How Buddhism Taught Me How To Be a Better Christian

Chaplain Resident Deborah Metcalf

I’ve always had an affinity for learning about other people, places, cultures and religions. In college I did my best to study as many different religions as possible in the theology department. Through this, I gained some experience with the Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. But I didn’t have the opportunities in my undergraduate studies to explore the other two major world religions: Hinduism and Buddhism.

Although I had this deep passion for studying religion and theology, throughout college, I was at a place in my life where I hadn’t really been going to church regularly. On top of this, the church I’d grown up in had not been a place where most of my open-minded viewpoints were accepted, and this caused me pain. So while church had become a sore spot, my intellectual interests in world religions was an exciting place for new exploration.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I moved to a new city to work. It was there that I first received the opportunity to learn about Buddhism. Someone I knew through work invited me to come along to their sangha (mindfulness community) and I was eager to learn more about this. So, I rounded up several of my roommates and went to my first meditation session. It was here that I found a beautiful community of people who were welcoming, patient, kind, and open minded to different ways of being.

I learned early that Buddhist meditation practice is better thought of as a way of life than a “religion” so to speak. Honestly, as a lifelong Christian, I think Christianity would be better described as a way of life too. Of course, like Christianity (and all religions) Buddhism does not operate in a bubble. Rather, it differs based on different schools of thought (like denominations for Christians) as well as culture, generation, and time throughout history. That being said, I do not speak for all Buddhists everywhere, I speak from my own experience within the tradition of the Order of Interbeing led by teacher and Vietnamese monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh. I speak as a young, white woman, with a Christian background and a modern western experience of an ancient eastern practice. 

At a time in my life where Christianity was a pain point, Buddhism was a sweet and welcoming relief. Several folks were there because they had also been ostracized by the church. Others were atheists, some with a Hindu background, and others still were open minded Christians like myself who also identified as Buddhist, or simply enjoyed the practice without the label. Here, I learned how to bring my attention to my breath, and in doing so created space for deep understanding. Bringing attention to one’s breath is a practice in being fully present in the present moment. We practice this sitting in silent meditation to eliminate distractions, but so that we can get better at being present in the present moment throughout our lives, where there are lots of distractions.

Through the examples set by others in the practice who were also Christian, and through reading the book “Living Buddha, Living Christ” I learned that it was possible to be both Buddhist and Christian. I learned that Buddhism does not have a god, and therefore would also not interfere with my belief in a Christian god. I learned that it is important to understand where you come from, and if possible to return to one’s own tradition. Practicing Buddhism helped me understand the pain that came out of my Christian tradition, accept it, and heal. Because of the open and accepting community of Buddhists I found myself among, and because of the deep understanding I gained, I was able to begin to accept my own past of being pained by the Christian church and begin to return to my Christian tradition with deeper insight and understanding. I was able to find a Christian church that accepted me, shared my open minded expression of Christianity, and accepted my Buddhsim. This helped me heal too.

I also learned, through this mindfulness practice, about the connectedness of all things through deep understanding. I learned that we are all connected to one another and to the earth, a term called “interbeing.” Buddhists use this common example as an explanation of “interbeing:” that a flower is made up entirely of non-flower elements. There is no flower without the conditions for a flower, a seed (which is not a flower) must have rain, sunshine, and dirt containing nutrients in order to exist. The flower “inter-is” with rain, sunshine, and dirt containing nutrients. Without one of those elements, there is no flower. We are like this flower, and our ability to flourish, whether we realize it or not, is tied up with creating conditions for others to flourish as well. As activist Lilla Watson is credited for, “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” In other words, we are all a part of God’s beloved creation.

Buddhism is a contemplative practice. Like Buddhism, Christianity, is also a contemplative practice. But for me, I had never really connected to the contemplative aspects of Christianity. Meditating regularly with my Sangha (mindfulness community) gave me a space to begin doing so. I found that the more I practiced mindfulness, the more thoughtful I was, and the more capacity I had to be patient with others. This in turn meant that I was living a life more in line with my Christian values too.

Christianity is for me, a practice rooted in social activism via Jesus’ social gospels. This is another element of Christianity that I was able to connect with Buddhism– particularly the kind I was involved with. See, Thich Nhat Hanh began his life as a monk in Vietnam amidst the Vietnam war. Utilizing mindfulness as a way of opening oneself up to the interconnected nature of all things, he began to develop a way of practicing Buddhism he called “Engaged Buddhism.” This means that he not only practiced by meditating with other monks, he took that practice and all he learned from it, and he advocated for peace in his communities, fed the hungry, and was with people as they suffered from the turmoil of war. For me, this philosophy meshed really well with my Christian perspective of how I thought I ought to live my life as Jesus did: engaged in the world, in relationship to others, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, and with a willingness to not ignore suffering.

I now practice both traditions, because they continue to work together in my life to help me be my best self, the version of myself that is patient, kind, loving towards others, does not neglect the self, who will sit in sadness and grief with others, can celebrate joy. The ability to do these things is based in an understanding of interconnectedness of all people and all things. These qualities remind me very much of the Jesus that I was brought up in, the one I still believe in today. The Jesus who came for everyone, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and accepted with love those who were excluded by society. But of course, this is a practice. As I mentioned before, I find it helpful to think of both Buddhism and Christianity as a practice. This means that we are never perfect, we are always learning, growing, shaping and this is okay. I am not perfect, I am practicing. Continuing to practice means continuing to grow, to be alive. I have much to learn about both traditions I hold dear.

Ultimately, I learned to integrate what I learned through Buddhism with what I believed as a Christian, and they enhanced my understanding of each. I had a new lens through which to view Christianity, as I studied more and more my own Christian tradition, I felt that they integrated naturally and smoothly with one another. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote in his book “Living Buddha, Living Christ” that “we can learn about others by studying ourselves” (pg. 8). Although it started out a bit the other way around for me, ultimately this became true. And, if it hadn’t been for Buddhism, I may never have come back to Christianity. Practicing Buddhism reminded me that I am not alone, that spiritual practices are important, and that returning to one’s roots can be healing and transformative (and I got a little help from Buddhism to get there). I am forever grateful for Buddhism which helped me return not just to Christ, but to the Church.

Of course, I am not advocating that they are the same religion, or even have the same message as one another. But rather, I find that truth, life, beauty, and grace can be found in both, though they are expressed differently. Buddhism is yet another community of people who are on a path towards enlightenment. When we can see the world for all that it is, with all of its complexities, we can begin to see that it’s really quite simple: love is the answer. Buddhism helps me not only understand the complexities of the world, but harness loving kindness towards it. As it says in 1st John 4:7-8 “Dear friends we must love one another because God first loved us. Anyone who loves knows God and has been born of God because God is love.”

If you, the reader of this article, were to take anything away from this, my hope would be that you have, or find something life-giving and grounding, something that connects you to others, that can nourish you as my Buddhist meditation practice has helped and continues to help me do. That, and if Buddhism is new to you, do not be afraid of it, it is a peaceful practice which in my experience has been a beautiful addition to my life as a Christian. If you’d like more information on Buddhist mindfulness practice in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh/Order of Interbeing, please visit https://plumvillage.org/ and check out the book “Living Buddha, Living Christ” by Thich Nhat Hanh from which I drew several quotes.

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