Crossing the Threshold of Hope. (A Buddhist Response)
Why Buddhism Gets Up The Pope's Nose
From "Crossing the Threshold of Hope" by John Paul II
On Wednesday, 18th of January, 1995, Pope John Paul II arrived in Sydney and attended an Interfaith Gathering in the Sydney Domain. Representatives from major religions,including Protestant, Orthodox and Coptic Christians, Jewish and Muslim were invited to share the platform with him. Notable by its absence was Australia's third largest religion, Buddhism. The organisers told SBS radio that they were unaware that Buddhism was Australia's third largest religion and, besides that, there was no national leader of Buddhism, so who were they to invite? The 'Sydney Morning Herald' reported that "Somebody in the State Government forgot to invite the Buddhists". This is unlikely as our New South Wales Government is very aware of the presence of Buddhists in this State and often invite Buddhist representatives to State functions. A more likely explanation is that the Vicar of Rome holds Buddhism in very low esteem as is evident from the following extract from his book, 'Crossing the Threshold of Hope'.
Vittorio Messori: I would like to ask you to speak more fully on the subject of Buddhism. Essentially - as you well know - it offers a "doctrine of salvation" that seems increasingly to fascinate many Westerners as an "alternative" to Christianity or as a sort of ''complement" to it, at least in terms of certain ascetic and mystical techniques. John Paul II: Yes. you are right and I am grateful to you for this question. Among the religions mentioned in the Council document Nostra Actate. it is necessary to pay special attention to Buddhism. which from a certain point of view, like Christianity is a religion of salvation. Nevertheless, it needs to be said right away that the doctrines of salvation in Buddhism and Christianity are opposed.
The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of the Tibetans, is a well-known figure in the West. I have met him a few times. He brings Buddhism to people of the Christian West, stirring up interest both in Buddhist spirituality and in its methods of praying. I also had the chance to meet the Buddhist "patriarch" in Bangkok, Thailand, and among the monks that surrounded him there were several, for example, who came from the United States. Today we are seeing a certain diffusion of Buddhism in the West.
The Buddhist doctrine of salvation constitutes the central point, or rather the only point, of this system. Nevertheless, both the Buddhist tradition and the methods deriving from it have an almost exclusive negative soteriology. The "enlightenment" experienced by Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and of suffering for man. To liberate oneself from this evil, one must free oneself from this world, necessitating a break with the ties that join us to external realities existing in our human nature, in our psyche, in our bodies. The more we are liberated from these ties, the more we become indifferent to what is in the world, and the more we are freed from suffering, from the evil that has its source in the world. Do we draw near to God in this way? This is not mentioned in the "enlightenment" conveyed by Buddha.
Buddhism is in large measure an "atheistic" system. We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world. To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process. At various times, attempts to link this method with the Christian mystics have been made - whether it is with those from northern Europe (Eckhart. Tauler, Suso, Ruysbroeck) or the later Spanish mystics (Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross). But when Saint John of the Cross, in the Ascent of Mount Garmel and in the Dark Night of the Soul, speaks of the need for purification, for detachment from the world of the senses, he does not conceive of that detachment as an end in itself. "To arrive at what now you do not enjoy, you must go where you do not en joy. To reach what you do not know, you must go where you do not know. To come into possession of what you do not have, you must go where now you have nothing" (Ascent of Mount Carmel, i, 13, ii).
In Eastern Asia these classic texts of Saint John of the Cross have been, at times, interpreted as a confirmation of Eastern ascetic methods. But this Doctor of the Church does not merely propose detachment from the world. He proposes detachment from the world in order to unite oneself to that which is outside of the world - by this I do not mean nirvana, but a personal God. Union with Him comes about not only through purification, but through love. Carmelite mysticism begins at the point where the reflections of Buddha end, together with his instructions for the spiritual life. In the active and passive purification of the human soul. in those specific nights of the senses and the spirit, Saint John of the Cross sees, above all, the preparation necessary for the human soul to be permeated with the living flame of love. And this is also the title of his major work - The Living Flame of Love. Therefore, despite similar aspects, there is a fundamental difference. Christian mysticism from every period beginning with the era of the Fathers of the Eastern and Western Church, to the great theologians of Scholasticism (such as Saint Thomas Aquinas), to the northern European mystics. to the Carmelite mystics - is not born of a purely negative "Enlightenment". It is not born of an awareness of the evil which exists in man's attachment to the world through the senses, the intellect, and the spirit. Instead. Christian mysticism is born of the Revelation of the living God. This God opens Himself to union with man, arousing in him the capacity to be united with Him,especially by means of the theological virtues - faith, hope and, above all, love. Christian mysticism in every age up to our own - including the mysticism of marvellous men of action like Vincent de Paul, John Bosco, Maximillian Kolbe - has built up and continues to build up Christianity in its most essential element. It also builds up the Church as a community of faith, hope, and charity. It builds up civilization, particularly "Western civilization", which is marked by a positive approach to the world, end which developed thanks to the achievements of science and technology, two branches of knowledge rooted both in the ancient Greek philosophical tradition and in Judeo-Christian Revelation.
The truth about God the Creator of the world and about Christ the Redeemer is a powerful force which inspires a positive attitude toward creation and provides a constant impetus to strive for its transformation and perfection. The Second Vatican Council has amply confirmed this truth. To indulge in a negative attitude toward the world, in the conviction that it is only a source of suffering for man and that he therefore must break away from it, is negative not only because it is unilateral but also because it is fundamentally contrary to the development of both man himself and the world. which the Creator has given and entrusted to man as his task. We read in Gaudium et Spes:
"Therefore,the world which (the Council) has in mind is the world of men, of the entire human family considered in the context of all realities; the world which is the theatre of human history and which bears the marks of humanity's struggles, its defeats, and its victories; the world which the Christians believe has been created and is sustained by the Creator's love, a world enslaved by sin but liberated by the crucified and resurrected Christ in order to defeat evil, and destined, according to the divine plan, to be transformed and to reach its fulfillment" (Gaudium et Spes 2). These words indicate how between Christianity and religions of the Far East, in particular Buddhism, there is an essentially different way of perceiving the world. For Christians, the world is God's creation, redeemed by Christ. It is in the world that man meetsGod. Therefore he does not need to attain such an absolute detachment in order to find himself in the mystery of his deepest self. For Christianity, it does not make sense to speak of the world as a "radical" evil, since at the beginning of the world we find God the Creator who loves his creation, a God who "gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life' (John 3:16).
For this reason it is not inappropriate to caution those Christians who enthusiastically welcome certain ideas originating in the religious traditions of the Far East - for example, techniques and methods of meditation and ascetical practice. In some quarters these have become fashionable, and are accepted rather uncritically. First one should know one's own spiritual heritage well and consider whether it is right to set it aside lightly. Here we need to recall, if only in passing, the brief but important document of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith "on certain aspects of Christian meditation" (10/15/1989). Here we find a clear answer to the question "whether and how" (Christian prayer) can be enriched by methods of meditation originating in different religions and cultures.
A Buddhist's Response to John Paul II's "Crossing the Threashold of Hope" By Graeme Lyall AM
|The Pope, who managed to get the United Nations "International Year for Tolerance" off to a good start with the launch of his book, 'Crossing the Threshold of Hope' - Johnathan Cape, London, has demonstrated his abysmal ignorance and lack of understanding of Buddhism. Although he, with reservations, expresses guarded approval of Judaism, Hinduism and Islam, he considers Buddhism beyond the pale. He trots out the usual cliches about Buddhism being "negative" and pessimistic. What really worries him is the appeal Buddhism has to the 'Western' mind, especially to Catholics who see in Buddhist meditation techniques something that has been lost from the contemplative tradition of early Christianity. He provides no logical arguments against Buddhism but resorts to dogma to prove his point.|
|He is not happy with the impact that His Holiness, the Dalai Lama is having on the "Christian West", obviously feeling that it is solely a Christian right to convert others. The Christians have been trying to impose Christianity on "Buddhist" countries for centuries with little impact. Buddhists do not set out to convert Christians, but, if certain aspects of Buddhism appeal to Christians, such as its emphasis on non-violence and allowing investigation by its followers of its teachings, this is more a criticism of the Christian attitude than of Buddhism. Buddhism does not condemn those who follow other traditions. The Buddha never suggested that all people must follow his teaching but he invited them with the words "Ehi passiko" - come and see, to investigate and understand the nature of life. When referring to the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand, he places the word 'patriarch' in parenthesis, which infers that Buddhists are not entitled to use such a title. The words 'patriarch' and 'pope' come from the same root 'pater', meaning 'father', so he infers that others who use this title are usurping his position. How does he feel about the Patriach of Constantinople or the Patriarch of Russia who are both within the Christian tradition? Would he put their titles in parenthesis too or is his belittling attitude reserved for non-Christian traditions? He expresses distaste for the fact that the Supreme Patriarch of Thailand was surrounded by monks, several of whom were from the United States. At times, he is surrounded by Cardinals, several of whom, such as Cardinal Simon Pimenta from India, Cardinal Michael Meechai Kitboonchu from Thailand and Cardinal Sin from the Phillipines, come from Asian countries. It would be hoped that his Cardinal from the Phillipines does not perform any miracles for this would necessitate the Pope beatifying Sin - how unthinkable?|
|He claims that "the 'enlightenment' experienced by the Buddha comes down to the conviction that the world is bad, that it is the source of evil and suffering for man". The Buddha never claimed that the world is bad and a source of evil and suffering. The emphasis in the Buddha's teaching is on the mind not the world. The world is neutral - it is only the mind of man which creates difficulties in the world. The source of suffering, taught the Buddha, is due to greed, anger and a deluded mind. These are not properties of the world but of man, himself. It could be suggested that another source of suffering for many, especially in the poorer countries, is the Pope, himself. He opposes population control and liberation theologians who promote better living conditions for the poor. Overpopulation is a source of misery but he denounces the very idea of contraception. Very little is said in the Buddhist scriptures about enlightenment other than it being the overcoming of greed, anger and a deluded mind. It entails the perfection of Karuna - compassion - and Maitri - boundless altruistic love - qualities which certainly do not demonstrate 'indifference' to the world. Like so many of us who are bound by greed, anger and a deluded mind, the Pope, who demonstrates such ignorance of the basic teachings of Buddhism is hardly one who should be entrusted with "infallible" pronouncements.|
|His main objection to Buddhism seems to be that 'it is in large measure an "atheistic" system'. The Oxford Dictionary defines 'atheism' as 'Disbelief in the existence of a God'. The Buddha is described as the 'teacher of gods and men', so how can Buddhism be an atheistic system? Religious arguments often come down to the use of religious language. We must ascertain to what we are referring when we use the term "God". He uses the terms 'personal god' and 'living god' and 'god the creator'. What does he mean by 'personal god'. Many Buddhists believe that devas or 'gods' protect them. Would this be the same as 'personal gods', if so, we have no argument with him on that score. What is a 'living god'? Anything that is living is subject to death and decay, so why should we place ourselves in the hands of something which, like ourselves, is impermanent? If he is referring to the old man with a white beard who sits in the sky taking notes in his little black book ready for the day of judgement, then he is out of step with modern theological thinking and most other theologians.|
|Fortunately, Christianity has come a long way since this simplistic way of thinking. Modern theologians, such as Paul Tillich, suggest that the term 'God' refers to the 'ground of being' - the very fact of existence. No Buddhist would argue with this but they may be reluctant to use the term 'god' to describe it. In the Itivuttaka, one of the books of the Buddhist canon, it says: "Monks, there is an unborn, a not-become, a not-made, a not-compounded. Monks, if that unborn, not-become, not-made, not-compounded were not, there would be apparent no escape from this that here is born, become, made, compounded. But monks, since there is an unborn, not-become, not-made, not-compounded, therefore the escape from this that here is born, become, made and compounded is apparent." In Indonesia, where it is illegal not to believe in God, this definition from the Itivuttaka is accepted by the government as the definition of God. Buddhists would call it 'Nirvana' - the ultimate reality - whilst others may call it 'God'. It is not the words that we use which are important but what those words refer to. When referring the ultimate reality or truth, worldly words become inadequate. That is why the Buddha did not elaborate on the meaning of Nirvana, but it is certainly not "indifference to the world". Buddhism accepts that 'karma' is our creator. Again, if we prefer to use the term 'god' instead of 'karma' then Buddhists cannot be accused of not believing in a creator. The Pope seems to be promoting a literal approach to the Christian teaching, something that most Christians condemn as being the province of the fundamentalists. If this is so, then I accept the comment made to me recently by a Jesuit when he said that this present Pope is setting the church back by three hundred years.|
|Mysticism, according to W.L.Reese in his "Dictionary of Philosophy and Religion", 'can be understood as a spiritual and non-discursive approach with whatever is taken to be the central reality of the universe. When this is thought to be a transcendent God, one typical path is inward, away from the world, towards union with the transcendent One. ... Finally, there is the use of meditative techniques, mystical in tone, to achieve an enlightened state of being, apart from any concept of the divine. Each of these approaches has been developed in both East and West. The early Christian movement of monasticism stressed meditative and ascetic practices with personal purification as the goal'. The Pope cites several Christian mystics and decries the comparison, sometimes, made between their mystical experiences and those of Eastern asceticism. One of these, Meister Eckhart, a Dominican was summoned before the Inquisition in 1327 and forced to recant some of his writings. Meister Eckhart wrote that God is pure being, the final ultimate reality and "All things are a mere nothing" (Buddhists would say "All things are void of substance - sunyata), also "One must annihilate self interest, and empty oneself out; when one comes to be a desert, empty of things, he will be full of God". He mentions "the mysticism of marvellous men of action like Vincent de Paul, John Bosco and Maximillian Kolbe". Marvellous men they may have been but mystics they certainly were not.|
|Finally, the Vicar of Rome warns Catholics who may be attracted to Buddhism - "First one should know one's own spiritual heritage well and consider whether it is right to set it aside lightly". Well may these wise words be heeded by Buddhists who, knowing little of what Buddhism has to offer, find Christianity attractive.|
|By Graeme Lyall.|