Jesus and Buddha (2)

As the last post (Aug 22, Reflections on Jesus and Buddha) indicated, I believe the principal difference between Jesus and Buddha is not in their moral vision but in the relational and motivational context that gave a their recommended behavior a special character. Jesus lived in a hieratic, religious context where the world was believed to have been created and micro-man­aged by a personal “God.” For the Jews, the real reality ― what gave substance and direction to human life ― was the “contract,” the relationship to “God.” The moral law may have been updated by Jesus’ insights, but the relationship was the same.

The Buddha, on the other hand, had an unmistakably skeptical attitude toward the gods and anything that smacked of forces originating in another world that were believed to neutralize or reverse awareness of our impermanent condition. While he never denied the existence of the gods, he considered all such beliefs to be distractions that militated against the detachment required to end selfish craving and the suffering it entailed. It was the realization that all things were empty of permanent existence that spurred the necessary detachment.

Buddha denied the possibility of achieving permanence through any activity whatsoever and saw its pursuit as a myth. Mindless striving after the impossible not only created frustration and suffering, but also generated an untold amount of injustice as individuals stampeded over one another in the effort to acquire the symbols of the permanent possession of life: wealth, status, power, pleasure.

Basing myself on modern science, I attribute Buddhism’s perception of radical impermanence to the fact that existence is material. Matter is subject to the second law of thermodynamics as expressed in entropy. The discrete quanta of energy that constitute matter come together in an evolving process of integration and complexification and then come apart in the dissipation and dissolution that accompanies the return to equilibrium. We experience it on the biological level as birth and death.

That proposition, however, goes a step beyond Buddha’s message. Buddha avoided all physical/metaphy­si­cal speculation about the nature of reality and confined himself to a description of how it behaved. Reality ― all of it, including the human organism ― displayed a radical impermanence. No formation of whatever kind, no matter how well constructed and protected against change, was self-subsistent, and none endured. All things were in a constant state of flux ― coming together and coming apart dependent on a myriad of factors other than themselves ― and given the craving of the human organism for permanent existence, this impermanence was the source of all our suffering and the wellspring of our competitive injustice and self-destructive addictions.

Eschewing any reference to the gods or other forces not of this world, Buddha could confront the problem directly and undistracted. On the one hand there was the human conatus that is an instinctive irrepressible organic drive to continue to be-here bred into every biological organism by evolution, and on the other, there was a universal process whereby all composites dissolved back into their components in the inevitable return to equilibrium. This process included the human body and stood in direct contradiction to its own innate desires, hard-wired by evolution. Every last bit of it came and went like the morning mist.

This made reality, for humankind, an intrinsic dilemma … and insuperable. The human organism could not deny or disregard its desire for permanent life without becoming suicidal or at least self-destructive in some way. And the material universe ― which paradoxically included the human organism itself with all its drives ― did not have the wherewithal to provide what that desire wanted. It was a total impasse.

That meant life, for the Buddha, was absurd. He had no trouble saying that. He said existence was “empty” and called it a “mirage.” Life was a scam, a delusion. He called for endless compassion for all the biological organisms (“sentient beings”) who were caught in this trap. If you are to end suffering, you have to first acknowledge and confront the delusion. Then you must transcend it. Your motivation is to end your suffering. You begin by loving yourself and your people. Then you can look clear-eyed at what has to be done. If you have any relationship in all this, it is to yourself.

Jesus, it must be said at this point, had no such liberty. Like the Buddha, Jesus saw what had to be done if people were to live in peace and with justice, but he was locked into a world­view inherited from his Jewish forebears. For Jesus, this same material universe that the Buddha looked at with a cold and cynical eye, was the gift of a loving father. Given Jesus’ belief system, you could not look at reality with the same detachment and disdain as the Buddha. For Jesus, all things were good. They were not an empty mirage. Life was not a scam. This life was supposed to be a paradise. It was our sins ― our lack of trust in God and the selfishness that resulted from it ― that cast us out of paradise, nothing else; that was the meaning of the Genesis myth. The cravings that the Buddha saw as the enemies of personal control and inner peace, for Jesus were the generous gift of a benevolent creator, who also created the object of that craving. The discipline required was for their proper use, not for their disposal as trash.

The relationship to God determined everything. Notice how this changes the picture. For the Jews both the craving and its object are good. The only condition was that they were to be pursued in accordance with the will of the “person” who made them, who established their “purpose,” and who gave them to humankind as gifts. The Jewish universe was centered on “God.” Things were not as they appeared. Their appearances ― the impermanent phenomena of experience ― which seemed random, meaningless and uncaring for humankind, were in fact something entirely different. They were gifts from God. But their real permanent and loving reality could only be known by revelation ― know­ledge that came from another world.

For Jesus, the modification in behavior that this implied had to be understood as a command from “God” ― necessarily from another world ― no matter how gently and invitingly that command was issued. It made human behavior a matter for the God of that other world to decide and the import of human behavior was the effect it had on the relationship to “God” who lived in the other world.  Whereas with the Buddha, correct human behavior was determined by the Dharma ― our conscience reading the “law of nature” ― it was our guide to happiness because we were part of nature. But to comply with it was a free choice. We were encouraged by the Buddha to make that decision on one basis only: what is good for us … what will end our suffering … what will take us beyond sorrow … what will give us joy and guarantee peace in our communities. Living by the Dharma will make us happy; it is the relationship to ourselves and our communities that motivates our choice.

Polar opposites

I want to draw attention to the huge difference in these two dynamics. Even though both Buddha and Jesus are calling for the same moral responses, and in many cases, moral responses (like non-violence) that are similarly counter-intuitive to the customs of their times, they did not agree on the real significance of their teachings ― what those behavioral modifications meant for the relationships in which people found their primary identity and ultimate destiny. For Jesus your identity was grounded in God’s creative act and fatherly love, hence, morality was your loving obedience to God’s “law;” for the Buddha your identity was your self-possession and personal detachment: your hard-won emotional freedom grounded in your control over your mind and its imaginings sustained by your insight into the emptiness of all things, hence, morality was the practice of meditation and submission to the Dharma.

The difficulty that people encounter in trying to integrate these two religious perspectives does not have to do with moral response or ascetical practice. What appears on the surface as a “slam dunk” in terms of agreement on program, reveals itself to be a profound difference that I believe recapitulates the original human dilemma ― the desire for permanence in an impermanent universe. Each tradition has impaled itself on one of the two opposing horns of the dilemma. Let me explain what I mean.

Jesus’ Jewish perspective opts for a permanence that I consider imaginary. To him, the world was not the welter of ephemeral phenomena we see unfolding before our eyes, it is really the rock-solid unchanging eternal love of a creating “Father” that is invisible to unaided human sight. The traditional theist view of the world, mis-interpreting the exquisite interconnectedness of the physical world and attributing that order to a rational benevolent Creator “God”-person, projects a permanent ground that belies the impermanence and randomness obvious to experience and confirmed by modern science. That view collapses on the issue of divine providence.

Divine Providence means “God” has control over every detail of cosmic and human history. But a moment’s reflection reveals that catastrophes like the Nazi Holocaust and the Haitian earthquake that were responsible for an untold number of deaths of innocent people, in the latter case mostly children, could never have occurred if a rational benevolent “God”-person with the capacity to prevent these horrendous effects were actually watching over and guiding the affairs of humankind. No provident “Father” would ever have permitted such things to occur to his children. So either “God” doesn’t have the power to stop these events, or if “he” could but chooses not to for whatever reason, “he” is not rational and benevolent. Jesus’ loving all-powerful Father is not consistent with the world of human experience.

The Buddha, on the other hand, opted for an exclusive randomness and impermanence. His worldview, adjusted 400 years later by the Mahayana Reform at the turn of the common era, provided no objective grounds for the universal compassion he enjoined on his followers which became the Buddhist ideal. There was no loving father to imitate. There was no infinite eternal generosity that established the paradigm of the bodhisattva ― the ideal Buddhist who renounced the bliss of nirvana in order to struggle for the liberation of all. Compassion for the Buddha was completely self-grounded, an entirely subjective phenomenon. It was the product of his own personal outrage evoked by insight into the delusional nature of human suffering. Its only identified source was the trap created by the mirage of reality and his own personal sensibilities. That instinctive compassion of the Buddha was then transformed by the Mahayana Reform into an ontological ground for the future bodhisattvas who followed him. They imitated and were inspired by HIS compassion which was given divine status. But there was no basis for compassion in nature. The Buddha’s compassion sprang full blown and totally original from his person. The world was a fortuitous network of unrelated emptiness and impermanence; human empathy was a unique phenomenon.

The human being and the community of humankind were the only forces in the universe capable of compassion … and compassion stemmed from empathy: i.e., the ability to see that others’ sufferings are the same as one’s own. The result of this emphasis of the Buddha is the ironic focus on the self as the exclusive source and ground of all morality, social justice, liberation and growth in generosity. The paradox is that the supposed linchpin of the Buddha’s spiritual program is anatman ― his claim that the self is an illusion ― a mirage, like everything else that we experience. Empathy itself is impermanent. This is an anomaly of the Buddha’s vision as glaring and inexplicable as Jesus’ insistence on the hovering protection of a loving “Father” who did nothing to prevent his torture and assassination by the Roman thugs. How can the “self” that supposedly does not exist, the “self” whose insane cravings for a non-existent permanence are the source of all human suffering, now be called upon to ground, pursue and sustain the entire Buddhist program of personal transformation into selfless generosity?

Coming at it from the opposite (objective) side of the question: how can the abundance and compulsive expansiveness of life, resulting in this vast intricate, complex and interconnected network we know as our world, arise in a universe of discrete, radically unconnected particles and forces? And why has the conatus ― the instinct for permanence ― evolved as the principal innate drive in all animal life, not just human?   The Buddha does not address these issues.  His interest was not speculative; it was stone practical. He wanted to end human suffering. Having discovered the causes of suffering and how to conquer them in himself, he felt driven to share his discoveries with all who would listen. But the lacunae left by his disregard for physics/metaphysics leaves the rest of us frustrated. We might know “how,” but we are left wondering “why?” Buddhists may answer, “we don’t need to know why.” But it’s a question that springs from the very core of what we are, and we ‘suffer’ until we have an answer.

This line of questioning can also be put to Jesus from the point of view of his principal insight: the permanence and solidity of the love of a Father “God.” How can belief in such a “God” correlate with the utter mayhem in natural events and human social affairs that causes so much human suffering and destruction? The belief in divine providence and the miraculous interventions that such a belief implies, are patently incredible. How can you square your “faith” with reality? There are, in fact, no miracles. There is no intervention of “God” in human history or in the processes of the natural world. Belief in providence is an illusion that ends up baptizing whatever actually happens as the “will of God.” In this form it confers divine approbation on the status quo and glorifies the rich and powerful.

The Christian religion, whose ritual program can be characterized as begging this provident miracle-working “God” for divine interventions ― to win wars, to punish enemies, to be restored to health, to achieve success, to have adequate rainfall and good harvests ― is being abandoned by myriads of people who have become aware of its incredibility. There are no miracles, and to ask for them borders on insanity.

The turn to Buddhism on the part of many people in the west represents the recognition that, whatever its failures in identifying the ultimate constituents of reality, Buddha’s vision faithfully describes the real world and our interactions with it; it is preferable to the Christian fantasy of a humanoid “God” whose providence is a joke. Buddhism brackets “God,” and provides a practical program of self-develop­ment that is completely consistent with both experience and modern science. And, while Buddhism may not offer a scientific or metaphysical ground for the compassion and generosity it promotes, it acknowledges that these aspirations are universally human and offers a concrete path for achieving them.

The “Religions of the Book,” Judaism, Islam and Christianity, however, will continue to claim that the source of the spontaneous compassion that wells up in the human heart is a loving and protective Father, the compassionate heart of the universe. That means they will always have the anomaly that theodicy was created to resolve: how can a provident all-powerful and “compassionate” God design and sustain a universe where an innate human conatus that seeks eternal permanence must search for it among random events where no permanence of any kind is possible … resulting in universal personal suffering and widespread social injustice?

My answer is: it can’t. Unless you are willing to ignore your own rationality altogether, there is no way to reconcile the traditional Western image of “God” with the reality of the world as we know it. They simply do not compute. So either “God” is something so different from our traditional imaginings that the word “provident” no longer applies, or there simply is no “God” at all.

LIFE

I opt for a different “God.” I believe there is a way to resolve the anomalies of the messages of both Jesus and Buddha and simultaneously reconcile them to one another. And that is to understand that the material energy ― the being-here ― of which our universe is constructed is a non-personal, non-rational LIFE that is characterized by an effusive expansiveness which through the transcendent creativity of evolution has emerged in the form of the generous, compassionate human biological organism that is totally identified with being-here. In concrete terms, that means my “self.” My conatus, like the conatus of all biological organisms, is the primal expression of that identity for me. All things are simply evolved forms of material LIFE and are the expressions of its existential self-embrace; they cannot even imagine not being-here. The “desire for immortality” is a secondary, rationally elaborated proposition derived from the subsequent realization that life ends in death. It is specifically human. Animals do not have such a wish because it never occurs to them that life will ever end, and until we are reminded of it, neither do we. The conatus is pure drive, not thought; but it can be reconfigured by thought.  

Understanding “God” as LIFE ― matter’s living, existential energy ― brings together the visions of Jesus and Buddha. The relationship to “God” and the relationship to my “self” are now no longer two different things. They are seen to be one and the same thing.

This material LIFE, of which we are an emergent form, is what Jesus’ tradition had been calling “God” whose will was the Torah, and what the Buddha saw expressed in the Dharma. It is not a person; it is not rational; it has no purposes or intentions in our sense of those words; it does not design or manage the forms and events of the universe. It is not an entity apart from the material entities it composes and enlivens. It is the living super-abundant and self-sharing ENERGY that constitutes everything in our universe, making it a process with an unmistakable direction: toward more LIFE. This LIFE is on display in an infinity of forms corresponding to the level of complexification achieved by evolution. And one of its forms ― the one most accessible to my observation ― is my own biological organism, my “self.” If I want to discover what LIFE is, I have to plumb my own depths.

This “solution” provides Buddha with the solid ground that supports his program of compassion and compliance with the Dharma, and it provides Jesus with the reason why “God” lets the sun shine and the rain fall equally on the just and the unjust. It gives the Buddha the reason for the “permanent” features of his vision, like compassion and embrace of the Dharma, and it explains why Jesus mistakenly thought that an uncaring “God” had forsaken him on the cross.

 

 

 

4 comments on “Jesus and Buddha (2)

  1. Noel McMaster says:

    Very readable, Tony, as usual. Not for the first time I thought of “Godel’s Theorem” which purports to prove that we are more than material stuff, that we cannot be reduced to it, say, as material reductionists claim, i.e., in the end we could be explained by a computer program. One simple, too simple probably, illustration of the value of Godel’s Theorem is in the situation that might present us with the ‘program’ that is us, one by one. So presented we can ‘consciously’ outwit such a program by acting other than in accordance with what it has presented as ultimately us. Our consciousness transcends the material, though always dependent on it for our human expressions of value, disvalue etc.
    Do you have any comment on such a line of thought?

  2. tonyequale says:

    Noel,

    Thanks for your comment.

    You bring up one of my prime bugaboos: mindless reductionism. I believe it is one of the clear-est examples of the myopia that has descended upon western thought most intensely since Descartes, but in essence since Plato. Once we decided to divide spirit from matter and assign various phenomena of experience to one or the other according to our rationally justified opin-ions, we have locked ourselves into some form of reductionism. And as in all true myopia, since the only thing we have to look with is our benighted eyes, we cannot see it. It forms an abso-lute horizon. It is just reality.

    But I want to say at the outset, the belief in the existence of spirit as a separate and independ-ent “kind” of “thing” is the flip-side of “materialist reductionism.” They are the two sides of one coin. If you hold the one you have to hold the other. Dualism is not the answer to what you are defining as the problem. If you insist on a separate and transcendent “spirit” as you seem to do, you are contributing to the reductionism.

    One of the aspects of the Buddhist program that challenges reductionism is the ability of the “self” to reconfigure its conatus, which has been deformed by sunconscious daydreaming fed by our spontaneous urges, into a new “instinct for self-preservation” based on rationally intro-duced motivations. This “discovery” is not particularly religious or even Buddhist. The lacklus-ter kid who decides to become an Oplympic champion, or the alcoholic who decides on sobriety have to make the same discovery. They can change themselves through thought and training and a community of support. Metaphysically how do you explain the ability of the “self” to transcend it”self” and effectively create a new “self?”

    Here is the answer I gave to that question in my post “Materialism and Mindfulness” of October 2, 2017 which I have set as the opening “page” on my blog. The following comes from section 5:

    But the “self” formed by unconscious habits is not the last word. The very ability to observe one’s own behav-ior as if from the outside, and then assert that one’s intentions are different from what the established “self” is feeling and doing, indicates that there is a source of identity that transcends the sub-conscious mind habit-uated to negative thinking. That source of present-moment identity can be called the “true self,” or the transcendent self for it transcends its own habituation. The choices it makes represent the posture of the fully aware conscious organism, no longer distracted, but mindful of itself and its surroundings and increasingly attentive to the present moment as the fruit of its meditative practice.

    This is the point when we come face to face with the mystery of our existence as human beings. For the ability to stand back and look at oneself feeling and acting seems to draw on a source of conscious identity that transcends the organism’s unconscious mental operations. If such a source of identity did not exist the work of the unconscious conatus would be entirely opaque: the mind would not be able to see past it; the only thing perceptible would be what the runaway conatus was presenting for consumption. Where does this other identity come from?

    Some claim that there is an Absolute Self that exists underneath or alongside the relative self of our routine mindlessness. Each human individual, they say, is potentially energized by either self and chooses which of those selves they will activate to let dominate their attitudes and behavior — in effect that there are two selves that we have recourse to as we choose. I can understand how observation of distracted human behav-ior and the awareness of human potential might lead someone to say that. But I believe on metaphysical grounds that the human organism is only one thing and it is driven by only one conatus. And it is one and the same mind that either notices or doesn’t notice.

    The ability of the mind to double back on itself and look at itself doing what it does as a mind is a feature of our reality that we have traditionally ascribed to “spirit.” But I say there is no separate spirit. What we are looking at is the ability of matter as configured in the neurological components of the human organism to focus or not focus on the content of its consciousness, to be mindful or to be forgetful, to attend to the present moment or let itself drift distractedly into imagery from the past or projected into the future or provided whole cloth by the local culture. The energy is the same whether distracted or attentive. The conatus is the same whether it is mindlessly pursuing self-aggrandizement, accusing others of hostility and betrayal, dwelling on prejudicial tribe-generated judgments or intentionally being activated by a mindful consciousness to generate conscientious alternatives to rancor and conflict.

    At the risk of stating the obvious, it seems clear to me that to avoid the scylla and charybdis of reductionism and idealism you have to understand that the “stuff” that our tradition has been erroneously calling “matter” and “spirit” is actually only one “kind” of thing capable of display-ing effects that we have traditionally called “material” or “spiritual” depending upon the level of neurological and hormonal development and complexification achieved by evolution. This one “stuff” contains within itself and as part of its intrinsic constituency all the dimensions of reality that we actually see on display in our universe. These potentialities are activated or lay dormant depending upon the configuations achieved by this evolving “stuff.”

    This one “stuff” is matter’s living, existential ENERGY. It’s not really a “thing” like a table or a parakeet. It is an energy that pervades and suffuses the universe accounting for not only parti-cles, and their characteristics like electromagnetism and gravity, but the very constitution of spacetime itself. All things are the evolved forms of that same energy. Life and consciousness are, like electromagnetism and gravity, dimensions and characteristics of matter’s living energy. There is no duality of any kind … there is only one thing and WE ARE THAT.

    We are indeed the offspring of that ENERGY, that LIFE … for in it we live and move and have our being.

    Tony

  3. Noel McMaster says:

    Thanks, Tony.

    I suppose into the indefinite future we will continue with complexity and chaos – in the technical sense of those terms that limit us to our particular ‘faiths’: we wager on what we judge to be our doing, living, of the truth (orthopraxis). From your point of view,I would wonder when there will be a realisation of what you describe as the ultimate “that we are”, i.e., energy. Alternatively, from my point of view, there is a sense (faith) that what belongs to a conversation about the “two sides of one coin”, reductionist materialism or conscious selves expressed through the material, will be resolved one way or the other only when energy is ultimately dissipated beyond the realms of information and communication that we currently live with.

    Best wishes,

    Noel.

  4. tonyequale says:

    Noel,

    Thanks again.

    Our destiny as human beings up to this point in cosmic and geologic history has been determined by the evolution of material energy. We are human — alive and conscious biological organisms with this particular DNA on this planet — because of it, and from no other source, proximate or remote, that we can identify. It seems to me that from a rational point of view I should expect that whatever destiny “this clod of earth” that I am will have going forward will continue to be exclusively determined by these same causal factors. I can no more expect that my “self” which is the conscious coherence of this package of cosmic “stuff,” will be any more coherently conscious after this package dissolves back into its components than before it came together in my conception and birth.

    And by the same token, I had no “right” to demand that this “stuff” should come together as me before the serendipitous factors that did so occurred, and I have to right to demand that the processes by which things come together and come apart should somehow be suspended to accommodate my great good luck in this cosmic draw. But since I have become conscious of my reality as this cosmic “stuff” and that I am privileged to be subject to its processes … and that these processes have produced marvels beyond anyone’s wildest ability to predict … what “faith” do I need that goes beyond trusting what brought me here.

    We don’t need “revelation” to trust LIFE, until we have so jaded ourselves with our infantile demands that we have lost the natural ability to trust LIFE. Then, perhaps, what we are calling “revelation” really amounts to a call to “grow up,” or the Buddhists would say, “wake up.”

    Rumi, staggering drunk in the tavern of LIFE and love, said “whoever brought me here will have to take me home.” That process .. whatever it is … can be trusted.

    Tony

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