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Page last updated at 09:49 GMT, Thursday, 17 December 2009
Separating faith from culture - learning from Buddhism
By Gavin Ashenden
BBC Sussex

A statue of Buddha

Our faith guest was a Buddhist; and not just any Buddhist.

In fact she was the local chairman/person of the western Buddhist order.

She had a lovely face and a very impressive 'attitude'. And I learnt several new things during our conversation.

The first thing that surprised me was than no one wrote down anything the Buddha said for about 500 years.

Gavin Ashenden
Gavin Ashenden

There has been a fuss for about 200 years in Europe about whether you can rely on the Christian Gospels, since they were written down some while after Jesus spoke.

But I have never heard people fussing about how untrustworthy the Buddhist scriptures; and my guest and I agreed that oral tradition was strong and reliable in pre-literate cultures.

But nonetheless, the gospels were written down between about 20 and 50 years after Jesus died, and they have attracted a lot of critical attention, with people wondering if they can be trusted with such a gap between the event and the writing?

Compared to 500 years, 35 years seems a rather modest period of time.

I didn't realize that the Buddha taught that there were many Gods, but no 'one creating principle'. I wanted to ask my guest "how he knew", but I thought that might be impolite.

We did agree though that one had to make a choice to be made between the Hebrew prophets who popped up out of nowhere in a steady stream in the thousand years before the Common Era, saying there is a Creator, He made you, and he personal and ethical, (and wants you to change your behaviour!)- and the many gods the Buddha taught existed.

But if we took separate paths on that issue we did agree that finding your way to a spiritual path involved asking a lot of questions. She was a deeply thoughtful and very impressive person; and she mentioned that one of the reasons she had come to Buddhism was that she had tried Christianity for a while, but had not felt able to ask it questions.

I understood completely.

It took the Christian community over 400 years to work out what it believed and why, and put it into a formula of words that everyone could agree to.

How can we possibly expect individuals to work their way through the mystery of an encounter with God, and not be asking questions each step of the way?

To do anything else is to ask to be surrounded by fundamentalism.

There is a claustrophobic feeling in some parts of Christianity that you have to accept the whole package straight off and anything else is deviancy.

She said one of the great gifts of Buddhism was to be able to keep one's spirit of enquiry, and Western Buddhists had also learnt to be wary of any culture that attached itself to a religion; so they don't shave their heads or wear Tibetan robes.

I think that there are many occasions when different religious paths can look over their shoulder at one another and learn a thing or two.

I'd like Buddhists to give more thought to the Hebrew prophets and their experience of the One Creator God (did Buddha claim to know everything?); but I think Christians can learn from the Buddhists to keep up their questions, foster a spirit of enquiry, and be very wary of something cultural called 'Christianity' which, in the package we receive it, may not have much to do with Jesus or the path he invited us to follow him on.


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