The Buddha Doesn’t Need Your Incense

In Interfaith, Theology

In discussing the differences between Christianity and Buddhism, Thich Nhat Hanh was asked if Buddhists worship the Buddha. His answer, which addresses one of my big questions here in seminary, is basically this:

We do not worship the Buddha, but we honor him as a model of the perfection we strive to achieve. We leave offerings and burn incense to the Buddha, not for his sake but because the ritual act allows us to be more mindfully present about our spiritual selves and the path we are on. We engage the entity known as the Buddha to help us understand how to walk on our own path. The Buddha is not reliant on our attentions. In fact, the Buddha is essential and unchanging, so our attention or inattention have no impact on him whatsoever.

In essence,

“The buddha doesn’t need your incense.”

I love this. I deeply and with great enthusiasm love this phrase and the meaning behind it. This has been one of the most challenging sticking points for me with my Christian colleagues up here on the hill. I find myself having a really difficult reaction to the praise and worship music that is so common in Christian services, with lyrics about how “Awesome” their God is or how they “Lift him up”. So many of the lyrics of Christian hymns are about how Christians praise and honor God. There are all of these implications that their God not only wants but needs this kind of praise. It’s a hard place for me to understand, and quite frankly, sometimes even a difficult thing for me to respect.

There is no way to move around it. There are some real divides between Christians and Pagans.  I think this hits the root of one of those issues. From our point of view, Christianity is so proud of the way it views the divine, that not only do they spend all this time praising and bragging about how great he is, but they go so far as to skip over arguing their God is greater than our Gods and go straight for, “Our God is real and your Gods are not”. From this outside perspective, Christianity’s relationship with their God seems egotistical, proud, and aggressive. I know this is not how many Christians feel, but it is a big part of how Christians are seen by non-Christians.  This is an important issue that will have to be addressed as communication grows between these communities.

Part of the reason that this idea of praise and worship is so difficult for me is that it is in no way reflective of the relationship I have with my Gods. While I know that some pagans engage their Gods with worship and offerings, I’ve never felt that was necessary or required by the Gods I work with.  The way I see divinity, God truly has no interest in my praise. In fact, God’s biggest request of me is to heal, grow, and develop myself so I can be a better tool for good works in the world. If I spend too much time focusing on how I want God to know that I love him or her, that’s not really a good use of the precious minutes I have on the earth.

I was trying to explain this idea to a dear friend of mine the other day. I said,

“Do you think the ocean cares if you think it is great? If you go to the ocean and cry out again and again about how wonderful and powerful it is, does it care? The ocean was the ocean before you praised it and it remains the ocean afterwards. Your praise does nothing to change your relationship with it. But the ocean is still the birthplace of life on this planet. We can still swim in her waters and gather food from her depths. There is still mystery and wonder and a marvelous interaction that we can have. But our acknowledgement and praise mean nothing.”

God is kinda like this. I don’t think that I am blessed with the abundance of prosperity and joy specifically because God loves me. It’s not really a choice that is made and thus it is not a choice that can be taken away either. God loves and cares for me because I am part of God, the same way that I care for my toes or my elbows. They are part of me. To ignore their needs would be to ignore my own needs. It is in my best interest to take care of my toes and my elbows and the rest of my body. It’s not about love as much as it’s about nature. So my Gods, however I am engaging with them in the moment, never need my praise. I offer my thanks and gratitude to the universe as a whole, appreciating the wonderful world I live in and the blessings that come to my life. But I express that gratitude for selfish reasons.  I do it because expressing gratitude and wonder helps me remember to be grateful and to appreciate all that I have. I don’t really think God cares if I say thank you. Besides, my gratitude is in my heart and God knows me far beyond the words I use to communicate.

So yeah.

The Buddha Doesn’t Need My Incense.
Ganesh Doesn’t Need My Oranges.
The Goddess Doesn’t Need My Candles.
Hecate Doesn’t Need My Reverence.
Sekmet Doesn’t Need My Humility.
Shiva Doesn’t Need My Tears.
Dionysus Doesn’t Need My Wine.
Aradia Doesn’t Need My Willing Attention.
Eris Doesn’t Need My Acquiescence.
But that doesn’t stop me from giving them those things, anyway.
When I do give though, I just know that my reward is in the giving.