On this Feast of St Raphael the Healer, I share my reply to an email that came from my old Buddhist community (sangha) after several years of silence:
I would like to share one of my favourite Welsh songs with you. There are loads of different versions on the net but I think it is best sung by a male voice choir so here is a nice version for you to try. The translation in the centre of the picture is a little hard to read so I’ve copied it out below.
I don’t ask for a luxurious life
The world’s gold or its fine pearls
I ask for a happy heart
An honest heart, a pure heart
A pure heart full of goodness
Is fairer than the pretty lily
None but a pure heart can sing
Sing in the day & sing in the night
Evening and morning, my wish
Rising to heaven on the wing of song
For God, for the sake of my Saviour
To give me a pure heart…
‘Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God’ (Mt 5:8).
The heart in Hebrew psychology is the seat of thought and will rather than of emotion. The pure heart, we may therefore say, is one in which the ‘citadel of the mind’ (a Buddhist phrase) has been cleansed and the will stabilised. When this state is reached, according to the Hindu-Buddhist tradition, God is already present within the human consciousness… what is promised to the pure in heart does not come as a subsequent reward – which is probably its Christian eschatological meaning – but is the other side of the coin, the complement, of the purity itself. Bring the mind into the requisite condition, and God who is already there as the divine ‘ground’ of our being, is blissfully realised.
Excerpt from “Contemplative Christianity” by Aelred Graham
Last year, I had a conversation with a Buddhist nun who I happened to see when I was driving here in rural Ireland. She had converted from Catholicism to Buddhism, and expressed surprise when I told her that I was thinking of doing the opposite. She said that it usually goes the other way. I can see why. After the Second Vatican Council in the sixties, the old teachings of Catholicism were mostly put aside, and subsequent generations of Catholics have been feeling the vacuum that was left behind. It seems to me that the Eastern teachings that are being adopted in the West now were probably already present in a different yet fuller form in the traditional practices of the Church, at least among monastics.
I’m not an expert in either Buddhism or Christianity but even novices can notice the obvious. For example, any Buddhist reading The Practice of the Presence of God would be hard pressed not to see the parallels between Brother Lawrence’s practices and the Buddhist practice of mindfulness. Plus Brother Lawrence appears to exhibit the Buddhist virtue of equanimity. Also, I believe that when Christians pray for their friends and their enemies, they are effectively practising metta or loving-kindness. When they pray the Jesus Prayer they are effectively using a mantra. When they kneel in contemplation they are meditating. See Baba Yesuda’s post for an Indian holy man’s advice on a form of contemplation which (superficially) appears Buddhist but is actually Catholic.
In a book I just read – “The Scent of Holiness” by Constantina Palmer – the author quotes an Orthodox elder who says “Christ did not come to abolish suffering, but to show us how to suffer.” Jesus teaches us how to transform our suffering by orienting our lives towards God. The Buddha teaches us how to transcend our sufferings through the Noble Eightfold Path, which effectively cultivates the same virtues that Christians exhibit as they become more holy. In “The Scent of Holiness”, an Orthodox nun recommends a book called “Christ the Eternal Tao” by Hieromonk Damascene to a Buddhist Westerner. I haven’t read this book but it shows that I’m not the first to notice the overlap of Eastern and Christian traditions.
I have also come across a few stories that occur in both Buddhist and Christian traditions as teaching aids. For example, there is the story of two monks (one scrupulous and the other charitably pragmatic) crossing a river, and the story of a slandered priest, which is called “Is That So?” in the Buddhist tradition. Now I’m not interested in speculating about whether these stories arose independently, or if one tradition borrowed from the other. My point is that the teachings overlap so much that they can use the same stories for illustration. However, I’m not trying to suggest that the teachings are equivalent. Buddhism is lacking one crucial, pre-eminent element.
I didn’t expect to find the Buddha’s teachings in Catholicism. As far as I am aware, the Buddha avoided questions about God, did not seek to be worshipped as a god, and did not like to expound on the afterlife. He was concerned with teaching people how to transcend the sufferings of their mortal existence. I found the teachings very efficacious in this regard. However, the unanswered questions continued to nag at me until I was forced to look elsewhere. Humans have a natural need to answer existential questions like “Why am I here?” and “What is the point of it all?” A lot of us have the conviction that death is not the end, and that there is a spiritual element to our existence. We want to know the answers. And I have finally found (d’oh!) that Jesus gave them to us roughly 2000 years ago.