The Logic of Devotion
The Mahayana has been of course a vast and rich phenomenon, a soul for the diversities of Asia. If one were to choose from it the main motifs they would, I think, be as follows. These are, incidentally, motifs which can in a simpler or more rudimentary form be found in the tapestry of the Theravada, but often without much prominence. One thing that immediately stands out is that which we have already seen — the great development of loving adoration, bhakti. But bhakti, often so reminiscent of the warm piety of Christianity, especially in some of its Protestant revivals, needs an object, a focus. One cannot adore oneself. One adores someone Other. That someone took many forms of course in the Great Vehicle, celestial Buddhas, divine Bodhisattvas, in Tibet Taras, those luminous goddesses; and so on. But above all there is the adoration directed towards the great Amitabha, Buddha of Celestial Light, Amida to the Japanese, creator of his celestial paradise the Pure Land which is light years to the West of us, but is the haven where the faithful may go. And there is too the great Buddha-to-be Avalokiteśvara, the Lord who looks down upon the world in compassion for the struggling and suffering living beings caught in the web of samsara. All this embellished by statues, from Gandhara, in Mathura, later in Loyang and in much of China, and the great figures to be found at Kyoto and elsewhere in Japan. So one begins of course in certain ways to feel affinities between such worship and adoration and Christian piety. Is not Buddhism in all this verging towards theism? So much so, it seems, that for such Japanese saints as Shinran and Honen faith becomes everything, grace infusing the adorers, everything thus dependent on the Other for salvation, not at all upon one’s own efforts. The ambience and atmosphere may be very far removed from Wittenberg and Oxford, but the sensations seem sometimes those of Luther and Wesley. First, then the Great Vehicle bred bhakti.
Novelty in the Great Vehicle
But some would see that as very secondary, just a sign of the adaptation or skill in means which the Buddha himself displayed in his teaching and which is carried on in the tradition. For ordinary people the religion of adoration is a suitable way of bringing them on to higher things. Or else in a degenerate age, for according to Buddhism, as we have seen, things are running down hill, this form of faith may be the best. But it must be viewed (it is sometimes said) in the context of skill in means, upāya. This doctrine gave Buddhism great flexibility and it is an idea which may well be most important for the Christian tradition. At any rate it has meant that apparently new scriptures and teachings in the Great Vehicle, often very greatly resisted by the more conservative, have been justified by an appeal to what the Buddha essentially taught. It is as though tradition and origin get mixed up together, since what now emerges with seeming novelty in the tradition really goes back to the Buddha’s own teaching. The situation is rather different from that which occurred in the revolutionary age of the Reformation and beyond. The Reformers and more generally the Protestants appealed to scriptures and to origins in order to ‘go back’, to go to the core of the original message as exhibited in those very scriptures. The first and second centuries were brought in to redress the balance of the sixteenth. But the Reformers, though prolific in commentaries and Institutes, did not present hitherto unknown writings, but the Mahayana did. They only harked back in order to hark forward. Be that as it may, the second main feature of the Great Vehicle to which we can point is the idea of upāya, spiritual adaptation to the conditions of the hearer. So it was that Buddhism was able so amazingly to adapt itself to Chinese, Japanese and other cultures, very different from those of its native India. And so it was that Buddhism was able to ride and influence the tides of devotionalism to which the Bhagavad-gītā bears most eloquent witness.
Two Levels of Truth
But such adaptability came to be much bound up with an idea which was of profound religious and philosophical vitality, namely the conception of two levels of truth. There was the level of conventional language, useful for ordinary intercourse and for expounding the outer shell, so to speak, of the faith. And there was the higher truth, to which words might point as a finger might point at the moon — a higher truth to be hinted at in philosophy and to be experienced directly in the highest stage of meditation. In relation to this higher truth, conventional truth was really a means, really a way of expressing attitudes which might draw a person up higher in the spiritual quest. This two-decker idea of truth means that a distinction can be made between differing forms of religion or spirituality. So the ordinary person worships Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and all the great rich vast mythic dimension of Buddhism, the galaxies of Buddhas, the wondrous figures on high, the suffering Buddha-to-be, the amazing paradises, the purgatories, the whole realm of merit and rebirth — all these in the last resort turn out to be representations at the lower level. The man of true insight (prajñā) sees beyond these images and wonders to something more still, more profound, more empty, more transcendental: in a word he looks to the Void, the Empty, Suchness, Tathatā, the blank and luminous essence of all Buddhahood, the heart of the message, the culmination of insight, the true nirvana.
Developments in Great Vehicle Philosophy
The notion of the two levels itself connects up with the extraordinary developments of Mahayana philosophy. Above all it connects up with that school known as the Middle One, the Madhyamika, doughtily articulated by the acute Nagarjuna, highly original, surprising, paradoxical. Sometimes too it is known as the Emptiness School or Void School (the Śūnyavāda), since it used the sword of philosophy to destroy all substances, all performances, all views, all anchorages of the mind, leaving the essence of the world empty. Empty it was of course so that the higher level of experience could be manifest, for philosophy and meditation marched here, as they always classically should in Buddhism, hand in hand. There were other schools of course, and we shall look too at the Vijñānavāda, the Consciousness School, and that fabulous Chinese synthesis the Huayen (and in Japanese Kegon). It would be wrong to ignore the diverse riches of the Great Vehicle philosophizing. But if anything is central to the Vehicle it is the literature known as the Perfection of Wisdom and the philosophy known as the Madhyamika. And these pointed unmistakably in the direction of emptiness, Suchness: the direction of the critique of all worldly and conventionalist theories. So it is reasonable to look upon the classical Middle, Void doctrine as at the heart of the Great Vehicle philosophy. So far then we see four motifs, interconnected: bhakti or adoration, devotion; the system of skill in means, upāya; the notion of the two levels of truth; and the ‘doctrine’ (for can it really be a doctrine?) of Emptiness, śūnyavāda.
Nirvana is Saṁsara
Another characteristic Mahayana idea is that strange paradox, the identification of nirvana and saṁsāra, of ultimate liberation and the world of ordinary, revolving, flowing, suffering existence. How can this be? Are we if we only knew it free, even within the apparent limitations of the flow of life? Precisely. If we only knew it. The accent here again is on insight, on knowledge that goes beyond theoretical knowledge, to the experience of it, just as I cannot know what love or a headache is like without having undergone it. Still, why should nirvana and samsara be one? It seems to shred the very distinction upon which the whole pattern of Buddhist aspiration is modelled. It abolishes the distance between the struggle and the goal. The answer, very roughly, is like this: that nirvana after all can be nothing different from the transcendental state which the person of insight experiences. But that transcendental experience is of the Empty. It is a non-dual encounter with Emptiness. So nirvana is after all the Empty. It cannot be seen as different from it, because of the non-duality and yet the very stuff and marrow of the world is Emptiness. ‘Stuff and marrow’ I say for the sake of the lower level of truth, for in higher truth nothing does have stuffing, nothing has marrow. Things are but empty turbulences on the surface of the world as it is brightened and confused by conscious perception. So the inner X of everything is the Empty too. So if nirvana is truly the Empty, and if the true nature of the things of samsara is the Empty, it is logical to see nirvana and samsara as identical. And it is more than logical: it has a practical meaning, which was to find high development in medieval Japan and in Zen. For the world of the laity was as pregnant with the higher life as the life of the monk. It was possible because of this doctrine, and for other reasons, to practice a life of meditation within the midst of things, to gain insight by archery, wisdom by swordplay, vision by tea-ceremony.
Another and much remarked feature of the Great Vehicle in its rich proliferation of mythic themes was the ideal of the Buddha-to-be, the Bodhisattva. Not just the earthly Buddha before his attainment of his Enlightenment; but now more vividly the conception of one who puts off his liberation for life after life in order to sacrifice himself on behalf of living beings, drawing them upwards out of the suffering of the world to higher joy and insight. We have something of course of this spirit in the Jātakas, those compassionate Aesopian stories of the prior lives of the Buddha. But in the Mahayana the whole apparatus of the Bodhisattva’s compassion, the various complex states of his path, the conception of the thought of Enlightenment and the Great Vow which set him upon his path — all these ideas became very central to piety and the religious imagination. They incorporate even the idea of the transfer of merit — that the Bodhisattva through his immense services on behalf of living beings, services which ex hypothesi (for he is putting off the liberation to which his merit so to speak entitles him) earn a vast pile of merit which is from his point of view superfluous, and which he can give away to those who need it. So we have here an analogy to the idea of grace: the freely given merit of the compassionate Bodhisattva. Thus, as one text has it:
… It is surely better that I alone should suffer than that all these beings should fall into misery. There I must give myself away as a substitute through which the whole universe is redeemed from the terrors of the purgatories, of birth in animal form, of the world of Yama and death, and with this my own body I must feel, and in this I speak with truth, the whole mass of all painful experiences …
Many have noted a congruence of a sort between this compassionate and self-sacrificing ideal and the classical Christian idea of the way Jesus suffered on behalf of all men in his own flesh. But there are obviously some differences. For one thing, who is the Bodhisattva? Who was or is Avalokiteśvara and the others? Even regarding the historical Buddha the accounts of his previous lives cannot be checked: they seem like fancies and wise tales. But they are not embedded in real events. Maybe it is only a Western prejudice to opt for the real, the historical; rather than for the imaginative, symbolic. But the contrast is there. And yet from another point of view the Bodhisattva is real enough, for the path of the Bodhisattva is not just the career of some legendary being — it is a pattern of living for the here and now, for those who set themselves in compassion and strenuous activity in the line of conduct expected of the Buddha-to-be. So at one level the Bodhisattvas are mythic beings, recipients of worship, dispensers of grace and merit; but at another level they are the best of us, here and now in the world of struggle and sorrow. This is partly how it came to be that the Bodhisattva ideal dealt with the problem of higher selfishness which the arhant or Lesser Vehicle saint might be subject to. For if a person rigorously pursues the path leading to his own nirvana, conceived as liberation from the round of earthly saṁsāra, then is he not to act with high prudence? But is not high prudence in the long run selfish? The saint seems to be looking after Number One. One is reminded of that gentle passage in the Questions of Milinda where the Greek king, mindful of all the talk about the impermanence and unhelpfulness of the body, suggests that the Buddhist monks look after theirs pretty well. But, points out Nagasena, when one has a wound one dresses it tenderly, takes trouble with it and so forth: likewise with the body. But the suspicion remains even so of a kind of selfishness. But the Bodhisattva ideal transcends such ego-orientation, since one steps along that path in principle puts off, gives up, his own liberation. How can he be happy when others suffer? Selfish pursuit of liberation is itself not consistent with the demands of compassion. And the Bodhisattva is compassion incarnated, karuṇā in the flesh. In brief, then, the Mahayana incorporates the motifs of bhakti, skill in means, double truth, emptiness, and the ideal of compassionate Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. There are other motifs to come to, but these are the most important; and they are perhaps well synthesized together in that middle Mahayana teaching known as the Three-Body Doctrine, with its ambient values and philosophical ideas.
The Three Bodies of the Buddha
The three bodies or aspects of the Buddha provide us with a hierarchy in the splendidly imaginative cosmos of the Great Vehicle. It is not to be thought that when we speak here of the Buddha we mean just one being (though admittedly all Buddhas are identical in the Dharmakāya or the Truth aspect of Buddhahood). One must imagine many many Buddhas. This is not only because there were Buddhas on earth preceding the last one Gautama, together with the future Maitreya; it is also because each world system has such Buddhas. But more: at the level of the heavenly life — beyond the immediate veil of the impermanent world in its deeper but still impermanent reaches — there are innumerable Buddhas. They form a rich pantheon, scattered in the various corners of existence, brilliantly reposeful in meditation, astonishingly creative in paradise-making, given to luminous interventions towards creatures below, and indistinguishable from their bright confreres the great Bodhisattvas. The role call even of the principal Buddhas is impressive: Vajrasattva, Aksobhya, Vairocana, Ratnasambhava, Amoghasiddhi (great Dhyani Buddhas these, powerful in meditation), Amitabha (or Amitayus), destined to have a brilliant and profound career in China and Japan. There are the Bodhisattvas to consider — Samantabhadra, Akṣayamati, Kṣitigarbha, Akāśagarbha, Ratnapāni, Sagaramati, Vajragarbha, Avalokiteśvara, Manjuśrī and many others. But in principle the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are as numerous as the grains of sand along the great River Ganges. A whole cloud, a host of divinities rises like a million exhalations of spirit across the wide cosmos: and the eye of the Buddha can see the vast numbers of Buddhas and gods and beings throughout the infinitude of galaxies, while the ray of light emanating from his forehead lights up, to the eye of the faithful, all these systems and marvels. And consider too the earthly Buddha, Gautama, Kasyapa, Kanakamuni, Krakucchanda and the rest, stretching back into the ever more heroic and splendid past. This is not to take account of the Brahmas, the Maras, the yaksas and devas, the various realms of spirits and living beings. It is altogether a vivid and astonishing cosmos to which the hierarchy of the three Bodies holds a central place.
Transformation Body of the Buddha
To begin below: the Transformation Body or nirmāṇakāya is that mode of manifestation through which the Buddha appears on earth: and so it is that the essential spirit of Enlightenment, the supreme Suchness, as it were reveals itself in a form adaptable to the human state — a form which not only enables the Tathagata to teach but also gives encouragement to human kind in that he the supreme Teacher is himself human. Those who follow him can attain to the highest wisdom. In fact if they only knew it each one is a Buddha in principle and can tread that path which will bring him to supreme insight. There is in much of Mahayana thinking about the Transformation Body a suggestion of its unreality, as though the Buddha on earth were a kind of fantasm, a condensation of apparent flesh. This is partly because in any case the two levels of truth (as we shall see) when brought to bear on the Three-Body Doctrine assigns the Buddhas of this world, whether on earth or in heaven, to the lower realm of conventional (and misleading) truth — truth which dissolves into the fictive untruth when it is transcended through insight into what lies higher. There is always too the problem of the juncture between the transcendent and this world. They join in the figure of the Buddha, but does this not make him a kind of amphibian, a being of (so to speak) two worlds? It means that he defies human categories, for though he is human he has a transcendental dimension. He thus has a magical quality to him, hinted at by the mysterious marks which he bears upon his immaculate golden body and at the strange events surrounding his birth. At any rate, there is an air of magic pervading the nirmāṇakāya. The accent, though, of such magic is that it is in the service of transmitting the Dharma so that living beings might be refreshed, transformed, and in the end liberated.
Buddhas as Celestial
Upwards in the heavens we perceive the more numinous and glorious beings which exist through their subtle and brilliant bodies. This is the level of the Body of Bliss, the Enjoyment Body, the Sambhogakāya. Such Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as possessed such glorious identities were capable of great creative activity, even if none were creator of the whole shoot. Waveringly, the Great Vehicle was faithful to the old insight that nothing permanent could be a cause of change … and yet, of course, there was always that nagging question about the juncture between the transcendental realm and this world, for did not that in some way imply a kind of creative irruption by the transcendental into this world? Most luminous, the Buddha of infinite light and age, Amitābha or Amitāyus, was the author of that wondrous paradise: free from purgatories or painful births or animals or ghosts, full of gods and jewels, emitting many fragrant scents, rich in a great diversity of flowers and fruits, adorned with trees made of jewels, thick with birds which have sweet voices, resplendent in many colours, surrounded on all sides by great golden nets into which are woven huge and delicious lotus flowers, each emitting marvellous rays along which travel clouds of billions of golden Buddhas speeding to all the world-systems of the great universe, and watered by magical rivers which are calm and lucid and whose waters are cool for those who wish them cool and warm for those who wish them warm. Truly a miraculous and joyous world, fit for the faithful who call upon the Lord Amitābha for rescue. In that world of true delight all beings have their minds fixed upon liberation to which they will in the end win through. And in all directions there are world-systems with Buddhas and Lords as numerous as the sands of the river Ganges who praise the name of Amitābha: powerful name indeed, for through it those who hear it will turn away from lower things and through rebirth in his paradise gain happiness and final bliss. So around the Bliss Aspect of Buddhahood one discerns many delights and many radiant beings. The way it is described in the scriptures gives one a feeling for the inexhaustible glories of the heavenly world as it is conceived in the Great Vehicle. It all reminds one, though the imagery is so different, of the bright glories of heaven as depicted by St John in Revelation. Yet everything is on a vaster, more extravagant scale. In brief, the Bliss Body of the Buddha represents the numinous brightness and powerful compassion of the Buddha as a kind of divinity.
Buddhas: Gods and not Gods
The Buddhas have wonderfully multiplied. If it is polytheism it is one of an extraordinary and extravagant kind. But oddly one does not think of such Buddhism much in such terms. For the gods like Indra and Brahmā, Vishnu and Skanda — these primeval personal forces ruling battle, wind, cosmos, order, war and so forth are incorporated into the Buddhist fabric but at a lower level from the Buddhas. The latter scarcely ride the wind or stir the sea or thunder off mountain peaks and fructify the bosom of the earth; nor do they haunt the vine or stir the orgy, or sound the pipes and rise in mystery caves. Or at least not yet. By the time Buddhist Tantra has run its course, the Buddhas become more like the old gods. But in the high classical Mahayana, the Buddhas are not the many gods of the Indo-Aryan tradition, nor are they part expressions of great natural forces and other angst-laden powers loose in the world. Besides, if the truth be told all the Buddhas are really one, in essence. This is where we reach the apex of the threefold hierarchy. It is where we reach the Truth-Body, the dharmakāya. But before we turn to that let us just reflect a little further about the celestial Buddhas. I have said what they are not. They are not the gods of old, rulers of a tripartite universe. But what are they? They are in one sense a creation of the Buddhist imagination, and yet they stand for something real in experience.
The intensity which Pure Land Buddhism was to attain, for example, is not just the spinning out of an easy theory on how to shorten the long path of karma and so hope for a cosy, quick attainment of salvation. It is not a philosophical construct. Of these there are of course plenty in the Great Vehicle. It is also a product of a real kind of encounter: the encounter with a personal focus of faith, to whom the faithful indeed can pray and enter into a spiritual kind of dialogue: for from the power of Amitabha there emanates something like grace, vivifying the individual and assuring him of rebirth in Paradise. In short, the Buddhas are foci of bhakti religion, and this has its own kind of experience and dynamic. It is the kindly face of the numinous in action, such as we discover in so much of later Indian devotional religion. In brief, the Mahayana through the figures of the celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas gives expression, among other things, to the devotional strand of numinous religion, in which the worshipper is in warm encounter with a great Being who will help in his striving for redemption, or the kind of holiness which belongs to the Focus. But it should be noted that the relationship is so far — that is before the emergence of the Vajrayana or the Diamond Vehicle, whose main modern incarnation is in Tibetan religion — not a sacramental one.
The Unity of Buddhas and the Non-dual Experience
But as I have said, really all the Buddhas are one. Why is this so? Is it simply men’s relentless quest to try to simplify things? There is a beauty about beginning with One. You can have multiplication later. Well, this may have been a motive in the evolution of the dharmakāya. But more important were the logic of experience and the philosophical thought of the Great Vehicle. The logic of experience? The point is that as we have already seen the highest mystical experience the apex of the meditational quest, is one which is often interpreted as if it eliminates the distinction between subject and object. The Void is so to speak neither here nor there (neither here with me nor over there in some ‘objective’ manifestation). The difference between the Buddha and the ordinary person is that the Buddha has attained the highest insight.
Let us simplify what this latter insight is and reduce it to the experience (though of course it includes the context, a certain illuminated framework of ideas). So then for the moment we can consider the transcendental nature of the Buddha: what sets him apart from mere humans is the experience and what is manifested in experience. But this is not something other than the Buddha, for it is non-dual. Moreover what it is in the case of one Buddha cannot be distinguished from what it is in the case of another Buddha. If it could be there would be a sort of duality in it. So at least looking at the matter negatively there is no difference in the Empty essence of the numerous diverse Buddhas. They all (putting it positively) have the same nature. That nature is pointed to by the Truth, the Dharma. So it is the Truth-Body of the Buddha. Thus all Buddhas are in a sense united in their Dharmakāya. That, first, is the argument from non-dual experience. We can note that as the Dharmakāya is highest in the hierarchy it bridges the distance between conventional truth and religion on the one hand and the higher transcendental truth on the other. In other words the non-dual experience of Emptiness is given the high honours, while bhakti and the spirit of the numinous — the religion and faith of duality — retains lower status only, conventional, provisional. The commanding heights of the spiritual economy of Buddhism are still held by the contemplative life and experience.
The Philosophical Argument for Unity
In addition there is philosophical argument. For the dialectic of the Madhyamika and the whole thrust of that literature known as the Perfection of Wisdom (that is to say Perfection of prajñā, wisdom or, perhaps better, insight) is destructive of substance and indeed of all theories concerning the world. The patterns of existence may be explained in terms of cause and effect, but even these come under the ban of philosophical acuity on the ground that they contain within their very inner marrow contradictions. So even karma falls; and (worse still it might seem) the Law of Dependent Origination taught by the Buddha himself. Yes, even the Buddha’s teachings leading men on to liberation are in the last resort found to be self-contradictory. What then can the Buddha do or mean? He can point, to the higher truth. It is not for us now to question whether the whole Madhyamika position is coherent, for it might well be thought that such a relentless negative way ought to collapse into nihilism and not into a new interpretation of the Buddha’s teaching. But at any rate it leaves the nature of ultimate reality (well, can we call it reality?) mysterious. But the Great Vehicle exponents were widely though not universally agreed that it is best to refer to the ultimate Tathatā or Suchness, or as the Empty or Void, Śūnya. The transcendental is not to be described discursively, though it can be reached in thought through the process of philosophical thinking of the negative kind described and it can be found in experience in the ultimate apprehension of the non-dual. It follows from all this that Suchness is not a sort of thing. And it certainly cannot be many things. Again, looked at negatively, you cannot speak or think of a plurality of such blank ultimates, and so if one speaks conventionally it is best to say that there is one. Thus all the Buddhas are united in the dharmakāya. In this way the Three-Body doctrine managed to synthesize differing strands of Buddhist piety and practice. In brief: prajñā, meditation, adoration, compassion and analysis are brought together in one coherent collage.
The Devotional Turn
Emphasizing the devotional aspect — this brought the piety of the Pure Land schools, in which Buddhism begins to take on a very tender face of theism. Emphasizing the meditation and the idea of levels of truth — this leads on to Ch’an and Zen, respectively infused also with the spirit of the Tao and of Japanese values. Though Zen may be very different in various ways from the Theravada it does, though, retain strong affinities, for its concentration is upon meditation. But the Pure Land sometimes makes one feel: Are we here beyond the limits of Buddhism? How can what has so centrally been a non-theistic religion take on so many of the attributes of the sweeter kinds of Christianity? How can it be that self-help is replaced by devotionalism and the idea of grace, help from the Other?
Belief and the Buddhas
It is useful now for a moment to stand back. The modern person may well ask himself how the classical Mahayana is relevant to contemporary life. One can understand that for other ages it was a wonderful way of bringing together philosophy and popular religion, and of giving a new dimension to the Buddhist ethic of compassion. And yet can we really any more believe in those myriad Buddhas? We may believe in a sense in the world-systems, for is the cosmos not a vast swarm of galaxies? But we can hardly suppose that in one of those galaxies there exists a Pure Land full of trees made of and bearing jewels and of miraculous rivers adapting themselves to the every wish of the fortunate faithful. Can we not look upon it all as we might look upon Dante’s great work — a wonderful and imaginative figure of many things, but only, after all, a set of pictures neither fact nor fiction, but a gallery of images, from which we can receive impact and instruction, but yet which correspond to nothing which is truly out there in or beyond the cosmos? So too the wondrous picture of swarms and clouds of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas is nothing other than a waking dream. A projection, perhaps: and maybe it is the genius of Buddhism that it provides suitable objects of devotion.
Buddhism and the Business of Rent-a-God
There is a serious thought here. Perhaps Buddhism is the best in the business of Rent-a-God. After all, there are many devotions and passions and urges for meaningful service floating around. They are indigenous to the land of the human spirit. They are especially evident now, in the multiplying of cults and movements. The warm ecstasy of dancing before Krishna, the zealous millennarianism of the Unification Church, the deep, deep longing for security among the Jesus people, the semi-deification of Che Guevara, the flight to gurus, the desire for a God to lay one’s troubles and energies before — such phenomena live around us, across the wide world, and even within the more forbidding zones of Marxist influence. But it is not always clear that the gods which the floating devotion latches on to are good gods. Jones took devotees to vulgar unnecessary death in Guyana, and one can name other leaders who do not seem worthy of the devotion of their followers. It is, of course, hard to apply criteria, for men differ in their estimates of the fruits by which they should be known. But even so: the gods of the contemporary West are not always good gods. At least the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas of the Great Vehicle shine wth compassion, a great degree of powered gentleness and an ultimate concern for peaceful insight. They are not bad gods. They may not exist, but their influence seems to be benign.
Pure Land and Martin Luther
But as I have said: the Buddhas are not just projections, or if they are such they are also importantly objects of experience. What the mechanism is of supposed projection in the case where there are visions, encounters and the like needs separate treatment. Especially where Buddhism takes the Amida turn, the turn towards the specially fervent faith in faith itself and in the Buddha Amida who is its source and focus, one is inevitably reminded of the pietism which flowed forth from the Reformation, partly in its Radical form and partly in the development of inwardnesses which hoped to vivify the structures of the magisterial Churches. Consider the following passage:
… he who relying on his own power undertakes to perform meritorious deeds has no intention of relying on the Power of Another, and is not the object of the Original Vow of Amida. Should he, however, abandon his reliance on his own power and put his trust in the Power of Another, he can be reborn in the True Land of Recompense. We who are caught in the net of our own passions cannot free ourselves from bondage to birth and death, no matter what kind of austerities and good deeds we try to perform. Seeing this and pitying our condition, Amida made his Vow with the intention of bringing wicked men to Buddhahood. Therefore the wicked man who depends on the Power of Another is the prime object of salvation. This is the reason why Shinran said ‘If even a good man can be reborn in the Pure Land, how much more so a wicked man …’
One is reminded, is one not, of the whole debate about grace and works in Christendom, and the fervent reliance of the evangelical Christian on the Power of Another. Similarly Shinran got married, and his followers, on the ground that celibacy is self-reliant or, as we might say in the West, a matter of works: and it is not by works that the person is saved but solely by repeating the Nembutsu sincerely, that is to say Nama Amida Butsu or in other words ‘Homage to Amida Buddha’. Or as might be said in the West, it is sola fide, by faith (in Christ) alone that one is saved. One is reminded of that famous passage in Luther where he expounds his liberation from the sense of sin and hopeless struggle in the times when he was as other monks relying on himself to strive for perfection through the imitation of Christ:
At last by the mercy of God meditating day and night, I gave heed to the context of the words, namely ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written “He who through faith is righteous shall live”’ (Rom 1:17). There I began to undersand that the righteousness of God is that by which the righteous gives by a gift of God, namely by faith. And this is the meaning: the righteousness of God is revealed by the gospel, namely the passive righteousness with which a merciful God justifies us by faith, as it is written ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’. Here I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates …
Naturally, the whole cultural and religious context is very different, but the elementary notions and feelings correspond: the sense of dependence upon the Other, the sense that works are not enough. The logic of it all is that only from the holy Power itself, himself, can the individual’s holiness derive. The individual is too immersed in sin and passion to be able to get out of the stream himself: only through a helping hand can he be freed. There is another congruence which is important.
The Dramatization of Experience and Grace
Part of the revolution which Luther brought about was that he released new forces of religious experience; and thus set in motion changes which gradually, and sometimes dramatically, eroded and weakened the older sacramental system. The Church’s administration of that system was under fire because it suggested that by doing certain things the faithful could be assured of salvation or at least some remission of their purgation in the next world. The keys to purgatory were useful ones for a priestly class. But Protestantism came increasingly to substitute for the formal sacraments inner dramatizations of experience which were effective signs of grace. Thus the very stress on adult baptism which was so vital in the evolution of the Radical Reformation was much more than so to speak the displacement in time of a sacrament: it was predicated on the argument that the individual must be self-conscious enough to be able to make a choice. He must be old enough to experience Christ. This was beyond the capacity of an infant; and by consequence infant baptism took on (according to its critics) a magical air: the transformation of the status of the baby without reference to its feelings, belief, commitement, experience. Thus it is no surprise to discover that the ideal of the Christian ‘born again’ in experience, the sense of conversion, the conscious acceptance of faith, the realization in the heart of healing grace, the sensation of being transformed into a ‘new person’, came to figure as vital in modern evangelical Protestantism. Nor is it surprising that for many Protestants the true meaning of the Lord’s Supper is that it is a memorial of Christ’s last days and promises. It is not a special canalization of Christ’s presence: a communication of substance and power. Rather it is a means collectively of affirming something and of mobilizing people’s feelings. To put it all somewhat crudely: the direction of Protestant piety was towards the dramatization of Christ in individual experience and away from external and ritual transmission of divine grace. It is true that this tendency was modified by the principle of sola scriptura, for the appeal to the Bible also of necessity raised questions about the nature of baptism and other sacraments. Also the Bible itself came to be a kind of sacrament — the Word concretized into the words of the printed book. It thus itself became a matrix of experience, giving shape to men’s interpretations of their own lives and experiences, and so providing the pattern of life which could be relived. Naturally the Bible as matrix is very different in character from (say) the Lotus Sutra or the Sukhāvatī-Vyūha. Thus the piety modelled upon it has a very different content and flavour from that modelled on the Buddhist texts. Yet still there is a correspondence of the inner logic of experience.
The Vitality of Numinous Dependence and the Question of Validity
But again, some may feel, in this modern world how seriously are we to take the sensations of dependence on the Other and the feeling of being ‘born again’? All that can be said at this stage is that the feeling of the personal Other is a very widespread one, for it is this that animates the enthusiastic and gripping faith of Islam; it is central to both Christian and Jewish piety, though in differing forms; it is probably the most vital force in modern Hinduism and shines forth in the cults of Vishnu and Śiva, and in the faith of Ramakrishna and other modern saints; it is of the essence of Sikhism; it is as we have seen at the heart of the Pure Land; it can be found in many smaller ‘Third World’ religions; it is often the dynamo of new religious movements both North and South. It is not reasonable to take traditional religion seriously and not to take such bhakti seriously. This indeed is a main criticism of rationalist forms of religion, boiling it down to theoretical theism plus ethics, somewhat in the manner of Kant. The sage of Koenigsburg did not take seriously those aspects of religion, the deeply experiential, which were to be explored by Schleiermacher speaking to those cultured despisers of religion who were cultured despisers of the numinous and personal bhakti. Such experience is one kind of pointer to the Transcendent. It is of course another matter whether we are to take the latter seriously. I reserve that question to a later part, for it is my contention that the Beyond is an important direction, without which a certain shallowness and cruelty may pervade the material world of rational enthusiasts. At any rate we may provisionally claim that the realm of bhakti is one which is vital in the mosaic of religions. Where it pushes forward to become the dominant force in a religious tradition it may well be rather free of sacramental context and finds its force in those experiences of loving dependence which release men from a sense of the oppression of evil, the entanglements of the world, and which create so to speak a certain drama within the soul. The myth lives thus not so much in ritual as in living experience.
The fact that we can move from the self-dependence of the Theravada to the Other-dependence of Shinran is surprising, as though Buddhism has a certain formlessness. But the move is covered by a theory of history: the degeneration of the Buddha’s teaching in the lives of men eventually means that because of our immersion in passion and ignorance there is no way in which we can jack ourselves up out of this slough. But it is also covered too by the idea of skill in means. Now though the Christian faith has no such explicit teaching, it may have come, above all in these latter days and by a very different route, to a similar conception; or at least to a predicament where it has taken advantage of a quest for adaptation which may have a like effect. (It is true too that some may feel that a certain formlessness has crept over the Christian faith.) Let me attempt to retrace this history, for it too is something which owes itself to the Reformation among other things, and is where paradoxically also there is a certain congruence between Protestant faith and aspects of the Great Vehicle.
Self-criticism and the 19th Century
One of the main achievements of the German universities in the 19th century and of the Protestant faculties of theology in particular, was the use of the new methods and theories of historical and philological enquiry upon the very scriptures of the Christian tradition. for some it seemed and still seems like blasphemy. Were not the books of the Bible a sort of written sacrament, choc-a-bloc with living power and hedged round by the promises and authority of God? It seemed grubby, disrespectful, sacrilegious, atheistic to poke around in the words of holy writ as though it was merely a human document. All the old security goes once one begins to ask ordinary questions about it. It is like cross-questioning an Emperor about his sex life or his bank accounts. The Bible which has had a certain ritual and performative use and which lives in the hand and the mouth of the preacher now became a set of documents to be probed like any other collection of ancient writings. It was a tremendous, but unnerving achievement, the embarking upon the critical path of enquiries into the Bible. What did it reveal? Many things as we know and yet also an increased uncertainty. The man Jesus seemed to take differing forms, and The Quest of the Historical Jesus, to use the title of Schweitzer’s epoch-making book, has in fact revealed much more than Schweitzer imagined. We now know more about Jesus’ Jewishness, his Aramaic, his eschatological thinking the milieu of the early Church, the trajectories by which certain motifs moved from his time into the context of the Hellenistic world. But the net result is something of a mystery, and rightly and naturally so. For it is evident that Jesus himself used various categories of his time and yet in a new way: he himself partially fell outside the conceptual apparatus both of the Jewish movements of his time and of his hearers. It is this mysterious transcendence of categories in the figure of Jesus which helps to account for the varying directions which Christianity has taken.
A Comparison of Jesus and Muhammad
We can see this very clearly if we contrast the case of Jesus with that of Muhammad. Now of course Muhammad did not claim in any way to be a Son of God (perhaps Jesus did not quite claim this either, though also …). He was a Prophet of God. Moreover what corresponds to the incarnation in the Christian tradition is not really Muhammad: it is the Koran. It is the Koran which is the Word which was in the beginning with God. It is the Koran which became the concrete earthly manifestation of the will of Allah. It is itself not God but it is everlasting: it is as it were a concretization of part of the divine mind, adapted for conveying the truth to men. Thus Islam from the earliest days has a very detailed self-revelation of the divine will. It was moreover ‘composed’ in a very short time. There are relatively few mysteries or worries about the validity of the text. It is quite credibly ipsissima verba of the Prophet or rather of Allah speaking through his messenger. Everything thus has a high degree of articulation and clarity, especially as many of the features of a legal system are laid out in it. The clarity of course also has around it a halo of the numinous and of the mercy and power of its Author. But still, Islam has much less of obscurity and potential for argument about its founding document. This is a great strength, though it is a weakness too. (In my opinion, for reasons which I shall later come to, the tragedy of Islam is its very clarity, but of that more in the sequel.) But especially since the rise of modern critical enquiry into the New Testament so much of it is laid open to question and obscurity. There is the tension between Jesus and Paul, between Hebrew style and Greek thought, between the differing models of Christ, between modern notions of what is historical and the old genres of religious writing, between the older mythic structure and modern cosmology. The New Testament in its modern milieu presents the faith with a vital and hard question: the question of how it is possible to have a critical theory of tradition (this is part of a more general problem, of course, for all human communities have mythic pasts which they need to retain for the sake of identity and which they need to transcend for the sake of the hardly avoidable changes which a critical outlook implies). The critical mind of the 19th century, carried forward into the 20th, has naturally provoked reaction: there is the conservative, or fundamentalist, stance of those who see themselves robbed by criticism of the power and certainties of the Word of God which they prize so much in the insecure vagaries of a stormily changing world. Sometimes such conservatism itself leads to a form of criticism in reverse: for the critical mind often contains its own sometimes too cosy presuppositions. But conservatism also leads to the denial, sometimes, of what is manifest: thus often the deliverances of science are rebuffed in a manner which can only serve to isolate the faithful from the intellectual main-stream. But their reactions perhaps only serve to make more vivid the problem: How can Christian origins retain their inspiration and living force while at the same time subject to the scrutiny of the critical mind? How can tradition and new thinking blend?
Fruits of the Critical Mind
It needs to be repeated that no religion other than Christianity, and mostly Protestant Christianity in particular, has ever turned such strong and unrelenting critical light upon its origins. It is a remarkable fact, and something which may owe itself to the essentially critical and even iconoclastic aspect of the Protestant mind. (Protestantism is not all critical, as we have seen: but it has a radical wing at any given time which is dissatisfied with authority.) An effect of this is that modern Christianity has found itself in a strongly experimental mood. By a very different route it has come to a Western version of upāya. This can partly be explained by a theory of analogy: If that is what the faith meant in the milieu of the first and second centuries, then what should it mean in the milieu of the 20th century? Thus Bultmann’s famous, though confused, project of demythologization involved the following thought: that which the myths then expressed to the hearer of the Gospel can now be expressed through a version of personalist Existentialism. Naturally such analogical reasoning often produces great strains. For often the faith has been projected into later centuries retaining the forms of an older time, and so later generations no longer see the good news as new, but rather as good traditions; and they no longer perceive Christ through the eyes of their own age but mediated through the customs of older times. There is nothing too disastrous in all this (if one were to make a judgement about it), because conservatism is a method of trade across the centuries: it uses the ship of tradition to ship what is first century into our own times. Without such shipping we would not have the goods available. But still having found the goods the new Christianity of the post-critical period is almost bound to try to adapt them to the new feelings and the new minds.
There is another fruit of the critical mind. It is that a certain sense of the mystery of Christ is restored. By probing the words of the Bible the critics give new life uncertain though, to the various categories and images surrounding the figure of Christ. It can well be argued (and I shall do so later) that the very mysteriousness of Christ in the New Testament and more broadly Christian origins, the manner in which he breaks through existing categories both in the way he was perceived and acted as a human being and in the way he was later perceived in the resurrection experiences and in the early liturgy — this strangeness was powerful: it was dynamic obscurity, which has given the Christian tradition considerable richness.
For after all, though the critical mind has accelerated the process of seeing the multifaceted and peculiar nature of the New Testament, one could also point to the tradition itself as eliciting the various figures of Christ — as ruler, judge, victim, priest, ethical teacher, miracle-worker, bringer of the kingdom, Good News in person and so forth. The images of Jesus have shone through the various liturgies and art forms, through lives and hymns, through the varied preachings and codes of the tradition — a tradition ranging from Coptic Ethiopia to Swedish Lutheranism, from Orthodox Moscow to Catholic Ireland, from the Quakers to the Latter-Day Saints, and so on. Mystery means flexibility, pluralism, richness (but it can also mean softness, corruption, domination by the powers of this world). So in Christianity we have a marked contrast to the certainties and clarities of Islam. These are two paths for universal theism of the Western kind. Both have produced great civilizations. It is, as I say, arguable that the more chaotic, mysterious path is more adventurous and liberating than the other. But such a value judgement is one which goes beyond the descriptions and the analysis, and carries us into the later reflection upon the philosophical and spiritual evaluation of the contrasted faiths which we have been looking at.
So far I have detected a kind of bhakti in Christianity, especially in its non-sacramental form, and in the Great Vehicle; and I have seen the evolution of a kind of Christian upāya which may have been unconsciously played out in previous traditions but which rises to the surface of consciousness through the impact of the critical mind in the 19th century. But it can be said that after all the Pure Land, and especially in its most radical Japanese forms, is not central to the classical Mahayana. For in the classical Great Vehicle as we have seen the commanding heights are still commanded by the yoga of consciousness-purity. Moreover the picture of the world presented by the dominant philosophies differs greatly from that which we associate with the Protestant tradition. Yet here too there is a possible convergence which I can hint at, and discuss a bit more fully later on. But let me just sketch two alternatives to the radical Madhyamika, which are important for a delineation of the Mahayna mind.
Buddhist so-called Idealism and the Problem of Representation
One vital philosophy was the Vijñānavāda, ‘Representation-only’, often interpreted as a form of idealism. Another which I shall sketch is the Chinese Hua-yen. For it is unwise to see the Great Vehicle always through South Asian eyes, since so much of its flowering was destined to be in the angular strange mountains and great plains of China and in the sea-washed islands of Japan. Buddhism flowered far beyond the rose apple trees of Jambudvipa, amid the almonds of the Empire and the cherries of the Shogun. By looking at these two philosophies perhaps one may bring balance into the picture of Buddhist philosophy, especially as we can see them with the Theravada too in the back of our minds. As we shall observe, the divergence between these pictures of the cosmos is not as great as is often imagined. For Buddhism swings uneasily like a pendulum across the midpoint of its path — sometimes swinging over towards the ideal, sometimes to the real, sometimes to subjectivity, sometimes to objectivity. Between the reality and the feeling there falls the conception and it is here that the midpoint in a way is found.
The correct interpretation of the Vijñānavāda, often translated ‘Consciousness-only’ is subject to some dispute, as are some of the historical questions about one of its prime exponents, Vasubandhu. It is typically thought of by Western commentators as idealistic, and Edward Conze refers to it as similar to Berkeley’s philosophy. But perhaps such ways of looking at it are misleading. One reason why it may be called ‘Consciousness-only’ is that it identified reality, Suchness, with pure consciousness. This has sometimes made it fleetingly seem like Hindu non-dualism, as though vijñāna, consciousness, is a kind of super-soul. Not so. There is no call to look on the consciousness as eternal. Rather it is the luminous state of the yogin who achieves the highest insight. It is not for nothing that the school saw itself as Yogācāra — the Practice of Yoga. But it is assumed that this luminous pure consciousness enables the illuminated one to see the true nature of the world. And this is where the philosophical arguments about reality meet up with the saint’s vision, as they should always do in the Buddhist context. The reason why the doctrine has been seen as idealistic is this — that Vasubandhu and others continuously and importantly stress that objects in the world once they are grasped by us through our minds become in a sense illusory: they are not really ‘in themselves’ as we grasp them. As it were we impose our minds upon them. And except in the state of pure luminous consciousness there is always the subject-object dualism of the grasped and the grasper, of the representer and what is represented.
One way of seeing where the illusion comes from is set forth most clearly perhaps by Dignāga, the later logician and theorist of knowledge. He denies vigorously that there are real universals. That is he denies that there are real universal qualities like blue and roundness which we can detect in the world. Once we admit such universals we are stuck with problems: for one thing it really, despite what some earlier schools thought, ran contrary to the whole Buddhist tradition of the criticism of language: for if there is something universally blue out there in the world it is this to which ‘blue’ refers and there is nothing misleading about ordinary language. Dignaga does not consider that the way we classify things is based directly on perception, but rather is the result of a kind of inference. It is the result of systematic sorting by us of the given patterns of the world. Thus to put it briefly: All the general things which we say about the world, and all the general concepts which we bring to bear upon what is given in perception, are products of the mind, imposed by ourselves upon the world about us. They do not properly describe the way things are. All that we are given in perception is a swarm of particular things, or rather events, about which in truth nothing general can be said. Thus the world presents itself to us as a swarm of particulars, upon which we project our conceptions and classifications. Every act of consciousness other than consciousness-purity is an interplay between the graspable and the grasper (between object and subject) and so involves a kind of distortion.
Buddhism between Idealism and Realism
But what of karma and the whole process of rebirth? This is accounted for in the system by reference to the so-called Store-Consciousness or ālaya-vijñāna which contains within it the seeds of the future. The evolution of beings out of this so to speak primeval consciousness containing within it the germs of that graspable-grasper split, which is the way ordinary experience presents itself to us, is one main factor in making commentators look upon the Consciousness-only school as subjective and idealist, for it seems to imply that the essential stuff of the universe is mental. At any rate it illustrates a difficulty with the Buddhist tradition. It seems that it was part of the Buddha’s original teachings that the world as it appears to us is not the world as it really is. The cosmos is as it were a result of an interaction between events out there and events in here — namely in the psychic apparatus of the person who perceives it. Thus there has to be a balance kept between simply saying that the events out there do not exist and saying that (as they are presented to us and as we grasp them) they do exist. If the Theravada and even more the Realistic school, the Sarvastivadins, tended to lean in one direction, we see the Consciousness-only school leaning in the other. Moreover it was clearly part of the Buddha’s message that liberation is possible and this meant or involved some kind of purification of consciousness. Because of this it is easy to think that in one sense there is an end of the cosmos, namely through liberation, when the false constructs which we project on to the world disappear and when moreover karma has exhausted itself. The constructed cosmos has an end, by liberation (though of course part of the construct is that there are other beings still awaiting that final freedom). Anyway, it appears that Consciousness-only, while being compatible with a kind of pluralistic realism in which the events of the world swarm and impinge on us, but in an indescribable way, also in its doctrine of karma gives a higher place to mental interactions than to physical ones and so in this sense tilts towards the idealist position.
The Hua-yen Variant
The further extension of some of these ideas, but within the ambience of the Chinese tradition, is interestingly undertaken in the Hua-yen school and above all in the thought of Fa-tsang. The interest here lies partly in the fact that Fatsang exhibits a Chinese tendency, towards a totalistic or organic view of the universe. Thus every event is in the nature of a cause, and directly or indirectly is in interaction with all other events. Thus the universe is a total interacting organism, or to use a metaphor which was used, it is like the marvellous jewel net of Indra in which each jewel reflects all the others. This vision of an orderly, causally interconnected universe in part has Chinese roots, going back to Taoism and to Chuang-tzu. But it also reflects an aspect of the Buddha’s own experience as it is described in the scriptual tradition. The Buddha, as we have noted, did not just have a brilliant experience of consciousness-purity; but he also perceived in the light of that and of his strenuous analytic reflections that the whole world was ordered according to causal laws (to which, together with karma, he gave a highly original interpretation). It is also (apart from the Buddha’s analytic interest and concern for the ‘scientific’ diagnosis of men’s ills) a kind of religious experience to see everything somehow in a state of sublime interconnection. In the West this is for cultural reasons often figured as the pervasion of the world by one Spirit. As Wordsworth has it (‘On the Power of Sound’):
By one pervading spirit
Of tones and numbers all things are controlled,
As sages taught, where faith was found to merit
Initiation in that mystery old.
The sense of unity in diversity, of the harmony of the cosmos, of the interconnection of things under a law, is something which often affects people with a powerful existential force: such holism is no doubt related to the panenhenic experience. Sometimes such holism is thought of as a kind of pantheism; but that is misleading in that it can be stated without reference to a Spirit. Thus in the Hua-yen it is Tathatā or Suchness which is so to speak the inner essence of whole. It is true that also the higher Buddha-nature, identified with Suchness, also manifests itself as Vairocana as a kind of universal Buddha. So Hua-yen is Janus-faced in that the cosmos from one angle is characterized as Suchness and Consciousness-only; and from another point of view is seen as condensed into the symbol of Vairocana. One is reminded of Spinoza’s Deus sive Natura. We should say: Buddha sive Natura.
The Modernity of Buddhism
One of the main attractions of Buddhism is the modernity of its ideas about events and causality: for in reducing the visible world to a vast interconnected swarm of events it echoes the findings of modern science. An event is where a certain characteristic manifests itself at a particular point in space and time. Its coming into being is due to a set of conditions, themselves similar events. In Hua-yen’s extension of this picture each event is a result of the total conditions of the universe and likewise is itself part of the conditions which brought about the state of the total universe. Because each event is empty of ‘own essence’ in the sense that its nature arises from the conditions which bring it into being, every event is, considered in itself, empty. Moreover the Mahayana metaphysics echoes the kind of view of reality which we find in science in that we transcend, in the latter, common sense and common perception. The theoretical constructs of science are very far removed from what we perceive with our sensory apparatus. The latter simplifies the world, and presents it to consciousness in a way which suggests substantiality, relative permanence, large-scale qualities such as broad patches of colour and so on. But actually behind the ways in which the mind sifts and translates the messages coming into the conscious organism are a vast swarm of small-scale events and processes. Buddhists atomism is more advanced, from a modern point of view, than Hindu atomism, where atoms are everlasting, tiny building blocks of the universe. There is no need for the hypothesis of lasting atoms: better to see the world as a vast set of short processes, the one giving rise to the next according to a complex pattern. Perhaps too we may say that modern science has acquired a sense of philosophical idealism, in that discovery is the result of an interplay between the scientist and the natural world in which constructs, theories, revolutionary new conceptualizations play a vital part. It is folly to think of theories simply standing in one-one relationship to a reality out there. The correspondence theory of truth, which implies this kind of mirroring by language of what it is it describes, is naive. So it is not possible really to say how things and events are in themselves. Rather it is possible to say that certain theories in a general way give a kind of purchase both in understanding and in practical manipulation on the facets of the world which they are ‘about’. There is a beginning and a schematic account of this relationship between things in themselves and our thought in Kant: though it would be much better to think of ‘processes in themselves’. Given this modification there is a strong affinity between Kant and the Buddhist semi-idealist metaphysics of the Great Vehicle. In brief, there is a congruence between this metaphysics and the situation in which modern knowledge about the world finds itself. This undoubtedly is one of the latter-day attractions of Buddhism. It seems not to have those clashes between the spiritual and the scientific which have seemed to plague Western faith.
To some degree this impression is delusive. If we took what the Buddhist scriptures say seriously and in a literal manner there would be lots of difficulties for the modern person. In the Sutta of the Great Decease, for instance, which tells the story of the last days of the great Teacher there is an account of the various causes of earthquakes, which would scarcely be taken with anything but levity by a geologist worried about the San Andreas fault. Again, though Buddhism postulates many world systems they are roughly speaking cylindrical in shape, ranging from subtle heavens down to grim purgatories. This of course is a mythic picture no longer seriously viable. One can of course make the heavens and purgatories into states of mind and there is some justification for this, but Mount Meru and the continents and the floating lands would have to go in the process of Buddhist demythologization. Again, in early days men were of great height and the world was rich and plentiful, but it has gradually degenerated until present times. This myth of history has no basis, for the directions ran otherwise, and out of evolution. Early men were no golden giants; and if their lives were not nasty, brutish and short, they were doubtless hazardous, restricted and uncomfortable. Further, there is a serious problem about karma itself, which in the age of modern genetics and other conceptions concerning the formation of character and so forth runs into trouble. That trouble may be avoided by various ruses, as we shall see, briefly. But it still looks to be a difficulty for modern scientifically trained Buddhists. Now it may be answered to all this that part of Buddhism’s skill in means is that it already builds into its teachings a method of demythologizing.
Buddhism and Myth
The modern Buddhist does not need to be encumbered by the charming wiles of tree spirits, or the hauntings of ghosts, or the thought of a personal Devil pacing the world in anger and scheming, or the geography of Jambudvipa and the crazy dimensions of Mount Meru, or the miraculous achievements of Buddhist saints, or real belief in poor old Brahmā. The modern Buddhist can reduce these things to the austerer categories of the Abhidharma, the analysis of teachings which on the whole dispense with the thought forms of Asian agricultural society. Given such a way of thwarting the mythic, a modern Buddhist can certainly construct a very scientific framework of belief: using the ideas of the flashing jewel net of Indra, the interpenetration of processes in the organic universe, the difference between processes in themselves and the constructs which we impose upon the world, the extravagant dimensions of the cosmos as perceived, though mythically, from earliest times in Buddhism; and all this does not include the whole and subtle apparatus of Buddhist psychology, which gives a new and special perspective on the inner workings of human kind (new, that is, from a Western point of view): a view which may perchance be able to marry itself to Freudian psychoanalysis, but which at least provides a map for those healing voyages which the practitioner of Buddhism may make among the turbulent processes of his non-soul.
Still, Buddhism does not find itself standing still in the face of modern knowledge. It too has to make adaptations, though the direction of these changes is as it happens rather different from those which have characterized modern Protestant Christianity especially in the 19th and 20th centuries. To a great extent, the problem for Christianity has been the doctrine of man. It is true that once Archbishop Ussher had calculated that the creation of the world took place in 4004 BC, there was bound to be a question about that too. But it is readily seen that it does not matter to a great God whether he made things with a big bang billions of years ago or whether, more cosily, he fashioned things out of nothing just a few millennia back. But the publication of the theory of evolution (and it does not much matter whether the mechanisms whereby new species have come into existence are as Darwin or Neo-Darwinians say or have some other shape: what is important is the general principle of the gradual emergence of living forms through to man in a related manner) — the publication of that theory made the whole mythic story of men’s origins as described in Holy Writ virtually untenable. You could hide Adam in the interstices of our ignorance of prehistory. You could think that God infused a soul into an animal body, so that we owe the hair on our chin to ancient evolutionary genes but our capability of salvation to a more direct act of God. But these are stopgaps. You could transfer the Fall to a trans-historical plain: a war in heaven before the creation of the world. But the old anthropology necessarily crumbled. Now the story is for the most part treated by Christians as a symbolic way of expressing the human predicament, our alienation. Moreover, not only was it difficult to have that smooth transition from Adam through to the history of Israel: it was also to be increasingly hard to make older distinctions between body and soul, so interwoven are they in the nets of our physiology.
Religion, Science and Symbolic Values
At base, it was the question of man which had been the trouble over Galileo and the pre-Copernican cosmology. Of course Aquinas’ marvellous synthesis between faith and Aristotle has been of great power and symmetry, with the imperious charm of the eagle: and it was an eagle in the service of the great demanding Church, sensitive as to its authority. But why did the system compel the marrow of men’s feelings? Why did it have such an inner rightness about it? Because the drama of redemption was central to the whole creation, to the whole rationale of the coming to be of this world; and because Christ’s taking on of human flesh most appropriately — that is to say symbolically — should take place at the centre of creation. Anyway, the notion of men’s home as being at the centre is natural to the symbolism of space to which we are all deeply heir. Such symbolism was dislocated; as indeed was the pattern of myth by Copernicus. It could of course be said: But after all, the old cosmology is only a picture a way of guiding our practice and experience, and can we not continue with the old mythic structure even if our science has changed? If one were to follow certain thoughts in modern philosophy of religion it might be possible. But the difficulty is that science itself has symbolic value. Or to put it another way: The cosmos itself functions symbolically, and inspires certain kinds of feelings; but the symbolism and the feelings themselves are in part a function of the way things actually are. Consider, for instance, that beautiful picture of the earth which was swum so decisively into modern consciousness because of the moon trips: that picture of spaceship earth already gives us a new vision, a new symbol, a new way of feeling about our fragile, beautiful home.
I have said that science itself has symbolic value. It gives insight; it produces power; it promises effective knowledge related to those things in life and death which produce angst — it can help crops, childbirth, contraception, health. It has some of the old properties of magic, not so much because it is magic, for its rationales are different, but because it enters decisively into confrontation with many of the magical aspects of traditional religion. It also, up to a degree, represents a different establishment, a counterpoise both to Church and State: a new intellectual and economic force injected into the ongoing structures of society. Thus it is not surprising that modern Christianity, and especially that critical form of it which grew up within the matrix of 19th century Protestantism, has tried to reshape the intellectual content of faith in order better to conform to the shifting and growing insights of science. This we find in so-called liberal Protestantism a forward-looking attempt at synthesis. But as we shall see more than the content of belief and symbolism is open to change: because of the methods and inner structure of science, old ideas of authority are under fire. This shows in another context the importance of a critical theory of religious tradition. How can Christianity simultaneously preserve its past liturgical, spiritual and biblical riches and at the same time adopt a critical attitude towards its own ideas?
Convergence of the Great Vehicle and Protestantism
Thus we find both in regard to the Great Vehicle and to modern Christianity a convergence on the question of the scientific character of religious belief. Of course a spiritual outlook is not itself a kind of science. The reason for living among the glittering interfaces of the jewel net of Indra are primarily to do with vision, vision which indeed may trace itself back to the Enlightenment of Gautama the Buddha himself. And the doctrine of the creation of the world by God can no longer be regarded as a scientific hypothesis; but is something based at least in part on the experience of dependence, and on the practice of the presence of God in and through the glories of his creation. But yet, though the root of these visions and doctrines is not itself scientific, it needs somehow to take account of our new knowledge of the world — precisely because the latter gives a special configuration to the cosmos which God creates (or the cosmos which is the great jewel net of Indra). In the next chapter the time will have come to give a final estimate of the relationship between the two systems of Buddhism and Christianity. But let us note here that we have seen that for the most part the Great Vehicle maintains the ultimate supremacy of consciousness-purity, interpreted as lying well beyond the categories of personal encounter. On the other hand the Great Vehicle is most hospitable to the sentiments of bhakti, that loving encounter with the personal Other which also in a differing form animates so much of Christianity and which lives in a relatively unsac-ramental form in Protestantism. Hence the convergence of Luther and Shinran, of Spener and Honen. That hospitability to the experience of bhakti may not be surprising. What great religion ultimately excludes it? (What major religion conversely in the last resort excluded the quest of consciousness-purity?) So we might wish to pose the question of the final relationship between the Christian and the Buddhist ways as having to do with the relative vitality and importance of these two main motifs of existential religion. But as we have noted, there are other contrasts at stake. For one thing classical Christianity has a strong sacramental heart. This is something which came to be in Buddhism only with the emergence of the Mantrayana — the ‘Sacramental Utterance Vehicle’, better known in the form of the Vajrayana or Diamond Vehicle. For various reasons I do not here wish to open up this branch of Buddhism; partly it is that in a way the convergence with sacramental theism is too great. The Void becomes positive: diamond hard, a kind of primeval substance, personified through the Adibuddha or Original Buddha, a sort of positive primordial creative divinity. Of course the whole mythic content of Himalayan Buddhism is very different from that of Christianity, but the logic of its forms is close. But the challenge to Christianity in regard to most of Asia comes from the limpidities of the Theravada and the Great Vehicle — ultimately (it would seem) non-theistic, not devoted to substance and sacraments, wielding power through non-power, saving souls through the denial of souls, tending to the bright darkness, the foll void, of the blaze of non-dual consciousness, transcending personal relationships, ahistorical, riding loose to the mythic, concerned more with ignorance than with sin, with patterns rather than persons, giving a special vision of this world, but eschewing the feeling of dependence, cultivating bhakti and yet going beyond it. It is foreign it seems to the Liturgy, to the Fall, to the idea of salvation by substitution. It looks on Christianity from afar, perhaps seeing Jesus as a kind of Bodhisattva; but unhappy that the matrix of the faith should be Jewish rather than Indian history; skilled in dialectic, timeless, rich, extravagant in symbolism. What can it make of the dark ikons of the Pantocrator? Yet we cannot feel anything but uneasiness at the fact of two such noble, but differing, traditions. In the sequel I shall reflect philosophically upon them, and establish a certain sense to the idea of complementarity.