With the arrogance of youth, I determined to do no less than to transform the world with Beauty. If I have succeeded in some small way, if only in one small corner of the world, amongst the men and women I love, then I shall count myself blessed, and blessed, and blessed, and the work goes on. -- William Morris

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Show Me Your Original Face

“Before you were born, what was your original face?”

St Maximos the Confessor earned his place in history by the suffering and persecution he endured for his commitment to an orthodox Christology. Pious tradition says that when his tongue was cut out of his mouth, he was still capable of speaking, to the horror of his tormentors. Certainly the humble acceptance he had of his fate and the charitable response he gave to his opponents more than made up for the loss of his tongue, enabling his words to be spread far and wide.

For many today, it might seem that the debate St Maximos had with the leaders of Byzantium was insignificant and maybe even petty. St Maximos tells us that because the Logos assumed human flesh and made it his own, Jesus Christ has two wills and two energies to act upon those wills. His opponents, as for example Patriarch Pyrhhus, accused him of heresy and said that Jesus had only one will.

What does it matter to us if Jesus Christ had two wills or one? According to St Maximos, the very humanity of Christ was at stake. Did he truly incarnate himself or was it all a sham? How are we to see the actions Jesus did in his life? When he ate like a man, when he walked around like a man, when he prayed to the Father like a man – he acted like a man. These are perfectly fine human actions, and it makes sense for us to say that Jesus therefore was acting like the man he is. If there was no human will in Christ, then all these actions would be willed according to the divinity, acted out by the divine, and it would indicate some odd things about God as God – that God, for example, wills to eat, or, because Jesus slept, God wills to sleep.

As the Logos, as God, Jesus willed in accordance to his divinity. He never stopped being God: he never stopped willing and sustaining creation as God. Just as it would be foolish for us to see the divinity as willing to eat, it would be foolish to see the humanity as sustaining creation.

However, the question gains its importance and relevance to us when we look at the way people will. It seems that we will and act according to who we are as persons. How can we say Jesus wills as human and as God, without also saying Jesus is therefore willing as two separate persons? Do we divide Jesus and make him two? That, to be sure, was what his opponents claimed would be the result of his Christology. Since the Council of Ephesus taught that Jesus was only one person, it would seem St Maximos was contradicting the dogmatic theology of the Church.

St Maximos has a rather ingenious answer to this question, and his answer leaves itself open as a place a Christian could engage Buddhist thought on the question of human nature, that is, on the question of our “original face” before we are born.

The way we normally will is a fallen mode of willing – we have to deliberate, to reason out and decide upon that which we will or will not do. According to St Maximos, this is a gnomic mode of willing. We act according to our personal desires as modified by and dependent upon what we know and how we think we should best achieve what we want by our limited knowledge. It is the way we will as a result of the fall, and because it is normative to our experiences, we confuse this fallen mode of willing as being how we should normally will. St Maximos proposes this gnomic mode of willing as being over and against a natural mode of willing. This natural mode of willing is when we act out only according to our nature, and follow our nature in its pristine purity. “It belongs to nature itself that its purposes should be fulfilled. A lack of realization does not affect this purpose as such, but human self-determination is certainly divided against itself,” Lars Thunberg. Microcosm and Mediator: The Theological Anthropology of Maximus the Confessor. Second Edition (Chicago: Open Court, 1995), p.217. St Maximos’ opponents confused our present mode of willing to be the proper way we should will, and therefore misjudged what it meant to have two wills in Christ. Interestingly enough, St Maximos suggests that if the only mode of willing was according to the person then there would not be one but three wills in God, because there are three divine persons (cf. St Maximos, Opuscule 3; 52A-53C).

In St Maximoseschatological vision, persons will overcome this gnomic mode of willing and will act according to their real nature, purified from any personal defilements imposed upon that nature. Christ in his perfect humanity does not act according to a gnomic, questioning, deliberating, constructive consciousness. When we move from our fallen state of being to our original state of being, when we recover our pure nature, we shall be like him, and his humanity becomes the exemplar for what humanity is in and of itself.

Virtues are, by their nature, natural; when we act according to nature, we will be virtuous; when we act contrary to it through our gnomic mode of willing, then vice can thrive. When asked why we do not all show the same virtue if virtue is natural, St Maximos says, “Because we do not all practice what is natural to us to an equal degree; indeed, if we [all] practiced equally [those virtues] natural to us as we were created to do, then one would be able to perceive one virtue in us all, just as there is one nature [in us all], and that ‘one virtue’ would not admit of a ‘more’ or ‘less’,” St Maximos. The Disputation with Pyrhhus Of Our Father Among the Saints Maximus the Confessor. Trans. Joseph P. Farrell. (n.p.: St Tikhon’s Seminary Press, n.d.), p. 33.

How do we return to our original nature? “Asceticism and the toils that go with it, was devised simply in order to ward of deception, which established itself through sensory perceptions. It is not [as if] the virtues have been newly introduced from outside, for they inhere in us from creation, as hath been said. Therefore, when deception is completely expelled, the soul immediately exhibits the splendor of its natural virtue […] Just as when rust is removed the natural clarity and glint of iron [are manifest].” Ibid., p.33-4.One can state that St Maximos’ answer as a monastic response. However, we must remember that the monastic endeavor was in itself an attempt to live out in our present life the transformation needed for our entrance into heaven. We need to purify ourselves, return to who we really are, not who we think we are, or who we try to make ourselves to be by turning our individual personality against our internal nature. We must lose our selves if we want to gain eternal life.

In Mahayana Buddhism, we find a similar notion under the category of the “Buddha nature.” This idea suggests that all sentient creatures contain within them the seed for enlightenment. The reason for this is simple: all sentient creatures are, at their core, already an enlightened one, already a Buddha. Our nature is to be a Buddha. However, we have defiled our nature, and the path to enlightenment is seen as the purification of those defilements over our Buddha nature.

Just like a Buddha in a decaying lotus, honey amidst bees,
a grain in its husk, gold in filth, a treasure underground,
a shoot and so on sprouting from a little fruit,
a statue of the Victorious One in a tattered rag,
a ruler of mankind in a destitute woman’s womb,
and a precious image under [a layer of] clay,
this [Buddha] element abides within all sentient beings,
obscured by the defilement of the adventitious poisons. Uttaratantra Shastra. Trans. Rosemarie Fuchs (Ithaca, New York: Snow Lion Publications, 2000), p.32.

This notion of the Buddha Nature was a popularized vision for Buddhism. It presented through analogies the core insight of Mahayana Buddhism. It takes equally from Madhyamika and Yogacara, though it is usually associated with Yogacara. In fact, some traditions classify the Uttaratantra text being dictated to Asanga by Maitreya, the founder of Yogacara Buddhism.

Anthropologically, we can see what it says is similar to what St Maximos is trying to tell us. We live in a defiled mode of existence. We can analyze this a bit further, and find even more agreement between this view with the thought of St Maximos, if we follow a Yogacarin insight: our consciousness itself is the cause for those defilements. Our consciousness, in a state of ignorance, creates the means by which we interpret the world in a defiled way. However, because of this ignorance, the way we act will not be pure, but defiled. We find St Maximos saying similarly, “humankind has brought into being from itself the three greatest, primordial evils, and (to speak simply), the begetters of all vice: ignorance, I mean, and self-love and tyranny, which are interdependent and established through one another.” St Maximos, “Letter 2.” In Maximus the Confessor. Trans and Introduced by Andrew Louth (London: Routledge, 1996), p.87 (Letter 2; 397A).

Yogacara can show this by how two (or more) people would react to a corpse differently: a husband seeing the dead body of his dearly beloved wife would feel grief; someone who hated her and wanted her dead, for whatever reason, would feel elated. A hungry dog might see the corpse as food.

Yogacara wants us to understand the way we act, the way we experience the world, not only is dependent upon our consciousness, but our consciousness is transformed by what we think about, by what we do. As our habits and concepts are created by our experiences, our experiences are understood only by the concepts and habits we have developed. One generates the other in a continuous loop.

Zen Buddhist thought takes this into consideration as it tries to open us up to our original nature. It says the way we are to do this is to transcend all thoughts and concepts which we now have and to experience reality as it truly is. While philosophical debates are not rejected by Zen, the tradition wants, in our moments of meditation, to reflect upon such things which break open our consciousness, to let in an experience of ourselves as we truly are, to let in an experience of the world as it truly is. What is our true face before we were born? This is a question of our nature, a question of who we were “before” we became trapped in a defiled realm of experience.

Joshu asked Nansen, “What is the Way?” “Ordinary mind is the Way,” Nansen replied. “Shall I try to seek after it?” Joshu asked. “If you try for it, you will become separated from it,” responded Nansen. “How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” persisted Joshu. Nansen said, “The Way is not a matter of knowing or not knowing. Knowing is a delusion; not knowing is confusion. When you have reached the true Way beyond doubt, you will find it as vast and boundless as outer space. How can it be talked about on the level of right and wrong?” With those words, Joshu came to a sudden realization. – Katsuki Sekida. Two Zen Classics: The Gateless Gate and The Blue Cliff Records (Boston: Shambhala, 1995), p.73.

The way is a way of ordinary mind, that is, the way of the mind as it truly is when it is undefiled. Christians see Jesus Christ as the exemplar of what it means to be human -- in his humanity, he is not supramundane; instead, the way we live and act is sub-par. “How can I know the Way unless I try for it?” Do not try, do. The way is not by knowing, not by dialect and debate, but it is not ignorance either, it is not the confusion of not knowing. It is rather unknowing, transcending the defiled ways of thought into pure experience of how things are as they really are. We must realize that what we see is not what we get as long as we place our own mental constructions over reality. We need to see mountains are not identical to the ideas we have of the mountains, but that they are what they are in themselves. Concepts establish and reveal things in a way less than they actually are. Knowledge, as it is normally understood, is the accumulation of all such concepts, and therefore will only end up in ignorance.

Buddhism, however, does make it clear – however useful meditation is, and indeed it is necessary, it is incapable of itself to overcome this false perception of the world. It provides a place where this experience could be had, but this direct experience can only be encountered by an undefiled mind, and this means, we must work to correct and overcome whatever defilements we might have. If our Buddha Nature is like a gold statue encased in mud, we must wash off that mud. Like St Maximos, Buddhism understands that we must acquire the virtues and act in a way which creates the habits that overcome and counteract whatever habitual vices we have. In a Zen monastery, this includes ritual practice, and even diligent study over the classics of Buddhist thought. We must not confuse a Western notion of Zen with the way Zen is acted out in its proper place. While the goal is an awareness by which we can live and experience the world as it truly is beyond concepts and therefore live with a sense of freedom, this goal must not be confused with the path which gets to the goal.

While St Maximos’ insight on the two wills of Christ might seem at first to be of secondary importance, nonetheless it opens up a subtle and yet powerful discussion on human nature and who and what we actually are. As he does this, he opens up a way in which Christians can interact with Buddhism, and it can help to show us how the Buddhist goal shares at least this in common with Christians, that is, a desire to empty ourselves of all our defilements so we can return to who we are “beyond” those defilements.

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