Thursday 10 March 2016

God Transcends Nirvana

I first became interested in Buddhism almost forty years ago but felt at the time that, despite its many insights, it ultimately fell short of the ideal as a description of spiritual reality. The intervening years have brought a greater understanding of the religion but my conclusions about it remain the same. I feel that the Buddha found and articulated the highest state open to man unaided and on his own which is the entry into pure being. But this is not the final destination intended for the human soul by its Creator, though it may (I believe), if it wishes, rest there. But if it does, either through its own desire or through ignorance, it is accepting a secondary condition.

Buddhism does not acknowledge God which is its major failing. In every other respect it is a religion of great beauty and profound wisdom but that is a pretty big omission! Because it denies God (and it does do that because if it doesn't accept Him then it denies Him) it fails to see that the goal of the human soul is not to be absorbed into the Nirvanic state of pure being which is a kind of back to where you started condition, but to be consciously made one with the Creator in a perfect union of the individual with the universal. Only in such a way can the whole of life comprising being and becoming, the one and the many, spirit and matter and so on, be integrated and reconciled in a manner that does justice to all aspects of the created and uncreated realms. The purpose of our lives is not to forsake the reality in creation (which includes relationships with other beings) for pure consciousness, but to bring the two poles of existence together in a conscious reunion that gives each one its due place in the hierarchical scheme of things. Only in this way can man become a full co-creator with God which is his divine destiny.

Despite beliefs to the contrary there are various kinds of mystical experience and attitudes to reality resulting from them but, for my purpose here, I would like to boil these down to the monistic and the theistic. The former is non-dualistic while the latter is dualistic with the proviso that, properly understood, it is a dualism in which there is underlying oneness, though one could just as well say that it is a oneness in which difference is also present with the two being held in perfect balance. Hence it combines and integrates the two. It has often been said that monism is a higher realisation than theism into which the latter is subsumed when true understanding dawns and a person realises his identity with the whole, having come to perceive that pure consciousness is the ground of everything that is, and the idea of an individual self is just that, an idea, a thought in the mind. This may seem to have a satisfyingly logical sense of progression to it but I think it is mistaken and that the reality is precisely the opposite. What the monist does is attain to the unified ground of being through detachment from the 'sheathes' that cover consciousness. He strips away all that is not consciousness and is left with the root of existence.

This is a true state of being but is it what we were created for? Could there be a higher state which combines the qualities of being and becoming to make something entirely new, something not possible in pure being alone? I believe that there is and that it is union with God, a union in love with a (or maybe I should say the) Person. The monist reaches the ground of existence but God is beyond this, including but transcending it. It is his being but it is not his Person. The monist (quite reasonably really) assumes he has attained to the ultimate because there is nothing left to strip away and he has reached perfect peace and unity of being. He feels he is the All and that it is him. However he has sacrificed his God-given individuality in this quest and thereby missed the truth that oneness of being is a lower condition than union in love. For the higher goal than simple entry into pure being is the union of the oneness of being with the variety and capacity to grow of becoming. It is not the Absolute alone but the Absolute and the relative together. It is not pure spirit but the union of uncreated spirit and created soul. This is the extraordinary truth behind the reason for life in this world and the created order in general. It is why enlightenment or liberation (largely a matter of knowledge, whether that be direct perception or insight gained through meditation) must take second place in a hierarchy of spiritual understanding to a union with God which is only possible through love. Overcoming the ego through detachment and intellectual insight is one thing, and can take you to the uncreated core of yourself which is identical with the uncreated core of all beings, but voluntarily offering up the self in love is another thing altogether and points to the higher state of the sanctified soul in which individuality is not rejected, dismissed, seen as illusionary or denied but made perfect in holiness. And this is only possible through the combined action of self-purification, love and grace.

The Buddha reached the highest state possible to man, the very ground and root of being. He attained complete detachment from all manifested forms of existence. He rejected desire and found a way beyond suffering, which was the initial motive behind his search. But though he penetrated to the very depths of his being he failed to see (if I may say so) that the ground of existence is not the same as God who includes this in himself but stands above it in his Person. It may be that the time had not yet arrived for this revelation, and it had to wait for the advent of Christ to be made known. Christ, be it noted, did not try to escape suffering but accepted it, offering it up to the Father in loving sacrifice. In so doing he showed the way to cleanse the self of its fallen will and thereby render it open to sanctification.

When I consider the teachings I received from the Masters I find that they fully support this view, i.e. that the mode of existence entered into by the non-dualists is not the final goal for the human soul. There is a higher and more glorious destiny that awaits those who choose to follow it, and it is the union of the soul with its Maker. A union in which oneness and difference are both perfectly present and one, moreover, capable of ever deeper development unlike Nirvana which, if not static, cannot be considered open to change. The Masters did not spell this out since they don't work like that. They guide but leave you to find things out yourself through your own endeavours. But the teachings they imparted point to it. Their insistence on love and humility as the primary qualities to be acquired by the disciple along with their advice to remember the Creator and be centred in God certainly indicate that

Now these instructions, on the face of it so simple as to be almost mundane, actually contain the essence of the spiritual path and, if followed faithfully, can take one to the highest goal. There is nothing quite like them in the teachings of the Buddha. But note that they must be followed with one's whole being to be properly effective for you cannot be centred in God as long as you are identified with the lower or outer self. If you identify yourself with the 'name and form' aspect of your being, your (in my case) William Wildblood self , you are not centred in God but in yourself whatever your spiritual feelings might be. Neither are you remembering the Creator who might be in your thoughts as an image but will not be in your heart as a living presence. And this is where the teachings of Buddhism can be a great help for, if they do not in themselves lead to union with God, they can certainly bring the disciple to the point of complete detachment from the lower self which is where you need to be in order to begin to be centred in God.

I realise that to say that Buddhism shows the way to the ground of being but does not lead to God Himself who is a step further on will be rejected by many. Nevertheless I believe that (contrary to the opinion of monists) God includes but goes beyond this ground or, at any rate, the ground as it exists in the human being which may be identical with God's being but is not the totality of God in Himself who remains transcendent as well as immanent. Non-dualists like to tell us that theism is dualistic and therefore on a lower level than their philosophy but they do not realise that, while there certainly is a theism of straightforward duality, there is also one in which oneness and duality co-exist, and this is the one I am talking about here.

This is not the simplest of subjects to write about (how can there be something more than oneness?) but I hope to have said enough to trigger an intuitive response in anyone who feels that non-duality teachings omit something important. It may be objected that I am saying that the Buddha was wrong and who am I to do that? But either he or Jesus were mistaken since they are not, despite what many people claim nowadays, saying the same thing. I find the teachings of Christ not only more profound but more in keeping with reality too. In terms of the Vedanta this means I am in Ramanuja's camp rather than Sankara's who surely picked and chose from the Upanishads whatever suited his (Buddhist inspired) thesis. Non-dualists like to say that they do not deny duality but that their position transcends it, viewing it as part of the relative world only. But the fact is that they misconceive the relative world, rejecting it as insignificant in the light of the Absolute and not realising that it fulfils the Absolute by giving expression to it. They have yet to appreciate that there is a higher duality beyond non-duality which encompasses oneness in the context of difference and vice versa. Moreover I would like to ask how many non-dualists really love God and how many just pay lip service to him as an idea, the need for which they have transcended and therefore are no longer required to concern themselves with? They should know that something is only transcended if it is fully experienced and its qualities absorbed.

Buddhism teaches the fact of absolute reality and outlines the way to it, but it neglects the all important personal aspect and so it misses that the highest truth is not the disappearance of the individual into the universal but the integration of the individual with the universal. And this is why, while it advocates an impersonal compassion, it doesn’t know love in the full Christian sense which has to be foreign to it since love requires the reality of the person. Mahayana Buddhism tries to make up for this deficit with its teachings on the Bodhisattva but it cannot really do so and acknowledge the reality of the person (both God and the individual soul) without betraying its fundamental principles which means that the attempts to do so are never very satisfactory or coherent.


Bruce Charlton said...

William - This is very good.

It took me a long time to forumlate this distinction you describe so well - indeed it was reading WIlliam Arkle just in the last couple of years that clarified things.

BTW I have reviewed Meeting the Masters on my blog today.

William Wildblood said...

Thanks very much Bruce. As a fan of your superb blog I take that as a compliment well worth having.

It's also taken me a while to arrive at the understanding I've tried to express here, and to see how the Eastern religions, with which I have a lot of sympathy and from which I've learnt a good deal, ultimately fall short of the Christian message. Indeed, if I wrote Meeting the Masters now I might express some of the theological thoughts in it a little differently, i.e. more in line with what I've written here.

David Balfour said...

This post, particularly the last paragraph, powerfully and eloquently summarises why I am no longer a Buddhist and am now a Christian.

I learned a lot from Buddhism and still feel I have much to learn from it. I used to hold the bodhisattva ideal very close to my heart. In a way I still do. Buddhism appeals enormously in its beautiful expression of the path of compassion, kindness and a tenderness towards all sentient beings. These perspectives are powerful reminders of the value of all forms and expressions of life.

Buddhism offers what it says it does and no more. A spiritual path that allows the transcendence of suffering and the ego. A way to escape the wheel of Dharma. But Buddhism does not explain why beauty in musical harmony exists, why there is creativity and play, why there are individuals to be transcended to begin with. I could go on but it dawned on me at some point that love is an act of relationships and is impoverished by abstraction and detachment from the lover and the loved one. Christianity alone adequately embraces the validity of a Buddhist path as a valid spiritual path but with the inclusion of the individual identity as something to be cherished and valued rather than rejected. Christianity alone can account for why the laws of physics allow for the emergence of a dance of souls that play, create, love and live in joy as an 'end' and not a path to a rejection of these finest of things with a static Nirvana, however blissful. If Nirvana is the stage, heaven is the eternal play that exults and celebrates the divine drama.

It is a joy to have found this to be so and to know that I am not alone in my understanding. It strengthens my faith in a world where many around me consider any kind of spiritual beliefs at all (including Buddhism but especially Christian beliefs) to be a deluded or pitiful foolishness.

David Balfour said...

Perhaps of interest:

Jake said...

This is beautifully written. I am ultimately neither Buddhist nor Christian, but subscribe to a mixture of beliefs from the Eastern and Western spiritual traditions (and ultimately decide what is true and what isn't through my own personal spiritual experiences) - and I have to say I have many times been struggling with the idea of this merging with the Absolute - the paradigm where only oneness seems to exist. This is also very present in the non-dual teachings of Advaita. I'm glad this understanding (that you also imparted in this post) is catching on and making its way into the human consciousness - that we are all one, yet there is the same beauty in the fact that we are many as well. That like the Yin-Yang symbol, reality is dual and one simultaneously and one is not more or less than the other as is so often described mostly in Eastern mystical teachings.

Be well, J.

William Wildblood said...

Thanks for commenting, Jake. Yes, I think it's important that we keep in mind the importance of both oneness and manyness which is a far richer and more real thing than just one or the other on their own.

Feminist Heretic said...

Thank you for this post! I was raised Hindu, but was born and raised in the US (never spent more than a couple of weeks in India) so my temperament is a mix of East and West. I was drawn to Buddhism for awhile because it seemed to bypass the Indian guru problem (although I later learned this problem exists in Buddhism too). Ultimately it has left me feeling like something is missing. I love this statement by David Balfour above: "But Buddhism does not explain why beauty in musical harmony exists, why there is creativity and play, why there are individuals to be transcended to begin with." This encapsulates some of my own feelings.

I have never practiced nor seriously studied Christianity so it doesn't hold any power for me, but the ideas you've expressed seems aligned with the Hindu Bhakti tradition, which does resonate. Thank you for putting some words to the issues I've been having with Buddhism and some aspects of Advaita as well!