Sunday, July 08, 2007

Nirvana and Kenosis

In response to the selection of a dialogue I quoted in my last post on Sam Harris' view of Christianity, Taisen called me out for selecting an equally weak passage with respect to Buddhism. I apologize if my introduction to the passage was lacking with better preface and tact, but I still basically endorse the passage as a more grounded ecumenical discussion.

The quoted discussion does not intend to suggest that Buddhism is "impoverished". The rest of the essay tries to reconcile the Eastern view of the world with Christianity, concluding that Nirvana is quite close in many respects to the Christian concept of kenosis. Harris, on the other hand, is on a crusade to reveal the "wickedness" of religion and its supposedly bankrupt orthopraxis. Harris by no means should be considered an authority on Hinduism and Buddhism - to my mind he unknowingly slights them in the process of his crusade. By "more grounded", I intended foremost that orthodoxy informs both the Western and Eastern traditions and that any honest, informed and fair discussion would attempt to find the partial truth in each approach, which involves to some extent a mapping of the merits of one approach to another, wider view. That was the main point.

But as a secondary point, I do happen to more or less endorse the "old-fashioned" understanding of Buddhism here, more or less. There are gnosis-centered Buddhist traditions, moral-centric, and so on. It's very hard to pin down any one Buddhist worldview, so any ecumenical discussion risks being overly broad. Buddhism is a particularly slippery fish.

"I" is a concrete universal. It's repeated in the world and felt as a center of experience. From our perspective on Earth, there many such "I"s. Individually, we seem have identities. Many traditions question the reality of our commonplace conceptions of such an identity, Buddhists and Christians included. If identity is fundamentally an illusion, as Buddhists seem to suggest, it seems unavoidable to hold the view that "one" who holds such an illusion is faced with annihilation upon enlightenment, insofar as that identity is an illusion and the annihilation of the illusion is the goal, or a necessary consequence of enlightenment.

The summation of Buddhist praxis as "imitating the Void" is over-simplistic perhaps. Buddhist praxis is variegated, as with Christian praxis; but with Christian orthopraxis there is a more or less explicit end - Everlasting life in the Body of Christ. Christian perfection is focused on this world and eternity at once. Hell is the necessary corollary to this. The Christian focus is on morality and the Sacred Heart as the path along which gnosis is gained. Buddhism, on the other hand, seems primarily focused on gnosis and an "escape" from samsara by sheer lack-of-will. Or sheer Will, which may be the same thing?? If nirvana is a void of Individual identity, from the view of that identity Buddhist praxis is void of all meaning unless nirvana is "filled" with the pure will of a Divine Being, perhaps called the Absolute. As long as Buddhism is "impersonal" with respect to the whole of the world, it seems felt as a void. The God that can be spoken is not the eternal God.


  1. "If identity is fundamentally an illusion, as Buddhists seem to suggest, it seems unavoidable to hold the view that "one" who holds such an illusion is faced with annihilation upon enlightenment..."

    1) If the ego is an illusion, it's really not much to "annihilate.
    2) Buddhism also contains the idea of the "diamond self."

  2. Sudha Shenoy12:10 PM

    What happened to karma & reincarnation? Reaping what you sow -- over one or many lives...See John Masefield, 'A Creed'.

  3. The diamond self transcends everything, right? So "I" am a part of it, or an instantce of it, right?

    Even if you say it's "not much" to annihilate, from the "ego's perspective" it is annihilation. This isn't very negative, it seems a statement of fact. Even Christians speak of dying "in Christ".

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