By Rev. Paula Ashby, retired
2020 has been quite a year! Life happens to us all, but this year, even the most mundane experiences have all happened through the lens of the global pandemic. For me, 2020 has been a time of gratitude as well as hardship.
In December 2019, I became one of four women embarking on a journey to live the Diamond Sutra (an ancient Buddhist text) and write about our experiences. This has brought me deeper into the world of meditation, has held me with the routine of regular spiritual reflection, accompanied along the way by three wise and compassionate women.
When we began, we had no way of knowing what 2020 would bring and I am grateful for the Diamond Sutra, for the women, and for the daily spiritual practices and the accompaniment. The book which is arising from this period is expected to be published in the spring of 2021.
As Christian clergy, this project raised a few eyebrows amongst the folk in the congregation I served at the time. “Are you a Buddhist now?” people would ask.
Sometimes the question would be asked with curiosity. The questioner would lean in, ask about the meditation and other Buddhist practices and a wonderful conversation would ensue as we explored together some of the similarities and differences between Buddhism and Christianity.
Sometimes the question would be asked with judgement. The questioner would sniff and look disdainfully at me, assured in the (to them) obvious proof that I was never a very good Christian anyway if I could be led so easily into Buddhist spiritual practices.
These conversations reminded me of evangelist Billy Sunday’s famous words: “Going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than standing in a garage makes you a car.” I would extrapolate from that to respond, “Going to a Buddhist temple doesn’t make you a Buddhist any more than standing in a garage makes you a car”, hoping that would give the speaker pause for thought, and perhaps even provide an opportunity for a deeper conversation.
The biggest difference, and I find this is the piece that caused confusion amongst many of my questioners, is that Christianity is monotheistic while Buddhism is non-theistic. Big words which boil down to this: the creeds of the Christian churches point to a creator God who rules over the universe and who loves us and teaches us and who is worshipped as a divine deity – singular, not plural.
There is no divine deity to worship in Buddhism. There are teachings and practices to discern and to explore each person’s place within the universe, the harm we cause to ourselves and one another and why, and practices designed to deepen both compassion and awareness on the path to nirvana, or perfection of wisdom.
It is quite possible to engage in Buddhist spiritual practices and in the process to deepen one’s personal faith. The greater our understanding of ourselves, our own faith practices and the practices of others, the greater our own faith becomes and the very fabric of our community becomes stronger as a result.
Barack Obama referred to this need for greater understanding when he said, “When we start using religion as a bludgeon (…), when we start questioning other people’s faith, we start using religion to divide (…) then I think we’ve got a problem.”
I often reflect on the way that a meditation practice which calls me into solitude, helps me to realize even more profoundly that I am not alone. Meditation is a daily spiritual practice that draws me both inward and outward. There is spiritual and emotional movement simply from sitting still and breathing deeply.
That is the secret of achieving resiliency – to respond and act in a calm, centred way that benefits the whole, rather than the individual.
I do find myself questioning a lot. I spend a lot of time meditating. I continue to find meditation as the purest and most profound method of prayer. From these times of meditation, questioning and practice I emerge daily more centred, more grounded, more whole.
That is a good thing whether you are outstanding in a temple, a field, or a church. That is a good thing no matter your faith perspective. To be a Buddhist, or a Christian or a Muslim or simply a gracious and grateful human is all about what we practice.