Saturday, June 26, 2010

Buddha & Religion: Christianity

Jesus and Buddha: spiritual friends?

One third of the world’s population is Christian, which makes it an important force to be understood, albeit somewhat superficially in the limited context of this article. The basic belief in Christianity is, of course, centered on the Person of Jesus Christ. As part of the Holy Trinity, He is considered God by Christians, along the Father and the rather ethereal Holy Spirit, or Ghost. As humans, we have veered from the will of God, and therefore are full of sins that propel us towards eternal damnation in Hell. Unless we turn to Jesus, that is, and to use a Buddhist term, take refuge in Him.
As God the Son, Jesus can forgive us our sins and raise us to a state of redemption that saves us from eternal punishment after death. Instead, those that He saves will be resurrected on the Day of Judgment  - just has He was three days after being crucified - and either elevated to Heaven to live with God forever as one of the Elect, or live for Eternity on a perfected New Earth that God will construct for the purpose.  Moreover, all this is made possible by the Passion of Christ on the cross, when he sacrificed His own (mortal) life for the sake of sinners, taking on their sin and purifying them in preparation for their salvation. As can be seen from this, the role of Jesus as Savior is central to the Christian religion, and therefore it is worth spending time on Jesus if we wish to understand Christianity a little better.
Jesus says, “I am the Truth, the Way, and the Life.” (John 14.6) By this, He emphasizes that it is only through Him that humans can be saved from their sins. By Truth, is meant the Truth of God, by Way is meant the way to God, and by Life is meant eternal existence in the afterlife. Reflecting on this from the Buddhist perspective, there are clear doctrinal differences between Christianity and Buddhism, such as the centrality of the Holy Trinity (God, that is) which goes against the Buddhist understanding of gods as either impermanent heavenly beings, or as psychological archetypes. Looking beyond literal and dogmatic interpretations of these basic Christian beliefs, can we find areas of convergence between the persons of the Buddha and Jesus Christ?
Jesus was born of a virgin, Mary, impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and the Buddha is said to have walked and talked immediately upon birth, both miraculous events preceded in dreams had by the mothers of both, predicting the extraordinary nature of their offspring. The life and teachings of Jesus are looked upon as a template for all Christians to take inspiration from. Similarly, the Buddha’s life and teachings are also used by Buddhists as objects of reflection and inspiration. Both men were peaceful in their dealings with others, and yet delivered uncompromising messages that challenged their listeners to go beyond their usual limitations and reach higher states of consciousness. In the case of the Buddha, this exalted state of mind was called enlightenment (bodhi) and indicated a penetration of the mysteries of existence, as well as the happiness of liberation from suffering. For those following Jesus, it is salvation that is the ultimate aim of this life, as indicated above. Salvation and enlightenment are worth spending a little more time on here, as they are so important to Christians and Buddhists respectively.
Jesus is savior whereas the Buddha is doctor. By doctor, we point to the Buddha’s role in pointing out the illness (suffering or dukkha), the cause (desire or tanha), the cure (nirodha or the end of desire and suffering), and the treatment (the Path or magga). This role of (enlightening) physician is arguably the main one of the historical Buddha, but there are other Buddhas with different attributes. The main one that comes to mind when reflecting on the role of savior is that of Amitabha Buddha. Followers of this Buddha are essentially devotees rather than students, as with the historical Buddha, and therefore have religious life based on faith and salvation rather than study and enlightenment. Not that the followers of Amitabha are said to not achieve enlightenment, but that this is usually realized after being reborn in Amitabha’s heaven, rather like many Christians who believe they will be resurrected after death into Heaven.
Returning to this idea of sin as being central to Christian theology, it is worthwhile considering this doctrine in relation to the Buddhist experience. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God creates the first two humans in the form one man and one woman, called Adam and Eve respectively. They lived in a kind of primeval paradise until their innocent enjoyment of life was ruined when they bit from an apple from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. This was the Original Sin that was the cause for all subsequent sinfulness and suffering. The nearest thing to sin that we find in Buddhism is avijja, or ignorance, which lies at the heart of the unenlightened state that most beings find themselves in. And, just as salvation is the answer to the problem of sin, so enlightenment is the answer to the problem of ignorance for Buddhists.
Morality plays an important part in the Buddhist life just as does in the Christian one, something that is often glossed over by some modern Buddhists who wish their own libertine tendencies unhindered by challenging teachings such as the Five Precepts (which are not to kill, not to steal, not to commit sexual misconduct, not to lie, and not to take intoxicants). Just as the Ten Commandments influence Christians to behave in certain virtuous ways, so too Buddhists are encouraged to live a good life as an integral part of the Path to enlightenment. Being evil and believing in Jesus Christ are contradictory in their very nature, for Christianity teaches that to really believe in the Son of God and then receive His grace via the Holy Spirit is to live a new life, exemplified in the words of Paul: “I am crucified with Christ; the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives through me.” As with Buddhists being saved by Amitabha, Christians saved by Jesus are not free to do whatever they want, despite some occasionally hedonistic and unorthodox interpretations to the contrary within both traditions.
There is a fundamental difference between this life in which “Christ lives through me” and the Buddhist experience of enlightenment, which is, in essence, the perspective of the Buddha. Whilst the devout Christian remains essentially separate to Christ, no matter how devoted she or he may be, the awakened Buddhist is in complete union with the Buddha, for the realization of the two is identical: emptiness lies at the heart of all, and to live from the direct experience of this inner void is to be the very embodiment of bodhi (enlightenment). For the Christian, God remains God and devotee remains devotee, for neither is commonly perceived to be empty at heart. (For some Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, this is not necessarily the case, but they form a tiny minority of Christendom both historically and in the modern world, and have often been considered heretics. See a glimpse of their view of God and its relationship to the Buddha’s perspective below.)
Paul never claimed to be Christ; instead, he wrote that he had surrendered to the will of God in the form of Christ. All that he subsequently did in the name of God was done under the influence of his Savior, but not as that divine Person. When I gaze back and see the emptiness that is my True Nature, I am witnessing the very same empty clarity that the Buddha did, and am therefore identified with the awakened one. This is because there isn’t more than one emptiness; my emptiness is yours, and yours is the Buddha’s. In Christianity, however, the essence of Christ, God that is, is conceived as a particular being different and therefore separate to the Christian’s individual essence (the ‘soul’). From this perspective, there can be no complete union between God and man (or woman, for that matter). This is a crucial difference between the Christian ideal of the devout Christian and the Buddhist ideal of the enlightened one.
Going back to the subject of Christian mysticism and the Buddha, there are similarities to be found here, and such mystics as St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart. Possibly with the notable exception of the latter, even such luminaries as these still retain the taste of dualism, with a subtle divide between God and devotee. Meister Eckhart is an interesting expression of Christian mysticism, however, when he says, “The eye by which I see God is the same eye by which God sees me.” For, while it may appear that separation remains with his reference to God and I, the two can be viewed as the Eckhartian equivalents of the Buddhist understanding of emptiness and form, but dressed in theistic language. And, as previously mentioned in the article Linji's True Eye, Eckhart describes the Godhead as ‘pure nothingness’ (ein bloss niht). Eckhart was forced by the Roman Catholic Church to recant some of his more unorthodox statements, revealing the gap between the viewpoint of the Buddha, based on enlightenment, and the mainstream Christian conception of God.
Christianity and the Buddha have much that divides them; the former’s dogmas involving the Trinity in contrast to the latter’s view of gods as impermanent beings; the Christian ultimate objective of eternal individual existence and the Buddhist goal of enlightenment; and, the ultimate separation of God and soul, as opposed with the Buddha’s vision of the interdependence and unity of existence. As for those aspects of Christianity that parallel the Buddha’s teachings, we can look at the centrality of the life and person of Jesus Christ and those of the Buddha; the importance of morality in both the Christian tradition and the precepts taught by the Buddha; and, finally, the emphasis put upon compassion and kindness by both Jesus and the Buddha. With the latter in mind, both Christians and Buddhists can endeavor to work together to make this world a better place to live. May all beings be happy!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Goddess of Mercy

She hears the cries of the world
From within each weeping heart
Tears dried by a wondrous vow
The silence ever alert within us

Blood-stained and heavy-laden
We seem too far to be caught
In her thousand motherly arms
Yet her reach covers the cosmos

In her boundless compassion
Appearing in countless guises
She is each and every reflection
Smiling back through our delusion

Revealing the true unborn nature
Of both herself and her children
Merged in the beautiful light
That is Guan Shi Yin Bodhisattva

Friday, June 11, 2010

Buddha & Religion: Introduction

 A map featuring the world's biggest religions (click to enlarge)

Human beings have always tried to make sense of the universe in which we live, just as we have developed moral systems to organize societies. Individuals have also had intuitions and other experiences that have required explanations. Above all, we have endeavored to avoid suffering and cultivate happiness. All these (and other) aspects of human existence have been part of something called religion. Religion, often ridiculed in some parts of the modern world, has dominated almost every aspect of every culture on this planet for thousands of years. In fact, even in modern ‘secular’ societies such as the U.S. and the U.K. religion still exerts a powerful influence on both millions of individuals as well as on governments. Furthermore, in countries that were or still are (at least technically) communist and atheist, such as Russia and China, religion has made an amazing resurgence in recent decades.
Religions change, of course. As the Buddha taught, all conditioned things change; they are processes forever in flux. This is equally applicable to religion, for, if we were to travel back to ancient times, the faiths of those times would seem quite alien to us, not only in the early, ‘prototype’ versions of what became Judaism and Hinduism amongst others, but also in those religions that not only altered over the coming centuries, but actually died out as newer religions such Christianity and Islam came onto the scene. The Greek and Roman gods are long gone, as are the ancient religions found across Europe, including the Norse, Celtic, Germanic, and Russian creeds. It is not only in the West that religions die out and are replaced with alternatives, as can be seen when studying the long dead Aztec, Arabian, and Pacific faiths.
As to the religions that exist today, these too are not static phenomena; they are constantly changing and adapting to the needs of their followers, often altered by reformists who wish to lead the followers of their faiths in particular directions. Martin Luther and the subsequent Protestant revolution in the history of Christianity is an example of this, as is the development of many Mahayana schools of Buddhism in India and the Far East. Nevertheless, despite – or more probably, because of – these continual changes in religion, it remains in its varied forms an extremely important aspect of most people’s lives in the early part of the Twenty-First Century. Here’s a current ‘Top Ten’ of religions and their number of adherents:
·        Christianity – 2 billion
·        Islam – 1.3 billion
·        Hinduism – 900 million
·        Chinese Indigenous Religion – 400 million
·        Buddhism – 360 million
·        Sikhism – 23 million
·        Judaism – 14 million
·        Mormonism – 12 million
·        Falun Gong – 10 million
·        Baha’i Faith – 7 million
There are some interesting facts to be read from this list, albeit with one important reservation: these are nominal figures that in some cases are little more than educated guesses, as the exact numbers that follow particular religions is difficult to calculate. Nevertheless, if we take the numbers above as somewhat accurate, there are some fascinating facts to be drawn from them. Firstly, these ten religions account for nearly five-sixths of the world’s population, with the top three amounting to over two-thirds of humanity. All this is incredible, considering the millions of atheists in the world and the thousands of religions that didn’t make the Top Ten, such as Cao Dai, Jainism, primal religions, Rastafarianism, Scientology, Shinto, Soka Gakkai, Tenrikyo, Transcendental Meditation, Voodoo, Wicca, and Zoroastrianism.
Secondly, it can be understood that monotheism – the belief in a single almighty god – is the central religious creed of most of the world’s populace, as with Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Jews, and Baha’i followers. Polytheism, the belief in more than one god is a central characteristic of only one of the Ten – Hinduism. Buddhism also includes the traditional belief in the existence of deities, but it is arguably not essential to its teachings. Chinese Indigenous Religion is a fusion of Confucianism, Daoism, and ancestral worship, and also includes the belief in more than one deity. So, gods are a matter of faith for the majority of the world’s population; something that atheists, agnostics, and modern Buddhists would do well to bear in mind.
Whilst seven of the Top Ten can be classed as old religions thousands of years old in some cases, Mormonism, Falun Gong, and the Baha’i Faith are all new religions that have arisen in the last few centuries. On the subsidiary list above another six religions are recent developments. Also, within the long-established religions there are modern movements that are in a process of constant updating (and in some cases ‘backdating’). This new growth in religious reformation and movements belies the claim by some modernists that religion is an antiquated activity that is on the wane; far from it. As mentioned above, those that belittle or dismiss religious faith are on dangerous ground as the numbers are clearly not on their side. Watch out Richard Dawkins and friends!
Within the confines of this blog (and the confines of my life!), this series will focus on the top five religions on the list featured earlier. Despite only numbering five – unless we subdivide the various Chinese faiths – these religions each number in the hundreds of thousands or even the billions, and together account for roughly five-sixths of the world’s population. Again, atheists should not be ignorant to this fact, as it is often said that religion is a dying force in the modern, technologically advanced world. Even if these figures include many nominal members of religious traditions, the remaining active adherents of these five enormous movements still add up to well over half of all humanity. Either way, Richard Dawkins and his faithless friends such as Sam Harris are far from witnessing the end of faith that they apparently so desperately desire.  Perhaps the wisdom of working with these religions rather than against them will surface during this series of articles, and maybe a few atheists and modernist Buddhists will be inspired to interact with religionists in more positive ways in the future. We can but hope!
A little note on Buddhism as a religion is required here. Many modern Buddhists do not consider Buddhism to be a religion, as for them it does not demand the belief in a god or gods (despite the traditional Buddhist belief in deities mentioned earlier). It can be argued that Buddhism inherited the belief in gods, demons, heavens and hells from Hinduism, and that the Buddha and his early disciples used these beliefs to illustrate Buddhist teachings like those on suffering, impermanence, selflessness, and enlightenment. For others, including the vast majority of the world’s Buddhists that live in Asia, Buddhism is a religion. A previous Buddha Space post features this debate, and can be read here: Is Buddhism a Relgion? Irrespective of whether we consider Buddhism a religion or not, as the title of this series of articles suggests, it is not the purpose here to compare and contrast Buddhism with other religions. Instead, it is from the viewpoint of the Buddha that religions, including religious forms of Buddhism, are to be examined.
So, whether we take Buddhism to be a religion or not, it is still useful to contemplate some of the world’s major religions from the viewpoint of the Buddha, for perhaps such an undertaking will not only highlight the differences between Buddha and religious faith, but also bring to our attention areas where mutual interests can be explored. This exploration will be conducted in a contemplative manner rather than a doctrinal one. There are two advantages to taking this approach; Buddhism has many different doctrines, due to there being many sects, and obviously if the viewpoint of one sect is taken up, all the other sects are not involved; also, the heart of Buddhist practice is a contemplative one, based on mindfulness and meditation, and therefore to consider religion from a meditative position is to simultaneously cultivate wisdom. Taking up the standpoint of the Buddha, then, will enable us to explore not only religions such as Islam and Christianity from the enlightened perspective, but also allow for a nonsectarian examination of Buddhism itself. That’s the theory, anyhow!
Where to start, then? Well, looking back at the Top Ten list, it makes sense to start at the top, especially as most English-speaking Buddhists reading this blog will be more familiar with Christianity than the other five faiths to be featured. There are some fundamental differences between the Buddha’s worldview and that of the world’s most popular faith, such as the respective doctrines of salvation in Christianity and enlightenment in Buddhism. Perhaps surprisingly for some, there some striking similarities also, that we will explore, such as the role of morality in the lives of both Christians and Buddhists. In the next article in this series on Buddha & Religion, then, we will begin by taking a look at the life and teachings of Jesus Christ and the major branches of the religion that grew out of his ministry: Christianity.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Awakened Consciousness

Ajahn Sumedho: exponent of awakened consciousness

Consciousness (vinnana in Pali) according to the early Buddhist teachings is usually associated with one or another of the six sense-doors (eyes, ears, nose, mouth, body or mind), and as such is conditioned as is all phenomena in this universe. Eye-consciousness, for example, is conditioned as are the eyes and eye-objects that condition it. And it is the same with the other five kinds of consciousness associated with the sense-doors. Furthermore, like all conditioned things, the six kinds of consciousness are created and will eventually cease to be. Therefore, they do not constitute a permanent self: ultimately we are neither these bodies nor these minds, whatever conditioned form consciousness takes.

All this appears to feed the belief that the Buddha taught a form of atheistic philosophy, and that aside from every conditioned aspect of human existence there is nothing. According to this line of thought, at heart we are literally nothing. However, just as the Buddha taught that eternalism (sassatavada) is a false belief, so too he taught that nihilism (ucchedavada) is not true. So, what is it that survives all this analysis (and survives death, for that matter)? In the early Buddhist scriptures known as the Pali Canon or Tipitaka there are two places that discuss consciousness in a different light, calling it anadassana-vinnana, which has been translated as ‘consciousness-without-signs,’ ‘consciousness-without-showing,’ ‘non-manifest-consciousness,’ and ‘awakened consciousness.’ (For those canonical nuts of you out there the relevant sections of the Canon are Digha Nikaya 11.85 and Majjhima Nikaya 49.25.) In these sutras the Buddha says:

‘In the awakened consciousness –
the invisible, the limitless, radiant.
There it is that earth, water, fire and wind,
And long and short, and fine and coarse,
Pure and impure no footing find.
‘There it is that both nama (mind) and rupa (body) fade out,
Leaving no trace behind.
When discriminative consciousness comes to its limit,
They are held in check therein.’

This awakened consciousness, as pointed out by the Buddha, is not conditioned as with the six kinds of consciousness described above, neither being part of the natural world (earth, water, fire, and wind), nor having size, being neither long nor short; it is without texture, being neither fine nor coarse; it is without moral quality either, being neither pure nor impure; neither is it psychological in nature (nama) nor physical (rupa). It is invisible, limitless, and radiant. To experience this awakened consciousness in meditation is not as difficult as some might think – thinking after all is a process of the mind, and awakened consciousness is beyond the reach of “discriminative consciousness.” One way we can explore experience in search of awakened consciousness is to try the following exercise:

Sitting in a relaxed but upright position – traditional meditation postures are perfect for this purpose, for obvious reasons – close your eyes to limit sensory interference, as the eventual objective here is to focus on awareness not its contents. To do this, pay attention to the contents of the mind, which will probably include sound-consciousness, touch-consciousness, and mind-consciousness at a minimum. Be alert to any sounds present for example, noting their loudness, duration, and other qualities, and then do this with any other forms of sense-consciousness you are aware of. Having done this for at least several minutes, next turn attention around to that which is awake to all of this. So, for example, examine the silence that contains sound-consciousness – does it have any discernible qualities? Look at the contents of the mind in the form of thoughts, memories, fantasies, emotions, and the like. Then, see the no-mind that mental phenomena occur in, taking care to recognize just how different it is to its contents. Is this silent, thoughtless, tasteless, odourless, sightless, and non-tactile awareness with or without conditioned qualities?

Here it would benefit us to recall the three attributes ascribed to awakened-consciousness in the aforementioned canonical extract: invisible, limitless, and radiant. When we compare these descriptions of awakened-consciousness with our experience in the above exercise, do we find that they fit? Here, it certainly seems that they do. This alert silence that lies behind all psycho-physical stimuli is certainly invisible for it has no features whatsoever – visual stuff appear in it, filling it with their forms and colours. As to being limitless, it is experienced without borders, and is therefore capable of containing the limited phenomena that occupy it. Finally, is it ‘radiant?’ Well, radiance is a quality of clarity, a sharpness of knowing, and again that which is alert in meditation does indeed shine with a wakefulness that fills the meditative mind. Reflecting on all of this, this naked knowing does indeed fit the bill as being the very awakened-consciousness that the Buddha talks of in the Pali Canon.

To really benefit from this meditative exercise most of us need to undertake it on a regular basis for at least half an hour a time. Those of you that are ripe to see the way-things-are (Dharma) mat well get the heart of this meditation much quicker, but however swiftly you experience awakened consciousness, it will be of much benefit to repeat the exercise as many times as you can. Discovering the underlying reality that precedes both mind and body, not to mention the normal association that we humans have with mundane conditioned consciousness, is a liberating experience. Being awake this way transcends the limitations of egoistic living, freeing us from the destructive emotions that usually dominate everyday consciousness. Waking up certainly has its benefits!

If all this seems too good to be true, and that the meditative credentials of the author of this article are questionable to the reader, a much better advocate of such meditative explorations of awakened-consciousness (anidassana-vinanna) is the widely-respected Ajahn Sumedho (1934-present). In his Dharma talks at Amaravati and other Buddhist Monasteries, Ajahn Sumedho has repeatedly referred to awakened-consciousness, promoting its investigation to his listeners, whether monks, nuns, or laity. He has said that awakened-consciousness is impersonal in nature, as opposed to our personalities that are full of biases, preferences, and other individualistic mental processes that affect our experience of the world.

According to Ajahn Sumedho, when attention is focused on impersonal awareness as opposed to our identification with being male or female, young or old, American or Chinese, etc. we begin to let go of those attachments to self-identity that cause suffering on a daily basis. This is because awakened-consciousness doesn’t suffer – it’s beyond suffering (dukkha). Associating with being specific people we suffer – it can’t be any other way. But as impersonal awakened-consciousness there’s nobody here to suffer. This may sound a bit like being some kind of robot that has no emotions and is therefore uninterested in the suffering of others. This isn’t how it works, however, for as awakened-consciousness we are not only open to the suffering of all beings but naturally feel compassion for them, as there is no ego here to separate ‘us’ from ‘them.’

Regarding the tendency amongst some Theravada Buddhists to take the Pali Canon as a set of dogmas to be blindly followed, Ajahn Sumedho has said that the Canon exists to help us explore our experience of life, rather than as yet another set of ideas to attach to. This is a crucial point that we Buddhists would do well to pay attention to, for both Buddhism’s teachings and practices are tools to assist in our awakening. This principle extends to the entirety of the Buddha’s teachings, including those that refer to the six sense-doors. By remaining open-minded in this way, we are alive to experiencing and accepting the results of meditative practices like the one above, rather than falling into dualistic beliefs such as nihilism and eternalism.

Ajahn Sumedho insists that anidassana-vinanna remains when the world ends – whether in deep meditation or when we physically die. He has described it as “this primal, non-discriminative consciousness.” This reflects the quotation from the Pali Canon above that states that awakened-consciousness endures even “when discriminative consciousness comes to its limit.” As to conditioned phenomena such as the six sense-doors of consciousness, the Buddha says that “they are held in check therein” when in meditation we become fully immersed in awakened-consciousness. This is something that most of us can possibly only achieve after many years (or lifetimes?!) of meditative practice, but in the meantime we can at least have a glimpse or two of unconditioned awareness by devoting some time to practices like the one described above.

The book Intuitive Awareness is available for free download here: Ajahn Sumedho Writings