Sunday, 12 September 2021

Valentin Tomberg on the Difference Between Buddhism and Christianity

In my last post I responded to a comment about the difference between the teachings of the Buddha and those of Christ by drawing attention to the lack of the idea of God in Buddhism which I consider to be a serious omission that cannot just be glossed over. By pure coincidence, I was looking through some documents on an old computer yesterday and found this passage which must have impressed me enough to keep a copy. It's by Valentin Tomberg and I assume, though am not certain, comes from his classic Meditations on the Tarot, a book I have had on my shelves for 30 years but never got round to reading properly though I have read selections from it. Don't ask me why but it might be because it's nearly 700 tightly packed pages long. I have CDs from that long ago which remain unplayed too. Not something to be proud of, I know. 

I have italised points I find particularly pertinent. 

"Buddha saw that the world is sick —and, considering it incurable, he taught the means to leave it. Christ, also, saw that the world is sick unto death, but he considered it curable and set to work the force for healing the world — that which manifests itself through the Resurrection. Here is the difference between the faith, hope and love of the Master of Nirvana and that of the Master of the Resurrection and the Life. The former said to the world. "You are incurable; here is the means for putting an end to your suffering —to your life." The latter said to the world, "You are curable: here is the remedy for saving your life." Two doctors with the same diagnosis — but a world of difference in the treatment! 

There are two answers to the question, "What is innate human evil?" The one given by the left wing of traditional Wisdom — is "ignorance"; the other - given by the right wing of traditional Wisdom —is the sin of illicit knowledge. The difference consists in that the oriental tradition puts the accent on the cognitive aspect of the fact of discord between human consciousness and cosmic reality, whilst the occidental tradition puts it on the moral aspect of this same fact. The difference between the two traditions is that in the oriental tradition one aspires to divorce in the marriage of the "true Self and the "empirical self, whilst the occidental tradition regards this marriage as indissoluble. The "true Self", according to the occidental tradition, cannot or should not rid itself of the "empirical self by repudiating it. The two are bound by indissoluble links for all eternity and should together accomplish the work of re-establishing the "likeness of God". It is not the freedom of divorce but rather that of reunion which is the ideal of the occidental tradition. 

Now, we occultists, magicians, esotericists and Hermeticists — all those who want to "do" instead of merely waiting, who want "to take their evolution in their own hands" and "to direct it towards an aim"—are confronted with this choice in a much more dramatic way, I should say, than is so for people who are not concerned with esotericism. Our principal danger (if not the only true danger) is that of preferring the role of "builders of the tower of Babel" (no matter whether personally or in a community) to watching over "as gardeners or vine-growers the garden or the vine of the Lord". Truth to tell, the only truly morally founded reason for keeping esotericism "esoteric", i.e. for not bringing it to the broad light of day and popularising it, is the danger of the great misunderstanding of confusing the tower with the tree, as a consequence of which "masons" will be recruited instead of "gardeners". The sixteenth Major Arcanum of the Tarot is therefore a warning addressed to all authors of "systems", where an important role is assigned to a mechanical ingredient — intellectual, practical, occult, political, social and other systems. It invites them to devote themselves to tasks of growth instead of those of construction — to tasks as "cultivators and guardians of the garden".

The transcendental Self is not God. It is in his image and after his likeness, according to the law of analogy or kinship, but it is not identical with God. There are still several degrees on the ladder of analogy which separate it from the summit of the ladder —from God. Therefore, if Avatars are descents of the divine, Buddhas are ascents of the human —they are culminating points of stages of humanism in the process of evolution. The difference between the "revelatory ones" (Avatars and Imams) and the "awakened ones" (Buddhas) is analogous to that between "saints" and "righteous men" in the Judaeo-Christian world. Here "saints" correspond to Avatars in that they represent the revelation of divine grace through them and in them, and "righteous men" correspond to Buddhas in that they bring to evidence the fruits of human endeavour. The work of Jesus Christ differs from that of Avatars in that it signifies the expiatory sacrifice for completely fallen mankind. This means to say that mankind, who before Jesus Christ had only the choice between renunciation and affirmation of the world of birth and death, is put in the position, since the mystery of Calvary, of transforming it —the Christian ideal being "a new heaven and a new earth" (Revelation xxi, 1). The mission of an Avatar, however, is "the liberation of the good" in this fallen world, without even attempting to transform it. It is a matter in the work of Jesus Christ of universal salvation — the work of divine magic and divine alchemy, that of the transformation of the fallen world — and not only of the liberation of the good. The work of Jesus Christ is the divine magical operation of love aiming at universal salvation through the transformation of mankind and of Nature. After Jesus Christ —the God-Man, who was the complete unity not only of spirituality and intellectuality, but also of divine will and human will, and even of divine essence and human essence —the work of the fusion of spirituality and intellectuality can be nothing other than the germination of the Christ seed in human nature and consciousness. In other words, it is a matter of the progress of the Christianisation of mankind, not only in the sense of a growing number of baptised people, but above all in the sense of a qualitative transformation of human nature and consciousness. 

 And just as there are ecstasies and illuminations from the Holy Spirit, so there are intoxications from the spirit of mirage —which is named the "false Holy Spirit" in Christian Hermeticism. Here is a criterion for distinguishing them: if you seek for the joy of artistic creation, spiritual illumination and mystical experience, you will inevitably more and more approach the sphere of the spirit of mirage and become more and more accessible to it; if you seek for truth through artistic creation, spiritual illumination and mystical experience, you will then approach the sphere of the Holy Spirit, and you will open yourself more and more to the Holy Spirit. The revelations of truth issuing from the Holy Spirit bring with them joy and consolation (consolatory spirit = Paraclete), but are only followed by the joy which results from the revealed truth (spirit of truth— —spiritus veritatis; cf. John xvi, 13). whilst the revelations that we have called "mirages" follow the joy —they are born from the joy. (A mirage is not the same thing as a pure and simple illusion —a mirage being a "floating" reflection of a reality—but it is "floating", i.e. outside of the context of objective reality with its moral, causal, temporal and spatial dimensions). This is why the mystics of eastern Christianity do nor tire of warning beginners of the danger that they call "seductive illumination" (prelestnoye prosveshtcheniye in Russian) and insist upon the nakedness of spiritual experience, i.e. on experience of the spiritual world stripped of all form, all colour, all sound and all intellectuality. The intuition alone of divine love with its effect on moral consciousness is —they teach —the sole experience to which one should aspire. What renders such an intellectual mirage all the more dangerous is that it is not, as a general rule, purely and simply a delusion or illusion. It is a mixture of truth and illusion, mixed in an inextricable way. The true serves to prop up the false and the false seems to lend the true a new splendour. It is therefore a mirage and not pure illusion, which would be easier to perceive. Mirages are above all frequent in the case of relationships between persons of the opposite sex who feel drawn to one another. It then often happens that the qualities, and even the identity, of one soul are projected upon another. The conclusion which asserts itself from all that we have said above concerning the sphere of mirages is that practical esotericism demands at least the same prudence as exact science, but the prudence that it demands is of a nature that is not only intellectual but also, and above all, moral. In fact, it encompasses the whole human being with his faculties of reasoning, imagination and will. It is therefore a matter of being prudent. For an illusion stemming from the sphere of mirages can bowl you over, whilst a true revelation from above can take place in the guise of a scarcely perceptible inner whispering. For the sphere of mirages, also, is real — but reality is one thing and truth is another thing. A mirage is certainly real, but it is not true; it is deceiving."

There are really two points being made here, each one of supreme importance for the contemporary spiritual aspirant. The first is that, tempting as it may be because of its profound psychological and spiritual insights, Buddhism belongs on a lower plane of spiritual truth than Christianity which incorporates and then transforms both the created world and the human soul. This can only be done through Christ. The second is that it is motive rather than technique that is key as regards spiritual progress. There are experiences available to the questing soul which it might mistake as spiritually extraordinary but which are nonetheless what Tomberg calls mirages. Not completely false but imitations of reality. Love of God and proper spiritual discernment are two qualities that the aspirant simply cannot do without.

The key point is that the Buddha was a human being who taught the highest a human being could go unaided. But Christ was a divine being, indeed, a Christian would correctly say he was the divine being, who brought something new which was the redemption and transformation of the fallen self rather than its extinction for absorption into Nirvana. However, I would add that the incarnation of Christ affected other spiritual approaches that were open to this new divine energy and the Mahayana was a response to that. So Christ can be present in all religions to a degree even if he is obviously most fully present in Christianity.


Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

This is actually a concatenation of several originally separate passages from Meditations on the Tarot.

The two points you make are important ones.

ted said...

Great post, and these distinctions are important. We have to be careful of the caricatures of Buddhism that some Christians espouse, but I do agree in principle there is an emphasis with Christianity that unites world and God. In that, more Christians should engage with contemplative practices that are emphasized in the east (albeit many Buddhists don't even meditate). Btw, Tomberg's spiritual classic is one of my best reading experiences. He spoke to me at a time when I was reverting back to Christianity after many detours. Reading about his return to the Catholic Church made my return more cogent somehow.

William Wildblood said...

Wm Jas, I thought it might be since it didn't flow very well as a single piece but I can't remember where I got it from. As I say, it was stored on an old computer which I haven't used in ages as a Word doc.

ted, I always try to emphasise that I write these things about Buddhism as a great lover of the religion which must be the most extraordinary thing man has come up with on his own, spiritually speaking. But Christ goes further. He just does which doesn't detract from Buddhism in the least but it does mean there is more to life than Nirvana which, in a certain sense, is just a return to the Source with nothing to show for the trip out.

MagnusStout said...

I'm very ignorant on these topics, so bear with me....

Two passages spoke to me: (1) "the danger of the great misunderstanding of confusing the tower with the tree, as a consequence of which 'masons' will be recruited instead of "gardeners." And, (2) " if you seek for the joy of artistic creation, spiritual illumination and mystical experience, you will inevitably more and more approach the sphere of the spirit of mirage and become more and more accessible to it; if you seek for truth through artistic creation, spiritual illumination and mystical experience, you will then approach the sphere of the Holy Spirit, and you will open yourself more and more to the Holy Spirit."

Is a primary danger of number 1, above, that somehow ego dethrones spirituality (like the Pharisees)? The analogy of builders vs. gardeners: perhaps because buildings (even abstract Systems as a produce of the Mind) edify Men in a way that Gardens do not?

On the second quote: is this spiritual quest tainted (and perhaps misdirected) by ego? Truth can be harsh and to recognize such must necessarily reduce ego. Do you think that the West's emphasis on individuality (of which ego plays a strong part) versus the East has reduced our ability to perceive in this way? Finally, as a follow up, has the West now gone to the other extreme in the communitarian-vs-individualistic balance (ex: antiracism, fake genders, etc...)?

William Wildblood said...

Magnus, I think the analogy of masons vs gardeners means something like those that work with God and those that work with the energies of creation, both spiritual and material, for their own ends. So, yes, it is about ego really.

Regarding the second point, individuality is a great gift that can go in two ways. Either it aligns itself with the Will of God and acts according to goodness, truth etc wholly and without effort, or it seeks, as above, its own ends. The emphasis on the individual self in the West was an evolutionary step forward even if it, as it has, sometimes gets out of end and goes wrong. It's all to do with the proper balance between self and God which balance, I would say, is only fully resolved in Christ.

jaxx said...

Platonism bridges the two.

William Wildblood said...

I'm not so sure. It has been used to bridge the two but Platonism lacks the idea of reality being made primarily of persons which is fundamental to Christianity.