I've just spent four hours listening to the teachings of Pema Chodron, a Buddhist nun and popular spiritual teacher. That may seem a bit unusual for a committed Christian (I'm not looking to test other waters), but let me tell you why it made good sense.
Christians don't teach these things as well as Buddhists. How do you stay centered in the midst of stress? How do you step out of the downward spiral of self-hatred? How do you awaken compassion in yourself? And we don't focus well on learning basic skills like sitting still, abandoning negative thoughts, doing everyday things quietly-skills that prepare us to hear what God has to say in our lives.
I once had a seminary professor who taught similar things but from the side of Christ. He would baffle us by talking about the importance of "developing capacities" such as loving, hoping, forgiving. "These aren't activities," he would say. "You can't really say to me, ‘I think I'll go outside and do some hoping this afternoon.'" But still, there are concrete ways that we can practice, or get better, at building these Christian capacities in our everyday lives.
Chodron does this very well. Creeds and doctrines are pretty much absent from Buddhism. There's the Four Noble Truths, but much more important is the Eight-Fold Path: Right Speech, Right Actions, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration, Right Understanding and Right Thoughts. It's all about what you do and how you do it, sometimes down to minute details. I remember hearing Thich Nhat Hanh, another popular Buddhist teacher, once describe in a lecture how to practice mindfulness while on the toilet.
In Chodron's talks, The Way is all about living an enlightened life, not about what you believe. I think Jesus would have understood this sort of approach. He certainly didn't talk much about what you believe. He talked about loving, hoping, forgiving. After listening to Chodron's talks on freeing yourself from anger and other destructive emotions, I feel she would say to me, as a Christian: "I don't care if you believe it. Are you doing it?" And I need to hear that.
Chodron begins a talk on anger by explaining to her audience just how absurd it seems to listen to teachings that date back to an eighth-century Indian monastery of celibate monks. "At the level of human neurosis, nothing has changed much," she explained. Then she shows you how to build your happiness-and not on the suffering of others. How to sit still. How to be more earnest. How to put away cynical thoughts. Learning skills of mind and action. These are all far more important to my life than are a lot of things that usually occupy me.
Her words often reminded me of one of Jesus' teachings. In that same talk on anger, she said: "Patience is revolutionary, because it goes against our knee-jerk reactions to harden our hearts." And of course, Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit. ... Blessed are the meek. ... Blessed are the merciful. ... Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God" (Matthew 5:3, 5, 7-8).
Chodron's teachings appeal, as do Jesus', to those who are suffering. In her talk on Lojong, a collection of 59 Tibetan Buddhist sayings, she said: "A very important part of the practice is it gives us a method to get in touch with our pain." And then what follows are meditative techniques to be practiced by both the body and the mind.
Christendom sometimes makes it hard to see this clearly, but when you read the Gospels with fresh eyes, the appeal of Jesus to the suffering is everywhere. Just look at the characters of the prostitute who anoints his feet with oil, or the lonely Zacchaeus, or Jesus' conversation with the Samaritan woman (both Samaritan and woman would have been two strikes against someone in the playbook of any other religious person). Are you suffering in some way? Me too.
You can find practices and techniques in the teachings of the apostle Paul, as well, and in early Christian texts like the Didache, and the tales of the desert fathers and mothers. But we may even need to create more of them-these practices that help make our teachings real-because we don't do this very well. At least I don't.
The recorded talks discussed in this article are Don't Bite the Hook: Finding Freedom from Anger, Resentment, and Other Destructive Emotions (3 CDs); and Always Maintain a Joyful Mind: And Other Lojong Teachings on Awakening Compassion and Fearlessness (book and CD), both by Pema Chodron and published by Shambhala Publications in 2007.
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