A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Benedict and Me--Part II: One Truth, Four Truths, Two Truths

This was the post I was in the middle of when my blogging came to a grinding halt last July. It is shorter than it would have been then, and it will now be one of two posts, rather than the one of three which I envisioned. But it still is pertinent, I think, and I got far enough with it to make it worthwhile to finish and worthwhile to read in its new and shorter manifestation:

In the first of this series of posts I suggested that Pope Benedict's Truth and Tolerance shows that, while Benedict has some ideas about the proper Christian view toward dialog with other religions, he probably has very little experience with actually doing it. I also pointed out that talking to Buddhists is not really dialog unless you listen to them, too.

In the West, the curse on coming to a proper understanding of the Buddhist point of view is the curse of secondary sources. The real contact between the West and Buddhism is a little over a century old. This is not a very long time in religious terms. Christianity is 2000 years old. Buddhism, nominally, is 2500 years old. It takes longer than a hundred years for two systems of thought so radically different from one another to even get adjusted to each other's terminology.

First, there is the question of translation. The primary generation of Western scholars, around the turn of the 20th century, made some major errors in the first translation of Buddhist texts. Those errors are still being perpetuated by those Christians who look no further than secondary sources, and look at secondary sources with an agenda of refuting Buddhist views. As we shall see below, Benedict falls into this trap.

This is not a serious criticism of him. Extensive Western contact with living primary sources of the Buddhist tradition--the same type of Buddhist specialist and expert that Benedict himself is as a Christian theologian--is barely thirty years old, dating to about 1975. That's when the real Tibetan monastic scholars, who trained before 1959, in the traditional way, in the undisturbed Tibetan monastic colleges, managed to arrive here.

Virtually all of these men were not fluent in European languages, and were largely middle-aged, when they arrived in the West. Most of them still have only conversational European language skills, at best. The first translators were younger Tibetans, who learned a European second language, usually English, in Asian schools. These translators were neither as fluent in English as native speakers, nor as well versed in the Buddhist studies as the Tibetan speaking experts.

These expert monks are mostly old men now, and they still rely on translators for serious teaching, but it has only been in the past decade or so that any American or European translators, who have genuine and deep experience with being Buddhist, have been available to cross check the Asian ones.

Because of all this, the most important misunderstanding of Buddhism by Christians consists of this:

Buddhism not only has different religious answers, it also has far different religious questions.

This problem is central to a Buddhist response to Benedict's assertion of the primacy of a mutual search for "Truth" in any intereligious dialog. For Benedict is talking about a single truth which is absolute, universal, Divinely revealed, and, insofar as any one basic statement of it can be made, is embodied in the Nicene Creed. I do not apologise for quoting the creed here in full, because one of the problems of reading Truth and Tolerance for the non-Christian reader is that the Nicene Creed is so basic that Benedict doesn't even refer to it.

Consequently, it is possible to read the entire book without ever understanding just what Absolute, Universal, and Divinely Revealed Truth Benedict is actually talking about:

I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible; And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father; by whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried; and the third day he rose again according to the Scriptures, and ascended into heaven,
and sitteth on the right hand of the Father; and he shall come again, with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.

And I believe in the Holy Ghost the Lord, and Giver of Live, who proceedeth from the Father [and the Son]; who with the Father and the Son together is worshipped and glorified; who spake by the Prophets. And I believe one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; I acknowledge one baptism for the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come. AMEN.

Now this is an answer. But it is an answer to a specific question: What is God like? Yes, it is that specialized. It is not even a direct answer to whether or not God exists. His existence is assumed and it is His nature which is articulated. It is also an answer which is not self-evident, or even derivable by reason from the premise that God exists. It is a very complicated answer with parts that are still a "mystery", such as the doctrine of the Trinity, for which we have no exact equivalent in anything else which we think we understand.

Therefore it is an answer which is "revealed" and must be held to with "faith". Benedict wishes to assert that the "faith" in the "revelation" is tantamount to "certain knowledge" of its truth. He cannot get around the conclusion of Kant that such things as the nature of God cannot be known by reasoning, so Benedict must perforce dethrone reasoning from its position as the acid test of knowledge.

As I pointed out in the last post, this reduction of the role of reason makes the possibility of debate or dialog nil, because it undermines any ground rules in reason, and outside of faith, for evaluating anyone else's doctrine.

The core of Benedict's view of Buddhism is based on his assumption that the only religious question really worth asking is, What is the nature of God?, and that this question can have only one true answer.

The possibility of being religious without being that interested in this question, and, indeed, having other answers for questions which interest you far more, simply passes him by. It does so, as well, for most Christians:

Yet does not Asia show us the way out? Religion that works without having to raise any claim to be true? The question will, without doubt, form the theme for other future dialogues. Just a suggestion here. Even Buddhism has its own way of raising the question of truth. It asks about redemption from suffering that arises from the thirst for life. Where is the place of salvation? Buddhism comes to the conclusion that it is not to be found in the world, in the whole of apparent being. This is, in its entirety suffering, a circle of rebirth and ever new entanglement. The way of enlightenment is the way out of the thirst for being into what seems to us to be non-being.

This assumption that Buddhist answers are false answers to the question of What is God's nature?, is the primary evidence that Benedict has personally attempted no dialog with us. You could not listen to an English or a German speaking Buddhist for ten minutes and still think that this question is the primary question behind Buddhism as a religion.

And, when we delve into the cited source for Benedict's opinions of Buddhism, we find that it is a secondary, non-Buddhist, German source: H. Burkle, "Der Mensch auf der Suche nach Gott--Die Frage der Religionen", [Man In Search Of God: The Question of Religions], Amateca, no. 3, (Paterborn: Bonifatius, 1996).

So what questions do Buddhists ask? We can start by opposing Benedict's One, Revealed, and Universal truth of the Nicene Creed to Shakyamuni Buddha's Four Noble Truths:

1. Life is suffering. We suffer both directly from the experience of pain and indirectly from the loss of pleasure. Every phase of life--birth, old age, sickness, death, and rebirth--is like this.

2. Our suffering has a single root cause. We cling ignorantly and emotionally to the illusion that we have a "self". Every other effect of our misery ultimately starts from this cause.

3. We can end our suffering by dispelling the illusion of a "self" and abandoning our emotional attachment to it. When we stop the cause, sooner or later, we stop the effect.

4. There is a specific method [The Eightfold Noble Path] to dispel this illusion, and, ultimately, to cease to suffer.

You have probably noticed that this presentation of The Four Noble Truths is markedly different than most you read. This is because I have glossed them with the short explanations of them that I have received from living, expert, Buddhist sources. There are, of course, more detailed explanations which make things like why all suffering comes from clinging to a "self" clearer, but these will do for our purpose.

These are the answers. And the questions are, What is everybody's life really like? and What can any of us do about it?

The first thing to notice is that these answers to such questions make no demand for "faith", particularly. Nor are they an independent revelation about something that we do not know directly, such as the Triune nature of God. There are no "mysteries" in them. They are all directly testable, in large measure, by your own immediate experience. And they are ultimately testable entirely by your own experience. Granted that, while we are embodied, we do not know directly that "rebirth" is suffering, but, when we are young, we also do not know directly that "old age" is suffering. Sooner or later, we will get to test both of these things.

The Four Noble Truths are the Buddhist starting point. But any extended religious examination of life must also contend with "everything else" which is out there beyond us.

So what about everything else but us and our problems?

This is also one of the important religious questions for a Buddhist. And such a question is, at best, only part of the background of Christianity. The world beyond God could be described in any number of different ways without altering the Nicene Creed at all. Different traditions of Buddhism have somewhat different approaches to this question, but what I have been taught is an approach called The Two Truths and Avoidance of the Four Extremes.

According to this view, there are two truths about the world itself, the Relative Truth about how things appear, and the Absolute Truth about how things really are.

We appear to live in a world of objects, such as automobiles and houses, with definite locations and various relations in both space and time. This is also a world where "karma, cause, and effect" applies to those objects and those relations. Everything we see is a result of "prior causes and conditions" and included among these are our own past actions. But, at any given moment, our personal karma is not all-determining--it interacts with other causes and conditions to create our immediate world.

This view of the world is "relatively true," in the sense that we are forced to interact with the appearance of objects and relations in our world. To drive the automobile we have to open the door, sit down, put the key in the ignition, and so forth.

But when we actually look carefully at those so called "objects", they are not indepenently real at all. "Automobile" is a mere concept which we impose on a specific collection of smaller component parts--and not always even the same collection of parts. An automobile up on the rack in the repair shop with the wheels removed to replace the brakes is still an "automobile". An automobile full of bullet holes and and rusting in a cornfield with even more parts missing is still an "automobile". So there is really no absolute boundary in the world between being an automobile and being a mere pile of junk.

Hence, the Absolute Truth is that the appearance of our world is actually fabricated by our own habitual mental concepts, none of which are unquestionably definite, real, or true. The world itself, in the absence of the concepts, is "empty", "luminous", and "unobstructed". And even these words in quotation marks cannot be taken to mean anything definite, fixed, or ultimately "real".

Every verbal category you can think of is nothing more than a mere mental concept. This is why the Buddha taught his followers to "avoid the four extremes":

"Thus knowing, thus seeing, the instructed disciple of the noble ones doesn't declare that 'The Tathagata exists after death,' doesn't declare that 'The Tathagata doesn't exist after death,' doesn't declare that 'The Tathagata both does and doesn't after death,' doesn't declare that 'The Tathagata neither does nor doesn't exist after death.' ....Thus knowing, thus seeing, he isn't paralyzed, doesn't quake, doesn't shiver or shake over the undeclared issues."

At first reading, this appears to be absurd. But it can be stated more generally as follows:

If you say anything "exists", you are in error.
"Existence" is a mere mental concept.

If you say anything does not exist, you are in error.
"Non-existence" is a mere mental concept.

If you say anything both exists and non-exists, you are in
error. This is merely a further mental concept.

If you say something neither exists nor non-exists, you are in error.
This is, finally, a mere mental concept.

These are the four intellectual extremes to be avoided, because, from the point of view of the Absolute Truth, anything definite that you say about our world is wrong. This is why Buddhists are not very interested in questions about the nature of God. If even the truth about an automobile is ultimately beyond any mental categorization, the truth about God must be also.

Being a "fully enlightened Buddha" means that you percieve this Absolute Truth directly, without any obstruction, and without any need to reason it out. Being a "realized Bodhisattva" means that you see the Absolute Truth directly but through very subtle and translucent reminents of conceptual thinking which you must clear away before you become fully enlightened.

Being an ordinary, confused person [like Joe Claus, here] means that you are completely decieved by the "reality" of concepts such as "automobile" and mad as hell when, "My automobile has been stolen!" These are known as "conflicting emotions". Our conflicting emotions lead us to do things which intensify our misperception of ourselves and the world, pushing us ever deeper into the First Noble Truth: Life is Suffering.

One of the early stages of an ordinary person's journey on the Buddhist path can be learning to reason out the difference between the Relative and the Absolute Truth. For reason can persuade you of the value of doing the real work of being Buddhist, which is the direct engagement of your conflicting emotions and your misperceptions through the practice of meditation--right here, right now--wearing out the shoes of your suffering by consistently walking in them.

This, then, is the opposition that Benedict wishes to bring to the center of any dialog between his religion and mine. On one side, a single, absolute, Divinely revealed, truth, held to with Faith, in the face of an ultimate skepticism (a Critique of Pure Reason, in fact) that reason itself can ever support revelation.

On the other, Four Truths ultimately testable by experience that speak to what ordinary life is actually like, and what we can do about it; Two Truths that make clear reason's limits without sacrificing its function as a medium of intellectual exchange; and Four Extremes to be avoided when using reason to evaluate experience so you don't make your situation worse and your essential confusion deeper.

What Benedict wishes is to change "religious dialog" from polite chit-chat about what he and I share to genuine, and perhaps quite pointed, engagement of the real opposition between our respective views.

What I wish, and what I think most Buddhists would wish, is that even the most pugnatious assertion of Truth be conducted in the basic spirit of Tolerance. With that proviso, I would say, "Bring it on." For I have every confidence that the power of Enlightenment and the intellectual tradition which has preseved the Dharma for 2,500 years has little to fear from any assertion, no matter how strong, of opposing views presented in the spirit of Tolerance.

Will either or both of us get our wishes? Only time will tell. But since his election, I have heard very little from Benedict in the matter of inter-religious dialog. He seems, so far, to be more interested in the Church than the World, and not fully grown out of his job as Defender of the Faith, which job he ought to really delegate to another Shepherd of the Flock. For the World will come calling on the Pope, importuning him to engage it, in a way that it never came calling on the Defender of the Faith.


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