Thursday, November 17, 2005

CHRISTIANITY VS. BUDDHISM

The other night I watched yet another documentary by Werner Herzog, Wheel of Time, and had some interesting thoughts. Thoughts so interesting I had no recourse but to blog about them. And blog about them hard. Watch yo'self.

The film shows and explains, among other things, the pilgrimage of hundreds of thousands of Buddhist monks to Bodh Gaya, the ancient sacred site where the Buddha found enlightenment under a Bodhi tree. Yawn. The film also shows the practice of the creation of a sand mandala, an intricate diagram that is drawn by monks using different colored sands



that, when finished, is completely destroyed, like all things, because nothing is permanent, such is life, yadda yadda yadda. In one of the unintentionally hilarious moments in the film, of which there are considerably fewer than in other Herzog projects, Herzog speaks with the Dali Lama and asks him to describe the picture represented by the sand mandala, referred to as the "Wheel of Time." Unfortunately, the Lama has a tenuous grasp on both the English language and, it seems, the precise meaning of the central symbol of his religion. Herzog tries to salvage the answer after a couple of incomprehensible minutes, interjecting in the middle of the Lama's explanation, "So it's all very complicated, then."

Yeah, Werner. You ain't kidding.

The film develops with very little narration or explication and instead leaves to images that which words can't really explain. There was the man who walked 3,000 miles over three and a half years, performing prostrations the entire way (basically, take a step, pray, kneel, lay flat on your stomach, extend your hands fully, bring your hands back to your sides, do a push up, stand up, take a step, and repeat the process). There was the tall rock column in the center of the Bodh Gaya village that, it was believed by villagers, possessed healing powers. The old and the sick hugged it and rubbed their backs on it, tried to grasp it, moving around it slowly in a clockwise twirl. There was the heated argument about the nature of reality, full of fists punching palms, a large group of elders sitting in a circle about the debaters, listening as they made their points. And there was a perforated wall, constructed with slats not unlike prison bars, through which hungry young women held out their hands and who were given morsels of bread and seeds by passing monks.

As I watched the film and witnessed the accumulation of these strange rituals of suffering and physical pain, these entrenched fetishes, the endless attempt to discover the inherent emptiness of existence and, from that knowledge, to find the compassion to truly love others, one thought kept crossing my mind, repeating itself over and over again like some indecipherable Tibetan chant: this could have been the fate of Christianity.

How did Christianity end up the way it did? It doesn't make any more sense than if it had become a religion of bald dudes and wrinkled old women rubbing their asses on an old stone pillar. In his day, Jesus subverted the status quo. Today, Christianity is about maintaining the status quo. The loudest and most common tenet of Christianity espoused in today's world is, "Don't be weird." In all seriousness, modern-day Christianity is, at its heart, about getting your clothes from J.C. Penney or the GAP, driving a Ford Taurus, and listening to U2 albums.

In a parallel universe, Christ died on the cross as a provocateur despised by the Roman state, but his teachings lived on. In time, people began to worship him. They performed rituals that emulated his life and emphasized the lessons of his sermons. As a rite of passage, young men and women traveled to the deserts of Israel and for forty days fasted, praying to God for strength and endurance. In churches every week, as congregations gathered to worship their God and discuss the teachings of Jesus, bowls filled with water were set next to the doorway. All who came to the church removed their shoes and waited as the minister washed their feet before they entered. Jesus once stated that he must "suffer many things, be rejected by the elders, chief priests and teachers, and that He must be killed and after three days rise again." As a way to remember the sufferings of Jesus, future ministers underwent strenous prostrations at seminary. They whipped each other and flayed their backs, not in an effort to be like Jesus, but rather to come to an understanding of the physical suffering he experienced for the benefit of all mankind. A scarred back would become then a symbol of the physical limitations of the human body, and the power of men to rise above pain.

"Blessed are the meek," and therefore the meek become blessed. "It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to go heaven," and therefore wealth is abhorred. But not even abhorred; forgotten. These parallel-universe Christians are so focused on the spiritual importance of Jesus that money and possessions become hindrances to piety.

It's almost like they're, uh, Buddhists.

Now, I'm not saying that Buddhism and Christianity are the same religion or even that they are somehow compatible. What I am saying is that the Bible is so contradictory that any religion derived from it can't help but be arbitrary. There is enough in it, and certainly enough in the teachings of Jesus, to have founded a religion not unlike Buddhism. Funny, then, but not surprising, that Christiany has been co-opted and interpreted as a religion for the majority, for the strong, for the rich, and for the well-liked, focused on personal sin and personal comfort and not about emptiness, unworthiness, humility, compassion, understanding, yadda, yadda, and yadda.

What actually is surprising is that Buddhism has survived for so long and has remained true to its core beliefs. Watching Wheel of Time gives you a feeling that these people are truly happy, truly serene; that they believe they are both so small in the eyes of God and so large in their own perception of the world around them that they come to a much more realistic understanding of life. And isn't that what all this nonsense is about? Figuring out what we're doing here?

Buddhists may be capital "C" Crazy, but they're also fucking cool and have the amazing ability to eat nothing but soup and tea.

The floor is now open for Dan to tell me everything that I got wrong about Buddhism, and Koopa to tell me everything I got wrong about Christianity. I just want to say that you've been a wonderful audience and I love you all. And no, I won't do that. No, no - seriously, dude, keep your shoes on. I ain't like that. You can wash your own feet.

Asshole.


Jesus Christ, pictured above, is all like, "peace," and, "love," and shit, which is totally stuff a Buddhist would be into.

22 comments:

Mathis said...

Oh, and don't forget to tithe. I take Paypal.

Danny Fisher said...

I didn't catch anything that sounded wrong, boy. Give yourself a little credit.

Sounds like Werner's a little caught up in the more ritualistic and esoteric stuff. I don't know. I'd have to see the film to find out. (Since I like Herzog's film and lived in Bodh Gaya for a while, I'm very interested to see the film--I didn't even know about it.)

Also, I was really moved by this quote of yours:

What actually is surprising is that Buddhism has survived for so long and has remained true to its core beliefs. Watching Wheel of Time gives you a feeling that these people are truly happy, truly serene; that they believe they are both so small in the eyes of God and so large in their own perception of the world around them that they come to a much more realistic understanding of life. And isn't that what all this nonsense is about? Figuring out what we're doing here?

Lovely.

And then this one made me fall out of my chair laughing, if only because I eat a lot of soup and drink a lot of tea:

Buddhists may be capital "C" Crazy, but they're also fucking cool and have the amazing ability to eat nothing but soup and tea.

Nice!

Danny Fisher said...

Also, don't you see any Christians aspiring to the original ideals of the faith? I do. Desmond Tutu, for example. Or Elise Boulding. Or Helen Prejean.

Mathis said...

Sure, there are Christians that don't act like most other Christians. When a billion people are all the same religion, you're going to get some variance. Serial killer Christians, for example (Son of Sam, I'm looking at you).

I was instead speaking of the two religions as they are largely represented and practiced. Take Catholicism, for example. The Vatican is perhaps the richest and most opulent corner of our silly little world, a fact completely and absurdly incongruent to Jesus' teachings.

Buddhists, on the other hand, walk the talk. For instance, they say that they're pussies totally against fighting and war and stuff, and they ARE pussies totally against fighting and war and stuff.

And, you know, I applaud them for that.

Trevor Jackson said...

Terrific thoughts. Two thoughts on why the religions evolved differently. First, I think, is evangelism. Buddhists don't have a "mission" the way Christians have always had to spread the Gospel and "save" souls.

(Also Christians get ONE shot to get all of it right and so are very aggressive when they take the long view of eternity, while Buddhists get chance after chance and so are a little more chill about sins or mistakes or whatever it is they have.)

I think the biggest fork in the road for Christianity came when Charlemagne entwined the religion with the state. Then that call to evangelism got the muscle behind it and the Church became a business, as well.

Add in some Old Testament stuff about dominion over the planet and you have a recipe for capitalism, abuse of natural resources, and the superiority complex American Christians have.

Ofc. Krupke said...

In other Parallel Universe News, Emperor Catus Gallius Caesar, at a televised press conference, defended the deployment of legions to sack Carthage in early 2005. "What do you think this is?" the Emperor asked. "Some kind of representative constitutional republic with enlightened ideas about the rights of man and the consent of the governed emerging from a Judeo-Christian cultural framework?"

Seriously, A.M., Buddhists ARE cool, but, come on, a little credit where it's due?

Buddhists, on the other hand, walk the talk. For instance, they say that they're pussies totally against fighting and war and stuff, and they ARE pussies totally against fighting and war and stuff.

The guys in Sri Lanka and Myanmar never got that memo, apparently.

Mathis said...

Krupke: What?

I honestly don't understand you. Do you claim that present democracies could not have existed and would not exist without a "Judeo-Christian cultural framework"? Because I say that they developed in spite of them. Neener neener. Last I heard, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" wasn't a phrase in the Bible.

Anyway, that kind of tripe is so engrained into our contemporary America yay rah! life it's... well, like I said before, it's weird. It's almost as if people believe Jesus created America. Double you tee eff.

As far as your swipe at peaceful Buddhists, I'd say they've done a better job of sticking to their beliefs than anyone else. Nobody's perfect, not even Buddhists. Damn imperfect Buddhists.

And Trevor: Good points. I suppose another point I was trying to make that sort of got lost in my post is the notion of ritual and fetish that seems to be missing from Christianity. Muslims make a pilgrimage to Mecca, pray five times a day, etc. Buddhists do a bunch of crazy shit. Jews are assholes on the Sabbath and make everyone else do shit for them. What do Christians do? Go to church on Sunday, really, is about it. It's become this very easy religion to be a part of. Simply, all you have to do is say that you're a Christian and, in a sense, you are. Double you tee eff.

King Koopa said...

Some would say that when Jesus came to earth in human form to pay a physical/metaphysical price, or sacrifice, for the world's sin, that he eliminated the need for the rituals and sacrifices of old. And, some would say that the "easiness" of Christianity is a defining element that makes it profoundly different from every other religion based upon works and deeds. Those same somebodies would probably also say that those two ideas are intertwined. Although, Wicca seems pretty darn easy, too.

Are you still sore about your Jewish buddy making you carry his backpack on Sabbath? Live and let be lazy...(Even at the ripe old age of 26, I've still got a mind like a steel trap for the minor details/bitchings of my friends' travelling experiences.)

Ian said...

I used to be a semi-serious liberal Christian, and then I was a semi-serious Buddhist, and now I'm an Atheist but I'm not a fanatic about it (did you get the Ball Four reference? Did ya? Eh?). And I believe there's room for all of us in this great big tent of God or Non-God.

Krupke: The argument that democracy required a Judeo-Christian framework is a little like the argument that you can't have morality without fear of God's judgment and desire for heavenly reward. That is to say, wrong.

Koopa: I'm glad that Jesus's sacrifice has allowed modern Christians to dispense with the rituals of old and the parts of the Bible that they find inconvenient, but I wish he'd made clear that they don't have to persecute the homos anymore, either.

It seems to me that Christianity lost its zing when they stopped having to worry about lions.

Everybody else: I guess what I'm saying is EVERYTHING IS UNGODLY! Ba dump bump.

Mathis said...

Koopa: And, some would say that the "easiness" of Christianity is a defining element that makes it profoundly different from every other religion based upon works and deeds.

Some might say that, but they'd be wrong. You don't think Christianity is about actions? Belief only? That is pretty much the most awesome religion ever, then. Hitler, in fact, could have been the best Christian in the world. The contention that states that my religion is superior because you don't have to do anything to be in it basically renders your religion irrelevant.

Also, I wasn't talking about works and deeds specifically in my post. I was talking about rituals devised by men to reinforce their beliefs. Like that dude that has that cross on a wheel and drags it around everywhere, all over the world? That guy is awesome. I'd like to see more Christians like that. And since this is my website, that's a request I feel comfortable making.

Ian: Can I join your non-religious religion of a godless God? I really like your big tent of God or no-God. Actually, that's probably the biggest tent ever.

King Koopa said...

Is it Over-Simplification Day around here? Geez. AM created a strawman out of the "easy" idea I borrowed from him, and then courageously tore that strawman to pieces. Nicely done, killer.

'Faith without works is dead. And, works without faith is dead.'

Those are New King Koopa Translations, and not direct quotes, but they're more or less in there. I should've included that one in my comment with a preceding "but", but, I didn't. Got any other strawmen for me to protect?

And, Christians who persecute "the homos" are wrong. So, I guess I'm saying I'm superior to the homo-persecuting Christians. Now THAT'S convenient. It'll be especially convenient when I'm looking for advice on what style of jacket to buy for this winter.

Trevor Jackson said...

I'll play devil's advocate for Koopa here. We're talking just the difference between Catholic (who still recognize some rituals and works as critical) and Protestant, but that defining difference for the Protestant is that salvation's all in your head--or heart, as they'd have it but I have issues with their approach to biology.

You don't have to do anything, but believe. That belief then manifests itself in the Jesus-emulation, i.e., your belief is so strong that Jesus saved you from eternal damnation and you're so grateful for that act that you can't help but be nice to other people and give to charities and let the other guy go at the four-way stop, etc.

The works are all about growing out of the faith, the belief. But the works weren't critical and didn't determine whether you were saved or not. But you still got to kinda judge: For example, Hitler was a bad Christian, didn't really believe, b/c of all the dead people.

MY big problem was always the Death Row Conversion. What separated the kid who "gets saved" at 8 and lives a pious life and some Charlie Manson type who prays for forgiveness the night before he's lethally injected? My pastor would have told me that there was no difference. But that didn't wash.

Mathis said...

Koopa: Out of curiosity, what does 'Faith without works is dead. And, works without faith is dead.' mean? How can works be either dead or alive? If I kick you in the testicular sac, is that a dead work or a living work?

This is meant as a serious question.

Mathis said...

Trevor: There is a parable in the Bible in which Jesus desribes the day-laborers who all receive the same daily wage, even though some worked since dawn and others only worked for a half an hour - the message being that, like the serial killer who has a last-minute conversion, we all go to the same heaven. This is an interesting passage because even in the parable, you can't help but think, "man, what a jerk." Also, this passage has influenced a lot of Marxist doctrine. There is much more commie pinko stuff in the Bible than there is capitalist dogma, if you're looking, and this passage is pretty concrete evidence of that.

And for that sin, I think all Bibles should be burned, and Bill O'Reilly should strike the first match. Down with communism! Down with the Bible!

King Koopa said...

Trevor: Very well said.

When you look at the institutions of Christianity (like the Catholic Church), there will always be stuff you can find that is wrong. Institutions are created by man. And, I'd agree that the Bible espouses more communist-type beliefs than capitalistic.

Finally, since The AM is still nit-picking my clunky, abbreviated New King Koopa Translation, I've included the NIV version of what I was trying to say (from James 2). Don't say you didn't ask for it:

14What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? 15Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. 16If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? 17In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead.


The Book of James is my most favoritest. So much wisdom in so few pages.

Mathis said...

Wait. That passage doesn't make much sense. It says that faith without action is dead and then it says, in addition to that, that faith without action is dead. It says it twice, but I don't see anything about action without faith.

So, again, I don't really understand how actions with or without faith are discernible, though I can see how faith with or without actions could be different.

King Koopa said...

You're right, it still doesn't say what I thought it said.

Would it really matter if I found a verse that said something about works alone not being enough to get into heaven? Would you really care? Once I find that verse, we'll start talking about how the Bible was written by man, right?

Anyway...does the 'camel thru the eye of a needle' passage work enough for you? The rich man can buy a lifetime good works and he's got the free time and financial independence to devote himself entirely to philanthropy. But, we both know the rich man's still got issues, right?

Ian said...

There's that thing again about being a good person because you feel guilty about Jesus getting His ass kicked for you ("your belief is so strong that Jesus saved you from eternal damnation and you're so grateful for that act that you can't help but be nice to other people and give to charities and let the other guy go at the four-way stop, etc.").

Can't people just be decent people because it's the right thing to do, without getting all caught up in supernatural antropomorphic deity-sacrifices? It seems to me that anybody who is being moral simply because they're under threat of hellfire or being guilt-tripped by God is not really being purely moral--that is, they're doing it out of self-interest (avoid the hellfire or make the guilt go away).

P.S. WORD VERIFICATION IS DARK-SIDED!

Mathis said...

I agree with Ian and, what's more, there is something odd about the idea that Jesus died for our sins, which we keep committing and which we keep having to ask forgiveness for. It's a very abstract idea and difficult to understand; a man was born from God, then died to wash away our sins - but only if we ask for them to be washed away.

Anyway, I think that we can all agree that religion brings to the table some very unique and differing viewpoints, and that mine, above every one else's, are correct.

King Koopa said...

Ian: Coming at it from your point of view, who's (or what's) to say that being moral for one reason is any better or worse than another? Would The Cosmos (pardon my crude approximation of your belief system/entity) really care if you were doing the right thing for one reason or another? Those sorts of extraneous motivations wouldn't seem to matter to The Cosmos. Morals would appear to exist regardless of anything beyond themselves in your belief system.

The next question would be to explain how morals evolved from the nothingness of the universe. Why do humans say it's morally wrong to walk up to somebody and punch them in the nuts/kooch? Can we assume that animals don't have "morals" they way we understand them? They have self-preservation instincts, but I would say that "morals" (in the way humans think about them) would be beyond the capacity of animals. A lot of morals would seem to get in the way of human self-preservation. But, all that's up for debate, I suppose.

AM: To me, the important part is the believing. Believing that if you ask for your sins to be washed away, that it will be done. Believing that God came to earth in human form to do exactly that. Which brings us back to faith...abstract? Indeed. It's abstract by definition.

I'm sorry if that's a jumble of everything-and-nothing nonsense, it's a Friday, and it's 5 pm where I am. Go time! Have a good weekend everybody. King Koopa's off to eat his dessert off the chest of some chesty young beauty.

Mathis said...

The nuclear bomb to any rational discussion: it's just something I believe.

Any debate over theology is going to disentegrate if everyone just proclaims the various supernatural events or powers that they have faith in and stands on that pronouncement as an answer to everything.

As far as determining morals from outside of the Judeo Christian framework, one needs look no further than Buddhists - how about that! So relevant! They don't quite give so much a flying flip about who the son of god is, but they certainly have morals. Morals quite superior to most Americans, and even most Christians, for that matter.

So there you go. From the depths of despair in knowing that this is the only life we have, a MORAL conviction to be a better person and improve the world and all that stuff.

Mr. Natural said...

Ya...all that funky psychochristian prostelysing and saving of souls CRAP gets a little old. I think you nailed it when you called the driving a Taurus etc. Good shit...Buddhists are mellow.