Contentment and Hope: or, Why Paul Williams is Wrong About Buddhism

In 2002, the Buddhist academic Paul Williams published a book in which he detailed how and why he decided he could not longer be a Buddhist, and instead became Catholic. I was recently forwarded one of his articles by Ven. Thich Quang Ba, a senior monk in Australia, who told us that his articles are being used by the Vietnamese Catholic community to evangelize Buddhists, and asked for someone to write up a response. So, not being one to pass up a challenge, here it is. This article is not responding to Williams’s book, which I haven’t read, but to his article, On converting from Buddhism to Catholicism – One convert’s story. This article is published on the site whyimcatholic.com, a site that exists purely to celebrate people converting to Catholicism.

Let me make some things clear to start with. I think it’s great that Williams has found a spiritual path that he finds satisfying, after years in which, as he now admits, he was never really a Buddhist. And I also think it’s great that he takes the time to develop a critique of Buddhism. There should be more of this. Religions do not exist in a vacuum, and we need thoughtful and experienced people to discuss the similarities and differences between religious and spiritual approaches, just as the Buddha did so often.

But here’s the thing: Williams’ critique is a mass of error. If we were hoping for an intelligent and meaningful critique of Buddhism from a Catholic point of view, this isn’t it.

Why so? The essence of his critique is this. Buddhism is hopeless (because of rebirth), while Christianity offers hope. Therefore Christianity is right, and it is rational to conclude that Jesus rose from the dead, and so on.

This doesn’t even approach the form of a rational argument. It is wish fulfilment, nothing more. He wants to live in a world where everything will be okay in the future, and he concludes that this must be the world we live in. And that somehow, the arcane teachings of an institution that harks back to a messianic Jewish prophet 2,000 years ago are a source, apparently the only source, of hope. It is one of the worst theologies I’ve ever heard. It should be an embarrassment to anyone interested to develop a relevant modern Christianity.

If you want to see someone who does modern theology well, check out the readings of Bishop John Shelby Spong. There are plenty of interesting, reflective Christians like Spong; and one of the hallmarks of the genuine Christian traditions that I admire is that they are not content with simplistic rationalizations. There is plenty in the Christian traditions to be ashamed of: the witchhunts, the genocide, the millenia of persecution, the burning of heretics; it goes on and on. Yet in that, without denying or avoiding it, some can discern the struggle of ordinary, and extraordinary, people to discover and maintain some sense of the divine, even within our messed up world. And there is something real and authentic about that, something that we Buddhists could use more of.

Buddhist hope

But let’s consider Williams’ central problem, this question of hope. I raised this yesterday in a discussion group with some young Buddhists from the KM group here in Perth. I wanted to see whether my understanding of these things was just my own, or whether it reflected a wider understanding within the Buddhist community. And, as I kind of expected, pretty much all the things I had thought were brought out in the discussion. These things are not complicated.

Buddhists don’t talk much about hope, because hope is based on the future, and is therefore delusional. We don’t know what the future holds, so to base our emotional well being on something we don’t know, and can never know, is to invite disappointment.

To argue that hope is based on what is unknown is not just my argument. It was used by Paul, whose Bible teachings on hope are cited by Williams.

For in hope we have been saved, but hope that is seen is not hope; for who hopes for what he already sees?

For Buddhists, this could never be acceptable. Our main concern is to be grounded in reality, in what we can see. We could never be satisfied with a teaching whose essential principles were not merely unknown, but unknowable.

This is why we cultivate contentment. Contentment is simply being happy with what is, here and now. It is based on the reality of the present, not some imagined future. If we learn to be content now, we can carry that with us wherever we go. According to Paul, however, we hope precisely because we do not know something. This is a doctrine that elevates permanent ignorance to a virtue.

Hope is not merely delusional, it is rooted in aversion. Why do we have the need for hope? Because the present is bad. This, this place I am in, these people I am with, this mind that I have: all of these are somehow wrong, painful, unbearable. Rather than dealing with this reality, hope tells us that in some fantasy land of the future, everything will be okay.

Contentment, on the other hand, is based on acceptance and love. We don’t try to push reality away. We don’t try to avoid the pains and sorrows of life. We accept, and are content. It’s okay. This is why Buddhism is a path for grown-ups. We are not looking for someone to fix our problems for us. We are looking to develop a mature, wise connection with reality.

That is not to say that having a positive outlook for the future is impossible. Of course, we still do that, both in secular things and in spiritual. We study now so we can get a job later. Or we go to Dhamma classes now so we can meditate with more understanding later. Our world still happens in time, and we deal with that as any normal person does.

The difference is that as Buddhists, we don’t try to turn this ordinary process into some great spiritual principle. Sure, you have hope. If you are a good person, make good kamma, then you’ll have a good rebirth. Terrific! And if you practice Dhamma deeply and realize the four noble truths, then you will enjoy the bliss of Nibbana. Even better! There’s plenty to be hopeful about in Buddhist philosophy and practice. But that’s not ultimately important. We don’t make a big deal about it, because it’s all uncertain. Much better to focus on the here and now, and develop contentment with whatever is.

So it’s by no means correct to say that Buddhism is hopeless, if we understand it in this limited sense. It is only “hopeless” in the sense that we do not base our spiritual practice on the “hope” of some unknown and unknowable divine intervention at some point in the future.

Williams’ argument is, I think, based on a distortion of language. Normally I wouldn’t be too harsh on someone for doing this; it’s quite normal, and most of us do it all the time. But he studied and taught Madhyamaka philosophy for many years, so he should know better.

The distortion is in the words “hope” and “hopeless”. In the English language, the word “hope” feels good. And the word “hopelessness” feels bad: it means “despair”. Now, there is a sense, as I discussed above, where we could say that Buddhism is “hopeless”. But that kind of hopelessness has nothing to do with “despair”. On the contrary, it has to do with an emotional maturity that finds happiness in reality, not in fantasy. We don’t lack hope because we are looking for it and can’t find it; we have outgrown the need for it.

This kind of linguistic distortion, incidentally, is not new to Williams. We find it already in the early texts, where the Buddha is similarly accused of various kinds of negativity, similar to hopelessness, and responds with a nuanced linguistic analysis of the exact implications of the terms used.

Reason and emotion

Williams claims his position is “rational”. Yet this seems to be a purely theoretical reason, an inference from principles of theology, without any consideration of the reality of peoples’ lives. If you spend some time with actual living Buddhists you would know that we are no more hopeless than anyone else. In fact, Buddhist practices do exactly what Buddhists have been saying for millenia: they lead to peace, to contentment, and to happiness.

It seems to me that lack of contentment is driving Williams’ argument. Why else would he feel the need to persuade others of his religion by attacking his former religion?

For every Williams there are literally millions of former Christians, like myself, who have abandoned the faith they were brought up in and have found peace in the Buddha’s path. But Buddhists don’t get into the whole evangelizing thing, because we are content. We’re happy to be Buddhists, and happy to share our Dhamma with people who are interested; but we’re also happy that people should follow their own way.

This tolerance is not a new age idea, as we find it in the Buddha’s discourses themselves. Just yesterday, as it happens, I was editing the Udumbarika-sīhanada Sutta (DN 25), where the Buddha says this to a monk from another religious tradition:

Maybe, Nigrodha, you will think: ‘The Samaṇa Gotama has said this from a desire to get pupils’; but you are not thus to explain my words. Let your teacher remain your teacher. …

Nigrodha, I speak thus, neither because I wish to gain pupils, nor because I wish to you to leave your teaching, nor because I wish you to give up your way of life, nor because I wish to confirm you in bad principles, or detach you from good principles.

But, O Nigrodha, there are bad things that have not been abandoned, corrupting, entailing rebirth, bringing suffering, resulting in suffering, making for birth, decay and death in the future, and it is for abandoning these that I teach the Dhamma. And if you practice in accordance, the things that corrupt shall be put away, the things that make for purity shall grow and flourish, and each one of you shall attain to and abide in the understanding and the realization of full and abounding insight in this very life.

Buddhists are not interested in conversion. We don’t care whether you say you’re a Buddhist or not. We just want you to be happy. We are not so desperate, so emotionally fragile and needy, that we have to go around making everyone in the world believe the same things that we believe in. If you want to learn and practice Dhamma, great! If you’re happy to be doing something else, then be happy. We’ll be here if you need us.

It sometimes happens that people who approach religion through the intellect will overlook their underlying emotional and spiritual needs. In truth, we come to religion not because of reason, but because it calls to our higher emotions and intuition. We feel a heart-connection with a way, a path, or a community. Why different people feel this connection in different ways is difficult to know; perhaps it is because of past lives.

Reason is what we use afterwards to justify our beliefs and communicate them to others; as Williams says, “I convinced myself that it was rational to believe in God”.

If we do not address our emotional needs, they can lay fallow, untouched by years of philosophy. There’s nothing wrong with this, as such; sometimes we develop different aspects of the path at different times. But there is something wrong when we take our own, highly unusual personal experience, and turn that into a misleading universal argument.

No Buddhist in a traditional Buddhist culture has this problem. Traditional Buddhists approach the Dhamma first via the heart, by developing the faith, the contentment, the joy of participating in the Dhamma. Only much later, if ever, do they turn to a rational investigation into the teachings.

This is another area where I think Williams’ writings are disingenuous. He presents his article as if it were a personal journey, and uses the standard rhetorical technique of gaining emotional connection with his audience by telling his life story; a cheap trick that politicians use all the time. Yet he slides easily from “personal journey” to blithe, sweeping statements about “Buddhism” and “Christianity”. These are not the methods of a philosopher or scholar, which is how he presents himself. They are the methods of an evangelist.

Rebirth and the cockroach

Williams’ main argument rests on his analysis of rebirth. He doesn’t argue, as the secularists do, that rebirth is factually incorrect since there is no evidence for it. He can’t do that, since, obviously, Christian belief involves many things for which there is much less evidence than rebirth. Instead, he argues that what is reborn cannot be “me”. He says that Buddhists are correct to say that what is reborn is not-self, since whatever is reborn has only a limited relation to who we are in this life. Yet the implication of this, for him, is that he, the person who is Paul Williams, will disappear. In this sense the teaching of rebirth is hopeless: there is no hope for him as a person.

This is just such a wrong-headed argument, I don’t know where to start. But let me just say it: the fact that you don’t like something doesn’t mean it’s not true. The world doesn’t exist in order to serve your emotional needs. If it really is the case that rebirth is real, then the role of religion is to help us learn to deal with it.

This underlines a further fallacy in his argument. Hope is not something that exists out there in the universe. The world is neither hopeful, nor hopeless. Nor, for that matter, is an abstract social construct like “Buddhism” or “Christianity” the kind of thing that can be either hopeful or hopeless.

Rather, hope is a way of responding to the world. Buddhism teaches us that we can train our emotions and learn to respond in healthy or unhealthy ways. If you think that hope is a healthy way of looking at the world, then you can use Buddhist or Christian teachings and techniques to develop that. Great! But hope is not just given to you. Like all emotions, it is a conditioned response.

Williams asks us to imagine being a cockroach, arguing that this is what Buddhists say we can end up as. What connection is there between a cockroach and us? What is it like to be a cockroach? He argues that if we were reborn as a cockroach, there is no meaningful sense in which we can say “we” still exist, and so we have for all intents and purposes ceased to be.

Once more, he exhibits a seemingly wilful blindness to the many Buddhist teachings that address exactly this issue. To start with, let me say that, while it is true that in theory Buddhist teachings seems to say that we might be reborn as a cockroach, in most cases when these things are discussed the form of rebirth is much closer to that of humanity. So he has chosen an extreme example, not a representative one, to illustrate his case.

But is a cockroach’s experience so utterly different for ours? Let’s see. Consider the five aggregates, a basic Buddhist teaching whose purpose is to help us understand the nature of experience and identity. The five aggregates are the body, feelings, perception, intentions, and consciousness. We have a body; the cockroach has a body. We experience pleasure and pain; so, I’m guessing, does the cockroach. We have perception; we can distinguish, for example, edible from inedible; and so can a cockroach. We make choices; and so does a cockroach. And we have awareness; and so, albeit minimally, does a cockroach. Like us, also, a roach has sight and other senses, although it uses them differently, with the sense of touch, mediated by fine hairs and antennae, being of prime importance. But these are details. On the whole, the structure of a cockroach’s consciousness, when considered in the terms that are important for Buddhism, is not all that different from ours. It is a matter of degree, not of kind.

To ask us to imagine ourselves as a cockroach is to invite empathy, to consider what it is like to be another kind of sentient being. And this empathy is at the heart of Buddhist teaching and practice. We recognize that even a cockroach is something like us.

At the same time, the opposite is true. I am something like a cockroach, but also something unlike it. And this doesn’t just apply to cockroaches, it even applies to ourselves. I am not all that much like me. If I try to imagine exactly how I felt yesterday, as I was reading Williams’ article, I can’t. I can recall some aspects of it, dimly and uncertainly, but I have lost forever what it it means to be me reading that article at that time. That is just how reality is. The only thing that is clear and evident is the present. So we can imagine, however dimly and distantly, what it is like to be a cockroach, or an alien, or a god, or to be ourselves an hour ago.

On knowing and the unknowable

Consider further the method that we use here, a method that is deeply characteristic of Buddhist practice. We start with ourselves, the here and now, with what we can directly experience. Then, little by little, we infer, to the past and the future, to other people, to other kinds of beings. This is how we can move from what is familiar to what is unfamiliar, without making the kind of giant cognitive leap that Williams asks of us.

This method underlies the Buddhist teaching on not-self, a central pillar of Buddhism that Williams seems to have completely misunderstood. We are changing, here and now. We can’t identify a single thing that remains steady and constant in our experience, yet we cling on to the idea of a constant “self”. The notion of self is purely a concept, a handy term we use for pragmatic purposes, but which doesn’t correspond to any single reality. When we attach to this concept of “self”, mistaking our concepts for reality, we cause suffering.

Buddhist teachings don’t create this suffering by taking your self away; they ease suffering by helping you understand why the universe is not the way you think it is. We know that everything will pass, so we learn to be at peace with that. I will disappear; in fact I am disappearing right now; and I am at peace with that.

But do you know what is really incomprehensible? Where we can really have no knowledge at all? Christian metaphysical ideas such as God, the soul, the trinity, or heaven. Christians are deeply vague and ambiguous when it comes to the salvation that is the basis of their hope. And for good reason. At the heart of the Christian notion of salvation is the idea that “I” will go to “heaven”, forever. Heaven is eternal, and for this reason it is inherently unknowable. This is not just my argument; it is stated explicitly in the Bible, 2 Corinthians 4.18:

“So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

But what can that possibly mean? All our experience is impermanent. Consciousness continually changes; this is not just a random detail, it is how consciousness works. There can never be any experience of the eternal, and we can ever infer eternity from our transient consciousness. Everything that “I” have ever been is impermanent. It is not possible to even imagine what a genuinely eternal experience could be like, or how it has any relation whatsoever to me as a conditioned person.

Our experience might seem distant from that of a cockroach; but we are closer, infinitely closer, to a cockroach than we are to an eternal heaven. The experience of being a cockroach is knowable, however slightly; but the experience of eternity is alien, utterly and forever. It is a nice-sounding idea that has no grounding in reality.

Rebirth and Christian belief

Willams argues the following.

If what I have argued here is correct, then it seems to me we are entitled theologically to say that we know rebirth is false. What I mean by this is:

  1. Rebirth is incompatible with Christian belief.
  2. As Christian believers we are entitled to say that we know theologically that Christian belief is true.
  3. Whatever is incompatible with a truth is false.
  4. Hence we are entitled to say as Christian believers that we know theologically that rebirth is false.

This is typical of Wiliams’ use of “reason”. I trust that I don’t need to point out how absurdly circular this is. But what is more interesting is how the argument uses “theological” reasoning to dismiss the teachings of Jesus.

For the Bible, and specifically Jesus, refers to reincarnation in many passages. This was well known to early Christians, some of whom, such as the Church father Origen, argued for a belief in reincarnation.

Why does Williams assert, then, that reincarnation is incompatible with Christian belief? Because, he says, “Christianity is the religion of the infinite value of the person.” If you are reborn then you have no uniqueness as an individual.

The funny thing, though, is that there’s nothing in the Gospels about this idea of the “infinite value of the person”. Indeed, the very notion of “the person” is far too abstract for the thought-world of early Christianity. It is a Greek idea, which came into Christianity via the early debates about the nature and essence of Jesus, who was the Divinity embodied as a person. It was introduced into Christianity by Tertullian, a Latin philosopher of the 3rd century, along with the notion of the “Trinity”. Thus Williams’ “theology” entails that he rejects rebirth, which is referred to frequently in the Bible, in favor of the doctrine of the unique “person”, which is found nowhere in the Bible.

Williams notes that you can even find some Christians who believe in rebirth. But this is a serious understatement. In fact, surveys, over many countries and several decades, show that roughly a quarter of modern Christians believe in reincarnation, and that many more accept is as a possibility.

Who gets to have hope?

It is perhaps not surprising that Williams chooses a cockroach as his example, for traditionally Christianity has not considered animals as worthy of moral concern. The sphere of Christianity is humans only, since humans possess a “soul”, whereas animals don’t. So there’s no hope for animals. But souls are tricky things, since they don’t exist, and are merely invented by philosophers and theologians. So there are lots of Christians who have argued that women have no soul, or that people of other races are not really human.

It’s important to bear this in mind when you’re hearing this wonderful teaching of “hope”. Christian hope, in it’s normal forms, doesn’t extend to the billions of people who are non-Christians: they go to Limbo (a kind of not unpleasant hell). This includes unbaptized babies, and the countless people who lived before Jesus, as well as all animals and so on. There’s no message of hope for these in the Gospels; the best the Church can do is say that maybe God will have mercy.

Hopeless, too, are those who practice unapproved forms of sexuality, or get divorced, or use contraception, or masturbate, or who are atheists, or agnostics, or who miss Mass on the wrong day (seriously!), and the list goes on. Sure, they can maybe be saved, if they confess, repent, and if God is in a good mood. But if they think that there’s nothing wrong with these things, they commit mortal sin and are doomed. This, of course, includes the vast majority of modern, thoughtful Christians, who don’t agree with the Church’s teaching on these and many other matters, but who prefer to discretely pass over them.

And if you’re a fig tree, you might as well give up now.

The hope of Jesus

When I hear someone saying that “Christianity offers hope”, I don’t believe them. It’s just too vague and general. Give me specifics and we can start to make sense of it. I do the same thing when facing problems in Buddhism: leave aside the platitudes, and look at what the Buddha actually said.

So, let’s see what the Bible says. But we have to narrow it down, and not be guilty of just cherry-picking passages. We’re talking about Christianity, so let’s consider the words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels. And let’s choose Mark, which, while composed long after his death by people who did not know Jesus, and which though constructed according to an artificial chronology is still the earliest, least filtered, and most reliable of the Gospels.

Mark is a good source for understanding Christian hope, since the entire narrative is set up as an apocalyptic prophesy. The story is meant to prefigure the significance of Jesus’s saving power, a power that is so incredible that not even his closest students had the vaguest notion of what was going on. (Remember this when you meet Christians who are so confident that they know what Jesus was all about: not even those who lived with him understood his message!) Jesus says to his disciples:

When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places, and famines. These are the beginning of birth pains. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!

This doesn’t sound all that hopeful. Hope comes in because God will save us. But isn’t it God who created all this in the first place? Actually, the text itself makes that clear:

If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive. But for the sake of the elect, whom he has chosen, he has shortened them.

So we are at the whim of an omnipotent God, who created the world including all its suffering, and doles out pain and death as he sees fit. Hope is for the elect only, others will perish.

I find this to be not hopeful, but terrifying. This fear is no accident. The Bible, in many, many, places is trying its best to be terrifying, and Christian history is full of preachers whose stock in trade was not hope, but terror. Fear is, after all, nothing but the inverse of hope, and any doctrine grounded on hope holds fear in its back pocket. Fear is the iron fist inside the velvet glove of hope.

This is why, when the Western world began to emerge from the spell of Christianity in the 19th century, atheist thinkers such as Freud, Nietchzhe, and Marx documented the deep psychological and social scarring that Christianity had left on the European spirit.

Popular Christianity glosses over this history. The modern Churches have implicitly recognized that the atheist’s criticisms were right, and have changed Christianity, to some degree at least, to get away from this cult of death.

But it is never really gone. Bishop Spong, for example, tells a story of a young, devoted couple in his congregation, who were blessed with a beautiful baby daughter. But they had to watch as she became ill, and, while the entire congregation prayed and prayed, she weakened and died. Of course, the couple were devastated; but as he talked to them, he began to discern something beyond normal loss and grief: anger at God. How can He give us this life, only to snatch it away so cruelly, ignoring the pleas of those who have been so devoted to him?

A realistic approach to the Christian tradition cannot avoid this problem. God is terrifying, and in that way, he is just like life. He doesn’t exist to placate those who can’t get their own lives together. This is why Peter Carnley, the former archbishop of the Australian Anglican community, told his congregation that prayer doesn’t work; God isn’t the kind of being who sits there listening to a cosmic help line.

But what is it like to be saved?

At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

Here we clearly have an external force, a vaguely imagined savior appearing in some magical vision. The roots of Christianity lie not in the logic and rationality that Williams claims, but in a wild, ecstatic visioning.

There’s little rationality in the Bible. Reason was invented by the Greeks, and it made its way into Christianity as the Greek and Roman philosophers criticized the early Christian communities for their irrational beliefs and practices, such as Jesus’ resurrection in the flesh, the virgin birth, and so on. These criticisms, like those of the 19th century atheists, were obviously correct, and the Christians, while arguing against them, gradually changed their doctrine to accommodate the criticisms, turning a visionary prophetic cult into a coolly theological institution.

But I am getting diverted into historical matters here, and missing the key point: when will Jesus come back? This, surely, is the crucial question in Christian hope.

Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

Here we have the explicit statement that Jesus will reappear in the lifetime of his followers. Obviously this did not happen. Jesus’ prophecy, the heart of his teaching in the earliest testament to his life, turned out to be empty.

This was a fundamental crisis for the early Christian community: hope was promised, but not delivered. This is not unique to Mark, but was found through all the early Christian texts. (Apologies for quoting Wikipedia.):

Christians of Mark’s time expected Jesus to return as Messiah in their own lifetime—Mark, like the other gospels, attributes the promise to Jesus himself (Mark 9:1 and 13:30), and it is reflected in the letters of Paul, in the epistle of James, in Hebrews, and in Revelation. When return failed, the early Christians revised their understanding. Some acknowledged that the Second Coming had been delayed, but still expected it; others redefined the focus of the promise, the Gospel of John, for example, speaking of “eternal life” as something available in the present; while still others concluded that Jesus would not return at all (2 Peter argues against those who held this view).

To sum up: Christian hope, as taught by Jesus, was that he would return in glory to save his followers, while destroying all other people. This prophecy was false. The Christian tradition responded by developing a symbolic interpretation of Bible passages which were originally meant quite literally. Like countless apocalyptic prophets since then, Jesus’ words were addressing the events of his day, but were overtaken by history.

From a Buddhist point of view, this vacillation is entirely predictable. The problem is not with the specifics of how Jesus taught his followers; it is that the very idea that salvation in the form of a future hope is delusional. Our salvation comes from reality, and reality is always present.

In conclusion

Allow me to restate: I am not writing this article in order to attack Christianity. I am doing it in order to refute the critique of Paul Williams, a critique that, however misguided, has gained traction among evangelical Christians due to his prestige as a former Buddhist academic. Despite the length of this article, I have hardly scratched the surface of the mistakes in Williams’ depiction of Buddhism. For example, I have not even touched on his distortion of the Buddha’s teachings on kamma.

We follow religious paths, for the most part, because they answer to a deep, often unrecognized, emotional need or connection. So when, a couple of years ago, a former Buddhist told me that they had become Christian because they felt a connection with Jesus and his community, I said “Sadhu!”, offered my support, and had a lovely conversation with them and their new pastor.

Conversion is not a problem for Buddhists; suffering is. If someone can ease their suffering by following some religious or spiritual path, then that is the truest practice of Dhamma for them.

But we should not stand by while Buddhism is criticized unfairly and mistakenly. As the Buddha said in the Brahmajala Sutta:

If, bhikkhus, others speak in dispraise of me, or in dispraise of the Dhamma, or in dispraise of the Sangha, you should unravel what is false and point it out as false, saying: ‘For such and such a reason this is false, this is untrue, there is no such thing in us, this is not found among us.’

I have benefited greatly from reading, reflecting on, and engaging with Christians and those of many different paths. There is always something to learn, and we should never be so arrogant as to believe that we have all the answers.

Obviously, at the end of the day I can’t accept the basic Christian beliefs. But what I do respect in the Christian tradition is the sense of a real human struggle to connect with the transcendent in the middle of the mundane. If we look at the Bible in this way, we can see, not the divinely revealed word of God, but the words of people through the ages who, each in their very different ways, have found meaning in a mad world.

We are lucky enough to share this mad world with Christians, and with many people of diverse beliefs and practices, and we Buddhists can learn much from their struggles and insights. And I hope that, in the future, I can learn from a more meaningful Christian critique of Buddhism.