Monday, 18 March 2013

Mothering Sunday 2013

Obesity. Alcoholism. Depression. Just some of the symptoms of sick Britain, identified last week as the unhealthiest country in Europe. And so, the government wants to hike taxes to change our behaviour.

We love to think that we are free. Perhaps you get angry when the government sets its mind on curtailing our freedoms. I know I do, when they raise the price of beer to stop us from drinking as much of it. But I always know that actually, however expensive they make it, I'm still going to drink just as much. I'm not saying I'm addicted or anything, but it does raise the question: actually, how free am I, really, when it comes to drinking beer? My freedom is limited, I suppose, by how much money I have in my wallet to spend on the stuff, but if I get as far as four pints, that never seems to matter so much. I'm probably going to carry on, anyway. So in a way, maybe the limits that the government tries to set on my freedom, the external limits to my freedom, are a bit of a red herring. Actually, it's the decision I've made on my own to have four pints that is going to limit my freedom and push me into having a fifth and a couple of whiskey chasers. By making choices, I limit my own freedom.

Part of the problem, I think, is confusing 'freedom' with 'choice.' The fact that we can make choices does not necessarily mean we have freedom, and in fact, many of the choices we make end up imprisoning us. We think we are free to choose what to eat, how much to drink, how much exercise to take, how much TV to watch, how much time to invest in our work - but the freedom is all too often just an illusion. Our continued choices end up as habits, even at worst addictions. So true freedom cannot just be a matter of choice.

Looking at it a different way, there are choices that we simply can't make, but we don't think of them as limits on our freedom. We cannot choose to grow wings or breathe underwater. A man cannot choose to give birth. A woman cannot give birth to an owl. But we don't, unless we're a bit mad, view these limitations of choice as restrictions of our freedom. So again, freedom cannot just be about choices.

So what is true freedom? Well, the Church has traditionally thought about this question by looking to Mary. It is Mary, after all, saying "yes" to God's angel, "be it unto me according to Thy word," who brought God into the world as the Christ child. And we say that Mary responded freely to God's command: after all, what kind of God would He be if He forced her? What kind of "love" could God be if the love were not freely given and freely received? If Mary were not free in the matter, God would not be a lover, but a rapist.

That said, we have to be careful not to make Mary's freedom simply a matter of choice - as though she might have said "no," so that Christ would not have born and the world would not have been saved. We must not make the Gospel into a novel or a soap opera. It was part of God's eternal plan that Christ must be born, the world must be saved. Mary had to be the mother of God. And there's the rub. Somehow we have to reconcile the fact that God planned Christ's birth and chose Mary, with the fact that Mary freely obeyed God's command.

The traditional answer to this conundrum takes us back to the distinction between freedom and choice.

First, there is the matter of habits. Mary, formed by the community of the Jewish faith, a member of the race of Israel, was inculcated in good habits, habits of prayer and godly living. She was, as we all are, the product of her upbringing, in her case, upbringing within God's chosen people.

Secondly, and because of this, Mary's nature was to obey God. Just as we cannot choose to breathe underwater or fly, it was simply not in her nature to disobey God. But this is not a limit on her freedom, any more than our freedom is limited by our lack of gills or wings. Rather, her true freedom was to follow her true nature.

There's a lot of talk today about 'being yourself,' and maybe there is something to it. What I don't think it means for a Christian, though, is the sort of 'being yourself' in the sense of 'take me as I am,' 'like me or lump me,' which is basically just an excuse for rudeness. The problem with that sort of 'being yourself' is that it rests on a false understanding of what the 'self' really is. The Church teaches that we are made in the image of God; that our true self is naturally good and godly. We sin when we fall for the false freedom of choices, choices that pull us away from that good nature, away from our true selves. True freedom is found in following our true divine nature, being our true divine selves.

As the handmaiden or servant of the Lord, obeying His command, Mary was being totally authentic to herself and so totally free. But she was also being just as authentically herself as Mother of God. Many things may stand in the way, but the love of a mother for her child is something fundamentally natural, as is the love the child returns to the mother. I have read one theologian saying that as soon as a baby knows a mother's love, the baby knows God. In that loving bond, there is complete authenticity - it is true love, and almost automatic, but surely no one would say it was 'forced.' It is naturally free. And that love is the model Mary, Mother of God, gives us for our natural, true and free relationship with God, through which we can be ourselves, Our true selves, as He made us to be.

So as we give thanks to God today for our mothers, let us remember the naturally free love that they have given us, that Mary gave Jesus, and Jesus gave us; and so seek to live our lives not by the false freedom of choices but going with God's flow of self-giving love. For only when we are slaves to divine love will we be truly free.

Sunday, 3 March 2013

Faith-Experience as Spiritual Encounter: Shin Buddhist-Christian Dialogue

Response to Professor Kemmyo Taira Sato, Delivered at Three Wheels Temple, Monday 4 March 2013

First, may I thank Professor Sato for inviting us to the Three Wheels Temple and offering such a concise exposition of True Pure Land teaching. Thanks, too, to Dr Wharton, for making today's conversation possible. I pray that we all, Christians and Buddhists together, may approach the day in a spirit of openness and eagerness to learn from one another, vigilant for rays of truth wherever they might shine.

Professor Sato has very helpfully outlined the key events of Shinran's 親鸞 life and his tutelage under Hōnen 法然, their exile together, and the fundamental basis of their Buddhism: the need for absolute entrusting in the Primal Vow 本願 of Amida Buddha 阿弥陀仏 for the Birth 往生 in the Pure Land 浄土 of all sentient beings, expressed as 'faith' or shinjin 信心. If you have studied other schools of Buddhism, this probably sounds quite different from what you are used to, and I think it might be helpful to take a quick look at the historical conditions which moved Hōnen and Shinran's thought in such a direction.

Kamakura period 鎌倉時代 Kyoto was not a happy place. A contemporary chronicler, Kamo no Chōmei 鴨長明, despairingly describes how a series of natural disasters, combined with the city's loss of status as the national capital, conspire to reduce her denizens to squalor, disease and corruption. The city quite literally stank as the number of bodies dead from starvation littered the streets. He writes, “because no one even tried to clear away those corpses, the odour of the putrefaction became offensive throughout Heian-kyo [i.e. Kyoto], and people could not even stand to look at them. The city was permeated by the smell, and the mountain of corpses accumulated along the Kamo river bed until there were places where horses and carriages could not pass."

In circumstances like these, it was rather hard for people to see, as Mahāyāna Buddhism classically taught, the fundamental non-duality of samsara and nirvana, all things shining with their innate Buddha-nature. And the clergy did not help: their drunken carousing and corruption which Kamo no Chōmei depicts was hardly an example of the bodhisattva ideal, that Mahāyāna teaching that enlightened beings sacrifice their own attainment of buddhahood to assist others along the path. Clearly, there was something amiss.

The Buddhist masters of the time needed to explain why things were going so wrong, and they unanimously seized on the doctrine of Mappō 末法, the 'end of the dharma age.' By this they meant that the age of the 'historic' Buddha, Śākyamuni Gautama's influence on the world was coming to an end. Kamo no Chōmei's solution to this was to retreat to his hermitage, but other masters had different ideas.

Three of these masters founded schools of Buddhism which last in Japan to this day. One of them was Dōgen 道元, founder of the Zen school in Japan, whose solution was to rediscover the 'secret,' authentic teachings of Śākyamuni: for him, Mappō was the result of debased practice. The Zen school is undoubtedly the most famous outside Japan, and perhaps the most widespread internationally, but remains very small in Japan itself. The other two great Kamakura period masters founded schools with far greater and more lasting popular appeal. One of these, Nichiren 日蓮, Professor Sato has already mentioned. In the West, Nichiren Buddhism is not widely known, but its evangelical offshoot, the Sōka Gakkai 創価学会 has a vast international presence. Nichiren's solution to Mappō was again to return to what he considered the pristine teachings of the historical Buddha, to be found, he thought, in the Lotus Sutra.

But it was Shinran who founded what remains the largest school of Buddhism by far in Japan today, despite its relative obscurity abroad, and this is of course True Pure Land 浄土真宗 Buddhism. For Shinran, following his master Hōnen, the solution to Mappō could not be found in the propagation of techniques which, looking around at mediaeval Kyoto, they saw were quite obviously failing. Self-power 自力 techniques had passed their expiry date. What was needed now was complete reliance on the other-power 他力 of Amida Buddha, as taught in the various Pure Land sutras. Hōnen found this in the nembutsu 念仏 practice, the saying of the Name of Amida, which he and Shinran had learnt as one technique among many at their Tendai 天台宗 school monastery. Radically, he began to take the nembutsu not as just one practice among many, but the exclusive practice for the inculcation of true entrusting or faith, 信心. All other practice was 自力, 'self-power,' and thus ultimately useless. You can see why his fellow monks were not particularly pleased with this: hence Hōnen and Shinran's exile.

Although Shinran himself maintained that he was teaching nothing other than his master taught, he took Hōnen's teaching to its extreme conclusion: even the saying of the nembutsu is an act of self-power unless it is said with 'faith' 信心. Even one sincerely said nembutsu was sufficient for birth 往生 in the Pure Land, which meant for Shinran not just an intermediary stop, one rebirth on the way to complete enlightenment, but synonymous with nirvana itself. For him, shinjin truly expressed in the nembutsu was the guarantee of perfect enlightenment, the final severance of all karmic ties, the realisation of things as they truly are.

A note for all students of Buddhism – forgive me if this is obvious, but to many people it is not, and perhaps I can say it more readily than Professor Sato because I do not have the sort of commitment to Shinran's teaching as he does! It is incredibly important not to see Shin Buddhism as some kind of folk religion, an all-too-common assumption in much Western scholarship. Forgive me if this gets a little technical for a moment, but Shinran's thought is in complete continuity with Mahāyāna 大乗仏教 thought in general. You could even argue that it represents the culmination of Mahāyāna thought: in Amida's Vow not to attain buddhahood until all sentient beings receive Birth, the bodhisattva 菩薩 ideal which so typifies Mahāyāna Buddhism is taken to its ultimate limits, such that even Buddha itself, in all its fulness, cedes or 'postpones' its buddhahood for the salvation of all beings. It can be seen as the ultimate expression of no-self doctrine, of Great Compassion 大慈悲, and of merit transference 廻向, and so as entirely consistent with Mahāyāna Buddhist thought.

But there is a distinction of Shin Buddhist thought from the rest, I think, and one which is particularly pertinent in Buddhist-Christian dialogue. It is very hard to deny, though many have strenuously tried, that there is a dualistic slant, at least, to the language of Shin Buddhism. What is unusual is the emphasis on the otherness of Amida Buddha, the need to rely on other-power. In fact, for most of the history of True Pure Land Buddhism, to deny the dualism of Buddha and sentient beings was considered heresy. So much so, that certain professors and clerics at Shin Buddhist universities in Kyoto were removed from their posts for teaching, in common with other Buddhist schools, the strict nonduality of Buddha and sentient beings. The consensus has swung very much the other way in Shin Buddhist circles these days, but to me, what makes Shinran so fascinating is his reconciliation of dualistic and nondualistic relationships between Buddha and beings. I would say that the unique angle that Shin Buddhism offers to Buddhist-Christian dialogue is that language expressing the otherness of Buddha and sentient beings does not preclude their fundamental non-duality. This means in turn that Christian theological dualisms of God and being do not necessarily fall foul of the usual Buddhist criticisms. It also means that Christians cannot necessarily write Buddhism off as pantheism or monism. I would like now to look at this more specifically, with reference to Professor Sato's points.

Professor Sato alluded to Shinran's teaching, of simply entrusting in Amida's Vow 弥陀の本願, as being simultaneously an easy and a difficult way. Shinran himself cites Shandao to this effect in the sixth chapter of the Kyōgyōshinshō 教行信証, and writes in a hymn of his own:

一代諸教の信よりも [いちだいしょきょう]
  弘願の信楽なほかたし [こうがん]
  難中之難とときたまひ [なんじゅうのなん]
  無過此難とのべたまふ [むかひなん]
More difficult even than trust in the teachings of Śākyamuni's lifetime
 Is the true entrusting of the universal Vow;
 The sutra teaches that it is "the most difficult of all difficulties,"
 That "nothing surpasses this difficulty." 
 (Hymns of the Pure Land 浄土和算 70, SBTS 344)
For me, this brings to mind the words of the prayer I say every day as I don my final vestment for Mass:
Domine qui dixisti, iugum meum suave est et onus meum leve,
fac ut istud portare sic valeam quod consequar tuam gratiam.
Lord, who said, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light,”
let me be worthy enough to wear this that I might merit your grace.

According to this paraphrase of Jesus' words in Matthew 11.28-30, His way is easy because He has borne the burden of our evils for us. Yet at the same time, Jesus can say: 'Enter through the narrow gate; … for the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it' (Matthew 7.13).

The Christian way, like the way Shinran describes, is both the easiest and the hardest. And, I think we can safely say, it is so for the same reason: that the ease of complete reliance on another, abandonment of autonomy, is in fact extremely hard. You'll know what I mean if you spend much time visiting the elderly, watching them struggle to come to terms with the fact that they must rely so much on other people. Or perhaps you have attended some management seminar with that 'trust-building exercise' where you are expected to close your eyes and let yourself fall backwards into the arms of a colleague behind you. If so, you'll know how counter-instinctive it is – which is precisely what makes it so hard.

But this is, I think, something like the self-abandonment that St Paul has in mind when he writes in his letter to the Galatians (2.20): 'I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me.' By incorporation into the self-sacrifice of Christ, it is paradoxically no longer the Christian per se who lives; but Christ, in His self-sacrificial mould of living, lives through and in the Christian. And this, I think, gives Christians cause to join Professor Sato in questioning the notion of 'faith' as having something to do with 'information,' 'belief' or 'intellectual assent.' There are some Christians who would maintain that Christian faith, the faith of St Paul, amounts to a faith that the Christian narrative of Jesus' Birth, Crucifixion and Resurrection happened; this may be true of certain Protestants and, at times, more scholastically-oriented Catholics. But much of the Church would agree that the more profound faith is the faith in Christ, rather than the faith that He did certain things, or that He has certain attributes.

Professor Sato mentions Kierkegaard, and we might also bear in mind Schleiermacher's concept of faith as 'a feeling of absolute dependence,' as another Protestant exemplar of faith as something rather more than intellectual assent. And certainly, plenty of Protestant comparisons with Shinran have been made, drawn as they are to the idea of 'salvation by faith alone.' Yet I would argue that Catholic sacramental theology can offer at least as relevant a point of comparison, particularly insofar as it involves the incorporation of human beings into Christ, through participation in Christ's own self-sacrificial activity. This is the position I want to sketch out in the remainder of this talk.

Catholic ideas of participation or cooperation with God depend on the concept of freedom of will, which Professor Sato mentioned: Shinran wrote that 'it is up to you to choose whether to believe in the nembutsu or reject it.' Now, I know that the question of freedom of will has been hotly contested among Shin Buddhists, and it has among Christians, too. Protestant positions vary, but to Catholic theology, freedom of will is vital. Primarily this is because we believe, with 1 John 4.8, that God is love, and that love which is not freely chosen is not worthy of the name. The veneration of Mary, Mother of God, brings this into sharp focus: it is because of her freely willed 'yes' to God – the fiat of assent she gave God to bear Christ in her womb when His angel visited her – that Christ could be born. It took reciprocity, the mutual loving action of God and human, for God to be incarnate and the salvation of the world to be effected. We venerate Mary not just because God chose her, but also because she chose Him.

I should point out that this is seen by many Protestant thinkers as outrageously presumptuous. Karl Barth, arguably the greatest Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, regarded the idea that there is any analogy between humanity and God as the doctrine of the Antichrist and the main reason he could never be Catholic. Our will is as nothing before the sovereign will of God. To suggest otherwise, he thought, compromises the absolute freedom God enjoys and by which God creates and redeems us.

Here, it can help us to look to Shinran and his place within Buddhist tradition. He proclaims the absolute alterity of Buddha and sentient being – the absolute reliance that we must have on Amida's other-power – and yet does not regard this as compromising the fundamental non-duality between the two. This works, I think, because according to Shinran, Amida Buddha is nirvana, is the Pure Land, and even is the Vow: the compassionate Vow that all beings will be saved. Amida is, in a way, more verb than noun, more process than object. The Vow itself is the expression of the true reality of things, things as they really are: which is to say, already and always saved by the compassion of the Buddha, if only they could open their eyes to see it.

In Christ, God reveals something comparable: namely, 'the mystery of His will … to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth' (Eph 1.10). He does this by His own self-giving, in Creation, in His self-emptying into the person of Christ, and in His self-sacrificial death at human hands on the Cross. It does not compromise God's freedom to say that He freely surrenders Himself for our creation and redemption: insofar as we can say anything of God at all, that is simply the sort of God He is, the sort of God He has revealed Himself to be. The true nature of reality which Christians are called not just to see, but to live, is that God is love; and this love is revealed in His absolute self-giving for others, with the intent that all things be ultimately united.

According to Shinran, our self-power avails nothing because Amida's compassionate Vow is already achieved. So is Christ's Crucifixion: according to Paul (Eph 2.8-9) it is not 'our own doing,' but 'the gift of God' which saves us. We are saved by His sacrifice, not by our self-powered deeds. Yet, as Shinran and St Paul both knew, although we are already saved, we remain evil. For the Catholic theologian, we cannot be fundamentally evil because we are made in the Image of God and so share in His basic goodness. And for Shinran, surely, our true nature is Buddha-nature, beyond our conceptions of good and evil, if only we could see it. St Paul prays for the Ephesians (1.17) that 'the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you.' Seeing with the eyes of compassion, entirely at the gift of God, leads to a knowledge of salvation. It seems that for St Paul, as for Shinran, seeing is believing: seeing things as the self-giving love that they really are. Our unity with God is already achieved in Christ: we have only to respond to His invitation, and we will gaze upon His glory forever.

I realise that I am jumping about, just offering some snapshots of commonality. But a more encompassing tie between the two ways of thinking I have outlined is a logic of paradox. Paradox is perhaps more famous in Buddhism, especially through the renown of the Zen kōan 公案, and it is certainly there in the notion that samsara is nirvana, or that Buddha is sentient being. But there is plenty of paradox in Christianity, too: fundamentally, the paradox of Christ, 100% God and 100% man, all-powerful God made suffering servant, the immortal who is killed by His own creatures.

As another example for comparison, that paradox runs through Jesus' teaching about the Kingdom of Heaven, which at some times seems like a distant place beyond our conception of space and time, and at others like something within us, among us, here and now. It is a mustard seed growing among us, it is yeast fomenting us, it is, Jesus says several times, 'at hand'; yet He talks also of who will enter it, who will be first and last there, when the Kingdom comes. Compare the Pure Land 浄土, in which one can guarantee birth in this life as the 'equivalent of enlightenment' 等正覚, but where perfect enlightenment awaits only after passing from this life.

To sum up: we Christians are left with an easy path through a narrow gate, a life that we are not meant ourselves to live, an all-powerful God whom we have killed, a God absolutely beyond us, yet who has achieved through His sacrifice the union of all things with Him, in a Kingdom which has already been won, but which is somehow yet to come. Our Shin Buddhist brethren have an easy way which is also the most difficult, a remedy in the nembutsu which they must say without themselves saying it, a Buddha who is absolutely one with them yet absolutely other, a true reality depicted as a Pure Land in which all are already saved, but which nonetheless cannot be fully realised in this lifetime. No wonder people think we religious types are a bit mad. But such are the paradoxes under which we labour. So, to conclude, what are their resolutions?

Well, to some extent, there is no resolution, only deepening of the mystery. For the Shin Buddhist, the vehicle of salvation is the nembutsu said in shinjin, such that it is not in fact the practitioner who says the nembutsu at all, but Amida Buddha himself. The Buddha effects his own salvation and that of all (the distinction becomes tenuous) by the saying of his Name through all. And the, I think, is where a comparison of the Christian sacramental principle comes in, at last. For in the offering at the Eucharist of the gifts which God Himself has given us – both the body and blood of Christ under the form of bread and wine, and our souls and bodies 'to be a living sacrifice' – we are merely participants in the one, cosmic sacrifice of God Himself, rendered both in Creation and on the Cross. Thus through the Church, we believe Christ continues to offer Himself and all Creation into that process of self-giving love which He, God, is. The Eucharist acts analogously to the nembutsu in that we see it as the salvific vehicle for all things, effected by an 'Other' to simultaneously reveal and effect the process of loving unity: better still, 'comm-unity,' in 'Comm-union,' whereby the absolute oneness of humans with each other, with all things, and with the Divine, is effected - yet, paradoxically, without compromising their absolute Otherness.