A: There’s been a trend in the past few decades to try to equate your teachings with the teachings of the Buddha, to try to show that Jesus and Buddha were teaching the same universal truths. This trend seems particularly true of those who are interested in placing you among the apophatic mystics of Christian history — mystics such as Gregory of Nyssa, Pseudo-Dionysios, the Cloud of Unknowing, and John of the Cross. Thomas Merton, a well-known Roman Catholic Trappist contemplative, was very interested in establishing a dialogue with Buddhist monks. What are your thoughts on the universality of faith and spiritual practice?
J (sighing): You’ve asked a very, very difficult question. There’s no easy answer, but I’ll try to express some of my thoughts. A book such as Thich Nhat Hanh’s Living Buddha, Living Christ (New York: Berkley-Riverhead, 1995) is so beautiful and so kind and so sincere that I want to say I agree with everything he says. But I don’t. I can’t. I can’t agree with the underlying premises, the underlying doctrines of Buddhist belief. On the other hand — and this is where it gets very messy, very complicated — I agree with a lot of the spiritual practices that Thich Nhat Hanh describes. I agree very much with the path of mindfulness and compassion. I agree with the desire to create communities of peace. I agree with the decision to take action to create positive change. These are aspects of faith that are, indeed, universal. I don’t think anyone would disagree. No matter what religious tradition a person belongs to, the truest expression of faith — the truest expression of humanity — has always been a life lived with mindfulness, compassion, peace, and transformative change. This is true for Buddhists, Jews, Muslims, Christians, and other religions, as well. At any time and in any place there have been some Buddhists and some Jews and some Muslims and some Christians who’ve chosen, as individuals, to pursue the path of true faith. These are the people who’ve consciously tried to help heal communities, families, and individuals. They chose this path because they thought it was the right thing to do.
A: You’re placing the emphasis on individual choice rather than on formal religious beliefs or doctrines.
J: I’m drawing a very clear line here between religion and faith. Religion, as it’s practised in major world religions today, including various schools of Buddhism and various schools of Christiantiy, is one of the biggest obstacles to faith. Faith — by that I mean a relationship with God based on courage, trust, gratitude, and devotion — is supposed to be an everyday part of life. An everyday experience. An everyday sense of belonging. A sense of belonging to Creation, belonging to God’s family. It’s the opposite of abandonment or estrangement from God. Faith is quiet acceptance. It’s compassion. It’s empathy. It’s balance. It’s wholeness. It’s pure humbleness and contentment.
A: Religion doesn’t teach this.
J: No. Religion gets in the way of this. It doesn’t have to. In fact, the world would be a healthier place if people could meet each week on the Sabbath to express their faith and share their spiritual experiences together in a safe spiritual environment. This would be church at its best. Unfortunately, this isn’t what church has become in the Western world. Church has become a place to centralize the authority of narcissistic, fear-mongering men and women. Church has become a place to take people farther away from God, not closer.
A: If you were incarnated as a human being today, would you turn to Buddhism for answers to the questions that Pauline Christianity doesn’t answer very well?
J (sadly shaking his head): No. As I said earlier, Buddhism has some important things to say about spiritual practice — about living the teachings of compassion and mindfulness each day, rather than just speaking of them. There’s more insistence in Buddhism on outward actions matching inward intent. And this is important. It’s integrity, after all. Integrity is what you get when your inner choices match your outer actions. It’s the opposite of hypocrisy. Integrity is an important part of peaceful community. I respect this underlying impulse in Buddhist thought.
A: Yet, based on what you’ve already said, you believe this underlying impulse towards daily practice and integrity is not specifically Buddhist. It’s a universal part of true faith.
J: Yes. All human beings are born with this capacity. Unfortunately, like all aspects of human growth and learning, the capacity for mindful, compassionate practice can be lost. “Use it or lose it” — that’s how the human brain and central nervous system work. All human beings are born with the innate capacity to love and forgive, as well, but as experience shows, many individuals lose both. They lose both their ability to love and their ability to forgive. These are the bullies, the psychopaths, and the narcissists. The same people who’ve been in charge of formal religious instruction in most parts of the world.
A: I get that part. But why do you feel uncomfortable with the trend towards having your teachings conflated with Buddha’s teachings?
J: It’s the cosmology. It’s the core assumptions. I don’t agree with either. How could I? I mean, it would be ludicrous for an angel speaking from the Other Side in partnership with a human mystic to claim there is no God. Buddhism, after all, is a non-theistic religion. In Buddhism, there’s a belief in an ultimate reality, but this reality isn’t a person in the way that you and I talk about God the Mother and God the Father as actual identifiable people — unique, distinct, and both very, very big. Buddhism also rejects the idea of an immortal soul, a distinct consciousness that continues to exist after the death of the physical body. And this is before we get to Buddhist teachings about karma and the nature of suffering, impermanence, rebirth, and enlightenment.
A: What are your thoughts on karma?
J: It’s a form of Materialist philosophy — a profound reliance on the idea that universal laws of cause and effect exist, laws that must be followed and can’t be broken. I reject pure Materialism as a model for explaining and understanding the complex interactions of all life in Creation. It leaves no room for God’s free will. It leaves no room for the profound mysteries of forgiveness, redemption, and humbleness (as opposed to humility). It’s also incredibly depressing when you think about it.
A: The idea that the universe is holding you accountable for choices you can’t even remember from previous “lives” — or previous manifestations.
J: Yes. The idea of blaming the poor and the sick and the downtrodden for their own misfortunes when it’s usually a group’s own leaders who have made the sick sick and the downtrodden downtrodden.
A: How do you feel about the question of rebirth? A number of different religions teach a form of reincarnation. Is there any place for this concept in your understanding of God, soul, and faith?
J: Well, souls can and do incarnate into 3D bodies all the time. But not for the reasons that Buddha taught. Souls don’t incarnate because they “have to.” Of course, as soon as I start talking about souls, it’s clear I’m talking “apples” and the Buddha is talking “oranges.” Souls do exist, and rebirth, when it happens, is not a form of karmic consequence to be escaped at all costs. Most souls who choose to incarnate as human beings on Planet Earth find that a single human lifetime is enough for their unique purposes of learning, growth, and change. However, a small percentage of human beings have already “been there, done that.” They come back a second time because they want to help guide others on a journey that’s often difficult.
A: Mahayana Buddhism teaches that certain enlightened beings choose to “postpone” their reward so they can help others achieve enlightenment. They call these beings “bodhisattvas.” I’ve met a few people in my lifetime who felt somehow more grounded, more connected to the simplicity of spiritual truth, and I’ve called these individuals bodhisattvas.
J: Not unreasonable.
A: I think I’m going to let the cat out of the bag here. I’m going to tell our readers something I’ve known about you for a long time — you were a bodhisattva. A second-time-arounder. A man who messed up big-time during your first lifetime as a human being, and volunteered to go back in as a spiritual teacher and healer. Not because you had to but because you wanted to. For you, second time round was the charm.
J: It’s not something you realize at the time. You can’t even remember anything from your first life as a human being. There’s just a deepening of the connection, I guess you could say. An ability to stay more grounded, more aware of the patterns. It’s not something you can put your finger on, exactly. The sensation is probably best captured by the old maxim, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” A person who has lived once before as a human being is harder to fool with propaganda, spin doctoring, and religious sleight of hand. That’s why they make good mentors.
A: Can you give another example of a well-known person who was a bodhisattva?
J: Glenn Gould, the Canadian musician, was a bodhisattva.
A: No wonder he played so beautifully.