I spent last week in a monastery praying with Buddhist monks and nuns. It wasn’t as easy as I thought.
Every November I take a week of retreat—almost always to a Benedictine monastery. I love to sit in chapel and hear the monks chant the Psalms, to walk the cloister, to sit in the library, to observe the Great Silence where all the conventional chit chat disappears. (Someone once said that most monastics are not especially “spiritual,” they’re just introverts!)
This November I decided to visit a Buddhist monastery instead. When I called to register for my retreat I spoke to a nun. She asked about my prayer life. I described my practice of Centering Prayer. I told her that I was an Episcopal priest, that I was coming simply to experience a different prayer and meditation tradition. She assigned me a short book to read, a primer in Buddhism. Though I knew a lot about Buddhism—mostly from Siddhartha, and Huston Smith’s classic, The World’s Religions—I had not studied it in depth, and I certainly had not prayed in their tradition.
What attracted me to Buddhism was simply its wisdom. Contemplative Christianity has roots in Eastern religion that predates the split of Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) Christianity at the Great Schism (1054). The Christian mystics who shaped my faith—from Meister Eckhart to Merton, from de Mello and Chittister to Rohr—all draw abundantly from the contemplative traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Sufi strain of Islam. Nearly all spent time in the East, learning to pray and meditate in the richness of these traditions.
It was, as I say, the wisdom of Buddhism that attracted me. Mostly what I knew of that faith were the great universals: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path. Here was a religion that revered all living beings and frowned on swatting a fly in anger. Buddhists understood better than anyone the impermanence of all things, and all the illusions and delusions of the mind. If everyone now talks freely about living in “this present moment,” we know who to thank.
But when I got to the monastery and walked into the Temple, I was greeted by a heroic-size statue of the Buddha, golden plaster (or plastic?), surrounded by mini-me versions of Himself. All in a twenty-foot glass case. On either side were smaller cases housing a blue goddess, and deities riding elephants and lions and tigers and bears. Some wore masks of bared teeth and wielded swords. It was like the worst of Medieval Catholicism. Where, I thought, did all this tacky rabble come from?
Then there was the book. One meditation focused on one’s not wishing to be reborn as a “hell being.” All the past lives and rebirth in new lives I could maybe take, but I thought these people weren’t in the hell business. Then there was karma. Whatever some poor soul was suffering was caused by something he had done—or failed to do—in some former life. How much better was this than Calvin’s predestination? Another meditation tells me that my body is not real, no more real than something encountered in a dream. Wait just an Incarnational minute!
It went on like that for a few days. I complained about all this (except for the garish shrines) to the calm and very wise coach who was assigned to work with me. In perfect English still tinted with her native Mandarin she said, “Yes, at the surface level we have all these problems and difficulties.” She smiled. “But when we meditate on these things for a long time—many years—they appear differently.”
I had made the big beginner’s mistake. I wanted the universal loveliness of another faith tradition, without struggling and jostling with the very particulars of that faith. I forgot that every great spiritual tradition emerges from communities of prayer thousands of years old (we think the Buddha sat under the Bodhi tree six centuries before Christ), with ancient and—to outsiders’ eyes—weird beliefs, myths, deities, saints, festivals, customs, folkways and music.
Eventually I took myself out behind the Temple for a talking to. Look, I said to myself, you came here to pray with these people, to know their tradition first-hand, to experience what brings them insight, knowledge and deep compassion. Yes, they believe different things (that’s why you came here!). Yes, this doesn’t look or feel anything like home. Most everything you preach or write is to help Christians re-interpret the troubling or difficult or just plain weird scriptures and doctrines of our tradition, yet you come here and expect some kind of perfect and universal faith that ruffles not a single feather in the plumage of your petty little soul. Now get in there and pray with your sisters and brothers.