The Perfection of Wisdom
As Christians engage more and more in an interfaith dialogue with Buddhism, and other faiths, they are constantly challenged by a vocabulary, which is very 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 to a concept, which tells us that our sense of self as being permanent is deceptive or counterfeit 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 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 Christ like 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 (NRSVA)
39 Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.
Luke 9:23 (NRSVA)
23 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. 24 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
As a practicing Christian, I might say this in another way; simply, that it is Christ and the Holy Spirit who dwells within us all and that the Holy Spirit as a teacher and comforter transforms, transcends, reveals, redeems, even expands and diffuses, all sense of self. Ultimately, what we mean here is that the self, our deepest self, our soul, our spirit self, is so intimately interconnected with the Divine that it is the Divine who dwells within us and who we are in unity with; in union with God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to place it in Trinitarian terms.
I’m not saying we lose our being, our core identity, our uniqueness as a creation of God, who God gave life to, neither, is Buddhism when it points to the false self as not-self, or no-self, anattā (uhn-uht-tah). For a Christian, as we grow more and more in Christ’s love, as we are constantly changing; we are being transformed moment by moment. Within Christianity this is a continuous process of change and growth, of Sanctification and Theosis, where one day we wake up, and no longer recognize the person we once were, because that person has been utterly transformed.
In Buddhism, there is transformation too; there is a release from an ego-driven false sense of the self that is grounded in selfishness. There is a transformation that leads to selflessness and service to and for others; there is the path of the bodhisattva, found in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhism. Where a person intentionally engages in specific practices that help to develop immeasurable loving-kindness, compassion, joy for others, and composure or equanimity.
Along with the Six Perfections of Wisdom, which are generosity, patience, virtue, joyful effort, meditation, and insightful wisdom that lead to enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. Tibetan Buddhist practices, like Tonglen, that involves taking on the pain of others with an in-breath and sending them joy and healing with an out-breath, and extensive-mind training (Lojong), that are all very sacramental in nature and experience, grounded in the Spirit.
The parallels to these in Christianity are the fruits and gifts of the Holy Spirit that may arise from a spiritual practice (praxis) and service to God, the church, the community. Service simply and lovingly to other people, grounded in God's compassion, loving-kindness, and justice.
Let me point out, as Paul F. Knitter and other theologians before him have, that all our language about God, as the Divine Mystery, is a symbolic language; like Sumerian Cuneiform, Vedic Sanskrit, ancient Hebrew, Latin, or Greek, all our human language is symbolic.
We may use the vocabulary of a Christian, or of a Buddhist, or another great spiritual tradition in explaining our relationship with the Divine Mystery, but such language, is always a finger pointing at the moon.
Our language and words are symbols that may point us towards God as Ultimate Truth, but these symbols, this symbolic language is not that Truth, although our words and symbols do have the power to help reveal the Truth.
To look at the Truth, we must gaze beyond the finger pointing towards the moon, to the moon itself, to Truth itself. All the words of Holy Scripture, when they are truly effective, from any and all the great spiritual traditions of humankind, are simply fingers pointing at the moon.
Jesus tells us in John 4:24: "God is a Spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth." And in 1 John 8:16: “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.”
As a Christian, I see these scriptures, pointing us towards a deeper level of understanding in our relationship with God, and in turn with all of creation and one another.
Perichoresis (peri-kor-es-is) is an ancient Greek term in Christian theology, which refers to the indwelling of the Trinity. It tells of how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are so intimately connected within their unity as one that there is an indwelling between them all.
This indwelling is shared with us, in and through Christ, in the Paschal Mystery of Christ as the Incarnate Word, the Word Made Flesh, who a Christian encounters in the sacrament of the Eucharist, where Jesus is truly present. Saint John of Damascus (7th Century) describes Perichoresis as a “cleaving together,” and as a fellowship of the Godhead that enters into one another.
John 17:21 (NRSVA)
21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.
Jesus points us towards another realization of God’s oneness and reign in these verses from Luke.
Luke 17:20-21st Century King James Version (KJ21)
20 And when the Pharisees had demanded of Him when the Kingdom of God should come, He answered them and said, “The Kingdom of God cometh not with outward show. 21 Neither shall they say, ‘Lo, it is here!’ or ‘Lo, it is there!’ For behold, the Kingdom of God is within you
Jesus is telling us in these verses that God lives within us each, dwells within us each, and is in our very midst, actually within any sacred community where people are gathered in his name, but, even more than this I think. Jesus is telling us that we are so intimately connected to one another, not only one with him and the Father, within the Trinity, but within one another too, within a community, and that out of this oneness our lives unfold, or rather our lives fold into one another, interweave with one another.
It is our relationships with one another, and all of creation, which is the reality we experience every day of our lives. It is out of all these relationships that our lives arise, interweaving, unfolding and folding into one another, and it is in and through these relationships we encounter and come to know, and be known by God, by the Divine Mystery. Through and in one another, we come to know God, in a divine relationship that is creation itself, constantly creating new relationship from one moment to the next.
In Buddhism, this concept of our interconnectedness with life, all life, reality itself, out of which our lives arise, is called Dependent Origination or Dependent Arising. The Buddhist monk and teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, calls this concept interbeing, in his book, The Heart of Understanding, 1 where he teaches that “To be” is to inter-be, and that “we cannot be alone, exist alone without anything else.”
All beings are in relationship with one another; we are all “interbeing” with the rest of creation. Indeed, our life and the reality we experience moment to moment is arising out this “interbeingness” and that through “interbeing” we come to know God in and through our relationships.
As a Christian, I want to use the language and symbols that I know and love so well, and add that what is drawing us together is the life giving presence of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit who is actively at work within the world. And to recognize that it is the Holy Spirit who is literally calling us into a relationship with one another and into the fullness of our humanity, the full potential of our human life, which after all is a gift from God.
In his book, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, in writing about Thich Nhat Hanh’s idea of “interbeing,” Paul F. Knitter tells us that understanding God through relationships is critical and that the source and power of our relationships is driven by the presence of the "Holy Spirit." The importance of this concept is summarized by this: "behind and within all the different images and symbols, Christians use for God – Creator, Father (Abba), Redeemer, Word, Spirit, - the most fundamental, the deepest truth Christians can speak of God is that God is the source and power of relationships."
Another way to view this, as Paul Knitter explained to me once in a conversation, is that in meditation Buddhism asks us “to let go of all concepts, and to let go and open ourselves radically and utterly to the present moment, and in the trust that this present moment contains all that I need. This setting aside of words and imagery and opening oneself to what St. Paul calls God as Spirit, letting that Spirit make itself (or herself or himself) felt within us, grow within us, to lead us.” We find this idea beautifully expressed in these two scriptures from the Gospel of John, and in the book of Romans.
John 14:26-27 and Romans 8:26-27, tell us:
“But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” …
“Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
I imagine that this is exactly as Jesus must have prayed to our Father in Heaven (Abba), with a radical and complete openness and trust that took him beyond all forms and images into a union and unity with the Holy Spirit that was praying with and through him. This is the same Holy Spirit, who prays with and through each one of us, when we take the time to be still, to be silent, to meditate and rest in the Divine and Ultimate Mystery of God as Spirit.
“Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. “That very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. “God is a Spirit and they that worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth. “That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us.”
For a Christian, this is it, this is unity, this is union with God, and union with one another in community, the union that we find within the church or any sacred community that values one another and the stranger. And you know; it's all a mystery, it's all a marvelous mystery that calls us into a relationship with one another, even across faiths, especially across faiths.
If we could reframe the message of the Gospel for the 21st Century, the "Good News" of the Gospel, I believe that this would be that message. A message that calls all of us into a deeper understanding of the Divine Mystery found in relationship, found in an interfaith dialogue that is radically open, radically inclusive, and grounded in the historical and orthodox tradition of the church, and of the Great Commission, Christ gave to his Disciples, to all Christendom.
As my friend Paul Knitter once wrote in a sermon, quoting John Cobb, another theologian, "Jesus is the way, that is open to other ways."
"Jesus is the way that is open to other ways. Jesus is not the way that excludes, overpowers, demeans other ways; rather he is the way that opens us to, connects us with, calls us to relate to other ways in a process that can best be described as "dialogue."
1. The Heart of Understanding: Commentaries on the Prajnaparamita Heart Sutra – Thich Nhat Hanh http://www.parallax.org/cgi-bin/shopper.cgi?preadd=action&key=BOOKHOU - Śūnyatā - Emptiness - Interbeing (Thich Nhat Hahn's comments on Emptiness as InterBeing)
2. Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, Paul F. Knitter, Chapter 1, Nirvana and God the Transcendent Other, Pages 14-23.Publisher: Oneworld Publications (July 25, 2009)Language: EnglishISBN-10: 1851686738ISBN-13: 978-1851686735Paperback: 336 pages http://www.oneworld-publications.com/cgi-bin/cart2/commerce.cgi?pid=443&log_pid=yes
3. Sermon by Professor Paul F. Knitter, from Union Theological Seminary in NYC, entitled "Jesus: The Way That is Open to Other Ways". http://www.saintjulianpress.com/jesus-the-way-that-is-open-to-other-ways-by-theologian-paul-f-knitter.html
Ron Starbuck is an author, poet, the Publisher-CEO of Saint Julian Press, and an Episcopalian.