This post is picking up on an older series – see my earlier posts on Camus and Wittgenstein – and I’ll warn you now it will be a little longer (so skip to the end for the meat). Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563-483 B.C.), also known as “the Buddha” (i.e., the awakened or enlightened one), was the founder of Buddhism. I call Siddhartha a philosopher because (1) Buddhism is in many ways more like a philosophy than a religion, especially in its original articulation and in the contemporary Theravada branch, and (2) the distinction between philosophy and religion is recent, Western, and somewhat artificial. I call him a favorite philosopher not because I agree with his teaching but because I’ve found it a fascinating response to the world ever since I first encountered it as a religion major at the University of Georgia. Of all the various religions in the world that I studied, Eastern and Western, tribal and global, Buddhism was the most interesting to me, and the most illuminating by way of contrast to the gospel. What follows is a brief overview and then response.
Siddhartha had a fascinating life. His father was a king in Northern India who desired to shield his son from all suffering and religious knowledge. So he built Siddhartha three huge palaces and provided for his every material want, even attempting to keep Siddhartha from seeing any sickness, deformity, old age, and suffering within the palace walls. So Siddhartha had this life of ease and comfort and was shielded from religious instruction, but at age 29 he ran away in search of deeper answers, sensing that there must be more to life.
He spent 6 years as a monk and an ascetic before finally, almost dead from starvation, he sat down under a tree and vowed not to arise until he had discovered spiritual truth. After 49 days of meditation, he claimed to have experienced enlightenment. He would later say that at this moment, “the eye was born, knowledge was born, wisdom was born, science was born, light was born.” For the rest of his life he traveled and preached what he had learned, founding what is now known as Buddhism.
The Four Noble Truths
The essence of the Buddha’s message consisted in four affirmations:
1) Life is suffering. This does not mean there is no happiness in life; the Sanskrit word dukkha has a wider, more philosophical sense. One could say, “life is impermanence,” and not be far off in the meaning. In fact, Buddha taught that whatever is impermanent is suffering.
2) The cause of suffering is desire, or grasping, or craving; i.e., clinging to what is not. This is sometimes phrased as attachment to what is transient.
3) Enlightenment (sometimes called nirvana) is the cessation of suffering. Enlightenment occurs when we see the truth, and our thirst/craving/grasping for what is not becomes quenched, or quieted. The truth is –according to Siddhartha – that we are not differentiated from the world. One person said that enlightenment is the wisdom of directly experiencing all phenomena while being empty of independence from it.
4) The Eightfold Path, essentially a list of ethical requirements, is the way toward enlightenment. Meditation is an important part of achieving enlightenment as well.
Anatman means “no self.” It means that in a human being there is no permanent self, no soul, no ego – there is merely a stream of consciousness. A human being is like a river which is constantly moving, or a candle which is constantly flickering. According to Buddha, it is as wrong to say, “I am no self” as it is to say, “I am self,” because both statements arise out of the illusion of self. Trees do not say to themselves, “I am not a permanent self;” neither should we. An interesting corollary of this is that there is no “free will” because our entire existence is conditioned by our circumstances.
Questions which tend not to edification
Siddhartha tells the story of a man in a forest who was shot by a poison arrow. His friends and relatives bring him to a surgeon, but he says, “I will not let the arrow be taken out until I know who shot me.” The Buddha says that asking metaphysical questions like whether the universe is eternal is like the man asking who shot him. It is a question which “tends not to edification.” It doesn’t matter who shot him – the important thing is to get the poison out! Similarly, the Buddha would say that metaphysical questions like how the universe came to be do not matter; what matters is decay, sorrow, lamentation, grief, despair, and transience – and their cessation.
Christianity and Buddhism
Both Christianity and Buddhism address the problem of human desire – i.e., the tension arising from the thirst in the human heart for happiness/permanence/meaning in the face of the suffering/transience/arbitrariness in the world. This is related to what Lewis and Tolkien called the “echoes of Eden” as well as the “absurd” in Camus’ philosophy (see my first post in this series). Simply put, we long for more than this world offers. Buddhism cuts the tension of this difficulty by taking away the desire (enlightenment); Christianity, by taking way the impediments to what is desired (heaven). Christianity offers us food; Buddhism cuts out our stomach.
But what if our desire for happiness and permanence and meaning is not an illusion to be quenched, but an inescapable part of our humanity, indeed, one of the very clues to the meaning of our existence? What if this desire is hard-wired into our DNA because we are made in the image and likeness of the God who alone can fulfill it? What if its not an illusion but a messenger, whispering to us of what we lost in Eden, and what we can rediscover in the gospel? In this case enlightenment – escape from self-hood – is like a man cutting out his stomach because he didn’t know about the feast that was being prepared for him next door.
The Buddhist must face the paradox that in order to eliminate desire, one must first (on some level) desire to do so, and that if the thirst for meaning is an illusion, then escaping this illusion is (in some sense) also meaningful. In other words, the very reaction against the idea of a permanent self is something that only a permanent self can engage in – like the character Frost in C.S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength who rages against the illusion of self-hood but never recognizes that this very rage must also be illusory. The more you keep shouting, “no self,” the more self keeps shouting back at you, like an echo. I therefore think that seeking enlightenment is not only tragic but ultimately impossible.
It seems to me that we must go back to the very beginning and challenge the Buddha’s claim that metaphysical questions are irrelevant to human suffering. This is itself, of course, a claim about metaphysical reality, and one which is not easy to verify. What if the way the universe came to be is relevant to the human situation? What if creation, like human conscience and desire, is a clue to the meaning of our existence and our suffering? In this case avoiding metaphysical questions would be like finding a map while lost in the forest and using it for help starting a fire rather than for finding your way home.
As a Christian, I believe that Christianity uniquely provides answers to these metaphysical questions, not only because its doctrines of God, creation, and sin best account for the world we inhabit, but because its doctrine of redemption makes metaphysical reality no longer outside the realm of our experience. For Christianity claims what no other religion, philosophy, or approach to life does: that ultimate reality came down to us. We don’t find it: its already found us. The doctrine of the incarnation means that the Creator has come right into the middle of the suffering and transience of the world. More than that, the doctrine of the resurrection means that the world, all its transience and impermanence notwithstanding, will be redeemed. These are historical claims which may be true or false, but the one thing they cannot be is irrelevant to human suffering/desire. To use the Buddha’s metaphor, figuring out who shot the arrow turns out to be, not irrelevant to getting the poison out, but the only possible antidote.