Jesus and Buddha; the embrace of emptiness
Despite superficial differences, I contend there is a profound concurrence between the religious visions of Buddha and Jesus . . . and, in my opinion, it stems from their experience of being-here. The agreement consists in the fact that both of their core symbols ― the “fatherhood” of “God” for Jesus and “no self” for Buddha ― are really conceptual derivatives of the same experience, and the two apparently divergent images are simply due to the different cultural matrices in which the experience occurred. I claim that both Jesus and Buddha experienced the same thing: their radical trusting existential dependency. Neither one had any experience of the other side of the equation: where their being-here came from, i.e., what was the source and sustaining factor that accounted for their being-here and for why they spontaneously trusted it.
This is salient, particularly, in the case of Jesus where it has been assumed by a naïve literal take on the gospel narrative and mediaeval theological retrospection, that Jesus had direct, person-to-person knowledge of “God” the “Father” because he was “God” the “Son.” I deny that, and I am supported in that opinion by scripture scholars of all denominations. There was no “trinitarian” reference in Jesus’ awareness of the “Fatherhood” of “God.” His reaction was that of a believing Jew who, upon emerging from the Jordan after a life-changing act of personal surrender, fully embraced what his Judaic tradition told him was his “creature-hood” launched and sustained by Yahweh his “Creator.” Furthermore, his reading of the prophets and the psalms had subsequently defined and refined the personal bearing of Yahweh as one of total personal benevolence, and the word “father” was the most apt image for that reality.
But I want to emphasize: Jesus did not “see” anything. What he saw was his own existential dependency along with the spontaneous sense of trust in life that he had experienced since infancy which his family and religion had reinforced. He was as blind to the source that sustained him as the most hardened atheist. His innate trust had been interpreted by the consensus of the community to mean the benevolence of Yahweh, his Creator.
In the case of Buddha the “quest for enlightenment,” was a culturally encouraged religious pursuit which had a long and revered tradition behind it. It was a quest in which many people in Buddha’s time were already intensely engaged and to which Buddha himself had dedicated many years of personal effort at great cost to his standing in the world. It predisposed him to find what he did. That the “liberation” he experienced took the form of ending the cycles of samsara ― “chasing the wind” ― that enervated daily life and poisoned human community, is no great surprise. Samsara had long been identified as the cause of human sorrow in the Hindu tradition. Buddha’s discovery was not a new religion. It was a simple advance on the elusive Hindu asceticism that had preceded him. He found that mortifying insatiable desire ― no matter how long and how intensely ― was not sufficient to end samsara. What was missing was denying the “self” that lay behind it. It was a unique insight that allowed for a “middle way” between an impossible and fruitless asceticism and a life of self-gratifying illusion.
Once the illusory “self” was identified as the real culprit ― the hidden demon that kept trying to dig, or build its way out of a trusting emptiness ― denying the pretensions of the self proved to be the key to personal liberation and community harmony. Buddha did it by saying there was “no self.” There was nothing to build, and nothing to protect, because there was nothing there. It allowed for the pursuit of a middle path in ascetical practice that led directly to the goal of Buddhist meditation: letting go.
The key point for this reflection is that by eliminating the “self,” what was being held in a trusting embrace was emptiness. For to say there was “no self” was precisely to affirm a transcendent confidence in the totality of all things in which we are sustained like the knots in a cosmic net. There is nothing to us. We are the product of other things. We are “caused,” in Buddhist terminology, by a multitude of causes, proximate and remote, which are themselves similarly caused. The entire network is also empty; it is somehow sustained and he never asked how or why. It was sufficient to understand that certain attitudes and behavior follow from the fact. We are not a stand-alone, independent self and the desires that assume and nourish that illusion must be challenged by unmasking the fallacy ― the “self” ― that gives them their energy. Mortification had to be directed at reducing and eventually eliminating the fallacy of the “self.” The entire exercise is in function of embracing emptiness.
I am claiming that neither the Buddha nor Jesus saw anything. They had insight. Just like you and me, they saw themselves for exactly what they were: existentially dependent items in a vast universe to which they belonged, spawned by forces that impacted the totality, and which they trusted totally. For the Buddha those forces ― whatever they were ― were not him “self.” They were part of a totality that could be trusted. For Jesus, it was a personal force, Yahweh, whom he was taught had brought the whole cosmos into being, and him as part of it, that could be trusted. The Buddha’s lack of concern for identifying any ultimate source, turned out to be ironically identical to Jesus’ belief that it was Yahweh’s craftsmanship ― for we now know that Jesus was dead wrong. That means that, in fact, he also knew nothing. The only factual experience that they had ― and they both had the same ― was their experience of their own existential dependency, or emptiness, in conjunction with a spontaneous trust in being-here interpreted by their religious traditions. It should go without saying, that all of us, believer, agnostic or atheist, live in the same universe with the same human organism as they. We all have the same experience. Trusting that experience and the biological organisms that share it, is what I call faith.
* * * * *
This discussion of the concurrence of Buddha and Jesus is recapitulated in every human being. The human organism spontaneously infers what is missing in the picture of its dependent existence. The fact is, there is no personal, rational, planning, purposeful, hovering providential “God”-Creator-of-the-Universe that anyone knows, no matter how intensely they claim to believe it. No one has ever met “God” nor related concretely and directly to the source of its being-here. Those who claim such a “person” exists are projecting an inference, often transferred to an image or a religious belief, not an experience. If we are honest we have to say we have no direct evidence ― only indirect clues left by the existent structures in our world ― of the ultimate source of being-here. We have to admit that all we know directly and empirically is our emptiness and that of everything we know in the universe considered alone or as a totality. The rest is projection.
However, not all projection is unfounded; some is the result of valid inference. First, the metaphysics is undeniable. Being-here has to be accounted for either in itself or in its cause(s). The very fact of emptiness immediately implies a correlate that explains how something that cannot account for its own existence can be-here. In the case of human beings dependency is evident in a myriad of ways that affect virtually every aspect of the human organism’s presence in the world throughout life and in a most dramatic and undeniable way at death. Making the inference implied in all this conditioned existence results in a “concept,” an idea called “ultimate and necessary source.” An emptiness of the character exhibited by a human organism requires a corresponding “filling” source to account for all of it ― and from the number of manifestations of dependency there is clearly a need for a multitude of sources which must finally include the source of the being-here itself of the entire network.
But that’s all we ever have: the flip-side of our emptiness. “Source” is gallingly abstract: it is an intellectual image that receives every bit of its concrete character from the nature of the emptiness it is filling. Let me emphasize: the projected image ― the idea ― of the unknown source is exactly as empty as the effect that elicits it. All the effect can tell us is that the source must somehow possess what the effect lacks. We never encounter any “thing” we can call “ultimate source.” We only generate an idea required by our intellect looking with great perplexity at one side of an obviously multisided relationship and where the principal source of being-here itself ― the “other side” ― never appears or takes any identifiable shape of its own. Whatever shape it has is generated only by the inferring intellect and it is entirely determined by the shape of the emptiness from which it is epistemically derived. At the end of the inferential exercise there is not one wit more direct concrete visibility of the source than there was at the outset. The concept, “source,” is entirely exhausted in the character of the dynamic, the inference; there is no concrete image whatsoever outside of the image of the empty receptacle. Like a mirror, the only thing visible is the image it is reflecting. But there is “no-one” there.
I claim that that is what people are experiencing when they say they have had an experience of “God,” and that, in essence, it is the same as the experience of the atheist. The only concrete experience anyone has is of their own emptiness; the imagery they generate about their source is a self-projection generated by their own minds out of the elements of the dependency-experience they have of themselves as interpreted and given imagery by their community. In other words, what they are looking at is their own foundationless self and they are picturing an inverse function that is necessarily inferred from that. The “God” they see is themselves “inside out,” as it were ― themselves with their inferred cause ― themselves, in other words, without the limitations of their perceived dependency.
This “unlimited self” comes close to what the Hindus call the Atman. In this case a local religion has elaborated symbolic imagery and corresponding rituals that are understood to refer to what always remains beyond visibility. All that is ever concretely seen is one’s empty self. The “apophatic” tradition shared by the religions of the book ― Judaism, Islam and Christianity ― is similar. Apophatic means “speechless” and refers to the absolute unknowability of “God” in those traditions ― a claim, by the way, that is most often honored in the breach, as these religions insist on giving us detailed knowledge of “God” and telling us exactly what they imagine he wants. If “God” cannot be known, as these traditions claim, then that should explain why the fears and apprehensions that derive from emptiness do not go away with mere declaration of “belief” in “God.” Belief is projection based on inference; it is not the same as knowledge. An unknowable “God” is, psychologically speaking, the same as no “God” at all. Hence many “believers” who project such a “God” define faith as a mental struggle. “Faith” for them is not simply accepting your emptiness with trust and leaving the unknowable unknown; it is forcing yourself to imagine something that is not there; it is an exercise doomed to frustration. This is another form of samara, “chasing the wind,” and Buddha counseled against enquiring into it. Hence he never tried to explain how the entire universe could be empty.
Now in my view, no human being can avoid this experience of the empty self. Nor can anyone deny the spontaneous trust and joy of being-here, which is innate. This joy of being-here is a positive connection with the totality of things that can be clouded over, suppressed, betrayed, ignored, denied and dismissed (not to mention poisoned, tortured and punished) but never eliminated. It is an organic function of matter’s existential energy. In other words, just to be-here is to know with absolute certitude that you belong here, it is to love and desire being-here, and to rejoice at the possession of life. It is to trust your emptiness. It is not a “free” choice. It cannot be avoided. We can’t help it. It’s time we stopped second-guessing it and let it be there.
The spontaneous joy in being-here which is characteristic of all matter, continues to generate its characteristics in whatever form it assumes through the developments of evolution. Once we step back from our anthropocentric perspective ― stop putting humankind at the center of the universe ― and start looking at things from the point of view of the myriad of living species all around us, we can see that the sorrow that humans experience is exclusive to us. Every other species of living thing lives in a state of constant joy, marred only by and strictly limited to the moments of danger and hunger that are unavoidable for living organisms in a world of random occurrences. The generalized dissatisfaction that enervates humankind even in the absence of any hostile circumstances, is a suffering exclusive to us. It derives from the samsara that we alone generate because we alone can think; we can imagine what does not exist. That very often means yearning after what we don’t have and what we are convinced will make us permanently happy. But nothing can make us permanently happy. We can never overcome our emptiness; it is what we are. Meditation proposes to end thinking that is nothing but chasing the wind and to surrender to what we are by looking at it and embracing it.
Humankind is aware of its emptiness. Its conditionality is in evidence in a multitude of ways and the general daily activity of the human species ― our work ― is dedicated to responding to the need for food, clothing, shelter and protection from dangers. These are the primary objectives necessary for the procurement of survival. The sense of emptiness, however, that humans alone are aware of, doesn’t end with the achievement of daily survival. The existential dependency that underlies superficial conditionality, unlike other needs that can be satisfied, is insatiable. Its principal source is the awareness of death, but the threat of death for humans is not limited to the moments of mortal danger as in the case of other animals who do not think. For humankind the awareness lingers and devitalizes all accomplishments that otherwise might seem to hold out a modicum of satisfaction. Death pervades the human consciousness often subliminally, and death’s ultimate finality robs temporary achievements of the rest they promise. This generalized sense of dissatisfaction, by not ever finding a proper object that will put it to rest (since there is none), remains diffuse and unfocused. It is an unspecific energy that can be directed toward the pursuit of virtually anything the individuals imagine will be a source of ultimate satisfaction. It is an energy that has been used to amass fortunes and create empires, but it is all chasing the wind.
* * * * *
We think in imagery. And what we think about engages our affect toward acquisition or aversion depending on how we think it will impact our happiness. The entire enterprise is a work of the imagination. The unavoidable human awareness of emptiness guarantees that the unrestrained imagination under the blind impulse of the conatus will try to imagine a way out. What will fill the emptiness and make me happy? No amount of repeated frustration will ever convince us that there isn’t something that will work. And so we try one thing after another, sometimes even after they have proven to be failures. The society in which we live has its own ideas about what will make us happy ― usually wealth, power, fame, status, pleasure ― and it encourages people to pursue them. Much of the economy is built on selling you what you need to acquire them. We tend to internalize that message and buy what they tell us we should ― until it becomes clear that it, too, is samsara.
If we’re lucky we will run out of options before we destroy ourselves and others, trying to gather the wind. To “run out of options” means to wake up. What we awake to is the realization that we are irremediably empty across the board and that the answer is not trying to fill the emptiness (or escape from it), but to embrace it with trust. We see, at first perhaps only for a moment, that we have been chasing the wind. Of course there’s nothing to stop us from returning to those empty pursuits in despair. In most cases a sustained awakening is achieved only after a number of such episodes.
This is what Buddha means by enlightenment and Jesus means by the kingdom within us. And it’s a vision that in its practical applications is remarkably similar to religious and therapeutic programs from all over the world and from all epochs of human history. It is not simply an ascetical discipline ― a gaining control over unruly desires and aversions. It is, more importantly, a contemplative awareness grounded in an increasingly confident trust in what I am, expressed in a grateful embrace of what put me here ― whatever it may be, proximate and remote ― and a compassionate embrace of other people who are all in the same boat. The discipline is to direct behavior, seriously and consistently, toward the goals of compassion and gratitude where an expanding, ever-more confident trust calls. In the case of Jesus’ vision, the ground of trust is the love of a Father-“God” whom, he insisted, knew every sparrow that fell from the sky, and could be trusted through death.
That trust was tested in his case when his simple message was deemed so threatening to the exploiting powers that ruled his world, that he was tortured and executed for it. His followers have always revered his death as an event of universal significance for humankind. To understand it was to know the answer to the human dilemma, and to embrace it was “salvation.” Jesus, obedient unto death, trusted his “Father.” A community of such people threatens the powers that be, because it elicits a compassion and mutual support for one another that no empire can smother or replace. It threatens the fear-of-death / master-slave system with resurrection.
But notice: this way of looking at Jesus’ crucifixion sees its significance derived from the universal condition of human emptiness and the accuracy of trust as the human response: it is a dramatic and moving example of trust in a context of utter despair. It does not claim to be doing any more than what is within the reach of any human individual trying to respond authentically to life. In other words, it draws its sacred liberating power from being the right response to the human condition, not from some storehouse of “grace” in another world. It does not create and confer a unique meaning of its own, introjecting an exogenous “divine” into human life. The power it transmits is a human moral energy, entirely natural, made available by Jesus’ example and grasped by the empathy of the human individuals who hear, recognize and are moved by his story. Jesus’ “obedience unto death” earned him “a name above every name” among us because he exemplified in a most graphic way the correct universal response to human emptiness. It is its human universality that makes the cross a transcendent event for humankind.
It is the human condition that gives the cross its meaning, not the other way around.