Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On India and Buddhism - Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

Patriarch Bartholomew speaks out on India and Buddhism:

Behind the "New Age" movement one can also discern a rediscovery of India,  and particularly of Buddhism.

Many westerners today report that they find true serenity in Buddhism. They learn that there exists a dharma (to use the Sanskrit word), a path of salvation, a world order; one could even call it Wisdom, almost in the Biblical sense of the word. And this dharma, not unlike the Decalogue, asks them not to kill, steal, or lie, to be chaste, and (very useful for our societies) to abstain from alcohol and drugs! They seem to distance themselves somewhat from their emotions and to view others, and themselves, with greater tolerance and peace.

Curiously, the popularity of Buddhism today replaces that of Hinduism, which seemed greater during the period following World War Il. This may be the result of the spread of Tibetan Buddhism, which is today building monasteries throughout Western Europe and North America. Or it may be due to the remarkable personality of the Dalai Lama, who is able to interpret Buddhism to the West. But there is also more to it: India represents something luxurious, superabundant, a kind of robust cheerfulness; whereas Buddhism speaks essentially of suffering and of deliverance from pain. Buddhism therefore seems particularly attractive to many persons from western societies who are tired, who are "stressed out," and who seek a little peace and quiet...

For Buddhism, indeed, everything is painful: to be born, inexorably to decline, to suffer so much torment, to be subjected to what one hates, to be separated from what one loves. And what is the reason for this suffering? It is because one never ceases to desire, to be "thirsty," to "burn." Desire is born out of ignorance. It believes in the reality, in the importance, of beings and of things. Thus it produces error, lust, and hatred, which are "the three roots of evil." The "Way of deliverance" corrects our behavior (the moral requirements are extreme––something that the West usually forgets), and, through the practice of meditation, allows us to discern the process of growth and finally to awaken ourselves. To awaken to the unique, ineffable reality is to put out the flames of passion, error, and illusion. It is to become passionless, i.e., to triumph over the passions which constantly and actively toy with us.

This type of asceticism, which is monastic, is similar to our own monastic ascesis. Hesychastic spirituality, "the art of arts and science of sciences," also speaks of ignorance and of the passions, which begin with pride and avidity, with self-centeredness –philautia–which are all born from our hidden anguish when we are faced with the transitory nature of this world. And the methods to achieve this liberation from the "passions" are similar: cleanse the mind of "thoughts," achieve apatheia (passionlessness) and "wakefulness." This last word is as important in hesychasm as it is in Buddhism, because the word buddha means "awake." Indeed, the great witnesses of hesychasm are called the "neptic" Fathers, an adjective derived from the Greek nepsis, meaning wakefulness!

The term Nirvana, often so poorly understood, means extinction––of desire, of thirst, of fire. It designates a state of completion about which one can speak only in negations. This reminds us of the hesychastic "prayer beyond prayer," when man is rendered infinitely small as he comes to see the divine light.

Was Buddhism, in the depths of Asia, not a kind of pre Christian anticipation? It would itself, of course, be ignorant of this fact. We can discern two aspects in its doctrine: the first is a partial truth; the second remains enclosed in this partiality.

Nirvana is a negative symbol of an entry into the divine at the center of one's very being. That a liberating love is revealed in this “emptiness" which is fullness, a love which restores both the other and the world-all this is unknown to Buddhism. Or not yet known? The question remains. Within the hesychastic tradition, the heart and the spirit must die to themselves in order to rediscover the "otherness" of God in unity, a unity which is transformed into communion.

We agree with the Buddhists that "this world," as the Gospel says, lies in evil. But for Buddhists, the world is nothing more than that. It consists of transitory aggregates of matter, which are constantly being transformed and disappear, only to give birth to new aggregates, which are no less transitory. Ignorance consists in considering as substantial that which is merely apparent. For us Orthodox, under the veil of illusion which we are indeed called to remove, God's creation has substance. It is good, good precisely because of its diversity. This world does not exhaust the reality of God’s world.

For Buddhism, similarly, man is simply a nonessential "combination," which can, for example, be compared to a cart. Man is a simple process, a continuity with no identity. There is certainly reincarnation, but it occurs through the simple causality of actions producing effects. There is actually no transmigration, because there is no soul that can pass from one habitation to another. To be delivered is to reject the notion of the "self"–as well, of course, as any notion of the "other." Reincarnation, the "wheel of existence," is an infernal cycle, but there exist no condemned individuals! Buddha never ceased to denounce the "ignorant multitude" which nourished itself on absurd "theories of the soul" and believed in "personal" reincarnations. This "non-Self," whether mitigated or not, is in fact no different from the Self of the Vedanta–that Hindu school which succeeded in chasing Buddhism from India! One can speak of the Self only in negative terms, in order to identify it with the divine-––and it is only this divine aspect which is transmigrated!

This, we can see, is a far cry from western "reincarnationism," that invention of western tourists. We also totally misunderstand yoga (and its metaphysical goals are nearly always misunderstood in the West). Yoga gives its western practitioner the illusion of discovering his true Self, whereas it usually leads him only to expand and show off his ego!

Everything, the patriarch adds, centers on the concept of the “person." According to Buddhism, the person does not exist. The Christian, however, affirms the existence of the person. But Orthodoxy does not identify the person with the individual, with the "individual substance of a rational nature,” as Boethius awkwardly stated in the Latin world. This would mean that the person is nothing more than a mask, which is indeed the original meaning of the Latin word persona, or the Greek prosopon. The person is revealed only at the conclusion of a negative anthropology, and the efforts of Hinduism and Buddhism can be helpful for us. The absolute is not beyond the person (for then, in effect, there would be no one!). Rather, the absolute is the very depth, the "bottomless depth," of the person, or rather, of communion. And if the person, and therefore the possibility of encounter, do exist, then history exists. Yet neither Hinduism nor Buddhism is interested in history, because for them time, with its endless cycles, consists of nothing but terror. If the person, and therefore communion, exists, then man's attraction toward God transfigures desire: eros is transformed into agape. It is particularly the miracle of grace and forgiveness that destroys the fatality of karma–-that automatic link between the act and its consequences––and the fear "that we will need to repay everything," as say some Christians who fail to comprehend the infinite grace of the cross and the resurrection.

From Buddha to Gandhi 
We must, however, be aware that Hinduism and Buddhism have never ceased to develop. This is certainly true in our own era, when values of Christian origin have been spread throughout the world. But it has also been the case for centuries, either because of a Christian impulse we can only guess at, or through the influence of the long "Nestorian" evangelization in the heart of Asia.

Within Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, for example, there has been an evolution, on the one hand, toward ascesis and an esthetic of cosmic beauty, and, on the other, toward a religion of mercy. In the Zen movement––Ch'an in China-the keen ascetic, during and after a moment of illumination, sharply experiences the birth of a tree, of a flower, of light. He knows things as they are. He hears "the ah! of things." This is not far from the Christian "contemplation of nature," which is a necessary stage of hesychasm. In Amidism, monotheism asserts itself. Amida (Omito in Chinese), the mediator, was a monk who voluntarily halted his ascent on the path of illumination, putting the achievement of perfection on hold, until all humanity and all creation down to the last blade of grass are saved through his intercession. The faithful practice the nembutsu, the humble invocation of the formula, "Buddha Amida, save me." One group that came from Amidism has even called itself the Yuzu Nembutsu, "Invocation in communion"! All this makes any Christian pause who is familiar with the Jesus Prayer.

A monotheism of love has gradually spread throughout Hinduism. Even yoga, a methodical human exercise, has come to focus more and more on attraction to the divinity. The Vishnic Vedanta confesses and adores a personal God who was present at creation as the soul is present in the body––an image that St Gregory of Nyssa liked to use! The Vishnic God, out of his free Will, has created a real world which expresses his beauty and which therefore merits positive consideration by man. He has provided each person with an identity, thus making possible not fusion, but communion. As one mystic from this school has said, "if I love sugar, that does not mean that I wish to become sugar!" The Shakti movement celebrates the divine energy, which it perceives as a feminine presence: here again, we are reminded of Wisdom! And this religion has promoted respect toward woman, toward the wife.

In our own century, an encounter between this kind of Hinduism and the Gospel has already begun, particularly in the person, deeds, and martyrdom of Gandhi and his followers. Disciples of Gandhi remain in the United States and in South Africa.

We Christians have a great deal to do to prepare for this encounter. And it is far more interesting than arguing among ourselves.

Conversations with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew by Olivier Clement, pp 219-224


  1. Deacon-

    Thanks for such an interesting piece on Buddhism, as a former Buddhist I can attest to what the Ecumenical patriarch says as being true. My biggest problem with Buddhism was the total lack of God and the fact that here in the West much of Buddhism (the Western expressions of it) seem to be too influenced by the nihilism and philosophical materialism that pass for "truth" in the secular world. Buddhism always seemed dangerously close to a sort of nihilism where nothing is worth wanting or striving for save for extinction. May you be well in Christ.

    1. May you be well in Tao. :) Oh, and try and be tolerant and less judgemental. After all what do you know that others do not. Your putting you personal views and pitting them against an age-old and growing spiritual system that, unlike Christianity, has never authorized or encouraged genocide, infanticide, homicide, holocausts, witch-hunts/burnings, religious intolerance, and holy wars. So after all, can't we all just get along? It's what Buddha and Jesus would have wanted.

  2. Thanks for your comment Justin. Your viewpoint helps to give meaning to what the Patriarch is saying.

  3. It appears to me that the Patriarch really knows what he is talking about; something I have never really heard from any other Christian who talks about Buddhism. In saying this I know that there are other Christians who have an understanding of Buddhism ( I'm thinking the late Father Seraphim Rose) but I'm duly impressed at the Patriarchs grasp of things.

    After all those years as a Theravada Buddhist I'm now exploring Orthodoxy and really loving what I see. Here in Gainesville, Fl there is both an Orthodox Church and a monastery not far from here for me to explore the possibility of baptism within the faith. I ask that you pray for me that God will give me the discernment to lead me into the Church. May Christ continue to bless you and the members of your Church.

  4. We can thank God and ask in our prayers that he continue to encourage you in your exploration.
    Personally I found my deviation with Buddhist meditation practices to be helpful in bringing me back into the Orthodox Church in a new and more significant way. You will have the foundation for the ascetic practices that when coupled with the faith and then the sacraments and a life of prayer, new spiritual dimensions will be open to you.

  5. I have long had an interest in Buddhism and Hinduism. I was not aware of the continuing development of philosophy within Buddhism. However, I had learned about the monotheism in Hinduism from Al McGee (there's a link to his blog on my blog). I have been practicing yoga at home for a little while now, saying the Jesus Prayer during my practice.

    I have never practiced any kind of Buddhist meditation before or since becoming Orthodox. I have a friend who converted to Orthodoxy after being a Buddhist and he mentioned that his meditation practices were helpful preparation for Orthodox ascetic practices.

  6. In Christ The Eternal Tao, Father Damascene makes the case that much of Eastern practice and philosophy (especially Taoism) is really laying the foundation for the Incarnation of Christ. It's an interesting read to say the least.

  7. I enjoyed reading "Christ The Eternal Tao" We have to remember that these Far eastern religions were 500+ years before Christ so in some sense can be thought of as preparing the ground so to speak, just like the Greek philosophers did in the Mediterranean area. There is so much wisdom in the the teaching of the Tao and Christ makes it complete.

  8. Dcn. Charles, thanks for posting this very interesting piece and for having the type of blog that attracts intelligent comments such as the ones above. It strikes me that the approach of His All-Holiness toward "Eastern Religions" is not unlike that of Blessed Clement of Alexandria toward Greek philosophy. I believe it was St. Maximos the Confessor who said "all the world heard the thunder from Mt. Sinai" -- that means not just its Middle Eastern or Northwestern parts. No one needs me to point out that St. Paul teaches that God wishes all human beings to be saved and *all* means *all*. It seems logical to me that Wisdom may have inspired preparatory teachings in many lands which paved the way for the Incarnation. And I couldn't agree more with the article that this type of discussion is far more interesting than internecine bickering.

  9. Many thanks for writing this specific post. Of course, I am not Eastern Orthodox and lean moreso toward the Eastern Catholics, as well as those in Oriental Orthodox. However, I definately agree with you on all you've said here (as well as elsewhere) on Eastern Religions in many ways have previews of what Christ came to offer.

    I actually made a posting on the issue, which you can look up on the issue if interested. The contemplative practices and spirituality of the East is something that I've often been sadden

  10. Hello mercifuljuliana, the practice of yoga goes strictly against Orthodoxy! Saying The Jesus Prayer during a session of yoga is extremely dangerous for the soul! Yoga's meaning "to yoke" i.e to draw people into Hinduism, is based upon Hindu prayer and spirituality! You really must stop its practice and go to confession as this is a sin!


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.