The Difference between Buddhism and Christianity I: The Ground of Existence

Image At its heart Buddhism is multiplicity.

The ceaseless categorizations of Theravada, the interpenetration of phenomena in Mahayana, and the myriad manifestations of life in Tantra all point to its fundamental view that there is no prime mover behind anything in the universe. However, trying to pin down Buddhism as a coherent set of ideas that go beyond this distinction is a challenge. It shares more with other world religions than it keeps apart.

Nonetheless, this striking attitude toward the ground of the universe – that there is none – that the universe, and by extension human life, cannot be reduced to any inherent cause – is so different from Western notions of a prime mover at work that it has drawn many Westerners into its fold.

While Buddhism may have been imported into the West by generations of immigrants who brought their cultural practices with them, it has also become a growing source of spiritual inspiration for over a million North Americans, most of whom are highly educated, white and secular, seeking a new age spirituality to replace Christianity.

In the West, Buddhist thought is rarely interpreted on its own grounds. Rather Christian thought or new age syncretism provides the platform from which it is evaluated. More recently, it has attracted attention from psychology and speculative neuroscience, as well as from post-modern thinkers seeking to undermine the fundamental assumptions in positivistic science. As a result, Buddhism has earned a popular appeal as a philosophy or ‘way of life’ rather than as a religion – religion, here, signifying systems of hoary practice and superstition.

This prejudice aside, the two disciplines merge on many fronts, with the distinction between the two resting on issues of materiality. Philosophy concerns itself with the physical and metaphysical, whereas religion concerns itself with the spiritual. While both are subjective, philosophy examines knowledge and being, and religion ponders the problem of evil. For religion, human existence is a predicament; there’s something wrong with life the way it is. Each religion offers a description of the predicament and how best to resolve it, so that life can be the way it was “meant to be” or, at least, better than what it is.

Christianity describes the human predicament as alienation from God, our creator. We live a life of sin caused by the Fall. Jesus Christ resolved this problem by revealing, in his person and work, that there are ways to live with integrity in the midst of sin. The experience of God is, of course, the source to the ending of life’s problems. Salvation restores our divine relationship, and leads to integrity of personhood. This divine relationship extends beyond death to eternity, as we are taken up into the body of Christ, and by extension, God.

Buddhism on the other hand focuses on our own feeling of dissatisfaction with mundane existence, rather than on our state of being in relation to an “other.” It considers how our state of mind can make things better or worse for us, depending on how we approach this problem. According to the Buddha, we experience day-to-day suffering because we expect to get and hold onto things, including psychological and emotional states, such as pleasure. However, the world is characterized by change, and as a result we live in a state of frustration and discontentment. This state can be perpetuated over multiple lifetimes, because our mind holds onto the situations at hand, and our psychological, or cosmic, energy is not contained purely within our body. It affects things.

In order to escape this predicament, one must realize the true nature of the universe and free oneself from the desire to gain fulfillment through ever changing things. This breakthrough “letting go” is nirvana – the cessation of craving. More positively, it can be described as the direct recognition of what one is: the pure and responsive “pre-reflective” experience. Once it is attained, final enlightenment leads to the cessation of karma, and the end of the cycle of rebirth (samsara). In other words, one simply ceases to be. In Buddhism, there is no God to join in unity.

In Response to John Horgan’s ‘Why I don’t dig Buddhism’

Maybe there’s a better way to start a conversation than to open with controversy, but since Buddhism draws its vitality from being a counter-culture movement, I’ll pick up on John Horgan’s brooding over the topic in Scientific American  (Why John Horgan doesn’t dig Buddhism) and take it apart a bit.

Don’t forget to read the background article that started Horgan’s trouble. He offers juicy points and sounds genuinely frustrated with a spirituality that he tried to embrace (4 years of meditation before giving up ain’t nothing).

I confess Horgan pushed a button by arguing that Buddhism’s worldview cannot easily be reconciled with modern humanistic values. Wow! Modern humanist values, themselves, are under attack for being unfriendly to humans, so what exactly is Horgan talking about here?

But let’s not trifle … moving on ..

Eastern MonachismBuddhism and Catholicism

There’s plenty of irony to be found in Horgan’s equation of Buddhism with Catholicism – plenty.  While Hogan may find little difference, the christian missionaries who shaped the West’s first impressions of it certainly did.

An unfriendly dialogue has been going on between the two since the Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci encountered Chinese Buddhism in the early 1500s. Ricci thought Buddhism was a religion of  idolatry and superstition. He preferred Confucian scholars for their cultured minds, secular philosophical systems, and advanced ideas on good government. Reverend Robert Spence Hardy, a Methodist missionary in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) agreed. Both ridiculed Buddhism as an inferior parody of Christianity. For Ricci, the parody was demonic. For Hardy, it was merely uninspired.

Only in Japan did Buddhism meet with admiration – from another Jesuit missionary, Francis Xavier (arrived 1549). When he challenged the Zen monks on doctrine, they laughed at him, saying Zen had no doctrine and no truths to transmit. At that point he figured the Jesuits were going to need God’s help to convert the Japanese. He wrote to the order asking for the most educated and capable missionaries that the Jesuits could provide.

Hardy’s two books, Eastern Monachism (1850) and the Manual of Buddhism (1853),  elevated him as the central authority on Therevada Buddhism in Britain for over 30 years. While Zen eventually caught on in the West in the 1950s and 60s,  until that point Buddhism was mainly understood through Hardy’s interpretation of Sri Lankan Therevada.

MysticismZen mysticism

We have to skip ahead to the early 1900s, through all sorts of interesting conversations, both in the East and West, about Buddhism to take up Hogen’s frustrations with Mind in just one guy: D.T. Suzuki.

Suzuki was a Rinzai Zen monk who studied under Shaku Soen, Japan’s delegate to the first World Parliament of  Religions (part of the 1893 Chicago World Fair). Soen was the first Japanese to address the West on Japanese Buddhism. However, unlike Soen, Suzuki was fluent in English, and so he ended up as the main apologist for Zen in the West, right up until the 1960s. His influence extends into the Beat movement, transcendentalism, 1960’s counter-culture (drugs and spirituality, Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary) plus environmental and social movements, such as deep ecology and steady state economics.

Suzuki comes from a branch of Zen (Rinzai) that emphasizes the use of the koan (paradoxical statement) as a means of getting past all of our prior assumptions. Rinzai, and Suzuki, are critical of the other main branch of Zen – Soto – and its emphasis on ‘merely sitting’ (zazen meditation). In Soto, enlightenment is ‘body and mind dropping off, dropping off body and mind’ (Dogen). As a result, Soto can appear inactive and non-experiential – not to mention bizarre, negative and frightening.

On the other hand, Rinzai is sexy. According to Suzuki, enlightenment comes in a flash – it emerges in a  ‘peak experience’. Suzuki latched onto similarities between the ‘sudden illumination’ of Rinzai Zen and the mystical experiences known to Western romanticism and transcendentalism. And everyone from Heidegger to Jack Kerouac latched onto his presentation of Zen, spawning an entire cultural framework to counter that of rationalism, functionalism and materialism.

Horgan states that psychological explanations of ‘no self’ do not respond to philosophical explanations of emergent phenomenon.  I agree. Buddhist truth is not psychological, it is religious. In all cases the ‘deep mystical state’ that Buddhist meditators achieve is insight into what is understood to be a universal truth – that all sensory and spiritual experiences pass, and, therefore, by their very nature, are illusory.

What Horgan glosses over is  that the point of Buddhism is not so much that a reductionist analysis is unable to land on anything fixed and permanently real, as it is that phenomena arise co-dependently – in conjunction with any number of contributing factors – and especially in conjunction with the working of our minds.  That is to say, many assumptions have to be in place in order for us to acknowledge even something as simple as the existence of Horgan’s Stevens Institute. So many in fact that we forget ever having put them in place.

So the question is …. how do we know something exists?

Horgen mistakenly equates Tibetan Buddhism with Zen.  Now, on the question of how we know something exists, both have very different points of view. That whole conversation will have to wait for another day.

For right now, the only distinction that I am going to draw between Horgan’s experience with Tibetan Buddhism versus the one he may have had with Zen is that Tibetan Buddhism is tantra – esoteric buddhism – not mysticism.

There is no doubt that esoteric buddhism, in all its forms, shares much in common with Zen, but Zen truth, while ineffable, can be grasped by anyone.  Tibetan buddhist truth is for the initiate only.  And Zen has no mind, while Tibetan buddhism has many levels of mind.

Moreover, Japanese Zen finds its roots in Chinese Chan. It inherited the secular or ‘pragmatic’ cast of mind common to Chinese thought. So it is practical in nature. Tibetan buddhism, on the other hand, has roots closer to the original Indian buddhism and so inherited a ‘metaphysical’ cast of mind. Top that off with a heavy admixture of ideas imported from Hinduism and you get a mystery religion and not mysticism.

Anagarika DharmapalaRationalism

All Buddhist apologists in the West have found themselves up against the modern point of view.  And with Horgan brooding away there in Scientific American, obviously they still do.

Angarika Dharmapala, Ceylon’s (Sri Lanka) representative at the World Parliament of Religions in 1893, tried to appeal to Western thinking in a different way than Soen and Suzuki. He attacked Social Darwinism: specifically the view that Buddhism represented an early stage in the historical progression of spirituality from East to West. According to Social Darwinism, the evolution of religion was supposed to result in a type of universal rational Christianity.

Like Suzuki, Dharmapala was fluent in English and able to show that Buddhism was compatible with ‘modern’ ideas. He demonstrated that Buddhism was a logical system of thought, with its own theory of evolution that developed roughly 2500 years before Darwin. In this way – though it took much doing – he, and his Therevada successors, were able to bring Buddhism to the fore as the humanist tradition best able to respond to modern scientific and spiritual needs.

This is the guy who emptied Buddhism of its supernatural, one could say mystical, elements and made it rational. He emphasized it as a individualist way of life, good for the mind, good for society and thoroughly compatible with a modern, Western point of view. You can trace Dharmapala’s ideas in a few of the mainstream North American ‘schools’ of Buddhism that Hogen complains about.

Definitely these schools are not religion, in any conventional sense, but they’re not science either. They’re something in between that opposes both. Clearly counter-cultural. And, frankly, I don’t know why Horgan wouldn’t dig that. But then, you know, I’m not a scientist.

1) Tibetan Buddhism – Francisco J. Varela and the Mind and Life Institute

2) Therevada of South East Asia and Sri Lanka – Jack Kornfield  and the connection between meditation and psychology

3)  Zen –  Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Centre for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society.

Karma Keep calm

I don’t believe in reincarnation, and I don’t think one must in order to “be a Buddhist.”  Karma, on the other hand, is an inescapable plank that Buddha used to explain his insights.

First of all, karma is not reincarnation. Properly, the round of rebirth is samsara. Karma, as well all know, means action or deed, and the consequences of that action. At some distant point in the history of India, long before the Buddha arrived, the idea of samsara was merged with karma.

Without getting into complex ideas about how karma doesn’t really exist, because enlightenment is the cessation of karma, let me just say this: karma is just a natural law of cause and effect that can be used to our advantage and not something we are trapped by. Moreover, the morality of an act is found in the intentions behind it. So really, if Horgan doesn’t feel himself to be suffering, no good Buddhist would want him to.

On the other hand, we all know that if you punch someone in the face you’re probably going to pay for it. Buddhism makes that ‘you probably’ into an iron clad ‘you will’ — but in the next breath, don’t worry Horgan, bad gurus living out mystic nihilism too ‘will’ pay for it, regardless of their false piety and institutional authority.