Tuesday 4 February 2014

Who needs #Buddha?

How the Mystic Heart of Christianity has been hiding in plain sight

At one time or another many Westerners, myself included, have rejected Christianity and looked for answers to our spiritual needs in the wisdom of the East. The clear market leader here is Buddhism in many and various forms. The Hindu tradition around the Bhagavad Gita also has its Western niche audience. There is too a thriving trend for mix-and-match a la carte Eastern spirituality where consumers buy into the ideas that stroke their spiritual erogenous zones while ignoring any inconvenient ballast that accompanies them. The then Cardinal Ratzinger once suggested that European Catholics who converted to Buddhism were guilty of a kind of spiritual auto-eroticism a statement which sounds harsh but, like Buddhism itself, has a distinct portion of truth contained within itself.

My purpose here is not to criticise these major world faiths. The Catholic Church, in the document Nostra Aetate , recognises that these ways of seeking God are not without glimpses and flashes of Him who cannot be hid. No, my business here is to suggest that we are often too eager to discard a Christian faith which contains within itself precisely those elements which we most like about the Eastern faiths and moreover does so in a far more incarnated ie fully human sense. In part also this easy abandonment of our own historic faith is assisted by Christianity itself hiding its mystical light under a bushel. An added attraction about the Eastern faiths is that by looking at them from a distance we are not bothered by the vulgarisation of them in actual Eastern societies or by the abundant failings of their practitioners and these perhaps are the very things that distance us from Christianity. We in the West get the refined essence of Buddhism and the dirty washing of Christianity.

One of the biggest selling points of the Eastern traditions is the habit of meditation. The clearing of the mind from cluttering thoughts, feelings and distractions so that an inner light, a tranquil crystal clear lake, a pure lotus blossom or whatever other metaphor of choice springs to mind can manifest itself and we can enter into a personal zone of peace. In this state we can encounter the Reality which underlies the bewildering, deceiving surface aspects of our lives and our selves and so become Real in all that we are and do. This is a worthy project but few who embark upon it consider for even a nano-second that by far and away the most popular form of meditation in the West is the Most Holy Rosary of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

It is, perhaps, in this meditative format that we come up most clearly against the incarnate and disincarnate contrast between the two modes of spirituality. In the Rosary the mind is indeed emptied of clutter. This is done to focus upon Jesus and Mary and the God who intervenes directly in human history thereby strengthening our relationship with Him. Other historic Christian meditative approaches have a similar sort of focus. The Orthodox Jesus Prayer or Prayer of the Heart, popularised in the wonderful little book The Way of a Pilgrim, the single word focussed upon in the Cloud of Unknowing, the dry, barren desert St John of the Cross writes about in The Dark Night of the Soul. Each of these, all of these, in some way or another encourages us to leave behind the distractions and delusions of the everyday world to centre ourselves on that which, or rather whom, is the very centre and cause of our own being and all being.

The aim of Eastern meditation, be it self, Self, Overself, Atman, Nirvana, is ultimately impersonal or even a simple nothingness. That of the Christian is profoundly personal, it is all about relationship. For the Western seeker after inner peace who picks up a smattering of Buddhism or Vedanta this is all hypothetical. What they want is what works, what offers the sand for the white dove to sleep in. Often they turn to the East because it offers a series of techniques which promise to deliver the goods and which they have never found to be on offer in Christianity. Yet when it comes to the simple mechanics of it all the techniques that the West uses are in many respects more or less identical to those of the East. But the West holds them as a well kept secret and the East proclaims them from the housetops. In part this is a necessary consequence of the fundamentally different approach between a faith which is missionary and active and sees its raison d'etre precisely to be incarnated in the hurly burly of daily life and ones which see withdrawal and a passive fatalism as more suited to their genius. In this sense Christian meditation is viewed as a process by which one recharges ones batteries before returning to the fray rather than as an end in itself. Which is more or less exactly what Westerners who turn East want it for too and did they but know that it was there they might turn to it instead.

Its not all about technique though. Whilst both Eastern and Western approaches promise an inner calm, a rest for the restless heart, a way of renewal, a discovery of meaning the Christians does so not on on the basis of an ever increasing spiritual athleticism leading to the winning of a spiritual gold medal. Rather the basis for success is a surrendering, a clearing the way to enable the Grace of God, the still small voice, to speak clearly to us. It is not a technique which transforms us it is a gift. The Christian way claims to be superior, I personally believe that it is so having experienced something of both, but the proof is purely experimental. My only suggestion are these, the Church should make more widely available the treasures of mystic spirituality she possesses and people from a Christian background should not be quite so eager to throw out the baptised baby with the admittedly grubby bathwater.

End of Part One

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  1. Very nice article, Steve. I think you hit several nails very neatly on the head.

    (I'm Samvara on CIF - I had to reincarnate after being modded!)

    May whatever it is that keeps us well, keep you well.

    1. Well thank you Sam. As I said my main target here is not the actual religions themselves, though naturally I profoundly differ from them, but those in the West who use them, or elements of them, to promote a vague feelgoodism.