Wednesday, January 25, 2006

How the "Heart Sutra" Speaks to "Attachment" in Religion

As I've said before, I firmly believe that one of the main causes of the so-called Culture War is our tendency to become attached to our ideas about God. We, believeing that we have unravelled the great mystery of existence, impose our ideas on others, creating doctrinal conflict.

This problem is not unique to Christianity, but because of the Christian tendency to emphasize orthodoxy (right belief) over orthopraxy (right conduct), it is particularly pronounced in Christianity.

We Christians can learn a great deal from the way in which other religions approach doctrinal issues. Buddhism in general, and Zen Buddhism in particular provide us with an excellent model. Here are some comments I put together on an ancient text, The Heart Sutra, which is extremely important in the Zen Buddhist tradition:

One of the main focuses of Prajnaparamita (Perfection of Wisdom) sutras, such as the Prajnaparamita Hridaya Sutra (the Heart Sutra) is the elimination of all attachments. This obviously entails all physical things, and that is easy to accept. My craving to possess and control material objects is empty. The material objects themselves are empty. In fact, I am empty. All of my cravings are empty. Everything that I crave, or could crave is empty.

This emptiness, however, extends far beyond the material; far beyond the physical. Ideas are empty. Ideas about ideas are empty. Religious or spiritual ideas – even those religious or spiritual ideas which seem to be in some way “helpful” – are empty. Even notions about emptiness are empty. One should not be attached to anything, or nothing, because anything and nothing are empty.

The Heart Sutra, as translated by Thich Nhat Hanh, says that even “all dharmas are marked with emptiness.” Even Buddhadharma (the teachings of the Buddha) is empty. One should not cling to it, or be attached to it in any way.

This notion of the emptiness of even Buddhadharma seems at first to be self-defeating. The Western mind wants to object; to say that, if notions of emptiness are empty, then there is no ground on which to affirm emptiness. If there is no ground on which to affirm emptiness, then how do we know that all things are empty? But that assumes that emptiness is an idea to be affirmed or rejected. That assumes that the value of Buddhism is contained in abstract ideas divorced – or divorceable – from practice. But Buddhism is not an abstract philosophy. No, it is a spiritually and psychologically meaningful, helpful, and experienceable practice. And, in practice, the notion of emptiness, even the emptiness of the teachings of the Buddha or any other form of spiritual or religious teaching, is not only helpful; it is necessary.

As someone begins to experience a religious path, there is a notion of accomplishment; of attainment. Their religious or spiritual practice often separates them from “other” people. Sets them apart. Makes them different, better, more enlightened. But such feelings of accomplishment; such feelings of attainment, cripple the spiritual life. This notion of attainment also leads to a feeling that their religious expression is the “right” one, and all other religious expressions are “wrong.” As such, it can lead to dogmatism and exclusivism. Those lead to attachments and aversions. One becomes attached to his or her point of view, and rejects all others. But the goal of Buddhism is to eliminate attachments.

Attachments need to be eliminated for both practical and theoretical reasons. Theoretically, attachment to a particular kind of belief or perspective is an illusion, because all such beliefs come out of ignorance and pertain to things about which one cannot know. Practically, attachments lead to unhealthy psychological states and harm relationships. They also limit people, because as soon as you attach yourself to a particular point of view you are incapable of seeing the flaws in that point of view, nor are you capable of truly seeing other points of view, and thus overcoming your limited vantage point.

But, even Buddhists are tempted to become attached. And, even Buddhists are tempted to become attached to particular religious or spiritual teachings. This is particularly true of Buddhists who have “advanced” somewhat. They know the teachings, the dharma of the Buddha. They have seen how much those teachings have helped them. They, then, cling to those teachings, and so, while seeking to shed all attachments, merely replace one set of attachments for another.

And so, “all dharmas are marked with emptiness.” They must be, because, if they are not empty, then they are objects to which one could become attached. They are empty, and should be treated as being empty. And, because they are empty, following them is not a kind of attainment, because there is no attainment. “Because there is no attainment, the bodhisattvas, supported by the Perfection of Understanding (that is, the understanding that all things, even Buddhadharma, are empty) find no obstacles for their minds.”

The notion that all things – even all dharmas – are empty eliminates all mental obstacles. It understands that even the teaching of the Buddha is an artificial mental construct, and should not be the object of attachment.


Brian Beech said...

I do think that what I believe is correct. I think that if you believe in something that you think is flawed you lose much of what that belief entails. Having said that, I do not believe that I know everything about God, the Bible, or have all the answers. But, I do believe a certain way because of certain reasons and signs or writings that I believe are of God.

Do I think people that do not believe like me are wrong? To a certain extent I would have to say yes. I think that someone who worships satan has really missed the boat. I think I would really be missing the life and blessings of being a Christian if I assumed that everyone else, such as Buddhists and Muslims, could be just as correct as I believe I am. If I had that thought pattern I think I would have trouble giving myself to God and accepting his blessings. I say that because your post made me feel like we shouldn’t assume we are correct and others are wrong. But, I think when we believe a certain way it is because we think it is correct. I don’t know anyone ‘believes’ something that they don’t really think is the right thing. Ex. I believe Jesus is the only way to Heaven, but a Buddhist may be able to get there some other way.

I think certain things we must stand hard on. The example above is one that we as Christians can not push to the wayside. One of the reasons we are here is to win souls to Jesus. If we believe that we must preach that.

If you were using the post to show that Christians as a whole tend to condescend to others and put them down, I would say that is more common than not. If you were using it to show that Christians tend to push people away with attitudes of superiority or infinite knowledge, I would say that happens quite often. But, I think we must stand strong on principals and the teachings of Jesus and the Word of God. This doesn’t mean I think we should act as if we know everything, we obviously do not, but it is important for us to teach/live what we believe is right. To have an ‘accept everybody’s view’ outlook is very nice and would make many people feel comfortable and happy, but I think we would be short changing them to not tell them what we know to be the truth.

Sandalstraps said...

The problem with that kind of absolutism is that there is no way to mediate between competeing claims of absolute truth. Of course, most absolutist have no desire to mediate between competeing claims. In general (and I'm not saying this is true of you, Brian) they merely desire to convert the entire world to their point of view by any means necessary. That is why there is such a history of violence in Western, monotheistic religion (particularly Christianity and Islam).

Not all forms of religion center around belief as the ultimate concern of religion. Buddhism, for instance, is not at all about belief. There is no real set of Buddhist beliefs (as you could probably guess from my post). Rather, Buddhism is about practice. The practice is the center of the religion, and the practice is the means by which one becomes Enlightened, and, as such, experiences and shares an end of suffering - which is the ultimate goal of Buddhism.

Christianity, however, has long been a doctrinal religion, with orthodoxy (right belief) as the ground on which one is saved. We pay lip service to grace, but as grace is often (in our views) obtained not really by "faith" (as scripture says) but by belief (which is how we too often define faith anyway) even that grace (which should be universal, based on the saving work of Christ) depends on our belief.

This is not the essence of Christianity, but a historical development within Christianity which - while it has served some constructive purposes - has distorted the Gospel (the "Good News") of Jesus, which entailed far more practice that belief.

Christ is not the Creed, but the Way. Christ is not a set of statements about God, but rather a spiritual path to God (which while "spiritual" entails all of the physical faculties, and does not devalue the body!).

As such, when we say that we "believe in Christ" we are not saying, in the end, that we hold certain statements about Christ to be absolutely true (in the "I'm right so if you disagree with me you must be wrong" sense). We are instead saying that we believe that the path of Jesus is the path to God (and perhaps not "the" in an absolute sense either, as there may be more than one path to God).

So what I'm really saying is that belief is not the fundamental concern of the Christian religion - or, at least, it shouldn't be. Brian, you are right (in general) when you say that when people believe something they (almost by definition of "belief") think that they are right. But, of course, as my Mom used to tell me, "You can believe whatever you want - that doesn't make you right!"