A Quick Look At Buddhism

Continuing on from yesterday’s post regarding Confucianism. Here’s basic outline of Buddhism with a few insights into how Buddhism has influenced practices in Asian-American churches. Again, with thanks to Prof. Rodger Nishioka.

Basic to the beliefs of all forms of Buddhism is the dignity and worth of each living being, repsect and compassion for all of life, and the need for each person to find his or her own path to enlightenment through an understanding of one’s self and the practice of compassionate regard for all others.

Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama who was born in northern India in 588 BCE to wealth and privilege. At 29-years-old, he abandoned his wealthy heritage and set upon a quest for truth and enlightenment living among the most disadvantaged where he sought to alleviate suffering and seek acceptance.

There is no personal god in Buddhism. The Buddha, whose name means, “the enlightened one,” is regarded not as a god, but as a great teacher who attained enlightenment and demonstrated a path of spiritual awakening and freedom. The Buddha encourages each person to embrace her or his traditional religion. Practices include meditation and mindfulness in everydaylife. Literature includes the sayings of Buddha, the vinyana–the discipline, and the abhidharma–the doctrine. In its various expressions, Buddhism is practiced by about 400 million people. Traditionally, there are three great divisions of Buddhist practice.

Mahayana path Buddhism: dominant in Nepal, Tibet, China, Korea, and Mongolia. Mahayana regards the Buddha as a universal principle and an eternal teaching in the universe.

Hinayana path Buddhism: adheres more closely to the teaching of elders. Hinayana regards the Buddha as a historical figure who died but whose teachings are of value and is concentrated in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos.

Zen Buddhism: developed during the spread of Buddhism from the 5th c. CE to China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam absorbing the elements of Taoism. In Zen, direct intuition of the cosmic void replaces the study of the scriptures, Buddhas, and Bodhisattvas with an emphasis on aesthetics.

Four noble truths:

  1. All of life is suffering
  2. The cause of suffering is desire
  3. Stopping desire will stop suffering
  4. The Eight-fold path to enlightenment:
    1. right views
    2. right intention
    3. right speech
    4. right action
    5. right livelihood
    6. right effort
    7. right mindfulness
    8. right concentration

How has Buddhism influenced practices in Asian American churches?

  1. Buddhist teachings helped Christian doctrine take hold. For instance, bodhisattvas are similar to Christian incarnation and the love of God in Jesus Christ through sacrifice.
  2. Buddhist disciplines of prayer, meditation, and love through charity are reinforced in the practices of Christian discipleship.
  3. The combination of emotions in Pure Land Buddhism (not listed previously, but is characterized by emotional aspect of faith requiring wholehearted devotion and love to Buddha) with Zen Buddhism (self-enlightenment, meditation, self-discipline) means Asians regard faith as an integral unity of emotion and cognition.

I can definitely see some how the “four noble truths” have been baptized in many of our churches. There is still a strong notion of suffering and attribution of suffering to our desires. Although I can’t think of anything else to add to Nishioka’s list of how Buddhism has affected our churches, I have a sneaking suspicion there’s more to this list. Any ideas?

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Comments

  1. danny says:

    is the asian-american fetish for john piper (christian hedonism) a reaction to buddhism?

  2. Gerald Ford says:

    Zen Buddhism is one small branch of Mahayana Buddhism, by the way, not a separate one. That’s something Westerners misunderstand, in their efforts to create the perfect Buddhism.

    Other Mahayana sects:

    * Pure Land Buddhism (which is diverse in and of itself)
    * Esoteric Buddhism (Tibetan and Shingon Buddhism)
    * Zen, Chan Buddhism
    * Hua-yan Buddhism (old school, no longer exists)
    * Lotus Sutra, Tien-Tai Buddhism

    …etc, etc.

    Also, please do not use the term “hinayana”. That is dated and pejorative. The term Theravada is more appropriate. Thanks!

  3. daniel so says:

    David — Thanks so much for posting these lecture notes. I wish I could sit in on this class — Rodger is an excellent teacher. I remember a few years back I sat in on a seminar he gave and he managed to make Presbyterian polity engaging and interesting (no small feat, mind you!).

    The timing of these posts is uncanny for me — I have been having numerous discussions with folks about the “layers” of Asian American Christianity. Even for someone as Westernized as myself, I see so many of these qualities deeply ingrained in myself. Putting words and some structure to this enables us to have meaningful conversations. These summaries are great because it is difficult to redeem something if we can’t quite put our fingers on it.

    Are lecture notes on shamanism forthcoming? I have heard one 1st gen Korean American pastor describe Asian Americans in the following way (if I remember correctly): Christian outer layer, then Buddhist, Confucian, and at the core shamanistic.

  4. elderj says:

    it would be interesting to compare these values/principles to pre-Enlightenment western Christianity or to eastern Orthodoxy. I definitely see the “cause of suffering is desire” in my students and co parishioners who seem unable to separate desire from sin

  5. David Park says:

    oooh Danny, unpack that some more. I’d like to hear how you’ve connected Piper’s Christian hedonism to buddhism. i don’t know why there is a strong attraction from asian americans to piper. it really is a strange phenomenon, i think.

    thanks gerald ford for the clarification. i appreciate the input.

    elderj, obviously Christ’s clarification that to merely have lust in your heart was adultery certainly doesn’t give us an easy way out here. Catholicism also made it explicit in confessing those types of desires as they seemed to qualify as sins. It’s very strange though to see some of that from the Buddhist angle though, isn’t it? the irony to me is that monasticism, as a phenomenon, exists on both sides to address that very issue. and yet, the Buddhists seem to have better PR or something because apparently, they can rid themselves of all desire.

  6. danny says:

    hmmm– i was just connecting the concepts of desire. piper stresses how much we should stoke our desire for God vs buddhism’s rejection of desire as a proper feeling. i’ve heard elsewhere that second gens like conservative theology because it’s more secure/stable in the midst of our “homelessness”.

    i can also see how the aa church elevates full time ministers because of buddhism. we abandon greater riches for the calling or so the story goes, and in this sense, we supposedly forsake our desire for financial security in favor of God’s will. very good move– buddhist-wise.

  7. Eric Chang says:

    Just my two cents about the Piper/2nd gen connection.
    While the conservative theology point is likely, I think there are some other possible reasons.
    I think Piper resonates with his passion that oozes from his preaching/writing. I don’t know why Koreans are so rabidly passionate about stuff, “Be the Reds,” unification, one voice prayer, marathon praise & worship sessions, whatever. I think we connect with his passion.
    Second, I think it’s also because perhaps it is the particular way he words his larger themes, but I think it is also larger than that…that what he speaks is like the antidote for Korean/2nd gen culture, and his words are like anti-bodies for what is missing in our transitional culture. He seems to hit themes we have holes for within our blend of Asian culture.
    Having only met him in passing, seen a few videos, heard him preach in numerous formats, and not throroughly read him, take my thoughts with these in mind.

  8. P.Dan says:

    actually, i agree with danny and eric. he is gifted in communication (whether through writing or speech) and sound in theology. it is not just asian americans who are drawn towards him.

    he is theologically conscientious. doctrinal consistency runs throughout all his sermons and writings. everyone enjoys listening to passionate, clear, and doctrinally consistent preaching. and he is passionate in the way he speaks, writes, and carries himself.

    if anything… zen is closer to neo-orthodoxy or “emergent” preachers with all its paradoxical, self-defeating statements which are supposed to force you into the divine mystery of the Word like a zen koan. dharma talks are anything but “passionate preaching,” they are more like a “conversation” at cafe. i would think buddhists would be drawn closer these subjectivistic, anti-doctrinal, and non-discursive forms of “Christianity.”

  9. P.Dan says:

    so, i guess i just agreed with danny too, lol. even if desire is not the main reactionary impetus, piper may still be providing an anti-thesis to the subjectivistic/paradoxical spirituality of buddhism.

  10. David Park says:

    eric, i’m interested in what you mean by the antidote for 2nd gen culture.

    i appreciate piper, but to be honest, i don’t enjoy listening to him. i find him redundant and pedantic at times. and he shouts too much.

    i think you’re observant to point out some characteristics that buddhists would appreciate about emergent-style conversation, dan, but i think a lot of people appreciate that more these days than the one-man-pontificating-from-the-pulpit model. funny that you call such things “dharma talks” though, that’s what i feel like most korean pastors reduce the gospel to — do what is right, don’t do what is wrong. in some ways, buddhism emphasizes holistic understanding of being and living that the church doesn’t. that sensibility seems to be on the rise in evangelical circles now, but we should engage in that more in AA churches.

  11. zoecarnate says:

    i appreciate piper, but to be honest, i don’t enjoy listening to him. i find him redundant and pedantic at times. and he shouts too much.

    Not to mention he hates women…or is afraid of them at least.

  12. Dan says:

    some updates regarding my stance on philosophical buddhism (especially in the tradition of zen). my academic pilgrimage has taken beyond beyond (or before) modern paradigms and towards pre-modern/post-modern forms of theology. i see many parallels between pre-modern philosophy (especially those within the mystical tradition such as desert fathers, cappadocian, augustinian, benedictine, bonventura, nicholas of cusa, et. al), the Romantics (Schleiermacher, Kierkegaard, Coleridge, Blake) and zen. i would like to point of three particular themes that seem to resonate between all these traditions: 1) emphasis on the primary of the “given” (i.e., forms-of-life, lifeworld). there are no neutral standpoints from whence we can conduct theology; all life activities (including cognition) begins with culturally conditioned habits of living. 2) this “given” is prior to rationalization. hence apophatic. other forms of expression such as music, art, stories can capture elements of reality that logic, deduction, and induction cannot. 3) the importance of habit forming activities (benedictine rule, vinaya, and other spiritual disciplines) without neglecting the element of the Spirit and the need for grace.

    hence, spontaneous/artistic forms of communication including those which utilize all five senses (touch, smell, sounds, sight, taste) are needed. i prefer liturgical worship and conversational sermons now. i believe there is a lot we can learn from the buddhist tradition without wholly adopting every aspect of its metaphysical and ethical positions.

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