Buddhist-Christianity? Part One: My Story

I am very glad to be here and looking forward to being here once a month into the Spring. I’ve been thinking about what I talk to you about on these occasions. I thought about simply giving you the sermon I give each week in North Orange. But I thought that might be kind of boring and monotonous. So instead, I thought why not talk about something I’ve been thinking about for a long time. Something I’ve written a lot about but never really shared with a group. And that is an understanding known as Buddhist-Christianity which seeks to harmonize these two great traditions into one spiritual understanding and spiritual practice. I think this understanding and practice is perfect for a UU setting.

So that is what I am going to be talking about. On this first Sunday, I thought I’d share my story and how I personally came to a Buddhist-Christian understanding and practice. It is a kind of mini-memoir.
Since the age of 12, I wanted to be a minister. My family can attest to this. They had to put up with me imitating our church’s minister and preaching sermons in my room. I even recorded myself on one of those old flat, push-button cassette players. Actually, my parents not only had to put up with me, they had to purchase blank cassette tapes. With six kids being raised on a bus-drivers pay, this was not a simple purchase decision. But who could deny a son wanting to practice preaching? Such purchases stopped when I began to record radio songs, leaving me to record over stuff on the numerous tapes I already had.

What influenced me to be such an oddball and want to be a preacher? Well, exposure, I guess. My family took me to church -- Clermont Bible Church -- every Sunday morning, to some Sunday
evening services, and occasionally to Wednesday prayer meeting or Bible studies around town. The number of times I was in church affected me for sure. But what I experienced at church was even more significant. And what I experienced in people who've touched my lives forever was just as significant.

Morgan Jones was the minister of my childhood church, Clermont Bible Church, a non-denominational Baptist-style congregation in rural upstate New York. The church was planted by Morgan, an orthodox Presbyterian minister, and Ken Peister, a Baptist farmer who befriended him.

Although Morgan was a World War II vet who stormed the beaches of Normandy, although he had a doctorate in theology and was some 60 years-old, he insisted on people calling him by his first name. So I remember him fondly as Morgan.

Morgan had a kind of bunker conversion at Normandy, in fact. Doubting he’d survive, and watching buddies fall around him, he vowed if he survived that he’d serve God for the rest of his life, both for God’s sake and in honor of his fallen friends. He survived, enrolled in seminary as a result of the GI Bill, and eventually became a minister.

Morgan was what I term an intellectual of the old-school – he knew all the questions and the one answer to them. He loved the Bible, and knew it inside and out. He loved to teach and was great at it. He taught about 7 Bible Studies a week in addition to Sunday church and Wednesday prayer meeting. He was also the greatest preacher I ever heard.
Morgan used a hard-covered orange Bible which intrigued me. One summer he had to get his Bible rebound. He used it so much that he wore it out. And he again decided to enclose the well-worn, brown pages with an orange cover. He once noted that he couldn’t understand why the Bible, which offers so much light to people, was always black or brown. During the week his Bible was being re-bound and he had to use another Bible, he remarked how lost he was without ol’ Orange. He was like Roy Rogers without ol’ Trigger or Lone Ranger without ol’ Silver.

Now, my theology and Morgan’s parted ways a long time ago. He would probably be disappointed at this. But I still honor his influence in my life and the good man he was. He was my first mentor and is partly why I am here today.

And as it turns out, learning from a man with an orange Bible has led me here to Orange, MA as the minister of its community church.

Poetic symmetry I’d call it. 

Fast forward some 10 years since my first calling to be a minister came at age 12. In those ten years, I graduated high school and went off to Christian college hoping to eventually become a minister. But a crisis of faith in my early 20s, would change things irrevocably.

The crisis of faith that led to my departure happened in my junior year at college, and revolved around the fact that I could no longer accept the religious exclusivism that said only Christians, and of a specific sort, went to heaven and the rest went to eternal hell. Hell and a God who is love also seemed irreconcilable.

Then there was litmus test of political conservatism and moralism. It shamed people who were different – gay people, nonconformists, political liberals – also influenced my departure.

One figure helped me wade through all of this. A figure that I had known about in general and respected before arriving at Cedarville but one whom I got to know in a deeper way. That figure is none other than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. During that junior year when I was questioning everything about my faith and finding little answers in the belief structure I knew, I delved into the Civil Rights Movement and to the life and work of Dr. King. I remember listening to a phonograph of Dr. King sermons. The phonograph needle transmitted across time Dr. King’s words and the gospel of love and the light of God. I experienced what it meant to really follow Jesus – to practice the way of love and justice. This was a more inclusive and compassionate gospel, a more applicable and realer gospel. King showed me what it truly meant to be a Christian and a Christian minister.

Cedarville College was no longer the place for me. It no longer represented the faith I experienced. So with only a year to go to graduation, I hitchhiked my way out. Actually, I drove my powder blue 1979 Ford Thunderbird out.

Some three years later, another former soldier turned religious minister would influence my life indelibly. But Morgan and this man could not be any more different.

I met Thich Giac Hai in 1996. I had developed an interest in Buddhism, which struck me as the most inclusive and accepting religion there was. And Thich Giac Hai was a Buddhist monk living in Raleigh, North Carolina. I went to his temple seeking to learn about Buddhism firsthand and not just from books. Thich Giac Hai welcomed me and would teach me the Buddhist teaching for some 3 years. The experience changed my life. 

Thich Giac Hai’s life was a living example of spiritual transformation to me. In his “past life” he was a ranking military officer, a lieutenant in the south Vietnamese army fighting against the Communists in the north. Saigon fell in 1974. Lt. Loc Le (Loc Le was his birth name; Thich Giac Hai his religious name) was captured. He would spend some five years in a Vietcong prison, five excruciating years of life that straddled the periphery of life, the boundary of death. Not enough food, not enough light, and too much work – endless, brutal work.

Yet somehow, out of this misery, Loc Le found the way of the Buddha. His parents were practicing Confucians, and Loc Le only faintly knew about Buddhism. But in prison, he somehow got his hands on Buddhist texts. It was in prison, as a prisoner of war, that Loc Le found some ounce of freedom. Maybe it was the only thing that kept him alive. It certainly must have been the only thing keeping him from being withered by hatred, hatred toward the cruel guards of the prison, toward humankind in general. In prison he vowed to become a monk. And he did, and was given the name Giac Hai.

About four months into my studying under Thich Giac Hai, Thay as I called him, I experienced a moment that would change my life though it seems rather ordinary now. I was at a table drinking tea with my teacher as he taught the Heart Sutra, a Buddhist scripture that is central to East Asian Buddhism. My teacher looked at me moved by the thought preceding his words. Teary eyed he said: “You are Buddha, you know. I am Buddha, you are Buddha, every being Buddha. This is good. This is wonderful truth.”

Being taught all my life that at basis I like every human being was sinful by nature, these words touched me deeply and indeed transformed something inside me. As he said those words, I felt the happiness of his tears. I felt the beauty of his words. I felt the light’s transmission. The moment was the most poignant of meditations -- the quiet of a snow-mirrored night sky from my childhood, the love of the universe, the healing silence following tears of anguish, tears of mourning. Put it simply, I experienced the light of God in my teacher's words.

Another moment that will always remain as a silent teaching about simple presence. It was the Buddha's Birthday celebration at Van-Hanh Temple in Raleigh. Like Easter at a neighborhood church, the day was busy with many people gathered around for worship, fellowship, and food. Near the end of the busy day, we were cleaning up. As I was helping, I noticed Thich Giac Hai walking into the distance. He walked gently and meditatively. While walking, he gently raised his arm to scratch his bald head. It was a picture of grace and beauty. For some reason, the simple gesture touched me deeply. I stays with me still.
This introduction to Buddhism, a Vietnamese form of Zen called Thien, led to an interest in another less familiar and lesser known school of Buddhism, that of Korea. In fact, much of my academic focus was on the Buddhist philosophy of Korean Buddhist saint, Wonhyo. Wonhyo lived in the 600s. His philosophy sought to find the layer of commonality between various Buddhist teachings and even the religious teachings of Confucianism and Taoism. He sought to harmonize views into one overarching understanding and practice. It is a task I value and attempt myself here.

While Buddhism transformed my thinking, at heart I was still a child of Jesus, if you will, living in a society moved by his life and death and immortal teaching. He was my teacher from the beginning and would never leave me. And as time went forth, I realized that I carried both of these traditions deeply with me. One did not, could not replace another. They were both a part of my spiritual path and practice. 

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist preacher who changed the world, mine included, nominated Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace-activist. Dr. King introduced to America and the world a now world-renowned Buddhist teacher. They shared yet active and engaged faith focused on peace, compassion, and justice. They also together mirrored the faith of my heart.

This is why this photo of King and Hanh is central to me. It represents my faith in a powerful way. I am a Hanh-King Buddhist-Christian.

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