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Christian Caritas and Buddhist Compassion - the Same Thing? - Tom Thygesen Frederiksen

Dialog Center International (DCI) has in New Delhi, India, an expert on indology, Moti Lal Pandit, who is outstanding in his field by virtue of his firm Christian basis and his scholarly and sober approach. Moti Lal Pandit is not only a studious writer in Spirituality in East and West, but has also shared his insight in classical Indian religions with us in several excellent publications such as Beyond The Word- Buddhist Approach to Knowledge and Reality (New Delhi, 1997) and Sunyata - The Essence of Mahayana Spirituality (New Delhi, 1998). And now is he succeeding these studies in Buddhism in a brand new text which he calls Transcendence and Negation - A Study in Buddhist Compassion. In a recent letter to DCI Moti Lal Pandit summarises this new text with these clarifying and concise words:

...the Buddhist compassion has nothing at all in common with Christian charity, and so it is a mistake, as some scholars have done, to identify Buddhist notion of compassion with the caritas. First of all, in early Buddhism there is hardly any emphasis upon compassion. The aim is to become an Arhat (a "perfect" Buddhist monk without any karma and desire, ed.) through self-endeavour, or what the Buddhist call self-dependence. It is upon the emergence of Mahayana that compassion, as a norm, is associated with the Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva, at the popular level, is seen as the embodiment of the so-called compassion. If Bodhisattva is seen as the embodiment of compassion, is this compassion equivalent to the charity of God that is actualised when the Word became flesh? It is to this question to which I have addressed myself in the text. The answer to the above posed question is: Christian caritas and Buddhist compassion do not mean same thing, because both the religions differ radically in their historical origins and inspiration.

The main reason as to why the Buddhist compassion cannot be equated with Christian caritas is the following. For a Christian man is in the image of God, and so he shares or participates in the essential nature of God, which is that of love. It is why the first commandment tells us to love God, because God's love for us has been actualised in and through the Incarnate-Word. The second commandment, which concerns itself with the love of the neighbour, stems from the first. Love of God, and thereby of neighbour, is the basis of Christian life, as thereby is authenticated the imago Dei (picture of God, ed.) which we are. Moreover, Christian love is specific and particular, as it is directed towards a concrete individual. For a Christian love is not abstract or general; it is specific.

As and when we speak of compassion in Buddhism, there is no ultimate ontological source that could be seen as the basis of it. In the absence of God and of self, compassion has no meaning. How can we love anyone when the giver nor the given exist? For compassion to exist there must be a solid subject in whom the impulse of love may germinate. Since there is o such a subject existing, then to speak of compassion is to misuse language for wrong purposes. For many Mahayanaists, moreover, the existence of life and of the world are suspect, in that both are said to be relative, and thereby have the same status which epistemic illusion has. Upon the negation of illusion, the objects of illusion disappear. Likewise compassion, as a relative category, has no absolute value. It is as illusory as are the dream- objects or the objects of illusion. That is why Mahayanists speak of compassion as being nothing more than an expedient means. Furthermore, the existence of Bodhisattva itself is illusory, which means that his compassion too is illusory. It is a dream world, a world of imagination and not that of actual life, of which the Mahayanaists speak. The Buddhist compassion, thus, has the same degree of reality which we may accord to a dream. For the Buddhists everything disappears in the apophatic silence of emptiness . and emptiness is equated with the void of space of with the interior vacuum of a womb. For this reason emptiness is identified with the womb of a Thatagata. The aim of Buddhist compassion is not to realize the abundance of life, but to transcend it through negation in terms of which emptiness, in its stark nakedness, may be realized.