Forbidden Fruit: The Cross-Pollinating of Buddhism and Mormonism

By Thomas McConkie,
Author of Navigating Mormon Faith Crisis & Founder of Lower Lights School of Wisdom

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Most people know the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is headquartered in downtown Salt Lake City. What many people don't know is that during the late 1990s the largest order of Zen Buddhism in the world outside of Japan was also headquartered here, on a street called South Temple.

Both traditions have had a profound influence on my life.

I was brought up in an LDS family, but around the age of 13 I developed an allergy to the local culture: the strict dress code, the endless rule-making and rule-following, the dour adulting masquerading as true happiness.

I didn’t expect after leaving that I would ever come back to worship with the Mormon community. But 20 years later, here I am. And I’ve begun to notice something surprising, something I didn’t expect to see or feel.

But first, a little background.

After leaving my religious community behind, I needed something to fill the aching spiritual void. With a little help from my Zen friends on South Temple I became a devoted meditator. I felt like I’d won the spiritual lottery. Though meditation was challenging for me from day one, the fruits of the practice were immediately evident.

Gradually, like dripping water over stone, I gained insight into what Zen Master Dogen Zenji meant when he wrote, “to study the Way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self…” In other words, through the systematic training of meditation over many years of dedicated practice, I learned, in true Buddhist form, to see through the illusion of the separate self.

Maybe that sounds like so much mystical mumbo-jumbo to you. But I assure you it’s a very ordinary experience. In fact, it seems to me now that it’s an experience that we are all meant to have as human beings, a part of our developmental potential and collective future together as a species. Rather than living as isolated, alienated individuals in constant fear of being squashed like a bug, we can come to realize how profoundly we belong to and express Creation through our every breath, thought and deed.

Without realizing it right at first, I found myself looking at Mormonism over the years through this new Buddhist perspective. I saw Mormonism through a lens of deficit. The thinking that kept bubbling up in my mind went something like this: “If we don’t learn to see through the illusion of separation, religious practice will only exacerbate human suffering. We’ll use it to reinforce our sense of separation and wear our religiosity around like an ego ornament.” The famous Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, insightfully called this phenomenon “spiritual materialism.” However, what I couldn’t see at the time was that this perspective of mine was at very best only half true.

After many years of practice, I began to appreciate that as I saw through my felt sense of separation—or fallenness in Christianity—my sense of compassion for all things steadily increased. I realized that to love our neighbor as our self, as Jesus admonishes us to do, we have to first realize that we and our neighbor are in a very real sense one and the same Being.

As an accidental Buddhist practitioner, I was struck from a young age at how supportive meditation was at helping me be a better Christian and to better fulfill the great commandments. Simplistically, I wondered, “why on earth are there not more Christian meditators?!” I must admit I carried that prejudice with me for many years.

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Here’s where things get interesting. As a classically trained Buddhist, I’ve gained life-changing insight into the illusion of separation and how to see through it (to “see through” is the root meaning of the word vipassana, translated in modern English as “mindfulness”). And yet, as a re-activated Latter-day Saint, it remains quite difficult for me to wake up on a Saturday morning and to want to go and shovel my neighbor’s walks after a fresh snowfall.

A friend of mine in the ward (an LDS congregation), a guy I admire and love, recently got divorced. I feel friendship with him, a desire to support him in these difficult emotional times, but still, I struggle to pick up the phone. I’m not saying I won’t pick up the phone. What I’m saying is that I’m painfully aware of my struggle to get up and simply do something selflessly, even after I supposedly realized that the whole world is my “self.”

Enter the Mormons.

These people really do. Having been actively involved in an LDS community in Salt Lake City for the last 7 years, it’s really dawning on me that virtually everything the Mormons do is about doing. Those who will accept a service calling are given a specific task that they are to carry out voluntarily, without compensation, for the rest of their ward. It can range from keeping the meetinghouse clean, to preparing Sunday School lessons for Gospel instruction, to outreach efforts in the neighborhood for members of the faith and those of other faith traditions.

To me, watching Mormons serve in a ward family inspires a bit of the same emotion in me that I get when I watch a highly conditioned athlete at peak performance. Their movements are powerful, graceful, and seemingly effortless. Through years of dedication and training, they have honed their bodies into a living expression of their sport.

We all know that it’s a good thing to do nice things for people. But do our bodies know it? Have we trained the very sinews and bones of our physical bodies to get up and serve? If I had to rate my performance in this category, I’d sheepishly opt for “needs improvement.”

Yet, for all the praise I can heap on Latter-day Saints and their practice of service, I also see a dark side to this path:

In Buddhist terms, when service (and any religious duty) is carried out from the identity of the small self, it tends to be a recipe for perfectionism and eventual burnout.

This is an insight that I imagine would have eluded me were it not for my years of formation in the Buddhist tradition. The small self, the ego, is relentless at claiming glory for itself, constantly announcing its presence, and deeply desiring to be worshipped. When Satan asks Christ to bow down and worship him during Christ’s 40 days of fasting in the desert, it is a reflection of our very ego speaking. It is the part in all of us that believes it is greater than even God.

Until we’ve really confronted this part of ourselves, until we’ve really acknowledged that the ego exists and that there’s nothing we do in life for which the ego doesn’t want credit, it will continue to run the show.

We can train ourselves to serve: walks get shoveled, friends are supported, widows consoled. And don’t get me wrong–no small amount of goodness comes from these acts. And still, there remains an existential knot right at the heart of our being that cannot be undone. The freedom we long to feel—the boundless, selfless Love that is Christ, that is (in Zen Buddhist terms) Kanzeon Bodhisattva, that is too big and holy to ultimately name—eludes us. Precisely because we remain stuck in an identity that will always be too small, too threatened to withstand the sheer awesomeness of this Cosmic flow and power.

I see the people around me serving. I am clear that I have a great deal of room to grow in this area of my personal development. And I am concerned at how compulsively people offer service in order to be good. Whereas the service might flow as an expression of non-egoic generosity and giving, more often I have seen it flow as an “I should do this. We are commanded to do this. I will feel guilty if I don’t do this.” Like a poor beast carrying a burden on its back that it cannot understand, we lug around our identification with the small self. The more we serve, the more inadequate we sometimes feel.

We cannot relax the contraction of the ego (what Latter-day Saints tend to call the “natural man”) through service alone. Perversely, the ego will often use the service it renders as proof of its goodness and worthiness of being loved, only further exacerbating the shame and unworthiness spiral.

Enter the Buddhists.

Over the past two decades, I have been awestruck in quite a different way with my brothers and sisters in sangha (a term for Buddhist community). My friend, Musho Roshi, puts it thus: “you can sit, but you can’t hide.” In other words, if you are faithful to the practice of meditation, it will consistently drive out the ego from its hiding places. It will depose the would-be Monarch and free up the throne for the only rightful Ruler: Big Heart. Boundless, Infinite and Eternal Love. The very Power that gives rise to the Universe itself.

Anything less than this, any identity smaller than this, paradoxically, would be sub-human. We humans, from a certain perspective, are all Buddhas. We are illumined. Our true bodies are the Cosmos itself. We were born to live without limits, even as we voluntarily take on human birth and all the limitations that come with that.

I learned this language, but more importantly, I learned this experience through Buddhism. Through Buddhist practice, I learned to be Big again.

But without training and creating very concrete habits of serving those around me, this “Bigness” doesn’t end up expressing its full potential in a meaningful way:

When meditation and transcendent practice is carried out without a firm grounding in community and service, it tends to be a recipe for spiritual narcissism and escapism.

I would have never suspected this in all my meditative pride. I needed both of these spiritual dimensions in my life. We can call them the way of transcendence and service, Wisdom and Compassion. Whatever we call them, they are two complementary “styles” of spiritual practice, always at risk of flying apart and becoming pathological if not held together in a single embrace.

Of course I understand that there are Buddhists who do really fine service in the world and there are Mormons who’ve done no small amount of disidentifying from their egos. I’m writing in a bit of a diagrammatic way to illustrate a point. Namely, each wisdom tradition tends to emphasize, even specialize in cultivating unique spiritual gifts. Moreover, we live in a day and age where we are more aware of a plurality of traditions than ever before. In this divine milieu, why wouldn’t we exchange more deeply with one another across traditional boundaries of identity? In this way, our weaknesses can truly become strengths, and through our strengths we can help to strengthen others. Together, we can bear new fruit.  

Through personal experience, I’ve come to think we’d do well as Christians to take a page from the Buddhists and really confront our deep-seated tendency to want to prove our goodness, to want to strong-arm God to let us into heaven by the sheer force of our good works.

I can also see clearly now that I would have done well over the years to spend as much time focusing on the very concrete practice of serving my neighbors as I did focusing on how to deconstruct the ego in meditation practice.

Having been a part of both traditions for many years, I notice the tendency in Mormon culture for people to work really, really hard at being good, all while harboring deep insecurities about never being good enough. On the other hand, I notice a tendency in the Western Buddhist movement to privatize the spiritual journey. My meditation practice. My stress-reduction. My enlightenment.

Twenty years after an initial taste, those fruits borne on South Temple continue to sustain me. I am falling more in love each day with the Buddha’s path of self-transcendence, while also learning to embody the path of compassion and healing through Christ. I am slowly putting words to the curriculum that life seems to be revealing:

The path of service (and religious devotion) without genuine realization of the higher self is a path of burnout and perfectionism. The path of transcendence without an attending practice of service is a path of spiritual narcissism.

For most of my adult life, I’ve tended to be more muscle-bound in the transcendence category and rather wimpy in the category of service. It feels as though life is asking me to cross-train; to learn to express the higher self through simple acts of service in community.

I can’t help but wonder what Mormon communities would begin to look like if we injected a small dose of meditative awareness, of ego-transcendence into an already vibrant culture of service.

Perhaps this is one of evolution’s next feats, one of Christ’s next miracles to perform through all of us.