Tuesday, January 25, 2005

How should non-Christians deal with Christian "apologists" and proslytizers?

I have over the years, came to see Christian apologists as a kind of snake-oil salesman. Christian proslytizers often seem like medicine men peddling cures for which there is no disease.

Too often the viewpoints of non-Christians are misrepresented, and too often only one kind of Christianity is represented as "the" Christianity. To me, then these folks are basically pureyors of false witness against everyone but their own viewpoint, and their mission seems to be to suppress other views.

This has been the case for a long time. The first Japanese Zen Buddhist monk in America, Soyen Shaku experienced it:

Friends in America have sent me a number of the Chicago Tribune, dated Monday, January 13, 1896, which contains the report of your second Haskell lecture, delivered at the Kent Theater in the Chicago University. The subject is "Christianity and Buddhism," and I anticipated a friendly and sympathetic treatment of Buddhism at your hands, for I do not doubt that you desire to be just in your judgment. Your utterances are of importance because they will be received as an impartial representation of our religion, since you, having been Chairman of the Religious Parliament, are commonly considered to have the best of information about those religions that were represented at this famous assemblage. I was greatly disappointed, however, seeing that you only repeat those errors which are common in the various Western books on Buddhism. You say, "The goal which made Buddha's teachings a dubious gospel, is Nirvâna, which involves the extinction of love and life,as the going out of a flame which has nothing else to feed upon." Now the word Nirvâna means "extinction" and it means the eradication of all evil desires, of all passions, of all egotism, so that the flame of envy, hatred, and lust will have nothing to feed upon. This is the negative side of Nirvâna. The positive side of Nirvâna consists in the recognition of truth. The destruction of evil desires, of envy, hatred, extinction of selfishness implies charity, compassion with all suffering, and a love that is unbounded and infinite. Nirvâna means extinction of lust, not of love; extinction of evil, not of existence; of egotistic craving, not of life. The eradication of all that is evil in man's heart will set all his energies free for good deeds, and he is no genuine Buddhist who would not devote his life to active work, and a usefulness which would refuse neither his friends nor strangers, nor even his very enemies.

You say that "human life does not breathe, in Buddhism, the atmosphere of divine fatherhood, but groans under the dominion of inexorable and implacable laws." Now, I grant that Buddha taught the irrefragability of law, but this is a point in which, as in so many others, Buddha's teachings are in exact agreement with the doctrines of modern science. However, you ought to consider that while the law is irrefragable, no one but those who infringe upon it groan under it. He who understands the laws of existence, and especially the moral law that underlies the development of human society, will accommodate himself to it, and thus he win not groan under it, but in the measure that he is like Buddha he will be enlightened, he will be a master of the law and not a slave. In the same way that the ignorant savage is killed by the electric shock of lightning, while an electric engineer uses it for lighting the halls and streets of our cities, the immoral man suffers from the moral law, he groans under its inexorable and implacable decree, while the moral man enjoys it, and turning it to advantage glories in its boundless blessings.

This same moral law is the source of enlightenment and its recognition constitutes Buddhahood. This same moral law we call Dharmakâya, which is eternal, omnipresent, and all-glorious. We represent it under a picture of a father, and it was incarnated not only in Gautama-Buddha, but also in all great men in a higher or lesser degree, foremost among them in Jesus Christ, and, allow me to add, in George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and other great men of your country. Allow me to add, too, that Buddha's doctrine, far from being skepticism, proclaims the doctrine that man can attain enlightenment and that he attains it not only through study and learning, which, as a matter of course, are indispensable, but also and mainly through the earnest exertions of a life of purity and holiness.

There are many more points in your lecture which I feel tempted to discuss with you, but they refer more to Christianity than to Buddhism, and may imply a misunderstanding of Christian doctrines on my part. I am anxious to know all that is good in Christianity and the significance of your dogmas, so that I may grow in a comprehension of truth, but I have not as yet been able to see that mankind can be benefited by believing that Jesus Christ performed miracles. I do not deny the miracles nor do I believe them; I only claim that they are irrelevant. The beauty and the truth of many of Christ's sayings fascinate me, but truth does not become clearer by being pronounced by a man who works miracles. You say that, "We can explain Buddha without the miracles which later legends ascribe to him, but we cannot explain Christ--either his person or his influence--without granting the truth of his own claim that he did the supernatural works of his father." We may grant that Jesus Christ is the greatest master and teacher that appeared in the West after Buddha, but the picture of Jesus Christ as we find it in the Gospel is marred by the accounts of such miracles as the great draft of fishes, which involves a great and useless destruction of life (for we read that the fishermen followed Jesus, leaving the fish behind), and by the transformation of water into wine at the marriage-feast at Cana. Nor has Jesus Christ attained to the calmness and dignity of Buddha, for the passion of anger overtook him in the temple, when he drove out with rope in hand those that bargained in the holy place.

How different would Buddha have behaved under similar conditions in the same place! Instead of whipping the evil-doers he would have converted them, for kind words strike deeper than the whip.

Now to me, it's interesting that Soyen Shaku made this appeal to science, since it showed that he was a man bound by his times and by attaching science to Buddhism he no doubt thought he was scoring points (although to me minduflness parallels the tentative and phenomenological nature of the scientific method).

But it's clear that in Soyen Shaku's mind, answering Christian "apologists" and proslytizers was important because non-Buddhists "ought to know the real teachings of Buddha," and because it would "make possible the way for a better understanding between all the religions of the world."

Where I differ with Soyen Shaku, though, is I doubt that such folks as encountered today uniformly "unknowingly misrepresent the doctrines of the Tathâgata." I think that many of these folks knowingly choose to remain ignorant, because it would undercut their arguments and, in their minds, impair their ability to snag converts. Too much information is available today to give these folks an excuse which passes the giggle test.

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