Buddhism Ancient and Modern in Sri Lanka
Sri Lanka is cosmopolitan, but it is also deeply traditional. For all the changes which the island has undergone as a consequence of the arrival of Portuguese sailing ships, and after them the warships and merchantmen of the Dutch and the British; for all the transformations brought about by the growing of tea and rubber in great up-country gardens and low-country estates during the last hundred years; for all the modernizations implicit in its high standard of education — it yet retains its Buddhist ethos in a manner harking back to the great civilizations of the island in the past. The monks who walk in meditation, the mountain and forest hermitages, the winding pilgrimage to see the Buddha’s footprint on Adam’s Peak, the great stupas, the processions of the Perahera when the marvellous potent tooth-relic of the Buddha is taken in elephant procession, the various means of gaining merit, the begging for alms — such are reminders of a Buddhist past that is not too distant from the world of the Pali canon itself.
There Buddhism centres on the monastic life, but is surrounded by the gods and magic of the agricultural world, adapting itself, as usual, to the exigencies of ordinary men as well as to the demands of the Eightfold Way. But in one way the modern world is not the same as the old. In the scriptures themselves the temple cult had not arisen. Already it is true there is the custom, probably going back to pre-Buddhist times, of raising mounds to house the relics of the saints (the Buddha in particular); and it was out of this custom that the cult of the stupa and later of the pagoda arose. From that stemmed the tradition finding its visible Sri Lankan expression in the beautiful gleaming white dagobas rising like snow-white hard breasts out of the green of the surrounding country. But the cult of the buddha image was something relatively late in the island, influenced by the great Vehicle which once had a strong presence here. It is that cult which might provide the context of the first question posed to Christ by the Buddha.
A Question from Christianity
Visually, for instance, there are various notable contrasts. Were the Sri Lankan Buddhist to visit a Roman Catholic cathedral he would doubtless be struck by the directionality of it, the straightness with which the eye is directed onwards towards the altar, upwards to it to. Hanging above it the great Crucifix would show a young, very human figure, dying in that position we know so well, head drooping down, arms outstretched, feet nailed. The Buddha is a very different figure and comes in a very different ambience. The image room of a temple brings one very close to the great looming figure. If perhaps at first the figure of Christ seems absorbed in his own death, the Buddha seems to be massively confident of his own insight. In the cathedral the rhythm of space suggests an approach to the powerhouse of God, oddly expressed as such power may be by the dying figure on the Cross; the temple suggests a walking-past place, a filing-through place, a place where one indeed gets in contact somehow with merit and gains by the visit, but finds in it not so much a house of power as a solemn place of reminders, a calm interior of inspiration, with the Buddha there absorbed in his own transcendental vision, unable to enter into further contact with the faithful, gone out, in his own essence, like a flame. Or as the statues, enormous, of him lying in a sort of blissful sleep (but it is not really sleep) express it: he has gained nibbana, nirvana, the extinction of desire and with that the extinction of life, no more to be reborn. He is gone, ineffable, leaving behind him relics, memories, teachings. And these statues. Though Christ on the Cross may be by contrast a strange way of saying something about the power of God, there is nothing so ambiguous in those grave golden ikons of Christ Pantokrator, ruler of all, majestic and numinous; or of those swirling paintings of Christ comes to judge the living and the dead, the cracking thunderous divider of the world in the last fiery and golden days. Nor is there mistaking the intent of the soaring chants and fervent hymns to God and Christ. He seems to be a strange interplay of power and sacrifice, of the majestic and the meek, the overpowering and the unsuccessful. The combination is oddly disturbing beside the serenity of the Buddha. Who, it may be recalled, died at eighty of a digestive complaint, worn out rather peacefully after his many wanderings and preachings. He was not done to death in his prime of life after a brief and dangerous public career.
Western Civilization and the Eastern World-Picture
It may be remarked in passing that the divine-human character of Christ gave a special dynamic to European civilization, in that it was a factor in the synthesis between Greek humanism and Semitic theism. This in turn prepared the way for that ‘this-worldly’ asceticism, that ambivalent attitude to earthly goods, which is commonly held to be a reason for the development of European capitalism. It substituted a figure of deified humanity for ancient anthropomorphic gods. But the sacrificial aspect of Jesus’ death remains disturbing, so that Europe has never seemed satisfied with humanism, however admirable: something stormier has been called for.
The Buddhist, looking at Christ, and seeing beyond him, is most likely to be struck by the very different world-picture into which Jesus fits compared with that of the Buddha, especially perhaps if we are remaining within the strict milieu of the Theravada. At the immediate ritual level there is the question of god, the gods and worship. At the metaphysical level there is the question of the eternity and substantiality of the divine which Jesus’ fragile humanity masks. Thus on the first front there is a subtle but vital difference between the action of the pious Buddhist before the Buddha statue and the actions of the Christian as he presents himself in the cathedral or church before the symbols of his faith. The Buddhist may lay a temple flower before the great painted Buddha statue; but he or she does not strictly worship the Buddha. Who is there to worship? He is not a god. The gods in fact are next door, or further away at a quite different place. The Buddhist makes a distinction between worldly goods and services which with luck and suitable piety he can gain from the gods such as the great Kataragama (the Sinhala version of the South Indian god Skanda) and the spiritual blessing that he can gain by going for refuge to the Buddha. And so one who wears the saffron robe and whose existence thus is by definition given over to the higher life should not go to the gods. But the lay person, more compromised with the world and in any case not perhaps ripe for that higher existence in which the deeper search within occurs, that grasping for the higher insight, such a person can relevantly treat with supernatural powers. So though the Buddha is sometimes spoken of in the scriptures as being ‘a god above gods’, this is only a manner of speaking: he is not himself in their league. He belongs in the higher spiritual realm, and having given up the world he has vanished ultimately from mundane or even supramundane life. There will be no more transactions between his followers and him. So the flower laid before his statue is more in the way of a pledge and a memorial and an act of self-dedication from which some merit for the future may accrue than it is a positive personal here and now act of relationship with a living being. But Christ for the Christian worshipper lives still. He is moreover, eternal.
For of course for orthodox Christianity Christ is God and God is creator of the cosmos, a divine all-powerful being who works within and behind the universe. Buddhism does not see the world as created and it therefore has no place for the creator. The god Brahmā, who was rumoured in the Buddha’s time to be the maker of the world, is no more than a superior denizen of the impermanent universe. That cosmos is according to Buddhism liable to fluctuation, for it ebbs and expands in a vast succession of ages. But it is in principle ever-lasting. To give some idea of ancient statistics on this front: the Buddha is supposed to have said
With the mind thus composed … I directed it to the knowledge and recollection of former lives. I remembered a variety of them: one birth, two or fifty or a hundred or a thousand or a hundred thousand births; or many a kalpa of integration, disintegration and so on …
And each kalpa is itself part of a cycle in which each great kalpa contains eighty small ones; and the whole cycle goes on repetitiously without limit. It is not just this extraordinary scale of the universe, repeated in space for our world system is one of millions, each with its own Brahmā, which causes the Buddhism of the Theravada to reject the idea of a creator. For after all the great cosmology of early Buddhism found its modified way into the Hindu world picture, and was regarded not only as compatible with the idea of a supreme Creator, but much rebounding to his credit, staggering power and general creativity. Still, the huge cosmos is treated as having a place for even the most imposing gods, who are as a result of this treatment merely rather superior denizens of the perishable world. So from this perspective the old cosmology of the Old and New Testaments, carried forward with Greek changes into the Middle Ages, does seem rather small, rather unimpressive, perhaps even naive. But that small cosmos had its effects which are vital for the understanding of Christianity.
The Cultural Effects of the Small Cosmos
The small cosmos arose rather directly from the myth of creation and its strange addenda which the culture of ancient Israel formed out of various materials in a quite original way. For that myth means that the history of Israel is directly preceded by the first history of mankind which itself grows out of the very narrative of creation. It set the stage for an historical drama of suffering and redemption, of rebellion, guidance and hope, or glory and judgement bounds to the events of the earth. It was out of that small cosmos, then, that there arose the special concern for the historical process which became characteristic both of the Jewish and Christian traditions.
Sometimes it is said in this connection that there is a gulf fixed between the Eastern, and in particular Indian, conception of time which is cyclical, because of the rolling repetition of the kalpas and so on, and that of the West, with its linear sense of history. The contrast is too simple, and is wrongly stated. It is better stated as a preference in the one case for a picture of patterns of change in the cosmos which recur regularly, like the seasons, and a preference on the other for a picture of linear change. But the Buddhist does not just stress repetition in change, but also vastness. The picture too is one of relative pessimism, since things in our age are getting worse. Even if things may have been improved by the intervention of a Buddha, degeneration sets in after his time. By contrast the small world of the Christian sets the scene for an impressive but perhaps rather intimate cosmic drama, which is to end in hope, for whatever the dire predictions of the fire and chaos of the last days it is also the time of the Second Coming and God’s ultimate triumph in time and history. And now it is better than it was, in that since the coming of Christ we are living in a new age.
The Buddhist may have absorbed his gods in the cosmos in part because of its very vastness. But there are other reasons why he looks upon the universal creative Christ, the Logos and Creator, as alien. God as creator and judge is also the God who shines numinously and mysteriously out of the ikon: he is also the great Being who spoke out of a whirlwind so thunderously to Job. He is the Christ who caused fear and divine consternation to Peter at Caesarea Philippi and on the lake. He is the shining sword-decked brilliance of the judgement throne in the Book of Revelation. This is where the Theravadin, as he shifts his gaze from the quiet self-contained Buddha to the more turbulent and unnerving figure of Christ, may find it hard to feel the full force of Christ’s Godhead.
Christ, that is to say, is not worshipped for nothing. If the Buddhist in laying his flower before the statue feels a certain reverence and solemnity, he might in a sense be said to be at the fringes of the numinous, of the terrifying mystery of God. But his concern is not directed towards this facet of religion. On the other hand, the Christian is heir to the theism of Israel, in which the one God has risen in majesty over all the other gods so that they do not merely flee. They never were. That the Buddhist is not really concerned with the one God follows from the cheering laxity with which he allows the gods to insert themselves into the life of the laity. It is better to tame the gods, to see through them, than to meet them head on and to annihilate them. It is part of the skill of the Buddha that his religion makes these adjustments with the small traditions of his followers. But Christ the Pantokrator, the numinous Judge of the world (and not just that suffering human figure upon the Cross) is ovewhelming in strength and love and terror too for those who are separated from him. So the Therava-din shifting his gaze from the Buddha-image to the ikon; and listening perhaps to the Psalms as they are chanted and great hymns like the Te Deum; — he may then see something which we often forget, so familiar is it to us: that the Christian God is worshipped not just from gratitude or out of love, but from cosmic fear, from the sense of his shattering and creative Power. Christ is then to be compared more easily to Vishnu and Shiva and Kali than to the Buddha, so far as his transcendental majesty and fearfulness go.
These things can have long repercussions. The numinosity of Christ can easily be interpreted as a kind of militancy. It is strange that one who died on the Cross and did not resist arrest should have become also the hero of the warrior. It partly has to do with the somewhat undisciplined turbulence and power which the sense of divinity can inspire. There is something of the tragedy of both Buddhism and Christianity in the images of the Vietnam war. The crusading spirit of America owes much to its feeling of religious mission; its technology owes much too to the thought that men are on earth to change it and to be co-workers with God in the creative process. The flamethrower was the evil result of these two forces. Those monks who burned themselves, more nobly, represented something too — a kind of mutely horrifying withdrawal and protest, a hot flaming plague on both houses. But a dead end too as it happened.
Divine Power and Buddhist Knowledge
So, then, the Christ is worshipped because he is the Lord and God. The Buddha is not worshipped, because though he too is the Lord, he can be no longer perceived and no longer thought properly to exist, and he surely is not thought to be Creator or Ruler of the Universe. One might put the contrast too in another way. If the motif of Creation in the theistic tradition is one of transcendental power — of the power which existing independently of the universe as we know it yet at the same time gave birth to this world and continues to work in and through it, the motif of Buddhism is change and analysis of change. If the Buddha somehow conquers the forces of death and suffering, summed up in Buddhist writings and art as the devilish Mara, the Death-dealer, the Tempter, it is because he has true insight. He analyses the very notion of change; he analyses the constituents of the world which bring about illfare and unhappiness. The sword with which he smites Mara is the sword of insight. So his ultimate power is not power of the forceful kind; in a sense it is not power at all. It is knowledge. If only we have that transcendental knowledge which the teachings of the Buddha can impart then we may gain a riddance of those bad things which plague us and cloud our feelings and our vision.
This is brought out well in the statues. Often the Buddha holds up his hand in the gesture of analysis and preaching, the forefinger and the thumb making a circle, echoing the wheel of the Law which he set in motion in his first sermon and which rolls on for the welfare of all living things. That analytic gesture indicates that somehow the essence of Buddhahood is teaching. He is the Teacher. Well, Christ too was a teacher was he not? Did he not give us the two great Commandments? Did he not expound many parables? Was he not sometimes referred to as Rabbi? Has the Christian Church not through the ages carried on with the teaching function of Christ? It is part of the Christian’s ministry as it was part of his ministry. True: but it is as crucified and risen that Christ showed most luminously the way in which men are saved. His teachings are subsidiary to his actions. Though we do not precisely know what the teachings of the Buddha were there is no mistaking, especially in the Theravadin tradition, the analytic cast of the early Buddhist mind. It would be very surprising if this did not go back to the Buddha himself. We have four truths, an eightfold path, five constituents of living beings, twelve fields, the twelvefold chain of causation, the various dharmas or elements, and so on. Maybe such lists were boosted by the needs of memory, for number groupings are good for the mnemonic art. But there is more to the lists than that. The root idea of the analytic — that is ‘breaks things up’ (or down) — is very pertinent to the mediative procedures of the Buddhist tradition. By seeing what the world is made of, down to its fine and shifting detail, and by breaking the individual down to a stream of events or a heap of different constituents, one’s vision of the world is altered. The tables melt before our eyes into streams and complexes of events; trees go into a kind of haze of elements and processes; people, even such as Sophia Loren, lose their charm in their aggregation of bones and blood and pus and grey matter, dissolving thus from the glories of personal presence and sometimes fleshly attraction into a skin-bag of bits and pieces. The soul likewise is not to be found and any sense of immortality rots away under the eye of analytic introspection. The many categories and lists of Buddhism thus serve a very salutary purpose. All the old charm of the world goes once it is broken down and looked at with the eye of true insight. So the curved finger and thumb of the teaching Buddha’s hand is a sign of the importance of knowledge. The aim of the Teacher is to bring about that knowledge in us. Consequently the ceremonies of Buddhism ultimately are just a dressing around the Dharma, which has to be heard, and being heard has its inner effect. So the Buddha’s long commitment to wandering around discoursing, organizing the Order of monks and nuns and so ensuring the continuity of the message, is no surprise. His destiny was as the great teacher, and he is unlike those strangely inward-turned Pratyekabuddhas (Research Buddhas I call them) who have enlightenment but cannot pass it on, who cannot make what they have seen understood to others.
Emptiness and Substance
One could see all this as the recognition that the world ultimately has no power. And behind it there lies no power. The world is only dynamic in the sense that it is in ceaseless flux; otherwise it is hollow, a vast complex swarm of processes, each evanescent, and with nothing permanent in them, as they tirelessly fade and rise, only the patterns into which they form themselves remaining stable, giving off thus a spurious sense of permanence. But that picture is not what the Christian doctrine of creation paints. It is true that as the hymn writer has it ‘Change and decay in all around I see’. But the world is shot through with the power of God. It is not a series of separate independent powers, but rather a great material expression of God’s creative power, ordered — once Greek and more modern science had overlaid the picture — according to the rational principles issuing from God’s mind. This cosmos, this divinely ordained thing, may have an origin in time and it may ultimately pass away or somehow be utterly transformed, but it is not just a hollow swarm of short-lived processes. Rather it is created beings in motion and interactions, created and sustained by the one Being, the one holy Power. Indeed it is by the transformation of the material world that salvation is to come, rather than by insight which ‘sees through it’. Thus the Buddhist and the Christian see the world about them in quite different ways, or so at any rate it so far seems. For the one the trees melt, as we have observed, into a haze of elements and processes; for St Francis they are signs of God’s goodness and glory. If things are a problem for the Christian it is because they are finite; the only true satisfaction and joy is to be found when they are seen not as finite things in themselves but rather expressions of infinite purpose, for it is with the infinite that ultimate joy comes. Or perhaps things are a problem in that the human being is fallen, and perhaps with him the whole created order. The good purposes of God have been perverted mysteriously. But such reflections are very different from those of the Theravadin. For they are reflections which see the non-eternal in the light of their created relationship to the one divine Being. But (will it not be said?) the Theravadin has also a concept of the Beyond. Does he not see the events of the world against the background of the transcendental, or Nirvana?
The Meaning of Buddhist Transcendence
There is indeed a transcendent in Buddhism. As a famous passage puts it:
There is, Bhikkhus, a not-born, not-become, not-made, uncompounded, and were it not for this not-born, not-become, not-made, uncompounded, no release could be shown for that which is born, become, made, compounded.
The words just preceding this often quoted passage are more geared to experience:
There is, Bhikkhus, that plane where there is neither extension nor movement; beyond the plane of infinite space and of that of neither perception nor non-perception; where there is neither this world nor another; neither the moon nor the sun. Here there is no coming or going or staying or ceasing or originating, for this is itself without basis, without continuance, without mental bject: this is the end of suffering.
In other words, not only is there a transcendent state, but it is to be found in and through higher experience, lying beyond ‘infinite space’. For in the Buddhist texts the planes of infinite space, neither-perception-nor-non-perception, etc., are stages of meditation — stages of the so-called jhānas. Nibbana from this point of view is the cessation of craving, the elimination of the ‘influxes’ of desire, wrong view and so forth which stain men and make them continue in the round of rebirth. From another point of view we can see it as a state of personality: the disposition of one who has achieved liberation, vimutti. But from another point of view it is the one unconditioned state, the one unborn something or nothing, which is not a set of processes, or an element in the ongoing turmoil of events. So beyond the cosmos, so to speak, there lies nibbana, the transcendental state: something which can be given in experience and yet is not an object of experience in the sense that the object can be distinguished from the subject. The two are if you like one, except that in the Buddhist analysis there is no ego, no subject.
Since this point is often misunderstood by Westerners and others who approach Buddhism from the assumptions of our usual ways of thinking, and who perhaps also seek in it more exact parallels with other mystical or contemplative religions than is in the end justified, let me spend a moment or two expanding what I have said. It is not uncommon for the mystic to say that in the higher reaches of interior contemplation the distinction between subject and object disappears. Mystics do not always say precisely this, and the theistic contemplative is often keen to retain at least a hairsbreadth’s distance between the soul and God, for the blasphemous and destructive. But still, there is a strong drive towards ideas of unity, identification, the disappearance of subject and object. In the depths of the self the ordinary structure of experience is said to disappear. And why indeed not? The extraordinary discipline of the contemplative, the great struggles of the yogin to control his senses and his wandering thoughts, the amazing drive to blot out at will the deliverances of the seductive senses, the purification of consciousness through the most rigorous exercises — such heroisms of the inner life would presumably issue in something remarkable: so why not indeed the crumbling of that ‘me-here-those-things-there’ and the ‘me-here-you-over-there’ structure of perception and the dualities of thinking, remembering and the like? So then let us accept the disappearance, for the time being, of the distinction between subject and object. No wonder then that those who believe in eternal substances think of the attainment as the arrival at the very ground of the person, the Self; or the very ground of things, Being itself. The Brahman-Atman equation makes sense partly in this context of the postulation of a divine Being and the subject-objectless non-dual experience another thought. Let us see it in the context not of substance but of process.
For the essence of the Buddha’s metaphysics lay in his perception that the world is a swarm of evanescent processes. The idea of impermanence belongs to his first sermon. It is true that there is much more to his teaching than just this idea for he also stressed in a most original way the interlocking nature of what we divide as mind and matter: the world is not as we perceive it because we think of it somehow as static and independent of ourselves. Yet every perception is also a contribution to the world: it shapes what it sees — so that not only does the tree dissolve into a haze of green and brown processes as we note its impermanence, but it gives also dissolves mysteriously further into states of mind together with what gives rise to states of mind. In other words, the greenness and the brownish aspects of the tree, its shape even, are projections, though projections stimulated by something which is out there. However, leaving aside the semi-idealism of the Buddha’s teaching, the doctrine of impermanence implies that when we reach the non-dual experience of nirvana it is not the attainment to a permanent Self, to a Substance. To the permanent in a way yes; to a Being, no. Many commentators have wrongly made the step from seeing the contrast between the impermanent and the permanent as also a contrast between process and substance, between the impermanent and some Eternal entity. This is a mistake. For the doctrine of impermanence and egolessness is the teaching that nothing underlies the shifting changes of the world. If though there is an unconditioned, an unborn, then the perception of it is not dual, is not subject-object in character. A permanent State has come to be interpolated so to speak in the stream of conditioned events. A lot of conditioned non-substances are replaced by an unconditioned non-substance, not by an unconditioned Substance. So nibbana can only be understood in the context of non-dual contemplative experience multiplied by the whole teaching of impermanence and the Buddhist attack upon the philosophy of things. For this reason too the Tathagata, the Buddha, is unfathomable, trackless.
So though the Christian worldview and the Buddhist both have the sense of the Transcendent, the context and character of that Beyond diverge greatly, at least as we see the conception from the directions of Kandy and Constantinople. Nirvana, to put in a concrete fashion, is not Creator or supreme Object of Worship. It is not a personal Being. It cannot even in the Theravada, and only very doubtfully in the Greater Vehicle, be thought of as Ground of Being. It is the summum bonum. But it is not the origin of the world, the Logos. One cannot thus write ‘in the beginning was Nirvana’ or that ‘Nirvana is God’. This though should not stop us from seeing that in some ways the impulses towards the Transcendent both in Buddhism and classical Christianity may have a convergence in the mystical life. The negative way of Pseudo-Dionysius is not untypically closer to the multiple negations of the Buddha. The Neoplatonic tradition in any case echoes with that of India, and there may indeed have been some real contact between the East and Alexandria, and who knows what traditions lay behind that mysterious teacher of Plotinus, Ammonius Saccas? It is nice to think, though it may alas be only wishful thinking, that there is a strand of holy thinking issuing from the Ganges into the very lifeblood of the Christian tradition, through Augustine and others.
Christ and the Buddha
The difference reflects itself naturally in the way in which the Buddha and Christ are seen. The Buddha is one who arrives at the end of the world, at the end of his world. He has a strange transcendental aspect, for he has interpolated nibbana into his streamof consciousness: he has seen the nature of things and seen them from that transcendental point of view. His faint smile is a smile from that Beyond, but a passing smile also. But the crucified Christ, even he for all his humility, humiliation, yet has traces of the great Power he has left behind. The halo of the Christian tradition is a light that shines from the world beyond the world, the gold to be seen in heaven. Thus forever in the Christian tradition is this old problem of how the two natures are combined — how the eternal substance is somehow combined with the human. Thus we find St Thomas Aquinas considering the problem of how it is that God who is changeless can become man (for does not this imply a change?):
- It seems that the statement, ‘God was made a man’, is false. For since ‘a man’ signifies an independently existing subject, to be made a man implies an absolute beginning of existence. But it is false to attribute an absolute beginning to God. It is, then, false to say ‘God was made a man’.
- Moreover to be made a man is to undergo change. Yet God cannot be the subject of change, I am the Lord and change not (Matt 3:6). Consequently it appears that the statement God was made a man is false.
It is no surprise that Thomas resolves the problem by distinguishing between intrinsic and relational changes. A person can remain unchanged even if someone shifts from standing on his right to standing on his left. There has been a change of spatial relationship though not a change of the person ‘in himself. Of course, it is to be doubted whether Malachi in the Old Testament meant more than that the nature of God is unchanging (his character) and that he is everlasting, rather than any stricter sense in which he is changeless. But let us not worry on that score, for it is surely typical of the classical tradition of Christianity both East and West and partly because of the use of the categories of Greek and Roman culture to treat God as changeless. This is in line too with most of Indian tradition. The transcendental is the changeless. And of course the great intellectual problem of all such theologies is how there can be any living juncture between what changes not and what changes. The question for the Theravada is how it is that the Buddha so to speak makes his way to the Unconditioned. In Christianity the question is how Christ makes his way from the Unconditioned. But as we have noted the presupposition of the one concerns power and substance; the other diminishes powers into causalities and substances into processes. For this reason, the one faith takes sacramentalism seriously and the other does not, though admittedly each faith came from a quite different direction (the one had Jewish sacrifice as the form of sacramentalism which it was to transcend; the other had the religion of the Brahmins to reject, save in so far as the ideal Brahmin was still respected).
Priest and Monk
From the perspective of Sri Lanka the Catholic priest has a quite other function from the monk. No doubt merit accrues, as is thought in Ireland or Italy, when a son becomes a priest. It rebounds well to the credit and piety of the family. No doubt too it is a good and worthy thing to respect priests and to give money to keep them in sufficiency. No doubt too the priest is supposed to be a good example of holy living, but his prime duty is something intrinsic to sacramental religion. For it is primarily through him, in classical Christianity, that the power of the divine is channelled. Or at least he administers such channelling. That is the secret symbolic logic beneath his celibacy, for through that he is set apart from the ordinary householder. His clothes too have that special character to indicate divine office. Now it is true on the other hand that the glorious saffron of the bhikkhu’s robe in Sri Lanka, deliciously orange against the backcloth of green plaintain trees and the fields of greening rice (orange and green, but not the violence of Ireland), signals that the monk is special. But, in a different way. For the priest, sober by day and as he moves among his parishioners, is in the candle light of the mass in blazing gold and red, decked sometimes baroquely with lace. He dons these magnificences to show forth glory: the glory which should surround the sacrament which in turn reflects the light of redemption. The priest thus becomes part of a drama in which old events are re-enacted, for the resurrection of Christ is for ever renewed through the sacrament, as his death also is remembered. Thus the priest helps to present an action in which the power of the divine is operative, and the substance of God made available to the faithful. But this complex of ideas surrounding the Mass is something which is not natural to the Buddhist. For the Buddhist there is no holy Being to make manifest his power. Everything is impermanent, even the most numinous and useful of the gods inhabiting his beautiful island.
The sense of power in Christianity and in the classical Mass in the Catholic tradition is one that is in accord with the numinous character of God as experienced and worshipped; and it is indicated by the very architecture of great cathedrals, as well as by the arrangements of Orthodox churches. These reflect two ways of symbolizing the numinous, and there is nothing parallel to them in the Theravada. For the old Catholic arrangement suggested the long approach to the altar. From the altar the holy accoutrements of liturgy face downwards towards the congregation. The raised altar suggests spectacle as well as the symbolism of height. If soaring arches reach upwards to heaven, the raised hands of the priest with the wafer in them as he offers them in a high gesture to the Source which is somehow present in it are there for all to see. The faithful come to hear Mass, and to see the sacrament, as well as to participate in the rite. Indeed for long periods the Church’s main piety was less one of eating the bread, sharing thus in Christ’s body and blood, but more one of being present to the very power of the liturgical event. The congregation itself gained substance from the invisible throbbing power of Christ at the altar. Out of such a conception, of course, there arose a whole host of practices in which the power of God was fragmented, controlled, displayed, mediated — the reserved sacrament, the monstrance, even perversely the black Mass.
Though some of these practices and the ideology of the Church-mediated powerful liturgy came under much criticism at the Reformation, as though salvation could somehow be dispensed in doses and given out in response to determinate acts of piety, the general notion remains classical: that Christ is specially present in the sacrament. He is god and so numinous, broken and so bread to be eaten. But the arrangements of orthodoxy express the numinosity quite differently. For the golden action of the liturgy takes place substantially behind the screen of the ikonostasis, and only partially and in glimpses can the faithful see beyond into the holy sanctuary. The movement of the priests in procession outwards into the congregation signals the coming forth of God into the midst of his people, and the coming down of the divine from heaven to earth. Thus is symbolized by the screen and the partial sight of what lies beyond a whole diagram of the numinous. The holy Being is screened from us, and yet is revealed to us: he is invisible, but yet sometimes the veil concealing him is lifted. Thus too we may conceive of the whole cosmos as a kind of screen which (so we know, if we are among those who have faith) has the Godhead somehow behind it. In similar fashion the ikons themselves are meant to show what cannot be shown, to reveal something of heaven through earthly forms. Thus the arrangements of East and West differ in emphasis. The soaring Cathedral and the raised hands of the celebrating priest show the tremendum as being fascinans; the ikonostasis shows the sacrament as being a mysterium. The one elevates the divine, the other gives it half-hidden glory. But both arrangements conduce to the same end for in the language of action, architecture, painting, vestment and candle they seek to convey something of the power of God in Christ, and to express his presence to us here and now, as well as in the Beyond.
In a sacred rite, a sacrament or a sacrifice — some religious action in which the operation is conceived as more than mere symbolization of memory or whatever — in such a rite a change is held to occur. The bread and wine become Christ’s body and blood: they are communicated to the faithful. Something is given, something is received. Such a transaction is a conveying of substance or power. The faithful appropriates to himself something of the divine substance. This is why the term bhakti in the Indian tradition which of course means loving devotion has a root which has to do with participation, taking a portion of. The devotee in coming close to God receives something from God. In sophisticated terms (though one does not for that reason need to use technical jargon), such a portion of God is his grace which is bestowed on the believer. In order to understand the logic of the sacrament, then, it is necessary to see how the notion of substance works in religion and life. Here I use the term not in that more austere way in which it serves as a term of art in philosophy, and in such formulae as ‘Three Persons in one Substance’. But I use it more freely, as noted above, to provide an expression which can be used both in the field of the history of religions for what is sometimes dubbed mana and in more secular contexts, as we shall see when we come to contemplate nationalism.
The Existential and the Holy
We may look upon the holy as a special case of the high concentration of existential power. I say ‘existential’ meaning that feelings are involved. That which is existentially significant is as it were laden with a certain power, and emanates therefore a kind of substance. It is liable so to say to leak forth from it of its own accord; but it can also more particularly be conveyed, canalized, controlled even by ritual gesture. Consider for instance an instinctive (but actually in part culturally conditioned) reaction when one encounters a strangely unkempt beggar in the street: it is to back away, to avoid. It might be rationalized by saying that he is unhygienic and maybe indeed he is, but even notions of hygiene have a symbolic loading, a less than scientific gestural and ritual component. Putting a little space between oneself and the beggar — walking pointedly on the other side of the street — is a gestural way of saying that one wants nothing or as little as possible of his substance. For it is negative. He is lack of success incarnate, and bad luck perhaps. He is one who rejects the rules of decent society, and so vaguely is a menace to good order. He is vagrant when he should be staid. No suburbanite carries this sort of threat to stability. (Note how vagrancy is a negative way of saying wanderer: the happy wanderer is a different case, rising perhaps above the rules, not sinking Calibanesquely below them, undermining them therefore: also consider the divine wanderer, the sannyāsin, the Buddha himself as holy peregrinator.) Many metaphors there are which are used to refer to the miasmic effect of the transfer of substance — as though invisibly we received good and bad invasions, balm, blessing, merit, grace; pollution, stain, curse and so forth. The holy, as an especially concentrated value, contains dangerous power; and the rituals with which people deal with it are intended to make sure that the good or positive value emanating from it is properly conveyed. Thus the person who approaches the holy Being circumspectly, confessing his sin and so averting hostility, that is the destructive interplay between the holy and what is alien to it, hopes to receive something good — the substance of the divine, or rather a portion of it.
This might sound mechanical. It can be, because it is possible to conceive of the Holy as simply a non-personal force and to use sacramental transactions as a way of manipulating the world. But we have to take into account that a power or substance has a certain character, and often is figured as personal Being. As such its behaviour is unpredictable and certainly not just at the disposal of the worshipper. Worship itself may be regarded as being the gestural or ritual acknowledgement of the superior power or value of the Focus of worship: and such an acknowledgement of superiority cannot be maintained if the worshipper also holds that he is capable of manipulating the substance of that Focus. Thus there are necessary reasons why it is that the Holy is outside human control.
Self-help and Other-dependence
Thus the idea of grace, so central to devotional religion, arises from the recognition that the superior personal Being of God (the immeasurably superior Being) is in no way beholden to the worshipper: the latter if he is wise recognizes God’s utter power and beneficence and relies therefore in hope upon the divine mercy: hope, rather than absolute certainty, because it depends only upon God, and cannot be fully measured by human calculations and predictions. Consequently the atmosphere of salvation or liberation must be quite different in such a religion of worship than in the more orderly (perhaps) and rational-seeming system of the Theravada. For the Theravadin the words of the Buddha are a prescription for self-liberation. The idea that there is any ritual relationship between the goal and summum bonum on the one hand and the adherent on the other does not make real sense. The individual has to do the best he can, within the structures permitted to him by his karmic situation. Self-discipline, moral training, yoga, keen attention to the Dhamma and to his psychological condition-such striving is the condition of making progress towards the transcendental goal. Religion — such as the feasts of temple and procession — is a colourful means to stimulate imagination and effort and to give occasion for the gaining of merit. Thus the Theravada can be classified as a faith of self-help, rather than other-dependence.
Buddhism itself later was to make this distinction when in the high Mahayana it was theorized that in latter decadent days, so far away in time and spirit from the teachings of the Buddha himself, men would be unable to achieve their own salvation, but would need to look to the assistance of a celestial Buddha or Buddha-to-be, such as Amida or Kannon. It is true that even in the Theravada without the intervention of Gotama in human history there would have been no prescription, no Path, which men could follow. But given that Path they can tread it for themselves. It is like a do-it-yourself building kit for a radio: this implies that you can make the thing yourself, though of course there would have been no radios without a Marconi. But by contrast Christian faith is most markedly other-dependent. It is on the grace of God in Christ that the Christian must rely. It is through God’s various interventions into history, through the Law and through the atonement wrought by Christ above all, that salvation is given to men, if they can only avail themselves of it. The alienation from God’s good substance brought about by Adam’s act requires a divine and not a human remedy. Here too we note another divergence in atmosphere.
The Buddhist explains our problematic condition through the chain of causation going back to ignorance, that is the failure to have insight into the true nature of the world and of ourselves. It is an analytic explanation. By contrast the Christian explanation of the problems of men is cast in the form of a myth, a story of primordial times. Christianity displays itself here as elsewhere dramatic rather than analytic in style. In brief then: it is not just that Christianity involves the idea that it is by God’s act that his beneficent substance is conveyed sacramentally to mankind: it also implies that in receiving Christ the Christian acquires something of his character. The numinous nature of what is Beyond the world is what gives the basis of the belief in grace: but it is reinforced by the personal nature of God and his particular character as revealed in the drama of redemption.
The Shape of Sacramental Power
For a gesture or sacrament is not just the establishing of some general link or channel of communication. There is the particular form or character of what is conveyed. A kiss conveys love: folded hands reverence. So the bread and wine of the Christian communion is intended to convey an inward and spiritual grace no doubt, but grace of a special character, for it is Christ’s body and blood that they are — the essence of Christ. In other words the Christian shares in the very drama of Christ’s life, his character and his acts. The divine substance is communicated thus in a particular configuration. This is where the Eucharist is a performance very different from just the telling of a story. It is true that we sometimes look on a narrative as making the events it describes live again. They are present to our imagination and feelings, it is true. But the conveying is more solid in the case of a ritual re-enactment. The replay of the Last Supper makes Christ present, really, to the participant here and now. It involves a kind of time travel, the bridging, in the light of eternity, a gap of many centuries. So there is we say a double movement implied in the celebration of the Mass: the movement from the Beyond to this side of the veil, to the world of men; and there is the movement across time from those days to our days. No doubt it is easy to represent this as rather like magic and no doubt the Church has sometimes acted as if it had magical powers to conjure Christ from there to here and from then to now — but such ‘magic’ is of course not consistent with the idea of the divine power or initiative, which is the numinous premise from which theistic experience starts. If the Theravadin finds a parallel to such Christian notions in his ancient traditions it would be in the Brahmin sacrificial religion which the Buddha rejected: but the whole context there was so very different that only formal parallels remain — the notion of divine power or substance. But Buddhism demythologized all that, and rejected ideas of the mysterious efficacy of rite and language. They were assigned merely a psychological power. But for classical Christianity psychological power was not a sufficient account of the mysterious transactions whereby saving grace was channelled to the faithful.
Sacramental thinking makes a profound difference even when secularized, as we shall see in greater detail later. But let me here give a foretaste of that deduction. The sacramental is a species of the performative act, whereby with gestures and words something is done: where language is not just describing but in an intimate sense doing. When I say ‘I promise’ a promise is made and it is no use for the bridegroom, sceptical out of the vestry, trying to go back on his words and to claim that before the altar he was lying. ‘I will’ can be no lie. It is a part of a sacred contract. It is through such acts that things and persons can be said to have performative substances. The officer in the army has such authoritative substance partly in virtue of the commission handed to him by the State and partly in virtue of the ‘recognition’ of authority in such acts as saluting. It is true that sometimes authority may derive more ‘naturally’ so to spak from brute facts: the man who carries the gun has power over me in virtue of my fear of him and the threat he possesses. This shows how the web of performatives, in relating to acts and feelings, is continuous with what is existential. The existential power in things and people toarouse feelings and reactions in us is expressed linguistically in a range of performatives, such as exclamations of surprise, amusement, horror, delight and so forth. In the light of such brief reflections, it is not difficult to see that the very notion of the person — the supposedly sacred basis of modern individualism and personalism, the basic time in the pantheon of the humanist — is one with a performative cast. A person is someone towards whom one is expected to act in certain ways. Dehumanization occurs when, for instance, elementary decencies are not observed, when the performances of ‘Good morning’, of respectful attention, of the handshake, of the giving of privacy, of the use of the right name — such acts are no longer operative. Or it occurs when men are put simply into a machine environment, when they no longer have anything serious but mechanical transactions with their environment. Hence the pathos of Modern Times.
The sacred performative lies, then, at the heart of classical Christianity; and its offspring, the idea of substance to be conveyed, transformed, transferred also is vital. This helps to give the Christian life a special flavour, in regard to identity. For instance, the concept of original sin is that all men are in a state of solidarity or identity (of a sort) with Adam, the first man. This was once figured as the actual transfer of that sin through the act of generation (just as we think now that nationality, for instance, basically is so conveyed). Salvation involves the Christian in acquiring a new identity, with Christ the second Adam, through baptism and the other rites of the Church which, taken in the right spirit, bind people to Christ so that they are ‘in Christ’, and Christ is ‘in them’. There is a slightly strange dialectic here — for the Christian is one with Christ in somehow sharing his substance, and yet different from him, in that Christ being divine must be Other than any creature. Similarly the Christian receives God’s grace, which is the presence of the divine substance in him; though he does not thereby become God. And that grace both expresses the Christian’s likeness to Christ but also enables the imitation of Christ to occur — the imitation which is the ethical translation of the idea of taking on the configuration of Christ’s substance. To put it in another way, the Christian’s life takes on the pattern of the divine drama.
Thus again we see a contrast with the Theravadin ideal. The stories of the Buddha’s previous lives in various human, animal and other forms make for enlightening moral inspiration: they are the Aesop’s fables of the East. And the story of Gotama’s own life is also good to exhibit the finest qualities to folk. But that which in the last end the Theravadin imitates in the Buddha’s is his knowledge, his gnosis, his insight, in the context of the stilling of the flames of passion, the going out of the fire of grasping. But it is not so much knowledge as action that the Christian is called on to imitate: not so much insight or wisdom as love and humility. It is not from this point of view so surprising then that the atmosphere of the one is analytic, the other dramatic. And yet it may be replied that after all the Theravada stresses karuṇā, compassion, and mettā, loving-kindness. There is surely not a great gulf between the Buddhist and the Christian ethic. Surely not. It is striking how much there is of solidarity between the two. Yet even so the context and the nuances differ. Christian agapē has the suggestion of reverence, while Buddhist compassion has the nuance of concern. The one sees in the human being the image of God; the other sees in the individual the sufferer. The two are not incompatible or in contradiction. It is just a divergence of emphasis.
The Self and the Non-self
This of course brings us to what for many commentators has been the strangest split between Buddhist East and Christian West: the doctrine of non-self, the denial of the immortality or eternity of the soul, the rejection of a changeless something within the person. Much has been written in recent times, sometimes with a view to trying to establish somehow that despite everything really the Buddha did not deny a higher Self, but rather only used rather strongly a via negativa in case anyone should mistake the higher with the lower self. There have indeed been cultural reasons why some have wanted to escape the relentlessness of the Buddhist denial of the self. From the perspective of Western attitudes and categories there has been something especially uncomfortable and difficult in the Buddha’s analysis of the individual into the skandhas, or groups of factors. Perhaps too the thought of a religion without God has been hard to take: the idea of a religion which does not have a soul either is especially contrary to many Western preconceptions. At the same time it has been in the interest of those, like Radhakrishnan, who espouse and express the modern Hindu ideology of the higher unity of all religions, to try to show that after all there is not much difference, other than words, between the Buddha’s negative way of putting things and the more positive teachings of the Upanishads and the Vedanta. Shankara too has helped to bridge the gap between Hindu being and Buddhist becoming. Yet on the other side we have the overwhelming testimony of so many Buddhists over so many centuries, the struggle which the personalist ‘heresy’ inspired — thought darkly to reintroduce the ātman into Buddhism — the inconsistency between belief in the Self and so many texts. Moreover, what good does it really do in the circumstances to interpret Buddhism in a way not accepted by the weight of Buddhist interpreters? It may of course be that there are theoretical reasons why such a majority should be mistaken; but that itself would be a hard thing to establish. I think it is better to accept a little more starkly that there is a great gap indeed between standard Buddhist analysis and classical Christian belief.
But the gap should not after all surprise us. The non-self idea in Buddhism is in its own way simple and perspicuous, once a certain premise has been accepted. After all it is a simple deducation from the more general thought that everything which we encounter in the world is impermanent, that is it consists in a complex flow of processes. Once we accept this, then clearly there is no point in making an exception for living beings. This must especially be so in that once we look into our own minds and feelings we do not find anything permanent, but rather a whole series of short-lived often very fragmented experiences, ideas and impressions flitting past, so to speak, the mind’s eye (itself a wavering and intermittent set of processes). What good would the permanent soul do? It would be changeless and so incapable of doing anything for us or even of binding early stretches of life to later stretches since it would have no special connection of a real, effective kind with either. Consider: if I am thinking now of the blue sky and in a moment’s time of the battle of Waterloo something must have brought about the change. But it is no explanation to say that my soul brought about the change unless it itself changed in some way. In that case it too can to all intents and purposes be broken down into a series of changing processes. If by contrast we think that it really is changeless then its existence or otherwise is irrelevant to the transition from the thought of the blue sky to the thought of the Battle of Waterloo. So the soul is empty, nugatory, a useless extra. Or it is just another name for an aspect of our changing life. It may be noted that the argument I have presented can also be considered to be an argument against an unchanging Soul of the universe and by implication an unchanging God. In some sense, as we have noted, God does have to change to be the Creator; and the chief point of believing in a single Being is that he or it somehow lies behind and is the ground of the universe which we see and inhabit. But if we abandon this sense of an ultimate Power and see only changing processes, then it is inevitable that the very notion of static Being and with it the idea of the soul or eternal self will vanish.
This is one side of the Buddhist analysis. Another side is to be found in the actual analysis of the living person into his constituent processes — those of physical form, of feelings, of perceptions, of dispositions, of states of consciousness. Buddhism’s actual psychology is a detailed one, and so is its diagnosis of why it is that the living being and the human person in particular is bound to be the ceaselessly changing world of saṁsāra. Briefly: perception, presupposing consciousness, operates by contact. Such contact inevitably generates feelings, both pleasant and unpleasant (on the whole, by the way, in the human condition pleasantness predominates, despite all the talk about suffering dukkha), and these feelings generate differing forms of grasping. The cure of course is to gain insight into the human state through both increased existential awareness and rigorous analysis. In any event, the way the living person is presented is not vague and not just pictorial: it includes a fairly detailed psychology. For this reason we can see Buddhism from one point of view as a form of therapy, congenial to certain motifs in modern psychoanalysis. Classical Christianity also evolved a complex scheme, especially through the introduction of Aristotelian psychology into systematic theology. Nevertheless, in origin the Christian ideas are less analytic, and again more mythic. Thus the drama of salvation implied that somehow the human being may be restored to a state of beatitude in relationship with God. For varying reasons, such a relationship was figured both as resurrection of the body and as dwelling with God in heaven. Not unnaturally Greek notions of the soul which had a mystical context and importance were also woven into the fabric of thought about the afterlife and the final judgement and transformation of the human person.
The Drama and the Centre
The scheme of classical Christianity is more centralized, moreover, than that of Buddhism, and the central point is man. The great drama of creation is played out in relation to the world of men. It is true that Christianity conceives of angels and devils, of beautiful spirits freely and deliciously praising God in heaven and acting as his messengers between the other world and this: figures notably human in guise, so ikons and art would indicate and the imaginations of the pious, but mysteriously endowed with wings and a kind of luminescence — and figures too more grudgingly God’s agents, the Devil and his hosts of assistants ranging earth and the underworld, torturing the damned, putting on strange forms to tempt the living, disguising themselves in sexual beauty and the pride of the flesh, lurking within the seats and corridors of power, ready to lead men into the deadly sins. Perhaps in our day this picture of the ghostly world of angels and devils has faded. We no longer save rather quaintly and spookily (for the benefit of the media) cast out demons; but rather, armed with Freud and electric shocks, bash and cajole the neuroses and psychoses which infest the spirit. Nor does the vision of the angel any longer command much loyalty save briefly at Christmas and for the benefit of children. And perhaps in a way such fading is not altogether untrue to the tradition, for though the angels and demons undoubtedly exist there, they are after all only personifications of divine powers, which centre their attention upon the human world. And why? Because it is in that world that God’s creation has its highest expression, for are not human beings not only made in the image of God (whatever that mysterious notion means) but also given sovereignty over the living world? And was it not above all as a human being that God’s son came to Earth? His human nature and destiny was there so to speak in the very beginning of time. The fall of Adam was a felix culpa, free and yet part of the plan: against God’s will and yet part of his purpose: the occasion for the unfolding of the paradoxical power of the second Person of the Holy Three — come with glory, but yet in the shape of a servant. The everlasting Servant. That perhaps is what is a bit unnerving in these latter days with science fiction. Moon landings too have made us see ourselves in a truly existential way, almost a mythic manner, as dwelling on that luminous, blue but oh so fragile ball, swimming and turning so peripherally through space. So the centre seems to have somehow gone. But that was not of course the vision of the classical faith: the wondrous hierarchy of being, the threefold cosmos of heaven, earth and underworld, the great scenario of Dante’s epic, uneasy melange of Greek and biblical cosmologies.
The drama for us is frighteningly brief. One life and then the Judgement. No wonder at times the Church could feel itself entitled to inflict pain and torment in order to fix up lives hereafter, if all was to be measured by our sojourn on this earth — like a long visit to Japan, by the time you have adjusted it is practically over. Immanuel Kant could introduce the notion of modifying the schedule, and adding gradualism after death; and the Western tradition could also hark back to the reincarnation of the Orphics and the speculations of Plato’s immortal Phaedo. But rebirth never really has taken firm root in the Christian West; and purgatory remained as the chief concession to the gradual spirit. But of course early Buddhism is drenched in karma and the cycle of births. A concession to popular imaginings? It is hard to think so, so central is it to the understanding of the whole scheme of liberation in the Theravada. Moreover the Buddha has unmistakably some spiritual relatives in the ancient world out of which he spoke and thought: the ājīvikas, the Jainas, the Sānkhya tradition perhaps in its pre-historical form. Among the holy recluses, the śramanas, sacred and speculative counterparts to the Brahmins, the doctrine of rebirth seems to have been common. Out of this milieu there came that strand in Indian thinking which was to invade the Brahmanic world of the Upanishads, to form the thinking of the Gītā, and to shape later Indian consciousness. It is hard to look on the Buddha’s simply adopting the belief as a concession to weakness; although it is true there have been interpreters of the tradition who have greatly underplayed karma and rebirth, as devices, upāya. But it is not a doctrine which can be erased from the Pali Canon without great devastation, nor can it be erased from the minds of those Sri Lankans who are, for us, guides through the image-houses and around the dagobas, through the monasteries and along the paths which lead to hermitages and to Adam’s Peak.
Rebirth and Karma
Indeed considering the trouble rebirth causes when it is combined with the theory of non-self it must have been deeply entrenched in the tradition to have survived at all. For consider: there is nothing permanent to carry from one life to another. There is a chain of rebirths but no individual running through the whole series. There is a path but no one walking along the path. The only link between lives is causation, is the way one set of processes gives rise to another set — the way my last acts of consciousness give rise to new acts of consciousness associated with another complex of groups or skandhas. Looking backwards memory can also serve as a link; my early years have set up a chain of processes leading to my present tendency to have certain memory images taken by me to be faithful representations of those events in my life. So just as I am linked to my past through a complicated and turbulent long swarm of processes, so I am connected to previous lives. Here is no idea of a permanent soul. The only thing which is permanent is liberation itself, the transcendental Non-Process set over against the processes of the world and interpolated sometimes into them through the mysterious destiny of Buddhas and of those who sucessfully follow Buddhas to the high mountain of nibbana. But of course rebirth does more than indefinitely extend individual careers; it partially dehumanizes them. I am not likely to be reborn as a human being for did the Buddha not think it was like the case of a blind turtle living at the bottom of the ocean, only rising to its surface once in a hundred years, and of a wooden yoke floating on the surface, namely that the chances of the turtle’s coming up inside the yoke are about as great as yours or mine are of being born in the next life as a human being? (So make the most of this wonderful, almost unique opportunity to grasp for that higher insight which brings liberation.) Far from being born as a human next time, I am more likely to emerge as a fish or animal or ghost, though godlike existence or purgatorial suffering is a possibility too. The living world contains unseen reaches; and in any event this world-system is only one among an uncountable number, as we have seen. The pattern of rebirth is thus widely diffused throughout the whole vast cosmos. And though human beings may be important, for only humans can be Buddhas, and only those who know the nature of existence as discovered by Buddhas can gain liberation, yet the human condition is not so centralized as it is in the case of classical Christianity. Curiously, but this is a matter for later reflection, karma, which goes classically in India with a diffused cosmology, represents a problem for scientifically oriented modern Buddhists; while it is the teaching concerning the uniqueness of man, which makes for a tidy, small universe, which is the cause of Western uneasiness in the face of modern biology and astronomy.
The theory that living beings reap the fruits of their actions in former lives and in this life is most attractive as a way of dealing with the misfortunes and inequities of the world, as at least it first appears. It creates a very comprehensive framework for viewing virtue, vice, good and ill. It also makes possible a certain stratification of holiness: that ordinary folk may not have to strive so strenuously as the monk in the pursuits of self-control and liberation is a sign of their karmic unpreparedness for the higher life. It lends itself thus to a spiritual elitism. It also lends itself to a gradualist approach to the education of the masses and in general to missionary work. It may be that Buddhism’s astounding past successes in spreading over so great a part of Southern and Eastern Asian culture is a tribute to this rather leisured method. The Christian picture of redemption has been more urgent, harsher in many ways, but replete with energy. Moreover it has much more than Buddhism expressed a community ideal in salvation — the communion of saints is a heavenly counterpart to the new Israel upon earth. Thus when the family groups and individuals come walking to the temple to pay their respects they are it is true consciously part of a social fabric: but the rite is more individualistic. The Christian style of worship is more resolutely congregational.
Yet there is a nice paradox about the mysticism both of East and West. The contemplative seems to be on a voyage from the alone to the Alone; or from the non-self to the Empty. Seated, for instance, on a level piece of ground beneath a spreading tree, the Buddhist yogi is looking inwards. He seems to be profoundly by himself. Similarly one might think of St Anthony and other heroes of Christian asceticism, who played a part in the rise of the Christian mystical tradition, as being loners. The paradox is that it is typical of the mystical traditions that the loners band together into groups: the Sangha, the monastery, the Sufi order. There are various factors at work: the mutual help, the need for spiritual advisers, the demands of discipline, the economic fruits of piety, the concentration of cults, etc.
We have in the course of this exploration seen a number of the primary ways in which the Theravada and classical Christianity diverge: in cosmology, in the valuation of history and the drama of redemption, in the attitude to the question of Creation and the existence of a numinous Being behind the world and working through it, in the sacramen-talism of the one and the more analytical approach of the other, in the great difference in career and atmosphere between Jesus and the Buddha, in the analysis of the troubles of mankind, in the matter of belief in an afterlife, in the relationship of each to worship and the idea of God. For all the sympathy which can flow outwards from Christian love and Buddhist benevolence and compassion, the gulf between the two systems does indeed seem a large one. What are the bridges that can reach across the chasm? Can we explain why it is that great religions should start and develop in such divergent ways? Are there after all some common characteristics, or some fundamentally similar basis and means of reconciliation of the two worlds? In brief, how do we diagnose the difference between the faint smile of the Buddha and the dark power of the Pantokrator? The answers to such questions are part historical but part philosophical. So let us turn then to reflect about the two faiths, as we have glimpsed them so far.