Wednesday, September 12

Existential Christian parallels with Buddhism

Both Buddha and Christ preached peaceful co–existence; the amelioration of suffering by application of an expanded world view for compassion- to present similarities from markedly different cultures. Christ’s Jewish heritage was rooted in the Messianic expectation for the end of the world which leads to his eschatological message, whilst Buddha’s concern was over indifference to suffering within a caste based societal system. There remain fundamental differences of substance between the two but personally, on a purely subjective note, I seek to demonstrate Christ’s sayings have a Buddhist flavour to them.
There is already evidence of a history in contemplative Catholicism which has similarities in meditative practices, but I also think there is a tentative link to the way both respond to suffering. This applies in Christianity which acknowledges a Creator GOD, just as it does in the case of Buddhism, where no such assertions apply.
Where this is evident is in the expanded compassionate response to suffering. Christ’s ‘sermon on the mount’ was to establish a pacifist society, to end the eye for eye justification and to strive for a universal forgiveness by an active expanded role for compassion. In the Buddhist tradition the release from suffering through Nirvana – by ceasing to will, is the recognizable path to enlightenment. In Christ’s account the release from suffering can best be understood by way of eschatology- to establish the spiritual kingdom for righteousness and expanded compassion. That love preached by Jesus was to be universal and to include all people, sufferers, oppressed, those sick, murderers, those found guilty or even your worst enemy. On the other hand Buddha brought to all sentient creatures that same kindness, friendliness and sympathy but without a personal involvement of heart banded to earthly things.

However, just as the “historical Jesus” scarcely exists outside of the Biblical references – except for the few fleeting historical reference - so the Buddha also is historically obscure or at least what is attributed to him remains a topic for debate by scholars. That one may have influenced the other over such a lengthy period before oral traditions were finally evidenced in writing seems a reasonable assumption.
Hence, we are limited to speculation which points to the possibility Jesus spent years of monastic contemplation- (Christ may have been a member of the Essenes) prior to a public ministry which attracted disciples and has subsequently spread throughout the world. Their first records and accounts were eventually written down by the disciples and followers, with the earliest of the synoptic gospels by way of Mark, thought to be penned about 70 years AD or about 40 + years after Christ’s death. Similarity many Buddhist traditions were orally maintained for over 400 years before any formalization took place. Buddhism may be considered a philosophy or a religion, but more so a religion in my view given what are considered to be specific sacred scriptures and doctrines.
In China philosophical Taoism has influenced Buddhism, but religious Taoism has also been transformed by Buddhism; to include rebirth/ with systems of heavens and hells. (Ching Julia – from Kung Hans, Christianity and Chinese religions. SCM Press, London 1989)
Hans Kung also talks about a kind of Taoist church with priests, monks, cults, feasts, holy water, confession, penance, fasting, legends of saints and even a Taoist Pope. Importantly for both Taoist and Christian thought the innermost essence of Tao and God remains hidden from human beings. (Kung Hans and Ching Julia. Christianity and Chinese religions. SCM Press, London 1989)
Whilst a lot is made of the idea that Buddhism does not believe in a creator GOD one can also regard Buddhism as a matter of agnosticism, such as was the case when confronted with such a question, the Buddha responded to say what we believe is unimportant, because we cannot know such things, to conclude wisely such beliefs do not lead to any form of enlightenment. Given the number of divergence of views that has plagued
monotheistic religions, inclusive of Christianity, one tends to have some empathy with the Buddha’s answer.
For example although the monotheistic religions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all agree on just one GOD there is significant diversity on what this means to the individual. Amongst believers we see some as regarding their GOD as all-controlling, others want to limit those powers, whilst for many, as in an existential basis,  assume GOD does not interfere or intervene in day to day living. In a similar vein some will believe GOD has infallible knowledge of all there is and all that will occur just as there are different ideas tied up with the nature of an after – life and so the list goes on. All this tends to suggest that such questions, whilst seemingly important to some believers, are not particularly helpful in telling one how to live.      
But even on the question on the belief in GOD mystics such as Meister Eckhart, specifically reference “a nothing” to that which is indescribable. In other words where language reaches a temporary ceiling and so for Eckhart, “nothing” was one way of indicating the “Godhead”.   
Christian negative theologians and mystics, most notably Meister Eckhart, at times make use of the notion of “the nothing” to refer to that which transcends all concepts and all oppositions. For Eckhart, “nothing” (niht) was one way of indicating the “Godhead” (gōtheit) beyond “God” delimited as a personal being (see Eckehart 1963, 328). Niht here is an expression, at the limits of language, which attempts to indicate “the nothingness of indistinct fullness from which flow … all oppositions and relations” (Schürmann 1978, 168). Eckhart speaks of a breakthrough, not only beyond the ego, but also beyond God Himself, a breakthrough, that is, to an abyssal Godhead understood as “the silent desert into which no distinction ever gazed, of Father, Son, or Holy Ghost” (Eckehart 1963, 316). Analogously, Nishida writes that “when we truly enter thoroughly into the consciousness of absolute nothingness, there is neither I nor God” (NKZ V, 182; see Nishida 1958, 137). Davis, Bret W., "The Kyoto School", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <>.
Hence Buddhism is being rediscovered in the west and gaining popularity as an alternative to secular materialism in philosophy or fundamentalism in religion or for those whose spirituality sits uncomfortably with the various strands of Christianity. Such an interest might seem surprising given for the most part western rationalism which is unaccustomed to discussing such subjects as emptiness, karma, release from suffering through Nirvana – by ceasing to will, illusions of the mind and the idea of death simply taking on a different form of rebirth.
But, I think one of the reasons Buddhism has gained some popularity is it seems less authoritarian and, while its rationality may be debated it does suggest a rational pathway with the stated steps to enlightenment.
However, when one examines the mystical bent of all religions and traditional ritual, richness in religious art and the vast body of canonized scripture held by both wisdom streams, I think we all read from the same hymn sheet; to listen to tunes set from fundamentally different cultures but who aspire to the same more positive existential outcomes.