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Buddhist Essays

To Become Truly Human

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Writer admin Date24 Feb 2006 Read10,408 Comment0


1. Preface: The True Human
I think we all agree that the current International Conference on Korean Seon Buddhism is an extremely important event. It provides a rare opportunity to gather together many thinkers of diverse backgrounds and points of view. Some are scholars and some are monks, some are Koreans and some are non-Koreans. What this diverse group holds in common is the desire to clarify the meanings of Josaseon, or "Seon of the Awakened Masters", and Ch’am Saram, or "a true human being," an ancient model of self-cultivation currently championed by Great Master Seo-Ong.
In the following paper, I will explore the idea of "true humanness" in reference to the Buddhist concept of karuna, or compassion. Though I am a Buddhist scholar and my point of view is essentially Buddhist, my approach is comparative: I will draw on Christianity’s model of ideal human behavior to make connections between karuna and the Christian ethic of love. Ultimately, I hope to reveal both how Christians and Buddhists share a common goal to become "truly human" and how similar their conceptions of "true humanness" proves to be, despite apparently vast differences in doctrine and world-view. My endeavor is thus ecumenical in spirit; I place great value on open-mindedness and intellectual freedom and hope to avoid narrow-minded, religious partisanship. In the course of my presentation, I also hope to demonstrate how much we, Buddhists, can learn from other religious traditions in our quest to become "true human beings."
2. Is True Compassion Possible?
As we all know, karuna, which is generally translated as "love" or "compassion," is a key concept in Buddhist thought. Simply put, karuna is the compassion that the Buddha gives to all sentient beings. It is karuna that motivates bodhisattvas to postpone immediate entry into the final stage of nirvana and stay in our world to help all sentient beings toward liberation from suffering. Ordinary practitioners likewise struggle to exercise this deep compassion for others in their own lives. Without a doubt, karuna is one of the most essential elements in the Buddhist view of what it means to be truly human.
Widening our view, I think we can say that love or compassion is a fundamental concept in all of the world’s religions. In Christianity, for example, love is brought up again and again. We hear about God’s love for humanity, and Jesus’ love for all people, and the need for everyone to exercise this kind of divinely inspired love in their own lives. The injunctions to "love thy enemy" and to "love thy neighbor as thyself" are famous.
However, the practice of love is not easy. Everyone knows how difficult it is to love one’s neighbor, let alone one’s enemy. More often than not, the injunction to love others defeats us and we end up experiencing it in the distorted form of guilt, a sense that we are not living up to our own convictions. Sometimes we manage through sheer force of will to pantomime the outer form of love. We offer up apparently kind words and deeds, trying to be "good" and "nice" to those we instinctively find distasteful. But despite such efforts we often find that we continue to harbor deep within our hearts a concealed well of resentment and antipathy that we are helpless to remove. We end up acting lovingly toward our enemies while in reality we hate them. This of course is sheer hypocrisy, and a poor foundation on which to practice karuna. Any act of so-called compassion that conceals suppressed feelings of hatred or resentment will quickly break down and create suffering both for oneself and others.
The kind of inner conflict that I have just described is quite common, in fact, universal in the world of unenlightened sinners. Exercising genuine compassion is so difficult that it begs the question: Is it really possible for me to be compassionate? When we ask such a question, we are really asking: Can I become a true human being?
Both Buddhism and Christianity answer, "Yes," to that question. A comparative look at the practice of love in these two traditions reveals significant points of agreement between Buddhism and Christianity on the subject of being truly human. Here, at the meeting point of these two traditions, we might find a way for each of to love both honestly and unconditionally.
To begin, consider the mechanics of compassionate behavior, in other words, how compassion works in the real world. When we look at traditional interpretations of compassion--those of Buddhism and Christianity included--we distinguish two divergent approaches.
The first view of compassion rests on seemingly reasonable assumptions regarding the relationship between self and other and appears to be corroborated by our living experience. Put simply, the first interpretation runs something like this: "I am I, and you are you. We are separate people, and in order to feel compassion for you, I must overcome the gulf or barrier of our separateness. That is why compassion is so hard, because it requires that I leap over the barrier of our difference."
It is probably safe to say that this is the way most of us actually experience our attempts at practicing compassion: Very strenuous attempts at bridging the gap between ourselves and other people.
The second model of compassions holds opposing presumptions about the connection between self and other and requires a depth of engagement with others that most of us do not experience often. Thus, upon hearing of it for the first time many find it counter-intuitive. The operative principle of the second interpretation of compassion is what Buddhists call the non-difference or non-duality of all beings. It is also called the mutual interpenetration of all things. A practitioner of this non-duality model of compassion would say something like this: "I am contained in you, and you are contained in me. We are not different from each other. For that reason, compassion is simple and natural, a human reflex as fundamental as breathing. I love you just as I love myself."
This automatic love for others is not something we experience much in daily life. The closest example we can point to is probably the love of a mother for her child--a love so absolute and instinctual that it often transcends the boundaries of individual identity. It is quite common for a mother to put the interests of her child before her own, feeling that "What is good for my child is good for me." The automatic, unthinking identity of interests between two different people--the instinct that says "What’s good for him or her is good for me"--is the essence of non-duality-based compassion.
Obviously there are striking differences between these two models of compassion. The first, which I will now refer to as the duality-based model, accords with our common-sense view of the world and seems like the right way to go about it. But we know that, more often than not, it simply doesn’t work. In the duality-based model, compassion or universal love is difficult and confusing. We engage it as an abstract moral principle and find that we honor it more often in the breach than in practice. Often enough, it leaves us feeling like hypocrites and failures.
In contrast, the non-duality-based model is counter-intuitive: Most of us do not experience mutual interpenetration with other beings in daily life. The reason for this, expressed in Buddhist terminology, is that unenlightened beings cannot perceive the reality of mutual interpenetration without the practice of self-cultivation. To an untrained person, we all seem separate and distinct. Thus, the proposition that I am contained in you, and you are contained in me, is hard to accept. And the idea that one person might love another with the same unthinking devotion that he feels for himself seems the stuff of legends and children’s tales.
However, though the non-duality-based model of compassion is counter-intuitive, it has the distinct advantage of working. It makes perfect sense to say that if you and I are a single being, I should guard your interests with the same zealous regard I have for my own, because these interests are, in fact, identical. In other words, the Awakened person continues to exercise the same self-Love that we all practice, but because he or she can see beyond the apparent confines of the physical body, and thus knows that his body includes all bodies, his self-love extends outward to include all sentient beings. Love for others thus becomes a direct and natural expression of self-love, the same automatic, unthinking self-love that makes me eat when I am hungry and put on a sweater when I am cold. Thus, in the non-duality-based model, love for others is not construed as an abstract moral principle, something we try to force ourselves to follow; it is a fundamental aspect of our nature, a reflex as instinctual as breathing or blinking.
Of course, I am aware of the many real differences between Buddhism, a non-theistic religion, and Christianity, a theistic one. But in discussing the topic of compassion, I want to deemphasize these differences as much as possible and focus instead on the many striking points of agreement. Most importantly, I am firmly convinced that both Buddhism and Christianity agree on the subject of karuna: Both religions propose a non-duality-based model of love. They ask us to move upward from the straight-forward, commonsensical commandment of "love thy neighbor" to the counter-intuitive dictum of "love thy neighbor as thyself."
This fact can be hard to discern because of the differences in both emphasis and terminology between the two religions. Buddhists are accustomed to thinking overtly about non-duality and interpenetration, and have, over the centuries, developed a specialized vocabulary to describe these ideas. Christianity, in contrast, has focused on other issues and non-duality has not occupied a similarly prominent position in Christian intellectual discourse. The concept of non-duality, however, is implicit to the Christian notion of love. If it is difficult for a Buddhist to pick up on the non-dual implications of this Christian concept, it is only because the language in which that concept is couched is so very different from the one Buddhists are used to.
Take, for example, Jesus’ famous dictum in Matthew 19:19, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." On the face of it, this deceptively simple statement commands us to love other people in exactly the same way we love ourselves. It tells us to love them as if they are us. But going beyond appearances, we can we might consider that perhaps Jesus is presenting a kind of dialectical process, one that synthesizes two different types of love to create a new form of love that is both more expansive and inclusive. On the one hand, there is ordinary neighbor-love, which, though noble in intent, lacks immediacy and naturalness. On the other hand, there is self-love, which is instinctual and unconditional, but limited to the confines of the psycho-physical self. Drawing on the best qualities of each and discarding the negative features creates a vision of self-love that extends outward to include others, thus transcending the limitations of the two other forms of love on which it is based. "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" clearly implies that neighbor-love comes out of self-love, in other words, that true love for others is an extension of the love you feel for yourself.
3. Mom-Love and Momchit-Love
This hidden correspondence between self-love and other-love in Jesus’ famous declaration can be further clarified by a return to the Buddhist perspective. Traditionally, East Asian thought has described the relationship between such distinct but non-different pairs through what I like to call the mom-momchit, or body-gesture construction. Some may know this hermeneutic device better by its original Chinese formulation, the t’i-yung or essence-function construction.
Basically, mom, or t’i, refers to corresponds to the uses of the body, its functions. All human gestures and expressions, whether physical, verbal, or mental, are included in the realm of mom-chit. Mom, on the other hand, refers to the base or root from which all mom-chit becomes possible. The most important aspect of the relation between the two is that they are inseparable. Wherever there is mom, there is mom-chit; correspondingly, wherever mom-chit occurs, mom abides. These two qualities cannot be separated from each other. Mom-chit can be compared to the branches and leaves of a tree, visible to all. Mom is then understood as the hidden roots of that tree, invisible but necessary for the branches and leaves or mom-chit to exist. When we consider Jesus’ dictum about loving one’s neighbor as oneself in these terms, self-love is the root-body, or mom, from which the branch-extensions, or mom-chit, of neighbor-love emerge.
At this point the character of self- or mom-love must be defined more precisely to avoid misunderstanding. I have already claimed earlier that it is as natural and reflexive as breathing. I would like to elaborate here by saying that it is also both absolute and permanent. After all, do you love yourself one day and not the next? Of course not. And do you love yourself simply because you are intelligent or handsome or wealthy or successful? Obviously not. You love yourself for the sole reason that you are you. You forgive your lapses and faults, and accept your shortcomings, simply because they are yours. The love you bear yourself is thus unchanging, unquestioning, and completely unconditional. No matter what happens, it will never be withdrawn.
Compare this to the love we usually extend to others in our daily life. In contrast to our mom-love, this other- or momchit-love is both highly conditional and mercurial. We care for others for many reasons: Because they are kind to us, humorous, intelligent, attractive, wealthy, etc. It doesn’t matter whether the reasons are laudable or shallow. The point is that there are reasons; in other words, our love for others is conditional and subject to withdrawal. If any of the qualities that we love in another should change or disappear, then our love for that person would accordingly adjust or vanish.
Given the all too obvious differences between these two forms of love, we can see the astonishing depth of committment that is necessary to apply Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Essentially, he tells us to extend our mom-love to include other people. In other words, our love for others must be reflexive, absolute and unconditional. We must love the ugly as well as the beautiful, the bad as well as the good, the cruel as well as the kind. We must love without qualification or change, just as we love ourselves.
When we can do that, we will be exercising karuna, the unconditional compassion that the Buddha feels for all sentient beings. To a Buddha, the bodies of all sentient beings are his or her own body. We ordinary, unenlightened people, trapped within a limited form of self-love, naturally care most for ourselves and our children, because these are all that we recognize as our bodies and the extensions of our bodies. But a Buddha cares for all sentient beings because he experiences directly the reality that everyone is part of his body.
Where Buddhism and Christianity seem to diverge, however, is on the question of how we learn to extend our mom-love to other people. Buddhist teaching demands that we attain Awakening. It is assumed that when we are enlightened we will perceive directly that other people are really part of ourselves. Seeing others as one with ourselves is the real meaning of Josaseon, or Seon of the Awakened Masters, and it is the full and final realization of the concept of Ch’am Saram, "the true human being", described by Great Master Seo-Ong. With this deeper understanding, what Buddhists call wisdom or prajna, mom-love becomes completely natural: We love others because they are ourselves.
Jesus takes a different approach. He states that the unconditional love we feel for ourselves is a mirror image of the unconditional love God feels for all humanity. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus points out the absolute and impartial quality of God’s love for man through a metaphor of nature: "God makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good and rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matthew 5:45) He then exhorts his listeners to be like God: "You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect." (Matthew 5:48) For Jesus, God’s unconditional love for humanity is the model that all people must emulate in their own lives.
At this point, we need to consider another question: If mom-love exists in us from the moment we are born, in the form of self-love, how is it that we’ve gotten lost, so to speak, in the changeable and conditional world of momchit-love? Why can’t we simply extend our mom-love to others automatically, since mom-love is inside of us already? These are rephrasings of the most fundamental questions in Buddhism: If we all have the Buddha-nature, or mom, why is it that we can only see the world of duality and discrimination--the momchit world?
The answer to this question is extremely complex, and can only be touched upon here. Christians explain our current state of delusion or sin through the story of man’s fall from grace in the garden of Eden. Buddhists rely on the concept of karma, the law of causation. Because of karma, the Buddhist argument goes, we look outside of ourselves for self-knowledge, trying to construct self-identity from the array of our external attributes. Asked the question, "Who are you?", we almost invariably list "objective" qualities, a curriculum vitae that contains, among other things, nationality, religion, education, and profession. We unconsciously feel that, because they are seemingly "objective," these qualities are somehow "truer" or more stable than other characteristics we might mention. The irony, of course, is that all of these qualities have less to do with us than with karmic forces outside of us, historical, political, cultural, and so on.
This tendency to "objectify" ourselves is exacerbated by the role of language in our self-understanding. As we all know, language is not only the medium by which we communicate with others, it is also the primary tool we use to communicate with ourselves. We think in words, and words therefore determine the shape and direction of our thoughts. If the right word or combination of words doesn’t exist, then it becomes almost impossible for us to envision the thought. We bump up against the limits of our conceptual capabilities. This means that, in the course of our lives, what we can know is basically determined by what we can say in words, through language.
The implications of this fact are extremely important. We do not learn words in a methodical, logical way. They are inserted into us at a very early age as the primary substantive content, hodge-podge and chaotic, of our historical and cultural legacy. They are prefabricated units of meaning, defined by cultural and historical forces--karmic forces. And they shape us because they determine not only what we can and cannot say to others, but what we can and cannot think about ourselves. The end result is thus inevitable: Since we know ourselves by way of our thoughts, and our thoughts are delimited by language, our self-knowledge comes to us filtered through the karmic forces of culture and history--in other words, through the world of momchit.
4. Realizing Mom
How, then, can we break free of the confines of language, the momchit world, to realize the world of mom that already exists inside of us. Both Buddhism and Christianity focus a great deal of attention on this problem. For Buddhism, the answer involves meditative practice directed toward Awakening. Practice, it is believed, turns the eye inward and allows us to observe mom, free of the distorting prism of language. Christians, too, emphasize breaking away from ordinary, mundane life, in order to participate in the perfect mom-love of God. Jesus tells his prospective followers:
If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. (Matthew 19:21)
And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name’s sake, will receive a hundredfold, and inherit eternal life. (Matthew 19:29)
Jesus is as sensitive to the distorting influences of language and culture as Buddhist thinkers are. He, too, feels the need to strip away mental and physical possessions to reach the eternal soul--the world of mom--inside the temporal self. He announces:
Let the children come to me; do not hinder them; for to such belong the kingdom of God. Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of god like a child shall not enter it. (Mark 10:14-15)
What does Jesus mean when he says that "whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it?" In my view he is pointing to the layers of momchit-knowledge--language, education and culture--that must be stripped away if one is to reach the mom of God. If you would know God, he seems to be positing, you must be as natural and unthinking as a child, free of culturally conditioned presuppositions and biases and the normative restrictions of society. Only then can you exercise the pure, reflexive mom-love inside of you.
But how does a fully developed adult become a child again? How do we, firmly entrenched in the world of momchit, break free and enter the world of mom?
Both Christianity and Buddhism propose a faith-based model of self-transformation. In Christianity, the believer places his faith in the mom-love of God, and in the example of mom-love set by Jesus Christ. In Buddhism, the practitioner must believe in his teachers and in the Awakened masters who came before them; the seeker believes, in other words, that it is possible to realize his Buddha-nature because others have done so in the past.
Both the Buddhist and Christian traditions also posit a startlingly counter-intuitive view of the relation between practice and attainment: They hold that self-transformation must precede practice. This is a paradoxical conceptual twist that has caused a great confusion and debate in the Buddhist world over the centuries.
For the sake of clarity it is best to consider the Christian view first. Jesus insists that one must become like a child before receiving the kingdom of God. If one is not already like a child, meaning free of the world of momchit, one will be unable to "receive the kingdom of God" and follow Jesus. The stripping away of momchit, and the realization of mom, must take place before one can exercise mom-love, and thus live the life of a true Christian.
Similar reasoning is deployed in the Buddhist understanding of the relation between practice and Awakening. Enlightenment must be present for true practice to begin. In the Four-fold Hua-yen theory of practice faith is depicted as the first step toward understanding or enlightenment; an initial Awakening allows the possibility of correct practice; and this practice ultimately takes the seeker to what is called "proof," or the certification of the authenticity and final perfection of one’s original Awakening.
The Four Noble Truths, the central credo of Buddhism, also assume the need for transformation to precede practice. Briefly stated, the first of the Four Noble Truths is dukkha, or suffering, which refers to the fact that for the unenlightened every moment of life is accompanied by suffering. The Second Noble Truth is samutpada, or co-arising, and it posits that we ourselves are the cause of our own suffering. The Third Noble Truth is nirodha, meaning cessation, a reference to the cessation of suffering that comes with Awakening. Only after achieving enlightenment do we arrive at the Fourth Noble Truth of marga, or the Eight-fold Path of Buddhist practice. Nirodha, the end of suffering that comes with enlightenment, is a prerequisite for marga, the true practice of Buddhism.
How can it be that enlightenment precedes practice? The answer resides in the distinctive meaning ascribed to the word "practice." The "practice" of the Eight-fold Path is not to be understood as steady progress toward a future goal or polishing a set of skills. We do not practice Buddhism in the way that we practice tennis or golf to improve our performance. Rather, we "practice" Buddhism because we are already fully enlightened Buddhas, and cannot help doing otherwise. Practice, in this sense, is the "gesture" or "expression"--momchit-- that arises automatically and directly from our mom, our Buddha-nature. It is not a deliberate act of will, but an activity wholly characteristic of our essential self, as reflexive as the body’s inclination to breathe.
Here a powerful similarity with the Christian view is visible. Jesus states that, before we can receive the kingdom of God, we must make ourselves like children again. We must return to an originally pure nature comparable to, if not identical with, the simplicity of a child’s mind. Only then can we love others with the unconditional mom-love that God shows to all humanity. Similarly, the Buddhist tradition claims that before we can truly practice Buddhism, we must return to our original nature as fully enlightened Buddhas. Once this is achieved, Karuna, or Mom-love towards others, becomes as automatic as sleeping or eating. The teachings of both religions agree in the assumption that we are already truly human, capable of selfless compassion towards others and lacking only in the understanding of what it means to be truly human.
5. Conclusion: The Uses of Suffering
I will conclude by touching on a subject that is of central importance to both religions: The reality of suffering. In Christianity, Jesus’s willingness to suffer on behalf of all mankind is essential to understand of his teaching. In Buddhism, duhkha, or suffering, is the first of the Four Noble Truths, the starting point for the Buddhist journey of self-discovery.
Traditionally, suffering is seen in Buddhism as a tool in the struggle to realize enlightenment. Buddhist practitioners are taught to utilize their personal suffering as a lever or oar for moving themselves closer to the goal of Awakening. Similarly, they are taught to regard the suffering of others as call to practice karuna, the compassion of the Buddha. Both of these responses to suffering are essential for the Buddhist seeker to become human.
Unfortunately, in modern times the Korean Buddhist monastic system has veered away from communicating and learning the teachings of duhkha and karuna in the context of Buddhist quest. I don’t think I need to remind anyone that Korea is, at present, enveloped in an economic crisis that is causing real suffering to ordinary citizens. The economy is contracting, businesses are going bankrupt, and decent, hardworking people are losing their jobs. I doubt there is a single family in the entire country that has not, to some extent, been affected. And yet Korean monks continue to live, relatively speaking, quiet, comfortable lives in their monasteries. They are effectively insulated from the anxiety and torment which color the lives of everyone outside of their monastery walls. The duhkha of ordinary citizens is barely seen or heard from within these confines. Thus, they miss the call and opportunity to practice karuna. This is a terrible loss for everyone, laypeople and monks alike. This national economic crisis highlights the deficiencies of the current system of interpreting and applying the Buddha’s teaching. Despite the central importance of compassion in Buddhist doctrine, most Korean monks feel no inclination to leave the safety of their monasteries to assuage the suffering of the people.
I am not implying that monasteries should not exist or that monasteries do not serve an important function. I am merely pointing out within monastic walls one often becomes habituated to considering the monastery a haven from the world and not a haven for the world. The Protestant thinker Calvin berated the Christians of his day for becoming so attached to the external structures of the Church--ritual, dogma and property--that they had forgotten what he called the invisible church, the living spirit of Christianity to be found within one’s heart. Similarly, Buddhists might recall that the invisible monastery, the glowing sanctuary within that shines upon and pervades the entire universe, is more important than the structures which house the monks.
I want to stress, however, that it is not just Buddhists who are negligent when it comes to meeting duhkha with karuna, and not just Koreans in Korea. I am equally saddened by the attitude displayed by many members of the Korean Christian community in the United States. Surrounded by American affluence, they seemed to have turned their attention to commerce, consumerism, and pursuit of "the good life," forgetting the important creative role of suffering in their own religious tradition. They forget, for example, that it was the suffering of the Israelites in Egypt that led to the creation of the Old Testament, the spiritual seed from which the entire Judeo-Christian tradition grew.
Without an awareness of the dynamic, creative role of suffering, any religion becomes spiritually enervated and self-serving. The willingness to embrace suffering is, in fact, the flip-side of mom-love, and an essential element of compassion. If one sees beyond the boundaries of the physical body and realize that each body includes all bodies, then true neighborly love begins. This love intensifies as it transforms the nature of personal suffering. Since my body is my neighbor’s body, my mom his mom, his suffering becomes my suffering. Without properly recognizing the relation between love and suffering, the depth of the Buddha’s boundless compassion and Jesus Christ’s absolute love can never be understood, let alone experienced.
The central role of suffering in both the Buddhist and Christian concepts of love has implications too far-reaching for investigating in a single paper. Suffice it to say that many of the ramifications are again counter-intuitive. For affluent believers, building churches and giving money to charity are positive pleasures that require little in the way of self-sacrifice. They are good works, certainly, and should be applauded as such, but they are still firmly rooted in the momchit world of you-and-I. They do not partake of the mom-love and mom-suffering which both Jesus and the Buddha taught.
Finally, I want to end by stressing my belief that the age of religious partisanship has ended. I believe we are entering a new age, in which spiritual seekers will be willing to look for and accept wisdom and guidance wherever they occur. As I hope this paper has shown, non-theistic Buddhism has more in common with theistic Christianity than one might otherwise assume. I have come to believe that Buddhists can gain important insights into their own tradition by looking at the way Christianity and other religious faiths approach themes of mutual concern such as love, compassion and suffering. These are, after all, the key elements of becoming truly human and one can never be too truthful or too human. For me it doesn’t matter which doctor the medicine comes from--the Buddha or Jesus. It only matters that the disease be cured.

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