What if we saw Christianity as Buddhism?

“Buddhism is not a religion. It’s more like a philosophy,” is a refrain I often hear these days. Such words are mostly spoken by Westerners who practice Buddhist meditation and read the Dalai Lama or Thich Nhat Hanh but do not belong to a temple community.

During my studies as an interfaith minister in 2016, I explored a variety of Buddhist traditions from Tibet and Malaysia to Japan and beyond. I found a lot more variety than I expected, from the bare bones of Zen Buddhism to the pomp and circumstance of Tibetan Buddhism with its far-reaching philosophy to Japanese Buddhist services that felt like traditional religious services in West. To say that Buddhism is not a religion is an abuse of language if there ever was one.

Always considered philosophy

Nevertheless, the Buddha’s teachings are still considered philosophy by an ever-increasing number of people. Buddhist ideas have crept into psychology through mindfulness practices and influence a wide variety of modern belief systems. For me, as an interspiritualist, this is not a bad thing. Sometimes I wish people knew where they got their ideas from. Other times I wish they treated the concepts more carefully. But, on average, the knowledge of the eightfold path and this life is “dukkha” (which is often translated as Suffering but literally means out of place; like an off-center wheel) is good.

What if?

It is no secret that many people in the West have turned away from Christianity. When asked, they seem to reject rigid rules, closed minds, judgmental communities, and outdated institutions rather than New Testament teachings. No one ever seems to respond, “All that ‘forgive them for they don’t know what they’re doing’ and ‘love your neighbor as yourself’ doesn’t work for me anymore.”

With that in mind, I started thinking. What if we treated Christianity the same way Westerners treat Buddhism? What if we consider the words of Jesus (Yeshu) primarily as philosophy?

Maybe there’s no appetite for it. I do not know. In many cases, those who rejected Christianity mixed up the teachings of Jesus and things they didn’t like about the church. Still, I’m sure some people would jump at the chance if it became socially acceptable to treat Jesus’ words as philosophy rather than religion.

From another point of view

I first encountered people who used the words of Jesus as a philosophy, when I started studying yoga in the 90s. Perhaps they were trying to connect with a predominantly Christian audience – Paramahansa Yogananda did so frequently in his writings – but the effect remained. Listening to someone from another tradition cite “turning the other cheek” and “knowing people by the fruits of their actions” opened my eyes. The words sounded different from what they sounded like when they came from the mouths of priests; somehow deeper meaning.

Moral, stories and more

Those who want to use the words of Jesus philosophically are spoiled for choice. Moral teachings, parables – which he used because he was trying to reach people where they were, not where he was, understanding that “those who see do not see; and hearing does not hear” – and a series of contemplative replies; “do not pray in public like the hypocrites”, “seek and you shall find”, “no one can serve God and mammon”, “do not judge or be judged”, and “there is no profit to be gained the whole world if it means losing your soul,” to name a few.

I already know people from other traditions who seem to quote Jesus freely. Muslims revere him as a prophet. Yogis use his teachings to support their own, as Swami Prabhavananda did when he wrote The Sermon on the Mount according to Vedanta. To turn things around, I even know Buddhists who cite Christian morality to complement their Buddhist meditation. The one group that still seems to stay away from most things Jesus is the spiritual but non-religious community, especially those who have left Christianity.

Blasphemy or good idea?

Naturally, some people will see this idea as blasphemy. It can’t be helped. Nevertheless, I think it’s a good idea. I know I drifted away from the teachings of Jesus when I left the church in Iceland – which is very different from the church here in the United States, by the way; I could write a lot more about this – and it took me a while to realize that I had thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Based on my experiences, I believe that by treating the words of Jesus more as philosophy and less as religion, those who have left the church can afford to retain parts of Christianity rather than reject it. completely. And those who have always been outside of Christianity might find something appealing to add to their interspiritual approach.

Gudjon Bergman
Author, coach and mindfulness teacher

Image: CC0 License