Creation is “Very Good”: Buddhism and Vedanta seen in light of Christianity

I

In my own journey of faith, I have discerned two fundamental differences between Buddhism and Vedanta, which I treat here as emblematic of Indian/Eastern Spirituality, and Christianity:

  1. The East predominately teaches that this world is illusory and of suffering, whereas Christianity teaches that God’s creation is “very good” and filled with God’s glory; it is endowed with its own laws of development and dynamics of freedom such that it is both different from God and of God.
  2. The East predominately teaches that individual selfhood or personhood is illusory and false, whereas Christianity teaches that the human person is an ontological reality; and that love between persons is grounded in God, indeed, at its best, it reflects the exchange of love between the three Persons at the heart of Trinity.

Buddhism teaches the doctrine that everything is empty of inherent essence or substance (śūnyatā), and that the self is a convention we project upon what is really just a passing collection of aggregates (skandhas). Through meditation on the codependent arising of all things (pratītyasamutpāda), its goal is to enlighten us to the emptiness of the self, its desires and the objects of the world. Then, through compassionate action for all beings, as expressed in the Bodhisattva vow, we are to help others realize this emptiness, too.

Advaita Vedanta teaches the doctrine that the world is an illusion (Maya) without any existence apart from Ultimate Reality (Brahman); and that the small self (jiva) with its desires, memories, and attachments to body and mind is a false limitation on the true Self (Atman). The Upanishads instruct us to realize our true identity as Brahman and be liberated while living (jivanmukta). The world, the realm of change and decay, which is falsely “superimposed” (adhyasa) upon true reality, should be “desuperimposed,” so that instead of seeing the snake in fear (Maya) we see the rope in bliss (Brahman).

Now whether one denies any self (anatta) or affirms the Self (Atman), in both cases what Christianity calls the person (hypostasis) is not treated as a valuable reality in its own right, in itself. The self is treated at best as a conventional reality, a projection upon aggregates or a limitation of the limitless that has no reality in ultimate reality. The limitless may be termed “Pure Mind” or “Light Body” or “Satchitananda,” but the relations are clear: embodied personhood is false in comparison to it, and spiritual practice is meant to rid us of the falsehood. Likewise, whether one treats the world as empty or as a dualistic delusion, in both cases it is not treated as a reality worth saving.

Of course I have vastly simplified matters here, and any scholar would surely wish to complicate this picture. And I know my simplification risks offending affiliates of these schools. I can only ask the reader to contemplate what I say, trusting that I have investigated these claims in good faith, practiced these spiritualities and wrestled with their consequences, and come to this conclusion which I now present in condensed form:

I do not believe it is possible for any human person to live strictly according to the anti-personhood and anti-world doctrines. They may say that’s what they’re doing, but in reality, at their best, they are anonymous Christians. In their moral behavior, in their pursuit of the truth, in their respect for the beauty of created things, in their self-sacrifice for others, they implicitly affirm the value of persons and the value of action in the created world.

II

Before enlightenment, duality puts you in delusion.
After enlightenment, a duality imagined for the sake of love, Bhakti,
is more beautiful than non-duality.

I find this statement from the magnificent Swami Sarvapriyananda very telling. The core insight of Advaita Vedanta is “Thou art that” (Tat Tvam Asi). Not your mind, with its memories and thoughts, nor your body, with its birth, age, sickness, and death, but you as the pure witness-consciousness of all this (sākṣī), “you” are ultimate reality itself: Atman is Brahman. That is the path of knowledge, Jnani, perhaps best exemplified in the modern era by Ramana Maharshi.

But when the Swami confesses that love is more beautiful than knowledge, he also avers that the I-Thou relationship — once purified of the dross of ego, illusory self-will and falsehood — is more beautiful than the identity between Atman and Brahman. Of course, because of his doctrine, the Swami still has to speak of the I-Thou relationship as “imagined” and thus, from the knower’s perspective, tainted by something impure. But what if this “more beautiful” arrangement were also more true?

What if love simply was more profound than non-dual knowing (1 Cor 13:2)? What if the most fundamental act is not self-knowledge of Being, but self-giving and surrender to the other in Love? Which is the surer way to respect the Mystery of who we are and where we’re going?

III

The soul does not love like a creature with created love.
The love within it is divine, uncreated;
for it is the love of God for God that is passing through it.
God alone is capable of loving God.
We can only consent to give up our own feelings
so as to allow free passage in our soul for this love.
That is the meaning of denying oneself.
We are created for this consent, and for this alone.
–Simone Weil

The soul, emptied so as to be a passage for the love of God for God, and thus a passage for the pouring out of that love into the world, translates, in my mind, the Eastern idea of impersonality into an idiom that honors the beauty of creation and the gift of haecceity. It is the majesty and beauty of love — sincere, selfless love, not the infatuated self-serving kind — that keeps me, and I think should keep us, from any one-sided affirmation of non-personality (whether in the direction of no-self or only Self).

Let us recall the simplest data of our experience in the heart, not focusing on the perversions that passion and desire can insert, but recalling our moments of pure intention, vulnerability, gratefulness of being and communication with others.

When I love someone, I am not loving an illusion or a conceptual construct. I am not loving a confusion of data, an illusory limitation on Being, or an aggregate of parts whose whole cannot be found. I am loving a creation of God — that unique person who remains a mystery to me, who is a gift to the world through the very mystery of God.

Who I love is the mystery of the you to whom I say, I love you. In saying I love you, I embrace who and what you are and express in the greatest sense, while also embracing you as ever-more and ever-other than even that: as a being whose being rests ultimately in God, resting in it as itself, as a true creation of God in love.

The You to Whom we pray and love in adoration (Ps 145:18), added with our innate longing to contact and love the many you‘s we encounter in our life, convinces me that persons are of God in the most profound sense. We are called to enlightenment, yes!, to put on the mind of Christ (Rom 12:2). That means dying to the lower passions and desires (what Paul calls sarx, flesh) in no less complete a way than as in Buddhism and Vedanta. To wit, we are “baptized” into the death of Christ (Rom 6:1-11), crucified with him in the flesh (Gal 5:16-26). But for Christianity this denial of self means more than liberation from the world (moksha): it means receiving eternal life and entering the exchange of love between God and us and other persons, such that the whole of creation is remade (Col 3:1-17). It means that communion between persons consummates creation itself, redeemed in God through Christ and truly very good.

by Timothy Lavenz
June 28-July 12, 2022

2 thoughts on “Creation is “Very Good”: Buddhism and Vedanta seen in light of Christianity

  1. John

    (I tried to post a version of this comment yesterday but I don’t think it worked? So retrying.)
    Check this essay out for an alternative framework that might be of interest:
    https://www.academia.edu/43285145/A_Fractal_Interpretation_of_Religious_Diversity_An_Overview
    Neither Christianity nor Buddhism are internally self-consistent or of one accord on personhood, creation, etc.
    Also, per fn 55 in the attached essay, check out the author’s God Beyond Boundaries, esp. pp. 383-421 on deconstructing a lot of the binaries operative in the framework of this blog post.
    The shadow of Orientalism hangs long. But I do understand what motivates the ethical urgency of affirming the intrinsic goodness of personhood!
    And certainly, each tradition has certain points of emphasis. I think there are deep and enduring questions here, however, as to whether the Buddhist non-self is really the negation of personhood, whether “illusory” entails non-existence, what exactly differentiates world-affirmation from negation, etc. (cf., e.g., Rudolf Otto’s flat-out wrong take on Sankara as apolitical). I don’t think the best of the tradition would make any of those inferences. There is a *you* across space and time. Each mind-stream is unique, in one sense. So there is no loss of individuality. It just means all relative forms the “you” takes are impermanent, dependent on circumstances that also can’t last since they are finite.
    And does not Christianity itself ever resolves the problem of eschatological personhood? There is no consensus. Do we stay what we are forever? Do we keep the same bodies post-resurrection? If the process of creation is continuous, how is it that we won’t change? The problem of change looms largely, especially if we recognize that most (not all) of what we think of as personhood is a function of what Buddhists do call “co-dependent origination,” e.g., in terms of language, contingencies of when and where we are born, etc. (cf. Wittgenstein on our sense of interiority as a function of socialization).
    Much love,

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    1. tmlavenz Post author

      Hey John,
      I didn’t want to leave this reply unanswered forever. I appreciate your questions.
      First, I can’t say the article you linked had much appeal. The comparison Schmidt-Leukel makes on page 21 exhibits the big limitation of his approach, in my view. There he speaks of Jesus having an “awakening” at his baptism and then “embodying” the word of God… Well, I suppose that is a way to look at it, but it’s definitely not informed by any actual historical form of Christianity from inception to today. It is not what made Christianity a thriving faith worth dying for. Shouldn’t it count for something that any believing Christian would read a flat-out heresy in this ‘interpretation’? Wouldn’t they be within their right to think that he had, umm, totally missed the point? (*smile)
      I’m not trying to be ungenerous, it just seems untrustworthy to lop off entire elements of a living tradition and act like one is still talking about it. What about, for example, sin and forgiveness of sin? What of expiation on the Cross? These are not negligible elements of the Christian faith. If one gets rid of them, one might find comparative patterns, but one is talking about a set of data selected just for that purpose, not about any living faith.
      And yes, I ought to accuse myself of just that, given your above criticism. If in Buddhism there is an ‘individuality’ which lasts behind the finite, impermanent forms of self; if there is a unique mind-stream to each of us, a ‘you’ across space and time; if there is some sense of personhood which perdures eternally in the Ultimate; then in that case, I also lopped off something important about the Buddhist tradition–which amounts to me not talking about what it really is. (In my defense, as stated privately elsewhere, I meant to portray Buddhism as I’ve encountered it personally over the years; and if I’ve left something that important out, it’s because I was ignorant of it. I mean no injustice nor orientalism. I am ready to be shown precisely where I’m wrong.)
      What Schimdt-Leukel accomplishes is a reduction of unique religious claims to their generic by-products, which he recasts in his own idiom. I was trying to make this point with my article “Generic Metaphysical Structure and the Orthodox Claim”. He turns Christianity, Islam, and Buddhism into culturally and historical specific iterations of a generic phenomenon. They are like “fractal patterns” of something more essential than them. From his selection of minimally structurally similar elements, he draws out a generic model, e.g., “self-help” and “other-help” coalescing in the “new or true self”; or the mediation of ultimate reality through exemplary figures. That’s all well and good for a zoom-out view–but how far will this idiom take us along the road of metaphysical fulfillment?
      Likewise, do these different orthodoxies really just produce equivalent phenomena in the life of the believers? Does awakening to the luminous Buddhamind really entail the same existential engagement as being “crucified with Christ”? Do statements from the Bodhicaryāvatāra (8:137) and the words of Christ in the Gospel of John (12:25) really stake out a similar path? Especially if we evaluate them in light of their exemplification in the masters/saints of these traditions? Might Schmidt-Leukel not be falling for generic structural similarities beyond of which lie the actual cores of truth which make A A and B B? (Or worse, has he fallen for mere grammatical resemblance?)
      To catch this from another angle: I recently learned about a Jesuit Richard de Smet (d. 1997) who spent decades working with ancient Sanskrit texts trying to show how Shankara’s Upanishadic Brahman could be identified with the Personal Creator God of Christianity. I was as surprised to hear of this (because it so goes against my intuition about these traditions) as I was unsurprised to read the critical conclusion of a Hindologist colleague of his. It just doesn’t work. She shows that de Smet had to violate the obvious intention of Shankara to prove his comparative conclusion. Schmidt-Leukel seems to be falling into the same trap, though probably due to the same good-will motive of fostering interreligious harmony at the level of final concepts. (Incidentally, I am relieved to see my understanding of Advaita Vedanta matches Rukmani’s.)
      The desire to find convergence is admirable, necessary, and determined; but perhaps it reaches a limit (obstacle or impasse) where what we find actually diverges and asserts a unique vision all its own. That is where, in my lingo, the idioms prove non-commutable. E.g., an occult metaphysics grounded in the ‘equal’ creative struggle between good and evil, light and dark, just cannot be square with a metaphysics based on a light without darkness and a creation sprung from perfect Goodness. At the same time, as Adorno put it, Liebe ist die Fähigkeit, Ähnliches an Unähnlichem wahrzunehmen. And so we continue. –Continue dialoguing in our own idioms, which continue converging and diverging at various levels, while ultimately all culminating (we hope!) in better expressions or revelations of the Spirit of Truth.
      Much love to you my friend! Hope my reply makes sense,
      Tim

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