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

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Four Noble Truths and St Maximos the Confessor

Fundamental to Buddhism is the teaching of the Four Noble Truths. “The Four Noble Truths are the very foundation of the Buddhist teaching, and that is why they are so important. In fact, if you don’t understand the Four Noble Truths, and if you have not experienced the truth of this teaching personally, it is impossible to practice the Buddha Dharma.” The Dalai Lama, The Four Noble Truths. Trans. Geshe Thupten Jinpa (London: Thorsons, 1997), p.1

For a Christian such as myself interested in Comparative Theology, an important theological work could be done by offering an analysis of the Four Noble Truths and showing how they can be adapted for Christian thought. Is this at all possible? To answer this question, we must look at the Four Noble Truths, see what it is they teach, and then see if we can find something comparable within Christian theology.

For the sake of this inquiry, the exploration of the Four Noble Truths will be brief, partial, and will focus on the Pali Canon without an analysis of the major differences that differentiate Theravada Buddhism from other Buddhist traditions. Certainly elements of what I say here will be rejected by one school of thought or another within Buddhism, but I would expect members of those traditions would at least understand the conventions being used here. After looking at Buddhist thought. we will look at some writings of St Maximos the Confessor, whose theological teachings I think offer a place where dialogue between the two world religions can take place.

Sometimes one finds each of the Four Noble Truths designated by its own word: Dukkha, the truth of suffering; Samudaya, the truth of the origin of suffering; Nirodha, the truth of the cessation of suffering; Magga, the path which we need to follow to attain the cessation of suffering.

The truth of dukkha is the truth of suffering, that is, the truth that in life we will suffer, and the life that we live is unsatisfactory. This is not a denial of happiness or pleasure, but it is an understanding that happiness and pleasures are fleeting: they are impermanent. “’[Life in] any world is unstable, it is swept away.” The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha. Trans. Bhikku Nanamoli and Bhikku Bodhi (Boston, Wisdom: 1995), 686 (MN 82.36 – note, as a secondary reference, I will indicate the dialogue source, number and section in parenthesis).

In the First Noble Truth, Siddhartha is offering us a diagnosis. All throughout life we suffer: from birth to death, we live in the midst of our own suffering. “And what, friends, is the noble truth of suffering? Birth is suffering; ageing is suffering; death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; not to obtain what one wants is suffering; in short, the five aggregates affected by clinging are suffering.” Ibid. p.1098 (MN 141.11).

According to Buddhist teaching, five aggregates – that is, the material body, feelings, perceptions, volitional impulses and emotions, and consciousness, are used to indicate the basic makeup of human existence. When combined together, they are conventionally seen as the self, but they are in themselves in constant flux, moving and interacting with each other – and the world at large. This is at the core of the Buddhist teaching of anatman, that is, there is no unchanging, uncaused, unconditioned, permanent, and therefore no eternal, self which exists within a human person. The self is radically contingent.

This leads us to the Second Noble Truth – the explanation for suffering. In his analysis of life, Siddhartha does not want us to end up hating life and commit suicide, nor does he want us to end up as nihilists (to do so would be a great error, and has terrible consequences); rather, he wants us to understand the situation we find ourselves in life. Suffering is conditioned, and if it is conditioned, it can be overcome.

The Second Noble Truth is best understood by the teaching of Dependent Origination. All phenomena are conditioned, which means all phenomena have an origin, and all phenomena have an end. For every Y, there is an X which caused it. If we do not want Y, we must find a way to eliminate X.

In the discourse literature, Siddhartha offers many analyses on suffering. Central to them is the fact that we are clinging to and craving for things which are impermanent. What we desire can only offer a fleeting joy, and when we get what we desire, we wish that joy we felt would last forever. It does not. We end up feeling empty and unsatisfied and wanting something else instead. If we do not obtain it, we are obviously not satisfied. Thus, whether or not we obtain what we desire, our desire leads to an unsatisfactory end:

It is that craving gives rise to rebirth, bound up with pleasure and lust, finding fresh delight now here, now there: that is to say sensual craving, craving for existence, and craving for non-existence.

And where does this craving arise and establish itself? Wherever in the world there is anything agreeable and pleasurable, there this craving arises and establishes itself. The Long Discourses of the Buddha . Trans. Maurice Walshe (Boston: Wisdom, 1995), 346 (DN 22:19).

Our desires and passions become disordered and are the base for our suffering, because we do not know how to give them up. We might be able to give up one desire and replace it for another, but that does not change the fact, that whatever we desire will not meet our expectations and will only leave us wanting something new, something more.

There are many things we can crave, but one fundamental craving which causes a subtle disquiet with life, is a craving for an eternal, non-conditioned self. Even if we know we are conditioned beings, we do not act like it: our pride leads us to make more of ourselves than we really are. When we abuse others, it comes from a subtle misunderstanding of our place in the world. We justify ourselves based upon a misappropriation of our self-worth, thinking we are greater than others, and whatever slight which causes us to react is seen as a slight against our very self. Pride, greed, and hate are all indications of this fatal flaw – to put in Christian terms, they are indications of an attempt to place ourselves on an equal footing with the Creator instead of seeing ourselves as creature.

If all phenomena have a condition, it is also true that our craving itself has a cause. Our actions create the suffering we experience. The law of karma is the law that right actions will provide happiness, and wrong actions will create our own misery. Siddhartha suggested a looped sequence of twelve steps, the twelve links of Dependent Origination, which is used to further explain the origin of suffering. That is, Siddhartha understood suffering not only to be caused, but to help cause its own continuation by our reaction to it, providing for more clinging, and it is capable of reiterating itself into a never-ending cycle of suffering. While we will not explore them here, Siddhartha believed that there is one link in the chain of suffering weaker than the rest, and the one which we should focus on: ignorance. If we understood reality properly, we would know the consequences of our actions, and we would act skillfully so as not to create the conditions which cause our suffering.

This leads us to the Third Noble Truth. It is the Noble Truth of Nirvana, the truth that suffering can be extinguished. Nirvana transcends the temporal world. The temporal world is a world in flux, a world of suffering: all of these things Nirvana is not. Nirvana transcends all possible conception we could have of it, and yet, by way of analogy, it can be described as the extreme bliss we desire. Moreover, following that analogy, unlike earthly things, Nirvana is uncaused, unchanging, and eternal, therefore, it is actually capable of fulfilling our desire.

The Fourth Noble Truth is the Truth of the Path – what it is we are to do to obtain Nirvana. Realizing that Nirvana is itself uncaused, this path should not be understood as creating Nirvana, but just the way to reach it, just like a road which leads to a mountain does not create the mountain itself. The path is called the Eightfold Noble Path, and requires us to follow through with right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration to finally reach Nirvana. When they are brought together and put into practice, they can lead us to Nirvana, the cessation of suffering. It is something we can do and accomplish by ourselves. Indeed, others might show us the way, but they cannot take us there.

What can a Christian make of all of these ideas? First and foremost, we must not instantly reject all that Siddhartha said just because he is the founder of a non-Christian religion. That would be foolhardy. Indeed, we must recognize there are many fundamental truths being portrayed here. Even something which is seemingly foreign like the law of karma might not be as foreign as we might think. Pope Benedict XVI rightfully understood this point when he wrote:

First, we can ask whether a human being can be said to have reached his fulfillment and destiny so long as others suffer on account of him, so long as the guilt whose source he is persists on earth and brings pain to other people. In its own way, the doctrine of karma in Hindu and Buddhist teaching systematized this fundamental human insight, though it also coarsened it. Nevertheless, it expresses an awareness which an anthropology of relationship would be wrong to deny. The guilt which goes on because of me is a part of me. Reaching as it does deep into me, it is a part of my permanent abandonment to time, whereby human beings really do continue to suffer on my account and which therefore, still affects me. --Joseph Ratzinger. Dogmatic Theology: Eschatology. Trans. Michael Waldstein (Washington, D.C.: CUA Press, 1988), p.187.

The law of karma is something Christians can engage. Certainly there are many questions a Christian should raise about it, like how does one deal with the concept of reincarnation. Yet these questions should not stop us from learning from the concept of karma. Christians gained quite a bit from Greek thought and thinkers, despite Hellenistic acceptance of reincarnation. While the question of reincarnation is not our concern here, perhaps one could look further at the Buddhist concept of anatman, and consider whether or not it might offer a way reincarnation could be reinterpreted in a way which follows the fundamental Christian belief of the uniqueness of each human life.

It is Siddhartha’s emphasis on suffering, and its causation, that is the central concern of this essay. Perhaps it is from his similar monastic background, but St Maximos the Confessor’s writings seem to raise the same questions about suffering and its origin that are behind the Four Noble Truths. His answers, moreover, have much in common with Siddhartha’s analysis, and offer a place where the two religious traditions can have a fruitful dialogue with one another. Moreover, he takes his answer and uses it to create an interesting Christological point, offering us a new way to understand the incarnation of Jesus.

First, we find him stating the origin of pain and death lies in our inordinate use of pleasure. “Because of the meaningless pleasure which invaded human nature, a purposive pain, in the form of multiple sufferings, also gained entrance. It is in and from these sufferings that death takes its origin.” St Maximos the Confessor, “Fourth Century of Various Texts” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Two. Trans. by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London, Faber and Faber: 1990), p.244.

We were meant to long for God, who transcended all earthly things, but instead, we transferred this longing to the created world, idolizing it. “But on his creation the first man, through an initial movement towards sensible objects, transferred this longing to his senses, and through them began to experience pleasure in a way which is contrary to nature. Whereupon God in His providential care for our salvation implanted pain in us as a kind of chastising force; and so through pain the law of death was wisely rooted in the body, thus setting limits to the intellect’s manic longing, directed, in a manner contrary to nature, towards sensible objects.” Ibid, p.243.

We might want to explore what is being said here a bit further. We were meant for communion with God, and only that communion provides for satisfaction. God is unchanging, transcendent, eternal, and therefore, communion with God can fully provide for that which we long for, it can provide that happiness which we seek. However, in our ignorance, we turned from God and to the senses, to the delights of the world, raising them above their proper place (they are indeed good, they are indeed beautiful, but by placing our longing into them, we try to make them something they are not. When we do not get what we are seeking out of them, pain is the reminder that what we seek can only be found in something greater. That is, it is a reminder that we seek God).

Pleasure for Maximos is the acquisition of what we desire. He does not say pleasure of itself is bad, only inappropriate ones are. In our inordinate pursuit for pleasures, we will have to face the consequence of our action. “All suffering has as its cause some pleasure which preceded it. Hence all suffering is a debt which those who share in human nature pay naturally in return for pleasure.” Ibid., p. 244.

Both Siddhartha and St Maximos see suffering rooted in inappropriate desire. Siddhartha points out that whether or not we acquire it, we will suffer. Yet, St Maximos would point out that there is some pleasure we acquire through our desire, so I do not see he would disagree with Siddhartha’s point. “For when desire combines with the senses, it is changed into pleasure, itself contriving the form the pleasure takes. And when the senses are stimulated by desire, they produce pleasure, taking advantage of the sensible object.” St Maximos, “Fifth Century of Various Texts,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Two.. Trans. by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London, Faber and Faber: 1990), p.277.

St Maximos would point out, however, that not all pleasures are forbidden, because we should desire God. Not all pleasure brings pain, because communion with God does not bring pain. While an astute reader will see there is a possible conflict between Buddhist thought and St Maximos, it does not have to be. Following the analogy we have had for Nirvana above, full communion with God is eternal bliss. Moreover, St Maximos points out, in a rather Buddhist fashion, that the heavenly state is above the passions, “Man’s heavenly abode is a dispassionate state of virtue, combined with a spiritual knowledge that has overcome all delusory notions.” St Maximos, “Third Century of Various Texts,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Two.. Trans. by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London, Faber and Faber: 1990), p.221. This one passage shows great harmony with the basic elements of Siddhartha’s thought.

Now, our pursuit for pleasure and its subsequent pain, leading us to search for new pleasures, has become a repetitious cycle in humanity, and especially for human reproduction. “Because Adam disobeyed, human nature has come to be generated through sensual pleasure…” St Maximos, “First Century of Various Texts,” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Two.. Trans. by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London, Faber and Faber: 1990), p.168. Reproduction, seen in the light of human passion, both provides great pleasure, but also suffering, as for example the suffering women experience in giving birth. This cycle could in theory be never ending. Yet, St Maximos sees the solution is in the incarnation, where Jesus is conceived in the womb of Mary without sensual pleasure, and he is given birth without the pain associated with childbirth. A new way of life is established:

Once human nature had submitted to the syndrome of pleasure freely chosen followed by pain imposed upon one’s will, it would have been completely impossible for it to be restored to the original life had the Creator not become man and accepted by his own free choice the pain intended as a chastisement for man’s freely chosen pleasure. But in His case the pain was not preceded by generation according to the rule of pleasure. In this way, by accepting a birth which did not originate in pleasure, it was possible for Him to liberate birth from the penalty imposed upon it. – St Maximos, “Fourth Century of Various Texts,” 244.

Jesus Christ reestablishes humanity as the second Adam, and he has overcome the pleasure-pain cycle which dominated our race. Like Siddhartha, St Maximos believes the way to overcome this cycle is by the elimination of its cause, and in Jesus he finds the elimination of its cause. “That is why He who made man became a man and was born as a man, so that He might save man and, by healing our passions though His passion, might Himself supra-naturally destroy the passions that were destroying us, in his compassion renewing us in the spirit through his privations in the flesh.” St Maximos, “First Century of Various Texts,” p.168.

Certainly there is a common theme and understanding between Siddhartha and St Maximos the Confessor. Both of them seek to understand the root cause of suffering, and find it to be our inordinate, impassioned desire. While this brief examination of their thought cannot be seen as a sufficient, developed analysis showing the points of commonality and differences between Siddhartha and St Maximos, certainly some differences can be seen from the two. One fundamental difference is that Siddhartha offers the way out through our own effort, while St Maximos believed the cycle of suffering could not be broken by us. While an examination of their common analysis of suffering could enrich both traditions, a thorough examination of this fundamental difference might be a better place for dialogue between the two religions. It would provide a better understanding of what differences there really are between the two religious faiths, preventing the kind of injustice a synchronistic vision of the two would create.

Labels: ,


  • At 10/17/2006 11:06 AM, Blogger Father Eric said…

    I'm confused about Jesus ending the "never-ending" cycle of suffering in childbirth. It still hurts, doesn't it?

    I think this might stem from the fact the St. Maximos was a celibate monk and would prefer the virginal state for all people unless trying to do so would cause them to sin, ala Saint Paul (1 Cor 7:8-9)

  • At 10/18/2006 7:01 AM, Blogger Henry Karlson said…


    No, St Maximos is not saying Christ is ending the suffering of childbirth. He is ending the never-ending cycle of suffering in humaniy.

    St Maximos is trying to show how the method of Christ's birth combined with Christ's passion has broken the link between pleasure and pain -- he took on pain (the passion of the cross) without any previous pleasure.

    By having one place where there voluntary pain without any of the sinful (inordinate) pleasure justifying it, we are able to place ourselves into Christ's death and enter the new birth through the resurrection -- a new birth which leads to eternal life, and will transcend the pleausre/pain cycle.

    It is true St Maximos is very monastic in his theology. He seems to hold the view that if humanity had not fallen, we would have a different method of reproduction -- the original, purified method which we see in the virginal conception of Christ. Yet, he is not really trying to say the married life is a sin, just that he is noting that human procreation now helps keep us rooted into a perpetual cycle of pleasure and pain. We are conceived in pleasure, but enter the world with the crying fits of pain... where we seek, via our senses, to find some sort of personal pleasure.. which then ends and brings suffering....

    You can see his really is similar to St Augustine as well -- we are looking for that which is good, but we have diverted our attention from the source of all goodness (God) and until we return to God, we will search for that good in things which cannot fullfill our desires..


Post a Comment

<< Home