Lecture notes on Buddhism and Christianity
Buddha’s mission, as he saw it (c.f. Majjhimanikaya 26), was to show the way out of dukkha to nibbana. We have thus three elements: dukkha (the unease of existence) nibbana (unbinding) and the way.
In general terms, the way refers to the series of thought and breathing exercises the Buddha gave to us, and which he believes will best help us to unbind the ties of craving which hold us in dukkha. It is of course assumed, but never stated, that Buddha himself achieved nibbana by these methods.
We need to pause here to talk about our first two terms dukkha and nibbana. This is necessary for a number of very important reasons.
1. the terms are Pali. Pali is the language in which the main body of Theravada sutras (the Buddhist Gospel) were originally transcribed. Like Latin and Ancient Greek, this language is dead, and the bulk of it only remains in the Buddhist Suttas themselves.
2. the terms, and a knowledge of the very great difficulties in translating them, are central to a critical and informed understanding of Buddhist thought.
Before we talk about the terms, I want to talk first about the difficulties inherent in translating them. These difficulties are:
1. the terms are difficult to translate into English equivalents
2. the terms describe concepts which in themselves often reside outside the realm and intellectual schematic of the Western mind. A very simple example here to show you what I mean is that in Buddhist thought there are six senses, rather than the Western five, the sixth one being thought. I feel that we must be honest and recognise that the concept of thought as a sense (in the same way that hearing, for example, is a sense), is a concept which is difficult for the Western mind to encompass. The same difficulty exists in understanding the concepts which lie behind our three terms.
3. many of the central Pali terms of Buddhism have been translated carelessly in the past, or translated using English equivalents which come from a Western religious mindset, a mindset which is quite at odds with the real nature of the Pali terms, and of Buddhist thought in general, for reasons I will come to later.
4. these careless or erroneous translations and the false impression they have created, have stuck and become popularised, both by Western practitioners, and their Asian teachers, who in striving, perhaps, to make these concepts clear to their students, reach for English words they think will help their students to understand.
Having described briefly the difficulties inherent in translating the terms, we may now move to a brief examination of the terms themselves.
1. dukkha often this word is translated as ‘reality’ or ‘pain’, but its closer meaning is something more akin to ‘unease’. This unease may encompass different states on a spectrum ranging from a sense of vague unease about life, a Keatsian veiled melancholy seated in the very temple of delight, a Derridian deferral of pleasure, the Freudian pleasure/pain principle or indeed downright straightforward pain and suffering, misfortune, illness and other human problems. At the same time the term dukkah also implies that this state of affairs is delusional and created by the self in response to craving (The Buddhist concept of self is very interesting and requires a separate set of notes in itself).
2. nibbana. This term is fraught with the difficulties I mentioned above. In many English translations of this word, we find ‘bliss’, ‘salvation’, ‘heaven’, ‘perfection’, ‘peace’, ‘enlightenment’ and so on. Most Pali philologists reckon, however, that a closer and more accurate rendering of this term is ‘unbinding’, a freeing, or a loosening, an unwrapping. This is seen as an unfolding process, not a state of being, or a locative goal. Thus the goal of the way is not a static, achieved, place at which we arrive, but an unfolding process, the kind of paradox in which Eastern thought delights. It is quite incorrect to equate the Pali term nibbana (and hence the concept it describes) with a state of salvation. It is not a state, and it is not a salvation in the sense of being saved by someone or something from some thing or some state. It is an unbinding from the ties which bind us to the dukkha, namely, those cravings I mentioned earlier. Of course, one hopes and assumes that having reached the condition of nibbana, one would experience peace, bliss, joy and so on simply as the result of having loosened the ties. But we must not confuse this hope and assumption of bliss with the actual condition itself. We might experience nibbana as a cessation of everything except the experience of cessation itself. Only someone who has achieved this condition is able to describe it, and the only one who has left any record of having reached it, is Gautama Buddha himself.
Now that we have an understanding of these essential terms and the difficulties inherent in them, both linguistic and conceptual, we may return to our original assertion:
Buddha’s mission, as he saw it (c.f. Majjhimanikaya 26), was to show the way out of dukkha to nibbana. We have thus three elements: dukkha, nibbana and the way.
We come now to the crux of the matter: Why is Buddhism incompatible with Christianity and other wussy sky-god religions?
We can identify two preliminary reasons:
1. Buddha was quite clear that the way out of dukkha did not lie in a search for the unknowable, the unknowable meaning questions like: Why am I here? What happens to me after I die? Does God exist? These kind of speculations lie in a foreign domain, outside the realms of our senses: Do not wander out of your natural domain into a foreign habitat. (Samyuttanikaya 5.47.6) Buddha is quite clear about this: the way out of dukkha lies in a greater understanding and development of our perception of the here-and-now (ayatana) (Majjhimanikaya. 63) and not in speculations about the unknowable. In his words:
The claim of the religious authorities to know the path to union with God is just not viable. It is just as if there were a river that was so full of water that cows and crows could drink out of it, and a man would come to it desiring to cross to the other side. Standing on the near bank, he calls out to the farther bank: “Come, farther bank, come:” (Dighanikaya 13)
It’s not that Buddha says religion is wrong, but just that it is irrelevant to a cessation of dukkha because the religious questions are unanswerable by means of our current apparatus of understanding and in our current state of being. (Surprising similarities with Protagoras here). On the contrary, the way out of dukkha is findable by means of our current apparatus of understanding and in our current state of being if we focus on ayatana and follow the way.
2. The way consists of a series of exercises (thought and breathing exercises designed to help clear thinking) designed to increase our understanding and perception of the here-and-now (ayatana) through the development and sound use of the six senses. Straying out of the realm of the senses only increases our dukkha as we are plagued by doubts and unanswerable questions, increasing our delusions and engaging in petty arguments about whose God is stronger, who has the biggest army and the longest…
This is profoundly incompatible with religious thought –in particular Christian thought-, which has as its basic assumptions: there is a God, there is a part of us which is immortal, we can be saved: all speculative ideas. (Not to mention the way that post St-Augustinian Christianity totally denigrates the body.) There are a number of superficial similarities between Buddhism and Christianity: doing good works, being kind to others (when you’re not killing them for not being Christians) etc, which make it easy for the latter to attempt to assimilate the former, but the basic premise of Buddhism- a position on the here-and-now- is incompatible with Christianity –a position on the hereafter.