+JMJ+ Welcome to part 23 of our weekly series on the soul. When I was a Buddhist, I could never quite accept the teachings on the soul, or, rather, the lack thereof. Not lack of teachings, but the teachings on the lack of a soul. Hinduism, in general, teaches that there is an atman (soul). Buddhism, in all branches with which I’m familiar, teaches that there is anatman (no soul).
And by the way, neither of these ideas are exactly what Catholic Christians mean by the soul. But this not a treatise or dissertation on the subject but only some thoughts I have, thinking back on my past studies when I was trying to find my way, before I discovered The Way, or The Way reached out to me as I stumbled along and set my feet on a different path. (Because of this reflecting on the thoughts and ways of my past, this post could also be part of the A Few Words and Anotha Cuppa series.)
For all that he was able to free himself from the confines of Hindu religion and philosophy, the Buddha never quite freed himself from that matrix of Hinduism. It’s as if he thought that if there were an ultimate God, then he should be able to meditate (see note 1) his way to that God. Long ago in some Buddhist text or another (see notes 2 and 3) I read that meditators peeled away the layers of the mind, of the self, like the layers of an onion, and when they got to the center, where they would have expected to find The Self, and ultimately God, they found…nothing. (See note 4.) And this was taken to mean that there is no God there, so there is no God anywhere, because if there had been a God to find, then in this way they surely would have found Him.
But is this the case? Is that how we could reasonably expect to find God? We can, indeed, use our reason to know things about God. But we can never reason our way into finding Him or directly knowing Him. He must reveal Himself to us for us to have personal direct knowledge of Him. We know God is a Person and we cannot know another person, Divine or otherwise, without that person revealing himself to us. We can see that in our own relationships in our everyday life. How much moreso is it true of God Himself? Is it hubris to expect to meditate our way to Him without Him having any part in the process? Or is it ignorance? And by this ignorance I only mean the lack of a certain kind of knowledge about God. The Buddha certainly wasn’t ignorant in a general sense but he was ignorant of this, of realizing that God is real even though He can’t be known by our reason alone.
The Buddha did well to reach toward freedom, to break free of the soul-killing chains of the caste system, to want to offer his teachings to anyone regardless of anyone’s station in life or circumstances of birth. He did well to reach toward Nirvana, to want to be free from the winds of desire, to no longer be blown about by this passionate whim or that. But the Buddha had to reach toward all of this with human arms, and human arms can only reach so far and no further. God’s arms are infinitely long and can reach anywhere and everywhere, to the furthest of the far-flung galaxies to the tiniest subatomic particle (or wave). Nothing and no one is beyond the reach of God, or beyond His love and care, or judgment or mercy, either.
After preaching and teaching people about the non-existence of the atman, the self or soul, and the non-existence of an ultimate God (other than certain beings who might enjoy a temporary existence in some sort of state higher than what we humans experience here in our everyday lives), the Buddha finally lay down and closed his eyes for the last time, I wonder what went through his mind when his body and soul were separated at death, in that moment when at last the Buddha met the Lord.
Thank you for visiting and reading. Until next time, whoever and wherever you are, please stay safe and well, and may the Lord bless and keep you and yours, and may His peace be always with you. +JMJ+
Notes and Links
- It’s easy to forget that the word in Hindu and Buddhist texts translated as “meditation” does not represent the same concept as our Catholic Christian notion of meditation. The concepts and the languages are so different and I don’t mean just between English and Sanskrit or Pali. I mean the Catholic Christian theological language, the theology itself, is so different from Hindu and Buddhist teaching in all their branches that it can take a long time to begin to appreciate just how different they are. Acquiring an understanding of the terminology and the thought behind it took me years of trying and I never even tried to learn the actual languages involved. When you hear someone who doesn’t make distinctions about this, you’re hearing someone talk about something he barely understands, if he understands at all.
- I think it was Glimpses of Abhidharma: From a Seminar on Buddhist Psychology, by Chogyam Trungpa, but it could have been a different one. I read a few of his, and about Buddhism in general almost exclusively for some years. But I threw away my Buddhist and Hindu books in 2008 (the ones I didn’t lose by moving across country several years earlier) and I don’t want to spend the time or money to acquire them again.
- I’m not going to give my affiliate link to the book, Glimpses of Abhidharma, because I don’t want to promote it or make any profit from the sale of it or any other Buddhist or Hindu text.
- I don’t remember now the exact words used but this is the general gist of what I read. I may have to get a used copy or read one in a library to find that quote. When I find it, I’ll add a note to this post. I’ll be writing more about this as the series continues. It’s important to understand these differences in our multicultural world, so heavily influenced by the “New Age” and Eastern philosophies and religions, mostly vastly misunderstood and certainly and awfully misrepresented.
Image: Vendimian of Bythinia, Menologion of Basil II, from Wikimedia Commons, public domain. The meditation he’s doing is not what a Buddhist meditator does. Not the same thing at all, no matter what the uninformed may say. And if a Christian does do the same kind of meditation that a Buddhist does, he is not doing Christian meditation. Period. More about Vendimian of Bythinia.