Thursday, November 10, 2011

THE BUDDHIST TEACHINGS OF ANICCA (IMPERMANENCE) AND DUKKHA (UNSATISFACTORINESS) IN CHRISTIANITY


In my most recent blog I put forward the thesis that Jesus understood the Buddhist teaching of anattā (‘no-self’ or, more correctly, ‘not-self’), even though he expressed it in his own distinctive way.

In this blog I wish to explore the extent to which, and the manner in which, the other two bedrock Buddhist teachings (anicca and dukkha) are presented in Christianity.

First, the teaching of anicca, which affirms that everything is ... impermanent! (You can see how the teaching of anattā is inextricably bound up with the idea of anicca. If everything is impermanent, so are those ‘I’s’ and ‘me’s’ which we mistakenly believe constitute a separate, isolated, independent ‘self.’)

The concept of anicca (or ‘impermanence’) can be found all throughout the Bible. Our days are ‘few’ (Jb 10:20), 'as grass' (Ps 103:15), ‘swifter than a weaver’s shuttle’ (Jb 7:6), and ‘as a shadow, and there is no abiding’ (1 Ch 29:15), indeed, ‘as a shadow that passes away’ (Ps 144:4). Our life is ‘wind’ (Jb 7:7), ‘even a vapour, that appears for a little time, and then vanishes away’ (Ja 4:14), ‘as the morning cloud, and as the early dew that passes away, as the chaff that is driven out of the floor, and as the smoke out of the chimney’ (Ho 13:3).

Further, we are told that ‘all flesh is grass, and all its goodliness is like the flower of the field: the grass withers, the flower fades’ (Is 40:6, 7). One generation passes away, and another generation comes (Ec 1:4), and ‘time and chance happen to us all’ (Ec 9:11). No wonder we are told to ‘remember how short [our] time is’ (Ps 89:47). We are also reminded that we have ‘no certain dwelling place’ (I Co 4:11). Indeed, we ‘are of the dust, and all turn to dust again’ (Ec 3:20; cf Ge 3:19)

Yes, all things change. Indeed, the only certain and changeless thing is just that ... all things change. ‘To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven’ (Ec 3:1). There is ‘a time to get, and a time to lose; and a time to cast away’ (Ec 3:6). Our life is ‘fleeting,’ our days are ‘fleeting,’ for that is our ‘portion in life,’ our ‘struggle under the sun’ (Ec 9:9).

True, the Bible affirms that there is a Power and Presence, which is Life, Truth and Love, which is unchanging and eternal. That One is God. However, everything material is impermanent and will pass away. Not even the ‘soul’ is immortal, for only God is said to be immortal (see Jb 4:17; Ec 3:20; 1 Ti 6:16). The Bible makes that unambiguously clear.

Now, the teaching of dukkha (‘unsatisfactoriness’), which affirms that unsatisfactoriness is part of our lives ... or, if you prefer, that life is characterised by unsatisfactoriness. (That is not to say there is no joy in life. The teaching of dukkha simply affirms that unsatisfactoriness is inescapable and ever-present in our lives in varying degrees from one moment to the next.)

There is no one single English word that is adequate to describe or rather compress all the aspects of the meaning of the word dukkha. Traditionally, the EngIish word 'suffering' has been used. However, I have chosen, for want of a better, the word ‘unsatisfactoriness,’ because I think that English word includes almost everything which dukkha embraces ... things such as (but not limited to) unfulfilled desire, suffering (both physical and mental), distress, dissatisfaction, discomfort, discontent, disquietude, disharmony, pain, sorrow, affliction, bodily ailments, misery, unhappiness, anguish, angst, anxiety, depression, stress, tension, insecurity, conflict, separation, alienation, frustration, emptiness, insubstantiality, etc, etc. Here are the written words of Shakyamuni Budhha on the nature of dukkha:

‘This, bhikkus, is the Noble Truth of Dukkha: birth is dukkha, aging is dukkha, sickness is dukkha, death is dukkha. Presence of objects we loathed is dukkha; separation from what we love is dukkha; to not get what is wanted is dukkha. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are dukkha.’

Yes, negativity in any way or form is dukkha, or unsatisfactoriness. Being born, aging, sickness, death, separation – all those things are dukkha. The Bible affirms the truth of that teaching as well, for we are told that all our days are sorrows, and our travail grief, with there being no rest in the night (cf Ec 2:23). Indeed, the whole creation ‘groans and travails in pain together’ (Ro 8:22). The psalmist writes, ‘My heart is sore pained with me: and the terrors of death are fallen upon me’ (Ps 55:4). Our days are ‘full of trouble’ (Jb 14:1) and ‘are passed away in thy wrath’ (Ps 90:9). Indeed, there is ‘trouble and darkness, [and] dimness of anguish’ (Is 48:10), for ‘all things are full of labour: it is simply inexpressible’ (Ec 1:8). Yes, we are ‘consumed ... [and] troubled’ (Ps 90:7).

Christianity – but not Judaism – teaches the doctrine of ‘original sin,’ and that all sickness, suffering, the pain of childbirth, and even death itself are said to be the result of the so-called ‘Fall.’ Much of what Buddhism describes and refers to as dukkha is ‘sin’ or the result of original sin in Christianity.


Now, it would be misleading of me to suggest or imply that the Bible has no ‘solution’ to this generalised state of dukkha, for clearly the Bible does present a solution ... a way out. I referred to that solution in my previous blog. We need to come to the realization that our problems are for the most part of our own making, that those problems arise from a mistaken belief in ‘self’, that ‘self cannot change self,’ and that freedom from the bondage of self is possible if we are ‘born anew.’ That happens when, in the words of the Prodigal Son, we say to ourselves, ‘I will arise and go to my father’ (Lk 15:18) ... that is, having 'come to [ourselves]' (cf Lk 15:17), we ‘wake up,’ and say, ‘I don’t want to live this way anymore. I choose to live differently and mindfully from now on.’ Call it repentance, if you like, the Greek word of which that is the English translation [viz metanoia] denotes not just 'a change of mind' but a 'total about-face' or 'complete turn-around' ... that is, a radically fresh view about oneself, the world, and matters spiritual – a psychological mutation.

That, as I see it, is the essential message and truth of both Buddhism and Christianity. What a shame that this simple yet very profound truth has been almost lost in all the ‘butcher shop theology’ of mainstream Christianity!



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4 comments:

  1. Hi...the symbol of impermanence is in what language?

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  2. Anicca is a Pali word. The piece of calligraphy (depicting the characters for the English word "impermanence") is in Japanese Kanji script.

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  3. is there any source where I can find another language??
    I'm actually looking van an original Pali or Devanagri script of Impermanence

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  4. Wish I could help you, but I don't know of a source or internet site that would assist---although I am sure that there is one.

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