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6: The Buddhist Meaning of Christianity: The Christian Meaning of Buddhism

The Relationship between Buddhism and Christianity

For those who take the existence of the great religions seriously, the relation between Christianity and Buddhism perhaps lies at the heart of the problem of diversity. But our task of elucidating the modern meaning of these faiths is of course complicated in the fact that these religious traditions are faced not only by other religious alternatives, such as Islam, but by the secular ideologies. What use to us now is the quest for the Beyond, the Transcendent? This is part of the problem of religion in the modern world — the assumption that there is no Beyond, that weal and woe are just to be influenced by events here on earth. Ruling out the Transcendent, the rationalist rules out the particular forms of religion. And he no longer takes seriously religious experience or religious practice. But in one way both the theist tradition of the West, emerging out of ancient Judaism, and Buddhism favour secularism: not in the sense of diminishing the importance of religious experience and practice, but in the virtual elimination of the gods associated with particular cosmic powers. The jealousy of Yahweh issued in the driving of the gods out of the universe, no longer to stir ocean or thunder, or fructify crop or herd. All devolved upon the one Creator. Hecatombs roasted for the pacification of Poseidon became an irrelevance in the world of monotheism. Yet despite this so-to-say ‘secular’ dimension of theism, there remained some claims which were ineluctable: one was the notion that theism concerned a living God, that is to say a God who lives in the experience of human beings; and another that he is beyond the cosmos, which is his creation. Conversely Buddhism sees a differently described Beyond, the non-dual void, nirvana: but again it is ‘living’ for it is something which ultimately has to be experienced in the lives of human beings. In brief: what the great religions claim, against radically secular ideologies, is that there is a Beyond or an Unborn; and this is somehow accessible to the religious experience of the human race, and is not just a philosophical speculation or a theory about the world.

Experience and the Transcendent

So in a way our question is: Why should we accept the validity and importance of religious experience? In modern times we have seen the great success of a certain kind of empiricism: of the appeal to what can be found out by using our senses, amplified by the various probes, from the telescope to the electron microscope, which technology has devised in the service of increasing our powers of scanning the world. There seems by contrast something primitive even about the wild ecstasies of the shaman, the visionary ecstasy of the prophet, the introverted silence of the contemplative. Is this the way to find things out about the world? About the world, or about what? Though there is no reason in principle why meditation should not enhance memory or be coupled with telepathic powers; nor is there any reason why prophecy should not also be associated with an acuter perception of political and moral realities — the main thrust of such experiences is not their powerful side-effects, if there indeed are any. The main thrust is that they give knowledge somehow of the Transcendental. In a sense it is not knowledge ‘of this world’. In a moment we need to consider how we divide worlds. What is here and what is beyond; what is in this world and what is Transcendent? But let us assume some line. Thus (it may be argued) the deliverances of the main religious experiences in the great traditions may refer to things in this world, but essentially they have to do with what is not in this world. This is where of course there may be a query from the other flank. If from the Beyond, if from another world, how can such experiences help us here, for it is in this world that we live? Or is it? Naturally, the question of whether religious experience gives us a kind of access to the Beyond is also the question of whether we do in fact live solely in this world or whether indeed we are after all amphibians, swimming in the flux down here yet capable of standing on the rock which lies on the farther side of the stream. So religious experience raises the question of what vision of the total universe we have: what vision of the whole of reality. Does it include only this cosmos; or do we see this cosmos in the light of what lies beyond it?

Clarifying the Concept of Transcendence

It is maybe not clear what Transcendence amounts to: what it means to speak of that which lies beyond the cosmos. I have hitherto been using this idea uncritically. It is now time to try to make it clearer. First, if we look to the notion of what is transcendent from the point of view of classical theism, it first of all amounts to this — that God exists or somehow is (for we might want to reserve the notion of existence to what lies within the webs of space and time, within the cosmos) apart from the world. That is, even if the world did not exist God would exist. (From the point of view of classical theism one could conceive that God might exist even though the world does not; but it would not be in some other sense possible for the world to exist without God, for God is its presupposition and creator.) So God and the cosmos are distinct. Thus God’s existence is not a case of his existing in space. For this reason when we say that God transcends the cosmos, and use the notion of trans-, that is to say of his being ‘beyond’, we use this last word not in a literal manner: for in its literal sense beyond implies that if A is beyond B then A is in a different location from B: roughly it means that a line drawn from where I am or we are through B would if extended pass through the place where A is. But of course if God is beyond space then he is not beyond in this sense. It is a metaphor or analogy. It is maybe like the idea that my feelings lie (from your point of view) beyond my eyes: as though they are inside me in a special place; but thoughts and feelings cannot in the strict sense be located (leaving aside bodily feelings, like pain). The metaphor perhaps too implies that the world is so to say a veil: it is a kind of screen which keeps the invisible from our gaze. Thus we often think of revelatory events as ones in which in some way we penetrate the veil, for we are given a hint at least of what lies beyond. This metaphor of course fits in with the notion of holiness: the holy is often figured as hidden, and on occasion literally is hidden, behind doors and curtains, in the inner recesses of the sacred shrine, in the ‘holy of holies’. In brief, we picture beyondness as implying that the cosmos conceals the divine, is dependent on it, and is distinct from it.

The Transcendent and Empirical Access

But such Transcendence is not accessible to empirical investigation, or at least not as we usually understand that. Not by seeing, or peering or observing, or hearing, or feeling, or by using telescopes or microscopes can we hope to penetrate the veil of material existence and discover what lies behind it. Even when we think of God as working within all things (and immanence is but the reverse side of transcendence’s coin, for ‘within’ is as much a metaphor or analogy as is ‘beyond’), we do not suppose that by sifting the atoms we shall find God. Even ‘within’ he is beyond. So the Transcendent is not something which we can establish by some kind of scientific procedure. Maybe we could make its postulation more plausible by inference, as scholasticism and the Nyaya tradition of India supposed. It might not be surprising if we were to begin to think of the Divine as being somehow a regulative idea, rather than something which from within the context of human knowledge can be affirmed to exist. But this is precisely where the problem of religious experience comes in. For though we may not pierce the veil by means of scans or probes or observations, it has generally been thought in the spiritual traditions of both East and West (and North and South) that there are bright clues to what lies beyond the veil, and these clues are found in religious experience, and the numinous encounters between what is Beyond, and us. In other words: it is not that God is the object of scientific enquiry; and it is not as though religion is simply a matter of ethical values (and God some kind of presupposition of objective morality). There is a third way. That third way is to be found in the (from a religious point of view) realistic notion that it is in certain profound and dramatic experiences that the veil is most luminously lifted — though one should also not neglect the daily and less startling sensations of those ordinary transactions with the Other discoverable in the life of prayer. So then there is a special gnosis, a special kind of encounter, a special avenue of knowledge which falls outside the other categories of human enquiry, and this is the avenue of religious experience.

The Paradox of Religious Experience

This must be seen however in context. Clearly, as we have been at pains to point out hitherto; an experience occurs within a certain living context. Maybe sometimes the impact of the experience leads to a change of worldview, as in the case of a conversion; or when a prophet sees things new in the light of the revelatory vision he has had; or when the mystic finds a new map of the world by consequence of his deep insight. But still we cannot treat religious experiences as ‘pure’, detached from context. The context enters into the fabric of the visions themselves. So the question of how far some experience can establish the truth of a system of belief and values is a hard one. But within such a context, a religious experience is gripping, often overwhelming, stamped it seems with truth and power. But because in the modern world especially the worldviews differ so greatly, and because for a wide swathe of human beings there is no question of their being a Beyond, we find a curious situation: for many people the appeal to their own or others’ religious experience seems convincing, in order, natural; while for others such experiences seem to be bizarre, without importance, projections, delusions. Thus Christians listen with reverence to the account of Paul’s conversion, or react with piety to testimonies of conversion; while Buddhists naturally look back to the Enlightenment of the Buddha, and are ready to accept that Buddhist masters know in experience the nature of suchness. But for others, psychoanalytic explanations come to mind in thinking about Paul; or thoughts or projection account for the way in which the pious seem to hear God ‘out there’. They would regard the Buddha’s enlightenment as being now of antiquarian value. There is no Unborn, Unconditioned, Transcendent. There is nothing beyond the material world as we ordinarly understand it and which we can best probe by the methods of science. So then: there is a notorious split, a gulf between those who entertain the living possibility of the Beyond, and those who consider that they have left behind any religious vision of the cosmos. For the first, religious experience has impact, truth-potential; for the second group, it has no impact, no truth-potential. This is a curious split, as I have said, and its strangeness can be brought out in the following way.

As we have seen religious experience is a major expression of the impact of the Transcendent. The Beyond finds a major mode of self-revelation, we might say, through the forms of religious experience. And it might well be thought that you could scarcely wish to find any better evidence of the Transcendent than the experience of it. What could be better than direct encounter? Yet if we look at that encounter from the standpoint of those whose worldview is secular and who rule out the Beyond from their scheme of things, the knowledge-value of the experiences is trivial. They cannot reveal the Beyond for there is no Beyond to reveal. So the best possible evidence seems within one general context extraordinarily powerful and fruitful in a living way; but in another general context seems altogether to droop, to be quite enfeebled as to its power and fruits. Yet here a qualification needs to be made and I shall come to it in a moment. Let us just dwell a little further, though, on the paradoxicality of the situation: For those who believe in the living possibility of the Beyond the spiritual encounter with it in experience is the best possible proof of the reality of the Beyond; and yet this proof value depends itself on the prior acceptance of the real possibility of the conclusion. Believe in the Beyond and you will have proof of it. Disbelieve and nothing can serve as proof. But now to the qualification, concerning the fruits and powers.

The Power of Experience

The secularist would be of course quite wrong if he thought that because religious experience is (for him) based on a delusion that it can have no real power to move men. The question of the justifiability of a belief or the truth-value of an experience must be kept quite separate from the question of what kind of impact the experience may make in a living context. It is part of the task of the phenomenologist of religion to try to delineate the ways in which the experiences of the Transcendent which are reported in the history of religions actually change the ways in which people behave. Very often our prejudices about truth get in the way of this empathetic and delicate task. But for purposes of history and of the analysis of religion the truth-claims have to be suspended in our own minds. It is not for us to impose our own worldview on the material which we are contemplating. Thus we have to get at the human facts. We do so in a mood of epoche or the suspension of our own beliefs and presuppositions. We do not need to say that there is here or there an encounter with the Beyond, but only that there is believed to be: that the experience, real enough in itself, is taken to be an encounter with the Beyond. It is in this sense that Kristensen was correct to say that the believer is always right. Now from this standpoint of course the actual effects, the actual power in life, of the Transcendent (of what is taken to be Transcendent) need to be described. The historian of religion tries to bring out the thunderous impact of Muhammad’s prophetic visions, the way they entered into his thinking and feeling, ultimately dynamized him and deeply impressed (after a struggle) many round him: how they came to have living power through the Koran. In all this those visions of his turn out to be an explosive factor in history. To put it too simply: the turbulences in the consciousness of Muhammad, like the tolling of a bell within his skull, those superficially tiny events were in a short time to lead to the formation of a whole new empire and with it a whole new civilization. So too the strange experiences which some of the followers of Jesus had after his death led to transformations of behaviour and the creation of a vigorous new faith which, too, though more slowly, was to change a world and to bring into being a new civilization. So it is that we can sometimes speak of the great power of religious experience (but it can also prove feeble, overridden despite fancy preachings and stupendous claims, by other forces such as greed or patriotism). It is then the task of the historian of religion, among other things, to try to delineate the living impact of the experiences of those who have faith and of seminal figures in the evolution of religious processes. In brief: the Transcendent may be bracketed, but its manifest powers are not bracketed: they are seen as fully as possible, and shown in interaction with other forces in the human psyche and in human society. But this procedure also leads to a strange thought, one which is in parellel with the other paradox which we have been describing.

The Existence or Non-existence of God: Does it Matter?

The paradox can be put most sharply by saying that after all it does not matter whether God does or does not exist: his powers would still be just as great (or just as small). For if the Beyond is mediated for us in experience, and if such experience and its dynamic can be described, then the power of God in human life is after all something empirical; and so it does not really matter if God exists or does not. If he is real in life, such reality is enough. What does the transcendental reference add to God’s power? It seems nothing. Well, it might be replied that God, if he is the God of classical theism, does more than stir up human beings. Admittedly this aspect of his activity could be adequately described in a manner which exhibits the impact and powers which he putatively has upon his followers. But this does not deal with the way in which God is the Creator and Sustainer of this whole cosmos: in every leaf that pushes forth there is the inward power of God; in the sun, moon and galaxies; in all the vast incredible processes of the universe, there is God at work. But again we are led to ask: What kind of knowledge is this supposed to be, the knowledge or at least faith that God is Creator and Sustainer of the world? It is not a scientific hypothesis, is it? Perhaps in the days of scholasticism there was some difficulty in drawing the line between science and non-science; and God does after all have a sort of scientific role to play in the Aristotelian picture of the cosmos. But we seem to be beyond this. If God transcends the cosmos in the manner we have described then it is impossible to see how God himself can enter directly into the fabric of scientific explanations, which are, after all, ways of organizing and linking phenomena within the jewel net of Indra: within this cosmos. So what is it to see the cosmos as the creation of God? It is a kind of regulative vision: vision, because it is a way of seeing things (a case of seeing as); and regulative, because it directs our attitudes in certain ways — towards wonder, acceptance of suffering, co-energy in the work of creation, and so on. It does, then, make a difference as to whether God is taken to be Creator, but it is not a difference that has to be settled by relation to the facts which we can observe, probe and so forth. Of course, the idea that God is Creator is a wider idea than that he transcends the cosmos. But the fact that God is held to be transcendent does show that the notion of creation is not an empirical one. But in both cases — the transcendent as a presupposition of religious experience as classically interpreted, and the transcendent as an element in a transempirical way of looking at the cosmos — the idea of the Beyond points to something which is inaccessible in itself, beyond the experience of the faithful. One might schematize the situation as follows: that the Transcendent has a subject and a predicate: the subject is in itself inaccessible, and the predicate is that configuration which is ascribed to it on the basis of experience and the context of experience. That configuration enters into human life because of human encounters with the Transcendent and because of the kind of vision of the world and of our life which the configuration creates. The subject is the ultimate Focus of belief or aspiration; and the Transcendent in its fullness, that is as both subject and predicate, can be considered as the real focus of faith, which is both a dynamic phenomenon in the lives of people and a kind of illuminative idea for the guidance of their feelings and their conduct. If we do not postulate the ultimate Focus, the subject, the inaccessible X lying beyond the contents of belief and experience, we might consider the real Focus as it enters into lives itself to be a projection. It is not my intention to rule this out as a possibility, for after all it is a necessary part of the apparatus of rationalism or secularism. The rationalist might in the end be right, in his battle with theism, and with all forms of belief in the Beyond. And religions have to be judged by their real Focus, that is by the particular configurations which they present and the particular dynamisms which they generate. There can be no blank cheque for transcendental religion.

The Need for the Focus

The upshot of these reflections is that the concept of the Beyond is a necessary ultimate Focus from the standpoint of the believer. The afirmation of this Focus confers ‘objectivity’ upon the real Focus which is how a religion’s central value enters into the lives of human beings. That real Focus is what the historian or phenomenologist of religion is concerned about, and it is that which he wishes to delineate. From the point of view of the history of religions it is neither the case that the ultimate Focus exists nor that it does not. There is suspension of belief. Likewise, the real Focus as it enters into men’s lives is not judged as good or bad, for the aim is to present it rather than to estimate it. From the point of view of philosophical reflection on religion, on the other hand, the question of the ultimate remains of course important: but I have tried to indicate that looking through the lens of human experience the existence of the ultimate is presupposed if experience is to be evidence for it; while if we preclude the ultimate, no evidence from experience can be enough. The way the issues are settled, if indeed they are settled, is a more subtle interplay of factors. How plausible, how persuasive, how important are the claims of one way of looking at the world over against another? The question of the existence of the ultimate is something which has to be settled at the lower level of the real focus and in terms of our total knowledge and estimate of the world in which we live. The tests are softer, stranger, than any proofs or verifications, less decisive than falsifyings and disproofs. If religion dies it dies the death not of a thousand qualifications so much as the death of a thousand awkwardnesses and a thousand flickerings out of dynamic power.

But Affirmation does not add Power

But the affirmation of the inaccessible Beyond does not add somehow to God’s substance. It may express faith, but it does not strengthen the divine. It does not even strengthen God conceptually, as a kind of thought experiment. The ultimate who exists, because anchored in the Beyond and operative in human experience and in vision, does not have some extra power which the real Focus of religion fails to have, as we chart that in the history and the scientific study of religion. There we are methodologically agnostic: but if perchance we were to affirm theism, though it is inappropriate within the temple of the religious sciences, this would not be to add an extra factor, an extra grain or mass of energy to the encounters which men already report as experienced by them. The inaccessible subject, that transcendental X, that dark to us background upon which we may perceive the play of light, does not throb with its own extra configurations of power. It is true that the faithful person may think of God as having infinite power, that is power beyond any that he has so far manifested or might have manifested: always something in reserve as we might say. But this idea of the power of God is something which already is built into the Focus as he conceives and as he encounters it. The function of the ultimate X is to serve as the subject of such predication, to be the core as it were behind all the manifestations and configurations. So then the affirmation of the ultimate does not add to power: it does not indeed add anything beyond the condition of being, upon the divine. The core of the divine power is itself, so far as power goes, neither here nor there: it is a kind of suchness, a sort of emptiness. Nevertheless, that ultimate does, despite its inner powerlessness, have a marked impact upon human life, in so far as it is part of an affirmation among men.

For the question with which we began remains an important one, especially in the contemporary world. The affirmation of a Beyond is itself a condition of speaking from religious tradition and experience; and this may itself be an important ingredient, as we shall see, of the criticism of contemporary thought and values: a criticism which has its roots in heaven, calling into question the values of those who treat one another as merely earthly beings, denizens of one reality and not amphibians in a wider total system which goes beyond the cosmos as we know it. To that confrontation between secular ideologies and the systems of the Beyond I shall come more directly in due course. It needs to be borne in mind that we should not be concerned to defend religion so much as to defend humanity with whatever seems right in insight and attitude. Religion is not just a theory or a speculation: it may be for us a living anchor in the storms which the grandiose secular ideologies have stirred in the waves of a suffering race. But of that more anon. Meanwhile, though, we can return to the question of the relation between the Buddhist and the Christian worldviews.

The Beyond in the Buddhist Context

Hitherto in discussing the Beyond, I have been using the theistic context. It is important to connect up this discussion with the somewhat different flavour of the Beyond in the Buddhist context. There the Beyond is the unconditioned: it is something discoverable in non-dual consciousness, beyond perception and non-perception, in the most luminous refinements of the contemplative process. It is also the Empty, lying at a higher level of truth than the discursive knowledge of this world. It is how things truly are if we were to see into their ultimate essence. I think it is useful here to separate out two sides of this transcendent coin. One side is the Unconditioned which can be encountered in non-dual consciousness (how awkward and stumbling must language be here, for how can we speak of encounter, experience and so forth when there is no other to encounter, no datum out there to be perceived, but only a kind of … well, as I say words are awkward, and partly, largely fail). The other side is the theory of two levels of truth, the conventional and the higher: the one which accepts the superficialities of the world but is useful in manipulating it, the other which points with smile, finger, empty expressions (like Emptiness) to what is in a sense beyond: at least, beyond the conventional. As to the first side, because the ultimate as experienced is non-dual, it does not have particularity and does not enter into the flux of causes and effects. It is timeless (the immortal place as it is sometimes called).

So if we define the cosmos itself as a web of causal relationships in space and time, then the ultimate in Buddhism is ‘beyond’ the cosmos. But there is of course no idea of its somehow standing itself in a creative relationship to the rest. It is not the source, still less the living source, of the cosmos. This of course represents a genuine conflict between Christianity and Buddhism. But it does not follow that there cannot so to speak be a ‘side’ or ‘aspect’ of the divine which the experience of the Buddhist saint illumines and encounters (again to use this unfortunate language). In any event the notion of an unconditioned timeless X is a conception of the ultimate which is itself compatible with the conception of the Beyond as we have delineated it in the case of theism. So there may be a hidden complementarity between the Buddhist and the Christian positions, and between the forms of life which they generate. As for the two-level side of the transcendental coin, there is a way in which this is in my opinion a highly salutary doctrine, for it represents immediately a criticism of our ordinary language, and a criticism of our usual ways of thinking. It also in religion represents a critique of our worship, our practices, our ordinary perspective on the divine. For after all, the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are in their own gentle way divine beings, in effect, and yet in the last resort they may as it were disappear within the Truth-Body, or vanish in the blinding light of the ultimate experience of Emptiness. But the two-level theory is also involved in a kind of value judgement. There is something delusory about the world in which we find ourselves, for even if we were to replace our present ordinary language with something better, as say the Buddha tried in his teaching about the skandhas and the evanescent configurations of the human personality — even this improved language or better understanding of the plural world is itself defective. Well, in one way that might be right: we could perhaps go farther in our criticism and find the language behind the language behind the language. But nothing would satisfy the relentless criticism of the Madhyamikas and other Buddhist dialecticians. The world as such as a plural set of fluxing events and processes is in the last resort at the lower level of experience. It is a kind of mirage in the light of the ultimate Suchness. Not all Buddhists of course in the Great Vehicle need take this ‘idealist’ turn; but it is worth considering as one version at any rate of what the teaching about two levels means in regard to attitudes. Now in this more extreme form it is in my view open to criticism. It is not necessary, nor in a way is it desirable, to think of the ordinary experienced world as being unreal. But the two level theory has great merit if it is used as a methodological tool in the critique of religion and life. Before I come to that, let me just comment on the inner meaning, spiritually, of the theory in so far as it relates to religious experience.

A Question of Priorities: Dhyāna and Bhakti

We have seen that for classical Mahayana the practice of contemplation and the yoga of consciousness-purity retains control of the commanding heights of the Great Vehicle economy. It cannot be said that the analogue in the Christian tradition, the contemplative life, has the same centrality. Moreover there would be many Christians who would wish to resist the notion that the ‘personal’ aspect of the ultimate is secondary, or even delusory. And there would to be many Christians who would resist the blank-ness (so to speak) of the ultimate in the Śūnyavāda: Christian mysticism has a more personal context. But even if the contemplative life is not so central in the Christian tradition it does have a noble place in it. Since the contemplative life is often itself an antidote to brash activism, and on the whole tends to peace and gentleness rather than militancy and hard lines of doctrine and authority, there is an important place for it in the total economy of Christianity, which has the diseases of its virtues, and among those diseases a sad temptation to violence and coercion. Thus we might look on Christianity and the Mahayana as mirror images: for the one the mystical life is secondary, and the faith of personal encounter is primary; for the Great Vehicle the mystical life is primary, and the religion of bhakti comes second. One cannot regard this diversity of balance, of priorities, as a sharp incompatibility, though it does represent a tension. And yet that tension may turn out to be a fruitful one, especially if we see the two-level theory not so much as containing levels as aspects: like a Two-Body view of truth, to go with the Three-Body view of Buddhahood.

The Two Aspects of the World

Let us look at it in a double way, first from the point of view of earth, and then in relation to heaven. At the earthly level the Buddhist critique of language is important (as is made clear by the way in which it anticipates certain central notions in contemporary philosophy) because it helps to deanthropomorphize the world. The world as we perceive It and classify it is presented to us in swathes of colour, in blocks of substance, in manifestations of power, in stillness and in motion. But behind these presentations lie processes which are beyond immediate perception, and both from the angle of science and in consideration of the way the world around us and within us ‘really is’. Nevertheless, though such a critique of common sense is entirely justified, the critique itself must take a special view of the personal dimension of existence. Thus existentially the world of the swathes of colour, the blocks of substance and so forth, remains real for the person in the way he feels about things and reacts to them. More importantly there is the special world of interpersonal communication, where we do not only look upon the other as a great swarm of minute processes, but interact with macroscopic feelings. The way of Buddhism is to transform feelings by inducing a special kind of deflation of the world and a special analysis of the personal, resulting in a new form of detachment and (be it said) compassion. The substances of the world and of other persons are empties. This is one path.

The path of Christianity is rather opposite. For the world is transformed not by a kind of subtraction but by a kind of enhancement, since it becomes symbolic of God’s will, and shot through with the glories of the creative process; while other people are not just persons, but persons with the unseen halo of Christ, and stamped with the image of the divine. The reason for the difference in path are, as we have seen before, various. But the Christian emphasis on transformation, a kind of transfiguration of the world, even of its suffering, when seen by the light of the Beyond, connects with the sacramental heart of classical Christianity. For the language of substance, the transfer of power from one to another — much sacramental language fits with the personal and group senses of identity and participation which occur at the level of personal interactions. The bifurcation of the paths suggests a variant on Existentialism: that the world of the conscious individual is other from the world of things (which disintegrate into processes); and the conscious individual is in himself empty, save that he defines himself through his performative, symbolic relations to his neighbours and to his world. The language of substance is the language of perception and feeling, and the language of the symbolic transaction. The question remains as to the ultimate significance of the mere performative. This is where in due course we shall see that the sacramental conceptions of Christianity lend a transcendental character to the individual, and he escapes thus the fragility of human decisions about his worth. But to this variant on Existentialism we shall later return, in our discussion of the secular ideologies.

Neoplatonism and Buddhism

At the heavenly level the two-aspect of truth is especially important from the standpoint of theism. It was indeed a signal contribution of the mystical tradition of Pseudo-Dionysius and of the Neoplatonists that for experiential reasons it sought to vivify a negative way to counterpose to the grand and sometimes brash affirmations about the Divine. Thus we have such fine and strange passages as this:

The scriptures themselves teach us that no being is able to grasp the meaning of this Super-Essence that transcends all essences, this good defying the description of all words, this mind which escapes every mind, this word beyond experience, insight, name and category, this cause of all being that does not itself exist, this Super-essence that is beyond all being and revelation save its own self-manifestation.

For, to put matters in the terms I have used, if the Transcendent Focus of faith has as its core or subject something which is blank, which is ultimately inaccessible, then this already suggests that a critique of anthropomorphism is always in order, to preserve the Beyondness of the divine. It can be seen that provided we do not make a hierarchy out of the dialectic which Pseudo-Dionysius expresses, that is to say provided we do not say that somehow the Super-Essence is real but its self-manifestation is unreal (which was indeed never the intention of most Christian mystics who followed in this tradition of the negative way), then there is a remarkable congruence between his teachings and those of the Great Vehicle. But to repeat: this is provided that the personal aspects of Buddhahood themselves are not just treated as mere lower truth and delusory. Of course we may say even in the case of Christianity that we do indeed suffer from a kind of illusion if we think of the personal qualities of God in a literal way. The anthropomorphic illusion is pretty common in a certain kind of brash evangelical Christianity (not all evangelical Christianity is brash, needless to say). It is as if God were at the end of a short telephone line, like Nixon talking to Armstrong on the moon. So the two-aspect theory of truth is a useful methodological principle for the critical evaluation of our religious language. It can be used as part of the approach to a critical theory of spiritual traditions which needs to be incorporated into our thinking, for reasons which will emerge more clearly later on.

The Relation of Criticism to the Spiritual

But perhaps many people might worry at this accent on criticism all the time. Is this not a weakness of religion today, that it nurtures too many critics from within itself, who undermine the more confident fabrics of faith, who cast doubt upon verities, who cause rocks to crumble? Many, surely, need assurance and hope, and do not need all the time to have their faith picked at? Such indeed is a natural reaction. Perhaps demythologization, shocking the bourgeois with new theories about Jesus, new airy “televisual discussions of the difficulties of belief — such an atmosphere of criticism is rather destructive. Yet if such is the atmosphere of criticism of much British discussion of religion, consider how frequently there is the opposite extreme in America: the shouting of certainties from evangelists clad in double-knit suits (knit again Christians) flourishing Bibles with fabulous confidence, frenetic in their assurances that Jesus loves us and all is well with the world. Both syndromes are open to criticism. But, and this is where the two-level theory may also be salutary, the whole point about doctrines is to do with their spiritual referent. Religious externals, whether in words or acts, are fingers pointing at the moon. The two-level theory draws us to consider that criticism has to do with spiritual meaning: it is its whole point. Religion is not a game or a piece of science or just philosophy. Its meaning lies in its ultimately spiritual goals. So when we are valuing criticism it must be from a spiritual angle. The fact that a Christian apologist may use a bad argument, or that the surface meaning of the Bible is in some particular unacceptable, or that earlier Christian presuppositions have to be replaced: such thoughts are important from a spiritual point of view because truth itself is part of the fabric of genuine religion, and because older myth may obscure rather than enhance insight. On the other side, the criticism of criticism itself as being destructive of certainties is itself open to criticism. For why is it that there is a yearning for such clear-cut faith? Why is it that faith has to be so rock-like? The problem arises from insecurity. The sense of diminished identity, the desire for an infusion of substance to make up for the isolations and fragilities of the ego, implies a need for sureness. For uncertainty itself reduces the strength of substance. Thus a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush: an uncertain chance of glory tomorrow gives me less than glory today. But though the sight of such a thirst for substance may fill us with compassion there is a real critique to be made of it: for it has not yet come to terms with the suffering of this world, or of the veiled and mysterious character of true redemption. At any rate, the two-level theory, incorporating a kind of negative way, is a useful and vital methodological guide in the criticism of the concepts of religions, provided it directs itself along the path of that finger which points to the shining silver moon: the ultimate as perceived in a spiritual way. Of course, it should be added this process of criticism is a continuous one, and means self-criticism. For any critique which we may make itself may be infected by the ignorance and lack of insight which is so often the human lot.

Complementarity between Theism and the Great Vehicle

So far, then, we may observe a certain complementarity between theism and the Great Vehicle. The convergence is made more manifest in the modern world, as Christian theism progressively rids itself of the remnants of old polytheisms: where, that is to say, the postulate of the Beyond is disentangled from suggestions that God appears in particular natural forces and phenomena — where indeed he suffers in comparison with the old gods. No longer Poseidon, he is driven from the sea; and yet lives on here and there in little miracles or unexplained areas of knowledge, the so-called God of the gaps. Rather Christianity progressively has, I think, come most clearly to perceive that the Creator is continuously active everywhere in the natural order, in the great swirl of processes which makes up the jewel net of Indra. This has always been implicit in classical Christianity: did not Augustine say that preservation is continuous creation? But Aristotelianism perhaps muddied this clarity of perception. Because the Creator is immanent in all processes, he is in fact revealed by science but is not himself a scientific postulate. The world shows us the mind of God (and strange indeed it turns out to be); but we do not need the conception of the mind of God as the constituent of any scientific theory. It may be true of course, as some have argued, that this notion of the rationality of God as evident in his creation was a powerful impulse in the generation of the modern scientific outlook. But though it might be important as a regulative idea, it plays no part in the constitutive theories of science. So in modern times most luminously perhaps it is possible to perceive the holiness of God as having its twin roots in the Beyond and in the existential experience of those whom God encounters. In other words, it has its twin roots in the Transcendent and in the fabric of human reactions. From this twin standpoint, a vision of the world is generated which sees in the universe the signs of God’s painful glory and power. But this ‘gnosis’, this knowledge of reality, is feeling-knowledge, onlook-knowledge, faith-vision. It is not cool appraisal, or neutral theory. It is beyond science, even when science in changing the configurations of our known world alters our feelings about that world. And because God is not a scientific hypothesis, then the status of the theistic vision of the universe is analogous to the type of vision of the world generated by Hua-yen and other ways of analysing reality under the searching light of inner illumination.

The Problem of Karma

So far we have noted a congruence between the structures of the Beyond as depicted in Christianity and Buddhism. Yet we have also noted a contrast between the substance-oriented sacramentalism of classical Christianity and the non-substantial, emptying modes of Buddhist analysis. Beyond this, there are of course great contrasts in the content of the two sets of mythic belief: and the Buddhist teaching about karma gives it a very different flavour, at least in its traditional presentation, from the aweful brevity and finality of this life on earth. As we have noted, too, there is a general problem with karma from the standpoint of modern scientific knowledge. It would perhaps be unwise to be dogmatic here. There are curious evidences sometimes brought to bear to confirm the theory; though they ought of course to await the verdict of science, inasmuch as, traditionally conceived, the doctrine is an empirical one and so should be available to empirical testing. Of course, one can look on karma in another manner. The momentary flux of the person, on the Buddhist analysis, means that any concern which I may have for my future states, whether in this life or in the next, is a concern for states which really strictly are not mine. They are just consequences, or at least part consequences, of my past and present acts. To be concerned about my own future is no different from being concerned about another’s — that is, if I see things truly as they are. Prudence about my future states becomes a kind of altruism. I exist briefly amid a sea of short lived ‘sentient states, my own (as we conventionally say) and others’. Goodness is so acting that there is less suffering and pain around, more joy. Indifference to self and compassion thus go hand in hand. The idea of the self has disintegrated and with it karma itself merely draws attention to the way we live in our own jewel net of Indra: one act affecting other feelings and acts, in this ocean of living feelings and consciousness. From this point of view Buddhism demands an absolute self-naughting, and when this happens the doctrine of karma vanishes — merely a concession, a skilful means, a manner of leading people towards merit and beyond it, to the higher reaches of self-emptiness.

There is in this notion nothing unscientific: it is an alternative vision of the way we are and of the way compassion ought to be directed. But though this is in its own way congruent with the sort of self-naughting that the Christian should undertake: that radical humility through which a person may save his soul by losing it, the main problem with the Buddhist ‘disintegration of the self’ is that it only gives provisional status to the sanctity of the person. It is true that Buddhist compassion and benevolence have been so powerful that maybe this lack of a theoretical basis for the sacredness of the individual may not much have been needed. But in the modern age it is needed, a point we shall explore in the context of the secular ideologies. So I am inclined to the following complementarity: when I look to myself I should follow the non-self doctrine and the splintering of the ego into a myriad shining droplets of sensation; but in looking to others I affirm the sacredness of the soul. Can such a complementarity be consistent? We shall see.

Incompatibilities between Buddhism and Christianity: History

But nothing much can help towards making the Christian and Buddhist mythic structures compatible. The Christian view of history and incarnation is much at variance with Buddhist ideas. But both will have to undergo some radical restructuring in the modern world. The fact is that men’s consciousness has for various reasons been transformed in the last century or more, and nowhere more clearly than in their view of history. In some measure the modern view of history is itself a distant product of the Christian myth of history. It has been natural for the West to see the processes of liberation or redemption in historical terms, even if in modern times the transition is made from transcendentally oriented myth, to a kind of post-mythic dialectical ballet of historical forces. A potent source, as we shall see in more detail later, of the new concern with history has been nationalism, for it has provided men with a new milieu of identity and that identity has necesarily had to present itself in historical terms. The 19th century was the great period for the supply of ancestors, for the tracing of histories, for finding roots. But it was not enough to have the old legends such as might have satisfied our forefathers, St Patrick casting out snakes, Queen Libushe, Romulus and Remus. The 19th century was one where the actual became the real: the actual, as found in historical enquiry or in scientific probing, was hard, genuine, tangible, full of value. Only the actual, or what was taken for it, could glow pregnantly with meaning. Mere legends were but icing on the cake, a fanciful decoration — perhaps suitable for fashioning into national opera; but insufficient in a hard-headed world to function with full symbolic impact. So history managed an amazing conjuring trick. On the one hand it was proud of its scientific canons: archives scrutinized, documents analyzed, archaeology marshalled, oral traditions dissected. On the other hand it told the story of nations, of identities, of ancestries. It was charged with existential power; but it disguised itself, not without reason or justification in a way, as being scientific. And if meaning further was to be found in history, why it was through dialectical and other hidden forces arising from the logic of men’s economic and institutional structures. So old myth was replaced to great degree by histories and theories of history.

The Myth of History

This transition to a secretly soft hard-headedness has left its indelible stamp on nearly the whole of mankind. Peoples now look not to myths of origin, but rather to histories; not to transcendental soteriologies, but to dialectical patterns of human change and historical development. It is not a change that Christianity or traditional Buddhism can ignore. The old legendary accounts of the ages of men in Buddhism have to be abandoned, as we have already noted. But perhaps that is not too worrying for Buddhism. After all the core of the message emanates from the Buddha, and though historical enquiry may find that the quest of the historical Buddha is harder even than the quest of the historical Jesus, yet scholars are rarely if ever now going to deny that there was an historical personage who set the wheel of the Dharma rolling, and that presumably he was a person of considerable genius and illumination. And historical questions in general do not much affect the content of that message: it holds good in itself, and neither is Amitabha or the Pure Land seriously threatened by the new historicism. Still, though all this is true, it is important for the Buddhist to see the role of Buddhism in planetary history, to estimate its place in the heritage of particular countries, to look to ways in which it may develop in the future. In other words, Buddhism needs to be ‘placed’ in world history. In regard to Christianity, though, the situation is much more acute. For it is not just a question of estimating the place of the faith in the history of the planet; it is also a question here of seeing redemptive processes at work in the course of human history. It was not surprising that the liberal Protestants of the vintage before World War I saw redemption in evolutionary and progressive perspective — the optimism of the late 19th century and the sense of rhythm which both Hegel and Darwin imparted to the processes of natural and cultural development quite easily could lead to a new post-mythic (yet secretly mythic) account of salvation. Much of that was stopped abruptly by the sledgehammer blow of Barth and by the evil chatter of machine guns along the appalling trenches of the Western front. But still Christianity does not make much sense for a modern man if it says nothing about the rhythms of planetary history. It can neither affirm the old myth of history in its classical form, nor can it take flight from the historical in the privatization of belief, as a form of ahistorical existential encounter between people and the Beyond. So it is necessary for Christianity to come to grips with human history in a way which Buddhism does not; though all faiths need to see themselves in the perspective of an emerging planetary culture. It is precisely because preeminently in West and East Christianity and Buddhism have the greatest planetary outreach that we have here been considering their relationships as of special significance for contemporary history and values.

Buddhism and Christianity as Mutual Critics

Because the history of the planet seen from the Christian perspective has a central point, which is found in the life and the beyond of Jesus, the faith has also a curious relationship to the historical. For while Jesus lived at a particular time and in a particular culture, and thus attracts that ‘scandal of particularity’ which is worrisome for some people; yet that time and place is in a way universally available. It is through, above all, the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, that the presence of Christ can as it were be found simultaneously in that ancient upper room and in the modern community of faithful Christians. It is as we have seen a kind of time travel: a channelling of old power into modern times, a making real of the historical configuration of faith’s Focus to contemporary experience. It is thus particular history made (in principle) universal. If those historical happenings, including the resurrection, caused in effect a sea change in men’s relationship to God: if through them there occurred a renewed deep communication between God and men; it follows that through those events as communicated to us in word and sacrament there is an access of divine power to us — a new availability of grace, a new fullness of the spirit. The story is strange, mysterious; but if it be true, then the Christian has all the infinite substance and power of God to sustain him. With such substance pouring into him, how can he feel any insecurity? If he has God’s blessing, how can he fear anything in this hard and suffering world? The power of God is ultimate security, and in its operation as mediated through sacraments the Christian is assigned a kind of fearlessness, a transcendental destiny, a new glory, a transfiguration of his life. Perhaps he catches only a glimpse, for we see as in a glass obscurely. But that in principle is the deathlessness which redemption promises, to those who participate in Christ, the victor. This is the power of the Divine, as it enters into human beings. Yet what a victory! For as we have seen, though Christianity promises ultimate security, the love of God, the configuration of the divine substance is patterned through the life and death of Christ. At his death he was or felt foresaken. For God’s path is that of the sufferer, of the self-emptier. So there is at the heart of Christianity the paradox that God is self-emptying, so that the Christian receives in the same breath of the spirit the promise of the highest, transcendental power and glory and the imprint of human emptiness, losing one’s life, maybe with a sense of tragic despair. The fullness of the Christian life has at its heart its own form of emptiness. So again there is a certain congruence between Christian and Buddhist ideals. Yet by what very different paths do Emptiness and kenosis meet! The one path is by meditation, self-analysis, the ideal of the Bodhisattva; the other path is defined by historical events, is sacramental, and moves from the experience of the numinous and the logic of the sacred performative. The one may detonate the ego from within: the other gives identity and security to the ego from without and then detonates the very power which gave balm. Because of this congruence it may seem ludicrous for Christians to try to convert good Buddhists; but the two faiths may serve, as we shall see, as mutual critics and give one another new resources of insight and symbol.

Religions and the Secular Ideologies

As I said, a transformation of human consciousness has occurred in modern times, with the rise of a new consciousness of history, and the growth of secular ideologies-nationalism, Marxism, Nazism, social democracy, Maoism. Perhaps in these latter days of the 20th century we are waiting for Godot (or Buddhot), in that to a great degree the ideologies are a spent force: humanism insipid, Marxism cruelly strait, nationalism largely fulfilled, fascism discredited, social democracy smug, and the world half starved, half consumerized, and stepping to the edges of nuclear warfare; bright dreams dimmed somewhat, even though many marvels have been performed especially in the capitalist countries of the white West. But torture frequent; racism abounding; cruelties many; bitternesses widespread; plenty of the old clumsy pain-dealing Adam. The claims of religion, the affirmation of a Beyond, the experience of divine power and ultimate emptiness, the heroic practice of inwardness, the configurations of self-sacrifice in Bodhisattva and Suffering Servant — these expressions of religion, East and West, are not just private things, though they have relevance to individuals. If they are to speak to the world they have to speak to the world of modern scientific knowledge and to the world, above all, of the modern ideologies. What has the Christian’s access of paradoxical power to do with the swirling and striking forces of nationalism and secular belief? What has the shaved monk’s great voyage inwards to do with the tremendous social changes which are transforming our planetary world? This is where we move into the second part of our inquiry, into the nature of the worldviews which have dominated so much of our contemporary world. But perhaps it is useful to give a hint of the relevance of the religions of the Beyond to the secular problems of our day.

Although Buddhism and Christianity have to undergo great changes as they swim onwards to the 21st century, part of the secret of their relevance lies in the way they integrate the past to the problems of today. For one thing, the Marxist perspective, as it is often interpreted in practice, fails to show forth the meaning of personal suffering, inevitable even in socialist paradises. Moreover, Marxist collectivism abstracts from persons and in doing so fundamentally conflicts with the principle of the sacredness of human life. That sacredness is from one point of view a reflection of the attitude of love and compassion; but from another point of view it is itself a performative concept. And, as I shall argue, it is seen best in the light of the Beyond, in which the performative life of the sacrament channels (so to speak) that deathless sacrality to the individual. Indeed the transcendental aspect of humanity is the true guarantee of those rights which are so often crushed today. The shaved monk too is a symbol of how men can swim not only in this world but in a transcendent reality too; and also Buddhism shines out as an ideal of that ultimate peacebleness and insight which the world badly needs. But all this needs to be seen in the realities of the ideological drives of this modern world. To that I now turn; but not before an expression of the synthesis.

Fearful tender one your transcendental gaze

Stirs the dancing atoms of my mind:

You who look down, stirring imitation,

Lord of Infinite light, ancient of days,

What lies behind your eyes? Nothing we can find,

Suchness and superessence, beyond explanation,

The highest immortal place. But holy power

Flows from your smile, conqueror, slave.

When you sprinkle rain the stars shower

And the moon finds a new halo in your light.

You make me command the whole world, brave;

Yet at your heart there lies the dark night.

Holy too is the shaved monk who paces

The warm grains of sand, his fingers lean,

Pointing to the shore; a true amphibian he

Swims into his crystal mind, and no traces

Can he leave on the stream. Orange against green

His robe is signal of transcendentality:

You and he are warnings to those who see

Nothing beyond the myriad cells which form

Our universes. And around us the droplets swarm

Of tiny flashes of power, gone like smoke.

But your power lies in rite and heart:

Rock, diamond, tree of life, oak,

Silent happy suffering witness of our world:

Empty and apart, and not apart.