Sunday, November 6, 2011

WAS JESUS A BUDDHIST? THE DOCTRINE OF ‘NO-SELF’ IN CHRISTIANITY

Was Jesus a Buddhist? No, he was a Jew – note that, a Jew, as opposed to a Christian – but that does not necessarily mean that Jesus had not been exposed to Buddhist thought and teachings in his lifetime. In that regard, we now know that Buddhist monks and teachers had travelled to the Holy Land at and before the time of Christ and had there taught the message of the Buddha.

So, it is quite possible, although by no means certain, that Jesus was aware of some of the key ideas and teachings of the Buddha. Indeed, several of Jesus' key teachings and sayings [eg 'Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you' (Mt 4:44); 'The kingdom of God is within [sic] you' (Lk 17:21)] are quite non-Semitic but entirely consistent with Buddhism.

Now, it has been written, ‘No anattā doctrine, no Buddhism.’ Indeed. The concept of anattā is bedrock to Buddhism. Anattā means ‘no-self’ or, more correctly, ‘not-self.’ The Buddhist teaching of anattā affirms that there is no actual ‘self’ at the centre of our conscious - or even unconscious – awareness. Our so-called consciousness goes through continuous fluctuations from moment to moment. As such, there is nothing to constitute, let alone sustain, a separate, transcendent ‘I’ structure or entity. We ‘die’ and are ‘born’ (or ‘reborn’) from one moment to the next.

Yes, we have a sense of continuity of ‘self’, but it is really an illusion. It has no ‘substance’ in either physical or psychological reality. Our sense of self is simply a mental construct composed of a continuous ever-changing process or confluence of impermanent components (‘I-moments’ brought about and put together by thought) which are cleverly synthesized by the mind in a way which appears to give them a singularity and a separate and independent existence and life of their own.

Actually, within each one of us there are literally thousands of ‘I's’ and ‘me's’ ... the ‘I’ who wants to go to work today and the ‘I’ who doesn't, the ‘I’ who likes ‘me’ and the ‘I’ who doesn't like ‘me’, the ‘I’ who wants to give up smoking and the ‘I’ who doesn't, and so forth. All these 'I's' are the result of thoughts and feelings of attachment or aversion or clinging of some kind or another. Without such thoughts or feelings there is simply no 'I' as a separate, isolated entity. Think about it for a moment ... how can the ‘self’ change the ‘self’, if there is no self? It's simply impossible. William Temple, who as Archbishop of Canterbury presided over the worldwide Anglican communion, clearly understood this teaching of anattā. He wrote, ‘For the trouble is that we are self-centred, and no effort of the self can remove the self from the centre of its own endeavour.’

So many of our problems arise from self-identification, self-absorption, self-obsession and self-centredness. We cling to the ‘self’ as self. We even manage to convince ourselves that we ‘belong’ to that self, indeed that we are that self ... that is, those myriads of I’s and me’s that make up our waxing and waning, fading-in and fading-out stream of consciousness. To borrow a couple of phrases from the ‘Big Book’ of Alcoholics Anonymous, the result of our misbelief in a separate ‘self’ is ‘self-will run riot’, and the regular practice – note that word practice – of Buddhism is able to relieve us of the ‘bondage of self.’

Now, what did Jesus have to say about this matter? Did Jesus teach anattā? I think he did, for it is written that he said, ‘I can of mine own self do nothing’ (Jn 5:30), and ‘My Father is greater than I’ (Jn 14:28). It is also written, ‘He must become greater; I must become less’ (Jn 3:30). Yes, these verses can be interpreted in various ways, but when read in conjunction with other Bible verses attesting to the need to ‘deny’ or ‘crucify’ oneself (cf Lk 9:23, Rom 6:6) and to ‘lose’ one’s life (or self) in order to ‘find’ it (cf Mt 10:39), I think a strong case can be made that Jesus attributed the source of his identity, being and power, not to some supposed ‘self’, but to the ‘Father within,’ that is, the divine and universal source and essence of all life perceived and experienced as an indwelling creative presence and power at the very core, centre or ‘heart’ of one’s own being ... and of all being ... for despite what many Christians would have you believe, Jesus never claimed anything for himself that he didn’t also claim for us.

Both Buddhism and Christianity affirm the need for a ‘power-not-oneself.’ True, in most forms of Buddhism you must be your own ‘saviour’ (even though others can point the way), whereas in conventional, mainstream Christianity Jesus Christ is perceived as the Saviour and the Way. However, Jesus made it very clear that ‘Not every one who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; only those who do the will of my Father, who is in heaven" (Mt 7:21). He also said, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me’ (Lk 9:23).

As I see it, that is how Jesus ‘saves.’ He shows us the way out of the hell and the prison we have made for and of ourselves. He shows us how we can be relieved of the bondage of self and thereby gain true freedom and happiness. Not only that, he lived out the truth of ‘not-self’ in his own life and, even more importantly, in his death on the Cross. Powerful stuff.



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1 comment:

  1. Love this, I feel the same way.

    I think though as well that Jesus brought a really nice dimension to it all. While Buddha seems almost unreachable at times, Jesus seems to speak as if he is right beside you, in you. Also the idea that he speaks about the no-self, the all, the ultimate being that we are in and have our life, as a father, makes the whole things more comforting, warming, and closer.

    That is why I love Jesus so much, even the thought of the father and Jesus brings a warmth to my heart, a deep gratitude and glow. I find with Gautama it is a bit more removed, like he has gone far away into the nothingness. But still some people are drawn to the way Buddha has spoken about that reality. I started with Buddhism, and arrived at Christ.

    Everyday I try to practice no-mind through out my day as much as I can, but for me this can be found in

    'Abide in me, as I abide in you'

    Lovely article! :)
    Peace and love, and god bless.

    ReplyDelete