Thursday, April 23, 2015

Separate Universes, One Heart

Whenever I talk about the island the question inevitably arises as to what I, as a Christian, was doing at a Buddhist monastery (a question often asked with a certain suspicious tone, as if Buddhism were some sort of apostasy), so perhaps it is a good idea to write a bit about how I approached the retreat—and approach Buddhism.

First of all, Buddhism is less a religion and more of a philosophical psychology, a statement that immediately has to be qualified because there are many forms of Buddhism, some of which are in conflict with others. Also at the Tibetan end of the spectrum, one begins to encounter practices and insights that echo Christianity, especially as regards symbolism and sacrament. The relationship between Buddhism and Christianity is anything but uniform, according to Buddhists—and indeed, there are, of course, many forms of Christianity. 

In one book, Thich Nhat Hanh [Living Buddha Living Christ] suggests that Christianity and Buddhism in the end are the same. On the other hand, the Dalai Lama says it is very important not to confuse the two. Just to complicate matters, these two positions don't necessarily contradict each other. Thich Nhat Hanh is speaking from a Zen point of view, and writing about the similarity of ethics of the heart. Tibetan Buddhism is something altogether different, and much more complicated—one might even say, thorough, in its understanding of the permutations of the human psyche, and its practices and symbolism reflect these subtleties.

That Tibetan Buddhism appears perhaps to have much in common with Christianity is probably due to the fact that there were Christian bishops in Tibet from the 8th-12th centuries. Tibetan Buddhism as we know it doesn't really coalesce until the 13th century, and so it is no surprise that some of the practices and insights seem to resonate so thoroughly with Christianity. Having said this, it is, in my view, a mistake to speak of more than 'correlations' or 'resonances' between the two—even in such situations as I described above in which the English teacher for the Karmapa's monastery pointed out that the word that is translated as 'merit' in Buddhist texts should really be translated as 'grace'. The Tibetan context is so utterly different, at least in its early and middle stages, that the word 'grace' takes on a completely different set of nuances to those that occur in Christianity. That is not to say that there is not some overlap, but it is better to err on the side of caution.

One might point to the Buddhist image of the person as a diamond covered with mud; all that needs doing is the cleansing of the diamond. In other words, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with the human person; we are just ignorant and confused. A Christian might immediately suggest a comparison with Athanasius' statement that the human person is a portrait that simply needs to be cleansed. It sounds so similar, yet the two images are universes apart.

What enables any dialogue between the traditions is not a 'perennial philosophy' which, as this blog has frequently noted, is a fallacious concept because it is interpretation based on interpretation, but rather a perennial psychology. There are markers along the way but again, no claim can be made that even these are 'the same' because the contextual mindsets are so different.

I solved the problem for myself on Holy Island by simply practicing the Buddhism that I understood, aided by the very delightful and generous lama with whom I had some fascinating conversations about the comparison/confusion problem. She is French and had been raised Catholic—she has a sister who is a Carmelite nun—and she told me that Buddhism had made some of her Catholic background come alive again. One of the biggest stumbling blocks, we both agreed, is that over the centuries Christianity has dis-incarnated itself—a kind of self-refutation for a religion that purports to be about incarnation—while Buddhism has retained and indeed heavily emphasises the incarnate aspect of practice. More on this later.


Anonymous Ian Duncan said...

Thanks Maggie. I'd like to know what you meant by "dis-incarnated itself".

1:47 pm, April 26, 2015  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So would I. Much to think about here . . . . Di

8:28 am, April 30, 2015  

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