Catholicism & Buddhism: personal view

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Brian Hennessy. An Australian in China. May, 2022

Time spent in China gave me time to explore the three main ‘religions’ of that society. I use the term loosely, because Confucianism, Buddhism, and Taoism (Dao) cannot be classed as religions in the Western sense.

Briefly: Confucianism is a social construct; Buddhism is more a philosophy with spiritual overtones; and Taoism (the Way), although at its worst is full of superstition, at its best is truly mystical. For more detail, please refer to: China’s three wise men » An Australian in China (ozinchina.com)

As I got to know their founders (Confucius, Buddha, & Laozi) and their followers better, I found my own western Catholic religious heritage under challenge.  This letter to my adult children is more a letter to myself. It is an attempt to sort things out.

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Why Catholicism? A letter to my children

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CATHOLICISM

These days, the Catholic Church remains discredited for the sexual abuse of too many children by too many priests; and for its reluctance to hold these predators accountable for their crimes against the innocent. Rightly so.

As we know, this man-made structure is an authoritarian, hierarchical institution – not unlike the formal structure of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Communication flows down, not up.

Nevertheless, I believe that this imperfect edifice can still support a faith which is both rational and liberating. Although its structure is as weak as the flesh, its theology has bones.

Some other forms of Christianity don’t rate with me. Particularly those churches which are anti-intellectual; and which appeal more to emotion than rationality. For example, Hillsong pentecostal churches.

I also include here, those fundamentalist churches which take the bible literally (this is personal opinion: I mean no offense). My inquiring, open-minded brain can’t cope with this denial of critical thinking and the abrogation of personal intellectual responsibility. We have moved on from the middle-ages. We are born with a brain, and should use it. We are an evolving, adaptive species, rather than a static one. 

I know we could argue about Truth here, but if we do, we’ll be here all day. Another time, eh?

Although I am not a church-going practicing catholic, I still tick that box in the national census form. Why? because generally speaking, I value Catholicism’s core-beliefs and have been unable to find a better alternative.

Further, the Catholic Church’s commitment to social justice is one of its saving graces (pun intended). Scratch a social justice warrior in Oz, and there is a good chance that you will find a lapsed Catholic underneath. My tribe.

I like the Church’s emphasis on: love, compassion (similar to Buddhism), and good-works. Also its promotion of individual responsibility; the forgiveness of sin; and the promise of life after death. For some folk, the latter is a biblical heaven. For me it could be particles (the biblical ‘dust’?) in a quantum universe. 

The ‘Cosmic Christ’ of Jesuit paleontologist, theologian, and mystic – Pierre Teilhard de Chardin – is more to my liking. He reckons that man may be evolving into a conscious universe. Difficult to read (e.g., he created his own descriptors), but worth the effort.

What is consciousness? Nobody knows yet. We live in hope that one day, the universe may give us a hint. I reckon it will be the mystics who get it first.

In the meantime, I search. I still pray, though my prayer is a more contemplative version that seeks Unity with everything, rather than the dry repetition of prayers I learned as a child (although they still have value).

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Recently, a grandchild’s christening opened another window into Catholic wisdom and tradition for me. I listened to every word and found beauty in these 2000 year old sentiments. Somehow, after all the controversies, schisms, historical bad popes, religious fashions, and political machinations (internal and external), the core beliefs shine through. Like light behind a dirty window.  

Despite, for example; religious wars, and paedophile priests and their institutional cover-ups (think: Cardinal Pell and his reprehensible behaviour), the institutional church still has value as a repository of this accumulated wisdom.

And it continues to produce good people. Think: Mother Teresa. And modern day saints – most of them unknown by the formal church.

They are out there: living exemplary, unselfish, productive lives. Think of those who run the schools and hospitals; and those who care for bedridden, incontinent, dying relatives without acknowledgement or complaint. The drudgery of compassion.

And mothers who burn themselves out giving life to their children – before and after birth. Unsung heroes. I’d like to nominate my mum: Joan Eleanor Hennessy – mother of 11 kids – as a saint for mothers. Time she got a gong.

Ordinary people are the church. The church is people like you and me. It is not the physical building; mass on Sundays; or the Vatican bureaucracy.

Some folk are taking back responsibility for themselves and for the practice of their faith. For example, Father Peter Kennedy in Brisbane and his community which included other faiths that the institutional church could not accept. The religious police – to their shame – kicked him out. The good news however, is that his congregation followed him into exile. 

Father Peter saw the God in everyone, and did not demand conformity. He had Buddhists in his congregation; as well as refugees from other cultures and faiths. I suspect that many homeless folk also sought comfort there. He welcomed all of them, and gave them a spiritual home. Now he’s wandering in a virtual desert. The traditional space for non-conformists, visionaries, and prophets.

In my opinion, if the Church is to survive, it must risk being messily inclusive rather than doctrinally perfect. Otherwise, more George Pells will float to the top like fat on a two day old chicken soup. We have to keep an eye on these buggars.

Think about Christ and his Love for the outcasts of society, rather than the powerful, the hypocritical, and the wealthy. Think about his disdain for the pharisees. God or not, Christ is a good model.

Is it possible that Christ was a man who developed a cosmic, mystical unity with an unknowable Creator? Just a stray thought. Sometimes I catch them as they wizz by.

BUDDHISM

I have flirted with Buddhism for many years. I have Buddhist friends in China. I also enjoy a close relationship with a Tibetan Buddhist in Litang up on the Tibetan Plateau. Medok and I have been friends since 2005 when she introduced me to her culture. 

She and I tried to set up a learning center for nomad orphans in the basement of her back-packer hostel, but the CCP and its local yes-men put a stop to that good idea. The CCP is about power and control. It has no compassion.

The monastery in Litang once housed the 7th and 10th Dalai Llamas. It – and the environment around it – is now my spiritual home. I have been fortunate enough to have experienced something special up there. As an alternative explanation of reality, Buddhism can be taken seriously.

Buddhism and Christianity – a nice blend. Perhaps there is a God of the Overlap, eh? Buddhism for its enlightened philosophy and meditative practices; and Christianity for its transcendental, personal God. This needs more explanation, I know…but not here.

I have been surprised however, to notice similarities in how the Buddhist ‘faithful’ compare with the Catholic ‘faithful’. Buddhism also has its bureaucratic religious hierarchy. And its sects. Sometimes when I visit a Buddhist temple, I am reminded of a pre-Vatican II church. Impressive architecture containing; ritual, statues, prayers, gongs, chanting, candles, and money-boxes.

Real Buddhism is in the hearts and minds of its humble adherents rather than the iconic Potala in Lhasa: the Tibetan Vatican. 

A BLENDING OF FAITHS

Catholicism is a good grounding, because it – like other faiths – has a mystical side. Mystics go beyond the structures and the doctrines. They break-free, if you like, and go wandering off into the spiritual distance. 

For me, Thomas Merton is an excellent guide for such a journey. A Catholic monk, writer, and mystic who saw the similarities in both Western and Eastern religions (particularly Hinduism, and Tibetan and Zen Buddhism).

Whether you are Catholic, Buddhist, Hindu, Moslem, or Taoist, you can follow the mystics. That’s the Way (Tao). Think of the primary or first religion as the seed – the rest grows from there.

 

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