Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Personalist Spirituality and Buddhist Anatman: Reflections on Contrasting Subjectivities, or Why I Am Not (Quite) (Yet) a Buddhist

Academic journal article Journal of Ecumenical Studies

Personalist Spirituality and Buddhist Anatman: Reflections on Contrasting Subjectivities, or Why I Am Not (Quite) (Yet) a Buddhist

Article excerpt

It has been over eighty years since the renowned British mathematician/philosopher/social activist Bertrand Russell achieved both fame and infamy with the publication of his controversial essay, "Why I Am Not a Christian." At a time when Christianity still reigned as the predominant and virtually unchallenged worldview of the West, Russell's production was indeed an act of courage. Unfortunately, he diminished the quality of his position by attacking Christian beliefs in a manner that was often biting, sarcastic, and vitriolic. Nonetheless, despite--or perhaps precisely because of--the controversy and criticism that surrounded his essay, its publication at least articulated in the public arena issues that had not previously received widespread expression outside the scholarly world, and, as such, it forced Christians to enter into a dialogue that led to a sharper and more focused expression of their core beliefs.

While I certainly make no pretense at being anything close to a Bertrand Russell, I do hope that, like him, I can offer some observations on an aspect of Buddhism that has been in perennial conflict with the personalist element of theistic spirituality and, in doing so, in a small way do for Buddhism what Russell did for Christianity, by encouraging a broader discussion and, I hope, clarification of this central Buddhist position. I would emphasize, however, that, unlike Russell's almost contemptuous attitude toward Christianity, I approach the Buddhist faith with enormous respect and admiration, and my effort will, I hope, be viewed as that of a humble and perplexed spirit seeking to generate a constructive dialogue. Indeed, there is so much about Buddhism that is appealing: such as the subtlety of its psychological analysis of the superficial sense of self that most of us get so caught up in, the identification of the endless unhappiness that originates in craving or desire, the noble extension of compassion not only to all human beings but also to all creatures (described so beautifully in Santideva's Bodhicaryavatara), the relentless awareness of the impermanence of phenomenal reality, and the simple yet profound techniques of mindfulness meditation. All this and much more makes Buddhism a tradition that has influenced me enormously and is always near to my heart.

And, yet, despite these many ways in which I admire Buddhism and appreciate the profound insights that the tradition offers into the spiritual nature of reality, there is an essential, fundamental, historically rooted aspect of Buddhism that I simply cannot accept as something that, spiritually speaking, makes sense--that is, the doctrine of anatman, or no-self. I can perhaps accept the notion of my own self's existence as nothing more than a temporary collection of aggregate components (skandhas), but, when applied to those I love, the concept of no-self appears to me to be not only undesirable but, in a certain sense, spiritually and morally offensive. I cannot grasp the positive spiritual content of a position that suggests that those other beings whom I see struggling through the challenges of embodied life and toward whom I experience the human reality of love will simply cease to exist upon the dissolution of their physical form and the thoughts, feelings, volitions, and consciousness that are rooted in that physical form.

Indeed, I suspect that there is a quality of agapic love for another, which demands that, in a meaningful universe, the precious and unique individuality of a conscious being will never be lost. This "personalist spirituality," in various forms, is at the heart of theistic religions, and I am suggesting that the theistic/personalist insight into the spiritual necessity of some sort of personal "survival" is an insight to which the Buddhist tradition has not yet produced a compelling response. In simple terms, I cannot bring myself to accept a tradition that suggests that the beings whom one encounters in love--friends, children, life partners--shall experience a short embodied existence and then exist no more. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.