In the realm of metaphysics, compromises are difficult : Buddhism and Christianity are hardly reconcilable. The former generally rejected all notions of God or self, before turning, with Mahāyāna Buddhism, to a full-fledged doctrine of emptiness. The latter was set on the fundamentally substantial nature of God and his son Jesus, a solidification that would be conceptually strengthened with the influence of Platonic and Neo-Platonic metaphysics. Through the question of metaphysics, these are two radically divergent views on the fundamental reality that I will explore here, as well as two conflicting understandings of the place of humans in the world.
Unlike what is generally believed in the West, the Buddha was not (only) an advocate of a powerful rationality in front of a ritualistic Brāhmaṇism. If Buddha, at times, gave teachings that had certain philosophical resonances, it is only as a response to his profound concern for humans’ suffering. Buddha was not a philosopher, but, as Alain Delaye points it, a mystic and a therapist. 1 His famous silence in response to certain questions of some visitors highlights the fact that he did not aim to provide a rational answer to everything, but rather, to focus on what actually affects human life. However, one can still draw the lines of a broad metaphysical understanding through the teachings of the Buddha. It starts from day one, when Buddha, in the Deer Park of Sarnath, taught the five ascetics the principle of dependent origination. It is a principle of interdependence, in which each phenomenon of reality has a cause and produces another phenomenon, forming an eternal cycle and a world where all things are connected to each other. Corollary to this principle is the doctrine of Anattā or non-self : Buddha taught his disciples that humans are void of a self or a soul as the fundamental principle of their being. This non-self arises from another principle considered as central for the Buddha : impermanence. Since all things of the world are transient, there can be no unchanging core at the heart of the human experience.
While the early schools of Hīnāyana – in particular the Sarvastivāda – would slightly subvert Buddha’s views to constitute a metaphysics that considers the objectivity of certain phenomena (the dharma), it is in the later Mahāyāna Buddhism that one finds the best systematic applications of Buddha’s intuitions into a solid philosophical system. Nagarjuna, Indian philosopher of the 2nd century ce and founder of the Madhyamika School, developed a formal translation of Buddha’s understanding of interconnectedness and non-self : the Catuskoti or Four-Fold Dialectic. Through a rigorous method, he could assess any view, any belief, any argument, and unbuild it by demonstrating that one cannot prove neither the existence of a thing, nor its non-existence, nor both of them, nor none of them. “To say existence is a view of permanence, to say non-existent is a view of annihilation. That is why the sages do not dwell in existence or non-existence.” 2 He applied this surprising and “deconstructive” method even to fundamental concepts and beliefs of Buddhism, such as the figure of the Buddha or the hope for Nirvana (liberation)… and later, even Nagarjuna’s very teachings ! What transpires from Nagarjuna’s enterprise is a strong intention to continue Buddha’s effort in undermining the attachment of humans. Through all these beliefs and views, humans get attached to what they see as sustainable and substantial entities. Instead, Nagarjuna defended a metaphysics – or perhaps a non-metaphysics – of emptiness : Shunyata. The world is not nothing (nihilism), but it is empty of any particular substance : life flows, all things change, nothing remains the same, there is no fundamental entity to grasp. Only remain detachment and the peaceful contemplation of the practitioner. “Nirvana is never reached because never lost and, as for the ultimate truth, the Enlightened one did not teach anything. In this worldview, reigns since always the silence of light. Everything is appeased by eternity.” 3
The spirit of non-substance would reach its peak in Tibetan, and especially, in Chinese and Japan Buddhism, where the non-dualist effort was such that certain masters conceptualised even the unity of illusion and liberation : “Illusion and absolute are not different. As long as we are in the error, the absolute is illusion. For the one who is enlightened, the illusion becomes absolute” (Liliane Silburn).
Later schools developed new perspectives on Buddhist metaphysics, but the influence of Nagarjuna would always be felt. Asanga and Vasubandhu developed the idealist Yogācāra or Vijnavāda School, giving great importance to consciousness. The spirit of non-substance would reach its peak in Tibetan, and especially, in Chinese and Japan Buddhism, where the non-dualist effort was such that certain masters conceptualised even the unity of illusion and liberation : “Illusion and absolute are not different. As long as we are in the error, the absolute is illusion. For the one who is enlightened, the illusion becomes absolute.” 4 In Japan, the practice of seated meditation, Zazen, would emphasise on the effort to find emptiness and vacuity in all things. Dogen, Zen master of the 13th century, would “modulate ad infinitum, around vacuity, a paradoxical discourse aiming at discouraging any attempt of substantialisation.” 5 What Buddha, and later Mahāyāna masters have defended is a view of reality without basis, without foundational substance. Only remains the bliss of contemplation of an ever-changing reality.
Just like the Buddha who was perhaps not a philosopher but a mystic and a therapist, Jesus, too was not a speculative thinker. This understanding started with the Hebraic thought, which was, for André Néher, an “anti-philosophy” 6 : knowledge does not spread from an autonomous human intelligence but through the enlightening revelation of God and its translation in his Law. In the Bible, the guardians of knowledge (yedia) are not thinkers but prophets, whose views are more affective than speculative. Moreover, the Jewish doctrine insists on the importance of the long trail of history, thus limiting the extent of the rational discoveries of the singular thinker. But the Christian message starts distancing itself from Judaism when Jesus set a new type of relation : God is his Father (Abba), and he presents himself as his son. At that time, “Jesus’s cosmology is not Platonist at all. The Kingdom of God comes, for him, on earth. It is not another world, an elsewhere reserved to immortal souls” 7 : Jesus’s metaphysics – if a metaphysics it is – is almost realistic, very pragmatic. It is in the world of humans that God’s Kingdom will come.
More to the West, the Latin Fathers would draw on Origen, but secretly : his metaphysics had set the Christ as subordinated to the Father. The growing theology of Trinity would emerge as a reaction to this, lauding the absolute equality of the divine beings.
It is after Jesus’s demise that the Greek influence would start to be felt, through the Gospels of Paul, and especially, of John. The Johannine Logos has a strong Platonist connotation, and the connection would be fully explored by the Neoplatonism of the Church Fathers. It is in Asia Minor that this marriage would take place. Clement of Alexandria (c. 115-215), and especially Origen (c. 184-253) offered the first syntheses of Platonism and Christianity : there is a preexisting and fundamental soul in God, which all blessed spirits are contemplating, just like Plato advocated the contemplation of Ideas and especially the greatest of all, the Good. While he also inserts Judeo-Christian elements to Platonism, Origen “remains broadly faithful to the Platonist anthropology : man is originally and fundamentally a soul, a spiritual, divine being.” 8 More to the West, the Latin Fathers would draw on Origen, but secretly : his metaphysics had set the Christ as subordinated to the Father. The growing theology of Trinity would emerge as a reaction to this, lauding the absolute equality of the divine beings. The Trinity would be officially approved through the First Council of Nicaea in 325 ad. Three decades later, the First Council of Constantinople, in 359, would complete this movement by giving to the Holy Spirit the same, equal status as God and the Christ. Thereafter, the three units would be “consubstantial” or “of the same nature” 9 : one nature, one essence, but three forms. With Saint Augustine (354-430), the Platonist influence is confirmed, but this time through the Neo-Platonist lens of Plotinus : evil is only an absence of good, of being. Human nature becomes, with Augustine, predestined : thoroughly guilty of the original sin, ashamed of its desires, pretentious and beyond redemption. 10
Aquinas did not reject all of Platonism, but emphasised, with Aristotle, on the sensible as a medium for knowledge, and, especially, on the view that individuals are substantial in and of themselves, and not just as the lower images of their ideal Platonic forms. The human soul remains immortal but it becomes the form of the body.
It is only seven or eight centuries later that Christian metaphysics would undergo a revival, with the emergence of the great universities of the Middle Age. After Plato and Plotinus, it is Aristotle who finally enters the Christian doctrine, through Thomas of Aquinas (1225-1274). Aquinas did not reject all of Platonism, but emphasised, with Aristotle, on the sensible as a medium for knowledge, and, especially, on the view that individuals are substantial in and of themselves, and not just as the lower images of their ideal Platonic forms. The human soul remains immortal but it becomes the form of the body. Through the view of a fundamentally good and autonomous natural order, Saint Thomas advocated a new optimistic faith in human reason.
Origen, Augustine and Aquinas remain in this first millenium the three major Christian thinkers, theologians, or perhaps, metaphysicians, but the substantialist Christian doctrine would come to face strong resistances towards our epoch : “Today, after Kant and Hume, the concept of substance has grown old. The Heideggerean reflection revealed the insufficiencies of the post-Socratic thoughts on being, psychoanalysis and structuralism hampered the notion of subject, and quantum physics undermined the scientific certainties based, in the influence of Aristotle and the atomists, on an ultimately particularist understanding of the real.” 11 In other words, the Greek accent of Christian theology has increasingly lost its authority before the rational arguments of western philosophy and of critical sciences.
Christian and Buddhist metaphysics seem irreconcilable. The diametrical opposition is such that what one tradition sees as the fundamental truth of reality is precisely what is condemned by the other : for the Christians, Buddhism may seem as an atheistic and self-denying doctrine, while for the Buddhists, Christianity appears to repeat the illusions of a sustaining self and a transcendent deity. To the clear duality of Christianity, Buddhism replies with a profound monism of vacuity : all is empty, to the point that Saṃsāra and Nirvana cannot anymore be distinguished. Yet, the modern values of equality and social unity appear to find a better support with the philosophical reflections of the growing community of Buddhist supporters : monism sounds undoubtedly more progressive and liberating than dualism in the contemporary western culture. But this too has become a quickly attractive view, which ignores the subtleties and surprises of Christian metaphysics. In any case, as Alain Delaye concludes, the ultimate decision highlighted by this clash of metaphysics is that of a choice: “One has to make a choice, or abstain from it, but that is still a way to choose.” 12
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A Dialogue Between Buddhism and Christianity
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- Alain Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 102.
- Madhyamakakārika, XV, 10, quoted in Asanga, La Somme du Grand Véhicule d’Asanga (Mahayanasamgraha), trans. Etienne Lamotte (Louvain: Institut Orientalist, 1973).
- Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 108.
- Liliane Silburn, Le Bouddhisme (Paris: Fayard, 1984).
- Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 123.
- André Néher, “La philosophie hébraïque et juive dans l’Antiquité,” in Histoire de la Philosophie, ed. Brice Parain (Paris: Gallimard, 1969), 50.
- Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 127.
- Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 130.
- Richard Rubenstein, Le jour où Jésus devint Dieu (Paris: Editions de la Découverte, 2001), 262.
- Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 135.
- Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 139.
- Delaye, Sagesse du Bouddha, Religion de Jésus, 153.