Custom Site Search

Monday, May 18, 2015

The Buddha and The Christ

I really wanted to title this The Buddha, The Christ, Anatta, Mindfulness, and the Illusion of Self. Kind of long, though.

The Christian tradition is a long treatise on the saving grace for the individual. Not saying that it is solely that. My guess is that there were plenty of individuals who have practiced a Buddhistic principle within Christianity, but my own ignorance of this history prevents me from elaborating. I doubt that there will be many who would criticize the statement I just made though, that Christians have from the beginning been focused on the saving of the soul, the individual soul, the individual self.

Now, in the Buddhist tradition this is a bit problematic, since the sense of self is called into question. Mindfulness--anatta--achieved through meditation and the noticing of the mind upon thoughts and sensations which then come together in a sense of self, treats the individual "I" as an illusion; the "I" that is put together through sensations and the mindplay of the brain is different than the higher plane of how we see ourselves. We put these sensations and thoughts--our stream of consciousness--together and they become glued together into the furniture of our seen self. (Cf. Ronald Siegel's article "'You' Don't Exist".)

[As a short aside, I could also bring up the modern physicist's thoughts about the possible illusory nature of Time and Space--all creation being a possible hologram even. If that doesn't destroy one's sense of self, then I don't know what will.]

In her wonderful book, Short Stories by Jesus, Amy-Jill Levine picks apart some of the better known parables of Jesus as a contemporary of Jesus might have understood him. She finds evidence--justly I believe--that Jesus' chief message was one of inclusion, that the kingdom was not of the self or for the self but inclusive of many selves, that of a community.

Now, coming back to Mindfulness and the illusion that we even have a self, what are we to make of Christianity if indeed there is no self? That is a big if to those not familiar to the Buddhist philosophy (and I do treat Buddhism as a philosophy not a religion and hence I feel perfectly at ease in conflating at least some of Buddhist ideas with Christianity), but let's just try it. If there is no true "I," no ego, no homunculus sitting in our skulls but rather only an illusory complex of sensations and reactions to sensations creating a kind of "meta-self" then what can a Christian do in order to "save" his or any other's "soul"? If there is no self to save then what is Christianity really up to?

Ping-ponging back to our Christ, let us review some of the red-letter Bible. Matthew 5, for instance. Here we have the sermon on the mount, and some rather incredible statements from Jesus that basically tell the Jews of his day, Hey--you think following the Law is enough? No--I say that you need to follow the Law AND the spirit of the Law.

He goes on to exaggerate the Law's implications. Love your neighbor? Oh you have to love your enemy as well. Anyone who even looks lustfully at a woman has committed adultery. Anyone speaking angrily is compared to the murderer. Walk a mile with someone? Nope. Walk two. Eye for an eye? No, again. Turn the other cheek and let him hit you again. Finally, he says, "You are to be perfect, like your Heavenly Father."

Gee, that all?

He is speaking of a new life. He goes on to describe the true actions of a genuine believer, someone who eschews the outward show of religion for inner genuineness. Then the Pater Noster with its "yours" and "us's" and without one single "me."

This, it seems to me, points to a religion devoid of self-importance, focusing on the other. Maybe he is even saying that there is no self but only an us. He tells us not to worry about making a living, comparing us to the birds who seem to always have enough. In Buddhist thought, worry and sorrow come from desire and the sense of self. If we can alter our focus from ourselves, and see the theater of thought play out upon our mind's projection, we also can alter the pain and other feelings we feel. Feeling pain and sorrow, the meditative mind sees the mind's play on those sensations, but does not treat them as if they belonged to any one self. Similarly, when feeling happy and even joyful, the mind can then look, when in meditation, at those thoughts almost as if they were someone else's. For it is just as true, to a practitioner of Buddhism, to say that those are indeed the thoughts of someone else--since no one really has any thoughts of self. The self, they say, is an illusion.

The birds seeking their food--do they all find it? The way we read that verse, is almost rhetorical. "Oh, yeah; they always get their fill," we say in our minds. Except when pressed, we would have to point out that, no; indeed, there on the ground is a bird that must have starved to death in the winter. But the birds in their flocks? There, there they are still. The individual bird has starved, but the birds are still on the wing. The kingdom of God, Christ may be telling us, is like that flock of birds, winging it on the wind, some faltering, but together flying as a flock.

So there is to my mind a great tension that exists between Christ and Christianity. The tension goes back to this idea of self and non-self. I can find within the Red Letter Bible verses that would oppose my reading of non-self: but at almost every turn I can at the same time attribute those reading to the envelopment of self into language itself. Although Christ could, theoretically, have said statements along the lines of a non-self philosophy, the tradition within which he worked (Judaism)  as well as language itself would have twisted the statements into a self-directed focus. Or at least I am trying to convince myself of that. I do firmly see that language has embedded within it a sense of time. If time itself is illusory then time still will be seen and felt within language. That does not alter the point that time is illusory (I am being theoretical here). The sense of self may be something similar within the structure of language. At least, I do wonder about that.