By Dorota Golebiewska Editor's note: This article appeared in the Polish newspaper Zycie Warszawy (Life of Warsaw). The author (friend and co-practitioner) was asked to explain the background of the conflict between the Pope and Sri Lankan Buddhists. Dorota writes, "I felt reluctant at first. I had a feeling that the harm had already been done. The Pope's book is being widely read, and I felt the best answer to it would be to show what is really beautiful about Buddhism instead of joining the chorus of critics on either side. I tried to deal with it without igniting even more conflict, distrust, and confusion. Some people later called me to say that they felt very good about the text; that it seemed to bring about some harmony. I was really happy to hear that."
The Pope's conflict with Buddhist leaders of Sri Lanka, based on his statements in Crossing the Threshold of Hope, cast a shadow on his recent Asian pilgrimage. Distressed by the Pope's "spreading of distorted views of their religion," the Sri Lankan patriarchs rejected an invitation to join prayers with the Pope and decided to boycott his visit. A few days before the Pope's arrival to Sri Lanka where Buddhists form 70 percent of the population of 18 million, antipapal gatherings became an everyday event. A church and a Buddhist temple were set on fire. Sri Lankan priests warned of undefined "acts of religious protest."
The Pope's repeated words of "profound respect and highest esteem" for Buddhism were rejected by Sri Lanka's spiritual leaders as insufficient and unsatisfactory. They demanded an official apology and withdrawal from the Pope's book certain remarks that they found "false, insulting, and degrading"—remarks calling Buddhism "a largely atheistic system," and "a doctrine of negative salvation," offering liberation from the world's evils only through rejection of the world and withdrawal from society. Sri Lanka's Buddhist Federation also called the Pope's identification of Buddhist enlightenment with "indifference to the world" and his critical remarks on Buddhism's "ascetic methods and meditation" derogatory. The Pope writes, "Enlightenment achieved by the Buddha is limited to a belief that the world is bad. It is the source of evil and suffering. To liberate oneself from this evil, one has to turn away from the world.. .the source of evil. That is the point where the spiritual growth comes to an end."
This Pope's vision strengthens the stereotype of Buddhists as "crazy folk," spending their days sitting crosslegged because of pervasive embitterment. However, if this were the whole truth about the Buddha, it would be hard to understand how this figure of 2,600 years ago continues to move the hearts and minds of millions of people. Unfortunately, the Pope's understanding is not uncommon and stems from the typical difficulties that the Western mind encounters when trying to understand the Eastern mind.
The Pope's Buddha resembles more the Christian ascetics of the Middle Ages who condemned the body and the worldly life as sinful by nature than the Hindu Prince Siddhartha Gautama. The spiritual revolution started by Gautama in ancient India was based largely on his rejection of ascetic practices sanctified in those days, such as rejecting one's body. For a Buddhist, the world cannot be the source of evil because he rejects the idea of evil as such and believes that anything that exists is good, just by the fact of its existence. The source of suffering is not the world itself but the distorted way in which we tend to see it based on greed, hatred, and delusion. According to his teachings, these "curtains" can fall off our eyes through the practice of open up to the presence of God's Kingdom and find it truly available in the here and now," says one of the most famous contemporary Buddhist teachers, Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. It is really difficult to call these words "spreading atheism," even as they come from a practitioner of a religion that prefers to speak of God as "the absolute" or "ultimate reality."
When talking about the meaning of Buddhist enlightenment, Thay brings in the figure of St. Francis as the son of a rich merchant, throwing his father's gold at his feet and leaving home to spread "the Good News" and live only on what is offered to him, not in any way an ascetic aimed at degrading himself, but rather expressing his joyful faith and perfect inner freedom. In times when the faithful question the Church's accumulation of worldly wealth, this young man of Assisi stands as someone trying to realize Jesus' teachings of life as the lilies live, without worry, lacking nothing, because the Lord takes care of their needs and makes them the most beautiful of flowers. When St. Francis asks a tree to spread the word of God's glory, the tree blossoms in midwinter. "This is one of the most beautiful tales of the nature of enlightenment," comments Thay. "Meditation is not an escape from reality. When you silence your mind, and the curtains of fear and anger fall off your eyes, you start to see more clearly the beauty of the sun and the flowers, the smile of those you love, and the suffering of those who have made you suffer. This gives birth to true love and compassion, and you are capable of feeling deep unity with all the universe." The fruits of meditation defined this way seem a long way from " indifference to the world as the source of all evil."
The chapter of the Pope's book entitled "Buddha?" cannot be considered an objective review of the main ideas of Buddhism. The Pope is openly addressing all those Christians who perceive Eastern spirituality as an alternative or supplement to Catholicism. The Pope concentrates on the differences between the teachings of the Buddha and those of Christ. He does not conceal his aim of discouraging Christians from turning to Buddhism. Finally, the Pope says quite clearly, "In this moment, it seems necessary to warn Christians who are enthusiastically open to diverse propositions deriving from religious traditions of the East regarding methods of meditation and ascetics. It seems to me it would be much better if these young people would get a profound knowledge of their own spiritual heritage first and reconsider if it is appropriate for them to deny it without regret."
In this point, we can note a similar statement by one of the highest authorities in contemporary Buddhism, exiled Tibetan leader, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. "Buddhism is the best way for Buddhists. Westerners should reconsider before they turn away from their original traditions. If you have been born Christian, it is quite probable that Christianity is your way. If it is Buddhism, there is a fair chance you would have been born a Buddhist. So maybe before you change your religion, you better try to meet the challenge there for you in your original tradition," says the Dalai Lama to enthusiastic European crowds.
Living in exile in France, Thich Nhat Hanh encourages his Western students—and there are thousands of them—to use Buddhist practice to help them come to terms with their religious heritage. To this end, for example, he modified the practice of "the Five Prostrations" aimed at cultivating forgiveness: "Now I see Jesus and Mary, as my spiritual teachers and guides. I know that I have lost touch with them due to human imperfection of those who tried unsuccessfully to transfer the true treasure of religion to me. Now I go back to my spiritual roots and rediscover the jewels hidden in Christianity, and I bow down before Jesus."
Thich Nhat Hanh encourages his students to take what is the true heart of his teachings and practice it within their own spiritual traditions. In his opinion, the real problem lies not in questions about Buddhist doctrine being more or less attractive, or higher or lower than Christianity. The true problem lies in a kind of vacuum created by unaddressed spiritual needs, especially among young people. In this vacuum, it seems the role of spiritual leaders falls into the hands of rock stars, actors, and self-declared gurus of unknown origins. Rather than waste their time on issues of control and the strengthening of Church authority, Catholic priests should make all efforts to find authentic Catholic teachings, based on true understanding and love, to reach these young people's hearts and minds.
"I consider myself a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, and I take his teachings seriously," says Alison, an American psychotherapist. "After returning home from a retreat with Thay, I visited my local parish church. I explained to the pastor that I was a Buddhist and I told him what had brought me to the church. I started to attend services and read the Bible, and he started quoting Buddhist teachings in his sermons. But why did I have to become a Buddhist to discover Christ?"
A serious attempt to answer this question seems a much more creative approach to these young Christians whom the Pope would like to save from getting overenthusiastic about Eastern spirituality, rather than discussing which religion is "better." After all, as the Vatican II Sobor, quoted by the Pope in his book, said, "The Holy Spirit can act effectively even outside of the visible Church through semina verbi (seeds of the Word) sown throughout the great religions of the world. Practicing the great religions, one can also experience the glory of revelation."
As for Buddhism, like any great religion, it also has many faces—the one of loving understanding as presented here by Thich Nhat Hanh, and the other one of the angry and insulted, declaring "war at the top" to the Pope for his wrong understanding of ideas deriving from a culture different from his own.
Dorota Golebiewska is a journalist and an active member of the Sangha in Warsaw, Poland.