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20. Selves, Suffering, Self-Centredness, and Love

No human soul can pass through This Life without being challenged to grapple with the mystery of the Universe. If the distinctively human impulse of curiosity does not bring us to the point, experience will drive us to it—above all, the experience of Suffering.

In casting about for an approach to the mystery in a Westernizing World mid-way through the twentieth century, we might do well to take a cue from our seventeenth-century Western predecessors, who opened up for us a view that still holds us under its spell today. So far, Mankind has never succeeded in unifying the whole of its experience of the universe in which it finds itself. We can see the Universe from different angles, and from each of these it wears a different aspect. From one angle we see it as a spiritual universe; from another as a physical one; and from either of these two angles we can drive a tunnel into one flank of the great pyramid. But our tunnels driven into it from these two directions have never yet met, and neither of the two approaches, by itself, has enabled us to explore the mystery more than partially: neither of them has revealed its heart.

Mid-way through the twentieth century we Westerners are still exploring the Universe from the mathematico-physical angle that our seventeenth-century predecessors chose for us. In order to choose it, they had to wrench themselves away from the spiritual approach which Christianity had followed since its first epiphany, and which, before that, the Hellenic philosophers had been following since Socrates, and the prophets of Israel since Amos. This radical change of orientation required of the seventeenth-century Western mental pioneers who made it a great effort of will and imagination as well as a great effort of thought, and the spectacle of their prowess should inspire us to follow their example now at their expense. The time has come for us, in our turn, to wrench ourselves out of the seventeenth-century mathematico-physical line of approach which we are still following, and to make a fresh start from the spiritual side. This is now, once again, the more promising approach of the two, if we are right in expecting that, in the atomic age which opened in A.D. 1945, the spiritual field of activity, not the physical one, is going to be the domain of freedom.1

In taking this new departure, if we do take it, we shall be courting disappointment and frustration if we do not constantly keep in mind two limiting conditions. We must realize that we shall not penetrate right to the heart of the mystery along any line of approach. We must also realize that we cannot return either to the traditional Christian vision of the spiritual universe or to the post-Socratic Greek philosophers’ vision of it after having delved into the mystery from the mathematico-physical angle for a quarter of a millennium. We cannot erase this long chapter in our Western mental history, and we ought not to want to erase it; for it has not only been long: it has been fruitful as well, within its limitations. So our aim should be, not to discard our predecessors’ contribution to our cumulative heritage, but to find the due place for it—not giving it more than its due, but also not giving it less. The importance of doing justice to our predecessors is brought home to us by the consequences of their failure to do justice to theirs. Our seventeenth-century predecessors’ aim was to jump clear of the strife and controversy of the foregoing age of the Western Wars of Religion, but they allowed themselves to be carried, beyond their aim, into discarding Religion itself as well as religious fanaticism. This was not their deliberate intention, and it was an unfortunate undesigned effect. Our easy wisdom after the event, which has enabled us to recognize their mistake, leaves us no excuse for repeating it.

In the seventeenth century the spiritual approach had led, as we have seen, to barren but bitter conflict springing from Christianity’s vein of exclusiveness and fanaticism, and this conflict on the religious plane had been exploited for political purposes. Our seventeenth-century predecessors’ withdrawal of their mental treasure from its traditional investment in spiritual values, and their reinvestment of it in the exploration and conquest of Physical Nature, was a testimony to the strength and to the repulsiveness of Original Sin in their day. But Man does not exorcize Original Sin by averting his mind from it; and it still retained all its power over the technologist who was winning credit first for being harmless and then for being useful. For the technologist is a human being, and Original Sin is endemic in Human Nature. The carrier of Original Sin in the Technological Age was not Technology itself; it was Technology’s human master. Technology has simply put into human hands an additional charge of physical power which can be used for evil as well as for good; and, since human beings are still as sinful as ever, this has put such a terribly potent drive into sin that we cannot afford to go on ignoring and neglecting the problem of Human Nature any longer. The very intractability of the problem, which makes us shrink from handling it, is a danger-signal; and, on the late-seventeenth-century principle of expediency and utility, ‘the proper study of Mankind is Man’2 for the twentieth-century successors of the seventeenth-century utilitarians.

In fine, we, in our generation, have as good a reason as our late-seventeenth-century predecessors had in theirs for trying to jump clear from a traditional approach to the mystery and for making a new start from a different angle. So, in our generation, let us set our feet on the spiritual path again, but, in making our jump in our turn, let us take care not to fall into our predecessors’ mistake. Let us be sure to bring away with us the mental tools that Experimental Science and Technology have been forging during these last 200 or 300 years; for it would be unwise to discard them till we have found out whether they can be adapted for use in striving to reach the spiritual goal which is now again to be our objective.

In the preceding chapter, we have found all the higher religions agreeing that this goal is to seek communion with the presence behind the phenomena, and to seek it with the aim of bringing oneself into harmony with this Absolute Reality. In making a fresh attempt to approach this goal, we may find a promising starting-point in a paradox that has been disclosed in every penetrating analysis of Human Nature, in whatever time and place and social milieu the observation has been taken.

I delight in the law of God after the inward man; but I see another law in my members, warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin which is in my members.3

Man’s war within, between his Reason and his Passions.… If there were nothing but the Reason, and were no Passions.… If there were nothing but the Passions, and were no Reason.… But, as Man has both, he cannot be free from war, since he cannot be at peace with the one without being at war with the other. So he is always divided, and always his own adversary.4

Thus is Man that great and true amphibium, whose nature is disposed to live, not onely like other creatures in divers elements, but in divided and distinguished worlds.5

Human Nature is, in truth, a union of opposites that are not only incongruous but are contrary and conflicting: the spiritual and the physical; the divine and the animal; consciousness and subconsciousness; intellectual power and moral and physical weakness; unselfishness and self-centredness; saintliness and sinfulness; unlimited capacities and limited strength and time; in short, greatness and wretchedness: grandeur et misère.6 But the paradox does not end here. The conflicting elements in Human Nature are not only united there; they are inseparable from one another.

The greatness of Man is great because Man knows that he is wretched. A tree does not know that it is wretched.7… All these miseries are so many proofs of Man’s greatness; they are the miseries of a grand seigneur, the miseries of a king who has been dispossessed.8… One cannot be wretched unless one can feel it. A ruined house is not wretched. Man is the only wretched creature that there is.…9 Man knows that he is wretched, so he is wretched, since this is the fact; but he is also impressively great, because he does know that he is wretched.…10 This ambivalence of Human Nature is so evident that some people have supposed that we have two souls; an undivided personality seems to them incapable of such extreme and abrupt variations, from a boundless presumption to a horrible spiritual prostration.…11 If he boasts himself, I humble him; if he humbles himself, I boast him; in fact, I contradict him all the time until I make him understand that he is an incomprehensible monster.12

Human Nature is an enigma; but Non-Human Nature is an enigma too; and both must be samples of the nature of the universe in which Man finds himself. It is as reasonable to explore the Universe in terms of the one as it is to explore it in terms of the other. Human Nature will not account for the aspect of the Universe that mathematics and physics reveal; but then these will not account for the aspect that is revealed in Human Nature. There is no ground except caprice or prejudice for treating the mathematico-physical aspect of the Universe as being real in any fuller measure than the spiritual aspect is. The mathematico-physical aspect, like the spiritual aspect, is a datum of human consciousness. Our view of the physical universe is no more objective than our view of ourselves. Our experience of the union of conflicting yet inseparable opposites in Human Nature may explain more things in Heaven and Earth than just Man himself. This ordeal of serving as a battlefield on which opposing spiritual forces meet and struggle with one another may be characteristic of the nature, not only of Man, but of all life on this planet. It might even be characteristic of the nature of God, if we use the traditional name for the personal aspect of an Absolute Reality which must have other facets besides. In any case, a human sample of the Universe is as fair a one to take as any other.

This human sample indicates that the Universe is a society of selves, besides being the set of waves and particles that we see through the lenses of mathematics and physics; and in a society of selves there are bound to be both desires and sufferings. This must be so, because a self cannot be self-contained. It cannot insulate itself, and it cannot embrace within itself the sum total of selves and things. If it were not conscious of things or selves outside itself, it could not be conscious of itself either; and consciousness is one of the hall-marks of selfhood. But, if, for this reason, a self cannot either shut out the rest of the Universe or annex it, then two other hall-marks of a self must be the experiences of yearning and of suffering. A self is bound to feel yearnings towards selves or things, outside it, of whose presence or existence it is aware. These yearnings are bound often to be thwarted, since the satisfaction of them lies only partly within the power of the self by which they are being felt; and, where there is frustration, there is pain. The inseparability of desire and suffering from selfhood is attested by the universal experience of Mankind, and all the higher religions agree in taking the fact of this experience for granted. But they differ with one another, as we have seen, over their policies for dealing with a practical problem that arises from the undisputed matter of fact—and this practical problem cannot be evaded. A human being can perhaps avert his mind from the intellectual problem of the mystery of the Universe, but he cannot help yearning and suffering; and a religion that had nothing to say to its adherents about these feelings would ring hollow.

Let us look again at the difference in policy between the Hīnayāna and other higher religions which we have already noticed in the preceding chapter.13 This difference in policy does not arise from any difference in the diagnosis of the facts. The inseparability of selfhood, desire, and suffering is not in dispute. The difference in policy arises from a difference in the valuation of the facts; for different valuations of the same facts produce different answers to the question: What ought to be Man’s paramount objective in the perplexing situation in which he finds himself?

The Hīnayāna arrives at its policy by starting with the value-judgement that the greatest of all evils is Suffering.14 From this premiss it follows that a release from Suffering must be the greatest of all goods; and from that conclusion it follows, in turn, that a human being’s paramount objective ought to be to extinguish Suffering at whatever the price may be. The price turns out to be nothing less than the extinction of the Self; for Suffering cannot be extinguished without the extinction of Desire, and, when Desire is extinguished, the Self is extinguished with it. The opponents of the Hīnayāna do not deny that its prescription for extinguishing Suffering is an effective one. What they deny is that the Hīnayāna’s objective is the right one for a human being to take as his paramount aim, and they deny this because they dispute the Hīnayāna’s initial postulate that Suffering is the greatest evil that there is. As they see it, the Hīnayāna is wrong in its valuation of the facts of Human Nature because it has not penetrated deep enough in its diagnosis.

A religion cannot be true unless it has attained a true knowledge of our nature. It will have to have attained a knowledge of Man’s greatness and of his pettiness, and a knowledge of the reason for both these characteristics of his. What religion has attained this knowledge except Christianity?15

It seems unlikely that, when Pascal was thinking this, he will have had Buddhism, as well as Christianity, in mind. Yet his thought is at least an unconscious criticism of the Hīnayāna and commendation of the Mahāyāna as well as a conscious commendation of Christianity. Christianity and the Mahāyāna arrive at their policy by starting with a distinction, which the Hīnayāna does not draw, between desires of two different kinds and by going on to appraise the two so differently that they place them at opposite extremes of their scale of values.16

According to the Christian-Mahayanian diagnosis, there are self-centred desires, in which the Self yearns for an object outside itself simply in order to exploit this object of desire for the greedy Self’s own satisfaction; and, where it is a question of these self-centred desires, the Christian-Mahayanian and the Hinayanian policies do not differ. The common counsel is: ‘Extinguish them.’ The difference in policy arises when Christianity and the Mahāyāna go on to diagnose another kind of desire which is not self-centred but, on the contrary, is self-sacrificing. Self-sacrifice means, not selfishly extinguishing the Self, but lovingly devoting it to the service of others at the cost of whatever Suffering this service may bring with it.

When a self is yearning in this self-devoting way, it is treating the object of its yearning, not as an ‘it’ which is fair game, but as a ‘thee’ who is sacrosanct because this ‘thou’ is another self. In feeling a desire of the self-devoting kind, the loving self is treating the Universe as a society of selves like itself; in feeling a desire of the self-centred kind, it is treating everything in the Universe outside itself as a soulless set of waves and particles. It is a fact of experience that every human self can and does have desires of these two different kinds, and that the two are not only different but are at opposite poles of the spiritual gamut. Here we have a further manifestation of the paradoxical union, in Human Nature, of opposites that conflict yet are inseparable. And the unceasing struggle which is an unescapable accompaniment of human life in This World is, in truth, a struggle to extinguish our self-centred desires and to follow the lead of our self-devoting desires at whatever the price may be. The price turns out to be Suffering to an extreme degree. The pain to which we expose ourselves through Love is still greater than the pain to which we expose ourselves through Cupidity. In the judgement of Christianity and the Mahāyāna, even the extremity of Suffering is not too high a price to pay for following Love’s lead; for, in their judgement, Selfishness, not Suffering, is the greatest of all evils, and Love, not release from Suffering, is the greatest of all goods.

A synoptic view of the living higher religions thus confronts us with two different policies for the conduct of human life, based on two different diagnoses of the nature of Man and the Universe. Which of the two diagnoses comes the closer to the truth? And which of the two policies will bring us the nearer to the true end of Man?

If a twentieth-century inquirer, brought up in the Christian tradition, found himself called upon to answer these questions as best he could, no doubt he would be likely to declare in favour of Christianity and the Mahāyāna as against the Hīnāyāna. On the question of fact he would find the Hīnayāna’s diagnosis superficial in its failure to distinguish between self-devoting and self-centred desires. He would find that a superficial diagnosis had led to a wrong valuation and a wrong prescription; and he might go on to argue that the Hīnayāna’s policy was also impracticable because, as he saw it, it was self-stultifying. How can a self set itself to extinguish Desire without feeling a desire to extinguish it? On the other hand, how can it succeed in extinguishing Desire so long as the desire to extinguish it remains unextinguished?17 Has not the candidate for Nirvāna embarked on an enterprise in which he is bound to defeat his own purpose? Has he not placed himself in the predicament of a sufferer from insomnia who is making it impossible for himself to fall asleep by longing so anxiously for sleep to overtake him? What he desires is to lose consciousness of himself, and what is thwarting his desire is its self-centredness. This simile brings out the telling point that the Hinayanian arhat’s desire for Nirvāna is a desire of the self-centred kind. For the arhat, in his pursuit of detachment, every other self in the Universe is, not a ‘thou’ to be loved, but an ‘it’ to be repudiated; and a desire that treats persons as if they were things is self-centred even when its only use for them is to be quit of them.

At this point, the statement of the case against the Hīnayāna might be taken over from the spokesman for Christianity by a spokesman for the Mahāyāna. This Buddhist critic of the Hīnayāna would cite the evidence of the Hinayanian scriptures and would argue from it that the Mahāyāna, not the Hīnayāna, is the Buddha’s own school of Buddhism. The Hinayanian scriptures purport to be recording the Buddha’s practice as well as His preaching; and, if their record is true, we are bound to conclude from it that the Buddha was not preaching what He was practising. In preaching, if He did preach this, that Man’s paramount aim ought to be self-extinction, He was recommending to others a course of action which He had rejected for Himself when the Tempter, after His attainment of Enlightenment, had suggested to Him that He should make His exit into Nirvāna without delay. In choosing, instead, deliberately to postpone His own release from Suffering in order to work for the release of His fellow sentient beings, the Buddha was declaring, in a positive act, that, for Himself, He believed that to suffer in the cause of Love was a better course than to release Himself from Suffering through Self-extinction. But, when it is a question of what is the true end of Man, what is right for oneself must be right in itself and therefore also right for other people. So, in making His choice, the Buddha was preaching by example; and this example that He set by the life that He lived must count for more than the teaching that is attributed to Him. Even if He did recommend in His teaching a self-centred pursuit of self-extinction, He was tacitly countermanding His words by His acts of self-devoting love. These acts, which have inspired the Mahayanian ideal of the bodhisattva, seem also to have had more influence than the Buddha’s teaching on the spirit and conduct of everyday life in Hinayanian Buddhist countries. If our Mahayanian critic of the Hīnayāna was candid and charitable, his coup de grace would be this argumentum ad hominem.

The picture, painted for us in the Hinayanian scriptures, of the Buddha resisting His temptation has a Christian counterpart in the passage of Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians which we have quoted.18 Here we have a picture of a self which, like the Buddha after His enlightenment, finds itself in the extraordinary position of being completely master of its situation. Like the Buddha Gautama, Christ Jesus now has it in His power to be immune from Suffering for ever. He finds Himself ‘existing in God’s form’ and ‘on an equality with’ Him; and a self that is in this Godlike state of existence cannot have any unfulfilled desires and therefore cannot be exposed to the pain of being disappointed. Like the Buddha’s access to Nirvāna, Christ’s apotheosis in Heaven might be taken as ‘a prize to be clutched’; but, like the Buddha, Christ resists the temptation. He deliberately chooses the Suffering that is inseparable from Selfhood—and this the extreme Suffering to which a self lays itself open when its ruling passion is not Cupidity but is Love.

In resisting their identical temptation, Christ and the Buddha are each revealing, in action, an identical truth about the Self. A self is a talent which is meant to be used. To withdraw it from circulation by burying it or by melting it down would be contrary to the purpose for which the talent has been issued. This truth is true not only for ordinary selves; it is also true for an enlightened self like the Buddha Gautama’s and for a deified self like Jesus Christ’s. Selfhood is inseparable from Desire, and therefore also inseparable from Suffering, even for a self that has achieved a perfect union with Absolute Reality and even for Absolute Reality Itself in Its personal aspect as God.

What is God? For a man, God means helping one’s fellow-creatures.19

Love is of God.… Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us.… If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and His love is perfected in us.… God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.20

Thus, when a Mahayanian Buddhist or a Christian compares the Hīnayāna with his own faith, he will probably come to the conclusion that his own faith is the better one. It gives, he will probably feel, a deeper insight into the mystery of the Universe; and it holds up a higher ideal of what human beings should try to do with themselves. If this is the Christian’s conclusion, what is the consequent action that he ought to take in a world in which the ‘annihilation of distance’ by Technology is now bringing all the higher religions into ever closer relations with one another? His first impulse might be to act like ‘certain which trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others’;21 and he would find many precedents for this in the histories of Judaism and Islam, as well as Christianity. Yet these precedents would also be warnings. For Pharisaism has been the besetting sin of the religions of the Judaic family, and this sin has brought retribution on itself in a tragic series of atrocities and catastrophes. The fruit of Pharisaism is intolerance; the fruit of intolerance is violence; and the wages of sin is death. The sinfulness and deadliness of the Catholic-Protestant Wars of Religion in Western Christendom was the evil that moved our seventeenth-century Western predecessors to establish religious toleration in the name of Christian charity. In our lifetime we have seen an apparently settled habit of toleration, which we have inherited from our seventeenth-century predecessors, being undermined by secular ideologies which have retained nothing of the Western religious tradition except its pharisaical exclusiveness and fanaticism.

If we find ourselves, nevertheless, still tempted to drop back into a traditional pharisaic rut, we can fortify ourselves against this temptation by recollecting several truths which are so many counsels of charity.

The touchstone of a religion is its comparative success or failure, not merely in divining the truths and interpreting the counsels, but also in helping human souls to take these truths to heart and to put these counsels into action. So the last word has not been said about a religion when we have accepted or rejected its definitions of the nature of Reality and of the true end of Man. We have also to look into the daily lives of its adherents and to see how far, in practice, their religion is helping them to overcome Man’s Original Sin of self-centredness. This is a question which every religion has to abide. And a Christian who rejects the Hīnayÿna’s vision of Absolute Reality and its policy for coping with human life will condemn the Hīnayāna at his peril if his adverse abstract judgement has not been confirmed by personal experience of the spiritual climate of the Hinayanian Buddhist World. If he has not been convinced, by direct observation, that human beings are leading less good lives under the Hinayanian dispensation than under the Christian, it will be unwarrantable for him to pronounce his own religion to be the higher of the two.

We believe that our own religion is the way and the truth,22 and this belief may be justified, as far as it goes. But it does not go very far; for we do not know either the whole truth or nothing but the truth. ‘We know in part’ and ‘we see through a glass, darkly’.23 When the light has shone out into the darkness, the Universe still remains a mystery.24

‘The heart of so great a mystery cannot ever be reached by following one road only.’25 Even if it should prove to be true that the other higher religions have less of the truth in them than ours has, this would not mean that they have in them no truth at all; and the truth that they have may be truth that our own religion lacks. Symmachus’s argument for tolerance has never been answered by his Christian opponents. The forcible suppression of his ancestral religion by the secular arm of a Christian Roman Government was no answer at all. And he has not even been silenced; for, though Symmachus’s ancestral religion is long since extinct, Hinduism lives to speak for Symmachus today.

In the world in which we now find ourselves, the adherents of the different living religions ought to be the readier to tolerate, respect, and revere one another’s religious heritages because, in our generation, there is not anyone alive who is effectively in a position to judge between his own religion and his neighbour’s. An effective judgement is impossible when one is comparing a religion which has been familiar to one in one’s home since one’s childhood with a religion which one has learnt to know from outside in later years. One’s ancestral religion is bound to have so much the stronger hold upon one’s feelings that one’s judgement between this and any other religion cannot be objective. Our impulse to pass judgement between the different living religions ought therefore to be restrained by us till the physical ‘annihilation of distance’ has had time to produce the psychological effects that may be expected from it. A time may come when the local heritages of the different historic nations, civilizations, and religions will have coalesced into a common heritage of the whole human family. If that time does come, an effective judgement between the different religions may then at last begin to be possible. We are perhaps within sight of this possibility, but we are certainly not within reach of it yet.

Meanwhile, all the living religions are going to be put to a searching practical test. ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’26 The practical test of a religion, always and everywhere, is its success or failure in helping human souls to respond to the challenges of Suffering and Sin. In the chapter of the World’s history on which we are now entering, it looks as if the continuing progress of Technology were going to make our sufferings more acute than ever before, and our sins more devastating in their practical consequences. This is going to be a testing-time, and, if we are wise, we shall await its verdict.

If we do not feel that we can afford to wait for Time to do its discriminating work, we are confessing to a lack of faith in the truth and value of the religion that happens to be ours. On the other hand, if we do have faith in it, we shall have no fear that it will fail to play its full part in helping human souls to enter into communion with the presence behind the phenomena and to bring themselves into harmony with this Absolute Reality. The missions of the higher religions are not competitive; they are complementary. We can believe in our own religion without having to feel that it is the sole repository of truth. We can love it without having to feel that it is the sole means of salvation. We can take Symmachus’s words to heart without being disloyal to Christianity. We cannot harden our hearts against Symmachus without hardening them against Christ. For what Symmachus is preaching is Christian charity.

Charity never faileth; but, whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.27

  • 1.

    See Chapter 17, pp. 235–6, and Chapter 18, pp. 243–9, above.

  • 2.

    Pope, An Essay on Man, Ep. ii, line 2.

  • 3.

    Rom. vii. 22–3.

  • 4.

    Pascal, B., Pensées, No. 412 in Léon Brunschwicg’s arrangement.

  • 5.

    Browne, Sir Thomas, Religio Medici, Part I, section 34.

  • 6.

    Pascal, Pensées, Nos. 416 and 443, and, in general, Nos. 397, 423, and 431–3.

  • 7.

    Ibid., No. 397.

  • 8.

    Ibid., No. 398.

  • 9.

    Ibid., No. 399.

  • 10.

    Ibid., No. 416.

  • 11.

    Pascal, Pensées, No. 417.

  • 12.

    Ibid., No. 420.

  • 13.

    See Chapter 19, pp. 274–7, above.

  • 14.

    See Chapter 5, pp. 63–5, above.

  • 15.

    Pascal, Pensées, No. 433.

  • 16.

    See Chapter 5, pp. 63–5, above.

  • 17.

    See Chapter 5, p. 64, above.

  • 18.

    In Chapter 6, p. 86, and in Chapter 19, p. 277, above.

  • 19.

    ‘Deus est mortali iuvare mortalem’—An anonymous philosopher, quoted by Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis, Book II, chap. 7 (5), § 18.

  • 20.

    1 John iv. 7, 10, 12, 16.

  • 21.

    Luke xviii. 9.

  • 22.

    John xiv. 6.

  • 23.

    1 Cor. xiii. 9 and 11.

  • 24.

    John i. 5.

  • 25.

    Symmachus, quoted in Chapter 18, p. 251, above.

  • 26.

    Matt. vii. 20.

  • 27.

    1 Cor. xiii. 8.