Thursday, May 15, 2008

Community Spirits: Living Buddha, Living Christ Review

Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, in his work Living Buddha, Living Christ bridges the teachings of two of the worlds most popular and peaceful religions. With the Buddha and Christ as his spiritual guides, Hanh illustrates how Christians and Buddhists can learn from their founders that will improve and inspiring human lives the world over. In this powerful work, Hahn brings the reader to the realization that not only do these faiths share the same goal, at the core of human existence, we all do.

As Hahn makes clear, at some base level, all of existence shares in the same “body of God,” also referred to as “the body of ultimate reality,” (31). In this way, every life is connected as an extension of the spirit flowing through us all. The hobby of the Dali Llama proves to be a good of metaphor of how the community is one interconnected being that shares the same ultimate fate. Timepieces made up of gears and springs and many other parts perform together to move the hands of the clock. If a gear breaks or spring comes loose, the timepiece no longer works. Similarly, communities of people assign certain tasks to individuals who provide a service for that community. For Hahn, the teachings of the Buddha and Christ serve to enlighten the people of the world to the fact that the things that make up the university are all within the same community.

All Christians, Buddhists, and people the world over as an interconnected entity should recognize that “every act is linked with the whole humankind and the whole cosmos,” (106). However, because we delude ourselves in insisting on our individuality while ignoring the nature of reality, people the world over experience pain and suffering. Seeing ourselves as individuals, we take sides that are often based on self-interest because we “misunderstand the will of God,” (80). Many religious people throughout the world see themselves as having a superior belief system making a true interfaith dialogue impossible. In insisting on words and concepts, people miss what is truly important insight into the nature of reality” and “a way of responding to [that] reality,” (55).

Having the ability to choose where we place true meaning usually leads to a path of least resistance because implementing a practice that requires a change of the heart and the way we think makes us complacent and causes us to suffer. Jesus spoke of this in his warning “where your treasure is, there will be your heart also,” (Luke 12:34) while Buddhism teaches that our attachments to things is the root of all our suffering. This makes what we choose to worship, that which we find of most importance, of the utmost importance. If one is constantly striving for wealth or power, this person will never have enough; beauty or intellect are also no better choices since both fade as time goes by. People grasp onto these things because they fail to truly experience. Always putting off our spiritual happiness for transitory delusions causes a failure to realize that “we are already in paradise,” (19).

Paradise, as Hahn explains, is found in this world that is filled with the Holy Spirit. To understand or experience that spirit is to be truly alive. This spirit is what makes all things equal in the eyes of Mother Nature and what makes all things resemble God. True understanding of this concept cannot be done purely by intellect; “it must be experiential” as well in the form of “prayer, contemplation, and meditation,” (112). Once action is taken to awake to this realization and “we become truly aware of our hearts, we feel comfort and release right away,” (18). This must take place in order to become compassionate souls willing and able to produce real change for a better, happier existence for all transient beings. In order to make the world a peaceful and merciful place to live, our hearts must first become peaceful and merciful. For Hahn, this is an essential ingredient to a formula for progress. Like the gears of a clock, we are parts of a larger whole, and like the gears, if we are not each working to move forward, movement stops.
Mindfulness, the term Hahn gives to this state of inner peace, is living the examples of both Christ and Buddha which is an extraordinarily hard thing to do. Liberating ourselves from a deep self-centeredness is to resist the default way most people live their entire lives. The example Hahn gives to illustrate the concept of this kind of enlightenment is that of a wave. Waves crest and fall as a part of the fluid body of water that cannot separate itself from the sea that enables its existence. It must discover and then remind it self “I am water.” By way of this example, Hahn’s argument is at its most lucid, which forces the reader to spend time intensely reflecting on and search the obvious realities that over intellectualizing has kept us from being truly alive. What concealed truth have we overlooked, what great, infinite reality in plain sight has been lost, in what ways are we imprisoned without even realizing it? To be mindful, on must ask these questions, because the truth is, oftentimes the most significant, visible components of life are the hardest to see and realize. Becoming aware of the universal oneness takes cognitive effort to achieve and discipline to sustain. But this is true experience.

In unconsciously going through the motions of a seemingly meaningless existence, one is a lonely slave to the self and unable to experience the Holy Spirit. Attentiveness to our ability to exercise control over where we place meaning will free us of repulsive, closed-minded certainties that cause our suffering. Being completely conscious through the examples of Christ and Buddha in mindfulness allows us to see all experience meaningful and sacred in focusing our energy on improving life before death. The disregard for the gift of life and domain over the world is perpetuated because the consequences of humankind’s selfish, wasteful neglect of natural resources is probably wrecking the climate to a point where reconstruction will be impossible. Viewing the world through our own set of lenses, policies are determined by immediate, selfish priorities.

In exhibiting tolerance of diverse beliefs, we accept the differences in the ways we construct meaning from our experiences instead of insisting that our one interpretation is the truest thing in the universe while the other is false or unsound. When tolerance does not take place, the unexplainable, deep down light inside all of us is obscured and progress is thwarted. As part of a universal community, everyone is connected “to the causes of our suffering” and implicated to “find ways out,” (114). For this quest to bear fruit, ecumenical dialogue and peaceful, noble intentions are absolutely necessary. I agree full fledged with Hahn’s faith that we have the power to perform such a righteous work since “understanding and love are values that transcend all dogma,” (198).

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