Tuesday 2 May 2017

Eastern Religion for Western People

I wrote in a post a while ago words to the effect that I had never seen Eastern religions particularly benefitting Westerners. I know that is a very sweeping statement but, generally speaking, I think it is true though, as with any rule, there will always be exceptions. Before proceeding any further I should first of all say that I have learnt an enormous amount from Eastern religions, especially Hinduism and Buddhism, but I have learnt this as an outsider looking in. I have never been tempted to adopt an Eastern approach but I have used insights gained from studying these philosophies to deepen my own understanding of spiritual matters. So I am certainly not saying that Westerners should not study Eastern religions. I don't say they must but I think that if they do they will gain a lot thereby. However studying a religion and fully participating in it are two quite different things. It is the latter I am referring to when I say that I don't think Eastern religions particularly benefit Westerners.

There are two issues here and I will get one of them out of the way quickly. Each religion has its own mythology and really you cannot adopt this. It has to be part of you, and that is definitely the case where Hinduism is concerned. I do think you have to be Indian to be a Hindu. Traditionally that is the case anyway. To be sure, you can take the philosophical aspect and leave the mythical side alone but then you will remain outside the religion as a whole so your interaction with it will always be slightly, or even very, artificial. It will be like reading a poem in translation. Of course, you can get something from it but you are not reading the real poem. Where Buddhism is concerned the situation is a little different as that is not so tied to a particular place (Hinduism is the one major religion that comes from the spirit of a land rather than an individual prophet or founder), but it is still soaked in a mythology and garb that will always be alien to a Westerner. They might be able to access the intellectual spirit of the religion but the form will not be natural to them and this is more important than it might appear. The spirit is certainly the main thing but the form houses and earths that spirit so cannot just be dismissed. In a way it and it alone gives true access to what you might call the spirit of the spirit, its living kernel. The appearance of something cannot be completely separated from what it is inside, not without damaging the whole which then becomes considerably less effective.

I'm not saying that nobody can be converted to a religion in which they have not been born. That's clearly nonsense. But the gulf between the modern Western mindset and the ancient Eastern religious attitude and view of the world is too wide for there ever to be a genuine and natural union between the two. The meeting will always be at several removes so adopting a religion that comes from long ago and far away, and is not 'in the blood', will always have a certain artificiality to it which means that it cannot ever really be a natural thing which it must be if it is to spiritually feed and nourish the soul as it should.

But even supposing this bridge can be crossed there is another and greater problem. Most Western people who look to the East for enlightenment are doing just that.  They are looking for enlightenment. They are aspiring mystics seeking a higher state of consciousness. It doesn't matter if you say that Nirvana or Brahman is beyond a mere state of consciousness, that is basically what these people are doing. They seek mystical experience. I know. I've done that myself. But is mystical experience, or even enlightenment, what the religious path is really meant to be about? Is it to do with tracing life back to its unmanifest source of consciousness in itself, without any colouring or flavouring of individuality at all, or is it to do with making the soul fit to receive divine grace thus rendering it holy which requires that it acts out of love for the divine being rather than desire for any condition or state of mind or being, spiritual or otherwise? You might think these two things are just different ways of describing the same thing but there is an important difference and it is to do with motive as well as goal. In the one individuality is (supposedly) renounced but in the other it is brought to perfection by being taken beyond itself in love. Love is key and it is to know its Creator in love that is the true spiritual goal and purpose. Only this takes us beyond the separate self with its personal goals.

Most Western people who take to Eastern forms of spirituality have a humancentric approach to spirituality and privilege knowledge over love but you will only find the true God (and there are many states and conditions you might mistake for God in the higher planes if you are not pure of heart) when your approach is fully theocentric and your motive is love. If you seek knowledge only you may well find a spiritual state that is profound, but you will not be fulfilling the true purpose of your being born in this material world of change and time and multiplicity. You will be abandoning half of life for exclusive focus on one part, albeit that which can be described as absolute. But life is more than just the absolute alone and if you restrict it to that you will be falling short in your duty to God who created you (and he did do that) so that you might know him in a full relationship of love and thereby add your unique individuality to the whole of creation so that it might expand and grow into ever greater glory. Simply to retreat into pure awareness is not going to do that. In a way that is a refusal of the gift you have been given and of the chance to make a gift yourself. I mean by that to make the gift of your self, your sanctified and redeemed self.

Ancient Eastern philosophies are wise and profound. They have much to teach us and I believe that some of their practices can help anyone develop spiritually and start to align himself with the unmanifest ground of being. But ultimately they are to do with knowledge, technique and method, and true religion requires more than this. To go beyond the ground of universal consciousness to a higher spiritual state (and there is such), to go to God as he is in himself not as he is in his outer aspect of pure being, we need love. The prime teacher and exemplar of love is Christ. He is what he teaches and the only way we can become that is to become like him. Christ is still all important for the West.

The Buddha brought light to the world but Christ went further. He included all that the Buddha brought of light and the wisdom of oneness but added to that divine love which, be it noted, is only acquired through suffering. The Buddha, the paragon of the East, sought to escape suffering but Christ, through his acceptance of suffering, transformed it into a path to divine love. It is Christ who set the spiritual pattern for the West to follow.


Aaron said...

I somewhat agree with you, William. Christianity has it all, and there is no need to turn to the East, for most people.

However, unlike you, I find the best of the West precisely in Mysticism. Eckhardt, Boheme, William Law - countless others. The Gospels, too, strike me as ethical and mystical - utterly otherworldly - and incompatible with an ordinary life.

It is well worth pointing out that the most vital Christian tradition - Orthodoxy - is the most mystical and the most similar to Eastern religions.

I believe the function of Eastern religions in our time is not to replace Christianity but to revitalize it, particularly in the West. We are in real peril in the West. The mystic vision is all but lost. The spiritual impulse today - the desire to go beyond this world - is incredibly weak.

However, I must admit there is little evidence this is happening. From being a full-blooded supernatural religion, Buddhism has become a mere psychological device.

The mystic quest is an ontological quest, not a psychological quest. I is a confrontation with Mystery, the sacred, God.

Buddhism deals with a very particular kind of suffering - ontological suffering. The sense that everything in this world is subtly unsatisfying, "dukkha". We must reach beyond.

None of this is primarily psychological.

Spirituality transcends time and place - however, it will surely take different forms in the West, despite its basic unity with the East.

William Wildblood said...

I'm not at all against mysticism Aaron. In fact I'm all for it and like to think of myself primarily in that vein. But I just distinguish between a theocentric mysticism which has God at its centre and one which neglects him. I feel that many westerners who adopt Eastern forms of mysticism are on the run from God and I wanted to point out that error since such it is.

William Wildblood said...

And I completely agree with your point about how Eastern religion can revitalise our approach to Christianity. They can help restore a spiritual element, often lost over the past few centuries

Aaron said...

One more thing, which you will probably disagree with me about.

If Christianity will revive in the West, it has to be otherworldly. People yearn for a connection to Mystery, the Absolute, and the Unconditioned. Something utterly beyond the categories of this world. Nothing else will satisfy.

Some Christian writers today conceive of heaven as basically an extension of this world - a place where social relations persist, where a material body exists, where human categories of thought and consciousness remain valid, and where "growth", tasks, and missions continue in a fashion very similar to this world.

It is clearly a wish-fulfillment fantasy for people socially disappointed in this world. There is no sacred Mystery in such a heaven, nor is it any kind of Absolute. There is no "beyond" in such a beyond.

Yet the mind revolts from such "concreteness", and yearns for the great Unknown, the Sacred Mystery that we deeply intuit to be our ultimate goal, and that we feel we cannot put into words.

And yet, the times are so dark, that even a beyond conceived of as a wish-fulfillment fantasy can have a mild spiritual effect, as it does point to a beyond, however faintly.

The danger is that people, who yearn for they know not what, for something this world cannot give them, will be turned off Christianity when they find no answer for their mysterious longing in Christian writers today.

Something like that almost happened to me, and it was only through Buddhism that I found my way back to Christianity.

Well, I will leave off, William.

Thank you for a thought provoking post.

Aaron said...

Thanks for your responses, once again, William. I made my second comment before I saw your responses, btw.

Aaron said...

"I feel that many westerners who adopt Eastern forms of mysticism are on the run from God and I wanted to point out that error since such it is."

You are quite right about that, William. Edward Conze, an early 20th century German writer on Buddhism, and to my mind one of the profoundest, said that most Western Buddhists he knew eventually returned to Christianity, and were really just disappointed Christians. Conze himself had a lifelong fascination with early Christianity which he never lost.

That is why, to my mind, Christianity must return to Mystery if it is to able to satisfy the longings of modern people.

William Wildblood said...

Aaron, you said "If Christianity will revive in the West, it has to be otherworldly. People yearn for a connection to Mystery, the Absolute, and the Unconditioned. Something utterly beyond the categories of this world. Nothing else will satisfy."

Yes! I couldn't agree more. And I also am completely with you on your point about holy mystery. I have very little time for modern Christianity which is often just a religious club with zero spiritual content. Not always of course but often it is a religion without a soul, strongly rooted in the ways of this world. That's because it no longer has enough saints and mystics to feed it, just bureaucrats and officials. I exaggerate to make a point but you get my point I'm sure.

August said...

Those ancient liturgies arose out of ancient cities as an organic process. That they don't transplant well is because only a few very intelligent people in any particular place have the intellectual capability to understand them.

I would encourage and possibly enforce a similarity of practice. The vast majority of people don't grasp doctrine, but rather perceive their denomination in a tribal way. The few who do understand doctrine ought the be educated, trained, and generally prepared to replace the bureaucrats.

One of the ways to stop bureaucrats is to change incentives. Bureaucrats do not own the assets they have access to, so they do not act as owners do, and consider whats good for the long term. This is one of the reasons so many clergy (I was raised R.C.) are happy with the progressive model. They are essentially wasting assets built up by previous generations while losing the children produced by those generations. They are rather desperate for immigrants, converts, etc...- so the obvious won't be so obvious. The shepherd who loses all his sheep is a bad shepherd, regardless of how welcoming he might be to whatever sheep that happen by.

William Wildblood said...

You make some very good points. Thanks August.

ted said...

Westerners who adopt Eastern forms of mysticism and are on the run from God (and come back to the Church with a revitalized Christianity) sounds a lot like another version of the Prodigal Son parable.

William Wildblood said...

It does, doesn't it? It's all in the Gospels!