3 Buddhist Insights That Made Me A Better Christian

by Rev. Dr. Shanta Premawardhana

Growing up Christian in predominantly Buddhist Sri Lanka, I learned very early that there was much to be gained from the study of Buddhism. The teachings of the Buddha sometimes challenged my assumptions about the Christian faith, and at other times they illuminated and clarified the words and stories of Jesus. 

Here are three teachings by the Buddha that have shaped and enriched my Christian journey. Immersion in the Buddhist culture in Sri Lanka will give you similar perspective as well.

1.  The Journey is Our Home

Photo by Chalabala/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Chalabala/iStock / Getty Images

Many preachers in the Baptist church of my youth, influenced by evangelical theology, often asserted that once you "accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior" you have arrived. Now you are saved, they said, nothing more is needed.

Buddhism has taught me this: We never arrive. We are always in the journey.

Buddhism's emphasis on journey is hard to miss. The Noble Eightfold Path that helps Buddhists to reach its highest goal of Nirvana begins by "entering the stream." It's a carefully constructed system that helps them step by step to reach to greater degrees of spiritual achievement.

Prince Siddhartha (the future "Buddha") grew up in a royal palace. His father, eager to mold him to become an emperor, protected him from the harsh realities of the world. Yet, venturing outside the palace he saw four sights: an old person, a sick person, a corpse and a recluse. The obvious suffering of others began to gnaw at him. In what is known as the Great Renunciation, he left the luxuries of the palace, his wife and infant son, and went out into the wilderness in search of truth. Following a period of extreme austerity, and a conscious decision that the path to wisdom lay not in extreme prosperity or in extreme austerity, but in the Middle Way, he became the Enlightened One, the Buddha. For forty-five years he traveled preaching and teaching this path. On his deathbed the Buddha said to his disciples: "All conditioned things are impermanent. Work out your salvation with diligence." 

The notion that we are still on a journey is well within the Christian tradition. The Apostle Paul, in his letter to the Philippian church, echoes the Buddha's sentiment, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling" (Philippians 2:12).  Dr. Meinhart Grum, who taught me New Testament Greek at the ecumenical seminary in Sri Lanka, reminded me that the pluperfect tense in Greek does not mean that you are "saved," but that you are "being saved." "You never fully arrive" he said, "you are always in process."

Photo by Vincent isner

Photo by Vincent isner

2.  Journey Requires Discipline

Some Christian traditions, notably Catholic orders, require strict discipline of its followers. In my Christian formation, however, apart from an occasional emphasis on prayer, Bible reading, and weekly church attendance, there was very little discipline.  An "arrived" theology does not need discipline.  A "journey" theology does.

Buddhism has taught me this: Without Discipline the Journey will Fall Apart.

Growing up I sometimes envied my Buddhist friends whose spiritual disciplines were obvious. They had memorized more Buddhist scripture in its original (Pali) language, than I could ever hope to do in my mother tongue (Sinhala) or even in English. Many of them had daily rituals of prostrating before their parents, the statue of the Buddha in their home and whenever they would meet a Buddhist monk.

Buddhism is very clear on discipline. The three-fold refuge with which every Buddhist begins the day is a constant reminder of the journey.  All Buddhists would chant:

Buddhaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
Dhammaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.
Saṅghaṃ saraṇaṃ gacchāmi.

("I take refuge in the Buddha, Dhamma [teaching] and the Sangha [community].")

Every morning the faithful follower takes five precepts to abstain from killing any living being, taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech and from intoxicants.  Those with a more intentional discipline take ten precepts, and monks follow an entire code. For lay persons, the five precepts are sufficient. For the one who is intentional about the path, regular meditation is required. And those who achieve higher stages, usually those in a monastic path are able to achieve wisdom.

By contrast, Christians in the Protestant traditions have often emphasized the important theological notion of grace. The unfortunate result is a de-emphasis on discipline. Many follow a daily routine, but a theological mandate requiring a specific practice is not emphasized.

Photo by Soft_Light/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Soft_Light/iStock / Getty Images

3. Journey Requires Us to Travel Light

My Christian tradition gives me the impression that some things are permanent. The word "eternal" is used to describe a full life to which all people should aspire. God is seen as permanent, as is heaven, where we are enjoined to live in God's presence "forever and ever"—a phrase that is commonly used in hymns, prayers and benedictions. That sense that something beyond this world is permanent, gives me the sense that there is something in me that is permanent as well.

Buddhism does not.  "Sabbe saṃkharā aniccā"—all conditioned things are impermanent—the Buddha said with great emphasis throughout his teaching.

When his disciples asked the Buddha about God, he was silent, believing that pondering on the divine may distract from the focus necessary to transcend the unsatisfactory condition of our existence. He was very clear, however, that there is nothing within a human being, not even a soul, that lasts forever. In fact, all things, including each of us, change from moment to moment. You are not the same person you were a moment ago. Our life's moments are like film footage, which, when played on screen looks like one thing, but if you look at the reel frame by frame, each is slightly different from the other. Therefore, he says, there is no need to cling to anything. Clinging or craving is what causes the unsatisfactoriness of existence in the first place.  So learning to get beyond that, following his precepts and path, is our spiritual quest.

There is a strong Christian parallel.  Karl Sundermeier, a German missionary with whom I worked early in my ministry used to say that Christians are called to live in tents—meaning, that they must live light, ready to move when God calls. The journey, of course, is a key biblical theme, from Abraham who was called to go out from his home in Ur of the Chaldees, the Exodus of freed slaves from Egypt, to Paul's journeys across the then known world organizing those who were liberated into communities disciples. 

This perspective is often overlooked in Christian preaching and teaching in favor of themes of permanence and the eternal.

Buddhism has taught me this: All things are impermanent. Therefore, I must learn to live lightly, and walk gently on this earth.

These and so many other insights have shaped my own spiritual journey.  So let me ask you.  Are you willing to be challenged, enlightened, and inspired in your own spiritual journey?  

If so, I  want to take you with me to Sri Lanka for an exclusive, sensory-rich immersion experience in Buddhist culture.  

I want you to have the opportunity to visit its historic Buddhist communities,  see its religious shrines, learn from practitioners, experience meditation in this unique setting, and also have a lot of fun in the process with a group of like-minded persons.

Please mark the dates: Feb. 212, 2017

If you are interested, go here to learn more:

(Note:  As an incentive for those who commit early, we are offering a substantial discount to the first 10 people who sign up!
Just use the word TEN in the subject line in your inquiry form)

1There is an excellent PBS documentary called The Buddha by David Grubin, available at Amazon.

Vince Isner