Buddhism and Christianity

According to Buddhism there is no 'I'. Our sense of self is an illusion based on faulty perception. An individual is no more than the combination of the five skandhas or aggregates of existence which can be summarised as 1) the physical form, 2) the emotions and sensations, 3) thinking and conceptualising, 4) habits, prejudices and will (grouped together as psychological formations), and 5) consciousness as reaction to the six external objects which are those associated with the five senses and the mind. These are regarded as empty, using the classic Buddhist term, in that there is nothing real (as in an individual) behind them. Rather it is they that create that idea. Buddhism is not nihilistic because it says that there is a reality beyond this (that's the whole point of it, of course) but the individual has no part in this reality.

This is very good theory and sounds intellectually rigorous enough to be true but it is not true, certainly not the complete truth. Where our individuality is concerned, the whole is not just the sum of the parts. There is an individual soul and that is not an illusion. It was created, so it cannot perhaps be said to be more than relatively real, but it is not unreal. Ultimately you might say there is only God, or the Unborn, Unmade and Uncompounded in Buddhist terms, but existence is not made up of the absolute alone. It is a combination of the absolute and the relative, uncreated and created, and the two together make the whole. You cannot deny either one of them, even if you must see the relative as an aspect of the absolute and not fully real in its own right.

What this means is the following. Out of the Unmanifest Absolute (though not distinct from it) comes the creator God who creates the manifest universe from his own being. Why? Hinduism calls this his play (lila), Islam says that God was an unknown treasure and desired to be known. I would say that the very nature of God is that he expresses himself in love and this he does by creating free individuals who have their own intrinsic reality, given by him, of course, but none the less real. But (and this is where the Buddhist position points to the truth) you are only relatively real in the sense that your goal is to outgrow identification with the limited, individual self and realise yourself to be one with the Universal Self or God. But that does not mean that the dewdrop slips into the shining sea and is now completely absorbed by the whole because if it did then what would be the point of creation? The limited identification with self is outgrown but self remains as, unless we are to disappear into nothingness and no longer be, it must. It is seen in an entirely different light and is no longer the centre of our being but it remains as our expressed self. You might think of the God centred soul as Janus-like in that it looks two ways, inwards to the absolute where there is no self or rather One Self, that is to say, only God, but outwards too where the individual still exists as a particular expression of the absolute, its focus on a unique point.

In the book Towards the Mysteries by Swami Omananda the Masters make the following statement. God made man Individual. Krishna was Individual. Muhammad was Individual. Christ was Individual. As, of course, was the Buddha. This was the very reason and point of creation. One of the most repeated sayings of these Masters was that we should be individual without being individualistic. The Masters who spoke to me had the most wonderful individualities but they were not identified with those. They lived and moved and had their being in what they would sometimes call the Most High. Paradoxically they were more fully individual than anyone I have ever met, and it occurs to me that it is only when we have transcended our limited focus on the personal self that we can be a true individual. We need to go beyond the individual and not be bound to it, Buddhism is right there, but individuality is not an illusion. It is, in fact, the basis of love and love is at the heart of creation.

I have no desire to get caught up in theorising about ultimate reality but I do think it important to get at the truth insofar as we can, and that is why I reject the Buddhist doctrine that self is an illusion. At its best this doctrine can be considered as a technique or 'skilful means' to help the disciple give up his exclusive identification with his ego bound phenomenal self but it should not be taken literally. For there is a real individual self beyond the purely phenomenal version of it.

All of which leads to my belief that there is confusion in Buddhism between the ego and the individual. The ego is an illusion born of identification with the mind. It is our creation. But the individual soul is the creation of God. God multiplied Himself to become more. This was why he created. Yes, in absolute terms there are no individual selves and we must come to realise our fundamental being as identical with that primordial state, but the human being is not just spirit. It is spirit, soul and body (reflecting the Trinity) and all of these have their place in the whole. It is that which gives life its variety and richness. It is that which reflects the reality of love.

If there is no self then who attains Nirvana? You might say that the realisation of the non-existence of the self is Nirvana but then you also have to ask what realises this non-existence? Again you might say it is the Self realising the Self but the Self knows itself eternally anyway. In terms of this realisation, it is a specific individual that has realised its oneness with the universal Self, and that individual is now for the first time truly undivided which, after all, is what individual actually means.

We are made in the image of God. God has individuality and so do we, given by him without reservation for the fulfillment of love.

This is a statement which could not be made by a Buddhist. It is a Christian statement and it points to the fact that there is a profound spiritual disagreement between the two religions. Try as we might we cannot pretend that they are saying the same thing. Many people do try and Christianity is often regarded by the mystically inclined as though it is saying the same thing, really, as Buddhism. It just isn't saying it quite as well. I disagree. The writings of some Christian mystics can be interpreted as if they are speaking non-dualistically, though Meister Eckhart is usually the only one who can really be seen in this light and then only selectively, but non-duality or monism, as conceived in Eastern terms, is not part of Christianity at all which remains a dualistic religion in that union with God, and not absolute identity, is the goal.  Faced with this problem I have tried to understand how Buddhism and Christianity, both seemingly true on their own terms but incorrect in terms of each other, stand in the light of overall truth, and the conclusion I have come to is that Buddhism is the highest truth but Christianity is higher.

Before I try to explain that rather gnomic utterance I should say that this view is fully borne out by the teachings the Masters gave me. They never mentioned either Buddhism or Christianity by name (though they did mention Christ), but what they taught can be seen to contain elements of both. The essential elements required for any individual treading the spiritual path, though tailored for my particular needs of the time and addressing my particular weaknesses. For instance, they spoke of both meditation and prayer as being equally important. They told me to forget the personal self and merge with the universal Self but also said I should remember the Creator. They spoke of themselves as being essentially one but were also wholly individual. They advocated detachment from emotional identification but emphasised love and humility as the highest spiritual qualities, neither one of which, incidentally, would have any meaning in a system of pure non-duality. How could they? Both pre-suppose the reality of the individual.

I say Buddhism is the highest truth because it points to the unchanging reality beyond creation and the movement of form, and details the way in which an individual may step out of the world of becoming and into pure being. This is Nirvana, the 'blown out' state in which there is no more coming and going. Oneness with the Absolute must be the highest state. It is the state beyond all ideas of states.

Or so it might seem. But actually there is something more, something better, and this is revealed in Christ.

For in Christ the world of creation, either denied outright or diminished in Buddhism and other non-dualistic religions and philosophies, is fulfilled. He is the fulcrum of the created world and uncreated reality, and in himself he reveals the perfect union of the two. He brings the one to perfection and the other to full expression and, as a result, completes them both. For while Buddhism rejects becoming for being, Christ encompasses the whole of life in himself and shows us the way to do the same, which way is through and by means of his teachings and his person.

For the Buddha the problem of life was resolved through the elimination of suffering but this also required the elimination of desire. The way of Christ is more inclusive. It involves, not the elimination of desire and suffering, but their redemption and sanctification. This is the higher path that leads to the fullest embracing of life and not the rejection of any natural part of it. You might say that Buddhism and similar philosophies reject matter for spirit but in Christ matter and spirit are made one in a holy union in which the former is sanctified and the later revealed. And from this union is born something completely new, something in which the divine qualities of goodness, beauty and truth are not transcended and left behind as belonging to the relative world (as they must necessarily be in a strict non-duality), but taken up and transformed and carried along on a journey that progresses into ever deeper union and ever brighter illumination. Nirvana is an end. There is nothing more. There can be nothing more. But the way shown by Christ has no end for in it time is taken up into eternity and something more than either one on its own comes into being.

Buddhism appeals to the modern intellectual who is looking for some form of deeper understanding in the spiritual wasteland of the 20th and 21st centuries, but it can be a risky spiritual approach for Westerners. It falls too neatly into our modern way of thinking, and can be adjusted to suit our current prejudices. Its lack of a personal God is a temptation to intellectual pride.

That is one reason I regard Buddhism as an unsuitable path for the contemporary Westerner. The fact that it appears to offer spirituality without the inconvenience of God makes it attractive to some but that is its major flaw in my opinion and why, whatever its historical necessity and appropriateness in its original time and place, it is not really appropriate for Western people. The cultural context is quite different, and it tends to fortify existing deficiencies rather than correcting them as it would have done in the heavily theistic and ritualistic context in which it arose. Even in India it needed correction which is why we had first Sankara and then Ramanuja who offered a more inclusive teaching than Sankara’s, one which reconciled the impersonal and the personal.

But for us today Buddhism, or any spiritual approach which doesn't acknowledge the Creator, coincides too readily with our readymade assumptions about life and can be too easily fitted in with our materialism. But our assumptions need to be disturbed not flattered. The Buddha did that to the people of his time but we are totally different from them and need an approach which challenges and confronts our prejudices. As I see it, the great danger in not acknowledging a Creator is that our spirituality is human-centric which means that potentially we will remain in the fallen state in which the self is dominant. I know that Buddhism has the express aim of revealing the emptiness of the self but that just will not work for modern Western people for whom the self is so entrenched that it can never be bypassed (if, indeed, it can for anyone at any time). It must be first purified and then transformed by grace and the best way to do this remains the way shown by Jesus whose arrival in this world changed everything, rendering other approaches secondary, even if they remain effective on their own terms as indeed Buddhism does. Faithfully followed, it may take its most developed practitioners to some kind of enlightenment. But Christ offers something more than this, something which is more in line with God's purpose for his children. He offers the spiritual transformation of self rather than its elimination, and it is this that fulfils the reason for creation and incorporates all its goods rather than rejecting any of them.

If we accept that human beings are made of spirit, soul and body then we see that Buddhism and similar approaches reject the last two for more or less exclusive focus on the first. Modern practitioners may claim they don't do this but in effect they do or should if they are true to the teachings. The no self doctrine is clearest proof of that. Christianity, on the other hand, sees a human being equally as spirit, soul and body or life, quality and appearance, and gives all of these their due importance. They all have their place in an overall scheme of things, even if the priorities are always from above downwards. Thus in Christianity the individual self is not lost, as it is in non-dualistic religions, or even seen as belonging to a lesser reality. It is sanctified by grace and taken up to the highest reality. It is not seen as the centre of consciousness any longer, that is God, but it remains the truth of what a person is, even in its transformed state once the soul has been merged into spirit.


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