Buddhism/Part 9

By: John Ankerberg, John Weldon; ©2000
The testimony of Katja Oberwelland, a leading disciple of Jamgon Kontrul Rinpocha.

Testimony of a Former Tibetan Buddhist

We now complement the conclusions we arrived at earlier by sharing the testimony of Katja Oberwelland, a leading disciple of Jamgon Kontrul Rinpocha. In 1995 Katja converted from Buddhism to the Christian faith. The reasons for this should be of interest not only to Buddhists but also to Christians.

Always looking for a deeper meaning in our existence on this planet earth, I became interested in various philosophies in my early puberty and later was drawn increasingly towards Eastern spiritual disciplines. My Christian background in Germany seemed shallow and in fact was spiritually uninspiring. Christians often seemed narrow-minded, judgmental and self-righteous. The hypocrisy bothered me the most. As far as the Christian faith was concerned, Europe seemed spiritually dead, either because the churches which claimed to be Christian had no heartfelt connection to the living Jesus of the Gospels or because they tried to confine him into some rigid old-fashioned frames and rituals, diminishing his uniqueness and majesty more than exalting it.
Christianity appeared to be a nice comfort zone for simple-minded people who thought that there really was a personal and loving creator God. But this assumption already bothered me. Now could there be such a God? How could He create this broken world with all its pain, poverty, injustice and despair? And how could he just watch this chaos going on? How could this God be a truly loving God, a God who cares? Besides that the crucifixion did not make any sense at all to me: The idea of God brutally crucifying his own son, so we would be redeemed of our sins, seemed to be the ultimate karmic escape fantasy, an easy cop-out deal on a pretty cruel basis.
Buddhism made a lot more sense. Karma and the cycle of samsara including the assumption of numerous reincarnations explained the evil in this world and the possibility of liberation in a far more reasonable way. As far as I could see, Buddhism offered the only truthful path towards real enlightenment. So I became deeply involved with Tibetan Buddhism through a friend of mine in Germany. I liked its vastness of symbolism and variety of meditation practices and learned that this world is a samsaric network of conglomerated karmically trapped minds whose inherent, diamond-like, radiant Buddha-nature can only be revealed through a strict discipline of meditation and ethically pure motivated actions, offering us at least a chance to free ourselves from this useless merry-go-round of reincarnation.
For almost seven years I became entirely devoted to the Buddhist tradition of the Karmapa, the Karma Kagyu Linage (similar to the Gelgpa-Lineage of the Dalai Lama). My teacher was the third Jamgon Kontrul Rinpoche, one of the four “heartsons” of the Karmapa. The concrete path of different meditation tools and the close connection to a teacher who had mastered the transformation from samsara to nirvana was very appealing to me. Besides that I was blessed with a truly beautiful being accepting me as a disciple. I also saw the benefits of a consistent practice of contemplation and meditation in my own mind: more stability, clarity, inner peace and a sparkling sensation of joy. The purifying effect of the so-called Ngandra, the four preliminary practices with hundred thousand repetitions each, impressed me. I was convinced to finally have found the right spiritual path towards the perfect union of ultimate wisdom and compassion.
But unforeseen changes were already lurking. Through an unusual set of circumstances, I ended up moving to the island of Maui in Hawaii. My next-door neighbor was an interesting man with a fascinating background. About three years ago I asked him why he became a Christian since I knew that he also denied the existence of God for many years. (I didn’t know at the time that he had been praying to God that I would ask him that question.) In response, he told me that no other spiritual teacher ever had the impact that Jesus Christ did, neither did anybody ever claim to be what he claimed to be, namely the unique son of God. I just laughed, because somebody who claimed to the unique son of a God who did not even give evidence for his own existence seemed more a lunatic than anything else to me.
However, as a Buddhist I was soon to be faced with my own spiritual perplexities. The sudden and entirely unexpected death of my young, spiritual teacher, Jamgon Kongtrul Rinpoche, in a car accident in Sikkim, northern India, was devastating. It also irritated me deeply, because when I saw him the last time three months before his death, he gave me no warning of his death or any upcoming threat that he had to face. Instead he reassured me several times that he would come to Europe in the coming fall, where I was supposed to meet him again. But I was taught that an enlightened being had perfect insight into the future and makes careful preparations for his death as well as gives careful last instructions to all his disciples. So what went wrong? And why?
The whole linage entered into a time of intense mourning. Then something wonderful happened. But instead of uplifting hope, despair and confusion were heightened when the recent incarnation of the Karmapa was finally found in eastern Tibet after years of intense searching and brought back to his original monastery in central Tibet near Lhasa. The reason for confusion instead of hope was due to the fact that another one of Karmapa’s “heartsons”, Sharmar Rinpoche, refused to accept the boy as the true incarnation and proposed a different candidate. That started a roller-coaster of power-struggles in the linage, ending in a severe political split. (Although the Dali Lama and the Chinese government (for the first time in the history of Tibet) agreed in the acknowledgement of the Tibetan boy as the only legitimate, official reincarnation.)
In addition, several personal experiences during a four months retreat created more questions and doubts concerning Buddhism. For example, it brought out all the contradictions I stumbled over in Buddhism to the forefront when one of my Buddhist friends quoted a highly respected Lama: “Vajrayana [the Tibetan Buddhist path] is like a jump between the two World Trade Centers. If you make it to the other building–amazing! Otherwise it’s a long fall down.”
Buddhists do not at all soften the outlook on reincarnation. The human realm is–according to their teachings–the only realm out of six in which you can reach spiritual enlightenment. Nevertheless, “the human birth is as rare and precious as a star in the daytime sky” as every sincere Tibetan teacher will tell you. The chance of a rebirth in one of the other realms, particularly the lower realms is far, far greater. Another illustration gives an even more vivid impression of this: imagine the whole earth was covered by water. Somewhere in this vast ocean stirred up by heavy winds, is one lone turtle swimming beneath the waves. Somewhere else in this vast ocean is a ring floating on the surface, moved by the ocean’s currents. The ring fits right around the neck of the turtle. The turtle comes up for air only once every hundred years. The chance of a human rebirth, Tibetans say, is equivalent to the chance of the turtle finding the ring around its neck when lifting its head out of the water! Yet this is only an illustration of the chance of human rebirth not the chance of enlightenment which is far rarer.
In essence, during this retreat I was forced to consider the severe difficulty of the Buddhist path. I also saw firsthand the helplessness and despair created in my spiritual leaders by the split in the lineage and the lack of “enlightened” solutions. My doubts about Buddhism being a path of ultimate truth started to grow. The answers the Lamas gave me in response to my questions were not enough nourishment for my inquisitive mind and all my meditation practices just could not erase them either. Besides that, I felt trapped in a hopeless attempt “to reach the other building”, facing “the long fall down”, realizing that if my own spiritual leaders as “enlightened beings” in their 12th or 14th consciously chosen reincarnation were not able to find all the answers and clues, I as an ordinary being certainly had even much less of a chance.
Looking at myself with greater honesty, I saw plenty of weaknesses in my own heart and mind. As much as Buddhists rejected the existence of a Creator God, memories of my earlier Christian teachings started to come alive again. If I indeed wanted to find ultimate truth; as I did, I had to consider there may be a permanent factor behind all the obvious impermanence of this world and thus consider the possibility of God’s existence.
I started to cry out to Him, to plead and wrestle with Him through numerous prayers. I was almost shockingly surprised when I found them heard and answered, because if this holy God did exist indeed, I knew my shortcomings before Him would be a problem.
Slowly, I began to realize why the Christian message was called the gospel. If such a God existed, it was good news indeed to be able to have your sins forgiven. I cannot even begin to describe the level of my shame before God when–after months of research–I finally realized the Jesus Christ surrendered to that terrifying death on the cross as an atonement for my and ALL of our sins. Simultaneously, my heart was overwhelmed with the deepest joy by the experience of his incredible mercy and forgiveness, and I was even more delighted by the historical evidence of the resurrection of Jesus Christ which gives all of us solid hope for eternal life.
I am now fully convinced that Jesus’ death on the cross is the single most transforming spiritual event in the history of mankind. More than anybody else, C. S. Lewis helped me to understand this, looking at it from kind of a Buddhist perspective by evaluating the karmic merit of the Jewish people. He explains in Mere Christianity that the constant failure in perfect obedience by God’s chosen people brought the “karmic scales” so hopelessly out of balance that only the spiritual weight of sacrificing himself through a human incarnation and a truly sacrificial death could create balance again and serve as a fundamental hope and inspiration for the redemption of our sins and failures. By the measurement of God’s law, the future of mankind was hopelessly lost in sin, but by the gift of His grace–and only by that–we all receive a chance to be saved from final fatal judgement. So God actually did crucify His own Son to spare us the divine judgement due to our sin. But faith in Jesus we could be forgiven and the resurrection of Christ proved it. Suddenly the words from the Gospel of John (Chapter 3, verse 16) became transparent and alive to me in all their truthful, joyous glory: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.” In return, all God expects from us is to accept this and acknowledge Jesus’ sacrifice with gratitude while living up to Jesus’ level of obedience and surrender the best we can.
My Buddhist friends were puzzled, amused, amazed, partly confused and mostly convinced that I had become deceived in a spiritual mind trap. Buddhists generally do not understand Christianity, as I can well remember. That response was hard to face and still is difficult. Nevertheless, the gift of inner joy that comes with the Christian faith is worth all the price this world extracts. The assurance of eternal life I have through faith in Jesus is indisputably more precious than anything I have ever found in Buddhism, because Jesus Christ is “the true light that gives light to every man” (John 1:9).
For thirty-three years of my life I lived without God. Whatever may happen in the future, I never want to be without Him again. As Jesus once told his disciples, “I am the resurrection and the life: he who believes in me shall live even if he dies. And everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26) and “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15:11), because, as Lewis once wrote, “joy is the serious business of heaven.”

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