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:
- 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.
- 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.
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?
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.
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