As Christians engage more and more in an interfaith dialogue with Buddhism, and other faiths, they are constantly challenged by a vocabulary, which is quite different from the one they know and love. This is especially true in working with and studying Buddhism, with its non-theistic approach to understanding the nature of reality.
How may a Christian perceive and understand the Buddhist concept of Śūnyatā – Nirvana, written of in the Heart Sutra, Mahāyāna Buddhist literature? Where the Heart Sutra teaches Śūnyatā–Nirvana, is that, which is empty of emptiness, and is that, which, points a Buddhist to an experience and union with Ultimate Truth, Ultimate Reality, as the Perfection of Wisdom. A teaching that leads a Buddhist to great wisdom and compassion. How may we understand “emptiness is form, form is emptiness,” coming from a spiritual tradition like Christianity that is theistic?
May a Christian embrace a non-theistic approach to understanding the Divine Mystery, and still hold on to their theistic relationship with the Divine? My simple answer is, yes. One that I have learned from Paul F. Knitter, author of Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, as well as other writers and theologians. I believe that we may do both, understand and see the Divine through both a Buddhist and a Christian lens.
In Buddhism, emptiness points towards a concept, which tells us that our sense of self as being permanent is false and that the self we may actively identify with is empty of such permanence. Buddhism refers to this false self as not-self, or no-self, anattā (uhn-uht-tah), it is an ego clinging self that leads to suffering, misperceptions, and false projections.
Indeed, what we may think of as "oneself" is largely the ego, who is not our truest deepest self in union with the Divine Mystery, or for a Christian, in union with Christ and through Christ, in unity with the Holy Trinity. Quite often, the ego is selfish and self-centered, blind to a greater and more meaningful spiritual life.
The Buddhist concept of anattā (uhn-uht-tah) is not proclaiming that humans have no soul, as a Western mind might think of a soul. There is a soul in Buddhism, Ātman, seen as our intrinsic nature, even our Buddha nature. It is seen as a greater self, a truer self, and to find this self, they learn to let go of all concepts of the self. I know that this may sound strange to Western ears.
A Christian might think of it as the image of God within themselves, the spirit within that belongs to God, their Christlike nature, or the Holy Spirit who dwells within us each. Even in Christianity, it is taught that to find our life in Christ, we must give up the life we know and who we think we are. In this sense there is also a letting go of the self.
Matthew 10:39 (NRSV): "Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it." . . .
Luke 9:23-24 (NRSV): "Then he said to them all, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it."
Buddha In Blue by Colin Clark
Ron Starbuck is an author, poet, the Publisher-CEO of Saint Julian Press, and an Episcopalian.