Sunday, 15 May 2011


When I was briefly with a Tibetan teacher, Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche, I was shown a form of Dzogchen meditation that involved allowing thoughts and feelings and images in the soul to come and go. The essential thing was to allow them to flow without following them, without identifying with them as we normally do. In this way we penetrate to a deeper level of the self – Buddhists might say beyond the self altogether. Our usual state is one in which we identify with the flow of our thoughts, and create a false self that is mightily invested in things that don’t last. Let go of that, and you can allow yourself just to “be” without knowing who or what you are (a “feather on the breath of God”, as Hildegard says). After all – from a Christian point of view – only God knows us anyway.

Christians often criticize Buddhists for being turned inward on themselves, introverted, passive in the face of evil and suffering. Buddhists reciprocate by seeing Christians in flight from interiority, losing themselves in outward show and a well-intentioned activism (rooted in the false self and its judgments) that only makes the world a worse place. Yet the inward and the outward, contemplation and action, are not necessarily in opposition. The Buddhist is seeking a reality that lies beyond the false self. The Christian believes we become our true selves by doing what God gives us to do. Buddhist detachment closely resembles complete abandonment to God and his providence.

The statements of many Christian and Buddhist mystics can sound very much alike. Of course, Christians refer to God, whereas Buddhists do not. But, again, the “God” that Buddhists deny is a false God, just as the self they deny is a false self. In each case it is an idol we have fashioned for ourselves. “We will know God to the extent that we are set free from ourselves.” That was said by Pope Benedict XVI (see Magnificat, August 2011, p. 384). And Catherine of Siena (cited on p. 44 of the same issue of Magnificat) writes: “We rejoice and are content with whatever God permits: sickness or poverty, insult or abuse, intolerable or unreasonable commands. We rejoice and are glad in everything, and we see that God permits these things for our profit and perfection. I’m not surprised that we are, then, free from suffering, since we have shed the cause of suffering – I mean self-will grounded in self-centredness – and have put on God’s will grounded in charity.”

Catherine would probably say the Buddhist has “shed the cause of suffering” but has not yet “put on God’s will grounded in charity”. Pity and compassion, which Buddhism possesses in abundance, are not the same as love, which is directed towards the affirmation of the true self, not the dissolution of the false. Henri de Lubac SJ, in his excellent study, Aspects of Buddhism (1953), writes that without the fullness of charity, no one will ever realize the "void" of detachment. Buddhism lacks this fullness; it can take you only half way. But this should not cause the Christian feel superior to the Buddhist. Smugness would be a sign that the Christian has not yet achieved even the first half of his journey. And can we really say the second half is only open to those who possess the relevant conceptual apparatus?

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