Buddhist Wisdom and Christian Love

Buddhism Wisdom and Christian Love

Two conversations with Buddhist friends remain etched indelibly in my mind. They happened early on during my years in the university. Victor questioned me after several hours of discussion and in response to an invitation to accept God’s salvation as revealed in the Bible. “Why insist that the football is white when it contains both black and white? He was resting his assertion on the Buddhist doctrine that all truth claims are relative. I should have countered his argument by asking him how he was able to distinguish two absolutely different colours. Victor later became the president of a dynamic Buddhist organization.

Lipner Tan chipped in, “I prefer Buddhism since it challenges me to develop my mind to the utmost. It offers a path of wisdom for mental development. Even if I fail to attain liberation in this life (to escape from rebirth into the world of illusion, i.e., Samsara), Buddhism offers hope for more opportunities in later rebirths.” Lipner also subsequently became the head of another national Buddhist organization.

I was disappointed that my Buddhist friends rejected the Gospel, but I respected their decision knowing that they were thoughtful people. Buddhism, with its sophisticated metaphysics and psychological insights understandably seems to promise intellectual satisfaction. Above all, it promises wisdom. The path of Buddhist meditation, comprising discipline and mindfulness (that is, awareness of every detail of our thoughts and actions) is presented as a practical method that promises eventual results of peace and equanimity.

Wherein lays the attraction of Buddhism? We can begin by looking at the four noble truths taught by the Buddha: (1) Universal Suffering: Sorrow permeates the universe and suffering underlines all aspects of life. (2) Origin of Suffering: Craving for existence and the illusory pleasures of life drive people into feverish activities. These activities in turn produce karma that perpetuates rebirth and suffering. (3) Nirvana, the end of suffering: The end of suffering comes when one attains the state of Nirvana, that is detachment from material things that generate illusory desires. (4) The Eight-fold Path – comprising right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration – is the way of liberation from suffering.

Buddhist wisdom begins with the perception that reality is essentially transient and empty of permanent significance. Meditation reinforces this insight since meditation techniques are designed to break down the sense of a coherent self or ego. Buddhist logic suggests that if the most ‘solid datum’ of life – being our sense as an individual and unique self – can be eventually broken down into detached, unrelated states of consciousness, then surely the world is equally illusory. The insight gained from meditation is translated into mindfulness based on the wisdom of the eightfold path so that desires for attachment and wrong action can be eliminated by skillful means. In short, awareness of the transience of life leads to detachment. Detachment from clinging desire results in liberation from suffering.

The austere life of a monk elicits admiration from people who are seeking disciplined role models for their lives. Lay-Buddhists testify to having found strength to endure stoically the setbacks of life. If life is essentially transient, then one should not be distressed by the fickle fortunes of life. Indeed, if one has no expectations then one should not be disappointed. The earnestness with which some Buddhists pursue wisdom, to the point of being prepared to withdraw from society and renounce the material world, poses a challenge to Christians to examine themselves, to see if they are serious about their beliefs.

But one wonders if it is necessary or even desirable to go to such lengths to achieve such a stoical detachment from life. Endurance is a praiseworthy trait, but it is a thin line between going through life with a grimace or with a smile. The words from a song by Simon & Garfunkel come to mind.

I am a rock
I am an island

I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need for friendship
Friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain.

Don’t talk of love
Well, I’ve heard the word before
It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I’d never loved,
I never would have cried

I am a rock
I am an island
And the rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

Ascetic, reclusive monks can choose to be impervious to relationships by brutally cutting off all human ties and relationships and retreating from society. But normal people must interact with other people daily and in doing so must embrace both the joys and pains that come with being in relationships. The Japanese poet Issa (1762-1826) knew this well. Issa’s five children died before he was thirty. Shortly after his young wife died, he sought advice from a Zen master. The Zen master reminded him that the world was dew. In response he wrote a poignant poem (haiku),

The world is dew –
The world is dew –
And yet,
And yet . . . [translation]

The heart filled with desolate longing can only find cold comfort in the indifference of a resolute mind or metaphysical insight. For this reason, while Christianity shares some common grounds with Buddhism in its acute awareness that life, for all its attractiveness is fundamentally fragile, Christianity refuses to take the extreme of the Buddhist position that declares, “all is emptiness.” The writer of Ecclesiastes only pronounces that “All is vanity”. The difference is profound in that Christianity locates the root problem on humans rather than on the world, since creation is the theater of God’s glory and the source of abundant blessings from God. As the great Christian mystic, Saint John of the Cross explains, “It is not the things of this world that ensnare and injure the soul, for they do not enter within it, that is the ego which always seeks itself and therefore abuses and destroys.” The sinful ego is the source of perversion that destroys the goodness of God’s creation.

Both the Christian and the Buddhist agree that the journey to wisdom begins with the heart, the inner life. For the Buddhist wisdom is an insight gained through techniques that unmask the illusions that ensnare the self. Even our most cherished human relationships must be subject to the same ruthless scrutiny. Wisdom or true insight into the impermanence of nature delivers us from attachment to impermanent things that fail to satisfy us ultimately.

The Christian, however, has a different understanding about wisdom. Wisdom is seeing the true nature of things the way God sees them. To the extent that God confers significance to creation and to our fellow human beings, we likewise, must accept and appreciate them. More importantly, such wisdom or divine insight is not attained by human effort. Such wisdom is conferred to the soul, our innermost and most authentic self, through love.

The Bible testifies that we are able to love because God first infuses us with his love (1 John 4:19). This divine love is likened to an inner fire that moulds all our thoughts and feelings in a purification process of our inner life so that we become essentially “Being-in-love.” As the mystic F. W. Faber writes,

Burn, burn O love within my heart
Burn fiercely night and day
Till all the dross of earthly love
Is burned, and burned away.

Faber was only echoing the dramatic verse in the Bible that celebrates the power of divine love infusing our lives.

Its flashes are flashes of love,
a raging flame
Many waters cannot quench love
neither can floods drown it (Song of Songs 8:6,7).

The centrality of love ensures that Christian contemplatives move beyond self-centred inward spirituality. After all, love requires a Thou. While the Buddhist slogan says “‘I’ am not and ‘you’ are not (anatta)”, the Christian contemplative says, “I am because Thou art.” Such solidarity of community of believers is the beautiful message of the Christian sacraments. For example, in the Eucharist, Christians re-enact the union between the Christ and his people who partake of his Body. 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 makes this clear, “And is not the participation of the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf.”

In contrast to Buddhist meditation that aims towards dissolving the self, Christians find affirmation and fulfillment of their real self in their relationship with Christ. Bernard Claivaux profoundly captures the consequences of such a ‘union of friendship’. He says, “One who is contemplative in relating to God will be contemplative in relating to people and even in relating to nature. That is to say, the contemplative relates at a deeper level as in the prayer of quiet or the prayer of union; and when such a loving relationship is mutual there will result a silent communion, a deep indwelling from which such a spiritual child is born. The friendship will bear fruit like the branch that dwells in the vine” (quoted by William Johnston, Mystical Theology, p. 200).

Finally, both the Buddhist and the Christian would agree that right view should result in right action. It does not come as a surprise that the apostle of love, John, in his epistle of love is forthright in insisting that the transforming friendship with God should lead to care for the brethren. He writes, “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with word or tongue but with action and in truth” (1 John 3:16-17).

I still remember my Buddhist friends now and then. Undoubtedly, regardless of their intellectual insistence that one must live by the insight concerning the emptiness (transience, impermanence) of life, they have worked hard to be successful in the world. Evidently, they have become accomplished corporate figures in the City. The 30 years that have passed since our conversation has taught me to be modest in my expectations from life. I have had my ups and downs, but because I have experienced the sustaining love of Christ, recognized the beauty of God’s creation and appreciated the simple joys of human relationships, I continue to affirm that “Life for all its troubles is still worth living.” Meanwhile, I cannot help but wonder how my successful Buddhist friends reconcile their material and worldly success with the Buddhist goal of escaping from the wheel of life.