A Shallow, Self-Serving Comparison Between Christianity and Buddhism

Being a good Buddhist is just as hard as being a good Christian. You have to love/feel compassion for Donald Trump (or Barack Obama if you’re a Republican) and dedicate your life to dismantling your ego.

By the same token, being a bad Buddhist is just as easy as being a bad Christian; except in Buddhism no crucifixion, no propitiation, in fact, no god can save you from yourself.

The good news is that there’s no smiting in Buddhism, no flagellation.

After death, good Protestants enjoy the luxury of carte blanche expiation – complete and utter forgiveness –a get-out-of-hell-free card redeemable at the very last breath.[1] No matter the depth of depravity, no matter the severity of the sins committed, whether it is talking about your spouse behind her back, cheating on her, or even murdering and dismembering her, one size of forgiveness fits all as long as you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and savior.

Then you get to spend the rest of eternity in bliss.

In Buddhism, on the other hand, what you get after death is reincarnation, which in the First World means the messy trauma of childbirth followed by the scrapping of knees, getting bullied/turned down for dates, the prelude to ultimately getting your increasingly not-so-tender heart-broken. So you drop out of college, say, find a job working 40+ hours a week in low-level management. You get married, commit adultery or get cheated on yourself, file for divorce, and suffer the subsequent finger wagging of offspring criticizing you for your blatant hypocrisy.

All the while, you’re undergoing the disheartening recession of your hairline or the accumulation of cellulite on the back of your dented thighs.

If you’re really unlucky and live too long of a life, you end up getting warehoused in some Kafkaesque facility with sadistic healthcare workers until it’s time to die alone in a sterile cubicle stinking of chemicals.

Then you get reincarnated and suffer all of it over again.

Of course, I don’t believe in reincarnation except in the sense that the matter that once constituted your body’s going to get recycled. Otherwise, my reckoning is that when you’re dead, you’re oblivious, i.e., no longer sentient, which, given the above four paragraphs, is fine and dandy by me.

One big advantage a believing Christian has over the Buddhist is the comforting idea of an astral parent who, despite his mysterious ways, supposedly loves you unconditionally (until you’re judged at the End Times and are perhaps cast into sulfurous perdition everlasting). Christians can communicate with God, ask for his guidance. During my wife’s three-years of terminal cancer, I thought more than once how nice it would be to be blessed with faith, but as far as I can tell, you either have it or not, and I don’t, nor did she, a woman whose stoicism might make Marcus Aurelius turn green with envy.

Buddhism does offer, however, a set of mental exercises designed to help you, not only to cope, but also enjoy the time you have by being cognizant of the wonder of it all. Buddhism reminds us that we’re riding on a swirling pebble revolving around a fleck of fire hurtling through a vacuum, but also teaches us how to calmly appreciate the painted bunting bathing in that birdbath on the edge of the marsh, an experience ultimately more meaningful than playing Grand Theft Auto or binge watching Season 2 of The Walking Dead.

Of course, Christians can co-opt these Buddhist exercises and meditate, and that would, it seems to me, to constitute the best of both worlds for those who possess the power to believe.

Although I’m a slackass Buddhist, meditation has helped me to cope calmly with the bad and appreciate the good. When I was young, I was jittery, as if Mexican jumping beans instead of blood pulsed through my veins. I was angry at the world in general and at that asshole talking too loud in line in particular. Now, I’m calmer, essentially anger free, and can stand or sit still. Sometimes I’m even able to free my consciousness from the spinning hamster wheel of daily concerns that tend to consume way too much of my fleeting existence.

If you haven’t tried meditating, you ought to.


[1] I’m not sure if US Catholics still believe in Purgatory, but there you do have to suffer for your misdeeds, “confined to fast in fires” until “the foul crimes done” in your life “are burnt and purged away.”

Why Paul Ryan Should Read Flannery O’Connor

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“As far as I am concerned,” she said and glared at him fiercely, Christ was just another D.P.”

Mrs. May to Father Flynn in Flannery O’Connor’s “The Displaced Person”

 

The most heartbreaking of all Flannery O’Connor’s stories, “The Displaced Person,” seems particularly poignant given the ban on Muslim refugees instated last weekend.[1] Set right after WW2, the story dramatizes the attempted assimilation of a Polish refugee into bigoted backwoods Georgia.

As David Griffith points out in his excellent essay on the story in The Paris Review:

O’Connor takes her title from the Displaced Persons Act, which, between 1948 and 1952, permitted the immigration of some four hundred thousand European refugees into the United States. President Truman signed the bill with “very great reluctance” for what he saw as its discriminatory policy toward Jews and Catholics: the Act stipulated that, in order to be eligible, one must have entered Germany, Italy, or Austria before December 22, 1945, which, according to Truman, ruled out 90 percent of the remaining Jewish people displaced by the war. Similarly excluded were the many Catholics who’d fled their largely Communist countries after the December 22 deadline.

“The bad points of the bill are numerous,” Truman wrote. “Together they form a pattern of discrimination and intolerance wholly inconsistent with the American sense of justice.” He called the decision to enforce the December 1945 deadline “inexplicable, except upon the abhorrent ground of intolerance.”

In the story, O’Connor’s displaced person’s work ethic so far exceeds that of the slothful, under-compensated blacks and whites who work on Mrs. May’s farm that he threatens their livelihoods. Worse than that, he violates Southern taboo of racial purity when tries to contract a marriage between a black field hand and his young Polish cousin languishing in a camp back home.

When an outraged Mrs. May confronts Mr. Guizac about the proposed interracial marriage — “You would bring [that] poor innocent child over here and try to marry her to a half-witted thieving black stinking nigger” — he says quite sensibly, “She no care black [. . .] She in camp three year.”

In the end, xenophobia and bigotry triumph over charity as the displaced person – the one good man to be found in that collection called A Good Man Is Hard to Find – is done away with.

She had felt her eyes and Mr. Shortley’s eyes and the Negro’s eyes come together in one look that froze in collusion forever, and she heard the little noise the Pole made as the tractor wheel broke his backbone.

* * *

Obviously, refugees rank as some of the planet’s most vulnerable souls, driven from their homelands — from their familiar cultures — into alien worlds of gibberish, incomprehensible mores, and worse.

The refugees turned away this weekend had undergone as much as 48 months of vetting from several agencies and pose virtually no terrorism threat whatsoever. No one from the banned countries has ever committed a terrorist attack on US soil – unlike citizens from Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, and Pakistan, who weren’t included in the ban, people from countries where Trump has business interests.

Imagine the refugees’ heartache after so much suffering, boarding a plane headed for their dreamed of destination, only to be turned away and sent on a long, long flight back to perdition.

Of course, it’s not surprising that the sadist Trump would shatter the hopes of the dispossessed to score political points. After all, as many have pointed out, he’s cruel, hosted a reality TV show in which he lovingly embraced the chance to humiliate people with the words “you’re fired.” No one would expect him to take refugees’ plights to heart.

On the other hand, you might think Paul Ryan, who embraces his Catholicism the way Steve Bannon does his booze, would take Jesus’s words more to heart. But Ryan has come out fully supporting the ban.

I’ll let Jesus – the ultimate Displaced Person – have the last say:

Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. (Matthew 5:3)
Blessed are those who mourn: for they will be comforted. (5:4)
Blessed are the meek: for they will inherit the earth. (5:5)
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness: for they will be filled. (5:6)
Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy. (5:7)
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God. (5:8)
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God. (5:9)
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (5:10)
Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you. .5:11-12

Oh, by the way, what was the percentage of evangelists’ votes Trump garnered?


[1] The Trump’s claim that it’s not a ban on Muslims rings hollow when the administration offers exemptions to Christians and Jews.

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God’s in Hospice, and I Ain’t Feeling So Hot Myself

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God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? 

~ Nietzsche, The Gay Science, Section 125, tr. Walter Kaufmann 1882

Why, then, ’tis none to you, for there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.

~   Hamlet to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Hamlet 2.2   c. 1600

Despite the scrumptious, about-to be-devoured meals I see on my hedonistic Facebook feed[1] (accompanied by their self-congratulatory “not-to-shabby” captions), within the concrete walls of my work world, I’m much more likely to hear “Happy Friday” than “Life is Good.”

It could be I’m merely projecting my late life dissatisfaction onto the rest of my American brethren; however, the contemporary novels I read tend to support my thesis that a majority of our citizens are unhappy with their lot. The novelistic worlds of Jonathan Franzen, Jenny Offill, or Colum McCann are worlds of woe, of fragmentation, of fractured families where spouses spit spleen at one another and disaffected children fail to prosper. And certainly, the recent US election suggests that 46% of voters would rather cast their lots with a ranting, inarticulate prevaricator who promises change than suffer through four more years of a considerably less corrupt status quo.

Ch-ch-ch-change.

The reasons for our unhappiness are no doubt manifold, but I’m going to suggest that the decline in religious belief and observation must play a significant role in our Great Dissatisfaction.   Now, I don’t want to get into the barren argument of whether there is or isn’t a deity, of whether belief is an illusion or disbelief a delusion, but rather, how the absence of religious observation – and by observation I mean not only attending services but also following precepts – might lead to malaise.

A recent Pew Research Center study of Religion in Everyday Life supports this contention:

“Highly religious people are distinctive in their day-to-day behaviors in several key ways: They are more engaged with their families, more involved in their communities and more likely to report being happy with the way things are going in their lives.”

The scoop, though, is that in the US Protestant Christianity and non-Orthodox Judaism are in decline.

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The population of Orthodox Jews is growing by 5,000 per year, but the more liberal, non-Orthodox Jew population is shrinking by 10,000 per year. Liberal politicians used to count on strong support from the Jewish community, and while the more secular leaning Jews still vote mostly Democrat, the growing Orthodox sect identifies much more with a conservative mindset, which further divides its dwindling numbers. from World Religion News

As far as the US is concerned, it seems as if Nietzsche was a bit premature in declaring God dead, but when it comes to not merely believing but also adhering to the precepts of American religion, God has entered hospice care.

It seems to me that observation — what Buddhists and Jews call “practicing” –makes a significant difference in achieving some sort of happiness, that it’s not merely enough to call yourself a Christian or Buddhist or Jew to achieve the peace that passeth understanding.

I’ll use myself as an example. For years – almost thirty to be non-exact – I dabbled in Buddhism, in fact, declared myself to be a Buddhist. I read books, meditated, served ever so briefly on the board of a Tibetan Society, could rattle off the Four Noble Truths and Eight-Fold Golden Path, plus chant the mantra “Om Mani Padme Hum” with the best of them.

the blogger talking Dharma back in the day

the blogger talking Dharma back in the day

Although Buddhism didn’t offer the promise of eternal bliss, it did provide a regimen of meditative exercises to help me come to grips with life’s slings and arrows. When I was a practicing Buddhist, I had at least embraced a system of belief, but here’s the rub, you can’t merely be a Buddhist, you have to practice Buddhism, you have to meditate, you must also do. Therefore, I no longer consider myself a Buddhist but a Dharma Dilettante.

Why did I give it up, you ask. It’s very, very, very hard work, which, as the Bodhisattvas say, may take lifetimes to achieve.

Should I mention distractions like the Internet and the unhappy fact that I enjoy mockery?

Am I happier as a non-Buddhist?

No.

As far as Christianity is concerned, I don’t think you need “to practice” to consider yourself a Christian but you can merely be one. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity does offer the prospect of eternal life, and it seems to me that even if God clings to life, that his adversary Satan is as dead as a doornail when it comes to personal belief (see Hamlet above), so I suspect that most non-practicing Christians don’t see the afterlife as binary, that they’re all going to heaven if they mutter some sort of prayer in what Lucinda Williams has called “those long last moments.”

However, what ultimately makes people happy is the extinction of ego, and if that’s the case, it’s no wonder people in the Age of Social Media are dissatisfied, despite their magical powers of conjuring movies and music instantaneously; it’s no wonder that our   novels depressive, our sci-fi dystopian.

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[1] I know, given the context, an unfortunate choice of words.

The O.T. Abridged, Illustrated

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Once upon a time, and a very good time it was, God walked in a garden with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day. Eve and Adam were naked, perhaps He was, too.

We have no record about what they discussed. Perhaps the symphony of birdsong, the perfume of the never fading flowers, the always perfectly ripe fruit multi-hued in the golden light?

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That was before the fratricide and the subsequent drowning of the puppies and kittens in the sad days when fruit rotted and raptors shrieked and reeking carcasses bloated.
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Begetting, covenants, sacrifices, oracles, famines, plagues, kings, concubines, wars, circumcision, prophecies, etc.

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A good bit later, according to the Hebrew arrangement of scrolls, God spoke his last recorded words an individual.

They were addressed to boil-encrusted Job regarding the awesomeness of whales.

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The End