Readers reply: can you be a Buddhist as well as a Christian?

 

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Can you be a Buddhist as well as a Christian? Can a non-theist and theist perspective operate together hand in hand? Anna M St Clair

Send new questions to nq@theguardian.com.

Readers reply

I don’t see why not. Western society expects us to believe six dozen contradictory things at once already, so what’s one more? ReidMalenfant

My son is two and so far he prefers Buddha. I’m guessing it has something to do with Buddha’s superior PR department since Buddha looks far happier than Jesus in the majority of depictions. Polvfr

Probably got something to do with the whole not being nailed to a big plus sign thing. asparagusnextleft

Yes, I would think so, but only because Buddhism tends not to have the same kind of rigid rules about beliefs and practices as Abrahamic religions. Where I lived, shrines to local animist traditional spirits were frequently within the walls of Buddhist pagodas, for example, and there was seen to be no conflict. BluebellWood

My answer to that is of course you can. I trained in theology and was a “Christian” minister for 19 years before becoming a gardener. This career move allowed me time to develop the sort of reflective practices – with the support of a Buddhist group – that Christianity used to encourage as non-discursive prayer. In my tenure as a teacher of clergy we often had lunchtime sessions of meditation, informed by Christian and Buddhist teachings. Now I’m retired I do a lot of walking and frequently use churchyards for meditation or, if the church is open, the church itself. While meditating in a Christian setting no one is going to tap you on the shoulder and say: “I hope this silence is not a heresy.” One of the loveliest experiences I’ve had was a pilgrimage to Bardsey Island. I acted as a guide for the Venerable Bodhidhamma of Satipanya. We meditated in the medieval churches along the route and rested under the churchyard yews. Graham Murphy, Liverpool

I’m married to someone who attends Quaker meetings and Buddhist meditation sessions, so yes, you can. There is apparently quite a lot of crossover between the Buddhists and Quakers in Britain. In traditionally Buddhist countries in Asia it’s quite common to practise another religion alongside Buddhism. In Japan they reckon that Shinto does weddings best, and Buddhism the best funerals. exlangrandeflaneuse

Forty years ago, I was an Anglican, having grown up as a Methodist. At a gathering about church unity with a Catholic bishop, I asked the question: “Can one be both an Anglican and a Catholic?” His was a simple, one sentence reply: “That’s the kind of question that makes me want to hide behind the dustbins.” Although I am now a Catholic, I still attend some Anglican services – and encourage other Catholics to do the same. (Rev Dr) Rodney Schofield

A good question, but the brief answer is no. The two religions can learn from each other, but they are in complete disagreement about the key question: what happens to the individual human being after they die. Tony Buck

There is a well-established tradition that Jesus’s “lost years” in the Bible account of his life were spent in India studying Buddhism (see here for an intro to this notion). The story has it that he returned to Kashmir rather than ascending to heaven, and you can even visit his tomb there. mattion

A young Buddhist priest once urged me to persevere with Christianity to learn compassion and with Buddhism to learn wisdom. I appreciated his advice, especially because he mixed it with some flattery. John Swindle, Honolulu

Buddha teaches self-salvation through practice; Jesus allows you to project your holy self on to him, which is far more helpful if you need to anthropomorphise God’s infinite love in order to feel saved by an external and omnipotent being. If you are psychologically self sufficient, Buddha may be enough; if you need a helping hand Jesus is yer man-God. That’s my experience anyway, as a Buddhist first and then a Christian. GreySocksAndLentils

Twenty-four years ago, I attended a three-day meeting at Bodhgaya, the spiritual centre of the Buddhist world. The meeting was a dialogue between the Dalai Lama and Lawrence Freeman, the spiritual director of the World Community for Christian Meditation. Both stated categorically that it is not possible for one person to be a Christian and a Buddhist.

At that point, I had been a Buddhist for 18 years. In 2009, attending church with my wife, I had a significant conversion experience on Christmas Eve; after some serious discussion I was given permission by the vicar of our local Anglican church to receive communion, and have done so ever since. I took Lent and other aspects of Christian practice very seriously; and recently undertook the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela (reciting the rosary most of the way). The one thing I have (so far) drawn the line at has been receiving baptism.

Throughout all this I have continued to study, practise and teach Buddhism in the Tibetan tradition – one of the more explicitly religious forms of Buddhism – and this is by a long stretch my main spiritual practice. My conviction has deepened that the essence of these two religions is the same; the fact that one expresses its view of ultimate reality in negative and the other in positive terms does not, for me, imply a difference in the essentially spiritual content of the practice of each. David Midgley

The logical answer is no. How can someone who believes creation had a beginning also believe life is a timeless cycle of birth, death and rebirth without beginning. How can they believe in the grace of god and also believe no god can alter karma? How can they believe that Jesus is the only path to salvation and good deeds alone will not get you into heaven and also believe good deeds will help for a better rebirth? How can they believe in the final judgment and an end to creation and also believe in a never-ending cycle of life? Mind you, I struggle to understand how anyone can believe anything without good reason to believe it.

They can take on board certain elements of it that align with their Christian faith, but if it aligns with their existing faith, surely they’ve already taken it on board from their existing faith, so really all they are doing is agreeing with certain elements of it. Even atheists agree with certain elements of theistic teachings, doesn’t mean we are both theist and atheist. GodlessHeathens

These schoolboy-debate-style arguments focus on doctrine, not practice, and doctrinal judgments can be very far from the heart of spirituality, which the mystic core of most traditions share. For example, some of the desert father practices, or the teachings of the great Christian monastics, are essentially forms of meditation. mattion

I don’t think they can. God or gods are not the problem, but the nature of a human being. Christians (and so-called Hindus) believe in atman or soul. Buddhist believe in anatman, which is there is no soul, but a impermanent, everchanging, interdependent pattern as it were that continues life to life. Similar to the way you cannot say this particular piece of the river is its river essence (soul), rather the overall flow of water is called a river. So two very different concepts. KMFedorov

Christians may not think it is possible to practise another religion, that is a subject up for debate. However, a friend who teaches in Bangkok at a Christian school can verify that hundreds of Buddhists there attempt to practise the values of Christianity while actively being a Buddhist. In my opinion, many make better Christians than those I’ve seen who take it as their primary religion. Mckenzie

I consider myself to be both Buddhist and Christian. From an agnostic/atheist background, I developed/discovered an affinity for Christian mysticism on a Buddhist retreat. I’d say the answer to the question depends on your perspective on both Buddhism and Christianity – and there are myriad perspectives on both. From a more contemplative, mystical perspective, meditation practices as taught by the Buddha can certainly lead to mystical states of an all-pervading sense of non-dual consciousness, that can be perceived/coloured in different ways – eg as all-pervading love, all-pervading awareness, or as God/God-consciousness. At this level I see no conflict between the teachings of the Buddha and those of Jesus. The myths and stories in both religions can then be appreciated, but not taken literally. silentwaters

This whole discussion is likely plagued by the “one true Scotsman fallacy”, but this seems quite a stretch to be honest. Christianity relies on the incarnation and atonement and resurrection. These are most definitely regarded as “real” by most Christians. (Their rather convoluted relationship with Jewish eschatology makes an interesting comparison.) I can see why jettisoning this allows all sorts of parallels to be made (and I am totally in favour of dialogue and common ground), but sadly this seems intellectually disingenuous. martifingers

I think that the logical answer is yes. They are both sets of philosophical and ethical practices that do not have definitive versions. I find precepts from both Buddhism and Christianity compatible and of use. Ultimately it’s not what you call yourself in life but your actions that define you. wenders14

Well, as the old joke from Northern Ireland goes: “Are you a Catholic Buddhist or a Protestant Buddhist?” Dave Crook

As many have pointed out, it depends what you mean by Christianity and by Buddhism. There are many manifestations of both. As western culture has become more materialistic (ie excluding metaphysics, and not just in love with buying things), new variants of Christianity and Buddhism have developed. These do away with the need to believe in, say, the virgin birth or resurrection on the one hand, and karma and nirvana on the other hand, and has in effect turned them into philosophies bordering on lifestyle guides. How far their founders would recognise these teachings is another matter, of course … dowland

Thomas Merton says yes. He was a Trappist monk and student/teacher of eastern ways of liberation. The Buddha offered a path to liberation from suffering while you are alive today. His teachings did not concern what happens after death. From early transcriptions from Pali and Sanskrit, the Buddha replied, when asked about existence after death: “I do not take up any of these ideas” and: “I have nothing to do with beliefs or theories.” One can follow a religion that supports a need for salvation and also learn how to reduce anxiety and angst while still alive. I can discern no inherent incompatibility. Celticbuddha

For Zen Buddhists, one might say that someone with faith in Jesus can practice Buddhism, living gently. Someone who does not personally believe in Jesus can practice Buddhism and live gently. In any case, seek wisdom and compassion, and live gently. Jundo Cohen

I was baptised a Christian and turned to Buddhism in later life. I have been wrestling with this question for some time. Gautama did not teach Buddhism; Jesus did not teach Christianity. These are forms that have developed to better understand, cultivate and apply these teachings. There are many similarities between these forms and some irreconcilable differences, at an intellectual level. In the silence of meditation and contemplation there is no distinction. In terms of daily practice I find that one eventually inclines towards the form, the Way, that is most helpful and conducive to one’s growth. But the door can remain open, and can open wider and wider, I would say, until there is no door. Nick Buxton

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