Portland’s Oregon Buddhist Temple hosted a seminar in August on the thinking of “Buddhists, Theists, and Non-Believers.” Rev. Jundo Gregory Gibbs of OBT and Eric Marcoux of Waking Peacock Sangha led the talk. Brenda Fugate, member of OBT, moderated.
Rev. Gibbs and Lama Marcoux share a common spiritual root in Catholicism. Marcoux was a Catholic monk in a cloistered order until the age of 23. For the past 20 years he has been a teacher in the Tibetan Kagyu tradition. Rev. Gibbs "stepped out of regular Christianity" at the age of 16. A few years later he encountered Zen Buddhism in a college class. He is now a minister at OBT, a Jodo Shinsu temple affiliated with the Buddhist Churches of America.
Regarding the three perspectives reflected in the title of the seminar, Rev. Gibbs said:
"I like to believe I have sympathy with all of these beliefs. We're not here to discover whether God exists or not, or whether the Pureland exists or not. As a person who has a belief in divinity, or as a Buddhist, or as someone who has very firmly settled on a conviction not to believe in anything supernatural or anything like theism, we're looking at how that effects how we see the world and how we live in the world.
"Any viewpoint you have has both positive and negative aspects. It empowers and it dis-empowers. Do I want to embrace the essence of this religion? What is the essence of this religion? Who believes in Mt. Sumeru? Do you have to believe in the actual literal resurrection of Jesus to be a Christian?"
Early in the discussion, Brenda Fugate introduced the question, "What is the meaning of life. …and, is there a meaning? Please address all three points of view as you understand them."
Lama Marcoux read from prepared notes. In conclusion, he said:
"I'll argue that any model, any doctrine, benefits from internal consistency if the internal consistency bears the fruit of forbearance and kindness and forgiveness. Willingness to really listen to the other, willingness to really intuit their basic good intent as they use words differing from our own tradition takes effort, takes courage, takes a willingness to be open to someone whose words might be used to make them our enemy.
"In conclusion, words matter. They really do."
Rev. Gibbs acknowledged the difficulty of a response to the question:
"Theism and Buddhism are very diverse, that's the problem we have here today. The major forms of theism in the world believe there is a meaning to life and it exists to be discovered. The non-believer would basically say you are responsible for giving your own life meaning. Buddhists are sympathetic to that, but our exemplars have chosen meanings that they're willing to share with us. The meaning that we give to our life is to live with kindness, intellectual humility, enjoyment (moderation). When it all comes down to it, we do believe in living a virtuous life."
Around 20 people attended the seminar that lasted over an hour. After a break the panelists took questions from the audience, addressing more directly the topic of atheism.
Rev. Gibbs said he preferred to use the term "non-believer," though he did indicate a familiarity with "new atheists" who promote their views more publicly. As an observer, I sensed more of a willingness from younger questioners to own the word and an unwillingness from the older generation to use the term they associate with aggressive or unkind non-belief in theism.
If there was a thread that persisted, it was that of kindness and connection through suffering.
“I'm going into the world with a body that is not made of stainless steel. It squishes when automobiles run over it. It's subject to the invasion of viruses. That's just part and parcel of being a human being. It gives me equanimity.” ~Eric Marcoux
“Suffering connects us with others. The most egregious of suffering is being separated from our loved ones by death. That kind of suffering reminds us of our connection with people. That's the only positive thing I want to say about suffering: it reminds us we have a deep connection with others.” ~Rev. Jundo Gregory Gibbs
For more information about OBT, please visit www.oregonbuddhisttemple.com.
Contributor: Heidi Enji Hoogstra.
Photos: Heidi Enji Hoogstra.