Airplane Conversation between a Buddhist and a Christian

I was on a plane from JFK to Shanghai, and I asked the flight attendant if I could move to a free seat in front of for more room. After I got the thumbs up, I grabbed my backpack and moved to the next row, settling down in a seat next to somebody else. I felt a little guilty, he could’ve had a free seat next to him, but I took it so I could have more room. We exchanged glances, then introduced ourselves.

“You seem very happy and satisfied with your life.”

That took me by surprise, especially because I was thinking the exact same thing about him – that he was the one who looked content.

“Thank you, I’m pretty happy right now, I would say about 80% satisfied with my life.”
We talked more and I learned that he was from Korea and worked at a Christian church, he had been in Philadelphia to attend a Christian conference. That was a coincidence! Since I was heading to China to attend to a Buddhist conference. He had a calm aura around him, and I could tell that he himself had struggled a lot to get to where he was today. Having been conflicted with my faith in Christianity before, I asked him if he was always a Christian.

He went on and told me that no, he didn’t believe in any religion until he was in college. He had a powerful experience during a sermon with a professor, marking a turning point in his life when he was saved. I feel that the younger me would’ve dismissed a religious salvation story like this and arrogantly turned my head away, but I’ve had my share of transformations with faith during college, so I listened with an open heart.
He engaged in an empowering ritual everyday that I found relatable – confession. I thought it was empowering, the act of confiding in God to admit to sins you had committed that day. When I was younger, I couldn’t really relate to the necessity of absolving guilt. I hadn’t had the responsibility or authority to do anything important, especially to other people. But over the course of college, I’ve done things that have etched guilt in my conscience. I know that this guilt has not been a good influence in my life – making me think that I couldn’t believe in myself, making me believe that I was not a good person. Coming from my Buddhist point of view, I thought the act of confessing could really help someone live with themselves and move forward.
I told him that I was 80% satisfied with my life, and the 20% of dissatisfaction came from the frustrations I had with myself. I get frustrated when I say I want to exercise but end up staying home, frustrated when I want to be a certain way but end up doing the opposite.
He pulled out his mobile Bible and read me a verse from the book of Matthew 11:28-30

28 Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

He said something that was very similar to how I think Buddhists see the world. He told me that humanity is full of toil and suffering. We hurt ourselves when we can’t achieve what we want, or even when we do achieve what we want. He used to feel that way all the time – he had started a cosmetics business in Korea and was “successful”. However, he was still suffering because he kept wanting more. Later, he found refuge in this Bible verse. He told me that God is meek and lowly in heart, meaning that he didn’t have a high ego. So even if you fail – if you look ugly and feel shame, you can take refuge in God. I thought of this like ugly crying to a friend when you feel like you have failed. I feel that there are some parallels with how Buddhists and Christians (the Christianity described by him) deals with suffering and stress. The overlapping sentiment is to not dwell or attach to the suffering. The rhetoric each religion uses is different and in affect symbolize how we humans deal with our suffering. I am not saying that any one way is correct or incorrect. In my perspective, Buddhists place the emphasis on the individual to let go of fetters like greed, anger, ill-will. But Christians place the emphasis finding refuge through a higher being who carries no sins like greed or anger, in turn humbling themselves.

I believe that isn’t right to dismiss people if they don’t believe in the same things you do. I know it is easy to cultivate an “us vs them” mentality and draw boundaries, because I have been guilty of doing that many times myself. But I’ve learned a lot about my humanity talking to him.

It was very moving to hear how Christianity had saved him and changed his life for the better. When growing up, he hated his father for being an alcoholic who beat him. But, through his faith he has opened his heart to him and forgiven him, praying for him everyday. I think that kind of transformation through faith is amazing.
He had bullied his little brother during school because his brother was not as “smart” as him, and that had ruined their relationship since. The first thing he knew he had to do after being saved was to apologize – he knelt down in front of his younger brother and sincerely apologized for the hurt he had caused. And now, they are growing closer together, and I think that is really beautiful.

I do not believe in all the things that he does, but we share a common thread which is that we are both human. And I have learned a lot about our humanity and how faith can transform it.

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Buddhism: Religion, Philosophy, or Spirituality?

When I visited New York a couple of months ago, a student at Columbia University asked me this question: Would you consider Buddhism a religion or philosophy? I don’t remember what I said, but I do recall it being a half-baked answer skirting on the edges of classifying Buddhism as a philosophy. After all, many young people in the West do consider Buddhism as a doctrine about cause and effect, seeing most rituals and chants as moot. I grew up in a Buddhist household, attended temple rituals and ceremonies, yet still found myself doubting that Buddhism should be considered a religion. For me, religion was connected with worshipping god(s), like Christianity or Islam. But in Buddhism, there was no god to praise or worship. I’m sure that many would agree that Buddhism is in fact a way of life.

However, my view has come to change on this during my stay here at a monastic program (Woodenfish) in the Longquan Monastery in Shanxi, China. Let’s begin with the term spirituality.

I think it’s a fairly modern concept, and most people I know would rather be aligned as spiritual rather than a radical religious. Karl-Stéphan Bouthillette, a professor at Woodenfish, opened his lecture about spirituality that spirituality had an attitude of “whatever.” It puts the individual at the center of the universe, makes people selfish and unhappy. It allows people to cherrypick whatever you like, but the dangerous part is that it can lead to dismissing what we don’t yet understand or what challenges us. If we are trying to learn, we need to relinquish our authority. For example, if we are learning how to make a chair, we would go to somebody who already knows how to make a chair. If we want to learn how to meditate, we should go to a monastery where they have established practices to teach meditation. This motivation behind cherrypicking in spirituality also translates over to the fractious nature of religions institutions and political parties. There is a loss of commitment to something greater, especially something that challenges us. And being our own authority can put a lot of stress on ourself to make the perfect decisions among a sea of options.

Philosophy, from Greek φιλοσοφία, philosophia, literally translates to “love of wisdom.” And refers to the study of things like knowledge, existence, what we should or should not do, language, reason, etc. And from my experience of studying philosophy in college, has a categorical/classifying nature that can seem cold.

Religion, from Latin religio, means “that which binds us together.” As opposed to philosophy, religion feels more warm and human, dealing with things like love, death, passion, birth, etc. And religion can ben seen as having 7 dimensions.

7 Dimensions of Religion

1. Practical and Ritual – In Buddhism, rituals are seen not as an end in itself. Sacrifices, baptism, etc.

2. Experiential and Emotional – Meditative jhanas, metta (loving kindness), desire to convert others

3. Narrative and Mythic – Religions have rich, emotional narratives or myths. While myths are generally looked down upon in the present because of their lack of proof, these stories motivate us to strive for things greater than us. They give us hope.

4. Doctrinal and Philosophical – I believe this is where many people would put Buddhism into, but Buddhism is much more than just a philosophy.

5. Ethical and Legal – 5 Precepts, 10 Commandments, etc.

6. Social and Institutional – monasteries, interactions between laymen and monks/nuns, interactions between people and priests.

7. Material – artwork, clothing, bowls.

And having these 7 dimensions implies that there are many different ways we can enter into religion. For me, my entrance into Buddhism came from the experiential and philosophical dimensions.

For me, this added a lot more depth to religion. Religions are in fact deeply rooted in history and culture. There are also many recurring themes among religions, for example, how the mythological monomyth (hero’s journey) is apparent in many religious narratives. Studying Buddhism academically in the Woodenfish program has been very interesting and challenging, making myself ask questions that I would have never asked myself before, which I will answer in future posts.

What if the Buddha never existed? Does it even matter?

What would be the advantage and disadvantage of believing in the narrative?