Life hurts. I have suffered my share. Beyond personal losses, I am troubled by global hunger, HIV/AIDS, deaths in childbirth, and the abuse and denial of opportunities suffered by millions. On my mind now are Iranian Christians in prison. One pastor’s wife has just agonized through her fourth miscarriage while penned up in a cell. Sometimes the pain of the world seems too much to bear.
Buddhism offers a way forward. If I can see that suffering is pervasive, if I can recognize that it is exacerbated by my own desires, and if I can learn to quench my desire, then peace will come. In a nutshell, this sums up the first three “Noble Truths.” My Thai friend Chaiyun Ukosakul, who became a Christian as an adult, summarizes what he was taught: “When I am angry, a tiger grows in my heart. But when I am enlightened, the tiger dies.”
Buddhism invites me to let things go. I must not cling to things, or relationships, or truths. I must hold everything in an open hand. It is all passing away anyway. When I was in Indonesia a few years ago, I climbed up a huge stone structure called Borobodor. Built more than a thousand years ago, this monument is as large as a city block. On the lower levels, the stone carvings were intricate, elaborate, lyrical, mellifluous retellings of episodes from the life of the Buddha. As I rose higher, I saw that the carving became sparer, until at the top the decoration was minimal. The closed domed pinnacle is said to contain emptiness. And that is the destination I seek, according to Buddhism. That is my goal as I shuffle off unnecessary desires. When I no longer drag baggage around, how much lighter I will feel.
Kukrit Pramoj, former Prime Minister of Thailand and also a famous novelist, once wrote a short Buddhist reflection on the gospel. The main character in Pramoj’s story was a blind man named Bartimaus. Every day Bartimaus made his way to the outdoor market, tapping along with his walking stick. There he sat down. Vendors greeted him, and dropped a little food in his bowl. Birds sang. Children laughed. A woman named Ruth befriended him, and over time they fell in love.
Then Bartimaus heard that Jesus was coming through town, and that Jesus could heal the blind. “Have mercy on me, and heal my eyes!” Bartimaus called out.
Suddenly Bartimaus tranquil routine was shattered. He saw the sewage and the flies, the vendors’ faces lined with weariness and resentment, the children dressed in rags, their skin pocked with sores. Ruth had been through a terrible fire, he knew. Now he saw the gross burn that oozed where her face should have been, and could not stand to look at her.
Later he saw Jesus crucified. Then he fell to his knees and cried, “Oh God, give me back my blindness!”
This is a Buddhist response to the gospel, according to the Kukrit Pramoj. At bottom, life is ugly. It is like a muddy pond. We can’t do much about the mud. But we can aim to shoot up from the bottom like water lilies and lie clean on the top.
That appeals to me. If there were no God, or if God had not reached out to us, I might be a Buddhist. The faith offers a way to live with some degree of peace in a painful world.
But the amazing news is that there is a God, and he has cared so strongly for us that he chose to walk with dusty feet right to the painful bloody cross, where he died and later rose in power for us.
This is not tranquility. This is passion. Desire. Love. And it is what makes my own love possible. I cannot manufacture love on my own. But I can receive it, and pass it on.
Deep in my heart I sense that I am not just a candle flame, or a drop of water, or a temporary psychophysical event, which are common Buddhist metaphors for human beings. Nor do those images describe the people around me. We have lasting value. Jesus told a story to make that point. In this parable, a shepherd rounded up ninety-nine sheep. Just one sheep was missing. Yet the shepherd went out into the dark and the cold to search for the one who was lost. That one sheep mattered. Jesus made it clear that every one of us counts. Each person is important.
I think also of a Japanese haiku poet named Issa. Although he had several children, they died, one after another. When the neighbors came to comfort him, they offered a bit of Buddhist philosophy: “After all,” they said to Issa, “this is a world of dew.”
What did they mean? Dew appears on the grass in the morning, then disappears. Our children arrive, and later they may disappear. None of this should upset us. That’s life.
But when Issa was alone, he wrote a poem:
The world of dewIs a world of dew
And yet! And yet! . . .
Unfortunately there are almost only two ways to get this book by Christmas. You can order the book directly from William Carey Library. Or you can drop a check in the mail for $16 (including postage, add $10 for any of my other books as well!) to Kuai Mu Press / PO Box 403 / Fall City, WA 98024, and I will do my best to get it to you with time to spare -- or wrap it and send it directly to a friend (in the US, that is)! (I should add a third way -- Dr. Adeney's husband, Michael Adeney, is also selling the book through his Harvest - Logos bookstore, which is one of the best sources I know for missions-related books. The book should become more widely available in early 2013.)