In the spirit of the arbitrary and fallacious-but-fun lead-in, “There are two types of people in the world…” let’s see whether you might be more inclined toward being a Buddhist or Christian “type” of person. By this I do not mean whether you believe in or practice either of those two traditions. It is only to ask: What is your orientation, your emotional style, the temperament that fires your imagination and sense of personhood and relationship to the world?
I owe the impetus of this post to the former Anglican priest and “post-Christian” philosopher and theologian Don Cupitt, whose voluminous works on what I would describe at least partially as the “evolution of religion” offer an endlessly intriguing and finely distilled romp through multiple fields of intellectual history. Cupitt, about whom I will have much more to say in a post down the road, distinguishes between the Buddha and Jesus and the respective traditions that grew in their wake this way:
“Jesus is the prophet who first taught people that one could live and love life with a fierce burning end of the world urgency…Buddhism seems a little too unattached, cool and celibate. The Buddha is wise and compassionate: he does not experience suffering. Christ is furiously ardent: he loves and suffers greatly. Who do you choose to follow? It’s up to you.”
This is one of the better quickie comparisons of the two traditions’ essence that I’ve come across. In a world where geography is no longer destiny, where Buddhists have long since established a permanent foothold in the west just as Christians have spread throughout Asia and beyond, one’s choice of religion (if any) is perhaps becoming more a matter of temperament than of cultural inheritance. And the question, “Are you more Buddhist or Christian?” can serve as a kind of universal query determining your basic orientation toward life.
If a Buddhist has ever given someone else the finger after getting cut off in traffic, I have yet to see it.
Do you burn with fire and passion, or are you more detached and cool? Jump for joy or quietly exult with barely an external murmur? Perhaps you are both in their own time, and thus represent a kind of hybrid Buddhist/Christian sensibility?
In this Buddhist-or-Christian schema, the more or less austere Quakers, Christian though they be, are surely “Buddhist,” while Muslims (especially Sufis) and Jews (passion, heat, brow-furrowed concern!) are Christians.
Those evangelicals swaying in the aisles with their hands up in the air? Very Christian, as are all Greeks, Italians and my own people, the Hungarians (when we aren’t giving way to our dark existentialist side).
My Unitarian Universalist tradition: Buddhist (until we get some wine into us).
EMTs and surgeons: necessarily Buddhist. (It’s in their professional code of conduct, I think…)
Twelve Steppers: Christian.
Despite living in one of the more atheistic enclaves in America, San Franciso Giants fans are decidedly Christian. (Even more so: Cubs fans with their deep sense of the tragic and undying hope for ultimate redemption).
Dodgers fans: Buddhist (with a Hollywood sheen, like Richard Gere).
Legendary 49ers quarterback Joe Montana? So, so Buddhist.
Colin Kaepernick and Steve Young: Christian.
Bill Clinton, Christian. Barack Obama, way Buddhist.
Joe Biden, Christian. Paul Ryan, Buddhist.
Jimmy Stewart, Christian. Cary Grant, Buddhist.
And contrary to their actual affiliations in life: Jack Kerouac, Christian, T.S. Eliot, Buddhist.
Christians in their “fierce burning end of the world urgency” mode want to carry a torch, not merely burn a candle. They want to join Jean Valjean on the barricades, not sit in sesshin.
Buddhism’s emphasis on detachment, on smoothing out the endless warp and woof of identification with the insatiable desires of the temporal self, gives it a cool reserve. Followers are urged to pay perfect, non-judgmental attention to the world in front of their noses, even as their goal—which they can’t really desire, because desire breaks the rules—is to escape that very world. (Complete immersion as prelude to ultimate escape—Buddhists are so very good at embracing contradiction and the unity of opposites…)
Buddhist temperaments don’t tend to ruffle easily—if a Buddhist has ever given someone else the finger after getting cut off in traffic, I have yet to see it. Christians, however, are presented with the imagery of Christ angrily tearing into the money changers in the temple, upending their tables while decrying the “den of thieves” they had created. One can imagine Buddha putting a hand on Jesus’s shoulder at this point and counseling him to take a deep breath, but I can hear Jesus informing him, with more than a hint of irritation in his voice: “Back off, Bro.”
So: Are you more with Miles and his “Birth of the Cool,” or Jack London, he of the “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow” sensibility? It’s up to you. (Although given your genetic inheritance, you may not have as much choice in the matter as you and Mr. Cupitt like to think.)
And meanwhile, there is nobody, but nobody, who burns with quite the joyful consuming fire of Rev. Al Green. Makes no difference whether you’re Buddhist or Christian, because it’s a primitive and universal instinct that tells you it is useless to resist his charms.