listen to the talk I gave last Thursday evening on Growing in Love and Wisdom at the icon below. You can also download the podcast here. (The podcast runs for 42:33.) In the talk, I explored some of the common values and understandings underlying Christianity and Buddhism and talked about how meditations drawn from the Buddhist tradition can enhance our prayer lives as Christians.

World Religions: Buddhism

As I mentioned in a post several days ago, last week I gave a talk at St. Peter’s parish on Buddhism. The talk was part of the parish’s Adult Lenten Series on World Religions.

It it obviously impossible in a single talk to fully capture the richness of Buddhism, which has many branches and different schools. What I tried to do in my talk was to set out some of the fundamentals of Buddhism – including the concepts of impermanence and emptiness, with an emphasis on how they compare to how we talk about those concepts (or concepts close to them, in the case of emptiness) in Christianity. I also spent time talking about values shared by Buddhism and Christianity. There is much about Buddhism I did not cover in the talk itself, knowing that the question and answer period afterward would help me fill in some of the gaps.

There are real differences bewteen Buddhism and Christianity and it benefits no one to pretend otherwise. But there are also poitns of real convergence and I think there is value on reflecting on what those are. Hence my comparative focus.

Because compassion is so central to both Buddhism and Christianity, I ended my talk by leading the participants on a guided meditation on compassion that comes out of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.

I recorded my talk that evening, including the guided meditation, allowing you to engage in the meditation if you choose. With the reminder that this podcast is assuredly not “everything you ever wanted to know about Buddhism”: You can stream the podcast from the icon below or can download it here. (The podcast runs for 1:03:29.)

Fear of Other Religions

Last night I gave a talk at St. Peter’s Church (in St. Paul) on Buddhism. The talk was part of their Lent Adult Education Series, which was on the subject of world religions. Prior to my talk, there were evenings devoted to Judaism, Islam and Christianity.

I spoke for almost an hour, talking about some fundamentals of Buddhism and about some of the values and principles that are shared by Buddhism and Christianity. After the talk, I led the audience in a guided mediation on compassion. The meditation comes out of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, but is one that is fully suitable for Christian pray-ers. We then had a lively question and answer session.

I was very impressed both with the number of people present (which has been large for the entire series I was told) and their questions. As I have experienced in other venues, I saw a tremendous desire to learn about Buddhism.

But I also saw in several of the comments and question some of the fear I have sometimes seen in Christians regarding other religions.

Some of that fear is based on fear of the unknown. Not possesssing any real information about another religion makes people susceptible to some astonishing mis-impressions. One person came to me before the session asking if it was true, as one of her friends had told her, that the term “Buddha” means devil. (The answer is no – the term “Buddha” means “awakened one.”)

Some of the fear has to do with a worry about what learning about another faith might do to one – someone asked whether she should worry it might affect her mind.

When the issue came up during question and answer, I suggested when these fears arise, it would be worth reflectin on where they come from. If one is secure in one’s own faith – and trusts in God – it is difficult for me to understand how one can fear dialogue with other people about how they sincerely practice their own faith.

Based on my personal experience, I believe that leraning about faiths other than our own is valuable to spiritual growth. Professor Peter Phan, in his 2010 Santa Clara Lecture on Evangelization and Interreligious Dialogue, expressed very well the goal of inter-faith dialogue as that of

mutual correction and enrichment. In interreligious dialogue both Christian and other believers are invited to examine their religious beliefs and practices, to correct them when necessary (this is always necessary at least for Christians, since the church is “semper reformanda”), to deepen their commitment to their own faiths and to live them more fully.

Those words capture well the experience of those of us who have engaged seriously with other religions, that is, that by such engagement we learn much about ourselves and our own religions.

I hope that my talk and the others in the series helped achieve that aim, and to dispel some of the fears that may have existed in some people.

P.S. I recorded the talk I gave and will try to get a podcast up sometime in the next several days.

The Search for God

On Sunday evening, I spoke to a group of sixty 9th graders preparing for the sacrament of Confirmation at St. Peter’s parish in St. Paul. The theme of my talk was The Search for God.

Among other things, Confirmation is an invitation to begin a process of conversion – a process of moving from calling oneself Catholic because that is the religion into which one’s parents chose to baptized him or her to freely embracing one’s faith for oneself. Part of what I wanted to convey to the students is that having questions along the way is natural and not something they should fear or worry about. I also wanted to help them understand that our path to God does not always follow a straight line and that all the twists and turns become a part of who we are. To convey those messages, I shared with them some of my own journey from Catholicism to Buddhism and back to Catholicism. I spoke to the students for about 30 minutes after which we had another 20-25 minutes of questions and answers.

I recorded the talk I gave and, although my comments were geared to a 14-15 year-old audience, they may still be of interest. You can find the podcast here.

The Dalai Lama on Kinship (Not Identity) of Faiths and Peaceful Coexistence

I just finished reading the most recent book of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Toward a True Kinship of Faiths: How the World’s Religions Can Come Together. The Dalai Lama is someone for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration. I continue as a Christian to benefit from his writings, as I benefitted as a Buddhist listening to his oral teachings during the time I lived in Nepal and India. (And the fact that when I was a Buddhist nun, he was the one to ordain me, has left me with a special feeling toward him.)

This book is a wonderful and thought-provoking read for anyone interested in inter-religious dialogue and the importance of peaceful coexistence in the world in which we live.

Although there are many people who try to claim that there are no real differences among religions, the Dalai Lama is not one of them. Instead his claim is that “[t]he establishment of genuine inter-religious harmony, based on understanding, is not dependent upon accepting that all religions are fundamentally the same or that they lead to the same place.” His book attempts to both explore the convergences among world religions and to establish “a model where differences between the religions can be genuinely appreciated without serving as a source of conflict.

This is not a subject of merely academic interest. I think the Dalai Lama is absolutely correct that the greatest challenge we face today is the question of peaceful coexistence. Religion can either be a force provoking conflict or a force promoting peace; in the Dalai Lama’s view, there can not be a “true peaceful coexistence” unless there is harmony among the world’s major religions.

Although a number of his suggestions address religious leaders, he ends his book with an appeal to all “fellow religious believers.” It is an appeal we should all take seriously and could profitably use as a basis to examine our own behavior.

Obey the injunctions of your own faith; travel to the essence of your religious teaching, the fundamental goodness of the human heart. Here is the space where, despite doctrinal differnces, we are all simply human. If you believe in God, see others as God’s children. If you are a nontheist, see all beings as your mother. When you do this, there will be no room for prejudice, intolerance, or exclusivity. Make the vow today that you shall never allow your faith to be used as an instrument of violence. Make the vow today that you may become an instrument of peace, living according to the ethical teachings of compassion in your own religion. Open your heart so that the blessings of your faith may reach into its deepest recesses. To all people, religious and nonbelieving, I make this appeal.