- Suffering and Salvation
Religious projects are an attempt to draw up positions that can correspond to negations. We must scrutinize the negations that negatively determine such positions, if we are to understand these positions in their innermost nature.
When the oriental religions - in particular Buddhism - define the negation of life so unequivocally as suffering, it is imperative to understand the content of this word, otherwise the positions of Buddhism are themselves not meaningful. Since Christian churches for their part define the crucial problem of life as sin, it is equally important to penetrate into this negation in order to understand the Christian position.
Only in a superficial sense can suffering be defined as merely "feeling bad". Buddha himself enjoyed life to the full. According to one legend he was the son of a king, newly married, and the father of a baby son, According to other legends he had several wives and lived the sweet life of an oriental prince. So it was neither pain nor misery that troubled him personally.
It was, as we know, the suffering of others that set him going. Through his confrontation with disease, poverty and death he was awakened to a realisation of suffering in life. The formulations of his thought as they are handed down to us do not reflect the indignation of a social reformer.
Buddha's reflections are not a stimulus for him to use his power and influence to reduce poverty in his father's kingdom, or to secure help for the sick, or to dignify death as the fitting end to a good life. That is not the tone that characterises Buddha's teachings.
It seems as though the confrontation with other people's actual sufferings has elicited in his mind the sense of suffering. We might even interpret it by simply saying he had been traumatised by what he saw. His mind had been damaged by these not especially terrible experiences, so that his emotions had seized up. Yet this too is not confirmed by his teachings.
His insight, achieved through these confrontations, seems rather to have triggered the insight in him that all of life, even the very fact of existence, is incomprehensible and in reality quite absurd. It is suffering through the lack of meaning that speaks out of the teachings of Buddha. There is no rational sense in existing at all, he says, let alone existing for ever!
A contributing factor to Buddha's "fear of life" was his belief in samsara, that is, the conviction that the life-death cycle is endless, and that not even death brings freedom from the wheel of destiny. It is reasonable to assume that his belief in samsara was of a theoretical nature until these confrontations with the realities of life and death filled out the empty theory and turned it into a stark insight into the meaningless absurdity of life and death. Taken this way, his negation adds perspective to his teachings and makes them meaningful precisely in the light of this negation. Buddha's teachings are not fully meaningful in themselves but require a series of presuppositions of the type outlined here for them to acquire full meaning.
The Christian negation that corresponds to suffering in Buddhism is sin. The experience of life that finds expression in an acknowledgement of sin does not differ so much as we might imagine from Buddhism's experience of suffering. Yet its nature is quite different. The Christian experience of sin lies in the acknowledgement that there is an everlasting distance between reality in God's sense and reality in man's sense. And indeed Jesus himself experienced sin when he cried from the cross, "My God, My God, why have you abandoned/betrayed/failed me?".
The prerequisite for this experience was his faith in God as the cause and nature of all reality. To judge from our sources Jesus always lived within this experience, and his experience of death was just like his experience of life. It was the conclusion of his life, for his life was characterised - if we look to his teachings - by an intense and warm experience of unity with God. All the parables, for instance, speak of this unity with God as love's innermost nature. Jesus was never outside this love, indeed he lived completely within it and mediated it to others, so that 1 Cor. 13 has rightly been called a biography of Jesus.
Jesus' experience of sin, however, - when he took it upon himself and nailed it to the cross as the death he must die for the world's sake - was precisely an experience of sin as a foreign power. To understand Jesus' negation we must realise that he never attributed sin to life itself. It is not the fault of life, nor even of man that sin has arisen and has entered the world; it is the result of the Evil One. For Jesus the true reality of evil is of a personal character; it arises from trans-personal and trans-cosmic forces gathered in the Enemy's (Satan's) name. The world and man are possessed by this evil power, with whom they collaborate. The salvation to which Jesus saw himself as the Way was therefore synonymous with liberation from this evil power. That is why the prayer for liberation from the Evil One in the heart of the matter in the words in The Lord's Prayer. Salvation's victory over the Evil One therefore had to take concrete form in Jesus' vicarious suffering, death and resurrection.
We find no parallel to this in Buddha's teachings. Jesus' negation is a negation of the occupational force of the Evil One, so to speak. And his position is the liberating force of the Good One, that is, God's power. Using an expression from Zen Buddhism, all these occupying forces are "foreign powers". In this connection our own powers are powerless. As Martin Luther says in A Safe Stronghold Our God Is Still: "With force of arms we nothing can,/Full soon were we down-ridden,/But for us fights the proper Man,/Whom God himself hath bidden".
In contrast, Buddha's suffering does not lead to salvation. It is rather a reaction to the negation of having to suffer life and death for all eternity. Buddha's suffering cannot therefore be seen as a parallel to Jesus' suffering and death, for Buddha experienced suffering and death as the condition of man, including his own condition. He then found a way out of samsaric suffering as a cosmic phenomenon of everlasting rebirth by facing up to its illusory nature. There is no human soul that can suffer and be reborn. Buddha's teaching on athman (man's innermost core) is that it does not exist: an-athman - no soul. No one therefore can suffer. Suffering is the circumstances of living, but it is not bound up with reality itself, which is pure emptiness without origin or creation. This is the "gospel" of Buddhism: one can take one's own self out of the game.
When this teaching is converted to the dimensions of Mahayana (i.e. the Northern traditions of Buddhism in China, Tibet and Japan in particular) and the mediated teachings of Amida Buddha and the many Boddhisattvas, it is, to be sure, no longer man's own powers that are centred on. Northern "higher" Buddhism recognises that our own powers cannot lead us to liberation from the constraint of endless suffering. And so "foreign powers" are brought into play. Liberators must come into being before liberation from the illusion that anyone can suffer can take place.
We are speaking here of a loyalty in suffering, which in its nature is quite different from the vicarious nature of Jesus' suffering. Loyalty in suffering is full of sympathy and mercy, but it is not true compassion. This is because at the deepest level all the forms of Buddhism maintain the teaching not only of no-soul, but also of no-God, for everything is and will remain emptiness - in the innermost as in the outermost.
Thus with Buddhism and Christianity we find ourselves in two different worlds, aligned towards two different forms of positions, determined by two quite different negations. The negations and positions of Buddhism rest entirely on the tenet of the transmigration of souls and its cosmic absurdity. Buddhism cannot be transplanted into religious contexts where samsara is not the foundation. Conversely the Jesus-communion of Christianity cannot be transplanted to a religious context where samsara is determinative. The samsaric circling in on itself (incurvatus in se) finds its parallel in the circle of sin that can only be burst open by the reality of the resurrection.Buddhism is absolutely meaningful and understandable. In no way can its religious project be equated with that of the many New Age inventions in current vogue. There is face and profile, character and genuine life-experience in Buddhism. But that does not bring it closer to God's revelation in Jesus Christ than to other of man's religious projects. For we are all - Buddhist, New Age and Christian alike - always alienated from God and on our various flight routes away from him. The gospel is not that some have got closer than others, but that God always comes right in close to us. And "us" means us all, Buddhists, New Agers and Christians. God is closer to us than we to ourselves. This is not merely a fact that one can take on board or leave alone. It is a reality of faith that arises, that comes into being, that is created when we trust that our distance to God has become God's nearness to us, solely because Jesus himself took our distance upon him when he screamed it out to the empty sky. God's name is Jesus. God's nearness becomes reality "in Jesus' name".