The most powerful aspect of Buddhist philosophy is its emphasis on non-attachment, on controlling thoughts, and on meditation, meaning it’s acceptance of the way things are in the moment. Because as I have learned from experience, the fundamental spiritual truth is that being alive is itself a gift, an emphasis on being “in the moment” and “present” can be very rewarding and ecstatic even. Like stoicism though, Buddhism does not seek to explicitly transform desire, like Christianity does, towards the ultimate good, but to only put it in a proper perspective. For that reason, it has its limits for the western mind. In comparison, we western Christians are individualistic (which is good if done right) and we seek to transform our desires into the good for ourselves and others. We don’t believe desire is bad, but rather we ultimately want to direct desire towards the ultimate good, which is God, and ideally like Aristotle taught, to desire the right things.
Learning Buddhist teachings can be helpful in living a healthy life, because of the emphasis on controlling thoughts and on meditation. Christianity has a meditative and contemplative tradition, with ancient prayers, rites, beads, Eucharistic contemplation, and liturgies, and beautiful sacred spaces, but unfortunately much of it has been lost and obscured by modernity. Anxiety and mental illness is such an outsized problem in America, that I think we should take any source of knowledge and wisdom we can, and apply it to the battle against stress. My interest in Buddhist philosophy is in culling out it’s wisdom for our benefit.
I have written some about Christian philosophy and teaching on my blog, but not at any in-depth length. Traditional Christianity is covenantal in nature, like Judaism, the root religion of Christianity. God made a covenant with Israel, and later with the Church, and Christians are to adhere to this covenant for a healthy and meaningful life. This type of covenant, from my estimation, though it is difficult and hard to live out, offers a joyful and meaningful communal life with God and other believers unparalleled by other faiths. What makes that difficult though is our culture’s obsession with extreme individualism, which as I’ve written about before, I believe has gotten to unhealthy levels.
I do think Christianity should make a concerted effort to re-invigorate the practices of meditation, contemplation, and silence, as well as its traditional emphasis on community. We live in a stressful, busy, and noisy world, as well as a socially isolating one, and we should use the resources we have. Prayer beads or spending time in churches contemplating icons could be some ways to incorporate meditation into Christianity. I will write more in the future about the contemplative aspects of Christianity, but in this essay, I want you to learn a little bit about Buddhism and perhaps apply it to what you’re already doing.
Buddhism started in India, near Nepal where Buddha meditated at a fig tree for 49 days in India, to try to learn how some people were happy, even amidst suffering. Buddhists believe the “monkey brain” creates suffering, which recalls the New Testament exhortations of St. Paul to not worry, or the wisdom provided by King Solomon in Proverbs. In Buddhist philosophy everything is non-permanent, so craving and egotistical desire creates suffering, not happiness, and keeps us trapped.
In Buddhism there are 4 Noble Truths – Meditation is the Key to Buddhism
- Dukkha- All craving is suffering
- Samudaya- We must become aware of our senseless cravings and sufferings
- Nirodha- We must stop the Dukka
- Magga- There is a path to follow to nirvana, or enlightenment.
Magga- There is an 8-Fold Path to Enlightenment, a “Middle Way” between desire and suffering:
- Right Understanding
- Right Thought
- Right Speech
- Right Action
- Right Livelihood
- Right Effort
- Right Mindfulness
- Right Concentration
Breathing & Meditation increase our understanding of sacred principles. Buddhist have 3 Prayers of Refuge:
- Refuge in Buddha
- Refuge in Darhma (piety)
- Refuge in Community
When I toured the CS Lewis home, The Kilns, in Oxford this summer I noticed that his brother Warren Lewis, a renowned scholar in his own right, had a Buddha statue in his room (he lived in Lewis’s home and the two were best friends). This surprised me because like CS Lewis he was an Orthodox Christian, at least later in life. The guide told us that the reason Warren, or “Warnie” as everyone knew him, kept the Buddha in his room was because it was in Asia while on a holiday that he first experienced contact with God, while touring a Buddhist temple, and this then led him to abandon atheism and become a Christian. He wanted to keep the icon there to remind him that God could reveal himself in surprising ways. Who hasn't had that same experience, when playing with an animal, watching a sunset, performing an act of charity, or listening to beautiful music or singing?
Buddhism has a lot of potential to teach us, because of the emphasis on simplicity, controlling thoughts, contemplation, and meditation. My hope is that our philosophical, religious, and cultural traditions will make more time for stillness, contemplation, and meditation. The modern world is too busy, and we are too distracted. We could all benefit and be healthier by learning to focus our minds on healthy things.
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