Patriarch Bartholomew speaks out on India and Buddhism:
Behind the “New Age” movement one can also discern a rediscovery of India, and particularly of Buddhism.
Many westerners today report that they find true serenity in Buddhism. They learn that there exists a dharma (to use the Sanskrit word), a path of salvation, a world order; one could even call it Wisdom, almost in the Biblical sense of the word. And this dharma, not unlike the Decalogue, asks them not to kill, steal, or lie, to be chaste, and (very useful for our societies) to abstain from alcohol and drugs! They seem to distance themselves somewhat from their emotions and to view others, and themselves, with greater tolerance and peace.
Curiously, the popularity of Buddhism today replaces that of Hinduism, which seemed greater during the period following World War Il. This may be the result of the spread of Tibetan Buddhism, which is today building monasteries throughout Western Europe and North America. Or it may be due to the remarkable personality of the Dalai Lama, who is able to interpret Buddhism to the West. But there is also more to it: India represents something luxurious, superabundant, a kind of robust cheerfulness; whereas Buddhism speaks essentially of suffering and of deliverance from pain. Buddhism therefore seems particularly attractive to many persons from western societies who are tired, who are “stressed out,” and who seek a little peace and quiet…
For Buddhism, indeed, everything is painful: to be born, inexorably to decline, to suffer so much torment, to be subjected to what one hates, to be separated from what one loves. And what is the reason for this suffering? It is because one never ceases to desire, to be “thirsty,” to “burn.” Desire is born out of ignorance. It believes in the reality, in the importance, of beings and of things. Thus it produces error, lust, and hatred, which are “the three roots of evil.” The “Way of deliverance” corrects our behavior (the moral requirements are extreme––something that the West usually forgets), and, through the practice of meditation, allows us to discern the process of growth and finally to awaken ourselves. To awaken to the unique, ineffable reality is to put out the flames of passion, error, and illusion. It is to become passionless, i.e., to triumph over the passions which constantly and actively toy with us.
This type of asceticism, which is monastic, is similar to our own monastic ascesis. Hesychastic spirituality, “the art of arts and science of sciences,” also speaks of ignorance and of the passions, which begin with pride and avidity, with self-centeredness –philautia–which are all born from our hidden anguish when we are faced with the transitory nature of this world. And the methods to achieve this liberation from the “passions” are similar: cleanse the mind of “thoughts,” achieve apatheia (passionlessness) and “wakefulness.” This last word is as important in hesychasm as it is in Buddhism, because the word buddha means “awake.” Indeed, the great witnesses of hesychasm are called the “neptic” Fathers, an adjective derived from the Greek nepsis, meaning wakefulness!
The term Nirvana, often so poorly understood, means extinction––of desire, of thirst, of fire. It designates a state of completion about which one can speak only in negations. This reminds us of the hesychastic “prayer beyond prayer,” when man is rendered infinitely small as he comes to see the divine light.
Was Buddhism, in the depths of Asia, not a kind of pre Christian anticipation? It would itself, of course, be ignorant of this fact. We can discern two aspects in its doctrine: the first is a partial truth; the second remains enclosed in this partiality.
Nirvana is a negative symbol of an entry into the divine at the center of one’s very being. That a liberating love is revealed in this “emptiness” which is fullness, a love which restores both the other and the world-all this is unknown to Buddhism. Or not yet known? The question remains. Within the hesychastic tradition, the heart and the spirit must die to themselves in order to rediscover the “otherness” of God in unity, a unity which is transformed into communion.
We agree with the Buddhists that “this world,” as the Gospel says, lies in evil. But for Buddhists, the world is nothing more than that. It consists of transitory aggregates of matter, which are constantly being transformed and disappear, only to give birth to new aggregates, which are no less transitory. Ignorance consists in considering as substantial that which is merely apparent. For us Orthodox, under the veil of illusion which we are indeed called to remove, God’s creation has substance. It is good, good precisely because of its diversity. This world does not exhaust the reality of God’s world.
For Buddhism, similarly, man is simply a nonessential “combination,” which can, for example, be compared to a cart. Man is a simple process, a continuity with no identity. There is certainly reincarnation, but it occurs through the simple causality of actions producing effects. There is actually no transmigration, because there is no soul that can pass from one habitation to another. To be delivered is to reject the notion of the “self”–as well, of course, as any notion of the “other.” Reincarnation, the “wheel of existence,” is an infernal cycle, but there exist no condemned individuals! Buddha never ceased to denounce the “ignorant multitude” which nourished itself on absurd “theories of the soul” and believed in “personal” reincarnations. This “non-Self,” whether mitigated or not, is in fact no different from the Self of the Vedanta–that Hindu school which succeeded in chasing Buddhism from India! One can speak of the Self only in negative terms, in order to identify it with the divine-––and it is only this divine aspect which is transmigrated!
This, we can see, is a far cry from western “reincarnationism,” that invention of western tourists. We also totally misunderstand yoga (and its metaphysical goals are nearly always misunderstood in the West). Yoga gives its western practitioner the illusion of discovering his true Self, whereas it usually leads him only to expand and show off his ego!
Everything, the patriarch adds, centers on the concept of the “person.” According to Buddhism, the person does not exist. The Christian, however, affirms the existence of the person. But Orthodoxy does not identify the person with the individual, with the “individual substance of a rational nature,” as Boethius awkwardly stated in the Latin world. This would mean that the person is nothing more than a mask, which is indeed the original meaning of the Latin word persona, or the Greek prosopon. The person is revealed only at the conclusion of a negative anthropology, and the efforts of Hinduism and Buddhism can be helpful for us. The absolute is not beyond the person (for then, in effect, there would be no one!). Rather, the absolute is the very depth, the “bottomless depth,” of the person, or rather, of communion. And if the person, and therefore the possibility of encounter, do exist, then history exists. Yet neither Hinduism nor Buddhism is interested in history, because for them time, with its endless cycles, consists of nothing but terror. If the person, and therefore communion, exists, then man’s attraction toward God transfigures desire: eros is transformed into agape. It is particularly the miracle of grace and forgiveness that destroys the fatality of karma–-that automatic link between the act and its consequences––and the fear “that we will need to repay everything,” as say some Christians who fail to comprehend the infinite grace of the cross and the resurrection.
From Buddha to Gandhi
We must, however, be aware that Hinduism and Buddhism have never ceased to develop. This is certainly true in our own era, when values of Christian origin have been spread throughout the world. But it has also been the case for centuries, either because of a Christian impulse we can only guess at, or through the influence of the long “Nestorian” evangelization in the heart of Asia.
Within Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, for example, there has been an evolution, on the one hand, toward ascesis and an esthetic of cosmic beauty, and, on the other, toward a religion of mercy. In the Zen movement––Ch’an in China-the keen ascetic, during and after a moment of illumination, sharply experiences the birth of a tree, of a flower, of light. He knows things as they are. He hears “the ah! of things.” This is not far from the Christian “contemplation of nature,” which is a necessary stage of hesychasm. In Amidism, monotheism asserts itself. Amida (Omito in Chinese), the mediator, was a monk who voluntarily halted his ascent on the path of illumination, putting the achievement of perfection on hold, until all humanity and all creation down to the last blade of grass are saved through his intercession. The faithful practice the nembutsu, the humble invocation of the formula, “Buddha Amida, save me.” One group that came from Amidism has even called itself the Yuzu Nembutsu, “Invocation in communion”! All this makes any Christian pause who is familiar with the Jesus Prayer.
A monotheism of love has gradually spread throughout Hinduism. Even yoga, a methodical human exercise, has come to focus more and more on attraction to the divinity. The Vishnic Vedanta confesses and adores a personal God who was present at creation as the soul is present in the body––an image that St Gregory of Nyssa liked to use! The Vishnic God, out of his free Will, has created a real world which expresses his beauty and which therefore merits positive consideration by man. He has provided each person with an identity, thus making possible not fusion, but communion. As one mystic from this school has said, “if I love sugar, that does not mean that I wish to become sugar!” The Shakti movement celebrates the divine energy, which it perceives as a feminine presence: here again, we are reminded of Wisdom! And this religion has promoted respect toward woman, toward the wife.
In our own century, an encounter between this kind of Hinduism and the Gospel has already begun, particularly in the person, deeds, and martyrdom of Gandhi and his followers. Disciples of Gandhi remain in the United States and in South Africa.
We Christians have a great deal to do to prepare for this encounter. And it is far more interesting than arguing among ourselves.
Source: Conversations with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew by Olivier Clement, pp 219-224