Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Talking with Christians about God

Another potential source of anger about what others say is when we discuss religion with our Christian friends and family.

This can also come up in our daily lives, especially if we are practicing Buddhism in predominantly Christian societies or families.  Geshe-la once gave some advice about engaging with our Christian friends.  He said, there will appear to others, including Christians, to be differences between their teachings and the Kadampa teachings.  And they will possibly want our opinion on those differences. He said we must be very skillful in what we say and what we teach in such circumstances.  Some people may feel threatened thinking we disbelieve the existence of God, and we could be asked our view on the existence of God.  He said of course we shouldn’t answer “God doesn’t exist.” We can answer that different people have different conceptions of God, even Christian scholars have different thoughts.

But the Kadampa teachings are very clear in saying “there is no creator other than mind,” and many Christians and others say God is the creator of the world.  What should we say when somebody asks this?  Geshe-la was very clear, he said we should say, “in reality, I believe there’s no contradiction.”  How can we understand this?

Many years ago at a festival, Geshe-la talked about the Dharmakaya being creator of all – God.  Usually the objection to the conception of God is there is a contradiction between all powerful and perfectly good.  If God is all powerful, then why is there suffering?  It is true for an inherently existent God, this is an impossible contradiction.  But when you understand the emptiness of God – his actual mode of existence – this contradiction falls away.  The Dharmakaya is all knowing, perfectly good and all powerful in that the mind is the creator of all. When our own mind is fully purified it will be all knowing, all powerful and perfectly good.  The Dharmakaya does not exist from its own side, but is our own mind fully purified.  It is something we need to make manifest within our mind.  We need to bring God to everything by viewing everything as inseparable from the Dharmakaya.  The kingdom of heaven is not something that exists from its own side, but something each one of us has to create.

When we understand the emptiness of the creator, Buddhism and Christianity merge perfectly.  In Buddhism, because we understand emptiness, we understand that we are uniquely responsible for everything that happens because our mind is its creator.  Our job is to become a good God for our karmic creation.

If Kadam Dharma is to flourish within predominantly Christian societies, we must now be very skillful in what we teach, especially in relation to Christian principles.  We need to try to show people that in reality there is no contradiction so that their interest in Buddhist teachings grows. Over time they may become more influenced by Buddha’s teachings, or maybe not.  Either way, the choice is theirs. Geshe-la is encouraging us a little to think about what we say and what we teach in the future if the Kadam Dharma is to grow in Western society. We need to think carefully about the answers that we will give.  There are many many different levels to this, and it is worth considering and discussing.  If individually we practice in this way, seeing the non-contradiction between Dharma and Christianity, then the obstacles coming from Christian corners or our families will gradually fade away and this will become a society in which Kadampas are a natural part of the fabric.  This is quite a special way of practicing.

There are three things I find useful to contemplate when thinking about the relationship between the Kadam dharma and Christianity.  First, Mike Garside said that Christ prepared the west perfectly for the arrival of Kadampa Buddhism.  It is as if Christ took the people of the West up a certain distance of the mountain, and then from there Kadampa Buddhism can take them the rest of the way.  Perhaps we can say that Kadampa Buddhism is like ‘enhanced Christianity.’  Christian principles are part of our common path, we just move beyond these principles to a deeper level without being contradictory.  Kadampa Buddhism explains many of the deep inner mechanisms as to how Christianity works, such as blessings, taking and giving, etc.  Kadampa Buddhism introduces a Mahayana element, we seek to become God ourselves so that we can care for our creation.  Kadampa Buddhism eliminates all remaining obstacles to uniting with God by realizing his lack of inherent existence.  Then there is no separation between him and us.  We become inseparably one with him.  We become one and the same.

Second, there is a parallel between when the Dharma came to Tibet and when the Dharma came to the West.  When the Dharma came to Tibet, the local culture and religion was Bon.  Spiritually things were degenerate, but culturally people were Bon.  Out of culturally Bon and spiritually Buddhist emerged ‘Tibetan Buddhism.’  When the Dharma came to the West, the local culture and religion is largely Christian.  Spiritually things are degenerating, but culturally people are primarily Christian.  Out of a culturally Christian and spiritually Buddhist context emerged ‘Modern Kadampa Buddhism’.  One of my teachers once said that one of the uncommon characteristics of Kadampa Buddhism that separates us from Tibetan Buddhism is we do not reject our Christian background, but we take it as a starting point.  Just as Tibetan Buddhism took ‘Bon’ as its starting point, Kadampa Buddhism in many ways takes Christianity as its starting point.

Third, I believe that Kadampa Buddhism has an important role to play in the revival of Christianity as well.  It seems to me that Christianity fell on the rocks for two principal reasons:  First, most people have difficulties with Christianity because it comes down to ‘believe me because God said so.’  This just doesn’t work in modern times with highly educated people.  Second, it got mixed with politics – especially anti-LGBT politics.  There is considerable evidence that Jesus taught a Mahayana path, but when the state hijacked the church, such teachings were removed or reinterpreted for political ends.  Mixing religion and politics destroys the religion as it gets coopted for worldly aims.  My experience has been that the more I study Dharma, the more I understand how Christianity works, and I can explain to my Christian friends our understanding and this helps them improve their faith in their Christianity.  As Kadampa thought infiltrates into Christian culture, effectively becoming a Kadampa society, it will provide Christians with powerful reasons demonstrating why their religion is valid, and this will help them increase their faith in it.  So we have an important role to play not just in the flourishing of Dharma but also the revival of Christianity.

5 thoughts on “Modern Bodhisattva’s Way of Life: Talking with Christians about God

  1. I remember Geshela responding to the question “Do you believe in God?” with ‘Give me your definition of God and I will tell you if I believe in that or not?’
    Thank you Ryan for another beautiful explanation.

  2. As a 20-year Kadampa-only disciple, I do not understand how seemingly NO ONE in our lineage understands (even longer-term Kadampas) that religions is LITERALLY spiritual beliefs/teachings/practices plus politics (which is a designated body of governing structure). We are political for sure, and these structures are ending with the Age of Pisces (hello, degenerate times flourishing Tantra is now). Who cares about being accepted in modern-Capitalist-slave-society?? Realize the teachings- only real job 💯🇺🇸

    • It’s not so much as us being accepted by Christians as it is Christians accepting the teachings and progressing further along the path because we have compassion for ALL living beings including modern-Capitalist-slave-society as you call it. And I have realized the teachings, so there. Oh, I don’t mean to sound defensive – sorry.

  3. I thought this was an excellent explanation! I’m reminded on the time that I described realizing the emptiness of the I as negate, the JOIN. But I can be way too succinct at times.

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