Saturday, September 3, 2011

Trinitarian Reflections After a Zen Encounter (Part 2).


Well, here is my follow up to the post I wrote 2 months ago, entitled: "Trinitarian Reflections after a Zen Encounter (Part 1)," from about two months ago..This piece is very incomplete, and I still need to develop my thoughts on these issues more clearly, but I also thought I owed any one who is taking the time to read this blog a follow up my previous post. In the previous post, I focused on the incarnation, and discussed the sacraments, worship and the difference between the sacred and secular. The context for these discussions was a set of critical remarks I heard about Christianity, during an interfaith discussion group hosted by a Zen Temple. In this post, I try to focus more on the Trinity and outline some ways in which I think that a strongly Trinitarian spirituality can help us to approach Zen. I am not really saying much that is original here (at least I don't mean to),
In the previous post I mentioned two critiques of Christianity, and responded to the first. The second was as follows:
Christianity begins with the individual, and is primarily concerned with individual salvation. The starting point for Christians is: how can I as an individual escape the wrath to come? Asian religions generally, and Confucianism in particular, are far more oriented towards the group; family, city, nation, world, etc. The individual’s identity is derived from those around him. Christianity, therefore, is basically individualistic.
My basic response is that the Trinity, which together with the Incarnation, is one of the central mysteries of Christianity, totally excludes individualism. It may be that there are individualistic Christians, but the Christian God is not a monad. Unlike Buddhism, Christianity teaches that God is personal, but God is not a single person, because such a being is finally unthinkable. To be a person is always to be in communion with other persons.

The practical meaning of this is that "individual salvation" is something of an oxymoron. As human beings we are made in the image of the Trinity, and so we can only be saved - in fact we can only really be human - by being in communion with others and with God. To be a human being fully alive we must pour out our lives in obedience and love to God, and service to our neighbors.

Fr. Thomas Hopko expresses this remarkably well in an article commenting on the command to "Love your neighbor as yourself."
So, “love your neighbor as yourself.” However, in certain modern editions of the Bible, I have seen this translated as, “You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself.” But that’s not what it says. The best English translation of that passage from Leviticus is, “You shall love your neighbor as being your own self.” Your neighbor is your true self. You have no self in yourself.
An “individual” is a person who refuses to love. When a person refuses to identify in being and value with “the least,” even with “the enemy,” then the person becomes an individual, a self-enclosed being trying to have proper relationships — usually on his or her own terms. But again, we would say that the person only comes into existence by going out of oneself into communion with the other. So my task is not to decide whether or not I will be in relationship with you but to realize that I am in communion with you: my life is yours, and your life is mine. (From Living in Communion, available here. Emphasis mine)
The Christian life consists in emptying ourselves, in taking up our crosses daily and denying ourselves out of love for our neighbors. This is what we see in Christ's life, his offering up of himself to the Father, for the sake of humanity, and the foundation of the Christian life is the Trinity, in which the persons give themselves totally in love to the others. If this were not God's nature, then he would not be truly a God of love, and certainly he would not be the sort of God who went to the cross for the sake of his creatures.

What is surprising though is that this distinctly Christian understanding of reality resonates deeply with the Buddhist doctrine of Sunyata or Emptiness. There have been several excellent articles and books written on precisely this comparison. To my knowledge the best of these books is The Emptying God: A Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Dialogue with Masao Abe on God, Kenosis and Sunyata, edited by John B. Cobb, Jr. and Christopher Ives.

Buddha taught that "All beings are without a self." Everything which exists is "empty" or insubstantial. Buddha's teaching was specifically directed against the Hindu teaching of his day, which said that one could eventually reach the realization that the Atman, or self, is actually identical to Brahman, the ultimate reality (i.e., God). Buddha, in contrast, denied that there is any such thing as Atman which could be identified with ultimate reality.

Instead of having some core element of their being which is their "self" all beings exist only as part of a web of relations. So I am, because I am a son, a brother, a person living in a particular place (relationship to other objects in space) and time (relation to other objects as they change). As Raimundo Panikkar explains it
[A] person is a citizen with respect to the civitas a creature with respect to the Creator, and so on, but the very character, complexion, intelligence, will, and so on - any accidents that would seem to belong to this individual as "substance" - are actually nothing but relationships distinguishing this person from other similar groupings of attributes. (The Silence of God: The Answer of the Buddha. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1990. 136-137)
The Buddhist assertion is that there is nothing underlying these relationships, that is, there is no substance which has relationships to other substances, rather relationships constitute substances. Panikkar terms this "radical relativity." At the heart of all beings there is no stable foundation, no substance upon which accidents rest, but only Sunyata or emptiness. The Buddhist Heart Sutra succintly says "That which is form is emptiness, that which is emptiness form." Some interpreters take this to be a kind of Nihilism

But this is incorrect, because Sunyata does not indicate that everything is illusory or meaningless, but that all beings are interdependent, rather than self-sufficient and isolated. Further, Sunyata is not a mere nothingness or void. "In the realization of true Sunyata, form is ceaselessly emptied, turning into formless emptiness, and formless emptiness is ceaselessly emptied and forever freely taking form. This total dyamic movement of emptying, not a static state of emptiness, is the true meaning of Suyata" (Masao Abe. "Kenotic God and Dynamic Sunyata" in The Emptying God. 28). At least in theory, this understanding of Sunyata should not result in nihilism, but in compassion and openness to others, because part of what emptiness means is precisely self-negation for the sake of the other. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Bodhisattva even forgoes Nirvana for the sake of others.

Sunyata understood in this sense is not so far from the quote above from Fr. Hopko: "Your neighbor is your true self. You have no self in yourself." The true self is found only in communion, in giving our lives and ourselves for the sake of others. We are called to lay down our lives, which could certainly sound rather depressing and Nihilistic, but paradoxically Jesus says: "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life" (John 12:24-25 ESV).

In other words, it is only through "emptying" ourselves that we can really come to live. Dying to ourselves, for Christians, does not entail a process of depersonalization, as in so many pagan mystical systems. Instead, by dying to ourselves, we actually become more ourselves. Christians learns this not from an experience of Sunyata, but through the Cross of Christ, and in the revelation of the Trinity.

In God, being is communion (apologies for stealing from John Zizioulas), and so our lives, too, are communion, and we only live in relation to others. Panikkar, in the work already cited, goes so far as to say "the Trinity is radical relativity par excellence" (The Silence of God. 141). Realizing of course, that Panikkar was not totally orthodox as a Christian thinker, I still think this point is rather helpful, because it shows clearly how much Christians can sympathize with the Buddhist understanding of Emptiness.

I will venture to say, therefore, that Christianity is able to embrace the insights of Buddhism on this point, because these same insights are also found in Christian tradition. I am not advocating syncretism, or coming up with some kind of Zen Christianity. Rather I am suggesting that the truths experienced by Buddhists are already present in Christian faith, that the Trinity both includes and surpasses the truth of Sunyata.
That is all I have to say for now, but I expect I will return to some of these ideas in later posts.

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