Dharmavidya has been kind enough – and, we trust, not foolish enough J ! – to invite me to contribute occasional pieces here. I can’t get around to writing anything particularly thoughtful this week, but will at least use this occasion to introduce myself …
I’m a Christian (Presbyterian) minister living in the United States … married (34 years to Jan), 3 grown boys (Jacob, Ben, Noah) and now one granddaughter (Grace, born to Jacob and his wife 2 years ago). My wife is a hospice nurse. A practicing Christian, she’d probably convert to Roman Catholicism if
Let me flesh that last part out a bit.
When I was around 18 years old I had what later came to realize was a mystical experience. It grew out of significant and prolonged melancholy – really a serious depressive episode – over some losses in my life, including a suicide that devastated my best friend and his family. This experience -- in outward, descriptive terms -- happened when I was overwhelmed by the mute and mysterious scent and beauty of some honeysuckle flowers in a cemetery at twilight. In coming days that memory only deepened my melancholy, but it eventually lead to these words forming themselves in my mind: “The universe at its greatest depths is alive, and is the Holy One. A direct Encounter with the Holy One is more likely to be marked, initially, by what seems like melancholy, feels like sadness. In part that's because melancholy is a necessary layer of reality through which you have to pass to reach the Holy One. But it's also because 'happiness' is an inadequate metaphor for What you have Encountered. ‘Happiness’ as it’s understood in this culture just doesn’t go deep enough – it is too superficial, too shallow; and so only in the experience of melancholy does one find, at least at the outset, a metaphor for the Holy One."
Those were my words, I hasten to add. I was not having a “vision” of any kind, nor an auditory hallucination (no matter how real!). But they were words definitively prompted by that sacred Encounter, mediated by -- shall we say? -- the Buddha's flower. I certainly would say it that way, both then and now.
A few days later, one hot sleepy Sunday afternoon, I was reading in a book titled “The World Bible,” a compendium of basic scriptural readings from various world religions (no longer in print). In it I found a description of the Buddha’s “Flower Sermon,” in which he held up a flower and said … nothing. And eventually one of the disciples “got it” and was enlightened. My immediate thought was: Aha! The Buddha understands the message of the honeysuckle at twilight! There are some things that cannot be reached except by sorrow, and cannot be said except by mute nature!
That was my self-styled “introduction” to mysticism in general, and Buddhism in particular. In short order I learned Hindus, Taoists and Buddhists shared “something like” my experience. But for reasons I did not understand until fairly recently, while certainly I appreciated them all, I only felt drawn to Buddhism.
Years later – even after my theological education was finished – I “discovered” that there are mystics in my own tradition. Imagine that! Christian mystics: St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, the anonymous author of “The Cloud of Unknowing” … even here and there, even (gasp!) a Protestant! But Protestants in general, and Presbyterians in particular, don’t have much appreciation for the mystics; and so the mystics never became a part of my formal education.
Since then I have served quite a few churches as their pastor; coordinated a human rights network focused on “disappeared” church workers in El Salvador; engaged in some political activism, usually church-based, on social justice issues; and have done a bit of social work, although the latter wasn’t supposed to be in my job description at the time. All of these things have been important; all of them for me were and are deeply rooted in the gospel.
But at the end of the day, I still am drawn to the mystics in general (now you can add in Sufism among others about which I have learned), Buddhism in particular.
I happen to believe there is one Saving Power and Presence infused throughout the cosmos, working (in our case as human beings) to bring humanity to its predestined deification. I can say very nearly the same thing simply if I say “to bring humanity to Enlightenment” once you know where the word “deification” comes from (Eastern Orthodoxy) and why and how I use it. The Buddha is enormously important to me, even though I am not a whole lot more articulate about why than the Buddha himself was with his Flower Sermon, and just possibly for the same reasons: some things just can't be said, except by the beauty and rhythms of being itself. I need only look across the room at a Buddha figure – and I have one or more in most of the “working” rooms in my life (study at home, office in the church, etc.) – to feel an ineffable peace and sense that I am once again at Home. Very few books in my life have touched me as deeply as the “Avatamsaka Sutra”; and I devour Chinese and Japanese poetry (alas in English only) when any given poem seems even remotely informed by Buddhist spirituality.
I have known that Saving Power and Presence in Jesus, but I am also quite comfortable in saying I “know” it in the Buddha as well … and in Kuan Yin, in Tara, and in numerous other worthy and noble saints, bodhisattvas and spiritual teachers and guides. I often say these days that, just as John the Baptist was the forerunner of Messiah for Jewish people, “John the Buddhist” was and is the forerunner of Messiah for me. And there are days, many days, when I’m not so sure but what it’s actually the other way around.
What I’m going to do here is this: write an occasional piece on various topics or issues from a Christian perspective, but always invite you all to fill out -- and even correct -- that perspective to be filled out by your Buddhist perspectives. I’ll offer comparisons and contrasts between our traditions, at least as I (a rank amateur!) see them … I’ll covet any and all dialogue … and I’m sure I’ll have a ton of questions of my own about Buddhism in general, Pure Land in particular, and am so eager to be learning from you good folks. My email address is below – please feel free to be in touch that way too.