Buddhism and Man’s Telos

December 7, 2007

Regarding Buddhism, the telos of man, and “non-self”: my understanding is that Buddhists don’t approach the question of the telos of man in the fashion that the Greeks and Christians do. Instead, Buddhists believe that the universe is governed by the law of karma — what goes around comes around — and that man’s dissatisfaction is rooted in his belief that he has a permanent, unchanging self or soul apart from everything else that exists.

Both beliefs are verifiable, according to Buddhists, by experience; in other words, through the practices of mindfulness and meditation you ought to be able to realize these truths for yourself. Still, sometimes I wonder whether for many Buddhists, the belief in non-self is dogmatic, by which I mean that it is a belief they hold because authority figures have told them it is true rather than because they have verified it through their own practice.

In any case, Buddhism’s great promise is the end of suffering and dissatisfaction; in other words, nirvana, a state of unshakable contentment and bliss not dependent upon conditions. The Buddha is said to have taught that this state could, through dedicated practice, be achieved in a single lifetime.

Returning to the issue of telos, perhaps a Buddhist could say that this state of nirvana is man’s telos, yet a Buddhist would need to qualify such a statement by adding that whether a man achieves his telos is up to him. It depends entirely on whether a man can free himself from delusion and other obstacles by following the Eightfold Path.

To expand upon this point and bring into more closely into dialog with the Western, and specifically Judaeo-Christian tradition, consider the fascinating interpretation of the Genesis account of the fall of man by the zen Buddhist scholar, D.T. Suzuki. An account can be found in “Zen and the Birds of Appetite,” by Thomas Merton. According to Suzuki, what Adam and Even gained when they sinned was indeed the knowledge of good and evil, as they were promised, and yet this knowledge turned out to be ignorance and delusion. They left the state of original innocence, where good and evil are not differentiated (think of a small child, who also does not know good from evil), and entered a state of dualism. The phenomenal world was the same before and after the fall, and yet the change in Adam’s and Eve’s minds was profound. Immediately their own relations became marked by recrimination and then lust and domination.

A charming contemporary depiction of the fall can be found in Disney’s new movie, “Enchanted.” The chipper and originally innocent princess of a fairy tale, played by Amy Adams, ends up in Manhattan and through a series of events loses original innocence and gains the dualistic life we all know, with its downs but also its ups. In fact, the change comes about in one scene where the princess admits that she is . . . angry — a fallen emotion that she has never before experienced.

Returning to Suzuki, perhaps a means of gaining insight into Buddhism is precisely in this differing account of the fall of man. For Buddhists, as for Hindus, man is not so much a sinner as he is a fool. Accordingly, to achieve his end, what man needs is not so much a savior from sin, per se, but a means of dispelling his foolishness and delusion. The Buddhist find this means in the Four Noble Truths and in the practice of the Eightfold Path, which is based on the practice of wisdom, ethical behavior, and concentration.

The glory of Christianity is the felix cupla, the happy fault, the idea that Adam’s sin ultimately benefits man insofar as it is the precondition of the coming of the Savior. In other words, for Christians, man is much better off for being a sinner redeemed through grace by Christ than man would be had he never sinned and therefore not needed Christ.

For Buddhists, ignorant of Christ, the goal is to return to the original innocence and non-differentiation of the garden of Eden. (I’m stating the goal in Christian terms, drawing upon Suzuki, trying to be faithful to Buddhism. Naturally Buddhists don’t normally state the goal this way.)

To the Christian observer, this may seem like an impossible task. After all, Genesis says that God has placed an angel at the entrance to the Garden to keep man from re-entering it. Still, Christians would do well not to dismiss this goal too lightly without considering examples of Buddhists who, through dedicated practice and perhaps also through the working of God’s grace, have achieved a remarkable degree of holiness and innocence. The Dalai Lama, for example, is a remarkably innocent man, as can be seen in interviews where he keeps laughing a childlike laugh.

Moreover, to some extent it appears that Christians, too, are called in a certain sense to return to the garden, albeit through Christ. Who other than one who has become profoundly innocent can practice the Beatitudes? Can someone attached to his ego-self practice the Beatitudes? Or become as a little child? Recall that only one who has become like a child, our Lord tells us, can enter the kingdom of God. To the extent that Buddhism offers proven means of enabling man to overcome certain obstacles to innocence, it can be useful in enabling man to live an authentically Christian life and thus, from the Christian point of view, to fulfill his telos.

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One Response to “Buddhism and Man’s Telos”

  1. JimWilton Says:

    Of course, for most Buddhists the doctrine of egolessness is dogmatic — based on authority or on logic rather than experience.

    I have found teachings on the three prajnas to be helpful. The three prajnas are “hearing, contemplating and meditating”. I understand the prajna of hearing to be an attitude of openness to teachings (such as the teachings on egolessness) — neither accepting nor rejecting the teachings. Although engagement from the heart is helpful, even essential — it is important that the teaching not be accepted at face value.

    Contemplation is intellectual inquiry into the truth of the teachings — comparing them to experience and reasoning based on argument. The analogy is that the prajna of hearing is like reading a menu and the prajna of contemplation is like chewing the food. Here, too, it is important that the inquiry is oriented to finding truth — and not defending territory. Tibetan debaters would famously enter a debate with an understanding that the loser of a debate would convert and accept the argument of the winner. I think in the West, there is a tendency to view this custom as a challenge — as if the debaters were drag racers with the winner getting title to the loser’s car. But, in fact, it is important in making sure that the debaters have the proper motivation and are fully engaged in the prajna of contemplation and not defending territory.

    The third prajna is meditation. This is an understanding that is based on experience and not subject to doubt. It is like Emily Dickinson’s poem: “I found the phrase to every thought I ever had but one; And that defies me as the hand that tried to chalk the sun; To races nurtured in the dark, how would your own begin; Can blaze be shown in cochineal or noon in mazarin?” It is a non-dual, ineffable experience. The analogy is to having digested a meal; it becomes part of you — the truth is not separate. The experience is a sense of the truth coming to you — like a muse — rather than your achieving the understanding. I understand it to be related to devotion — or devotion creates the context and lowers ego’s defenses enough for the truth to be realized.

    So, while we are on the path, we are by definition confused and we are relating to the prajna of hearing and the prajna of contemplating. And that means relating to dogma (although it is dogma that is without a sense of grasping or territory).

    And once we are realized, there is no longer confusion, or path and really no Buddhism. So you could say that for all Buddhists egolessness is dogmatic (in a non-territorial sense). And then egolessness is understood and there is no Buddhism.


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