A Buddhist-Christian Liberative Praxis

This essay represents a revision of an article that appeared as “The Question of Liberation and Salvation: A Double-Belonger’s Perspective,” in Buddhist-Christian Double Belonging: Affirmations, Objections, Explorations, Edited by Gavin D’Costa and Ross Thompson (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2016), pp. 31-48.

In the following reflections, I hope to show what Buddhists and Christians can learn from each other in a shared liberative project – in a shared commitment to seek liberation from the unnecessary sufferings that afflict humanity and all sentient beings. Both Gautama called the Buddha and Jesus called the Christ have been considered by their followers as “liberators” – as bearers of a message that can enable humans to achieve the well-being of what Buddha called enlightenment and of what Jesus called the Rule of God.

But their messages, as they have been understood by their followers, were very different. In what follows, I hope I can make clear how these differences can complement and enrich each other.   The project of liberation can be more successfully and fruitfully pursued in a collaborative Buddhist-Christian dialogue.

A Common Starting Point: Suffering

As Jesus and Buddha have been remembered, they both had a common starting point for their preaching: the sufferings that all humans (though some more than others) have to face: the inadequacies, the perplexities, the insufficiencies, the diminishments, the pains and disappointments that darken human existence. Both teachers began their missions out of a concern for the sufferings of their fellow human beings.

Buddha’s concern for suffering is encapsulated in the visions or encounters that led to his spiritual search, and also by the four Noble Truths that summarize what he discovered. The first three of his four encounters embody the existential questions that come out of the human condition: the diminishments of sickness, aging, death.  Dukkha, or suffering, pervades all. His whole message can be summarized in his desire to provide “liberation” and freedom from such suffering.

Jesus’s concern for suffering embraced the existential anxieties of sickness and fear, but was concentrated on the sufferings imposed on his people by the might of the Roman Empire. Here I am basically following the “empire-focused” hermeneutic of recent New Testament scholars: Jesus was a Jewish prophet who was responding to the sufferings of his people under the oppression of the Romans. This historical-political context is essential for understanding his message, as well as the message of St. Paul.1  Especially from his home context in afflicted and rebellious Galilee, Jesus witnessed how his people, together with many people throughout the Empire, were hurting.  Consistent with the job description of any Jewish prophet, he felt called to do something about it.2

The Christian Challenge to Buddhist Liberative Praxis: The Necessity of Justice and of the Preferential Option for the Oppressed.

As indicated in the Second of the Four Noble Truths, for Buddha and Buddhists, the fundamental cause of suffering is found in the tanha or self-centered greed that all humans have to deal with.  But for Buddhists, this selfishness is not inherent in the human heart; it is, rather, caused by the ignorance that human beings are born into.  Thus, for Buddhists, the primary importance of enlightening or transforming our consciousness and sense of who and what we are.  What we really are, according to the teachings of the Dharma, is anatta –  not-selves –beings who exist as inter-beings with others. Our well-being consists in fostering the well-being of others.  Enlightenment is to wake up to that truth, that reality.

But Christians – especially Christian liberation theologians –will challenge Buddhists by reminding them that the results of ignorance go beyond the individual.  The actions that follow upon my lack of awareness of my nature as anatta/not-self are not only my actions; they become, slowly but inevitably, society’s actions. The personal, as feminists tell us, becomes the political, the cultural.  My own ego-centered attitudes and acts become embodied in social forms; they incarnate themselves, as it were, in the way society works.  My ego-clinging actions become enshrined in economic policies that further greed; or in military institutions whose existence is dependent upon enemies and the hatred of enemies.  If Buddhists understand karma to be the unavoidable results that follow every action or choice we make,  Christians will point out to Buddhists that individual karma becomes social karma.  

But if this is so—if the personal is the political, if individual karma becomes social karma—then we must also face the reality that the social and political offspring of individual self-centeredness grows up to be, as it were, bigger, stronger, and more enduring than its progenitors.  Sinful or greed-ful structures remain even after individuals have been enlightened. Christian liberationists insist on the reality of social sin.  Social sin can remain even after individual sin has been removed.  That means that to transform the structures of one’s awareness and thinking does not necessarily change the structures of society.  Indeed, it seems that one can be enlightened and full of compassion for all sentient beings without realizing that one remains a part of an economic or military system that continues to cause suffering to others.

Here we can understand the oft-made – and I think to some extent justified – criticism of Buddhism in the West:  that it all too often serves as a psychological refuge for the well-off which enables them to mindfully reduce their stress but at the same time anaesthetizes them to the way their way of life is causing stress to so many others, including the planet.3  Self-care so easily becomes a distraction from other-care.4

So Christian liberationists remind Buddhists that transforming oneself is different from – and should not become a substitute for or distraction from – transforming society.  This implies that compassion, though necessary, is insufficient. It can even be dangerous. Justice is also necessary. If compassion calls us to feed the hungry, justice urges us to ask why they are hungry.  It addresses the causes of hunger. It asks why there are so many unmet needs in this world, why there are so many people suffering from hunger.

For Christians, justice identifies how ignorance and ego-clinging produces social, economic, political systems that enable some people to take advantage of other people, and that, therefore, bring about an unequal and an unjust sharing in the goods of this earth.   If we are not aware of these exploitative, unjust systems, our compassion can assuage suffering, but it cannot cure it. We will apply a bandage, but the wound will not heal. The further danger is that the satisfaction we naturally feel in applying bandages may distract us from the further need of healing the wound. In the sense of achievement in giving food to the starving child, we forget that she will be hungry again tomorrow.

The Christian insistence on justice, therefore, reminds Buddhists that as necessary as the stress-reducing achievement of mindfulness and enlightenment is for living a life of inner peace and compassion for others, it is not enough to fashion a world in which all can have peace.  We also need social mindfulness as to how our reified, ego-centric thoughts and fears become reified social or political systems.  What Buddhists call mindfulness needs to be enhanced by what Christian liberation theologians call social analysis.

But Christians have a further reminder for their Buddhist friends: if Buddhists are to effectively extend their practice of personal mindfulness to include social mindfulness and analysis, they will also have to take seriously the Christian liberationists’ call for a “preferential option for the oppressed.”5 The necessity of a preferential option for the oppressed calls upon all spiritual seekers to be sure that their quest includes, as an integral element, the effort to become aware of the reality and of the experience of those who have been pushed aside in one’s society or culture, those who “don’t count,” those who don’t have a meaningful voice in the deliberations and decisions of state or school or neighborhood.  Our “mindfulness” must also include them, their reality, their experience and perspectives.

And this mindfulness of the oppressed, Christian liberationists insist, has to play a certain “privileged” role in our spiritual practice.  Why? Because it will tell us things we cannot know by ourselves; it will alert us to realities that in our well-off or middle-class lives, we simply do not see.  This is a privileged mindfulness also because it can correct and convert attitudes we previously had about how our society or sanga or church works.

This is what the liberation theologians mean by the “hermeneutical privilege of the poor.”6 From their experience, from their position of suffering and exploitation, the oppressed can see the world in ways that the powerful or the comfortable cannot.  If we are among the established comfortable or powerful, the poor and oppressed can enable us to expand our mindfulness and awareness in ways that are not available to us if we practice mindfulness only of our own experience. The mindfulness we practice on our cushions or in our pews must be balanced and expanded by the mindfulness gained on the streets. In fact, our social mindfulness will have the privilege of correcting our personal mindfulness.

The Buddhist Challenge to Christian Liberative Praxis: The Priority of Wisdom-based Compassion.

If Christians remind Buddhists that personal transformation is incomplete without social transformation, Buddhists in turn will remind Christians that social transformation is impossible without personal transformation.   For Buddhists, I believe, personal, inner transformation of consciousness has a certain priority over social transformation.  But I must make it clear that when I speak of a “priority,” I don’t mean a chronological priority: first “A” and only then “B.” I’m certainly not claiming that we can take up social action only after we have reached total personal transformation.  Rather, I’m trying to describe an inner, sustaining priority—something like a sine qua non: “that without which this cannot really thrive.”  Without ongoing efforts toward our own personal transformation, our efforts to transform society will falter.

But just what do Buddhists mean by “inner transformation”?   The Buddhist experience of what they call “enlightenment,” of waking up to what Mahayana Buddhists term our “Buddhanature,” is, I believe, an invitation and an opportunity for Christians to enter more profoundly into the unitive experience signaled in John’s description of Jesus as “one with the Father” and “one with us”  (John 14), or in Paul’s description (I would dare say “definition”) of a Christian as someone who exists “in Christ.” I am suggesting that the non-dual unity that Mahayana Buddhists affirm between Emptiness and Form, or between Nirvana and Samsara, or (in Thich Nhat Hanh’s terminology) between Inter-Being and all finite beings, is analogous to, if not the same as, the unity between Jesus and Abba, or between Christ and us.  The Divine and the finite, the Creator and the Created are, like Emptiness and Form, distinct but inseparable. They co-inhere. They “inter-are.”

When we begin to “awakened” to our oneness with Christ in the Father, when we begin to feel that “it is not longer I who live but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 3: 21), we will awaken to what Buddhists call prajna or wisdom – the awareness of the fundamental, all pervasive inter-connectedness of all reality.  We are all truly “one in the Spirit.” And this realization that we so interlinked in the Divine Mystery will naturally bring forth in us what Buddhists call karuna, compassion, for all our fellow human beings, indeed, for all sentient beings.  To love our neighbor is not a commandment; it is a natural necessity.

Such an inner transformation by which we become ever more deeply aware of our non-dual oneness with Abba in Christ is,  Buddhists insist, a necessity, a sine qua non, for our liberative engagement with the suffering world.

Why is it necessary?  In trying to answer that question, I draw particularly on the teachings and writings of my Buddhist teacher, Lama John Makransky.7 Summarizing and somewhat recasting his reflections, I believe that Lama Makransky offers three pivotal reasons why, as he puts it, “social activists” need the inner transformation of awakening to wisdom in order to carry on, perseveringly and effectively, their efforts to heal the sufferings of our world. These reasons can be gathered under the rubrics of stamina, humility, and compassion.  

1) Stamina:  From my own experience as a social and political activist (especially during the years of the brutal, U.S. sustained civil war in El Salvador during the 70s and 80s) one of the greatest problems in such work is the danger of burn-out.  In their efforts to change the world and heal its wounds, activists exhaust their energies.

The reasons for burn-out are varied, but they seem to fall into two general categories: a) you can’t break through human conditioning and b) you can’t beat city hall. It is so difficult, often apparently impossible, to help people to change patterns and addictions that have, as it were, become part of their DNA through social conditioning—through what Buddhists would call their causes and conditions.  At the same time, one has to confront the power of the moneyed establishment and the way it determines policy and opinion through its control of the media and government. Because of these two obstacles—and certainly many more—the job description of a social activist or liberationist seems to hold up an impossible goal. People burn out.

This is where some kind of a spiritual practice that will foster and sustain our inner transformation and resources seems imperative. To have begun the process of awakening to oneness with Christ and to what Jesus experienced as the unconditional love of the Abba-Mystery can assure us that our efforts are not just our own efforts.   Having tasted of the wisdom that reveals to us that all our efforts are grounded in and expressions of the Abba Mystery that is active in and as us, or that we are doing what our Christ-nature necessarily calls us to do – then, as the Bhagavad Gita tells us, the value of our actions are not determined by their fruits. The value of our actions are in our actions themselves, for they are also the actions of Abba.

This deeper experience of the non-duality between the Abba-Mystery and the world, or between the future and the present Reign of God, assures Christians that even though their efforts to bring the world closer to the Reign of God fail, Abba and the Reign are still present and available.  Yes, we must seek the Reign of God and work while the light is with us, but at the very same time we are assured that the Reign of God is already among us.  In both success and failure, the Reign of God is both already/not yet.   

2) Humility:  Perhaps one of the most difficult virtues for social activists to practice is humility. In struggling for justice, in resisting those who oppress others, one needs to be clear, firm, resolute. Human lives and human rights are at stake.

And so agents of social justice can be so sure and certain about what needs to be done, about which policies are causing the exploitation, about who are the “bad guys.”  In their commitment to “speaking truth to power,” activists are sure that they have the truth and those in power don’t. I suspect that most people involved in social activism know what I’m talking about. We become so certain of our own analysis and our own programs that we end up not listening to others and missing better opportunities, better programs.  And so it can and does happen that the “liberators” end up making the situation just as bad as, or even worse than, it was under the oppressors.

The more we deepen our inner transformation and the more we wake up to the “bigger picture” that transcends human comprehension –  the more we will be aware of the danger of clinging to our thoughts and our own ideas. There is always more to know, more to learn. The Buddhist practice of mindfulness can warn activists that as long as they are still clinging to ego-identity or absolutizing their own ideas, there’s a little (or big!) oppressor hiding in every good-willed liberator. The wisdom that comes from waking up reminds activists that if they have to “speak truth to power,” they have to be as humble about what they say as they are strong in saying it.  Only if we do not cling to our truth can we—and others—experience its power.

3) Compassion:  Here I take up what I believe is one of the most urgent, but also one of the most sensitive, challenges that Buddhists offer Christian liberationists.  It has to do with the Buddhist claim that just as inner transformation has a certain priority over social transformation, so does compassion have a certain priority over justice.  This priority of compassion applies especially to the way Christians carry out their “preferential option for the oppressed.”

What I’m getting at has been gently but sharply stated by Thich Nhat Hanh in his little book on Living Buddha, Living Christ when he informs Christians that for a Buddhist, God doesn’t have favorites.8 Therefore, the preferential option for the poor that is so central to liberation theology can be dangerous. Nhat Hanh is reminding Christians that just as there is a relationship of nonduality between Emptiness and Form, or between Abba-Mystery and us, so there is a nonduality between oppressed and oppressor.  Both—in what each is doing and in what each is experiencing—are expressions of and are held in Inter-Being and Abba-Mystery. The actions of oppressor or oppressed are clearly different. But their identities are the same. That means, also, that my own identity is linked to both oppressed and oppressors.  

Therefore, we do not respond to the oppressed out of compassion and to the oppressor out of justice.  No, we respond to both out of compassion!  Compassion for both the oppressed and the oppressor. But compassion for the oppressor will be expressed differently than compassion for the oppressed. It’s the same compassion, but, as it were, in different packages. As Lama Makransky puts it, the compassion shown to the oppressor will be fierce. It will be compassion that confronts, that challenges, that calls for change.  It will name the poisons that cause so much suffering: greed, hatred, ignorance.9

But the primary motivation for such confrontation will not be the necessity of justice, but the necessity of compassion.  It will be driven by a compassion for the oppressor and by the desire for his/her well being, by the desire to free him from the illusions that drive him to greed and to the exploitation of others. So yes, we want to liberate the oppressed. But just as much, we want to liberate the oppressors.  Buddhists are telling liberation Christians that compassion has no preferences.  We love the oppressor as much as we love the oppressed. Our calls for justice intend the well-being of the oppressor just as much as the well-being of the oppressed.  

Lama Makransky puts it this way:

To defend those who suffer most intensively against depredations of the powerful is not to decide for the powerless over the powerful but to choose the fuller humanity in both, and so to confront both differently– challenging the powerless to discover their power, challenging the powerful by working to stop actions that not only hurt the poor but also impede their own fuller humanity.10

And when the oppressor sees this, when he realizes that he is indeed being confronted but that the confrontation arises out of compassion and respect, when he hears from his confronter not only that he is wrong, but also, and primarily, that he is loved – then, perhaps only then, we have the possibility of changing the structures of injustice, for then there will be the possibility of a change of heart in the oppressors. Such a non-preferential option for compassion that extends equally and clearly to both oppressed and oppressors will be the foundation on which justice can be built, on which structures can be changed.

In conclusion, I suggest that while the Buddhist-Christian dialogue has promise of bearing rich fruits in many areas of spirituality and practice, one of the areas where such fruits are most promising – and most urgently needed – is in the task that faces all nations and all religions:  how to address the sufferings that so afflict people and planet. In this, in striving for the liberation that both the Dharma and the Gospel promise, the followers of Jesus and Buddha have much to learn from each other.

  1. Richard A. Horsley, Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity International Press, 1999); id. The Message and the Kingdom: How Jesus and Paul Ignited a Revolution and Transformed the Ancient World (New York: Grosset/Putnam, 1997); John Dominic Crossan, Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography (San Francisco: HarperSan Francisco, 1994); Brigitte Kahl, Galatians Re-imagined: Reading with the Eyes of the Vanquished (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010).
  2. One of the most poignant expressions of this “preferential option for the poor” is offered in Jon Sobrino’s  No Salvation Outside the Poor: Prophetic-Utopian Essays (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2008).
  3. Maria Reis Habito, “Buddhism in the West: Self-Realization or Self-Indulgence?” Website of Maria Kannon Zen Center, http://bit.ly/1yMSjOl. Accessed Dec. 3, 2014.
  4. Of course, many Christian churches are equally, or much more, deserving of such a criticism; churches that are prompt to take up collections for the poor are reluctant to support policies calling for universal health care or an increase of the minimum wage.
  5. See Daniel G. Groody, ed. The Option for the Poor in Christian Theology (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007).
  6. Lee Cormie, “The Hermeneutical Privilege of the Oppressed,” in Catholic Theological Society of America Proceedings 33 (1978): 78ff.; Jean-Pierre Ruiz, “The Bible and Liberation: Between the Preferential Option for the Poor and the Hermeneutical Privilege of the Poor,” in Readings from the Edges: The Bible and People on the Move (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2011) 24-33.
  7. John Makransky, “How Contemporary Buddhist Practice Meets the Secular World in Its Search for a Deeper Grounding for Service and Social Action:” and “Compassion Beyond Fatigue: Contemplative Training for People Who Serve Others.” Available at website of the Foundation for Active Compassion (http://www.foundationforactivecompassion.org/)/   Id. “A Buddhist Critique of, and Learning from, Christian Liberation Theology,: Theological Studies 75 (2014): 635-57.
  8. (New York: Riverhead, 1995) 79.
  9. Makransky, “A Buddhist Critique,” 648.
  10. Op. cit. 649.