By Daniel Scharpenburg
A Reader Says:
My family is fundamentalist Christian and I’ve embraced Buddhism. I’ve been practicing for a couple years now. I’m afraid of telling them, but I want to be who I am, I don’t want to hide. What can I do? How do I tell them?
This is a tough question. But it is also a really important one. I live in the United States, where approximately 70% of the population is Christian—although it certainly ranges from deeply devout to casual. In plenty of places in this country the idea of not being Christian is considered really weird.
Other people could speak on this better than I could. I never had to “come out of the meditation closet” to my parents. I didn’t really “come out” to anyone. I just started writing about Buddhism on the internet and all my friends found out. Once in a while someone will reach out to me to ask me questions about Buddhism because everyone knows.
I know that there are many people living in the United States that have to struggle with this. I don’t know the questioner’s whole situation, but I’m going to give general answers here that I think will help people.
So, there’s a range, I think. Some people view the world a certain way and the door is completely closed. They think “Buddha is an idol. Buddhists are going to hell.” Or, “You don’t need any spiritual teachings that aren’t in the Bible. The Bible is the only book you ever need.”
There’s not much to be done if that is your family. If the door is completely closed (and you know if it is) then that is a long road you have to accept, and I’m not sure if I can give any advice.
But that’s not a majority. People that are completely closed and can’t be moved at all are rare, although I’m sure they seem common if you’re surrounded by them. With plenty of families, the door is open at least a crack. And if it’s open a crack, that’s enough.
How do we talk about Buddhism? How do we come out?
We don’t talk about it as a religion because it’s not one. It’s a way of life. It looks like a religion a lot of the time. And that’s the part that we have to convince to our friends and relatives is that part is not what is important.
Because the truth is that it isn’t.
Buddhism is about living the best life we can. The Buddha made these discoveries about suffering and attachment. That’s really what’s central to Buddhism. There are a lot of big colorful things that can get distracting, but it’s really all suffering and the cause of suffering.
In any conversation about Buddhism, we can always drag it back to talking about suffering and attachment, or being here now—fully present. Buddhism is about this world. Christianity is about another world.
The focus of Christianity is on salvation. The focus of Buddhism is on being more aware in this life. Buddhism is about how to live in this world, how to lessen the suffering of ourselves and others, and how to be more aware and present in our lives and our relationships.
I know Buddhists who are Christian. I know Buddhists who are Pagan. One doesn’t conflict with the other and it doesn’t have to. One can easily believe that Jesus is coming back and also believe that following the Buddha’s teachings helps us relieve suffering in the world.
And if your family knows enough about Buddhism to ask questions like, “What’s with the Dalai Lama?” or “Don’t Buddhists believe in gods?”
You just have to say, “Vajrayana Buddhism is a very small (but colorful) minority. They’re like the Mormons of Buddhism.” That should be an analogy they understand. And it’s basically true. If they’re still not sure, invite them to compare a few teachings. Here are some sayings of the Buddha and Jesus:
Buddha: “Consider others as yourself.” Dhammapada 10:1
Jesus: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” Luke 6:29
Buddha: “If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon any desires and utter no evil words.” Majjhima Nikaya 21:6
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love;
for it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.
The similarity is striking.
Editor: Dana Gornall