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Jesus and Buddha as Brothers
Mark Burlingame with reflections by Larry Reimer
Larry: I first met Mark and Julie Burlingame fifteen years ago when they were a young couple who had just come to Florida from Minnesota. They cared for our children while we were away on high school overnights. They helped with the youth group and chaperoned our ski trips. They are fantastic skiers.
Both Mark and Julie take their faith very seriously. Julie has preached beautiful sermons, the last one reflecting on the Psalms. Today Mark will share how Buddhism and Thich Nhat Hanh have shaped his spiritual journey. Thich Nhat Hanh is one of the gifted teachers of our time. I first encountered him in his book, Lotus in a Sea of Fire, which he wrote when he was a monk in Vietnam during the height of the war. He moved Buddhism out of the monastery into the communities to work for peace and justice and founded what is now known as "Engaged Buddhism."
Listen to the ways the melodies of Buddhism and Christianity both play in the fugue of Mark's faith. Listen to how the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh not only open Mark to new dimensions of truth but also send him deep into the traditions of his Christian heritage.
Mark: In September of 1999 I was in an airplane on my way to Vermont to attend my first retreat with Thich Nhat Hanh. The woman sitting next to me began telling me about her near death experience and how she had seen Jesus and was now certain that Jesus was "The Way". Soon the subject of conversation turned to me and she learned that I was a member of a Christian church on my way to a retreat led by a Vietnamese Buddhist monk. It was clear to me she had a very difficult time with this idea. However, looking back at this moment, I realize that the difficulty in understanding wasn't hers alone. Did I actually believe this woman had visions of Jesus? Each of us was quite certain that our spiritual path was the right one!
In the book "Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers", Thich Nhat Hanh says, "When we believe something to be the absolute truth, we are closed. We are no longer open to the understanding and insight of other people, and this is because the object of our faith is just an idea, not a living thing. But if the object of your faith is your direct experience and your insight, then you can always be open. You can grow every day in your practice, in sharing the fruit of your practice, and in making your faith, love, and happiness grow." I realize that every single one of us has a unique way of seeking new dimensions of truth and that if I can be open, I will grow in my spiritual life, which to me, is all of life including family life and work life. I have the good fortune of being able to be here with Larry and share with you dialogue about a path of seeking new dimensions of truth that has been very meaningful for me. A path that embraces Christian and Buddhist practice. A path that has brought me to this moment which I never could have imagined fifteen years ago when I joined UCG!
The Buddhism I speak of is based upon the teaching and practice of Thich Nhat Hanh (who I will refer to as "Thay" which is Vietnamese for "teacher"), a Buddhist monk who has been exiled for more than thirty years from his native Vietnam and who has established monastic communities in Plum Village in France, in Vermont in the U.S., and is helping establish another community in California. Today, I wish to share a few of Thay's teachings from the books "Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers"; and "Living Buddha, Living Christ". I wish to touch on the themes of embracing our spiritual ancestors, the importance of Sangha (Community of Practice), and spiritual practice as day-to-day life and action. These are teachings that, for me, not only provide meaningful insight, but also a meaningful way to be in the world.
From the book "Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers":
"We have blood ancestors but we also have spiritual ancestors. If you were born in the West there is a big chance you are a child of Jesus and that you have Jesus as your ancestor. Jesus is one of many spiritual ancestors of Europeans. You may not consider yourself a Christian, but that does not prevent Jesus from being one of your spiritual ancestors because your great-grandfather might have been a good Christian. He has transmitted to you the seed, the energy, the love, and the insight of Jesus. If you do well, you will be able to help this energy to manifest within yourself."
And from the book "Living Buddha, Living Christ":
"Before I met Christianity, my only spiritual ancestor was the Buddha. But when I met beautiful men and women who are Christians, I came to know Jesus as a great teacher. Since that day, Jesus Christ has become one of my spiritual ancestors. As I have mentioned, on the altar of my hermitage in France, I have statues of Buddhas and bodhisattvas and also an image of Jesus Christ. I do not feel any conflict within me. Instead I feel stronger because I have more than one root."
Thay talks a lot about being in touch with our ancestors. Not only our blood ancestors but also our spiritual ancestors. These teachings have provided me with a greater appreciation for my Christian heritage and practice.
The first time I had the true realization that it was okay to have a spiritual practice rooted in Christianity and Buddhism, I thought to myself "Wow"! Of course, in UCG we have always welcomed people with different religious backgrounds. But it had never really sunk in that I could have a spiritual practice based upon more than one religious tradition. When I first began exploring practice in the Buddhist tradition, my mind struggled with some conflict. Would I need to reject Christianity in order to develop a meaningful Buddhist practice? And perhaps I considered Buddhism to be a more authentic spiritual practice because of my perceptions that Christianity was more dogmatic and inflexible than Buddhism?
What I hear Thay say is that there is no conflict in having a spiritual practice rooted in Christianity and in Buddhism. And I hear Thay say that is important to touch deeply my Christian roots. And that these roots are inside me whether I know it or not. Even if I think I have no spiritual roots or spiritual heritage to touch. The positive seeds of my spiritual heritage have been transmitted to me through my ancestors and will manifest when I practice deeply. And what a better place to do that than right here at UCG!
Sangha (Community of Practice)
From the book "Living Buddha, Living Christ":
"In Christianity, the church is the crown of the path of practice, the true authority. It is often said that there is no salvation outside the church. In Buddhism, a Sangha is a group of monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen who practice together to encourage the best qualities in each other. Some Buddhists respect only the Holy Sangha, the actual disciples of the Buddha during his lifetime. But they are already gone. To me, to practice with the Sangha means to practice with those who are with you now and with those you love. It may not be a Holy Sangha, but if it moves in the direction of transformation, it is a real Sangha. We do not need a perfect or a Holy Sangha to practice. An imperfect Sangha is good enough. We can help build and improve the Sangha by practicing mindfully, step by step, encouraging each other. There is a saying: If a tiger comes down off his mountain and goes to the lowlands, he will be caught by humans and killed. It means if a practitioner leaves his or her Sangha, it becomes difficult to continue the practice. Taking refuge in the Sangha is not a matter of devotion. It is a matter of practice."
How many of you have had the experience of attending a wonderful retreat where you come home, you're feeling good, you're ready to make significant change in your life; only to have these good feelings and good intentions dissipate within a few days and pretty soon you are right back to where you were before the retreat?
Another subject that Thay often discusses is the "Sangha" or "Community of Practice". During much of my life, I have been someone who has wanted to do things on my own. And our western culture has reinforced ideas of individualism and independence. But Thay makes it very clear that it is very difficult if not impossible to cultivate my spiritual practice without the support of a Sangha. I realize how important UCG is to me as a Sangha and how important it is for me to be a part of this community of practice not just on Sundays but also in my daily life. It has been my experience that with the support of the Sangha, transformation is possible.
Spiritual Practice as Day-to-Day Life. Spiritual Practice as Action.
From the book "Living Buddha, Living Christ":
"The living teaching expressed by the lives of the Buddha and Jesus should always be the models for our practice. The sutras are not the living teachings of the Buddha. To receive the true teaching, we must emulate the life and work of the Buddha himself. The same is true of Christianity. The Gospels in their written or even oral form are not the living teaching of Jesus. The teachings must be practiced as they were lived by Jesus."
And from the same book:
"Looking deeply does not mean being inactive. We become very active with our understanding."
And again from the same book:
"Buddhist and Christian practice is the same - to make the truth available - the truth about ourselves, the truth about our brothers and sisters, the truth about our situation. This is the work of writers, preachers, the media, and also practitioners. Each day, we practice looking deeply into ourselves and into the situation of our brothers and sisters. It is the most serious work we can do."
When I first encountered Buddhist meditation, my perception was that the Buddhist practitioner must retreat from society into isolation in an attempt to become enlightened. And I have to admit, the retreating from society part sounded pretty good to an introvert like myself. Then I encountered the practice of Thich Nhat Hanh. Boy, was I wrong about the retreating from society part! I have learned meditation is an important practice. The practice of stopping and looking deeply can bring about insight and help cultivate the energy of mindfulness. But my spiritual practice doesn't stop when I leave the meditation cushion or when I leave church on Sunday. The most important practice is my day-to-day, moment-to-moment practice with my wife who is telling me about her day; with the veteran at my work who is frustrated because he hasn't yet received medication for his arthritis pain; with the laughing children in our neighborhood; with the croaking frog in the backyard pond; with washing the dishes. It is my day-to-day practice that will help me realize the truths proclaimed by my religious heritage.
And it is insight that allows me to transform my actions so that maybe there is just a little bit more peace and joy in the world. Perhaps I will smile more. Perhaps I will find a word of kindness instead of sarcasm for my spouse. Perhaps I will find the courage to take a stand, peacefully, against social or environmental injustice.
I feel like a very young child in my spiritual practice. I am a novice practitioner. But I am very grateful for UCG and Thich Nhat Hanh for helping awaken the Jesus and Buddha in me.
Larry: Thank you Mark. I thankful to be in a church with people like you whose hearts are open to new dimensions of truth.
I have one problem Mark, with your presentation that continues to upset me. I can't think of anything else to say. I read Thich Nhat Hanh's Living Buddha, Living Christ, and Going Home, Jesus and Buddha as Brothers and was all set to wrap this up with a brilliant insight. But Mark, you put it all together with balance and beauty.
But since I did read the books, and since I didn't preach last week and I'm going to be out of town next week, I have to say something or one of my internal organs might explode. I will be very brief.
Thich Nhat Hanh is to Buddhism what UCG is to Christianity. He is a bridge over the troubled waters that too often separate us in faith. Jesus said that we can judge a spiritual guide the same way we judge a fruit tree. A good tree bears good fruit. When a new spiritual practice produces the fruit of valuing our own heritage while opening us to new dimensions of faith, we can see that it comes from a good tree. I distrust any religious call that tells me my past is evil and bankrupt.
I am deeply touched by the way Mark has found a way in Buddhism to enhance and enrich his faith while still valuing his Christian tradition.
I find that when my Christianity gets too busy, I am drawn to the Buddhist call to mindfulness, to honor the present without being bound by it. Meditation is good for me. But to then close my mind and heart to Jesus and Christianity would be just as narrow minded as to refuse to let the new truths of the Buddha enhance my spirituality.
Buddhism has also sent me back to realize the importance of a concrete, living human being as a spiritual guide. Thich Nhat Hanh says that in both Jesus and the Buddha we have the possibility of a spiritual home. Without them we would only have an idea, a notion of God, the holy.
Thich Nhat Hanh says that it would be good for us to picture Jesus in our prayers in ways other than on a cross. He suggests we picture Jesus sitting in a lotus position or doing walking meditations. I like that. I like the way Thich Nhat Hanh sends me back to me own faith and their opens a door for me see Jesus in a brand new way.
We need both the particular and the universal. If we stay with the particular faith of just one sacred path, we fall into its rut. If we stay only with the universal welcome of all paths with no home of our own, we drift into a love so all encompassing it touches nothing.
We have that gift in this church, a way of valuing both the particular and the universal, and Mark has shown us this in a personal way. That is what the journey of faith is all about.
Take a moment to breathe deeply. Let God's love flow through you from your head to your feet, blessing each part of you.
The river said to the seeker, " Does one need to fret about enlightenment? No matter which way I turn, I am homeward bound.
Let the journey of this week pass before you. Recall the days, their ups and downs. See them passing by as in a glorious parade.
See it as a river which takes you to your spiritual home.
As you breathe in God's Holy Spirit, offer that which troubles you to God.
Offer it for healing.
See God holding it, loving it, bearing it away for you.
You do not have to take care of this all by yourself.
Pray for what you need in the week ahead.
Trust that it will come to you.
Pray for this church and those around you.
Pray for those you love.
Let all these hopes flow like a river of peace.