A Conversation about Buddhism

(This article was published in National Cathedral's Magazine, 'Cathedral Age' - Spring 2003)

Cathedral Dean Nathan D. Baxter recently met with the Venerable Maharagama Dhammasiri, president of the Washington D.C. Buddhist Vihara, the oldest Theravada monastic community the United States. A portion of their conversation follows. This interview is the fourth in a series with prominent thinkers from the world’s major religions.

DEAN BAXTER I know there is a tendency for Christians to view other faiths, particularly those outside the Abrahamaic tradition, as if they were uniform in belief and practice. Are there various traditions within Buddhism, and how do they differ?

VENERABLE DHAMMASIRI Buddhism has three major branches, and there are smaller branches within those two as well. The main three are Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Theravada is the oldest and most conservative tradition whose ultimate aim, for both lay followers as well as the clergy is Nirvana, an enlightened state in which greed, hatred, and ignorance have been overcome. Mahayana is more concerned with service to humanity and less with the attainment of Nirvana. Vajrayana is mainly a shortcut to Nirvana, through the practice of specific ceremonies.

BAXTER Conservative in what way?

DHAMMASIRI By conservative I mean the Theravadins want to preserve the original teachings and not modify them to suit the changing times. For example, Theravada Buddhists maintain the same ancient rules of religious discipline, including the color and pattern of the robes of monks. The Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists have modified some of the original teachings to suit the changing times, though the basic teachings in all traditions are largely the same.

BAXTER Westerners often wonder whether Buddhism is a religion or a philosophy, and often the answer hinges on whether Buddhism is theistic or has a theology. Does Buddhism have a belief in some kind of ultimate being or a presence higher than the individual?

DHAMMASIRI Buddhism is neither theistic nor atheistic. It defines a god and religion in a humanistic way. Religion, according to Buddhism, is not something that has come down from heaven to earth to serve the purpose of a creator but something that has grown up on earth to satisfy human needs and to solve human problems. Buddhism does have a belief in an ultimate being and presence higher than the normal human being, and that is the Buddha. Buddhists do not see the Buddha as an ordinary human being or philosopher such as Socrates, Plato or Aristotle. He represents the ‘ultimate state’ in the spiritual evolution of the human being. God for the Buddhist is the ideal of perfection conceived by human beings, which they struggle to realize through the practice of religion. Buddhism does not speak of the punishments and rewards of a god. It speaks of action (karma) and its consequences (vipaka).

BAXTER When one wills an action, is that person aware of whether the intention is good or bad, or is it something one discovers later? That is to say, if I decide to do something that might be in my interest but may be harmful to my brother’s, is that a willful karma or is it something else? I’m trying to find the moral principle.

DHAMMASIRI Karma is not a moral law. The essence of karma is motive, which is emotional. If one acts angrily, it will have bad consequences. If one acts kindly, it will have good consequences. That is how karma works.

BAXTER That’s much like Jesus’ teaching about that which comes from our hearts. It’s not what comes from our mouths but from out hearts that is at the root of our goodness.

DHAMMASIRI We have the greatest respect for Jesus Christ. Many of his teachings are very Buddhistic. Take the Sermon on the Mount –pure Buddhist! And the concept of turning the other cheek, avoiding revenge, this is clearly Buddhist too. Examples like this are all through the Gospels. Some Buddhists believe Jesus is a bodhisattva or future Buddha because of the great sacrifice he made on the cross and the wisdom of his teaching.

BAXTER Let’s talk about the compatibility of Buddhism with Christianity. How would a Buddhist understand prayer and worship?

DHAMMASIRI We do have worship, but not prayer as a Christian might understand it. To worship is to recognize the worth of something or some person (“worth-ship”). Worship is based on a sense of values. We do not pray to a supernatural power for things to happen or even for salvation. The worship in our temples is before the statue of the Buddha, is admiration, respect, and gratitude of what he achieved and for teaching us the way to happy and peaceful living.

BAXTER Would a Buddhist worshipper have a sense that the Buddha would hear or be aware of their expression of gratitude of their gestures of honor and respect?

DHAMMASIRI Not at all. We do not believe the Buddha can hear what we say, or know what we say in any subtle way. We do not even believe that Buddha exists after attaining Parinirvana. It is interesting to note here that the essence of God for the theist is God’s “existence”, but the essence of the Buddha to the Buddhist is a Buddha’s “non-existence”, because he has “awakened” from the “dream of existence”.

BAXTER Can one follow Buddhist practice and still be a Christian, or must one reject Christianity in order to embrace Buddhism?

DHAMMASIRI Part of being a Buddhist is the practice of universal good will, and because it can be practiced by anyone, anyone can practice Buddhism even though he or she has Christian beliefs. But becoming a Buddhist is a different thing. This involves a change in beliefs.

We never proselytize or ask anyone to become a Buddhist. We never ask because we don’t believe in labels. Labels don’t matter; your heart matters. I always say to Christians who come to me asking this question, ‘Stay a Christian. Don’t change your religion, but practice those things that can make you a better Christian”. Anyone can practice meditation, loving kindness, and forgiveness and express gratitude to the people who help and teach you. You don’t have to become a Buddhist to practice Buddhism.

BAXTER Where do you see opportunities for Christians and Buddhists to learn and grow together? How can we deepen our spiritual lives together?

DHAMMASIRI The best way I can think of to deepen our spiritual lives is to drop all dogmatism and blind faith and to study about religion with an open mind. Buddhism is full of many beautiful teachings. Do not look for others’ faults; look for the nice things and leave behind that which you find to be not so good. If someone is looking for the bad things in a person or a religion, he well only find the sand and stones. But if he sifts them properly, all the unneeded things will go away. When you use this theory to look at others' religions, it can be a very helpful way to seek peace and harmony between each other.

Editor’s note: Theravada, the “doctrine of the elders” is the school of Buddhism that draws its scriptural inspiration from the texts of the Pali Canon, or Tipitaka, which is generally believed to contain the earliest surviving record of the Buddha’s teachings. For centuries, Theravada has been the predominant religion of continental Southeast Asia (Thailand, Myanmar/Burma, Cambodia, and Laos).

The Mahayana tradition was formed between the second century BCE and the first century CE and includes the concept of bodhisattva or enlightened being as the ideal toward which a good Buddhist should aspire. A bodhisattva is an individual who has attained perfect enlightenment but delays entry into Nirvana, in order to mark time to make possible the salvation of all other sentient beings. In Buddhist traditions the key attributes are compassion and loving kindness. The Mahayana tradition migrated northward form India and is largely practiced in China, Japan and Korea. Vajrayana is mainly practiced in Tibet.

Editor’s note: Karma is sometimes defined as a universal law of cause and effect. Karma consists of a person’s acts and their ethical consequences. Good deeds and right living are inevitably rewarded and evil deeds and bad living are punished. Thus, with karma, neither undeserved pleasure nor unwarranted suffering exists. Karma provides a sense of universal justice that operates through natural morality rather that divine judgment.