Alan Channer's new documentary, The Cross and The Bodhi Tree, explores Christian encounters with Buddhism. Here are two perspectives on the film, one Christian and one Buddhist:
Laura Trevelyan, UK
As someone who attends an evangelical church (which has done wonders for me) whilst working for an increasingly multi-faith organisation (which I am devoted to), life in recent years has felt somewhat schizophrenic. I have agonized over whether or not to look for another church. Each time I decided to stay, knowing I would disagree with the way in which other faiths are dismissed as 'wrong' or 'flawed'. This is one reason why watching The Cross and The Bodhi Tree is like balm for the soul.
The film charts the journeys of two outstanding characters whose Christian faith has been enhanced by Buddhist thought and culture. One is the Mother Superior of an enclosed order of Anglican nuns not far from my church in Oxford. The other is a French Catholic priest living in Cambodia. They have never met.
For nearly forty years Father Francois Ponchaud has ministered to the people of Cambodia. He was in the midst of training forty young Catholics when Pol Pot seized power in 1975. Only two survived. He went on to write 'Cambodia Year Zero' so that the world might know the sinister truth behind 'The Killing Fields'. Today, he continues his writing to keep the West informed of the reality of life in Cambodia.
Mother Rosemary took her vows in her early twenties. The contemplative order to which she belongs, The Sisters of the Love of God, has a 'double intention' – praise and worship, and repentance for where the Church may have turned people away from God.
She renewed an interest in Buddhism from her younger days when 'prayer seemed to go dead'. To this end, she headed for a two-month sabbatical at Amaravati Buddhist Monastery in Hertfordshire, England. Aspects of meditation posed big problems at first but when she was told that her difficulties would teach her the most, she persevered. It was worth it. By mastering the art of letting go, she experienced a detachment from worries, anxieties and herself (!) which led to 'greater serenity' and 'more ability to cope'. Now meditation enhances both her prayer life and her community life.
For Father Ponchaud, meditation has become the cornerstone of his spiritual life. It purifies him before God and prepares him for what the day might bring, in a way that saying prayers and reading Scriptures alone, does not. Another lesson for a man who thought his role was to bring people closer to God is that those he meets in the slums of Cambodia teach him (by their joy and generosity) what it really means to 'witness to the poor and servant Christ'.
Such experiences have led him to re-evaluate what exactly it means to be Christian. If it means 'putting the other person first' and 'giving your life in order to gain it', then, he concludes, 'a Buddhist can do this just as well as a Christian'. It is his conviction (and this could stir up a theological hornet's nest) that, 'if Jesus were a Cambodian, he would go into the pagoda' and 'bring another light, another way of practising Buddhism'. A Cambodian Jesus would not destroy Khmer culture.
This is a brave film. The questions asked are searching: Is Buddhist meditation more passive than Christian prayer? Can Buddhists attain eternal life? The answers given by Ponchaud and Rosemary have authority because of the sheer humility, peace, and joy with which they are delivered.
The title, The Cross and The Bodhi Tree, alludes to the link between Jesus' life and that of the Buddha. The non-self of Jesus on the cross as he reveals God the Father, is compared to the non-self of the Buddha as he meditates under a tree and achieves enlightenment (bodhi).
The analogy is offered as a basis on which Christians and Buddhists might begin a dialogue. Included with the film is a study guide with questions to aid group discussion: Are religions rivals or allies? Does the Church need to repent for having borne false witness against other religions?
The film invites us (and especially we Christians in the West) to examine what our lives are about. It encourages us to take our search for truth more seriously and not to shy away from difficult, perhaps uncomfortable, questions. For, as Mother Rosemary says, together we can look forward to a time when – rather than bypass the divisions and differences which exist between the various traditions – we will be able to transcend them.
Roshan Dodanwela, Sri Lanka
Viewing the film for the first time, I began to feel quite uncomfortable. Coming from a Buddhist tradition, I felt that this was an attempt to 'fit' Buddhism into Christianity, and I became defensive. That was the first time; I have seen it twice since then, and am convinced about its message.
It has enforced, for me, the truth that there are deep spiritual treasures to be discovered, and that the process is unique for each person. It also helped me realise that I was clinging on to an ownership of my faith (which, incidentally, is contrary to Buddhist teachings). The more I see the film, the more I experience a sense of happiness and awe at the rich paths spirituality can lead us along.
It's refreshing to hear Mother Rosemary and Father Ponchaud speak of the similarities of the two approaches, and yet the struggle to find common ground. It's equally heartening to hear them say, 'I don't know' or 'I am still learning' when asked potentially contentious questions. This is a lesson for me in both humility and patience.
The message the film carries is of fundamental importance for the world today – that each path is a path to liberation/salvation and it's not for us to judge someone of a different faith. It helps me understand what makes someone of another faith tick and gives me an opportunity to be sensitive – a probable way out of the great misunderstandings and suspicions we can have of each other. I have been asked whether my view of Christianity changed after seeing the film. Yes, my understanding of it has grown – a lot. I feel a closer bond now, and am challenged to find out more.
I commend the filmmakers; they have approached Buddhism from both an Asian and a Western perspective, and the way its essence is drawn out is skilful. One thing I would have found helpful – even though the film is about Christian views on Buddhism – is the opinion of a Buddhist monk/nun, on the learning processes they had to go through.
By the way, you might be wondering how I coped with my uncomfortable feelings back at the first viewing. Others watching the film pointed out that they, as Christians, might feel defensive too, at the sight of Christians embracing Buddhism. It dawned on me how silly I had been to let my little fears wrap me up and blind me to the view of the other.