Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Discuss your personal experience with the Dharma here. How has it enriched your life? What challenges does it present?

Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby mindyourmind » Wed Jun 23, 2010 8:45 pm

This is a complicated topic, comprising many different topics and points of view, so I will try to keep it as simple as possible (at least initially). I will also hold back on my own viewpoints so as to not direct the discussion too much.

Simply put : in the West we are all Buddhists in at least a nominal Christian society. Although most Western societies are practically speaking secular societies the default religious position is undoubtedly Christian, and all that goes along with that - the belief in a creator god, Jesus and the resurrection, being "saved" and so on. It has also been established rather convincingly that religion has a large cultural component.

So, how do you experience life and practice in such a Christian society? Do you feel outcast, are you prepared / happy to speak up about your religion? Do you feel culturally disconnected, alien, out of the mainline, a bit of a loner as far as Buddhism is concerned? Are you sometimes tempted to simply go with the flow and do as others do?

Let's stop there for the moment and see what you have so far.


Thank you for sharing your experience :namaste:
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby Indrajala » Thu Jun 24, 2010 1:33 am

Back home in Canada I've never felt Christianity was the dominant mindset.

If anything, it is agnostic attitudes and people never having really thought much about it.
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby ball-of-string » Thu Jun 24, 2010 5:47 am

    If I mention Buddhism, even as a casual reference, people assume I am proselytizing and recruiting. No such assumption is made when we talk about God.
    People have a lot of strange assumptions when I introduce myself as Buddhist. If someone introduces themselves as Christian, there are no strange assumptions (even if they actually belong to a cult).
    That really weird time period from Black Friday to Christmas. And Christmas decorations that come out now before Halloween.
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby KeithBC » Thu Jun 24, 2010 5:56 am

I agree with Huseng that the mainstream world view is agnostic secularism mixed with money worship. I actually feel that, as a religious person, I have more in common with many Christians than with the mainstream.

Where I live, I am fortunate that the dominant world view among the community leans closer to Wiccan / Pagan / New Age spirituality than to Christianity. It means that, in my community, Buddhists are definitely not considered unusual at all. I am quite comfortable discussing my religious beliefs with anyone if the subject comes up.

I do rebel a bit any time the nominally Christian majority imposes its views. For example, our national anthem, in its current version, contains a reference to a hypothetical deity. If I am at an event where not singing the national anthem would be considered offensive, I sing the older version I learned as a child that does not contain that particular reference.
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby mindyourmind » Fri Jun 25, 2010 11:55 am

OK, so no stress so far.

I'm asking about this because I live in a nominally (I nearly said "hypocritically") Christian society. The culture is absolutely soaked in God - from public figures to social life. Actual church attendance and daily practice is close to non-existent, but dare you have a poll and you will get 75-80% proudly claiming to be Christian.

Now that, I believe, brings about some direct and subtle pressures to bear on anyone wanting to follow a different religion in such a society, especially when you are "supposed to know better". My society has no real issue with say Muslims, or Jewish people, with a sort of tacit acceptance and a view akin to "well, they are just like that".

But let a Westerner practice Buddhism, Taoism or any so-called Eastern religion and the stupids descend - heavily. And this is where the pressure is brought to bear, and I believe that this will be the case also in the US, where we find a similar Christian society.

What triggered this discussion was a friend of mine who, after trying to practice Buddhism for a year, came to me in tears, telling me that she loves the Dharma but that it is just too difficult, and that she has doubts, and that she feels so alone in the practice. I understand all of her concerns, and have felt some of it myself, briefly. I am fortunate in that I couldn't really be bothered with perceptions, and while I have never remotely accepted Christianity I immediately felt home when I came into contact with the Dharma. I cannot really imagine any other path.

But it must be hard for a lot of practitioners in the West. Peer pressure, criticism of both the evangelical and more subtle types, alienation, and maybe just an overall feeling of loneliness, of being an outsider. Some of them seem to have to fight a constant pressure to change, to go with the flow, to practice what your friends practice (even if only nominally so).

Do we understand this sufficiently as Dharma practitioners? Do we strive to build a community and a society where we can help each other with this? The person practicing next to you may have these difficulties - are we able to help?

I believe that we are (still) pioneers of the Dharma in the West. Despite the good signs of growth of the Dharma in the West I still believe that this is a particular challenge to most practitioners in the West. In addition to what we can do ourselves in this regard, I also hope that the increased secularisation and the rapid loss of numbers by Christianity in the West makes this easier on the current crop of Western practitioners.
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby kirtu » Fri Jun 25, 2010 2:17 pm

mindyourmind wrote:Simply put : in the West we are all Buddhists in at least a nominal Christian society.


There is a current editorial on the Washington Post On Faith section that goes into this in the form of the electability of people from Dharmic faiths. However this editorial seems to make the tacit assumption that peoples from Dharmic faiths are identifiably "other" in ethnic terms (i.e. they are ethically Indian for the most part).

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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby kirtu » Fri Jun 25, 2010 2:31 pm

mindyourmind wrote:But let a Westerner practice Buddhism, Taoism or any so-called Eastern religion and the stupids descend - heavily. And this is where the pressure is brought to bear, and I believe that this will be the case also in the US, where we find a similar Christian society.


This is true. When I went into active duty in the Army I chose Buddhism on my dog tags without an afterthought (although my parents did not know this and I later almost changed the designation). There was no problem. However when I was working in a government agency a coworker asked my faith and I told her I was Buddhist. Her eyes grew wide and see exclaimed "No you're not!" (but maybe because I was a kind of angry person) and she attempted to convert me. Similar things have happened since. Of course when I was a teenager in Hawaii I told two girls that I was Buddhist and they immediately told me that I couldn't be Buddhist because I wasn't Asian (they were both Asian/Hawaiian and one of them for sure attended Jodo Shu church). Even recently I was asked by a Bhutanese man what I thought of Buddhism. This was while we were at an empowerment. A few years ago I went to a Vietnamese temple to view the relics that Lama Zopa tours for his Maitreya Project. Out of the four dozen or so people who had just entered the temple one helper woman immediately came up to me to "help me" (perhaps she though I wouldn't know how to light incense or something). So there are all kinds of pressures.

OTOH this seeming skepticism is not universal. When HH Penor Rinpoche entered parinirvana, all of the sangha, European, Caucasian, African-American, Hispanic, Chinese, Tibetan and whatever, cried together.

What triggered this discussion was a friend of mine who, after trying to practice Buddhism for a year, came to me in tears, telling me that she loves the Dharma but that it is just too difficult, and that she has doubts, and that she feels so alone in the practice.


Well we have to get into a community of some kind for mutual support. Even Shakyamuni Buddha said this when he said that companionship is the whole of the religious life.

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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby mindyourmind » Fri Jun 25, 2010 3:14 pm

Thanks for that, Kirt.

I suppose there is still a long way to go before Buddhism is one of the normative religions in the West.
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby mindyourmind » Fri Jun 25, 2010 3:31 pm

Reading that article posted by Kirtu made me realize again how completely irrational this debate can also be.

In my experience it would be perfectly ok for me to go around saying that I am a "humanist" or an "agnostic" or some woolly wave of the hands like "I'm not really religious". All and any of that will get less reaction (generally speaking) than saying that I am a Buddhist.

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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby Yogicfire » Fri Jun 25, 2010 4:04 pm

I don't know, I have never had any big reaction generally speaking from people after saying that I am Buddhist. I do also think that a lot of the posts so far have probably been from American points of view, and the socio-cultural landscape may be a bit different there. I have to say, that in all honesty the handful of people who have challenged me over my faith have all been American missionaries of one kind or another. We had quite a debate...

People at university or work, and all my friends have never queried why I am Buddhist.
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby ball-of-string » Sun Jun 27, 2010 4:02 am

I started calling myself a "Buddhist" when I was 14. (Although I did not actually take Triple Gem refuge until I was 18.) Growing up in a "Bible Belt" community, I received a lot of harassment over the Buddhist thing. However, I was also harassed for being a "nerd" and a "fag", so hard to tell if being a Buddhist was the final unacceptable thing that tipped the scales of peer justice, or if it was just another thing on a list.

As an adult, most of my friends/ colleagues, and acquaintances know that I am a practicing Buddhist, but I am pretty private about the specifics of my practice. Oddly enough, the only people who ever really challenge me about being a Buddhist are... other Buddhists. I have a few Buddhist acquaintances that claim I am not a "real Buddhist" because my practice does not resemble theirs. And I've run into recruiters from some of the more dogmatic sects, who were very clear that my brand of Buddhism would cause me to be reborn in the Hell realms, both in this lifetime and the next.
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby KeithBC » Sun Jun 27, 2010 5:14 am

mindyourmind wrote:My society has no real issue with say Muslims, or Jewish people, with a sort of tacit acceptance and a view akin to "well, they are just like that".

But let a Westerner practice Buddhism, Taoism or any so-called Eastern religion and the stupids descend - heavily.

That is an important and probably accurate observation. There is a fundamental difference between western religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and eastern religions. All three western religions share the view that the basis of morality is obedience. Basically, it doesn't matter what you are ordered to do, as long as you say "yes, sir", you've "done good". That is the substance of the myth of Abraham, which all three of those religions share. (recall: Abraham was ordered to kill his son. He was in the act of obeying when God told him, "Ha-ha, just kidding! I just wanted to see if you would do it." Abraham is considered a good guy because of this.)

This world view is the identifying characteristic of the western religions, and is not shared by eastern religions, such as Buddhism.

The thing to remember is that societies founded by Christians have political and social structures that, regardless of any ostensible separation of church and state, embody this model. They can accept people from any of the western religions because of this shared mythology. But having a different basis for deciding what is moral is not even considered by most people as being a possibility. It upsets their entire world view because it denies the very thing that that world view was based on.

Although a lot of opposition to eastern religions comes from people who are not sufficiently informed to know anything about them - they've been told that Buddhists and others are evil and they respond "yes, sir" - we do not get much support from people who are more knowledgeable. If they know that we do not accept an authority figure, be it a god or the state, as the source of morality, then we must in their eyes be immoral because they cannot conceive of any other basis for morality.

This is why, as in the article that Kirtu linked, a person from a minority ethnic group is electable, but not a person from a minority religion.
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby Indrajala » Sun Jun 27, 2010 8:33 am

Hi Keith. :smile:

KeithBC wrote:That is an important and probably accurate observation. There is a fundamental difference between western religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and eastern religions. All three western religions share the view that the basis of morality is obedience. Basically, it doesn't matter what you are ordered to do, as long as you say "yes, sir", you've "done good". That is the substance of the myth of Abraham, which all three of those religions share. (recall: Abraham was ordered to kill his son. He was in the act of obeying when God told him, "Ha-ha, just kidding! I just wanted to see if you would do it." Abraham is considered a good guy because of this.)

This world view is the identifying characteristic of the western religions, and is not shared by eastern religions, such as Buddhism.


I think to some degree the authoritarian notions you outlined above can be found in Confucian thought ("Confucianism" itself not being easily pinned down and defined, but in any case...). Throughout the centuries they had an idea of appeasing heaven (Tian 天) and maintaining the Mandate of Heaven which was thought to be the sanction given to an imperial household from a vaguely defined heaven. If heaven was displeased, the mandate would pass onto someone else more worthy. The cults included sacrifices and various rituals utilized to maintain harmony with heaven.

While Buddhism of course did not really agree with this (at least formally, I imagine you could find a lot of Buddhists in China especially who just accepted it as matter of fact given their social circumstances and upbringing), it definitely influenced East Asian religious thought for around 2000 years at least.

However, I'd note the idea of Tian never seemed to be one of cultivating a personal relationship with an authoritarian divinity as one sees in western monotheist religions.


The thing to remember is that societies founded by Christians have political and social structures that, regardless of any ostensible separation of church and state, embody this model. They can accept people from any of the western religions because of this shared mythology. But having a different basis for deciding what is moral is not even considered by most people as being a possibility. It upsets their entire world view because it denies the very thing that that world view was based on.


This has been a problem for Buddhists in history. One issue that comes to mind is that for the longest time in early Chinese Buddhist history the monks refused to bow down (kowtow) to the authorities. This was frequently a subject of debate. The Buddhist institution just didn't recognize the ultimate authority of either the state or the emperor (or some cases the king). It was inappropriate for monks to kowtow to secular authority. Such ideas of secular authority and its laws were based heavily on a distorted vision of Confucius' sayings (he actually says loyalty between lord and retainer go both ways, but they later warped that to make it one way from retainer to lord) and totalitarian ideas found in Legalist writings (like Hanfeizi).
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby Astus » Mon Jun 28, 2010 3:12 pm

I live in a European country which naturally has a Christian majority and strong historical ties with the Christian religion. (Our anthem's very first word is "God".) But so far nobody cared whether I'm a Christian, a Jew or a Buddhist - mainly because people around me are mostly not religious at all. Even if I lived in a small village where people are naturally more traditional in case I wouldn't go to the church on Sundays it wouldn't really be a social downfall although there might be exceptions.
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby Dana » Mon Jun 28, 2010 3:54 pm

"If they know that we do not accept an authority figure, be it a god or the state, as the source of morality, then we must in their eyes be immoral because they cannot conceive of any other basis for morality."

Yes Keith, that explains a lot!
I was once subtly baited as I passed thru a room where three were at work and chatting idly when the one who knew I am atheist made a statement about creation and God and then asked just as I was passing, what else could it be? (apart from God creating and causing all) I kept on going........outnumbered, not to be drawn into an argument.
Have I learned anything in all those intervening years? Ha ha, now I might stop and talk about cause and effect but then.......those sorts of people already know everything.

Not wanting to besmirch the reputation of Buddhism I do not tell many people that I am Buddhist.
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby mindyourmind » Mon Jun 28, 2010 5:45 pm

Dana wrote:
....... I do not tell many people that I am Buddhist.



But maybe we should, Dana, maybe we should. Maybe a stronger presence will give others the confidence to speak up, to visibly and publicly live the Dharma.

Forgive me, I'm a bit of a Buddhist missionary :stirthepot:
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby Sonam Wangchug » Mon Jun 28, 2010 9:57 pm

Hmm.. Christianity is a part of the culture, but it's not too big of a deal.. I don't live by a bible belt or whatever. I don't really go out of my way to tell people i'm buddhist, however my friends know, I have brought two of my friends to buddhism because they showed interest. It's kind of hard because if people ask 'what do buddhists believe' I feel.. buddhism is incredibly vast, and I have yet to even scratch the surface, however I suppose there are some Generic answers for that..

I do consider myself a bit of a loner, I keep to myself, however it really depends how intense one wants to get into buddhism, it doesn't mean one has to disappear from the world or anything.

Religion is one of those controversial things, I think there are a fair amount of people who are spiritual or have some type of beliefs, however it can be a bit of a issue when people butt heads on opinions. I understand most people I meet are 'not' going to share my stance on things..

I've never gotten too much trouble about it.. but I don't really associate closely with super conservative people.. i'm sure in some places it would be worst.. but no ones hassling me thus far.. and if so never to give up refuge in ones heart even at the cost of ones life!
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby KeithBC » Mon Jun 28, 2010 10:36 pm

Sonam Wangchug wrote:It's kind of hard because if people ask 'what do buddhists believe' I feel.. buddhism is incredibly vast, and I have yet to even scratch the surface, however I suppose there are some Generic answers for that..

It is really important to have an answer ready for that question. If you don't have an answer ready to go, even if it just means you are thinking about it, they will put you down as a flake who doesn't know what he or she believes.

I always answer that question with the Four Noble Truths. It hits them right where it hurts (i.e. suffering) and where they would have a hard time arguing. And it has the advantage that no Buddhist can contradict them, thus avoiding divisive sectarian issues. And it is the correct answer. :D

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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby sukhamanveti » Tue Jun 29, 2010 1:37 am

Here in the U.S. three out of four Americans currently identify themselves as Christian. Sixty-one percent of Christians, according to a recent Barna Group survey, believe that “a person must either side with God or the devil.” The nonBuddhist Americans that I find it easiest to get along with are progressive Christians, who tend to view most of the Bible as metaphor, and nonreligious or secular individuals, with the obvious exception of the more aggressive, evangelistic sort of atheist that views all religions as equally poisonous.

> Do you feel outcast, are you prepared / happy to speak up about your religion?

I wouldn’t use the word “outcast.” That is a bit too strong. I am comfortable with feeling like an outsider or "extraterrestrial visitor" in the U.S.A. I have felt that way as far back as I can remember, even in my childhood (my interests and values have always been unpopular). Being an outsider is an advantage, as I see it, because it allows me to see things that people in the mainstream often miss. I value this.

Choosing when to disclose that I am a Buddhist, however, is almost like advanced math for me sometimes. There are many calculations involved. My parents know and have gradually come to see the benign influence of Buddhism in me, but some family members would be deeply hurt by this information, so I protect them from this with my silence. My friends know, of course. At work I am a bit cautious, concerned that the words "I am a Buddhist" might create confusion and convey false information, because many Americans bear a tangle of false impressions of Buddhism. I remember talking with a man at a workplace in the 1990s who was certain that Buddhism had something to do with Hare Krishnas and controlling people. I did not succeed in disabusing him of these errors. If someone displays intelligence, benevolence, and openness or unconventional perspectives, I might share this information at an appropriate time, if the subject of my religion comes up. If someone were to make a false comment about Buddhism in my presence, I would correct it. I recently decided to add the word “Buddhist” to my Facebook profile after much pondering.

> Do you feel culturally disconnected, alien, out of the mainline…?

Yes.

> Are you sometimes tempted to simply go with the flow and do as others do?

No, I try to take my religious commitments seriously, if that’s what you mean. I do not find alcohol, abusive speech, killing living beings, and the like attractive at this point in my life, but I do love the teachings of the Buddha. I have no intention of turning away from the Three Jewels.
namo bhagavate śākyamunaye tathāgatāyārhate samyaksaṁbuddhāya | namaḥ sarvabuddhabodhisattvebhyaḥ ||

"Bodhisattva-mahāsattvas love all beings in the world equally, as if each were their only child..." Buddhāvataṃsakamahāvaipulya Sūtra
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Re: Being a Buddhist in a Christian society

Postby Sonam Wangchug » Tue Jun 29, 2010 2:02 am

True keith, being that buddhism is Diverse with the different schools within it that is a safe bet for a universal question.

It could be said as a general question to people, it's a method for realizing our highest potential and transcending the problems at present. Also throw in the Fundamentals about Impermanence, cause and effect karma, morality, wisdom, compassion et cetera..

It's hard to get into certain parts of buddhism with non buddhists, luckily with some of the people i've talked with i've had time to go into depth according to my ability to do so with them.. Certain things such as Anatta might not sit so well with people, and getting all Gun ho with people about different realms, and what not might scare them off, but it's good to access the type of people we are speaking with, if they are already spiritually minded, and open minded, or super logical, and then it would be good to present it within that context if we're able to..

It would be best.. However I think it's important to present it in an interesting way if we can hopefully do this.. If someone is interested and might possibly take to buddhism based on our presentation perhaps a plain and brief explanation they will just shrug off and it won't grip them.. However it's true it's very important to have an answer for this question we may be the only buddhist they ever get to ask! and this may form their views on dharma for the rest of their lives.
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