Learning to Love My Buddhist Neighbor

Joella Ranaivoson

April 14, 2024

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” -Jesus, Mark 12:30-31

Perhaps you know someone who’s Buddhist and wish to connect with them, but you feel awkward knowing you’re from different faith traditions. Don’t worry; let’s go.

Let love lead

First, remember they are first simply your neighbor. Just another human, just like you are. They probably have jobs they love (or stress them out), kids they’re trying to raise and do right by, hobbies that bring them joy that they’re trying to do more of, and concerns at how broken the world seems.

Just being human together is enough to connect you to them as a neighbor. Love your neighbor as yourself, Jesus said. Simply imagine how you would like to be treated by a neighbor (think literal neighbor if that helps), and then seek to show them that same kindness.

Note some common ground

We do share a few things with our Buddhist neighbors. Buddhism was founded by a young royal, called Siddhartha Gautama, who was disenchanted with his luxurious life and sought to experience the world. Along the way, he encountered the suffering of the world. He decided then that enlightenment would be found in neither luxury nor destitution, so the “Middle Way” was named.

Christianity teaches that the Son of God came down from heaven in the form of a humble baby, born to a minority people in a small town in Judea, where he lived among the lowly. There are parallels in the narrative of the founding central person of each tradition, having left a place of great power, comfort, and ease to share the trials and experiences of those who suffer. God doesn’t keep away from God’s creation, and Jesus doesn’t reject his divinity in being on earth--he’s the middle and mediator--human and divine, God and flesh.

Further, Enlightenment in Buddhism is experiencing true reality or an “awakening.” It can be akin to the Christian experience of conversion. Both are awakenings into the true state of things, understanding reality and your place in it. It's a definite before-and-after moment. Enlightenment and conversion are both threshold moments for a person who experiences these.

The state of “nirvana” in Buddhism is a state of enlightenment, being rid of greed, ignorance, and hatred in a person. This state can be compared with the Christian teaching of the goal of sanctification. For Christians, sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit to make you more holy and ever deeper in your new identity in Christ, while your old nature of sin withers away. Reaching Nirvana could be compared to the process of sanctification, becoming a better self. Some Christian traditions even teach that attaining sanctification is possible while in the body on earth, which would be like reaching nirvana.

Learning from our Buddhist neighbor

Christians can learn from the spiritual practice of non-attachment practiced by our Buddhist neighbors. A basic understanding in Buddhism is that desire (the wanting of that which we do not have) and ignorance cause suffering, and the only way to alleviate suffering is to release desire and shed ignorance—hence, not being attached to possessions or pride, and seeking wisdom. Non-attachment is like having open hands instead of closed and grasping hands—that which stays, stays, and that which goes, goes; either way, you remain you, with your hands open.

Meditation, to center and steady oneself in the inner mind, is a spiritual practice Christians can admire in Buddhists. Observing how Buddhists meditate, we can see that there is nothing to fear. It isn’t opening one’s mind to undue influence, but a stilling of the internal mental chatter to connect with the higher self. It is similar and yet distinct from prayer. Meditation is not a doing but a stilling, a yielding. So, meditation can be like prayer, or perhaps prayer can be meditative. Imagine a prayer time that is more about dwelling with God rather than peppering God with our requests and questions. It’s more the way you sit with a loved one in easeful silence.

While there is no deity to be worshiped in Buddhism, practitioners revere the Buddha and bodhisattvas (those who have achieved enlightenment but delay nirvana until all people reach enlightenment). Responsibility for life and body goes to the people. There is no deity to fear, appease, or offend, but rather , personal desire and ignorance are the problem. So life is led to understand, alleviate, and eliminate suffering for oneself and the larger collective.

Sometimes, as Christians, focusing on sin can get us caught up in a feeling of the situation's impossibility. You feel too small to change anything; sin is so very hard to conquer, and God is the ultimate arbiter of things, so we are powerless in comparison. Buddhism doesn’t allocate power (and therefore fault) beyond what human beings are capable of, so the responsibility is then also with human beings. There's a lesson there about pursuing the Kingdom of God with whatever we have. 

Lastly, friend, this is your encouragement to trust the bigness of God. God is showing up and meeting God’s children who follow the Buddhist path. Every person is made in the image of God, and there are things we can learn about God and ourselves from those of other traditions.

Remember--love doesn’t push to change; love welcomes, embraces, and invites change. Any change that comes is the work of God, not you. All that’s required of you is to love your neighbor as yourself.

About the author — Joella Ranaivoson

Joella is an artist using words in writing, songs, and acting to convey truths about being human. Storytelling is the joy. Everything feeds everything, so take it all in and let it feed your creativity.

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