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Barbara O'Brien

Can You Be a Buddhist and a (Fill in the Blank)?

By March 14, 2012

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A recent news story has evoked the frequently asked "Can you be a Buddhist and a Christian at the same time?" question. And once again, the Washington Post's "On Faith" web site has not bothered to get the perspective of Buddhists on a question touching on Buddhism.

This story didn't start out to be about Buddhism. The original story was that a woman attending her mother's Catholic funeral was refused communion by a priest because she was in a same-sex relationship. But some intrepid googlers found out that the woman, Barbara Johnson, identifies herself as a Buddhist, although she says she also identifies as a Catholic.

Whether the priest knew about the Buddhist identity is not clear. However, defenders of the priest have seized this information as justification for his decision to refuse Ms. Johnson communion. And at "On Faith," Michelle Boorstein wrote an article about Barbara Johnson and her "blended" religion. The article provides a number of Catholic perspectives but no Buddhist ones. Are we that invisible?

Without knowing Ms. Johnson personally I cannot say how she understands Buddhism. But the article discusses her faith in God and her continued, if irregular, participation in Catholic mass. My impression is that her engagement in Buddhism is entirely through reading. Michelle Boorstein writes,

"Today she says that Buddhism and Catholicism are both part of her identity. The two traditions 'inform one another in this constant internal conversation,' she told the Post."

The document that gave her away was a recent academic paper in which Johnson wrote "So in my interview with the principal we talked openly about my being a lesbian and a Buddhist" (page 9).

The whole issue of adopting Buddhism as part of one's identity is problematic, as we've discussed here before. Many people who are deeply engaged in Buddhist practice, and more particularly with the doctrines of anatta and sunyata, find that "identifying" as a Buddhist, (or anything else) feels a bit strange. The sentence "I am a Buddhist" evokes a giggly inner voice that says, So where is this "I" that can have "Buddhism" pinned to it, hum?

But in Ms. Johnson's case, I question whether the words are accurate even in the relative plane. Has she taken the refuges? Does she keep the precepts? Does she walk the Eightfold Path? Or is she mostly finding passages in Buddhist texts that illuminate or challenge her Catholicism? If the latter, is she really "a Buddhist" in any sense of the word?

And it's fine if she isn't, of course. She seems to be enjoying a rich spiritual life, whatever she wants to call it, and I wish her all the best with it. But it's really that identity thing that's the hangup, and isn't that interesting?

Boorstein mentions the Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who was actively exploring Buddhism at the time of his accidental death. I am pretty sure the Catholic Church still claims Merton as one of its own. But as I understand it, Merton was always clear that he was a Catholic, and his exploration of Buddhism was in the service of re-kindling the tradition of Catholic mysticism.

So, it would seem the Church doesn't have a problem with studying Buddhism; it's identifying as one that sets off alarms. And in Johnson's case, I would argue that she really isn't "a Buddhist," her identity issues notwithstanding.

However, I am more concerned with "On Faith" and its continued refusal to treat Buddhism with the same respect it treats other spiritual traditions. For example, last year it asked a number of people to answer the question "Can you practice Buddhism without becoming Buddhist?" And not one of the people in the responding panel of "experts" was a Buddhist. And several of the people who did answer said disparaging and inaccurate things about Buddhism. And now they are again considering the question "What is a Buddhist, anyway," without bothering to ask a Buddhist about it.

Getting back to the title question -- for the record, I think exploring multiple traditions can be very rewarding and enriching. But identifying as an anything just because you find parts of it agreeable is a rather reckless thing to do. And while many parts of Buddhism and Christianity harmonize nicely, whole-hearted engagement in one will eclipse the other, sooner or later.

March 15, 2012 at 1:25 pm
(1) Yeshe says:

It’s ok to identify as a Buddhist in the sense that one may step into a river and tell your companion, “Ive stepped into the river”, with the knowledge that there is nothing there that is findable as a ‘river”.

March 15, 2012 at 3:31 pm
(2) Tom says:

Mildly familiar set of circumstances. Raised Catholic. Lost my mother 2 months ago. Confused thoughts during funeral service with communion, and my current path. Discussed at next Dokusan (Christian influence here: Jesuit Priest, Capuchin monk). I accept that my practice (raised Catholic, following Buddha’s path) is a “hybrid”, and in transition. Where it leads is undetermined, and its sticker unimportant. It works for me at the moment, and I somehow keep growing in my practice, understanding my ignorance, peeling the onion.

March 15, 2012 at 4:29 pm
(3) Hein says:


Thank you for the this subject. This will remain something that would keep us as Buddhist in the West busy for some time..

Currently in our Dharma Group we are asking the question; ‘what does it mean to be a Buddhist?’ And one good question is; ‘Can one be a Buddhist and a Christian?’ Can you simultaneously attach to something and reject something? Is dualistic thinking of Buddhism?

Well, I do not have answers to those questions! But – thinking aloud – perhaps if the Buddha was a black dude in the streets of New York he would have answered; “Brother are you smoking something strong?” To speculate if I may; the Buddha would find it very strange that you may simultaneously want to attach to a God and reject the an – “evil” – Satan. Moving between extreme emotions of “love” and “hate” is bound to get you crazy and caught up in some good old suffering. To put it mildly; the Buddhist Way differs radically from the Christian (Protestant and Catholic) view.

(to continue)

March 15, 2012 at 4:31 pm
(4) Hein says:

The Buddhist Way requires one firstly (I think) not to do harm to yourself and others. This is not only the five precepts in a nutshell, but also includes the Four Noble Truths. Thus; craving causes harm to yourself and others. Now, a very confused “soul” you will be if you wish to live the life of “attachment and aversion”; a life typical of the Christian brother and sister who have to constantly love “God” and hate “Satan”. Brother/sister it messes you up.

Seriously; Christianity requires you to attach – and crave – to an extreme extent a something called a God. Buddhism requires you to let go of your attachments and cravings. I fail to see how Buddhism and Christianity will meet each other halfway and be practiced together. A jealous God will not allow you to to share your loyalty (to him) with anything else; including yourself.

History have shown that a Buddhist can be a Taoist and a yogi and vice versa, without any clash.

I seriously doubt whether Buddhism and Christianity can share the same bed…I know I doubt because I have tried it and failed.

March 15, 2012 at 4:34 pm
(5) Hein says:

“I have tried it and failed.”

Fortunately that was a long time ago…

March 15, 2012 at 9:14 pm
(6) Susana says:

Born and raised Mexican, and catholic. Catholicism didn’t make any sense for me when I read the bible and found all those contradictions; long before I became a Buddhist, so I quitted. I also became vegetarian just out of conviction; long before I became a Buddhist; and many Buddhists I know here in Mexico are not vegetarians, and every where, I know.
When I say I’m a Buddhist people ask me, “so, Buddha is your god?” or “so you think Buddha is a god?” So I try to explain that is “The Buddha”, not just “Buddha” and that not, I don’t think he is a god or my god or that he never said he was a god and that I don’t believe in any god, for that matter, or in all of them as what they are, mankind inventions, having Yahweh, Zeus, Thor and Quetzalcoatl all in the same mythological level.
And when I say I’m a vegetarian people ask me “but you eat chicken, right?” So I try to explain that the chicken, not to mention “seafood” are animals, not vegetables, and that no, I don’t eat them.
Once in the Buddhist center I attended in Guadalajara México, one of the newcomers asked if he could take refuge in the father, the son and the holy ghost. The instructor answered him with a polite “no”. And yes, the answer is not by the same reason if you are catholic you can’t cross yourself in the name of Ra, Osiris and Anubis.
So, bottom line, you can’t be a vegetarian and eat chicken and you cant be a catholic and a Buddhist at the same time, take this from someone who has been in the first and now is in the second, they are just contradictory. Besides, if you are a really good catholic should know the bible’s verse that says “that who serves two masters, is not serving well one of them”. (I only know it in Spanish, sorry for the lousy translation, and for all my language mistakes by the way) I think is in the book of Matthew chapter 6 verse 24.
And sorry if I sounded harsh, it wasn’t my intention, I’m just a humble student in the beginning of the path, trying a step at a time.

March 15, 2012 at 9:19 pm
(7) Frank Boase says:

I fail to see why Buddhist should even want to make comparisons with Christianity.

March 15, 2012 at 10:22 pm
(8) Kev says:

Practice the mind of seeing everyone as buddha.

March 15, 2012 at 11:21 pm
(9) Bruce Williamson says:

First if someone asked me “Are you a Buddhist?” I would reply “What is a Buddhist?” Because any true Buddhist would know that a Buddhist is not any one thing. :)

Now one can identify as being Catholic and a Buddhist. If we remove the claptrap that make up the Buddhists beliefs (or those that make up Catholic beliefs should you lean to Buddhism), then the two are completely compatible. When I say beliefs I mean those outlined in Stephen Bachelor’s book Buddhism without Beliefs.

Buddhism at it’s core just as Christianity at it’s core state the same message which is clearly defined and described in Thích Nhất Hạnh’s book entitled Living Buddha, Living Christ.

Now back to the woman. She can’t be a devout Catholic and be in a same sex relationship. The church simply doesn’t allow it. Yes it is absurd but if you don’t like it then pick another religion. There are plenty to choose form. She apparently chose Buddhism. Probably because Buddhism does not have this prohibition of same sex relationships.

I noticed that some people feel that the two are incompatible. This simply is not true. E.g. Matthew 19:24 “And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

Which is telling you that you must not crave riches or you will not become enlightened.

The Dali Lama once described Buddhism and being within. The Holy Bible states in Luke 17:21 “Neither shall they say, Lo here! or, lo there! for, behold, the kingdom of God is within you.”

Not only are they compatible but they are the SAME message!

Enough said.

March 15, 2012 at 11:24 pm
(10) Weasel Tracks says:

Barbara –
When I was seven or eight in the mid-’50s, I thought of myself as Catholic, much to the dismay of my Russian Orthodox parents. I liked the Church’s propaganda of certainty. By the time I was fifteen, that was getting shaky as my intellectual independence grew. About that time, I began to read Suzuki & Watts. My first psychedelic trip (via morning glories) thoroughly changed the way I viewed religion, as I understood there was a whole different way to understand such things. By the time I left high school, I no longer thought of myself as Catholic, but I felt there was an unworded truth cloaked in its traditions, especially with its mystics. I thought most religions carried such truth.
I got involved with a neoGnostic bishop about a year before I realized that Zen was actually the spiritual home I was looking for. The Gnostic framework allowed me to reconcile Buddhism and Christianity to a great degree, but by the time I split with the bishop, I felt a great relief at not having to explain this dual allegiance anymore.
Many traditions can be understood by several differing sets of mind, and often a Buddhist way of seeing things can function within them. For instance, talking with Native American Elders about things showed me that, as a Buddhist, one can do the Native practices beneficially for one’s own growth, without doing violence to either tradition.
But with the Abrahamic religions, there’s a problem with the exclusivity many of them hold to. A Buddhist frame can see truth within the mythic structures, but most of the institutions of Christians, Jews, and Muslims would reject such a way of being seen. Membership in such religions requires an assent to a literal belief in doctrines a Buddhist could not give.
There are exceptions, of course, like the Quakers and the Sufis, not to mention the Uus!
But this is theory – in practice, there are Catholic priests who are part of Zen lineages. How they can be that, I can’t fathom, but they are.

March 15, 2012 at 11:49 pm
(11) Toby says:

A Buddhist is a student of Buddha.
A Buddha is a teacher who teaches the way to learn; to understand; to analyse and experienced what he teaches.
The student diligently study;understand ;analyse and experience the Buddha expounded:-
1.The Four Noble Truths
2.The Eight fold path.
3.The Dependent of Origin
Above all; all the above is interdependent.
After having studied and experienced the above you can become a teacher (Buddha)
teaching the above and benefit all mankind with compassion and equanimity
It has got nothing to do with religion only to label it as Buddhism-something taught by Buddha the awaken one and liberate all mankind of sufferings..

March 16, 2012 at 12:14 am
(12) Jerome says:

Nostra Aetate

Declaration on the Relation of the
Church to Non­Christian Religions
(October 28 1965)

(2.) Throughout history even to the present day, there is found among different peoples a certain awareness of a hidden power, which lies behind the course of nature and the events of human life At times there is present even a recognition of a supreme being or still more of a Father. This awareness and recognition results in a way of life that is imbued with a deep religious sense. The religions which are found in more advanced civilizations endeavor by way of well­defined concepts and exact language to answer these questions. Thus in Hinduism men explore the divine mystery and express it both in the limitless riches of myth and the accurately defined insights of philosophy. They seek release from the trials of the present life by ascetical practices, profound meditation and recourse to God in confidence and love. Buddhism in its various forms testifies to the essential inadequacy of this changing world. It proposes a way of life by which men can with confidence and trust, attain a state of perfect liberation and reach supreme illumination either through their own efforts or by the aid of divine help. So. too, other religions which are found throughout the world attempt in their own ways to calm the hearts of men by outlining a program of life covering doctrine, moral precepts and sacred rites.

March 16, 2012 at 12:15 am
(13) Jerome says:

The Catholic Church rejects nothing of what is true and holy in these religions. She has a high regard for the manner of life and conduct, the precepts and doctrines which, although differing in many ways from her own teaching, nevertheless often reflect a ray of that truth which enlightens all men Yet she proclaims and is in duty bound to proclaim without fail, Christ who is the way, the truth and the life (Jn. 1:6). In him, in whom God reconciled all things to himself (2 Cor. 5:18­19), men find the fullness of their religious life.

The Church therefore, urges her sons to enter with prudence and charity into discussion and collaboration with members of other religious. Let Christians, while witnessing to their own faith and way of life, acknowledge, preserve and encourage the spiritual and moral truths found among non­Christians also their social life and culture.

March 16, 2012 at 5:45 am
(14) joy says:

Why do we have to have labels we are beings not articles for sale. I enjoy how buddism makes me think or meditate I was brought up in a christian family and followed that teaching now I am grown up one would say I bring myself up? which I find odd. I think people do not separate the body from the spirit and then what we wish to be. All are in one but are not one. I am a member of my family but I am me and what I wish to achieve spiritually and forgive me worldly!

March 16, 2012 at 6:01 pm
(15) Susana says:

Quoting Toby
“A Buddha is a teacher who teaches the way to learn; to understand; to analyse and experienced what he teaches”.
In Catholicism there are commandments and you must follow them, (in practice it almost never happens) and there is dogma and you must believe it because is dogma, by faith and faith is believing with out seeing.
Catholicism is a creator-administrator god centered practice, whit all the ceremonies revolving around the worship of a been that no one has seen but who has the power to punish and reward at wish and you must blindly believe in him. In Buddhism there is not this kind of god and were we put karma if there is some else pulling the strings, you study the Dharma, you analyze it, put it in practice, you ask, you doubt, you try. And the list of differences goes on.
I don’t know how the two are compatible, not to say the same message.
I’m not saying that Catholicism is bad, I wouldn’t learn anything from Buddhism if I said so, I’m just saying they are quite different and , knowing both, I couldn’t reconcile the simultaneous practice of them both. Apples and oranges.

March 17, 2012 at 11:47 am
(16) Rob says:

Hi, Barbara,

I was a little surprised that you came to the conclusion that this lady was merely reading about Buddhism. First, because you usually don’t jump to conclusions with a minimum of evidence. Also, it has been my experience that many people who identify themselves with Buddhism and X (where X is one of the many flavors of Abrahamic religions), it means that they’ve started a meditation practice.

My intent isn’t to criticize. I’ll give the woman the benefit of the doubt and assume she has made a minimal effort to start a meditation practice. Without that, one can hardly begin to self-identify as a Buddhist.

Thanks! Love your blog.

– Loyal Reader

March 17, 2012 at 12:20 pm
(17) Barbara O'Brien says:

Rob — Excuse me? I don’t believe I made any definite judgments about the lady. I wrote,

Without knowing Ms. Johnson personally I cannot say how she understands Buddhism. But the article discusses her faith in God and her continued, if irregular, participation in Catholic mass. My impression [based on the article cited plus a couple of others that I read] is that her engagement in Buddhism is entirely through reading. …

… Has she taken the refuges? Does she keep the precepts? Does she walk the Eightfold Path? Or is she mostly finding passages in Buddhist texts that illuminate or challenge her Catholicism? If the latter [see qualifier, "if,"] is she really “a Buddhist” in any sense of the word?

I don’t know how many other ways I could have qualified what I wrote other than placing “I HAVE NO IDEA IF ANY OF THIS IS TRUE” in all caps, bold, at the top of the post. And even if she has added a meditation practice to her reading, that doesn’t necessarily qualify her to be “a Buddhist,” either, any more than Thomas Merton was “a Buddhist.”

My point here is that what the Catholics seem to object to is not anything Ms. Johnson believes or is doing, but that she has taken on Buddhism as part of her identity. And of course, from a Buddhist perspective such an identity is an illusion.

March 19, 2012 at 12:06 pm
(18) Jeff says:

I love this:

“The whole issue of adopting Buddhism as part of one’s identity is problematic, as we’ve discussed here before. Many. . .find that “identifying” as a Buddhist, (or anything else) feels a bit strange. The sentence “I am a Buddhist” evokes a giggly inner voice that says, So where is this “I” that can have “Buddhism” pinned to it, hum?”

I’ve visited and/or lived in Japan, China, Singapore, Thailand and India, including Dharamsala and Leh, and talked to a lot of folks there. But I never realized that their professed Buddhism was so . . . . “problematic.” It certainly didn’t seem problematic to THEM, but then – what would THEY know?

March 19, 2012 at 4:33 pm
(19) Barbara O'Brien says:

Jeff — Do you practice yourself, or are you just here to smear non-ethnic Asian western Buddhists as flakes?

I’m told there are no such words as “Buddhist” and “Buddhism” in Asian languages, so the issue may be a bugaboo of English as much as anything else. The issue is that the sentence construction “I am a [Buddhist, Christian, stamp collector, Anglophobe, Yankees fan, whatever] assumes an intrinsic self-nature that we are taught is not there. So to say “I am a Buddhist” can feel like a betrayal of Buddhism. However, my argument is that if you’re aware of this it isn’t really a problem.

But I would say that if you are a native English speaker and haven’t gone through this phase yet, you’re way behind. Catch up.

And I would also say that it annoys the hell out of me when people imply that non-ethnic Asians cannot be as authentic and devoted to Buddhism as Asians. Who are you to judge?

March 21, 2012 at 1:27 am
(20) Toby says:

First of all, Buddha would never start a debate ,an argument nor critism.
Buddha would approach the person who made the statement and clarify with him/her by asking or repeating the statement.
1.Affirmative if all the words in the statement is correct.
2.Amend the incorrect words, and then again clarify with the person.
3.Budhha makes sure those are the words spoken/written by him/her.
4. Then he will ask again the word ; example “Buddhist” and what does that word mean.and Buddha will explian the word “Buddhist” until the person understand and accept the explanation fully.
Buddha does not make any refrence to any holy book and explains that all things is impermanent. it Is also the cause of sufferings.
This is the Universal Law, it has existed since day one and it does not belong to Buddha-Buddha realized this Law.
It is pointless to continue writing if no one is heading the same direction
of understanding the Universal Law of causes and effects.
Each is right with their own mindset, is like a cup filled with water it can not be filled anymore!

March 21, 2012 at 11:24 am
(21) Barbara O'Brien says:

First of all, Buddha would never start a debate ,an argument nor criticism.

Actually, I understand that he trashed the Brahmins of his day fairly regularly.

March 21, 2012 at 11:51 pm
(22) Toby says:

Well, sad to say, Buddha’s nature is always compassionate and flowing with LOVE.
There was once a Brahmin who tried to agitate Buddha, he was never angered.
The Brahim was surprised and later asked Budhha why he was never angry.
Buddha said, if some one gave you a present and you did not want it.
To whom the present belong?–The giver
The Brahmin immediately ask for forgiveness and became a pupil of Buddha.
Of course one swallow does not make a summer.
However there are too many to quote.
Some writer might use the “Thrashed: word to emphasise or make the word stronger, but it had never been Budhha’s nature-he does not even want to hurt an ant?

March 22, 2012 at 8:19 am
(23) Barbara O'Brien says:

Well, sad to say, Buddha’s nature is always compassionate and flowing with LOVE.

But compassion and love don’t hesitate to speak the truth, and sometimes the truth hurts. It’s a common, and unfortunate, misunderstanding of “right speech” to assume that the Buddha or any rightly practicing Buddhist never criticized others. That is absolute nonsense, and it also reveals an ignorance of how the Buddha actually taught. If he thought someone was wrong, he said so fairly frankly.

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