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Buddhist Analogues of Sin and Grace: A Dialogue with Augustine

Buddhist Analogues of Sin and Grace: A Dialogue with Augustine [1]

“By bringing Augustine into dialogue with Buddhist traditions, each highlights aspects of the other in fresh ways.Such comparison also helps uncover ways that Christians and Buddhists have drawn upon very different resources to address similar religious issues.Augustine’s diagnosis of human bondage, the transcendent power that liberates humans so they may delight in the good, and the human link to that liberating power are compared and contrasted with analogous concepts in early and later Buddhist traditions. Active and receptive models of soteriology in Christianity and Buddhism are also compared.”

Although I am a Buddhist scholar who has practiced and studied in Tibetan Buddhist traditions for the past two and a half decades, I find many elements of Augustine’s Christian reflections profound and inspiring. In this essay I will try to explain why that is so, even while pointing to fundamental differences. I will draw upon Buddhist teachings to dialogue with Augustine around three basic issues. In Christian terms, these are: the fallen condition of humans (human bondage to sin, vice), the necessity of a transcendent power to be liberated from that bondage (God’s grace), the human capacity to recognize and to respond to that transcendent power.

Why engage in such an exercise of comparative theology? By bringing Augustine into dialogue with Buddhism, each dialogue partner poses new questions for the other, focusing our attention on aspects of each that would otherwise not be highlighted. Also, by drawing upon Buddhist perspectives so distant from Augustine in religious culture, history and worldview, it becomes easy to recognize the universality of some of the key issues Augustine engaged, and how profound are the solutions he developed within his own evolving tradition.

Anthropology: the human state of bondage necessitating grace

According to Augustine, with the fall of Adam and Eve humans lost the ability to consistently and effectively choose the good. They did not lose their ability to choose between this or that thing, or to will many kinds of evil, but they lost what Augustine called the ‘liberty” of their pre-fallen condition, their God given ability to clearly see the good, to love it, and thereby to consistently choose and do it. [2]

Although the law given by God to fallen humanity gave humans the power to see the good and how far they had fallen from it, the law per se did not give humans the power to love the good, thereby to consistently choose and do it. Only God’s grace gives them that power. As Donald Burt summarizes it, “Humans now [after the fall] are ‘not able not to sin’ (non posse non peccare) if left on their own. … . Now [after the fall] no one can persevere in virtue without grace.” [3] As Chadwick puts it: ‘sinful man hamstrung by selfishness from earliest moments of infancy, is the prisoner of habits which are second nature. Only grace can restore authentic freedom.” [4] And Burt adds: “Left to themselves, humans can only sin. This is so not simply because they need instruction on what to do, but even more because they need the power to delight in and to love the things of God,” [5] a power which is of God, and only God can give. In Augustine’s words, ‘As a man who kills himself must, of course, be alive when he kills himself, but after he has killed himself ceases to live and cannot restore himself to life; so when a man by his own free will sinned, then sin being victorious over him, the freedom of his will was lost. … . But whence comes [the] liberty to do right to the man who is in bondage and sold under sin, except he be redeemed by Him who has said, ‘If the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed’?” [6] Only God can restore the human capacity to love the good, thereby to choose it and to do it.

Buddhist traditions similarly maintain that persons find themselves in a state of bondage to self-clinging and vice which severely limits their capacity to choose and to do the good. In Buddhist thought, however, this state of bondage is not conceived as an ontologically substantial state, essentially unchanging until a supernatural power intervenes. Recall Augustine’s metaphor; the corpse remains in a fixed, fallen condition until a power from beyond intervenes. In contrast to this, the Buddha taught the doctrine of dependent origination (Sanskrit: pratitya-samutpada), according to which human bondage is a moment to moment construction of subconscious psycho-physical conditioning. [7]

According to the Buddha, moment by moment, our minds construct an appearance of self, others, and world in which they seem to be unchanging, graspable. And in each moment we believe in that false appearance, adhere to it, not realizing it is a mind-made construction. This pre-conscious adherence to changing things as if they were unchanging is called “mis-knowing” (often translated ‘ignorance,” Sanskrit: avidya). As we come in contact with people and things “mis-knowing” constructs a sense of self and others as fixed objects of clinging and aversion. Clinging and aversion motivate actions (karma) that further imprint the sub-conscious habit of experiencing the world through our own projections and reacting to them unawares.

In Buddhist meditation, the meditator learns to look into the moment by moment construction of emotions that motivate actions, to come newly conscious of their momentary, conceptually constructed and conditioned nature. Bringing to mind clinging attachment or anger, for example, the meditator learns to see into the rapid steps in their cognitive construction, each step conditioning the next step. First is a set of sense perceptions followed by pleasant or unpleasant feeling tones, then the thought-construct of a fixed ‘self” and ‘other” where the latter appears as an inherent source of happiness or suffering. This elicits clinging or aversion toward the ‘other,” followed by harmful intentions and consequent actions such as grasping to the other as one’s possession or seeking to hurt her. Such actions further imprint on the sub-conscious mind the habit of projecting a fixed sense of self and other within a field of clinging and aversion and of reacting to those thought-created projections unawares. [8]

Thus is revealed, in Buddhist terms, the dependent origination, the conditioned bondage, of suffering (Sansksrit duhkha). It is the suffering of being imprisoned each moment in ego-clinging thought patterns that almost instantaneously translate each encounter into a struggle to prop up or defend an illusory sense of self. Because this dynamic projects images onto self and others that hide their actuality, we continually mis-react to others unawares, reacting to our projections instead of to persons. We thereby contribute moment by moment, in little or big ways, to the communal co-creation of a world of fear, confusion, greed and violence.

In such a manner Buddhists have engaged the problem that concerned Augustine: bondage to ego-clinging and vice which prevents a consistent ethical response. Whereas Augustine understood such bondage through the lens of Genesis as an ontologically substantial fallen state, Buddhists have viewed it as a continual, momentary process of construction by habits of thought and reaction so profoundly habitual that they seem ineluctable.

The transcendent power that liberates from bondage

What can possibly change such a dynamic? In Christian terms, no action of human will in its fallen condition can restore humans to freedom from sin and to consistent love of the good. Such capacities can only be restored by their creator, through the transcendent power of His grace. As Augustine wrote, ‘… victory [over vice] cannot be sincerely and truly gained but by delighting in true righteousness, and it is faith in Christ that gives this. … . Accordingly vices are then only to be considered overcome when they are conquered by the love of God, which God Himself alone gives… .” [9] Augustine recognizes how serious is the problem of sin and vice, how hopeless it is for humans to solve it relying only upon their own devices. The solution must come from transcendent power. How have Buddhist thinkers engaged the parallel issues?

In Buddhist terms, if our entire being were just the process of egoic conditioning that the Buddha had diagnosed, there could be no escape from the suffering of clinging, aversion, vice and consequent suffering. However, the Buddha also taught another dimension of being, an unconditioned dimension, Nirvana: ‘Oh, monks, there is an unborn, unarisen, and unconditioned. Were there were not an unborn, unarisen, and unconditioned, there would be no escape for those born, arisen and conditioned. Because there is the unborn, unarisen, unconditioned, there is escape for those born, arisen, and conditioned.” [10]

The Buddha likened the suffering habits of mind and body to a fire which burns as long as its causes are present: air, fuel, etc. [11] When such causes are removed, the fire goes out, revealing the ever-present clear, empty space that is unobstructed by fire, smoke, or ashes. Likewise, he taught, when ego-clinging projection, reaction, and their deepest sub-conscious propensities are cut, the conditioned process of suffering ceases, to reveal an infinite, open, unconditioned, atemporal dimension of being beyond suffering: Nirvana, deepest freedom and bliss, utter safety.

But how could such a thing occur? People are conditioned to mistake inaccurate projections of self and other for absolute realities and to cling to those projections. If such conditioning mediates all ordinary understanding and experience, and is sub-conscious, how can people ever be freed from it, liberated into the unconditioned?

Although, as we have seen, Buddhist anthropology differs considerably from Augustine’s, a Buddhist response to this problem is profoundly similar in one respect. For Buddhists, as for Augustine, there can be no freedom from bondage unless something transcendent intervenes. Only someone beyond such conditioning can point the way beyond it. Only someone who fully embodies that transcendent, unconditioned dimension of being could reveal it to others, and demonstrate the way for others to be released unto it. In Buddhist philosophy, direct, embodied knowledge of the unconditioned, Nirvana, is called ‘bodhi”: transcendent knowing, enlightenment. The fullest such realization is that of a Buddha: ‘complete, perfect enlightenment.” (Sanskrit: samyak-sam-bodhi).

In essence, according to Buddhist teaching, there are two aspects of being, conditioned (samskrta) and unconditioned (asamskrta). In ego-centered life, conditioned processes of mind and body, dominated by confusion and self-clinging, obscure the unconditioned aspect, Nirvana. But the Buddha, it is said, having realized the unconditioned in the fullest possible way, taught practices to re-pattern mind and body so as to permit the unconditioned to dawn for others. All such practices as taught by the Buddha (and generations of his followers) are referred to as the “Dharma,” the holy pattern, the path to enlightenment. Put another way, the Dharma is the communication of the unconditioned through a Buddha’s mind and body, imparting practices by which others’ minds and bodies may be similarly opened to the unconditioned, so as to communicate the way to freedom afresh, again and again, from the Buddha’s time to our own.

The traditional doorway into the Buddhist path, then, is complete reliance upon the Buddha’s knowledge of the unconditioned and the practices he transmitted to his followers. From earliest tradition, this is expressed as three-fold refuge: 1) to rely upon the transcendent knowledge of the Buddha, rather than upon one’s own ego-clinging confusion; 2) to rely upon the practices revealed by Buddha’s knowledge (Dharma), rather than upon one’s habits of ego-clinging; and 3) to rely upon a spiritual community who knows and embodies those practices (Sangha), rather than upon other persons or communities who are bound to ego-clinging.

The human link to the transcendent

There must be something within persons that enables them to recognize the significance of the unconditioned, the transcendent, and to become receptive to it. For Augustine, that is imago dei, the image of God as Trinity inscribed within the human soul, which, although distorted by the fall, may be restored by God’s grace through the sacramental and contemplative life of the Church. As Mary Clark notes, ‘The Augustinian notion of image … refers not only to the natural image of the Trinity in the soul but also to its dynamic tendency toward the Trinitarian God, a call to community with Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and with all others invited into that same community by creation. Although this is based upon the natural capacity to remember, understand, and love God, it is God’s grace or gift of faith, hope, and love that actualizes this capacity.” [12] This is indeed a profound aspect of Augustine’s theological anthropology.

What have Buddhists understood to link the human being to the transcendent, the unconditioned, enabling intuitive recognition of and receptivity to it? Some early Buddhist scriptures and schools identified an innate clarity and purity of awareness as the primal essence of mind, prior to patterns of ego-clinging. This represents an innate capacity in the person to recognize the unconditioned Nirvanic dimension beyond self clinging, thus to recognize the significance of the Buddha’s message and to respond to it. [13] This teaching is further developed in the doctrine of ‘Buddha nature” (Sanskrit: tathagata-garbha), according to which the inmost nature of persons is already intrinsically pure and replete with the qualities of Buddhahood: unconditional love, compassion, wisdom and intrinsic freedom. But that intrinsic purity is obscured by patterns of ego-clinging. This will be further mentioned below. Within Buddhist cosmology, it was also believed that the imprint of familiarity with virtue (the Dharma) from past lives enables one to recognize again the import of Buddha’s message in this life (analogous to Plato’s teaching in the Meno that ‘learning” consists of the recognition of patterns previously known).

But how is it that anyone in this life, given such profound bondage to sin or ego-clinging, becomes able to choose the good and to do so with greater consistency within a spiritual life? As Burt summarizes the issue for Augustine, ‘For the Pelagian, instruction was enough for a person to do the right thing. Once knowing what to do, any human should be able on his own to go ahead and do it. Augustine believed this to be impossible. … in order to help humans pursue good, God gives not only free will and the commandments. He also gives the divine Spirit whereby the soul is so formed that it can now delight in and love the supreme and unchangeable good that is God. … Left to themselves, humans can only sin. This is so not simply because they need instruction on what to do, but even more because they need the power to delight in and to love the things of God.” [14]

How, in Buddhist teaching and practice, can a person come to delight in the good, thereby to choose to do it consistently, given such entrenched patterns of ego-clinging?

The Buddhist path is often summarized as a three-fold cultivation: of virtue (shila), of meditative concentration (samadhi), and of penetrating insight that can see through the ego’s illusory projections (prajna). Cultivation of virtue includes cultivation of generosity, kindness, care for others, truthfulness, patience, and moral discipline. As a holistic practice, informed by meditation and insight, cultivation of virtue is said to elicit more and more delight in virtue naturally over time. In Buddhist terms, by patterning upon the specific ethical, ritual and meditative prescriptions of the Buddha’s path, two types of natural law begin to naturally reveal themselves. 1) The natural law of karma. One can sense over time that virtuous intentions and actions (‘virtuous karma”) increase one’s inner capacity for happiness, well-being, and joy; while non-virtuous thought and action (‘nonvirtuous karma”) increases one’s tendency for unhappiness, anxiety, dissatisfaction, whatever the external circumstances may be. 2) The natural law of how supramundane realization unfolds. Cultivation of virtue also generates a spiritual power of mind and body (punya) that increases one’s capacity for higher stages of the path. To realize ultimate freedom, all layers of ego-clinging projection must be penetrated by insight. That requires great stability of attention, unmoved by habits of thought, and a laser-like power of attention, that sees through distorted projections of self and other in the instant they arise. Path disciplines harness the power of virtuous cultivation to empower those capacities of attention. As such attention penetrates long-held habits of projection even a little, there is an upsurge of bliss and joy, a foretaste of the supramundane freedom beyond self clinging. The bliss of that freedom further motivates the practice of virtue and takes natural expression in further practice of virtue: empathy, receptivity to others, patience, equanimity, tranquility, generosity, love, and joy in others’ joy.

Thus, from earliest Buddhist tradition, delight or bliss (priti) has been identified as one of seven key elements of the path to enlightenment, together with mindful attention (smrti), energy (virya), penetrating investigation (dharma-vicaya), meditative concentration (samadhi), equanimity (upeksha), and tranquility (prasrabdhi). [15]

Within our comparison to Augustine, it is important to bear in mind that Buddhists do not understand such path developments to occur by persons relying upon the inclinations of their egoic selves. Rather, they emerge as persons learn to surrender more and more fully to patterns of practice established by radical reliance on the three ultimate refuges (Buddha, Dharma, Sangha). In that way, deep-seated habits of clinging and aversion centered upon a misconceived ‘self” come to be more and more fully given up for the freedom, unconditional compassion and wisdom beyond such self-clinging, accompanied by delight (priti) in such freedom. Delight in the good, then, is a key factor for both Augustine and for Buddhist conceptions of path development.

Given what has been said, a Buddhist path to enlightenment might be equally well described in two distinct ways: as active or as receptive: 1) It is an active practice of self-discipline, of cultivating specific capacities of mind and body and 2) It is a practice of receptivity, of faith, of refuge in what is beyond “self;” of surrendering all one’s mind and body to the pattern of Dharma practice beyond one’s making; finally, of blissfully releasing self-clinging more and more fully to the unconditioned dimension of being that transcends all human cultivation.

Notice how this active/receptive tension replicates the very tension over which Augustine argued with the Pelagians. Augustine taught that human beings are completely incapable of freeing themselves from their own sinful condition. It is only the grace of the unconditioned reality, the eternal God, that can free them. Even the human capacity to respond to God’s invitation is given by God’s grace. In Buddhist terms, the thought patterns of self-grasping are completely incapable of achieving freedom from their own suffering nature. It is only the unconditioned reality beyond such patterns, Nirvana, which frees from the ego-centered patterns of suffering. Pelagians, on the other hand, feared that Augustine’s exclusive emphasis on grace thereby denigrated the need for serious human effort and moral responsibility in the process of salvation. And this Pelagian concern corresponds to the other pole of Buddhist practice Ð the emphasis on the importance of rigorous self-discipline, of taking the personal responsibility to reflect deeply upon the Buddha’s teaching and intensely cultivate its qualities. It can be argued that the tension between Augustine and the Pelagians was never fully resolved once and for all in the history of Christian traditions, but has functioned implicitly as a creative tension in the ongoing development of theology. Similarly, the corresponding tension in Buddhism over the relative emphasis of active or receptive models of path has been a creative one, something over which diverse Buddhist traditions have continued to argue throughout history. [16]

By and large, early Buddhist and Theravada traditions have emphasized the active mode of discourse for path, supported by the second, receptive mode of faith in refuge, culminating in total receptivity to Nirvana when it dawns at high stages of the path. [17] Many medieval Indian scholastic Buddhists followed that emphasis. [18]

In contrast with those traditions, some medieval Indian Buddhist figures, [19] and several Buddhist traditions of East and North Asia (within Zen, Pure Land, and Tibetan Buddhism) have made the receptive mode of discourse more central from the start. Path practices are understood primarily as means to receive and express the always ever present power of Nirvana within this world, the intrinsic power of Buddhahood referred to cosmologically as Dharmakaya, Amida Buddha, Samantabhadra, etc. and anthropologically as “Buddha nature” (tathagata-garbha). [20]

In much Zen practice, one sits in receptivity to the unconditioned dimension of one’s being. The power of the unconditioned, Buddha nature, is sensed as the very power behind the path to enlightenment. In Pure Land traditions, one may repeat the name of the cosmic Buddha, Amida, with utter faith and receptivity, relying totally upon the Buddha’s power of liberation. In Tibetan tantric traditions, one ritually offers one’s entire being to the Buddha, receives the Buddha’s blessing and empowerment, and thereby comes to see the entire world as permeated by the Buddha’s all-pervading power and radiance (Dharmakaya). When the emptiness of ego-clinging projections is directly seen, when the obscuration that hides reality falls apart, then is seen how the Buddha’s radiant power always already permeates the world, blessing and drawing all beings to its realization. Such a way of experiencing the world sounds not entirely dissimilar to the sacramental vision of Christian saints such as Augustine, whose coming aware of the world as grace-filled, in turn, owes much to his capacity to pay attention, a power cultivated through his own long participation in the Church’s sacramental life. [21]

Concluding Thoughts

For Buddhist traditions like my own (the Nyingma-Dzogchen tradition of Tibet), which take the receptive mode of path discourse as primary and view the path as increasing receptivity to what is, all power for practice is understood to derive from the power of the unconditioned itself. Authentic practice is thus understood to sacramentally express the unconditioned (Nirvana, Buddha nature) in and through the bodies and minds of persons. From such a perspective, to appreciate Augustine’s incisive analysis of the human condition in its need for grace is, among other things, to draw support for a Buddhist path to enlightenment.

Some Christian readers, whose theology of religions tends toward the exclusive, might be shocked by such an admission, or even find it unwelcome. But if Augustine had indeed clarified some key universal truths in his work, perhaps we should not be surprised that he has shone light upon things so distant from him in religious culture and history, nor that some things Buddhist in turn may shine light upon him.

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Fantastic article my good friend Jonathan posted to his wall. Was going to comment there, but thought it may serve best to post to the blog and potentially spark further conversation between both my Christian and Buddhist friends.

When the author states:

In Christian terms, these are: the fallen condition of humans (human bondage to sin, vice), the necessity of a transcendent power to be liberated from that bondage (God’s grace), the human capacity to recognize and to respond to that transcendent power.

We as Buddhists could translate this to our own Four Noble Truths:

In Christian terms, these are: the fallen condition of humans (human bondage to sin, vice) [1. Life means suffering. & 2. The origin of suffering is attachment.], the necessity of a transcendent power to be liberated from that bondage (God’s grace) [3. The cessation of suffering is attainable.], the human capacity to recognize and to respond to that transcendent power [4. The path to the cessation of suffering.].

(Four Noble Truths wording via ‘The Big View | Buddhism’)

Also, when he mentions:

For Augustine, that is imago dei, the image of God as Trinity inscribed within the human soul, which, although distorted by the fall, may be restored by God’s grace through the sacramental and contemplative life of the Church.

I could not help but (at least slightly) relate this to the Atman in Hinduism.

Here’s an area I have a personal opinion:

Pelagians, on the other hand, feared that Augustine’s exclusive emphasis on grace thereby denigrated the need for serious human effort and moral responsibility in the process of salvation.

This statement rang deep with me. It is a major reason I walked away from Christianity years ago. I do not mean the statement to disparage that faith in any way, I only mean to be honest and open with my own small opinions.

The article is excellent. I find it hugely important when views are compared and discussed in a respectful manner.

What are your thoughts, would love to hear them.

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