Why Should Anyone Study Buddhism?
Paul O. Ingram
Pacific Lutheran University (Emeritus)
If you are interested in Buddhism and Christianity you might also enjoy This is Mind and This is Buddha,
Why are Christians Turning to Buddhism?, All is Void and there is no Buddha, and Can a Christian be a Buddhist, Too?
More years ago than I like to remember, I had my first encounter with Buddhism in an undergraduate survey course in History of Religions. The course’s instructor was Ronald M. Huntington, an artist of a teacher who was also a musical artist as well as a rigorous academic who introduced students to the world’s religions in a way I tried to imitate in my own courses in History of Religions in general and in courses in Buddhism in particular. When he lectured on Hinduism or Buddhism, one would swear he was a committed Hindu or Buddhist. The same experience happened to his students when he was lecturing on Islam or Judaism or Daoism or Confucianism or Aboriginal traditions. He accomplished all this with an academic rigor I tried to emulate in my own work with students. It was Huntington, a Christian, whose introductions to the world’s religions aroused in me an interest in the Buddha and Buddhism that continues to this day.
Of course, I can speak only for myself, but my academic study of both Christianity’s and Buddhism’s worldviews has been creatively transforming for several reasons. First, the Buddha’s teaching about interdependence has helped me apprehend that Christian faith also rests squarely on the reality of interdependence. Nothing is separated from any other thing or event. We define who we are through webs of interdependent relationships: with family, friends, human beings we care about, both living and dead, with human beings we don’t know or who injure other human beings; with all life forms with whom we share Planet Earth, with every atom and subatomic particle in the universe because, as cosmologist Carl Sagan put it, “we are all star stuff.” And for is one who is a Christian, God is so incarnated within all things and events—past, present, and future—that no thing or event is ever separated from God or anyone or anything else in the universe, at least according to the Prologue go the Gospel of John.
Second, the Buddha’s teaching regarding non-self rings a truth that crosses religious boundaries. We are not permanent substantial “selves” or “souls that remain self-identical through time. We are a continuing series of interdependent relations, none of which are permanent. Clinging to permanent selfhood in any form is the cause of the First Nobel Truth: all existence is suffering. So we must learn not to cling to permanence in any way, shape, or form, which Buddhists are instructed to train themselves to accomplish by the “skillful means” of numerous forms of meditation. The Buddhist doctrine of non-self helped me apprehend that nowhere in the New Testament is there any notion that human beings possess a permanent substantial soul that survives the death of the physical body, a notion that originates in the substance metaphysics of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy through which theologians from the third century on interpreted the New Testament.
Of course I have only briefly noted what I understand is the value of my academic study of Buddhism and Christianity. Nor have I exhausted my description of Buddhism’s influence on my theological reflections or the way I view life, all of which have originated in an intense academic encounter with the Buddha’s Way that is still ongoing. But building on the preceding paragraphs, I will sketch my reasons for concluding that the academic study of Buddhism is of supreme importance for practicing Buddhists. But it must be kept in mind that I am not arguing that non-academic motivated followers of the Buddha’s Way are second-class practitioners of the Buddha’s Way.
First, all the religious Ways that have engaged human commitment presuppose particular worldviews that are assumed by a religious tradition’s specific teachings and practices. The basics of Buddhism’s world view are the doctrines of universal suffering, impermanence, and non-self (the Three Marks of Existence) all of which the Buddha summarized in the Four Nobel Truths and which are interpreted in an amazing collection of Buddhist schools that have evolved over twenty-five hundred years. None of the traditions and schools of Buddhism interpret Buddhism’s originating worldview identically because they evolved in quite different cultural and historical contexts other than that in which the Buddha lived and taught. Here lies the source of the amazing pluralism inherent in the history of Buddhism.
This situation is similar to Christian pluralistic teaching regarding the significance of the historical Jesus confessed to be the Christ of faith. Just how many Christological doctrines exist in Christian theological reflection and practice, the vast majority of which do not conform to the historical Jesus’ own religious practice and self-understanding? Just how many versions of “Jesus as the Christ” are there? Similarly, how many versions of the historical Buddha and the Buddha of faith and practice are there? Which of these historically and socially constructed “Buddhas of faith and practice” most closely reflect the life and teachings of the historical Buddha. Answering this question requires that students of Buddhism and Buddhist practitioners engage in a serious academic study of Buddhism that focuses on the historical development of the central teachings of the Buddha in his context twenty-five hundred years ago. Such academic study can be liberating because it frees followers of the Buddha’s Way from clinging to any image of the historical Buddha or from absolutizing any particular Buddhist system of practice. Or in the words of a number of Zen teachers I have encountered, clinging to a socially constructed image of the Buddha is “killing the Buddha.” The same is true when one clings to a particular practice or system of meditation. Which leads to my second point.
The central “skillful method” by which the Buddha instructed his monastic and lay followers to achieve Awakening” was the practice of meditation. But the exact elements of the Buddha’s own meditational practices are unclear, although he probably practiced some form of Yoga. The point is that because meditation is absolutely necessary for the attainment of Awakening—with the possible exception of Japanese Jōdō Shinshū (True Pure Land School). The sort of experience engendered by meditation is one in which the sense of all duality—subject-object, good-bad, male-female, pleasure-pain, good-evil, self-other—disappears for a brief moment of time. Judging from how numerous Buddhist texts describe Awakening and how eminent Buddhist masters describe it, Awakening is an absolutely contentless experience that transcends the ability of language to capture. Such experiences are encountered in all the world’s religious traditions, in Christian tradition generally referred to as “apophatic” or “unitive mystical experiences.”
But here’s the hiccup. Anyone practicing meditation receives from that pracrice what a particular tradition teaches one to expect receive in the practice of meditation. That is, if persons actually achieve such a unitive experience by means of meditation, they interpret the meaning of this experience according to the tradition that trains them. After all, Zen Buddhist nuns do not normally experience union with “”Christ the Bridegroom.” Nor do Benedictine nuns experience “Emptying” or Sartori through the practice contemplative prayer. Religious human beings receive from a religious practice like Buddhist mediation or Christian contemplative prayer what that particular tradition trains them to expect to experience. Interpretation is always part of what a person experiences through either Buddhist traditions of mediation or Christian traditions of contemplation. There is no such thing as an uninterpreted experience. So if one experiences a unitive experience like that apparently involved in the experience of Awakening, one understands the meaning of that experience in terms of what that he or she expects before the experience occurs and as well as after he or she has experienced it.
This fact makes it absolutely necessary to engage in serious academic study of Buddhist meditational traditions as well as Christian contemplative traditions. Buddhists living in the twenty-first century live and experience in different historical-cultural contexts than Buddhists in the 6th century BCE. The achievement of Awakening now is not identical with the Buddha’s experience of Awaking twenty-five hundred years ago. My point is not that what Buddhist traditions preserve as the Buddha’s meditative experience and his interpretation of its meaning should not serve as a guide for Buddhists today. My point is that the tradition is only a guide, not something to cling to or absolutize in a manner similar to how Christian fundamentalists absolutize doctrines about the historical Jesus. Traditions are a guide for practice that must be applied to the different circumstances in which contemporary Buddhists find themselves. An academic study of Buddhism and Christian tradition undercuts clinging to Buddhism or Christian tradition. Or as Masao Abe one told me, we should not “stink of Buddhism or Christianity.”
But an academic study of the Buddha’s Way also enables one to see through ideas and practices posing as Buddhist, but which are not. As there is much religious snake oil posing as “Christian” (for example most forms of Christian fundamentalism), so there exist forms of religious snake oil posing as “Buddhist.” I hope the following account of an event that took place during an international conference on the Lotus Sutra in Japan in 2001 hosted by the lay Buddhist group Risshō Kōseikai (Society for the Establishment of Righteousness and Harmonious Interchange) will clarify what I mean.
The conference attendees were invited to a Sunday morning service at a local Risshō Kōsei Kai kyōkai, or “church.” The congregation was seated in neat, straight rows
on tatami mats separated by an aisle, while we as visitors sat in chairs in the rear. The service began when the minister, dressed in a black robe, entered as a group of young people processed down the aisle singing hymns praising the Lotus Sutra. (Many Japanese Buddhist lay groups picked up the Protestant flavor of this service from missionaries in the nineteenth century.)
Prior to his sermon, the minister invited a middle-aged woman to give her testimony. She tearfully recounted the conditions of her life prior to her conversion to Buddhism because of the influence of Risshō Kōsei Kai missionaries in her neighborhood: her experiences of physical and emotional abuse by her husband, her long years of drug addiction, her rejection by her children and relatives, her life of poverty as a prostitute. But after she converted to Buddhism, she said, her “negative karma was turned into positive karma:” her husband no longer abused her, she recovered from drug addiction, her children and family now love her, and she no longer engaged in prostitution to make financial ends meet for her family. In other words, this woman blamed herself for her own abuse.
But then in a long sermon in Japanese, so did the minister. As I sat listening to his rather sharp condemnation of the woman’s life before she became a member of Risshō Kōsei Kai, reconfirming the woman’s blame for her own abuse, I whispered to my friend, Mark Unno, “Am I hearing this correctly?”
Mark, who is a Pure Land Buddhist and an important scholar of Buddhist tradition, whispered, “Yes! Shut up!”
After the service ended, we were invited to meet the minister for tea and pastries. Mark went directly to the minister and dressed him down for using Buddhism in such a patriarchal and sexist manner to condemn a very troubled woman whose husband and the other men in her life had so wrongly abused her. “She was not responsible for her abuse,” he told the minister.
According to my worldview, while the testimony of this woman might have been a story of her experience of creative transformation, I also witnessed the power of creative transformation in the prophetic words and actions of a Buddhist scholar and friend. Christian tradition has too often been a source of oppression, blaming women for the abuse received from male clergy and from laymen. Sadly, sexism is rampant in all the world’s religious traditions.
Finally, the main reason for academically studying the twenty-five hundred-year history of the Buddha’s Way is that it leads one, often in surprising ways, to experiences of creative transformation. There is immense satisfaction in intellectually comprehending the nuances, movements, philosophical debates, the origins of the various schools of Buddhism and the practice traditions of these schools, the interdependence between doctrinal teachings and what to look for in the practice of meditation, the connections between Buddhism’s evolution and its creative influences in the history and politics of the cultures in which Buddhism has taken root—and the list goes one. As I noted above, there is immense intellectual satisfaction in the academic study of any religious tradition. The more one comprehends a religious tradition’s history the less parochial and self-centered one’s own faith and practice becomes. This is true whether one is a Christian, Jew, Muslim—or Buddhist.
 Risshō Kōsei Kai was founded in 1938 by Naganuma Myōkō (1889-1957) and Niwano Nikkyō (1906-1999) to spread Nichiren’s teachings about the Lotus Sutra.