After Buddha received enlightenment, the first words he uttered were, “Suffering exists.” This bare statement, so empty of what we generally think of as metaphysical discussion, has become known as the First Noble Truth, and constitutes an essential principle of Buddhism.
Buddha lived in India, and geography matters, even in religion, so the geographical distance between India, and the southern rim of the Mediterranean, where Judaism, Christianity, and Islam arose translates into differences in essential concepts of spirituality. Given the troubled, and troubling, situation in the Middle East today, Buddhism can help us understand what these three religions have in common-and why relations between and among them have proven so problematic.
If suffering exists, the goal of the Buddhist is to transcend it by emptying out the ego and achieving enlightenment. And what is enlightenment like? The Heart Sutra, a key Buddhist text, tells us only what enlightenment is not:
…In emptiness there is neither form, nor feelings, nor perceptions, not
mental formations, not consciousness.
No eye, no ear, or nose, or tongue, or body, or mind.
No form, no sound, no smell no taste, no touch,
no object of mind.
No understanding, no attainment.
If no one can describe enlightenment, then language itself is-must necessarily be-inadequate to deal with ultimate experience. When we think about it for a moment, we realize that we have all experienced the inadequacy of language-any language in the hands of anyone, even Shakespeare-for dealing with our most intense experiences. These experiences fall under the general headings of “Birth, copulation, and death,” as T. S. Eliot pithily stated them. Intense experiences do go beyond words, so when we want to impress on people how deep our feelings are, we usually tell them that “Words cannot convey what I feel,” or some such phrase.
The Apostle Paul expresses an awareness of the inadequacy of language for describing transcendence in Philippians 4:7, when he refers to “the peace that passeth understanding.” Surely what he means here is that mystical rapture, the ineffable sense of oneness with all creation that constitutes the goal of world’s great mystical traditions, cannot be expressed in words.
It’s important to keep in mind that Paul’s insight has not generally affected Christian theology, word-oriented and text-based as it is. “In the beginning was the Word,” we read in John 1:1. That single sentence, and what it implies, has had, and continues to have, fateful import, for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These word-bound, text-based religions are configured-and limited-by language in crucial ways. The absence of the word in Buddhism, and its corresponding emptiness, creates a contrast with the presence of the word in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that helps us to understand all four of these major religions in new ways.
In a general sense, language matters because it mediates in the reciprocal relationship between religion and social structure. When religions affirm the primacy of language, they are affirming a particular language as spoken in a particular society, and such religions are necessarily configured by the society structure of that society. If the word was present in the beginning, and can be used to speak of ultimate things, then it can be used to explain why suffering exists; indeed, such explanations comprise an essential feature of Mediterranean religions.
The old Puritan rhyme, “In Adam’s fall, we sinned all.” succinctly conveys what can happen when one admits that language can be used to explain the origin of suffering. It matter little whether one believes in original sin, in the doctrine of the necessary fall, or in any another explanatory narrative; what does matter is the belief that makes all these doctrines possible-the belief in the explanatory power of the word.
The biblical narratives that deal with life after the fall are often narratives that take the patriarchal authority of Jewish family life and impose it onto an anthropomorphic god. The human all too human God of Mediterranean religions takes an intense interest in the mortals whom he rules. Never sure of their faith, he tests them in extreme ways, as in the cases of Job and Abraham. In fact, the story of Abraham and Isaac is a double story of patriarchal authority. In obedience to God. Abraham orders his son to accept his role as a sacrifice, and then God orders Abraham to give his son a reprieve. And of course the single sentence “Forgive me, Father, for I have sinned,” which Catholics know so well, indicates the residual power of both patriarchal authority and patriarchal narrative.
It is worth noting that the story in which God tests Abraham is the first of many such stories, and God’s practice of testing the faithful has been used to explain many events. In our time, divine testing has become secularized, so that after the terrorist attacks of September 11th, President Bush announced to a mourning nation that, “We are being tested.” Such an interpretation of awful events both acknowledges the suffering, and also asserts America’s status as Most Favored Nation with God. God tests only the faithful, after all.
Sometimes mortals fail these tests, and that makes God angry. “God is angry with the wicked every day,” Psalms 7:11 tells us. In fact, Puritan cleric Jonathan Edwards seems to have4 considered anger to be God’s usual state, and thus for Edwards, we mortals were “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” to cite the title of his best-known sermon.
If in the beginning was the word, and the word can-indeed should-be used to create narratives that justify God’s ways to humanity, then those narratives necessarily take place in specific places. As a result, these specific places have become hallowed because of their roles in narratives. Places such as Jerusalem and Mecca are physical locations with metaphysical import, and so people are prepared to die for them.
These brief comments about the presence of language and its implications in Mediterranean theology may provide a useful context for some comments about the absence of language in Buddhism, and its consequences.
Since Buddhism lacks a belief in the primordial nature of the word, Buddhism also lacks a cosmic narrative about the origin of suffering. Buddha said, simply and starkly, “Suffering exists.” (Sometimes this word is translated is “ill-being.”) What Buddha did not do, and what no Buddhist priest has done, is to use words to explain the origin of suffering. Suffering exists, and that is all there is to be said about it.
Thus, what remains is the question that really matters: What can we do about suffering? It is in large part this emphasis on doing, on daily practice, that has attracted so many American to Buddhism in the last twenty-five years or so. We American like to think that we are a pragmatic nation, so we want to fix things that disturb and upset us. “Just do it,” as the Nike ads say.
In this sense, Mediterranean religions, which use words to create doctrine and narrative, seem more intellectual, more abstract, than Buddhism. We might think of the key difference between practicing the Mediterranean religions and practicing Buddhism as the difference between taking algebra and taking a foreign language in high school. The purpose of algebra, like that of verbal theology, is to obtain answers. To be sure, these answers may be complex, and often unclear, but in principle, many Christians can give coherent answers to key questions such as, “What do you believe about sin and salvation?” Christian denominations often include a recitation of their credo as part of the worship service.
By contrast, Buddhist practice is more like learning a foreign language; since there are no questions and thus no answers, it requires patience and discipline. When one begins studying a foreign language, one speaks slowly and awkwardly at first, with poor pronunciation and limited vocabulary. Only by daily practice does the new language become as habitual as one’s native language. Moreover, in order to achieve fluency in a language-and not just pass a test-one must make the language a part of the way one understands the world. The ability to speak a foreign language comes slowly, and once, acquired, must be maintained with daily practice.
Thus, Buddhism is a religion of practice, and not a religion of belief, for there is very little to believe in-at least very little that can be stated in words. Buddhism has no doctrine, no divinely inspired scripture, and thus no hallowed place that was the site of the narrative, and for which people are prepared to die. (To be sure, Tibetan Buddhists want to return to Tibet, but that is a natural desire on the part of people who wish to return to their homeland.)
Speaking of dying, the matter of religious suicide provides an instructive contrast between Buddhism and Islam. In the sixties, Buddhist priests in Vietnam set themselves on fire as an ultimate form of protest. Nowadays, in a practice that has become all too familiar in the Middle East, Muslims also commit suicide. But their religion is a religion of the word, and that word has been used to create a narrative that takes place in the particular place. For them, suicide is not solely a personal act, but rather one that they use to kill others as part of their ongoing, violent dispute about a particular place-a place that has been endowed with meaning by a particular narrative.
Although pragmatic Americans are attracted to Buddhism as a religion of practice, rather than theology, they sometimes have second thoughts when they realize what this means. Since everybody has the same twenty-four hours in the day, what people do with those twenty-four hours is to some extent a matter of choice. But without a narrative of justification, it sometimes makes people feel uncomfortable to acknowledge the consequences of their daily, habitual choices. And uncomfortable people often construe the new in terms of the old. They impose a series of “Thou Shalts” and “I Shoulds” onto Buddhism, as in “I know I should meditate and do yoga,” they say, “But there is no time.”
It is here that Americans encounter the tension between what the contemporary vernacular calls “talking the talk” and “walking the walk.” Like President Bush’s secularization of the biblical concept of testing, this tension is an adaptation of the tension between god and sinners that pervades Mediterranean religions.
Buddhism, however, is empty of such tensions. What, then, does practice mean? Without the tensions and contradictions of narratives (“I can’t do that because…”), Buddhism says that whatever it is that you do-what it is that you always have time for-that is your practice. No one can do the work of spiritual practice for you; but when you do it, everyone benefits. Pragmatic religion that it is, Buddhism tells practitioners to “Start Where You Are,” to cite the title of a book by Pema Chödrön.
The title of another book, this one by Gary Thorp, also emphasizes the pragmatic nature of Buddhism. It’s called “Sweeping Changes,” and it’s not about large-scale changes, as you might think. He means the title literally; it’s about the changes that occur while you are sweeping the floor. As Thorp puts it so well, “The purpose of practicing Zen is not to experience, in future, some wonderfully extraordinary event [ the unfolding of a divine narrative, for example], but to realize that each moment of life is unique and extraordinary, and that each of us is both quite ordinary and most miraculous.” Thus, sweeping the floor-not to mention cleaning the toilets, as Zen masters do-is as high a practice as anything else, when done with consciousness.
Precisely because of its emptiness, Buddhism is only what Buddhists have made of it, and over the several millennia of its existence, men who have achieved high positions have abused their authority, suppressed women, and held racist attitudes. The difference between what these men have done, and continue to do, and what their counterparts in Mediterranean religions have done when they committed similar abuses, is this: Without a narrative that justifies patriarchal authority, Buddhists cannot justify what they do by saying “It is the will of God” or “It is the will of Allah.”
Narratives of patriarchal authority provide a key to the history of religions, because over the centuries, narratives become solidified into institutional practices. These institutional practices then take on a life of their own, quasi-independently of the claims to divine inspiration that justify them. It is to the everlasting credit of Danish theologian Søren Kierkegaard that he was the first major thinker to understand and state this issue. Kierkegaard distinguished between “Christianity” (the belief system) and “Christendom” (the institution). The ongoing crisis currently gripping the Catholic Church in America, for which there is no end in sight, shows how powerful the consequences of incorporating a narrative into an institution really are.
When Marshall McLuhan coined the term “global village,” he did not know how prescient it was-or that the globe’s ancient hatreds and rivalries would ever become so much a part of our daily experience. Village violence now threatens us all. In such an environment, we will do well to understand the world in terms of large-scale systems, rather than individual personalities and fallibilities. One way of doing that is to ponder the implications of a single principle, such as a religion’s concept of language. When it comes to language, it is the emptiness of Buddhism that helps us to understand the fullness of Mediterranean religions-and vice versa.