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Family Matters—Welcoming the New Year 2019 

By Ruben L. F. Habito 

Dear colleagues and friends of the Buddhist Christian studies family, 

Let me begin by citing from an inspiring sermon I heard at a Eucharistic celebration on the Feast of the Holy Family, Sunday, 30 December 2018, at St. Johann’s Basilica, in Saarbrücken, Germany. Given the theme of the day, the preacher, as to be expected, spoke about family and its vital role in making (or breaking) us in becoming who we are as human beings. He approached the theme in a way that challenged and further expanded the audience’s horizon of understanding of “family matters”. The reading was based on the Gospel of Luke, 2:42-52, wherein we see the twelve-year old Jesus straying from his parents during a visit to the temple, and after a search, is found by Mary and Joseph, in the company of wise elders of the temple, discussing matters of Divine law with them. 

The preacher first suggested that we need not be stuck on the conventional image of a two-parent family, a married female and male couple raising one or more children together, and also include single-parent families, so-called patchwork families, rainbow families, and as well as families of various forms and sizes, biological as well as non-biological, wherein we human beings find our matrix of support, our grounding, our place of belonging, and most importantly, where we receive the unconditional Love that enables and empowers us to become a contributive and responsible member of society and of the human community. Secondly, he reminded his audience that just as children need to listen to their parents, parents too, need to listen to their children, from whom they can also learn much. And as his third point, he cited Jesus’ injunction to his hearers to go beyond nuclear or biological familial origins and expand the range of whom to consider as one’s family, wider and wider, to embrace “all who live by and follow divine will,” in short, people throughout the world and throughout all ages, of all manner of color, creed, age and ability, who have been born on this earth. 

In sum, the preacher’s message was an invitation to look back at our lives with gratitude, and appreciate the role our family of origins has played in our being who we are, and a challenge to look beyond conventional boundaries and recognize our belonging and responsibility to a much larger family, that is, to our global community. As we acknowledge, claim, and celebrate this belonging to this global family, the eyes of our heart are opened to see how deeply wounded it is, pulled in different directions, marked by situations of violence, animosity, discrimination, injustice and inequality among its members, and now also facing an ecological crisis of colossal proportions. The task that comes upon each of us in this regard is to resolve to work together with other members of this larger family, across our differences in creed and color and age and capacity, towards peace and reconciliation with one another, towards healing on the different levels of our communal existence on this Earth. 

This sermon sparked some further reflections, which I would like to share here, as we usher in and welcome the year 2019. I offer perspectives coming from the Buddhist practice of zazen (seated meditation), as well as from the Christian tradition, both from which I continue to derive nourishment. 

Zazen is the practice of sitting still, breathing with attention, and allowing the mind to be calm and be settled in the here and now. This is the “home base” we are continually invited to return to in our day to day lives, where we experience being at home with ourselves and being at home in the universe. In this state of meditative stillness, we find our grounding, our belonging. We find our constant source of support to be who we are, the source of unconditional Love that enables and empowers us to realize the fullness of all that we are called to be. For those who have yet to try this practice for themselves, the invitation is open: taste and see! (More detail is provided through the following link, which opens to a 9 minute video clip: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_hWvVwL33Ps&t=191s ) It may take some initial struggle and awkwardness, but with persistence over a period of time, as the old Men’s Wearhouse TV ad would say, “I guarantee it!”--- you will find a precious hidden treasure that you will be able to access continually for an entire lifetime. There is much more that can be said about this, but will leave it at that for now. (Those interested may click on the following link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcfcbGz9X5w

From a Christian perspective, the contemplative practice called Centering Prayer may likewise lead to “home base.” (The following link offers basic guidelines to this practice: https://www.wikihow.com/Do-Centering-Prayer ) Other modes of contemplative prayer and practice found in different religious traditions may also bring us to a similar place. Whichever approach we happen to find accessible for us in our individual, social, or religious contexts, as we get accustomed to being still, paying attention, and allowing the mind to be calm and settled in the here and now, the eyes and ears of our hearts are opened to a literally breath-taking and life-giving dimension right there where we are. We are enabled to see that the Holy 

is constantly in our midst, and conversely, that we are always in the midst of the Holy, no matter where we are, no matter what we may be doing or not doing. 

In all this, we may be graced with those special moments whereby we hear, deep within our hearts, at a place “more intimate to us than we are to ourselves” (citing St. Augustine) the Word that Jesus himself heard when he went down the waters of the Jordan River as he was being baptized by John the Baptist: “You are my Beloved, in whom I AM well-pleased.” Who, me? Yes, you! We may hear this Voice being addressed to us in a unique and definitive way, and in so hearing, our lives are transformed from that moment on. This is a moment of awakening, enabling us to realize the answer to the big questions that inevitably come up in our life at some point: “Who am I?” “What am I here for?” “What is this all about?” 

As we experience this Unconditional Love, even with a momentary glimpse given to us at some unexpected moment, we will be able to see how we are being showered with the same Love, every moment of our lives, since our birth, or even before, and even now, and always. Our life will then be lived in a totally different light. As we look around us, our eyes will be opened, and we will be able to see that each and everyone, each and everything that exists, is also embraced by that Love, that same Love that we now know is what constitutes our very being, as it does of everything else that exists in the universe. All of us are wrapped, rapt, in the embrace of that same Love. We are family! 

Another way of putting it is that we are able to directly experience our intimate interconnectedness with each and everything that exists in this universe---every tree, every blade of grass, every star, every mountain, every newborn baby, and also, every child dying of hunger, every victim of discrimination or of violence, every refugee, everyone crying out in anguish, “Why have you forsaken me?” The Earth, groaning in pain, is us. We are the Earth. 

All we can do from here on is spend the rest of our lives giving back this Love to all those around us. This is the boundless heart that the Buddhist treatise on Lovingkindness (Metta Sutta) refers to, in stating: “As a mother protects with her life her child, her only child, have this boundless heart in you toward all beings.” 

From this boundless heart, grounded on the direct experience of being loved unconditionally, comes the realization of kinship with each and everyone and everything in this universe. Such an experience may be given to us, again and again, in different degrees of intensity and duration, in those moments of stillness when are hearts are totally open and awake. And from this comes forth a resolve. We can no longer ignore the woundedness, the violence, the injustice, the discrimination, the racism, the inequality, all the causes of animosity and enmity among our fellow beings, the ecological devastation impinging upon all of us on this Earth, because these are no longer “other” to us. 

The resolve is to take on a way of life and its concomitant paths of action that would seek to contribute to alleviating the pain and the suffering of all that is kin to us. We are able to feel these deeply ourselves, as pertaining to members of our own immediate family! We will thereby be inspired and empowered to live in a way that seeks to make a difference in all this, toward building bridges and not walls, toward healing and reconciliation and not separation. Particular decisions and forms of action and engagement should naturally unfold from this resolve, suited to our situation and capacity. 

May this resolve be ours, each and all of us, for 2019, and for our entire lifetime. 

I offer my deepest thanks to each and everyone of you, colleagues and friends engaged in Buddhist Christian studies, as you are in the circle of those I hold with gratitude in my heart: you are part of what makes me who I am. Let us continue to hold one another in our hearts in mutual support, in cultivating wisdom and compassion in our day to day lives, that we may all be agents of healing in this wounded Earth of ours. 

Palms joined, 

Ruben L. F. Habito 

January 1, 2019 

Buddhism, Christianity and Bodies

By Kristin Largen

For most of us in the United States, fall semester is finishing up with final exams and final papers. I gave my final exam at Gettysburg College earlier in the week, and now my grading is done; so, in the past few days, I have been reflecting on that course and the experience with the students. The class is a first your seminar titled “Beauty, Bodies and Blessings;” in the first part of the course, we examine the contradictory messages about bodies—particularly women’s bodies—in both Buddhism and Christianity. 

When it comes to Christianity, in this Christmas season especially we are reminded of the most obvious positive message around bodies in Christian doctrine; that is, the teaching that God really and truly took on a human body, uniting the Divine with all flesh, and binding God in love to the physical world.  Additionally, we have the two creation stories in Genesis that emphasize God’s care in creating all physical bodies, including the physical bodies of humanity, and calling them good. We also read in the New Testament of Jesus’ care for physical bodies, particularly the bodies of those who are marginalized or suffering, and we are told that our bodies are temples, holy to God, and that we should care for our own bodies, as well as the bodies of others.

In Buddhism, we have the Buddha’s own recognition of the importance of the Middle Way when it comes to enlightenment, and his rejection of both over-indulgence in physical pleasures and also extreme physical austerities. A healthy body is necessary for the religious practices required to attain awakening, and so while the body must not be indulged, it also must not mistreated.  In addition, Buddhism teaches of the auspiciousness of being born in the human realm; human beings are the ones most likely to be able to hear and follow the teachings of the Buddha. Finally, we have the beauty of the Buddha’s own body, and the ways in which the physical marks of enlightenment make visible his status as an awakened being.

However, in both religions, this is not the whole story. In Christianity, the dichotomy between the spirit and the flesh, inherited from Greek philosophy, often manifested itself in a denigration of the body, and a belief that the body is not as valuable as the soul or spirit. In the very early monastic communities, it was the physical temptations of gluttony and lust that were seen as the most deadly, and the monks worked hard to discipline their bodies in order to subdue these physical desires. In this context, women’s bodies were seen as epitomizing these temptations; this link between women’s bodies and earthly carnal passions, which of course were antithetical to one’s spiritual development, continued up through the centuries—and one might argue they still continue even into the present day.

Returning to Buddhism, analogously, there were similar antipathies towards bodies, and again, women’s bodies in particular, specifically in early Indian monastic Buddhism.  (Here I recommend the excellent book Charming Cadavers, by Liz Wilson.)  A necessary step toward enlightenment was letting go of attachments to the physical body, and thus it was necessary to see the body as impermanent, and see it through the lens of the inevitability of death. Often these sorts of meditations focused on a woman’s body, inviting the practitioner to see her in her true state as a corpse, rather than a beautiful woman (sexually desirable), beautifully dressed and beautifully adorned.

In both religions then, it is fair to say that there is been a steady line of thinking that has associated women bodies with physical desire, therefore categorizing them as impediments to spiritual enlightenment.  This has sometimes even led to the idea that women themselves have less inherent capacity for spiritual development than men.

Much of this comes as a surprise to my students; most of them know very little about Buddhism, and even those who come out of Christian backgrounds usually have not given this aspect of Christianity much thought.  Our conversations here lay the foundation for interesting discussions about bodies in contemporary United States culture—including issues of disability, sexuality and race.  From this starting point, we also look at ways religious language and ideas permeate secular culture—sometimes subtly.  (For example, here we read a chapter from Starving for Salvation, by Michelle Lelwica).

I guess one of the things I appreciate most about the class is not only the fact that students are learning more about both Buddhism and Christianity, but also that they are seeing some of the concrete ramifications of religious ideas and practices on daily life; and how being a religious person (in this case, a Buddhist or a Christian) might impact one’s views of one’s own body and the bodies of others.

And, I also like how they get to experience how learning about one religious tradition with which they might be unfamiliar helps shed new light on a tradition about which they are more familiar.  One example of that comes when they read about the marks of the Buddha’s body, and then they realize how few concrete descriptors there are of Jesus’ physical body in the Gospels.  Often they simply hadn’t thought about that prior to class.

Mostly, however, I just love teaching, and I love learning with and through my students, and hearing their insights and reflections.  The work is a privilege, and I try not to ever take it for granted.

Beyond Interreligious Dialogue and Abstract Pluralism: In Memory of John C. Raines

by Hsiao-Lan Hu

University of Detroit Mercy

On November 12, 2017, my main advisor at graduate school John C. Raines passed away. On the surface, John and I cannot be more different from each other: He was born into wealth and was white, male, cisgender, Christian, and American-born, and I am not. And yet I owe much of my career to him and he had a tremendous impact on my life and my way of teaching, in aspects that I did not fully comprehend until I read the e-festschrift written by his other former students.

Ever since I got to the United States for my graduate study, I have been made keenly aware of my “otherness” in nationality, in race, in religion, in culture, and in language. The people I encountered in the first two years of my life in the U.S. were overwhelmingly white American Christians. Despite that they were generally very well-meaning, I often found myself befuddled by the assumptions behind the questions frequently posed to me, such as “What religion are you?” You are a religion? Only one? For a person with my cultural background, that is an exceedingly odd question. Most people in East Asian cultures[1] do not consider Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism in exclusive terms and do not think they need to identify with one and only one of them. Some older textbooks describe this cultural phenomenon as syncretism, and in recent years I have heard quite a few conference papers referring to it as pluralism. The underlying assumption behind the usage of the word “syncretism,” or the abstract pluralism (as will be explained below), is that the three traditions are three distinct “religions” that are learned separately and then syncretized or equally valued. That is not the way people who grow up in East Asian cultures typically approach them. In fact, most East Asians do not grow up thinking the three to be distinct “religions,” whose boundaries are clearly demarcated, before “believing in” them. The Chinese words for the three traditions simply indicated that they are “teachings,” and teachings can be applied whenever they fit a life situation. They do not have to exclude each other if they all fit, and they do not have to be “believed in” if they are irrelevant to the situation.[2] Growing up in a cultural milieu where people comfortably learn from and apply multiple “teachings,” I was made aware of my otherness whenever questions such as “What religion are you?” were posed—I obviously did not think in the same categories as the people around me, and I felt intensely uncomfortable with the unstated attempt of putting me in a box that they had conceived.

I got less self-conscious about my otherness once I moved to Philadelphia and began taking courses at Temple University. Questions of the above sort significantly decreased, but I still frequently felt that classroom discussions took for granted categories that derive out of, and only make sense in, a monotheistic framework. John was one of the few professors who never made me feel like an “other” even though his identity was in every way a sharp contrast to mine.

Looking back, I think there are three interrelated key factors that professors like John never made me feel like an “other,” whereas certain professors who constantly talked about “interreligious dialogue” always triggered in me an intense sense of otherness. First, for an activist like John,[3] religion was not about believing but about doing, and “doing” his religion involves reaching out to, empathizing with, and learning from whoever one might perceive to be different from oneself, and treating them with respect. Second, John believed that his job in the classroom was to cultivate global citizens who are comfortable with differences and can stand in solidarity with each other when facing various forms of injustice and oppression. And, third, John did not adopt what I would call “abstract pluralism,” the kind of pluralism that expects the non-dominant “others” to fit neatly into the multiple tiny homogenized boxes that the dominant group conceived for and prescribed to them.

In the traditional discourses on world religions that developed during the colonial period, non-Christian religions and cultures, much like non-Caucasian ethnicities, are managed “through the disciplinary promulgation of the supposed difference,”[4] as culture theorist Rey Chow put it, which often involve negative stereotypes based on European and American assumptions about the nature of religion.[5] Abstract pluralism that uncritically inherits this conceptualization of religions presupposes and amplifies intergroup differences while conflating intra-group ones.[6] Different religious and cultural “others” are allowed insofar as they stay distinct from both the dominant group and from each other. Nelly van Doorn-Harder points out that such an approach “does not contribute to the students’ awareness of why it is important to learn about the ‘Other’ and how this knowledge can be useful.”[7] It does not produce global citizens who can genuinely respect and learn from (and not just learn about) cultural and religious others, let alone mitigate conflicts.

In the first course I took with John, when we read Max Weber’s description and categorization about Indian and Chinese religions, I pointed out in my weekly papers that Weber made many assumptions about cultures that he had no first-hand experience with and as such was sorely mistaken in many ways. To my surprise (though not entirely—I felt comfortable pointing that out because John had already created a classroom atmosphere of questioning everything, especially assumptions[8]), John welcomed my input, took my perspective seriously, commended me on my critical analysis, and pretty much indicated that I could go ahead and pick a dissertation topic and he would be glad to be my dissertation advisor. He was very understanding about my cultural upbringing, which made me uncomfortable addressing my professors by their first names, but as soon as I defended my dissertation he insisted that I should call him by his first name, saying that, at the point my dissertation committee said “Congratulations, Dr. Hu,” he was no longer my professor and we were now colleagues of equal status. John was fully aware of all the visible differences between us (one of the first things that any student would hear in his class was his acknowledgement of being born into privilege in multiple ways, as well as his religious conviction that one should use one’s privilege to help build a more just society), but at the same time he never acted as if the existence of those differences at the moment would mean we are just different.

The values that I wish to instill in students regarding interreligious encounters[9] are those manifested in John’s actions. It is a kind of pluralism that is attitudinal and interactional, as opposed to merely conceptual; it is about being open to, and comfortable with, different others and willing to learn from them, neither assuming sameness nor ignoring differences, and without presuming others’ ways of thinking and behaving to be so fundamentally and perpetually different that they are only suitable for the homogenized “them” and not for “us.” It goes beyond the abstract pluralism or interreligious dialogue that presumes a clearly demarcated boundary between “us” and “them” – or even “us” and “you.” And it is a kind of cross-cultural respect that is not taught through discourses but through interactions. John and I never talked about interreligious encounters in any abstract terms, and yet being in his classroom and his advisee was the most meaningful encounter I have ever had with a Christian. Whether coming from a monotheistic background like John did, or coming from a “three teachings” background like I did, we both understand that perceived boundaries are artificial and ever-changing, and if due to historical and cultural circumstances they do exist, they are meant to be crossed by means of being willing to reach out to “the other” and learn.

NOTES:

[1] By “East Asian cultures,” I am referring to the cultures that are either Chinese or have had strong, long-standing cultural ties with the Chinese culture, such as Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Singapore, ethnic Chinese communities in Malaysia and Indonesia, and pre-Cultural-Revolution China.

[2] See my “Pluralistic Pedagogy for Pluralism,” in Teaching Interreligious Encounters, edited by Marc. A. Pugliese and Alexander Y. Hwang (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 53-54.

[3] For some of his activism, see

http://www.philly.com/philly/obituaries/john-raines-84-civil-rights-activist-cleric-and-temple-prof-20171113.html,
https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/17/obituaries/john-raines-84-who-evaded-capture-in-an-fbi-break-in-dies.html, and https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/obituaries/john-raines-accomplice-in-1971-burglary-that-revealed-fbi-abuses-dies-at-84/2017/11/15/5aa54d98-ca16-11e7-aa96-54417592cf72_story.html?utm_term=.161918d60bf9.

[4] Rey Chow, Ethics After Idealism: Theory—Culture—Ethnicity—Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 117.

[5] Steven W. Ramey, “Critiquing Borders: Teaching About Religions in a Postcolonial World,” Teaching Theology and Religion 9, no. 4 (2006): 211–20.

[6] Kimberle Crenshaw, “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Stanford Law Review 43, no. 6 (1991): 1242.

[7] Nelly van Doorn-Harder, “Teaching Religion in the USA: Bridging the Gaps,” British Journal of Religious Education 29, no. 1 (2007): 101–13.

[8] See this tribute written by Achmad Munjid, my classmate in another course with John: http://crcs.ugm.ac.id/news/11840/in-memoriam-john-raines.html

[9] For more, see “Pluralistic Pedagogy for Pluralism,” 51, 55-63.