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.