The Next Buddha is Sangha

During the 1960s and ‘70s, Western seekers of all backgrounds journeyed to the birthplace of Buddhism in search of awakening. Among these were Jan Willis, acclaimed Baptist-Buddhist author and teacher whose work resounds with me, as well as many others who in large part are responsible for the development of Buddhism in the West. For many years, I wanted to take this journey too until I realized that the hybridity is already alive in my present experience. Wherever I go (especially in New York), it seems there is no avoiding the grand convergence of ideas and traditions. Stepping into this confluence of signals, I make no resistance to the intertextual tide.

The question of multiple religious belonging keeps bubbling up. Where to devote this age-old conviction- it’s complicated. In taking up Buddhist practice, I don’t want to go on the grab-bag approach to religion, picking out all my favorite parts from various traditions until I come up with my own perfect mix. I also don’t want to make my Christian comrades feel I’ve jumped ship. But more so, I try to make sense of it personally. Between the dash of Christian-Buddhist, there is a lot of synergy going on, but I feel the urge to organize, compartmentalize things.

Let me stop here and come back to the breath. Ah, yes- I remember how the Apostle Paul told us to pray without ceasing (1 Thes 5:17). I first learned a bit of what he meant by that when I visited the Insight Nashville vipassana group a few years back. I noticed how mindfulness practice could seep into my daily actions and stay with me. I resolved to follow that thread and discover just what it meant – in my old home language – to rest in the Spirit.

Paul had some radical ideas on prayer. Many times in prayer, the Spirit would speak unto itself, a sort of divine mirror when the words weren’t there. Always to pray in the Spirit- what did it mean? This strange force that “searches everything, even the depths of God” – Paul wanted us to abide in it (1 Cor 2:10, NRSV). In vipassana practice, I thought I might draw nearer to what Paul called the mind of Christ.

Jesus, too, had some things to say in this regard. He sharply instructed his devotees to drop the wordiness, saying, “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:7-8). I learned to rest there instead, letting the waves of thought and phenomena rise and subside. From this angle, the prayers of Jesus and Paul started to look like the “sublime abiding here and now” of the Karaniya Metta Sutta to me (Thanissaro Bhikkhu trans.).

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Fumble as I may, I can’t help searching for a middle way here. More and more, I’m learning to take the Buddha’s advice and simply investigate direct experience.

Jan Willis speaks about her Baptist-Buddhist designation not as a philosophical move but rather the result of a personal experience of crisis. Once, when aboard a crashing plane, she had the realization that she was calling on both traditions for refuge. “It was in my heart,” she said, the stirrings of both Christian and Buddhist faith. This deep insight rings true when you peer within and see the long roots of where you’ve been and what has sustained you.

In the same way, I seem to inhabit both zones, and at a gut, subconscious level I feel no differentiation or margin. Buddhist practice has reinforced and invigorated the roots of my Christian tradition, and my conviction lies squarely in that fact. “What do you take refuge in? What do you count on?” Willis asked. At this point, my question of multiple religious belonging dissolves into a larger space: Buddha mind, mind of Christ.

Earlier this year, I went on my first silent retreat at Insight Meditation Center in Barre, Massachusetts. In the small room leading to the meditation hall, there are two stained glass images of Jesus- one depicting the Last Supper and the other his plea to God on the Mount of Olives before the crucifixion. During the walking meditation periods, I found myself steadying back and forth between these two images. These pivotal, crossroads moments where life bifurcates and opens; moments of courage, acceptance. Each step a chance for freedom. Each breath a chance for peace.