I finished The Art of Happiness yesterday. It had been a slow read for a few days, but I decided to step it up and really dig into it during my slow Tuesday. I spent about three hours finishing it and concentrating on what it was saying. Throughout, though, I had this nagging feeling that I had heard some of this before, that I was already familiar with what it was trying to teach me. I couldn’t place it until there was a reference to the Dalai Lama’s rosary, the strand of beads he uses as an aid to meditation. I had heard this from Jesus.
We’re All Human
One of the concepts that was really emphasized in the book was the virtue of compassion. But it wasn’t a simple idea; instead it was the concept of compassion as a transformative practice. For instance, having compassion on someone who is suffering doesn’t just make them feel better (say if we bandage a wound or donate money to charity to help), it transforms us in the process. We are made more open and loving by our practice of compassion.
Compassion can also be practiced in relative isolation. For instance, one of the meditations talked about by the Dalai Lama was the visualization of tragedy, a person hurt or the like, and then putting ourselves in their place, to take their pain as our own in order to have sympathy for that person. It’s something that Western people are often told to do, but can be powerful if we actually do it.
The idea of practicing compassion in this way connects to a very simple fact: we are all human. The Dalai Lama talked about this repeatedly in the book not just as a way to relate to each other, but to contextualize compassion in its proper place. We should not have compassion only on people we know and care about, people to whom we have a direct connection, but every person around the world who we have not met but can recognize as being human just as we are.
God is Love
Again, we’ve heard it all before. But simplicity should not lead us to ignore the power of its truth. Compassion and love are truly powerful practices that we can exercise just as we exercise our muscles. In that respect, Buddhism more clearly teaches these concepts than Christianity because it firmly locates them in the realm of action rather than ephemeral emotion.
As I was reading about this, however, I was struck by the parallel between Buddhist concepts of active compassion and the example of Christ himself. We hear often enough that God is love, but I’m not sure we’ve ever really understood it. Consider this verse:
Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (John 15:13)
Love is an action. It is not just loving people that Christ did, as if just by saying and feeling love that made the world better, but he suffered and died, not in evidence of love, but as love itself.
God is love, not because of a feeling, but because of actions that are themselves love. The crucifixion was love as act, making it the most powerful thing in the universe.
Go on to consider the common Christian idea that we can do nothing good without Christ. Because of our fallen nature’s we cannot of ourselves do any good thing. It will always be tainted by our inherent sin.
But through Christ what can’t we do! In other words, through love, what can we not accomplish?
That is the essence of Buddhist teaching, that the positive virtues of love and compassion are actions that make us better human beings. So it is with Christianity, too, though the context is encapsulated in the embodiment of Christ.
I went searching for Buddhism to find something new, some new way of living that would be more fulfilling than the Christianity I had been raised in. But I’ve been surprised to find Christ everywhere. True, there are some differences in emphasis, but they are not opposed to each other.
In fact, the Buddhist ideal that we should act ethically towards others based solely on a shared humanity is more in line with what Christ taught than anything else I’ve studied so far. Christianity (consciously or not) seems to practice charity and compassion based on the reward of heaven, whereas the truly altruistic practice of Buddhism fits better with what I imagine Christ taught. We live in the age where indulgences from the Church are a common knowledge, and I doubt we will be able to get away from that very human wish for materially satisfying reward.
I can’t become a Buddhist. It’s more religious beliefs simply are untenable for me. But it’s practices (which the book emphasizes can be used by anyone in any religious tradition or even without one) are useful and good. And if I use them, it just might make me a better Christian.
So what do I do? The compassion of Buddhism is exactly what I want to be, to do, and it would make me a better person. But I cannot help but find a greater context for it in the person of Christ, who is Love. Perhaps it is not Christianity that I have a problem with. Maybe it is man and how he uses Christianity that bugs me. Maybe I’ve thrown the baby out with the bathwater…