Zen Buddhism and Christianity
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book More Than Allegory. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
|Stained glass at St John the Baptist's Anglican Church, Ashfield, New South Wales. Source: Wikipedia.|
Who am I to talk about religion? I am no theologian or religious scholar. Heck, I'm not even religious. So what compels me now to write something about two of the world's most significant religions? The sincere answer is: I am not really sure. Over the past weeks, after having finished the first draft of my fourth book – a very analytical, intellectual piece of work – I've found myself operating less at an intellectual level and more at an intuitive, heart-felt level. It is as though the completion of the draft freed me up to explore new avenues of being, and new ways to relate to myself and reality. In this process, it occurred to me that there is a striking similarity, even an equivalence, between Zen Buddhism and Christianity when it comes to the key manner in which these two religions help an individual relate more harmoniously to the world. This is what I'd like to talk about below.
Before you feel compelled to point out to me how these two religions differ dramatically in their respective worldviews and dogmas, let me emphasise what I said above: The equivalence I see is in the way they help an individual relate more harmoniously to reality; not in a similarity of dogmas. Moreover, I am aware that many scholars suggest that Christianity grew out of Buddhism as much as of Judaism, as the BBC documentary below suggests. But this is not what I want to talk about either. My point is completely agnostic of possible common origins. So let me get to it without further ado.
The source of all human suffering is the ego's inability, yet absolute need, to control how reality at large unfolds. This is a recipe for perennial frustration and anxiety since, deep inside, the ego is well-aware that it cannot control the world; that it cannot have everything it wants or stop bad things from happening. If you think carefully, you will notice that all suffering ultimately comes from this dilemma. If the ego could tell nature how to behave, what to do and what not to do, we would all be happy tirants. As a tiny, limited, but tireless aspect of nature, the ego is at war with what is, was, and can be. That's why we suffer.
Now, my key point is that both Zen Buddhism and Christianity help us tackle this fundamental cause of suffering in surprisingly analogous ways. To see it, one has to look past initial appearances.
Zen aims at stopping all suffering by disidentification with the ego. In other words, a Zen practitioner seeks to lose his or her identification with his or her own thoughts, feelings, beliefs, and persona. A successful Zen practitioner will identify him or herself with what they call pure awareness; a formless, narrative-free, neutral, but universal witness. The practitioner will still maintain an ego, but instead of believing him or herself to be the ego, he or she will use the ego as a tool for interacting with the world, without identifying with it. The moment this goal – often called 'enlightenment' – is achieved, all suffering stops: Only the ego suffers, and you are not the ego! The suffering of the ego is witnessed as the suffering of a character in a movie. In a strong sense, the ego is demoted from king of the hill to a small, limited, yet useful servant of impersonal awareness.
Now let's look at the essential manner in which Christianity reduces the suffering of the faithful. Christian believers also suffer because of the inability of their respective egos to control the world: They can't have all they want, they can't stop illness, and they can't avoid death. Their religion offers a way to deal with this dilemma through a form of surrender to a higher power: 'My destiny is in the hands of God,' they will say. By handing over its responsibility and struggles to a higher power, the ego withdraws from its war against reality. But as a consequence, it also finds itself demoted from king of the hill to a small, limited, yet useful servant of a higher power. Do you see the equivalence? At the level of inner feeling, the end result is precisely the same as that achieved by Zen practitioners: The tremendous lessening of a burden – as if a huge load were lifted off one's shoulders – and the cessation of futile struggles against what is.
Zen seeks to achieve this end result through an extremely skeptical and radically empirical path: It entails no narratives, dogmas, or theories of any kind. Its masters simply try to point the way for you to achieve a state of mind in which you no longer identify yourself with your ego. Instead of wasting time describing what 'enlightenment' is, they focus all their attention on helping you reach 'enlightenment' yourself. As such, Zen has enormous intellectual appeal to me as a skeptic empiricist. It soothes my instinctual fear of falling pray to fairytales: There are simply no tales in Zen, let alone fairy ones. For the same reason, I believe Zen to have enormous intellectual appeal to anyone involved in science or philosophy. The price, however, seems to be a kind of dryness that may come across as non-empathetic. When one is suffering, such detached approach may be difficult to embrace wholeheartedly. As humans, we crave empathy and reassurance, which is authentic and legitimate. Moreover, disidentification with all thought and emotion may end suffering, but how bland does it make life?
Christianity, on the other hand, achieves the exact same result through a plethora of narratives, symbols, and dogmas. Instead of the barren landscapes of Zen, it provides one with incredibly rich and meaningful images that speak directly to the unconscious (see Carl Jung's book Aion for a discussion of the psychology of the Christ figure and related topics). Empathy, compassion, and reassurance abound. Instead of the abstract concept of formless, universal awareness, Christianity offers the image of a divinity who is concurrently a flesh-and-blood man (Jesus the Christ) and a formless, universal potentiality (the Holy Spirit). The Holy Trinity can make a difficult abstraction such as the Holy Spirit directly accessible to any person, regardless of education or capacity for abstraction, in the form of a man who is also God himself. How much easier it is for the ego to surrender to such a concrete father figure, handing over its struggles to Him, instead of accepting itself to be a mere illusion! The price of this richness and accessibility, however, is the difficulty faced by any rational person to accept the narratives of Christianity uncritically. And make no mistake: The power of the narratives is entirely dependent on their being believed at some level, even if not literally! One must, somehow, muster enough faith in the Holy Trinity – most easily accessible in the form of Jesus the man – for it to be of any help in achieving the surrender of the ego. This isn't trivial in today's cynical and overly rational cultural context.
I could go on to explore the implications of everything I said above, and to relate it to the appalling state of religion in today's society. But I'll refrain from doing so for now. After all, my motivation for writing this article was simply to point out a similarity between faiths that, on the surface, are so radically different. Perhaps analogous similarities can be found across many other faiths. If that is so, they are all pointing to the same key for the end of suffering: The surrender of the ego in face of the wider reality of mind.