08 December 2012

Christianities and Buddhisms, or Christianitiesandbuddhisms

Helena Bonham-Carter in the film adaptation of Howard's End (dir. James Ivory, 1992)

“Only connect.” ---  Howard’s End (1910), E.M. Forster

            While it would be unfairly reductive to discuss the teachings of “Buddhism” as though the system were a monolithic, consistent religion with unchanging, definitive characteristics, one must find some way of making general comments.  To put the religion in a comparative context with another worldview, like Christianity, can help us to become aware of the general characteristics shared by the many “Buddhisms.”  Perhaps this plural is a more fitting way of talking about the proliferation of sects stemming from the life and teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddartha Gautama.  But if we are to discuss “Buddhisms,” we must also discuss “Christianities” in similar terms, for the differences within each tradition can be as great as those between each.  I will instead rely upon conventional use of the singular in the following comparative analysis, but with the caveat that no single, definitive tradition could readily be approximated with either religion.  Such a comparative undertaking seems a daunting task; with so many varieties of these two major worldviews, how can our comments fairly represent the scope and subtlety of each?  Also problematic is the employment of a comparative methodology, which defines a thing as much by what it is not as by what it is.  Using this approach, then, Buddhism in simple terms is not-Christianity.
            From the outset, we are beginning to utilize a system of thinking to define Buddhism that is in conflict with one of its core beliefs, non-duality.  In dualistic thinking, we create rigid mental structures of concepts in opposition with one another and then try to filter our experience into one of the two opposing categories.  Traditional science tells us that a thing cannot be in two places at the same time and conversely two things cannot occupy the same space.  This is an axiom that we are apt to apply to our beliefs, senses, thoughts, actions, emotions, intentions, and responses, as well, not just to concrete physical objects.  It is human nature, we commonly assume, to assign clean, succinct labels in order to make sense of the world.  This, too, is a reinforcement of dualistic thinking—to set humans in a privileged place apart from the world.  We feel we must be separate from the world in order to view it as subject.
            Christianity appears to have developed in accord with dualistic thinking and may be the major force in maintaining such a mindset.  For example, the creation story in the book of Genesis is a series of separations and namings:  light from dark, earth from heavens, animals from man, woman from man, good from evil, sin from paradise, creation from God, etc.  Jacques Derrida’s concept of deconstruction tells us that in any set of oppositions such as these, one of the pair is the more privileged, so built into a dualistic mindset is an inherent imbalance.  In such a way, many people have used Christianity to reinforce ideas they have found to be preferential in this system of polarity and to make strong, exclusive value judgments in relationship to those preferences.  For example, God is above creation, therefore anything of this world is inherently sinful; we must strive to not live in this world, but instead keep our eyes and thoughts on God.  Is this an accurate representation of reality?

Mara's armies attack the Buddha.

            In many respects, Buddhism’s perspective on the same example is not unlike Christianity’s.  Mara, the personification of existence, is illusory, deceptive, and tempting and represents a turning away from the spiritual.  In order to defeat him, we must stick closely to the spiritual path.  Summing up the many Buddhist traditions’ views on existence in this way provides those of us in the West with a neat oppositional pair that mirrors Christianity’s concerns with the spiritual overcoming the worldly.  Yet, to get a more full Buddhist perspective, we have to ask ourselves is Mara something separate from ourselves?  Any path we follow, spiritual or otherwise, is a path through our current existence.  It is in the world, not apart from it.  We are, in fact, what we are trying to overcome.
            This statement does not fit neatly into our Western dualistic worldview, and therefore may be difficult for many Christians to wrap their minds around.  It is much more comfortable for us to envision a Satan, responsible for evil and opposed to God, but most importantly separate from ourselves.  We can feel guilt and shame on a personal level, but conveniently ultimate blame is placed on Satan as the root of those things.  In this way, we can divest ourselves of responsibility.  To be fair, there are Buddhist traditions that present Mara as just such a devil figure, also providing a convenient scapegoat for our sins.  It is perhaps unjustified to pick the best of Buddhism and the worst of Christianity for our comparisons, but this has all really just been an exercise to provide another example of dualistic thinking, even in trying to deconstruct dualistic thinking. 
In a discussion of a contemporary understanding of karma, Dr. David Loy emphasized how the Buddha’s innovative approach to spiritual development was couched in ways of thinking that were deeply engrained in the society around him:  rebirth and karma.  The Buddha’s original teaching (his dharma) is inextricably bound up in terms and beliefs of the Vedic religion, and yet it is more than a reaction to them.  Anchored in his immediate context, the Buddha’s dharma should perhaps be viewed less as a vehicle for the individual to move forward out of his or her current state of existence, and instead as a method to move existence itself forward.  In this way, Buddhism overcomes the limits of dualistic thought; individual and society are not separate, old religions and new coexist simultaneously.
Although my intentions in this essay were to describe the teachings of Buddhism in relationship to another worldview, in the course of writing, I found the need instead to attempt to employ those teachings, particularly the concept of non-duality.  Any descriptive analysis has an inherently prescriptive nature--- I have already admitted to choosing the best qualities of Buddhism in order to show it in a favorable light over those few selected qualities of Christianity I have chosen to discuss.  Although I would not go so far as to prescribe Buddhism as an antidote to the ills of contemporary Christianity, I would argue that Buddhism has many things to teach people who call themselves Christian, not the least of which is how to dismantle our dualistic structures of thought. 
The qualities of compassion, loving-kindness, and wisdom, so integral to Buddhism, are not foreign to the West or to Christianity specifically, but perhaps they have historically been defined and taught in much different ways.  While those on the bodhisattva path of Mahayana Buddhism concerns themselves with saving all sentient life around them, the Christian looks to be saved through the grace of God.  Salvation, in the broadest of terms, is central to both, but what that term means, who provides the salvation, and how it is achieved appear to be distinctly different.  The Christian who realizes her role in her own salvation and her irreversible need to save others may come closest to the bodhisattva ideal.  If she realizes that to save others means to save oneself, that there is no difference between self and other, that salvation is not possible unless all are saved, then she is both Christian and not-Christian.  She is not-Buddhist and Buddhist.
In closing, I would like to return to the epigraph with which I opened this paper, Edwardian author E.M. Forster’s brief statement from his novel of 1910, Howard’s End:  “Only connect.”  Forster, having spent several years in colonial India, wrestled with stepping outside of his own experience and really trying to understand the cultures that were being subsumed by Imperial, Christian Great Britain.  In another of his novels, A Passage to India from 1924, he dealt specifically with Islam and Hinduism in conflict with the worldviews of the occupying British.  In Howard’s End, though, no overt mention is made of Eastern religions or philosophies and the action takes place between native Englanders entirely in English locales.  What relationship, then, can his words have to this discussion?
Just as the Buddha was limited to describing an innovative approach to living and dying in the context of his immediate culture, I think Forster was attempting to couch the concept of non-duality in terms with which he and his readers were already familiar.  The “only” implies a diminutive act, something small, but contained within this idea is the greatest thing we can do for ourselves and for others.  To “connect” is to bridge the illusory, ego-created divide between self and other.  Forster, in two words, is reminding us that all people want freedom and contentment; to withhold those states intentionally from another is only to hold ourselves back.  He is, in his own words, telling us to become Buddhists.

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