Archive for November, 2006

Good-Evil Dualism in Music and Work

November 15, 2006

If only one who knows good from evil is capable of sin, and if we should avoid sin, and if by enlightenment it is possible to realize the emptiness of good and evil, then why should we not seek enlightenment?


As is well known, Buddhism teaches that good and evil are empty or, in other words, that neither has any fundamental reality in itself.  Moreover, Buddhism teaches that seeing the world in terms of good and evil is a form of delusion.  For a Christian, these teachings of Buddhism are “hard sayings.”  They are hard to understand, and they appear to be contradicted by much of our own daily experience.  At this stage in my practice of Buddhism, I have not yet appropriated these teachings.  Nevertheless, the insight of these teachings can be illustrated by examining a few examples from daily life: music and work.

Take the example of music.  Music can be wonderful, glorious, beautiful, and deeply moving — but of itself it is neither good nor evil.  It matters not to the quality of the music that Salieri may have been a better person than Mozart, or that Wagner was indisputably a louse.  Is God not pleased by the music of Mozart or Wagner?  Should we not enjoy their music? 

Under an extremely dualistic worldview, the answer might be “No, we should not.”  Under this view, one might believe that every choice we make, or a composer makes, is a moral choice, right down to the note.  Is this so far-fetched?  There is a strain of Christianity that does, in fact, turn every choice we make, and everything we do, into a decision for or against God.  Every moment and circumstance of one’s life is seen as an opportunity to demonstrate love for God — or hatred of him.  Even sleep, it was once explained to me, can be such an opportunity, to the extent that we exercise limited control over our dreams.  Thus, under this view there is no room for innocence (i.e., not knowing good from evil). 

Take another example: as I was riding into work on the Metro today a man beside me was reviewing a patent.  Question: is this action — reviewing a patent — a moral action or not?  To some extent, or from a certain perspective, the answer is yes: if one deliberately pays little attention to what one is doing, fails to ask the relevant questions or seek the answers to the questions, then then reviewer may be guilty of negligence.  Yet willing — which according to Christianity is a necessary component of moral action — is not the primary factor in determining whether the patent will be reviewed well or not.  Much more important is the skill and knowledge of the reviewer; even the attention he pays or does not pay to the task at hand is often not simply a matter of will-power.  If the reviewer finds himself in the “flow” of the task — in other words, in a state that zen practitioners might associate with samadhi — then the work will likely go very well.  By contrast, if the reviewer keeps thinking every few seconds that he is performing an act with moral consequences for his own salvation and that of others, that he may be meriting grace or damnation by his act, etc., then is it likely that he will ever enter into the flow or samadhi that is necessary for the work to be performed with excellence? 

Thus, the dualistic view suffers from this inherent contradiction: one can only perform a meritorious action (i.e., the opposite of sin) through the exercise of one’s will, and yet to perform an action with true excellence one must let go of one’s will and devote oneself fully to the task, thus rendering the action without merit. 


Reflections on Arise My Love, by William Johnston

November 1, 2006

Using Augustine and Aquinas, Johnston explains a couple New Testament passages that I had never before understood.  First, why does Jesus forbid Mary Magdalene from touching him after his resurrection?  Second, why does Jesus tell his disciples that it is better than he return to the Father than stay with them in the flesh?  According to Johnston/Augustine/Aquinas, the reason is that while Jesus’ sacred humanity is, of course, a critical segment of the path toward union with God, attachment to his humanity can prevent us from moving beyond his humanity to the Trinity.  In other words, if we only see the form of a servant, then we won’t be able to enter into the higher state of consciousness that comes from union with the Godhead.  Practically and historically speaking, this is surely true: it would have been pretty hard, if not impossible, for people in Jesus’ time to look at a 33 year-old Jewish carpenter, whose mother and father everyone knew, and see that he is the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity.  Even for us today, there is a paradox that, on the one hand, Christ’s humanity is for us a bridge, perhaps the primary bridge, to the Trinity, and yet, on the other hand, there is a danger that we can focus too much on his humanity (isn’t this what some scholars do who are ever in search of the “historical Jesus”?) and hence on what is contingent (even Christ’s humanity is created), dualistic, etc. and ignore the Godhead, which surpasses images, dualities, etc.  Another insight from Johnston — it’s really part Johnston and part my own interpretation of recent readings from Augustine’s Trinity — is that the Christian mystical tradition can answer some of the objections raised by the Buddhist and Hindu East to the alleged “dualism” of Christianity, but at the same time everyday Christianity could benefit from a dose of the Christian mystical tradition (and perhaps even the non-dualistic mystical tradition of the East).  Specifically, as you know Buddhists reject dualism, i.e., that something is this and not that.  (In fact, my favorite zen koan treats this point.  The zen master sits in front of the novice monks in the monastery meditation hall and holds the kyosaku (stick used to slap drowsy monks, release their energy, and help them toward awakening) in one hand. He says: “Say this is a stick and you affirm. Say it is not a stick and you deny.  Now which is it?  Somebody give me an answer fast!”  A very bright novice rises, takes the stick from the master, cracks it over his knee, and replies “What’s this?”)  It’s hard for us in the West, I think, to understand how it is possible to move beyond dualities; to do so looks like an improper negation.  Yet take a look at the Trinity.  Christ and the Father are one (Christ says so), and yet they are not one.  They are essentially the same, and yet they are also different.  The divine essence is the same in each, yet there is a difference in relationship.  Whence this difference in relationship?  How, if God is simple, can there be a “part” or “aspect” of God that is Father and one that is Son?  We were not able to answer this question at out last Augustine seminar.  At the level of the human and divine, St. Paul can say “It is not I but Christ who lives in me,” thus asserting identity and indwelling, and yet he also speaks of Christ as being different and in a way “outside” himself.  According to this Christian mystical tradition, our destiny is to be one with God (“God will be all in all” says the New Testament, and, “In the end it will be one Christ loving himself” says Augustine) and yet there will still be “room” for us to cry out “Abba, Father!”  I recall that in the dialogue with Thomas Merton in Zen and the Birds of Appetite, D.T. Suzuki criticizes the Christian mystical tradtion for not going far enough along the path of non-dualism.  On the contrary, maybe the Buddhists go too far, and the Christian mystical tradition does go very far indeed.  A good practical starting place on our side of the religious dialogue, it seems to me, would be to use the Christian mystical tradition (which is rooted in Scripture and in Trinitarian theology) as a counterweight to some of the dualism of everyday Christian practice (for example, the notion that God is in a place called heaven and not here, or that God is an object outside us), which it seems to me the Buddhists and Hindus are right to criticize. 

Why Do We Need to Be Saved: Buddhist and Christian Views Explored

November 1, 2006

Why do Buddhists say that grasping is the cause of suffering? Suffering is the first noble truth, and grasping is the second. Rather, is not suffering the cause of grasping? Why would we grasp unless we suffered? And why do we suffer? Because we delude ourselves about the nature of reality? And why do we do this? Not even the wise know.**

Buddhists and Christians can agree that the actual state of the world (which includes ourselves), at least as we perceive it and experience it, is disordered.  Why?  As I understand the Buddhist answer, it is: because we are deluded and therefore grasp.  The Christian answer is: because man disobeyed God and sinned.  Yet we should not ignore the very intimate link between delusion and sin, and thus it may be that the real difference between the Buddhist view and the Christian view is not as great as is commonly believed.   

Sin leads to delusion and delusion leads to sin. Christianity take aim primarily at sin, while not ignoring delusion. Buddhism takes aim at delusion, and though its notion of sin is relatively weak it does exist.

What is the fundamental delusion? Go back to Genesis. It is the lie told to Eve by the serpent, and it has two elements. First, man is not like God and must therefore do something to become like God. Second, in order to become like God man must do what God has forbidden him to do: know good from evil. The serpent’s temptation is thus the temptation to regard the universe in dualistic terms. Buddhist enlightenment means snapping out of this delusion and thereby returning to a state of original innocence, a state of oneness with the universe. Moral conduct — the Eightfold Path (e.g., right speech, right livelihood) — is seen as an aid to the attainment of enlightenment as well as the kind of action that flows naturally from a fully enlightened person.

For Christians, overcoming the fall and its effects requires participation in the paschal mystery of Christ who, being both God and man, is able through his sacrifice to reconcile man to God and restore man’s original innocence. Christ surely conquers sin, but he is also the Light and the Truth. In the words of the Second Vatican Council, Christ “fully reveals God to man and man to himself.” And how does he do this? In his own person he embodies the unity of God and man and by his life and teaching he calls man back to the life of innocence from which man turned his back in the garden of Eden.

That is why, for example, Christ rejects Moses’ law on divorce, which was given to men because of the hardness of their hearts, and restores marriage to its state “in the beginning,” a state of perfect oneness. Who can practice the beatitudes but one who lives in innocence and simplicity? Why does Christ say we must become like little children to enter the kingdom of God? Christ calls us to oneness with God and each other. He calls us to move beyond knowing good from evil to a life of wholeness, simplicity, gratitude, and, above all, self-giving love.

What Zen Can Teach Christians About the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Eucharist

November 1, 2006

In the ninth chapter of Zen Gifts to Christians, Robert Kennedy, SJ sums up a set of critically important points that Zen Buddhism has to teach Christians, or rather remind us of, about some of the fundamental mysteries of our faith.  In future posts I hope to discuss what may be right and what may be wrong about Kennedy’s statement, and I hope that readers will also offer their comments.  Here it is:

Speaking to us in our theological langauge, Zen Buddhists would say that Christ and the Father are one, and to say that there are two persons is misleading.  There is only one God with one intelligence, one will, and one salvific intent.  The Father is everything invisible in the Son and the Son is everything visible in the Father.  They are one beyond any duality.  Analogously there is no dualism between God and the world.  They are not two things or separate realities.  They would agree with St.  Thomas Aquinas that creation adds nothing to the sum total of reality and that the world is the manifestation of its creator and adds nothing to the creator’s existence.  They would say that Jesus is the incarnation of God and the sign or sacrament of what we too are and must always be.

Zen Buddhists would claim that the union of the absolute and the relative in Jesus is not an absolutely unique miracle that excludes the rest of humanity, and that analogously you and I are not two separate realities but one.  They would very much contend [sic — he means agree] with St. Augustine that there is only one Christ loving himself, one reality with many faces.  And finally since the absolute and relative can never be separated, they would hold that there is no separation between the Jesus of history and the universal Christ of faith, and that the Eucharist is not a sign pointing to a distant God but a fact revealing the eternally present Father, Christ, you, and me.  For Zen Buddhists what can be distinguished must never be separated. 

The Zen Buddhists would agree completely that the Eucharist is not just a symbol that points to or represents an absent reality.  Rather the Eucharist renders present what it expresses.  This bread and wine is the body and blood of Christ.  So similarly are the mountains and rivers the body and blood of Christ.  What else could the universe possibly be?