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A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (the pdf)

If you enjoyed reading my series of thirteen posts inspired by Scott MacPherson’s critique of my post “Thoughts On Christian-Buddhism“–or even if you didn’t–I’ve collected and edited them all to form a single document in pdf format.  Here it is, for free distribution

A LETTER TO CHRISTIAN-BUDDHISTS

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Be Not Like the Blind Men: The Ending of Faith Is the Beginning of Wisdom (Part 10 of A 13-Part Series)

I will not be discussing Mr. MacPherson’s posts concerning the other seven points of the eightfold path.  If after reading my previous nine posts anyone remains as yet unconvinced that there is nothing of the Buddha’s teaching in the Bible, then several volumes more—not to mention several posts—are unlikely to accomplish anything.  What I do plan to discuss is his post “God proved by the test of Long Discourses 9, 13, and 23,” wherein he uses several suttas from the Digha Nikaya as a wedge to argue for Christian theism.  

The first sutta discussed (the Payasi Sutta, D.23) concerns a certain Prince Payasi who held “the following evil opinion: ‘There is no other world, there are no spontaneously born beings, there is no fruit or result of good or evil deeds.’”  Essentially, Prince Payasi was a materialist.  He believed that the body and the self are one and the same and hence there is nothing to survive the death of the body.  This being the case, whether one does evil or good is of no particular account, since one’s death is the end of responsibility.  (Note, of course, that modern-day humanists have a very different take on this issue.  The prince was no humanist.)  “No spontaneously born beings” means he denied the existence of immaterial intelligences (i.e. devas, gods, angels—pick your term) inhabiting a world (or worlds) other than what eyes of the flesh can see.  The sutta consists of an argument between the prince and Kumara-Kassapa, a disciple of the Buddha’s, in which K-K argued for the existence of other beings (devas) and some kind of continuity beyond death.  

Clearly this sutta opposes what most people would consider essential tenets of atheism and materialism, and Mr. MacPherson correctly interprets it this way.  It does not, however, support theism such as it is found in the Bible, since (1) the devas/gods/angels whose existence Kumara-Kassapa argues for are not eternal, (2) did not create the world, and (3) are typically subject to many deluded ideas concerning themselves and the world.  They bear more resemblance to the Olympian or Norse gods than to the Biblical/Koranic God.  Mr. MacPherson does not take note of these very important facts.  

The next sutta discussed is the Potthapada Sutta (D.9).  This is actually quite an involved discourse with a lot of good material, but the point Mr. MacPherson is interested in drawing from it is that a teaching, whatever it is, should rely upon experiential knowledge.  He looks specifically to verses 34ff to illustrate this.  And indeed, this is a correct interpretation of these passages and is totally in accordance with the empirical tone of the Buddha’s teaching.  The stock description of the Dhamma as “visible here and now, immediately effective, inviting inspection, onward leading, to be experienced by the wise, each for oneself” (M.38:25 et al), asserts just this.    

This point—i.e. the emphasis on empirical, direct knowing—is again highlighted in the Tevijja Sutta (D.13), where the Buddha chastises the Brahmin Vasettha for having faith in teachers and traditions who rely only upon what they’ve heard, what they’ve been told, what they’ve read, etc, and have not directly known anything for themselves and don’t even act in accordance with what they teach.  Vasettha understands and asks the Buddha to teach him the proper way to Brahma, so he may experience “heaven” for himself.  The Buddha teaches him how to cultivate the jhanas as well as the Brahmaviharas—meditations on sympathetic joy, loving kindness, equanimity and compassion.  So again, the necessity of direct knowing and seeing is made clear; as arguments for the necessity of personal experience as the source of any philosophy, these suttas are excellent choices.  

So far, so good. 

But then Mr. MacPherson’s argument drives off a cliff.  Having established the empirical orientation of the Dhamma, he then tries—vainly—to establish similar credentials for Christianity: 

Consider…what is written in the Gospel of Saint John, chapter 1, verse 14. God Himself, in the flesh, walked on Earth with people, and with Saint John even. He was called Jesus. People saw him. They spoke with him. They touched him. They ate with him.Saint Johnsaw him, spoke with him, touched him, ate with him, traveled with him, lived with him. “And the Word [God] became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.” All four gospels actually testify of actual people who actually saw, heard, touched, ate with, and shared lodgings with God. In 1 John 1:1 the Apostle repeats his personal experience: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands.” 

When Christians speak of God, they speak from a lineage that knows. They speak from a lineage that did actually hear the voice from heaven. They speak from a lineage that satisfied the test that Buddha put to those ascetics and priests in Long Discourses 9 and 13 (“God proved by the test of Long Discourses 9, 13, and 23”).

Now reread that first paragraph and look at the tense—every verb is in past tense.  In other words, Jesus, whether God or man or something in between (and as already pointed out in the previous post, whichever he was really doesn’t matter), was a one-time historical person—just like you, just like me, just like Mr. MacPherson.  And he’s gone.  He doesn’t have an address or social security number—he doesn’t even pay taxes.  As such, the “event” of Jesus is non-repeatable, and, outside the texts, non-verifiable.  However wonderful his sermons may have been, his alleged “godman” status is purely a matter of conjecture and ultimately faith.  Blind faith, I would like add. 

What Mr. MacPherson is doing is appealing to a body of texts created almost two millennia ago and assuming they are unquestionable in their historical veracity.  He’s making a faith-based claim that the generations of Christians since Jesus’ time form a “lineage that knows.”  But there is no way to be sure what Jesus’ disciples actually knew about him or whether their observations were accurately recorded.  (Few if any modern Biblical scholars actually think the Gospels as redacted come direct from the hands of the disciples whose names they bear.)   We are simply expected to accept this “lineage” and the texts it supports on faith—exactly as the Brahimns in the Tevijja Sutta did.  “Just as a file of blind men go on, clinging to each other, and the first one sees nothing, the middle one sees nothing, and the last one sees nothing—so it is with the talk of these Brahmins learned in the Three Vedas” (D13:15).  And so it is with the talk of these Christians learned in the Old and New Testaments. 

(I would like to point out a delicious irony here.  No educated Buddhist would ever take the suttas as verbatim transcripts of dialogues and happenings.  Quite obviously they are heavily edited, condensed versions of events, sometimes generic in nature, sometimes historically specific [though we can only speculate as to which is which]—and often political.  That’s right, many are propagandistic, and the Tevijja Sutta is a case in point.  It is unlikely any devout or learned Brahmins of the Buddha’s day would have acceded to all of his arguments as readily as is portrayed in this sutta.  For example, it was [and still is] widely believed that the Vedas are revealed texts [i.e. apauruseya, “not of human agency”], and so are in fact of divine origin.  Just as Christians assume as a matter of course that their texts descend in some sense from Deity, so too did the Brahmins.  I therefore find myself in the rather awkward position of urging a Christian to take the Buddhist suttas a little less literally.  The trouble, of course, for Mr. MacPherson is that a less literal reading of the text undermines his argument and leaves him in the same uncomfortable position as the Buddha’s interlocutors.)    

Notice, too, an essential difference between the Buddha’s teaching and Christian teachings about Jesus.  The Dhamma’s singular goal is to turn an uninstructed worldling (assutava putthujjana) into an arahant; that is, to make him into what the Buddha was.  The Dhamma says that if you do A, B, and C you can and will attain X, Y, and Z: 

Those ascetics and Brahmins who fully understand aging-and-death, its origin, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation…[i.e. the four noble truths]: these I consider to be ascetics among ascetics and Brahmins among Brahmins, and these venerable ones, by realizing it for themselves with direct knowledge, in this very life, enter and dwell in the goal of asceticism and the goal of brahminhood (S.12.29). 

You are not expected to believe, but to do.  

This is not the case for Christian teachings concerning Jesus.  No disciple of his, either during his lifetime or now, could claim to share Jesus’ nature.  Jesus is considered a singular, unrepeatable phenomenon.  Nor is there any conceivable method by which we might determine whether or not Jesus actually rose from the dead, multiplied bread loaves, resurrected Lazarus or was an incarnation of Yahweh.  I might convince myself that such is the case, but my conviction as such holds no more weight than the conviction of those who believe that praying to Ganesha the elephant god helped them pass their final exams.  (Ganesha is the Hindu patron of arts and sciences, and god of the intellect and wisdom, so is well placed to accomplish such miracles.)  

There is yet a still deeper and more subtle problem with Christianity vis-à-vis the Buddha’s teaching.  I have heard some people lament “if only we had a videotape of what happened after Jesus’ crucifixion—then we would know.”  I one time made a similar remark to friend of mine, wondering whether or not that would actually resolve the issue.  His response was illuminating: 

Let’s say someone had a camcorder and followed Jesus around for his entire ministry, filming everything he said and did, and then filmed him dying, getting buried, and on the third day rising from the dead and ascending into heaven.  Now what? 

In other words, the resolution of this particular historical conundrum does not solve the problem of your suffering.  Even if Jesus somehow resolved the existential dilemma that every human being lives with, you must still resolve that dilemma within yourself.  Believing he was God or rose from the dead is not helpful.  It is irrelevant—a distraction, a delusion, an escape.  The false certainty of faith is no defense against the inevitable and real problem of dukkha—of birth, sorrow, pain, loss, aging, sickness and death.  The sooner you admit that you suffer and your life will end and that you have no idea what, if anything, happens after, the sooner you can get on with the business of finding out the truth.    

Right View: That First Step Is A Doozey! (Part 9 of A 13-Part Series)

Returning again to Mr. MacPherson’s posts: in his “The Eightfold Path inside Christianity: Points 1 and 2” he states correctly that “Right understanding means knowing the Four Noble Truths.”  (I might quibble with this by saying instead that it means directly seeing the four truths, but this is a small point.)  He also correctly equates right view /understanding with seeing dependent origination, but then proceeds to misunderstand that term in a mystical sense.

As soon as one interprets Dependent Arising as asserting mystical “unity,” one can get away with just about anything.  The Dhamma is reduced to a Mystical Blob, a black box where anything comes and anything goes, a wish fulfilling doctrine we can equate with everything and nothing.  And so we are told that Dependent Arising “does not contradict essential Christianity” (which for Mr. MacPherson is contemplative Christianity), which equates a misconstrued Buddhist term with an idiosyncratically defined Christianity.  I am sorry to be blunt, but this equation is a torturous case of factual distortion and wishful thinking and does nothing to shed light on the Buddha’s teaching or Christianity. 

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In the previous post I said a lot about right view (sammaditthi), but there are a few things I believe I can yet add.  We have already discussed how right view equals seeing the four noble truths, and also how the four noble truths spring from the primordial insight of dependent arising; i.e. the two middle truths (arising and cessation) are directly built off it, the first truth describes the state of the putthujjana who has not seen it, and the fourth truth (that of the Path) describes how one obtains that insight.  The point was also made that the difference between the mundane and supramundane, between not seeing and seeing (Dependent Arising), is absolute: the putthujjana sees avijja (“delusion”); the sekha sees nibbana.  

Now the observant reader may have noticed something interesting: in enumerating the four noble truths, the Buddha goes on to define the fourth truth (the way to getting knowledge of the four truths) as headed by right view, and defines that as knowledge of the four noble truths.  In other words, getting knowledge of the four noble truths requires knowledge of the four noble truths, which in turn requires knowledge of how to get to the four noble truths!  

Remember my analogy of parallel lines?  

Here we have a structure—embedded within the suttas themselves—that illustrates the recursive nature of avijja, and also indicates why the extinction of asmimana, of “I am-ness,” is so difficult.  Seeing and non-seeing are absolutes—either you have insight or you don’t.  And this is why avijja appears at the head of the list in dependent arising: it is the lock that seals the putthujjana within his cell of subjectivity, just as the arising of right view in the fruition moment is the key to getting out.    

The first writer I encountered who pointed out this structure was Ñanavira Thera, and I cannot imagine anyone describing it better than he.  I will therefore take the liberty to quote him at length: 

The faculty of self-observation or reflexion is inherent in the structure of our experience. Some degree of reflexion is almost never entirely absent in our waking life, and in the practice of mindfulness it is deliberately cultivated.  To describe it simply, we may say that one part of our experience is immediately concerned with the world as its object, while at the same time another part of our experience is concerned with the immediate experience as its object.  This second part we may call reflexive experience.  It will be clear that when there is avijja there is avijja in both parts of our experience, the immediate and the reflexive; for though, in reflexion, experience is divided within itself, it is still one single, even if complex, structure.  The effect of this may be seen from the Sabbasava Sutta (M.2:8) wherein certain wrong views are spoken of. Three of them are: “With self I perceive self… With self I perceive not-self…  With not-self I perceive self.”  A man with avijja, practising reflexion, may identify “self” with both reflexive and immediate experience, or with reflexive experience alone, or with immediate experience alone.  He does not conclude that neither is “self,” and the reason is clear: it is not possible to get outside avijja by means of reflexion alone; for however much a man may “step back” from himself to observe himself he cannot help taking avijja with him.  There is just as much avijja in the self-observer as there is in the self-observed.  And this is the very reason why avijja is so stable in spite of its being sankhata.  Simply by reflexion the puthujjana can never observe avijja and at the same time recognize it as avijja; for in reflexion avijja is the Judge as well as the Accused, and the verdict is always “Not Guilty.”  In order to put an end to avijja, which is a matter of recognizing avijja as avijja, it is necessary to accept on trust from the Buddha a Teaching that contradicts the direct evidence of the puthujjana’s reflexion.  This is why the Dhamma is patisotagami (M.26:19), or “going against the stream.” The Dhamma gives the puthujjana the outside view of avijja, which is inherently unobtainable for him by unaided reflexion (in the ariyasavaka this view has, as it were, “taken” like a graft, and is perpetually available).  Thus it will be seen that avijja in reflexive experience (actual or potential) is the condition for avijja in immediate experience.  It is possible, also, to take a second step back and reflect upon reflexion; but there is still avijja in this self-observation of self-observation, and we have a third layer of avijja protecting the first two.  And there is no reason in theory why we should stop here; but however far we go we shall not get beyond avijja. The hierarchy of avijja can also be seen from the Suttas in the following way: 

But which, friends, is nescience?…
That which is non-knowledge of suffering,
non-knowledge of arising of suffering,
non-knowledge of ceasing of suffering,
non-knowledge of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering,
this, friends, is called nescience (M.9:66). 

And which, monks, is the noble truth of suffering…
And which, monks, is the noble truth of arising of suffering…
And which, monks, is the noble truth of ceasing of suffering…
And which, monks, is the noble truth of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering? 

Just this noble eight-factored path,
that is to say: right view…
And which, monks, is right view?…
That which is knowledge of suffering,
knowledge of arising of suffering,
knowledge of ceasing of suffering,
knowledge of the way that leads to ceasing of suffering,
this, monks, is called right view (D.22:18ff). 

Avijja is non-knowledge of the four noble truths.  Sammaditthi is knowledge of the four noble truths.  But sammaditthi is part of the four noble truths.  Thus avijja is non-knowledge of sammaditthi; that is to say, non-knowledge of knowledge of the four noble truths.  But since sammaditthi, which is knowledge of the four noble truths, is part of the four noble truths, so avijja is non-knowledge of knowledge of knowledge of the four noble truths.  And so we can go on indefinitely.  But the point to be noted is that each of these successive stages represents an additional layer of (potentially) reflexive avijja.  Non-knowledge of knowledge of the four noble truths is non-knowledge of vijja, and non-knowledge of vijja is failure to recognize avijja as avijja.  Conversely, it is evident that when avijja is once recognized anywhere in this structure it must vanish everywhere; for knowledge of the four noble truths entails knowledge of knowledge of the four noble truths, and vijja replaces avijja throughout (op. cit pp. 36ff). 

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There is one final point I wish to make in regards to right view.  Mr. MacPherson was correct when he said “right understanding is cognitive”—meaning that for the one who obtains it a distinctly new understanding of the world arises.  The passage from Ñanavira above clearly illustrates this, but we can go further as regards specific existential questions that plague human beings.  In the following passage the Buddha contrasts the (right) understanding of the sekha against the (wrong) understanding of the putthujjana

When, monks, a noble disciple [sekha] has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena, it is impossible that he will run back into the past, thinking: “Did I exist in the past?  Did I not exist in the past?  What was I in the past?  How was I in the past?  Having been what, what did I become in the past?”  Or that he will run forward into the future, thinking: “Will I exist in the future?  Will I not exist in the future?  What will I be in the future?  How will I be in the future?  Having been what, what will I become in the future?”  Or that he will now be inwardly confused about the present thus: “Do I exist?  Do I not exist?  What am I?  How am?  This being—where has it come from, and where will it go?” 

For what reason?  Because the noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena (S.12:20). 

In other words, the sekha sees the lie in viewing the world with the sense of “I” or “me” or “mine.”  Though he still experiences subjectivity (asmimana), the self is known for the illusion it is, like a man in the desert who sees a cool garden and pools of water but comprehends it all as a mirage.  He is not fooled, unlike the commoner who naively chases after the illusion.  The arhant, of course, will not even see the illusion, much less be entrapped by it. 

But this is not the case for the men and women of the Bible, even with its most august figures: Yahweh and Jesus.  Consider the following, one of the most famous passages in the Bible:   

Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”  God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.”  And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I AM has sent me to you’” (Exodus 3:13-14). 

Yahweh’s choice of names is unfortunate, for at S.35:248 the Buddha has something very specific to say about the notion behind it:

In conceiving, one is bound by Mara; by not conceiving, one is freed from the Evil One.

Bhikkhus, “I am” is a conceiving…  Conceiving is a disease… a tumor… a dart.  Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: “We will dwell with a mind devoid of conceiving”…

Bhikkhus, “I am” is an involvement with conceit…  Involvement with conceit is a disease… a tumor… a dart.  Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: “We will dwell with a mind in which conceit has been struck down.”  Thus should you train yourselves.

The Biblical god plainly never heard the Buddha’s advice or, if he did, he chose not to follow it:

 I am the LORD your God…  (Exodus 20:2)

You shall have no other gods before Me (Exodus 20:3).

You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children, on the third and the fourth generations of those who hate Me, but showing loving kindness to thousands, to those who love Me and keep My commandments (Exodus 20:5).

You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not leave him unpunished who takes His name in vain (Exodus 20:7).

The God of Abraham, whatever else he may be, is clearly a victim of attavada (“self view”) and suffers from a terminal case of asmimana (subjectivity, the “conceit” I am). 

And what conceit!  In addition to lording it over the hapless Israelites, he is the self-proclaimed creator of the world:  “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” he asks Job (in Job 38:4).  The rest of his speech (chapters 38 and 39) consists of a catalogue of boasts about his power and supremacy.  As a religion professor of mine once put it, God’s “answer” to Job is, “I’m bigger than you are!”

Now compare this to the wonderful story in the Kevaddha Sutta (D.11) where a monk asks the Great Brahma the following question: “Where do the four great elements—earth, water, fire, air—cease without remainder?” and Brahma replies: “I am Brahma, the Great Brahma, the Conqueror, the Unconquered, the All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, the Maker and Creator, the Ruler, Appointer and Orderer, Father of All That Have Been and Shall Be…”  Needless to say, he didn’t know the answer to the monk’s question—but the Buddha did.  (Wanna-be creator gods are the Rodney Dangerfields of the suttas: they get no respect.  See also my post on “The Morals of God and the Buddha” for a further examination of the [lack of] character of the Biblical deity.) 

Now consider Jesus, often counted by well-intentioned Buddhists as an “enlightened man.”  Yet he, too, like the God he claimed to be, was afflicted by sakkayaditthi (“identity view”) and thought and made pronouncements about his self in the past, the present and the future.  Whether he claimed to have been divine or not is irrelevant—he was still very much a self, a someone—and suffered as such. 

Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha met Him.  Then the Jews who were with her in the house, and consoling her, when they saw that Mary got up quickly and went out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. Therefore, when Mary came where Jesus was, she saw Him, and fell at His feet, saying to Him, “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” When Jesus therefore saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, He was deeply moved in spirit and was troubled, and said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to Him, “Lord, come and see.” Jesus wept. So the Jews were saying, “See how He loved him!” But some of them said, “Could not this man, who opened the eyes of the blind man, have kept this man also from dying?”  (John 11:35-37). 

And He withdrew from them about a stone’s throw, and He knelt down and began to pray, saying, “Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done.”  Now an angel from heaven appeared to Him, strengthening Him.  And being in agony He was praying very fervently; and His sweat became like drops of blood, falling down upon the ground (Luke 22:41 ff). 

Compare these famous Biblical passages to what the Buddha says in the Sabbasava Sutta (M.2:7ff): 

This is how he attends unwisely: “…Shall I be in the future?  How shall I be in the future?  Having been what, what shall I become in the future?”… 

When he attends unwisely in this way, one of six views arises in him.  The view…”It is this self of mine that speaks and feels and experiences here and there the result of good and bad actions; but this self of mine is permanent, everlasting, eternal, not subject to change, and it will endure as long as eternity.”  This speculative view, bhikkhus, is called the thicket of views, the wilderness of views, the contortion of views, the vacillation of views, the fetter of views.  Fettered by the fetter of views, the untaught ordinary person [assutava putthujjana] is not freed from birth, ageing, and death, from sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief, and despair; he is not freed from suffering, I say. 

Plainly, Jesus, whether man or god (or perhaps, rather, because he was a man or a god), did not possess right view; he had neither put an end to suffering nor seen a way to its end.  And so Ven. Ñanavira, in his commonplace book, could pen these lines: 

Q: Why the Buddha rather than Jesus? 

A: Jesus wept. 

Finally, compare the above to what transpired after the Buddha’s passing (mahaparinibbana): 

And at the Blessed Lord’s final passing there was a great earthquake, terrible and hair-raising, accompanied by thunder… 

And those monks who had not yet overcome their passions wept and tore their hair, raising their arms, throwing themselves down and twisting and turning, crying…  But those monks who were free from craving endured mindfully and clearly aware, saying: “All compounded things are impermanent—what is the use of this?” (D.16:6.10).

A Letter To Christian-Buddhists (table of contents for a 13-part series)

  Table of Contents

  1. If God Is Eternal: Why the Bible Is A Bad Place to Start Your Dharma Practice
  2. Looking For the Buddha In the Bible: How Not To Make Spinach Soufflé
  3. Dukkha: Why the First Noble Truth Is No Laughing Matter
  4. Beyond Mammon and Mistresses: Why the Second Noble Truth Is So Much More Than Desire
  5. Dependent Arising: Why This Whole Ball of Shit Keeps Rolling
  6. Reprise: Is the Second Noble Truth of Buddhism Inside Christianity?
  7. Nirodha: It’s the End of Your World As You Know It
  8. Parallel Lines: Mundane and Noble Eightfold Paths
  9. Right View: That First Step Is A Doozey!
  10. Be Not Like the Blind Men: The Ending of Faith Is the Beginning of Wisdom
  11. So Why Are We Having This Conversation Anyway? Christian-Buddhists As Religious Chimeras
  12. Doublethink As the Door to Christian-Buddhism
  13. Common Ground: The Contemplative Conversation

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