Thursday, May 21, 2015

Parallel Paths

"A Mysterious Wilderness"
- Outside the Desert Retreat House -

Our old air-conditioning system finally broke down and since we are about to enter our “triple-digit” temperature season out here in the desert,  we will have to install a new one. Yesterday I spent the better part of the afternoon talking with a young man who was helping us to design our new system. Our meeting was supposed to take about an hour but instead it lasted well over three hours because, instead of just talking about how to keep the house cool in the hot summer months, we spent most of our time talking about faith, religion and spirituality.

I learned that this young man (in his early 30’s) had grown up in the Catholic Church,  and in fact, he had spent several years in a seminary studying for the priesthood.  Nowadays, if asked what religion he belongs to?  He answers, “none.”

He went on to tell me that he hasn’t exactly rejected religion,  but that he came to a point in his life where the church became far too restrictive and confining for him - somehow he felt that a pursuit of the truth is bigger and broader than what he was able to find inside the doors of the church. 

So now, this very bright and well-read young man has expanded the scope of his spiritual quest to include Buddhist literature and the wisdom of other spiritual traditions.

My three-hour conversation yesterday was very encouraging. My guess is that a lot of traditional religious believers (especially those in leadership roles) might do well to pay some close attention to people like the fellow I spoke with yesterday. I think he may well represent a growing group of young “millennials” who have turned away from traditional institutional religion in pursuit of a greater wisdom. Instead of abandoning their religion, they may, in fact be the ones who help religion find its way again.

There are some who say that the pursuit of many different religious paths dilutes and distorts the path you are on, making you less committed to it. I think perhaps the opposite may be true.

When I examine the life of people like the renowned Christian monk and mystic, Thomas Merton, I find someone firmly rooted in the Christian faith, clearly a follower of Jesus and yet also deeply informed by Buddhist teachings and principles. Merton’s many writings demonstrate how his deeply-rooted Christianity was profoundly enriched and enhanced by his connection to Buddhism and his ongoing relationship with a community of Buddhist monks.

But none of this is at all surprising to me. When I look at the life and teachings of Jesus and compare it to the Buddha, it becomes crystal-clear that they walked parallel paths - not exactly the same path, but they were certainly walking in the same direction.

A few years back I read a book by Christian theologian, Paul Knitter: Without Buddha I Could not be a Christian. The book had a serious impact on my thinking, opening up  doors of realization to me. I could pursue the wisdom of the Buddha while still remaining a faithful follower of Jesus.

In his book,  Knitter says this about the Buddha  (an insight based on the Buddha’s first sermon):

He saw, not only with his mind but with his whole being,
just how the world and human existence in it worked,
how everything was in a constant process of interconnected movement,
how suffering is caused when humans greedily try to break the interconnections
and hold onto things just for themselves,
how suffering can be stopped through letting go not just of selfishness
but of the very self
in compassion for all beings.

When I read this poignant description of the Buddha and his wisdom I think to myself, “this exact same thing can be said of Christ and his teachings.”  In fact, when I walk down this “Buddha path” on the way to wisdom, I find profound insight into what Jesus constantly taught, pointing his followers in the direction of the “way” of compassion.   

I think it may be true that without the Buddha I could not be a Christian.

A Zen saying comes to mind:

There are many paths up the Mountain,
but the view of the moon from the top is the same.

Listen to my podcast:"Desert Wisdom"


  1. Absolutely true. I feel much the same way. Emptiness and oneness with God in Christ go hand in hand and from them the same ethical imperatives are drawn.

    I used to install and service refrigeration equipment too. My son lived in Albuquerque for a while and told me they have swamp coolers which are used for air conditioning. No compressor. No refrigerant other than water and air. I wondered how it worked and he said it was fine.

    1. Yeah thanks...sometimes the simple path is the best isn't it?