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.
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