SoF and the Buddhist Tradition

Mark Rivett offers a very personal view

At the end of an inter-religious conference, the chairperson made his final speech: "We have shared a great deal of information during our time together, and I am sure that everyone here will now go back to their communities and seek to do God's will in their own ways. I will of course continue to do His will in His way".

From its beginnings in "the debate about Christ" to Don Cupitt's stunning TV series I have watched with interest as a non-realist interpretation of faith emerged within Christianity. As an outsider, hearing and reading the Sea of Faith thinkers I have almost been able to see how the label "Christian" could once more apply to myself.

I say "outsider" and "almost" because ten years ago I converted to Buddhism. On reflection my search for a personally meaningful spirituality had many of the same drives that have led radical Christians to reinterpret their religion in a humanist, non-supernatural way. Now, I can begin to appreciate that in my own understanding of my religion I am using, more and more, the insights derived from these radical Christians. Not surprisingly, I would welcome the chance to share with these Christians who are endeavouring a similar pursuit.

I must add, however, that these are purely personal musings and although my religious practice stems from Zen Buddhism I would not claim that my views are orthodox. Nor am I a theologian and those who are more studied in these matters may disagree with my interpretations. However since the whole thrust of radical Christianity is the creation of religion, moment by moment, into a personal instrument for meaning, I will not apologise on this score. I should also state that my comments about Buddhism may imply uniformity within the religion. This is obviously not so. Indeed the varieties of Buddhism may exceed those of Christianity.

Don Cupitt has written that "Western thought has nowhere left to go except towards Buddhism - but we must get there from Christian premises". There are a number of intrinsic features that make Buddhism as a religion much more open to a radical interpretation than Christianity. Firstly, historically the Buddha insisted upon his humanity and denied any theistic interpretation to his life. His role was of a teacher or guide; he did not come bearing other-worldly promises of salvation.

What persists in bemusing Christians was the Buddha's total indifference to the existence of "God". Indeed the Buddha believed that talk about God was like a man shot with an arrow who, rather than pulling it out, wanted to know who shot him, why and from where. Thus the facts of this existence demanded an earthly response and only human beings relying on their everyday experience could make this response.

Lastly, although the Buddha described ways for human beings to cope with the meaninglessness of life (I would argue that Buddhism is a truly existentialist religion), he consistently put the onus of this onto the individual. On his death bed he exhorted his followers to find their own answers: "Seek out your own salvation with diligence!". A similar theme suffuses Zen: "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him!".

In the first SOF magazine, C.B Spurgin reported a definition of a radical Christian in ways that can apply equally to a Buddhist. Both regard supernatural notions as valueless, are uninterested in how the world began, do not believe that "souls" endure or exist and regard religion as a human creation. On Spurgin's other points: that a radical Christian denies all concept of other-worldly punishment or reward and that inspired writings are written by ordinary human beings, I believe Buddhism can begin to learn from radical Christians.

The doctrine of "Karma" can easily be interpreted as an instrument to demand consciousness of personal responsibility now just as we can interpret Jesus' "Kingdom of Heaven" theme as a here and now oriented theme. But what about two other Buddhist themes: enlightenment and meditation. Surely these have been conceived of as supernatural and extraordinary?

Certainly these have been imbued with an other-worldly interpretation often, perhaps especially in the West where "results" matter so much. Yet from a radical perspective Enlightenment could be the ideal for which human beings can aim. An ideal where selflessness and compassion are the sole motivations. I can find much that supports such a view. Zen asserts that enlightenment and ordinary life are one and the same, and that "it" does not exist but is a process of becoming. Indeed at times enlightenment seems to have more to do with acceptance of imperfections than with trying to achieve anything.

Similarly meditation need not be perceived as a mystical practice but as a time when we open ourselves to looking at how our minds work and helping selfish concerns fade away in the struggle to find meaning in our lives. These are just some ideas about how a radical interpretation of religion can be broadened from Christianity to other religions. Perhaps as these humanistic and non-realist themes percolate through religious discourse the bind described in the opening story will become unnecessary. "Truth" need no longer be in dispute, "interpretations" can be respectfully appreciated.

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