On Christianity and Buddhism

in the Perspective of Comparative History of Ideas

Yasuo Kamata

In the following I will briefly formulate my premise about world religions and then will try to make them plausible through some examples. 1) Every living being tries to live in two aspects: as an individual and as a member of its species. In human beings the later aspect is concretely realised as communities, which can be based on various forms of groups and institutions such as families, villages, cultural communities and, in modern periods, as societies and states. The community is not only the expression of a species' will to conserve itself, but also the space, which protects its individual members and guarantees their survival as long as they follow its rules. The consciousness and expression of the will of self conservation become explicit, if an existential danger is threatening the survival of the individuals or of the community. If the danger is from outside, it is possible, or at least conceivable, to try to prevent it. If it is, however, from inside, because of its nature, it is much more difficult to find a solution to prevent it. For the individual the extreme danger for his self conservation is death, whereas for the community it is the self destruction of its rules (anarchy) for example religious commandments, moral codes and, in the modern period, law and order.

Since ancient times man has formulated various views of the world, which enabled the conservation optimally and at the same time both of the individuals and of the communal existence, in spite of their very deferent connotations. Among many attempts, the most successful ones propagated over centuries, which we call world religions.

2) Christianity was one of these most successful attempts. An individual's disobedience of commandment, not to eat from the tree of wisdom, expresses not only a principal resistance against God (the original sin), but also against the universal codes of the community, because every universal obligation was thought to be from a universal obligator. God is the name of the highest universality, which nobody can manipulate. If man did not principally follow the universal codes of the community, he was banished from that community, which had protected him from every kind of danger; he lost his paradise. This aspect of the threats to the community is combined with the other aspect of the threat to the individual, namely death. If man does not follow the codes of the community, he has to die. In the term of a mythology, he becomes mortal. This image corresponded to the reality of ancient periods. Man could survive physically and spiritually only in a community, and there was no guarantee of life outside.

How can death then as the result of sin be abolished? Here we find the common logic at that time: If A, then B; if not A, then not B. If man violates the codes of the community, he has to die; if he will, however, come back into the community to follow its codes, he is saved from death. In the term of a mythology: If man participates in the community of love of God, then he will have an eternal life. (St. Paul, Rom. 6:23)

Thus both aspects of the human will to live, namely as an individual and as a member of a community, i.e. of its species, were united into the dogma of the original sin and of the salvation through Jesus Christ.

3) Buddhism is another successful answer to the same problem of the human will as in Christianity, using the common logic above mentioned, however, with quite a different conclusion. Buddhism named the highest universality "enlightenment". The Buddhist universality is related not only to human beings but also to every being, so it can not be expressed as a personality like the Christian God (analogia). Enlightenment is the mental and physical realisation (cognition and practice) of the universal rules (dharma). If the individual desires to have something which he is missing, he has already realised something that does not belong to reality. The conflict of the individual with reality grows, and it is experienced as suffering. "Life is suffering." (Buddha) For example every act of feeding for self-conservation is an interference with the environment through killing of other beings, which causes suffering. The final and unconquerable suffering is death. Before that, there are many other kinds of suffering at the level of individuals and of communities. Even this knowledge of the origin of suffering, however, can emancipate us from this suffering. For the origin of suffering means: Suffering exists as long as man attempts to get what he is missing or to keep what he could lose (for example property, honour, love and life), and does not realise, that missing and getting belong to life as do generation and extinction (birth and death). Ignorance is the cause of suffering. If he however becomes aware of this causality and "practises" it, then his desire, to get what does not belong to reality, will fade away and finally vanish. In this way he will be emancipated from the causality of suffering (which repeats generation and extinction, birth and death endlessly): a state known as "Nirvana". The logic of the Buddhist answer is also: "If A, then B; if not A, then not B." If man ignores the universal rule of reality and continues adhering to what does not belong to reality, he cannot be emancipated from suffering. If he however recognises the universal rule and stops adhering, then he is emancipated. He is now reintegrated into the unique order of reality.

In this context the typical Buddhist expressions such as "nothingness" or "emptiness" do not mean any being called nothingness etc.; rather, they are warnings against the dangerous tendency to think of the universal rules as transcendent beings, as if they were different from the individuals and could give them what was missed. From the standpoint of Buddhism the thought of transcendent beings is the expression of that adherence, which is to be overcome.

This negative thinking ("sanftes Denken") which attempted to overcome the dangerously growing self consciousness of individuals may be generally found in late ancient cultures between 5th and 1st century BC, from China to Greece.

Why did human beings begin to think about the danger of individual independence of the community? It was at a time in which the mankind began to have more physical and spiritual space to initiate something that often tended to go beyond the given codes of the community to produce conflicts.

In this historical background and in the context of the current discussion of post modernity we should examine Enlightenment since the 18th century of Europe, which insists, unlike the ancient enlightenment, quietism and humility, on emphasising the individual's liberty, which seems, at least in this enormity, to be a special phenomenon within the long history of human cultures.

Index (English)