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By Tom Holmes
Editor's note: In a series of blog posts, OakPark.com spirituality, ethics and religion blogger Tom Holmes recounts his experiences while travelling alone in Thailand towards the end of 2010. For links to all of the blog posts in this series, visit OakPark.com/ThailandTravels
Banjob Kusawadee has always been religious. Even as a child, he took the inexorable law of karma seriously, trying to pile up as much merit as he could, so that he would be reincarnated into a better state in the next life and, in addition, could deposit some merit into his parents’ spiritual bank accounts. His highest goal, however, was nibbana (nirvana), that state of nothingness or void, as Buddhadasa refers to it, which is the complete absence of suffering.
As Banjob tells the story, what tormented him was that he could never keep even the minimum five precepts: avoid killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and alcohol/intoxicating drugs. It wasn’t that he had gone out and killed anyone, but even as a boy he understood that the first precept had to do with inner states like the desire for revenge as well as outward actions. No amount of meditating could chase demons like greed and anger from his mind.
He therefore despaired of ever attaining the enlightenment which the Buddha had held up as the ultimate goal, because all of his efforts fell short of the mark. He confided this spiritual turmoil to his uncle, a Buddhist monk, and asked if it were humanly possible to become an arahant, i.e. one who has broken the wheel of birth and death. His uncle, an honest man, replied, “I’m not sure.”
What struck him about the Christian preaching, which he heard during this time of spiritual struggle, was that the solution to the problem of living is a gift from God rather than a human achievement. That message turned his religious world view inside out. Using a different metaphor, it gave him a lens through which he would see life’s most profound issues very differently than he had as a Buddhist.
He was baptized as a teenager, entered what was called at the time the Lutheran Institute of Theological Education (L.I.T.E.), was ordained, and at the time of my visit was the President of the seminary from which he had graduated over twenty years ago.
While talking with him during my four day stay at Luther Seminary in Thailand (LITE’s new name) he gave me a copy of his doctoral thesis, Holy Suffering. I immediately took the book to my room and started reading, because his thesis seemed to be the perfect dialog partner for Buddhadasa Bhikkhu’s Heartwood of the Bodhi Tree.
Sure enough. I started reading chapter one, turned the page and there read a quote from Buddhadasa. Banjob was familiar with the famous monk’s thought. I read on, preparing for the attainment of a little enlightenment of my own.
I soon realized that Banjob and Buddhadasa agreed on one major point, that the two religions are very, very different. Banjob wrote, “Thai Buddhists are somewhat naïve in that they are inclined to believe that every religion is good and has the same purpose and goal. . . .” (Holy Suffering, p. 17)
We can see the truth of this point [a discussion of the concept ayatana] by taking a look at other religions. Other religions do not have the term attavadupaddana [clinging to the words “I” and “mine”] . . . .because they teach a self to be grasped at and clung to. Because they do not regard such grasping as wrong, it becomes right; in fact it becomes the goal of that religion or sect. They teach the attainment of Self. In Buddhism, however, attachment to self is specified as a defilement, as foolishness and delusion. (Heartwood, p. 50)
As I read on, Banjob talked about suffering as a major issue in life, i.e. a problem that followers of Jesus try to mitigate if not remove completely. One thing which distinguishes Christianity from Buddhism is that a particular kind of suffering is also declared to be the solution. Suffering is a symptom of separation (detachment!) from God (whose name is I AM), and Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross was God’s solution to the problem of humanity’s chronic willingness to become attached to gods who cannot come through with their promise to give life. In other words, God revealed an ultimate attachment to humans by dying for them, so that they would respond by reattaching themselves to God above all else.
Banjob put into words the reaction of many Buddhists to this idea of a suffering God, a reaction I had heard before many times.
If there is a God, he must be a cruel one or a weak one, a suffering and stupid one, because he does not know how to create a perfect world or how to eradicated suffering. . . .It is ridiculous to ask help from the Christian God who degraded himself to take the form of a person who suffered and died on the cross. . . .If God could not deliver himself from suffering, how can he extend his help to those who request it from him? (Holy Suffering, p. 174)
I set Banjob’s thesis down to grab a Coca Cola Lite (what Thais call Diet Coke) from my little refrigerator. During my little break, I thought back to my encounter in the train station with Bhikkhu Buddha Dhatu, the good natured monk who had told me that all religions are the same. His heart was in a good place, I decided, but he was for some reason glossing over the glaring, profound differences.
Banjob clearly thought the two religions were different when he took the potentially isolating step of becoming a Christian in a country which is 95% Buddhist. Phra Peter Pannapadipo was of the same opinion when he went the other direction, leaving home, family and possessions in England to become a Buddhist monk in Thailand.
Phra Peter decided in middle age that Buddhism was “an alternative and more worthwhile way of living” than the nominal Christianity in which he had grown up. (Phra Farang, an English Monk in Thailand, p. 3) He added that the truth of a religious system can’t be discerned by reading a book about it—what I would call being a religious tourist. “It’s something,” he declared, “which can only be understood experientially.” (p. 147)
Trying to sort all this out made me think of book I had read in 1998 entitled Salvations, Truth and Difference in Religion, in which Mark Heim insisted that those who practice religion in its “thickest,” most committed way will inevitably be exclusivist, i.e. they will consider their path to be the most profound when it comes to ultimate truth. “Religious traditions are simply, descriptively exclusivist,” he wrote. “To know one is not to know the others. Each is a ‘one and only. . .’” (p. 5)
Heim also argued that the different religions are trying to save you from different problems, i.e. not only are they different paths but the paths lead to different destinations. The whole Buddhist agenda, for example, is designed to liberate its adherents from suffering. That’s why Buddhist meditation is so popular in the U.S. as a means for reducing stress. It works.
In contrast, Martin Luther King, Jr didn’t do Buddhist meditation before a protest march. He sang gospel hymns with the marchers which empowered them to suffer without retaliation in pursuit of a just cause. His goal was not to escape suffering but to create justice.
I started to feel like I better understood Bill Yoder’s statement that the Buddhists had converted him to Christianity. He was, in a way, complimenting the monks with whom he was dialoging. Just as athletes tend to perform best when competing against runners who are their equals, so faith can be tested and confirmed when it bumps up against another world view which is firmly grounded in a society.
I had suffered my share of losses in my 63 years of living—two marriages ending in divorce, the premature deterioration of my health and the subsequent losing the work to which I had been called, the closing of my congregation, the deaths of my father and mother.
In all of that loss, I could empathize with the Buddha’s statement that nothing lasts, that everything is impermanent.
I could empathize but not agree with his response, because in the midst of the losses, I experienced a constant equanimity, which my faith told me was God’s loving presence. I couldn’t prove that to my agnostic friend back home or to the Buddhist monks I met along the way and certainly not to the angry, anti-religion, Norwegian fellow I had encountered in Nan.
Not only that, but I had experienced suffering as a positive, healing force. Years ago the leaders of my divorce recovery group kept on saying, “The only way out of pain is through it.” They were right. Another man, one I had met in Nan, said he admired my having a positive attitude in spite of my disability, and I had replied, “That may be, but it is only because I have done my grief work.”
It’s only been through suffering that I have matured to any degree. The demons inside, which kept me feeling like a little boy instead of a mature man, could only be quieted by facing them. That process has been frightening and painful, but the result has been liberating.
What’s more, I’ve found that if I want to make any changes for what I perceive to be the common good--in my church, my condo building, my village—I’m going to suffer in the process. I never enjoy the pain, but the meaning I experience in working for something greater than myself is worth the struggle.
The spiritual bottom line for me is that I’m glad that the cruciform lens through which I view the world has taught me not only how to work through suffering instead of escaping it but also how “holy suffering,” if you will, can actually be used to reduce the net amount of suffering in the world.