Buddhist and Christian Response

By Thich nu Minh Tam

To understand such subtle religious doctrines of Buddhism and Christianity is not an easy work, however, we try our best to analyze some most profound and mystical points in these theories in order to master to a certain degree what the Buddha and Jesus Christ reveal about the ways of solving human predicament and leading to salvation from suffering.

As the Buddhists, we realize and believe that Life is full of suffering and unsatisfactoriness.By all means, suffering includes physical and mental conditions: suffering of birth, of decay, of disease, of death, to be united with the unpleasant, to be separated from the lovely ones, or not to get what one desires, etc. However, many people do not realize that even during the moments of joy and happiness, there is suffering because these moments are all impermanent states and will pass away when conditions change.If we wish to free ourselves from suffering, we must first identify its cause and according to the Buddha, Craving or Lust, sensual desires is the cause of suffering, the cause of unhappiness.And deeply say, Craving is linked to Ignorance – that is, not seeing things as they really are, or failing to understand the reality of experience and life.Under the delusion of self and not realizing Anatta (no self), a person clings to things that are impermanent, changeable, and perishable.The failure to satisfy one’s desire through these things causes disappointments and suffering.

This Buddhist’s point of view about the cause of life’s suffering is somehow similar to Christian’s tradition that man has to be suffered due to his original sin and ignorance. Let’s identify that same opinion through the passage written by Panikkar in The Intra-Religious Dialogue p. 120- 121: “The two religions will elaborate this as an Ignorance or a Fall so that enlightenment or redemption is required to overcome the human predicament. In any case the human predicament is neither as it should be nor as it could be.The Buddha and the Christ claim to remedy this situation.A human being has to transcend Man’s present condition in order to be freed, that is, disentangled from the wheel of Samsara, from this cosmos.Both Buddhism and Christianity stand for human liberation.”

On this point of view, human seek a way to free from suffering and “Religion as Panikkar says somehow so simply is the path we follow in order to reach the purpose of life or, shorter, “religion is the way of salvation.”Really, not only Buddhism and Christianity, but also other religions in the world, the peak of freedom is the cessation of suffering and ignorance, although every religion has its own concepts, beliefs and practices about the Unity, the Oneness, or Liberation, all of them have one goal of religion that is “to reach the Most Perfect Wisdom, to enter Nirvana, to free from sin, or to absorb into God.”

To the Buddhists, Nirvana is the highest mountain of freedom from suffering.“Nirvana,” Sanskrit word literally means “to be blown out,” “to be extinguished of suffering,” “to be cooled,” “to be calmed” or simply means the cessation of suffering and a termination of rebirths.Further, a new meaning is to attributed in the term, linking it to the Ultimate Reality, and utilizing the concept of Emptiness to suggest that Nirvana and Samsara are not ontologically different states, but rather differing ways of experiencing the same reality.Nirvana is the range of meanings extending from “windless, calm, cooled, satisfied, at peace, happy,” “to ceased, destroyed, dead.”Initially, Nirvana is simply, directly, and absolutely the end of the problems of ordinary human existence.

If we understand correctly the cause of life’s suffering, we never create bad deeds, bad actions in order to receive bad consequences – like cause, like effect - that is happiness of the present life and to reach that state is to reach Nirvana in Budhdism and Soteria in Christianity.In some aspect inter-relating between Nirvana and Soteria, we can notice that the purpose of man’s life of these two religions is to get Real Happiness.However, in order to reach completely the meaning of Nirvana or Soteria that is the goal of True Happiness, we need to understand deeply the nature of this goal which Panikkar has compared that the nature of Nirvana is Shunyata in Buddhism and Soteria is Pleroma in Christianity.”

Frankly speaking, one of the difficulties for the non-Buddhist and the Westeners in their efforts to understand Shunyata (Emptiness) in Buddhism because it is a language of paradox and non-duality.One is called upon to penetrate through this paradoxical, non-dualistic language to get at the inner meaning.Those who are familiar with the writings of such Christian mystics as Dionysus the Areopagite, Eckhart and Ruysbroeck will find the key to understanding.The language of Buddhist mysticism is not the language of logic, but that of a not common type of mystical expression.While Buddhism does not recognize a “God” in the theologies such as Christianity and Islam, at the heart of the deepest Buddhist insight and spirituality there is some non-personal Ultimate Reality, a Primal Meaning, an Undivided Unity.It is found in the concept of the Void, which resembles the Godhead of Eckhart and yet this negative Godhead, this Void, has a positive aspect.In Christianity, It manifests Itself in the unity of the Holy Trinity, which is not a “mode” or “aspect” of deity, but the outpouring of the unknowable, ineffable, attributeless Godhead Itself. In Buddhism, the “Emptiness” of the Void is experience as a Plenum-Void; paradoxically the Emptiness is also a Fullness.At the heart of the mystical quest of Buddhism, as of every other supreme mystical quest, is the urge to realize this highest of all spiritual experiences.

Shunyata, Sanskrit literally means “emptiness,’ “openness.”The non-substantial and undependable quality of habitual experience which, at the same time – when seen through the spiritual exercise of wisdom – is total freedom.The Buddhist tradition has sometimes stressed freedom from the phenomenal world (Nirvana) and at other times freedom to experience completely the concrete richness of life.In either case Shunyata functions less as an attribute of ultimate reality than as a practical religious designation of the real possibility for ultimate fulfillment. Nevertheless, according to Buddhist teaching, perfect enlightenment requires a person to see “the way things are.”Emptiness referred primarily to worldly experience; the changing flux of existence was said to be empty of lasting value and self-established being.It was important to know that apparent pleasures, overwhelming physical or social power, or apparently substantial sense-based objects, for ex: earth, plants, animals, etc. were empty of self-existence and therefore unworthy of one’s ultimate commitment.By recognizing the emptiness of all forms, a person could escape attachment to seductive, but illusory, emotional and mental supports.Even the “self” had no independent existence; it was a composite of physical, psychological and mental factors.To recognize that all phenomenal entities were empty, and thus relative, required more than intellectual comprehension, it required meditation in which one emptied the mind of all ideas and emotions.

So, the concept of Snunyata tries to express the very essence of the absolute, the ultimate nature or reality of all things.

That concept is in complete harmony with the central Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, the concept of Pleroma (Fullness, Fulfillment) expresses the end of Man and all creation.In page 123, Panikkar writes: “It is then the Fullness of God that fills everything, though there is a distention, a period of expectation and hope until the restoration of all things.Once the whole world is subjected unto him to whom all has been subjected, then he will subject himself fully to God so that God will be all in all.”

The Christians have understood and believed that “being one with Christ as being one with his Father, being one with God and through that union of the Son, the God Father and the Spirit, the fundamental of universe and man is bridged.Jesus Christ and the Fullness of universe are an association of the divine and human, a full and perfect union of the divine and human in the one person of Jesus Christ; that He was at the same time completely, truly, and perfectly God and man.Further, the two natures, the human and the divine, were recognized as being integrated, without any confusion, change, division, or separation, in the one person of Christ; in the words of the Declaration of Faith of Chalcedon” “The distinction of the natures in no way being annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons but one and the same.”

What the Christians asserted is the complete co-inherence of matter and spirit, of the One and the All and the All and the One.In Jesus Christ, Archetypal Man, God and man are One, in Him, spirit and matter co-inhered.That is the deep and subtle meaning of Emptiness and Pleroma, Nirvana and Soteria that cannot be explained and understood in limited human language but only by meditation, by belief and devotion.