Subject, Self, and Soul

The Ninth Annual Conference of the Metanexus Institute has just finished yesterday amidst all the fanfare and four very dazzling Flamenco dancers who performed for us during the closing banquest at the Husa Princesa Hotel in Madrid. It was a good memory and I believe people will look forward to the next conference, wherever it will be, as the organizers have decided to move it around the world.

Regarding the content of the conference, I would like to have more representatives from the Buddhist tradition, as there were not many at all at this conference. So this is perhaps something that the organizers might want to think about for the next one. Buddhism is a growing religion, and it is making its presence felt even in the West in many ways. (There were not too many representatives from Islam, too.)

The topic for this conference is on “Subject, Self and Soul,” certainly very big topics. That perhaps is a reason why there are a lot of philosophers at this conference. I think there are much more philosophers and more purely philosophical papers at this conference than in the previous one in Philadelphia. And I think last year´s conference featured more scientists, so there was a discernible shift from focusing on scientists to philosophers. I don´t think they designed it this way; perhaps the topic lent itself more toward philosophical investigation. But the sciences have a lot to contribute to the topics of the self, and who knows they might have something interesting to say about the subject and the soul too.

Listening to the many papers from the Christian tradition presented at the conference, I could not help but find similarities between Christianity and Buddhism. Of course there are certain differences but I am not talking about them in this post. The conference was opened by a keynote talk by George Ellis from South Africa. His key theme was on “kenosis,” the process of “emptying out oneself” that Jesus did for the sake of all of us. One empties out oneself when one totally eliminates any sense of one´s own individuality and totally opens oneself to all the sufferings, all the sins, of all beings in the world. 

This is where the similarity lies. I said “all the sufferings and all the sins” so as to bring about the two key terms in Buddhism and Christianity. Buddhism talks about sufferings, and Christianity about sins. What one gets from Christianity is that the reason why Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise was that they gain “knowledge.” But this is a very special kind of knowledge. We could look at it as the kind of knowledge which enables one to distinguish one thing from another; it is a kind of discriminating knowledge, one that embodies the process of conceptualization. Now Adam and Eve “know” that they are naked and so on. But to know that one is naked means that one is able to compare oneself and others. Knowing this requires that one also knows all about the convention and everything that makes up discriminating thoughts.

But this is also found in Buddhism. What Adam and Eve have learned is that they are now mired in the process of samsara, because they possess this discriminating thought, which corresponds to the Sanskrit samskara. This is usually translated as “thought formation” and it is not out of the mark. Adam and Eve learned how to formulate thoughts and as a result committed the original sin. Stated in Buddhist terminology, the representative of the human race came to possess samskara, which is a result of avidya, or “ignorance.” So here is a difference. Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) talks about the forbidden knowledge, but Buddhism talks about the ignorance. But to me at least both refer to about the same thing🙂 .

The process after that is about the same in both traditions. Most readers of this blog who are from the West should be familiar with the story about the original sin and the lost paradise. In Buddhism, avidya gives rise to samskara, which in turn gives rise to all the remaining links of dependent origination, ending in all sorts of sufferings that afflict us everyday. So the Buddhist “original sin” is this avidya and the goal of Buddhism is to gain “redemption” though realizing the ultimate truth, to get rid, that is, of the root ignorance. (Of course there are differences but let´s focus on the similarity.)

So when Jesus came to the world, his mission was to take humans back to where they originally belonged – union with god or whatever you might want to call. Jesus takes away all our sins and as a result we are “redeemed.” The Buddha´s mission is to come to the world and announce the Teaching, the Dharma, and through following the Dharma one gains Liberation, or Nirvana, through which one is free from the cycle of sufferings. Jesus did this, according to Ellis in his talk, through the process of kenosis, emptying out himself so that all the sins and sufferings of everybody flow into him. The cross that Jesus died on is thus a very powerful symbol. In suffering on the cross, Jesus takes away our sins, as if our collective sins and sufferings are all collected together at that moment. When we reflect on that we are reminded of what Jesus did and what he came to the world for.

This is also a Buddhist message. A practice that is prescribed for those who vow to gain Realization so as to help liberate all the sentient beings in the world is called “Equalizing Oneself and Others¨and “Exchanging Oneself and Others.” The key is to realize that every being is interdependent and that sufferings arise only through thought fabrications and formations and conceptualizations that take things as they appear as being real in themselves. When Christians talk about “union with the divine,” Buddhists talk about becoming one and the same with the Bodhisattvas, taking up their qualities, which is full of compassion and the insight into the real nature of things, which is Emptiness. Buddhists learn to take up all the sufferings and pains of all sentient beings, no matter who they are, no matter whether they are their enemies, friends, or anything, so that they are free from sufferings and ultimately realize the Truth. If the Bodhisattvas are divine, Buddhists can eventually become one with the divine in this sense too.

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