The vajra: cutting through to the truth

3 Sangharakshita’s Teachings in Theory and Practice

IV Buddhism and Christianity

The Manner of Sangharakshita’s Discussion of Christianity

Within [Buddhism and Blasphemy] Sangharakshita describes the Christian God as “despotic”, a “cosmic Louis XIV or Ivan the Terrible”. He describes Christianity as “oppressive”, “stultifying” and “coercive”, and declares that Christianity — including the Church, especially the Roman Catholic Church — has done a great deal of harm in the world. [ The FWBO Files p.28 ]

In 1977, in response to the first prosecution for blasphemy since the 1920s, Sangharakshita wrote a pamphlet entitled Buddhism and Blasphemy. He wrote this because, in Sangharakshita’s words the conviction of the two defendants in the Gay News blasphemy trial left the standing law of blasphemy in an unsatisfactory and uncertain state, and because of the fear that it will once again be used to hinder the free expression of opinion about religion.159 ] Sangharakshita describes the background to his concern:

The judge stated that in order to establish that the offence of blasphemy had been committed there was no need to prove intention to attack Christianity [i.e. that the attack was vitriolic] or to cause a breach of the peace. Blasphemy was committed even if there was only a tendency to cause a breach of the peace. As the Committee Against Blasphemy Law points out... The main effect of the law is to inhibit free expression about religion in a way which is elsewhere thought to be completely unacceptable.160 ]

Buddhism and Blasphemy is therefore a plea for religious freedom, although The FWBO Files presents it as a sectarian attack on Christianity. It is a rhetorically forceful (and highly ironic) polemic, best understood in the tradition of Shelley and Blake. It forcefully applies the general Buddhist critique of God to the particular experience of western Christianity, and draws on Sangharakshita’s experience of people who had found Christian ideas and influences to have been positively harmful to their Buddhist practice. [ 161 ] In this respect — and again in the manner of Shelley — Sangharakshita even makes the somewhat scandalous suggestion that people overcome these particular emotional difficulties through “therapeutic blasphemy”. Those who are scandalised by this may consider that the point about therapy is not what it sounds like to an uninvolved third party, but whether it is helpful to the person who engages in it. [ 162 ] These considerations, and the fact that the issue at hand was a matter of public debate concerning religious views, make Buddhism and Blasphemy an entirely legitimate, indeed valuable, contribution to that debate, for:

So long as blasphemy remains a criminal offence, Buddhists, like other non-Christians, do not enjoy freedom of expression in religious matters and are, in effect, penalised for their beliefs.

However, while Sangharakshita points out the distinction between Buddhism and orthodox Christian views, he emphasises that this does not imply hostility to Christians:

I didn’t judge Christianity by Christians... My experience of Christians has been quite positive. I judged Christianity by its teachings, and the reason I was a Buddhist and not a Christian (apart from the overwhelming appeal of Buddhism itself) was that I could not accept those teachings. [ 163 ]

Disagreement need not imply hostility. Similarly premature agreement, such as often characterises interfaith activities, does not necessarily imply genuine understanding. Sangharakshita’s approach to such subjects is rigorous and unsentimental, but this does not mean that it is deficient in tolerance or openness. In another paper, Dialogue Between Buddhism and Christianity, Sangharakshita outlines the basis on which, in his view, dialogue can meaningfully occur, and expresses his desire that a truly fruitful dialogue does indeed ensue. [ 163 ] This engaged, interested and robust approach to religious dialogue informs the growing range of friendly interfaith contacts between the FWBO and other denominations. [ 165 ]

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Footnotes

159 ]
Sangharakshita, The Priceless Jewel (Windhorse Publications, 1993), p.94.
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160 ]
Ibid. p.95; p.112.
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161 ]
Cf. The FWBO and “Protestant Buddhism”, op. cit., p.164: The FWBO consists of individuals. Some of those individuals were brought up as Christians, and not a few who were brought up as Christians have been psychologically damaged by the experience, in some cases to such an extent that during the early years of their involvement with the FWBO they have to spend much of their time trying to repair the damage.
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162 ]
In practice, therapeutic blasphemy, while a provocative idea, seems sometimes to have received more attention outside of the FWBO than in it. It is rarely spoken of in FWBO circles today and is not a characteristic FWBO practice. It is very occasionally recommended as a possible aid to someone if it seems clear that they are suffering from the kind of feelings of guilt and inadequacy that are often associated with an unconscious belief in a tyrannical cosmic ruler and judge. It should also be noted that this practice takes place in private, with no intention of giving offence to any living person.
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163 ]
The FWBO and “Protestant Buddhism”, op. cit., p.18.
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164 ]
The Priceless Jewel, op. cit., pp.37–47.
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165 ]
For example, the FWBO has been a member of the Interfaith Network since its founding and has involvement in local SACREs. The FWBO Files’ characterisation of Dharma Life 5 as 10 pages devoted to vitriolic attacks on Christianity and God, [ The FWBO Files p.30 ] bears little relation to the text. The themed section on “Life After God” is 16 pages in length, and The FWBO Files ignores an interview with Harold Bloom on his positive (though heterodox) understanding of God. The other articles are considered and balanced pieces which are anything but “vitriolic”.
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