The traumatic terrorist incident of September 11, 2001 did not immediately elicit any memorable or illuminating response from religious thinkers. Perhaps a theological reflection will take time to mature. Buddhists floated some tentative ideas on the internet: ‘Buddhists are asked, even in the midst of enormous suffering, to look back in order better to understand causes and conditions giving rise to suffering’ (Gene Reeves); ‘Singling out an enemy, we short-circuit the introspection necessary to see our own karmic responsibility for the terrible acts that have befallen us’ (David R. Loy). When the war-drums are beating, such calls to self-examination are likely to be dismissed as betrayal. The Christian rhetoric of forgiveness and reconciliation was scarcely heard at all, and leading churchmen confined their moral guidance to cautioning about the necessary conditions of a just war. In this paper, I wish to suggest, with specific reference to the failure of Christianity in Northern Ireland, that in order to formulate the message of forgiveness intelligently and persuasively we should root it in Buddhist analysis of causes and conditions.
The thirty year nightmare in Northern Ireland inspired poems and dramas, and many volumes of sociological and political reflection. The theological response might be gleaned from such concerned commentators as Enda McDonagh, Terence McCaughey, or Cardinal Cathal Daly – though indeed most parties to the conflict laced their ideologies with theology, varying from the archaic to the liberationist.. But the owl of Minerva flies at twilight; it is only now, as the dust begins to settle, that the deepest theological lessons can be drawn from the conflict. These lessons will not amount to a total understanding. As in the case of the Holocaust, theological inquiry serves to deepen our sense of ultimate bafflement. But at least the effort to reflect on the painful episode prevents us from simply writing it off as a regrettable lapse into ‘unchristian’ behaviour, a simple failure to remember the teachings of Christ, or as merely a political imbroglio in which religion had no essential role. One hypothesis that theology will explore is that our entire way of constructing our identities, including especially our religious identities, has been fundamentally deluded. Such delusive constructions of rigid identities are just the kind of thing Buddhism is good at diagnosing and healing.
Here I shall trawl through some Buddhist literature in the hope of finding some grains of healing insight. Why Buddhism? Has not Christian tradition an abundance of resources? Yes, but precisely in this case the Christian resources have been tainted, or have come to seem a futile rhetoric. Talk of forgiveness and reconciliation has fallen on jaded ears as a facile, predictable response, or a noxious moralizing. Buddhism might seem to offer only a new coating of vacuous, ineffective talk, or ‘a milk and honey solution to a bread and water problem’. But what makes Buddhism a promising resource for dealing with entrenched attitudes of fear and hatred is its capacity for probing analysis. This analysis aims at a practical therapeutic effect, but it also has a keen intellectual grip. Its systematic pursuit of psychological and ontological insight gives its approach to the human condition an invigorating quality, and allows it to form close connections with the modern anthropological sciences. It can help to revitalize the tired Christian ideas of love and forgiveness and restore to them a compelling logic and a grounding in the real, showing that the Gospel message, too, is not mere idealism but has immediate practical force. Buddhist therapy aims to be precisely tailored to the ailments it would address. Christian language needs to find the same precise functionality, cutting away the accumulated bombast of centuries, and soberly adjusting our words to realities. For such a reform, a cool gaze from the outside is required, and Buddhism is the most constructive and enlightening of such external perspectives.
The Northern conflict has had a paralyzing effect on the minds of many in the Irish Republic. We have been reluctant to devote mental energy to a situation which has generated so much heated rhetoric and so little fruitful discussion. Buddhism brings a neutral and fresh perspective, allowing calm examination of the mass of diseased discourse. When the Three Poisoons – clinging, aversion, and delusion – put forth such ripe fruits as in Northern Ireland, they provide promising material for a diagnosis of bondage that can become a map of release. The tragic wastelands of the past can be transformed into goldmines yielding nuggets of insight. The exercise may arouse the same distaste, the same fear of contamination, as does the early Buddhist practice of meditating on the unpleasant (asubha-bhavana), such as dead bodies or disgusting physical processes, in order to grasp the truth of impermanence and attain spiritual equanimity. Most nations and churches prefer to forget historical trauma rather than to learn from it. But educational responsibilities towards new generations of citizens or believers may demand an unflinching gaze at the historical record and what it reveals. Otherwise the new generations will be ‘condemned to repeat’ the mistakes of the old.
If fixated notions of identity acerbated the strife in Northern Ireland, the Buddhist dismantling of such notions could remove the seeds of future conflict. Each of the Three Poisons brings the others in its wake. To hate is to grasp at a fixated sense of one’s own identity and a delusive image of what one hates. Buddhist meditation discerns and dissolves these unwholesome passions and the reifications they project. Meditation is advertised clumsily as ‘spiritual cultivation’, suggesting an effete luxury. But meditation produces the calm insight that can create a less toxic world, by dissolving the basis of many forms of violence. People in the grip of rage or fear are unlikely to be open to the arcane wisdom of Buddhism. But that wisdom becomes less arcane when conveyed through a method of immanent analysis or deconstruction, showing that rage and fear themselves logically entail Buddhist insight into the illusoriness of their bases. In this sense folly is its own undoing, and ‘the evil passions themselves are enlightenment’.
Buddhist Approaches to Forgiveness
Christianity is based on the idea, or rather the event, of divine forgiveness: ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world with himself’ (2 Cor. 5.19). That is correlated with mutual forgiveness between human beings: ‘Forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you’ (Eph. 4.32); ‘As the Lord has forgiven you, so you also [must forgive]’ (Col. 3.13). To be set right with God is to be set right with one another, as the barriers of the past yield to the construction of a loving community. ‘You who were once far off have been brought near in the blood of Christ. For he is our peace who has made us both one, and has broken down the dividing wall of hostility’ (Eph. 2.13-14).
Why was this gracious reality so little actualized in Northern Ireland? Even now, when a measure of rational political coexistence has been achieved, there is little cordiality or friendship between the Christian communities of the area. Such cordiality would be the fruit of mutual apology and mutual forgiveness, but even that seems to be far from people’s minds. The word ‘forgiveness’ is not a popular one; it sounds like the jargon of sentimental preachers. Easier to forget than to forgive, for forgiveness implies a relationship with the one to be forgiven, and it may be just such a relationship that is not desired. The kind of human relationships forgiveness entails are at the polar opposite from the war mentality that objectifies the enemy. Peace-building means cultivating an intimacy, a mutuality of concern, with the one that had been comfortably categorized as the enemy. We in the South could direct a warm and reassuring benevolence toward all parties in the Northern conflict, as we persuade them to disarm both physically and mentally. We could provide a model of mental decommissioning by assessing and correcting religious and national ideologies which have bred intolerance, hatred or violence.
The topic of forgiveness may seem at first sight remote from the concerns of Buddhism. Buddhism does not conceive ultimate truth or reality in the guise of a personal God. Its conceptions of error and defilement do not readily translate into the biblical categories of sin and guilt. The Buddhist solution to unwholesome dispositions is to overcome them by following the path that leads to release; acts of pardon and grace have little to do with it. In some early Buddhist texts it sounds as if forgiveness is just a matter of mental hygiene. The emphasis falls not on forgiving but on the foolishness of taking offence in the first place:
’He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me’ – in those who harbour such thoughts hatred will never cease.
’He abused me, he struck me, he overcame me, he robbed me’ – in those who do not harbour such thoughts hatred will cease. (Dhammapada 1.3-4; trans. Radhakrishnan)
In contrast, biblical rhetoric is full of references to enemies, slanderers, persecutors. Buddhism might unmask a delusion here, rather than go on to talk of forgiving one’s enemies and blessing one’s persecutors. The biblical healing comes too late, when we are already fixated on imagining the other as enemy. Biblical salvation is atonement for evils that have occurred; Buddhist salvation is more negative, an effort to prevent the evils from arising in the first case. When they have already arisen, it calmly proceeds to dismantle them by going back to their roots. One universal process of karmic causality presides over all evils and the cure for them. Even the ultimate goal of undoing the chains of karma and entering the freedom of nirvana is attained through following this analytical procedure. There is no supernatural dissolution of bondage to evil by an act of grace (at least in early Buddhism). Thus when we seek resources in Buddhism for a clarification and underpinning of the biblical ideas of sin, forgiveness, grace, reconciliation, and atonement, we face the risk that these notions themselves will disappear, as primitive approximations to the higher wisdom of Buddhism.
There is a deep tension between the Indian wisdom that grasps ultimate reality in impersonal terms and regards the idea of a creator (Îsvara) or any personalizations of the ultimate as at best provisional skilful means (upâya) for those who need them, and the Christian conviction that ultimate reality is most fully and concretely known when it gives itself the voice and face of a personal God. Within Christianity there have been efforts to transcend the image of God as personal Creator, notably that of Eckhart, or to combine the personal conception with an impersonal one such as the Thomist ipsum esse subsistens. Today that debate can continue more broadly and fruitfully on the interreligious plane – even as we remain convinced of the primacy and centrality of the personal God of Scripture, we can allow the impersonal conceptions to play against it critically, providing a perspective that prevents the personal language from becoming positivistic or literalistic and thus prevents the drama of sin and forgiveness from being reduced to an infantilizing schema of placating an offended Father.
Mahâyâna (the ‘greater vehicle’ Buddhism, whose origins may be traceable to a schism at the Second Council a century after the Buddha’s death), with its plethora of saviour figures, makes place for a warmer, more positive conception of forgiveness than we find in early Buddhism. But even here salvation centres not on forgiveness but on release from delusion and suffering through meditative insight into the nature of reality. This coolness of Buddhism can sometimes show up a hollowness and ineffectuality in our talk of forgiveness, insofar as it attempts to enact a Christlike drama in a merely emotional manner, without reasoned insight into the delusory character of hatred and resentment. Buddhism queries the reality of the passions that make forgiveness necessary and queries also the reality of the objects of those passions. My anger, resentment, hatred are a delusion, and so is the crime or offence the other is thought to have committed against me. Indeed my very conception of myself and of the other is pervaded by delusion and fixation. Even if these Buddhist ideas were totally untrue, it would still be very wholesome to meditate on them at a time when national, ethnic and religious identity has so often shown a murderous face.
The person harbouring resentful thoughts may as a matter of fact have been abused, struck, overcome, robbed, yet his brooding on this imprisons him in delusion and fixation. The remembered offence retains a life of its own long after the act that occasioned it has passed away. Memory of past offences plays a huge role in contemporary culture, and there is insufficient reflection on the dangers of clinging to such memory. Much current rhetoric makes the hurt, anger, traumatization felt by victims into a kind of sacred cow that cannot be questioned. Instead of seeking to heal and dispel these psychic wounds, victims are encouraged to nag at them and to seek ‘closure’ by some form of vindictive payback. Hatred is still regarded as a strength rather than a poison and a bondage. One must seek to understand the rage of the oppressed, but without forgetting how rage tends inherently to become blind and rigid, feeding on itself, which limits its efficacy as an agent of historical change. Rage finds stereotyped expression in destructive acts. Its delusional aspects must be undone if the energy of indignation is to be converted into a motor of flexible and strategic action.
Equanimity is the attitude most prized in early Buddhism, not only because it is the condition for the effective practice of loving-kindness, compassion, and sympathetic joy, but because it excels these as a realization of spiritual freedom. The person of equanimity never takes offence. Yet in Mahâyâna Buddhism equanimity tends to yield pride of place to compassion, and forgiveness becomes more than a matter of spiritual freedom. It takes on a positive complexion within the altruistic bodhisattva ideal. The bodhisattva recognizes in the enemy an occasion for practising forbearance, a stimulus to spiritual activity. But he practises forgiveness for the enemy’s own sake as well. Ksanti, patience, the third of the six perfections of a bodhisattva, is primarily shown in forbearance of enemies:
He forgives them for what has been done in the past, for what is being done at present and for what will be done in future... He forgives all without exception, his friends, his enemies, and those who are neither... He is like a dumb sheep in quarrels and squabbles. In a word, his forgiveness is unfailing, universal and absolute – even as Mother Earth suffers in silence all that may be done to her. A bodhisattva should cultivate certain modes of thought and ponder on some great principles, so that he may understand why he should forgive others... His enemy of today may have been a friend, a relative or a teacher in a previous existence and should therefore be regarded as an old comrade. A bodhisattva also knows that there is no permanent substantive individuality in any man or woman. Hence it follows that there is really no one who reviles, beats and injures, or who is reviled, beaten and injured. All beings are ephemeral and mortal; it is improper to be angry with such miserable creatures. They are also afflicted with pain... A bodhisattva should try to alleviate their pain, not to increase it by lack of forbearance. He should also be more or less of a determinist in judging others, who harm him. Those enemies are not free agents: their wicked deeds are produced by causes, over which they have no control... Further, a bodhisattva cannot really blame others for the injuries that they may inflict upon him, because he suffers on account of his own sins and misdeeds in his previous existence. His enemies are only the instruments of the cosmic law of karma. In fact, they are his best friends, and he should thank them for their services... A wise bodhisattva should forgive others even from fear, as vindictiveness always ends in evil. (Dayal, 210-11)
To regard your enemy as your best friend, as a bodhisattva sent to help you is an attitude enjoined by the Lotus Sutra, which shows the Buddha describing his arch-enemy Devadatta as one who benefited him in a previous existence and one who is destined to become a great Buddha. What facilitates such attitudes in Buddhism is the notion that there is no permanent identity in either the offender or the offended. Practice of the difficult art of forgiveness enatils willingness to recognize our own lack of substantial being, the totally contingent, dependently arisen, empty texture of our existence and our history. Compassion (karuna) is based on ‘realising the equality of oneself and others and also practising the substitution of others for one self. When a bodhisattva cultivates the habit of regarding others as equal to himself, he gets rid of the ideas of “I and Thou” and “Mine and Thine’’’ (Dayal, 179). What is enacted in forgiveness and reconciliation is the discovery of ourselves and others as vulnerable, relative – empty entities, and with it the discovery of ultimate reality as something empty of all bullying and threatening self-insistence (as in distorted conceptions of God), as something gracious and trustworthy, so that we have nothing to fear in letting our ‘selves’ go. The doctrine of non-self is not hammered home in Buddhism; it is diffused as a kind of perfume throughout the attitudes of equanimity, freedom and compassion that are practised. If a community can pass from civil war to a culture of reconciliation, they enact a conversion of mind with profound philosophical and theological implications.
Note that when the bodhisattva discovers some offence that might induce rage, he sees it instead as an occasion to practise forgiveness. The memory of past wrongs is put to a spiritually profitable use. Following the lead given in the Vatican on Ash Wednesday 2000, the churches everywhere should integrate into their liturgies ceremonies of apology for wrongs inflicted in the past and also cermonies of forgiveness for wrongs suffered. The point of this is not masochistic self-abasement, but freedom – freedom from the burdens of guilt and of bitterness, and freedom to relate to the other communities from whom we have been alienated for centuries by a refusal to apologize or to forgive.
The Kenosis of the Collective Ego
The Northern Ireland tragedy thrived on essentialism, which in Buddhism is the most fundamental form of ignorance (avidyâ). ‘Irish’ and ‘British’, ‘Unionist’ and ‘Nationalist’, ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’ were positioned over against one another in rigid, dualistic alterity. The powerful hold of these abstractions is difficult to explain. Consider the fear and rage we feel when our inflated image of our self is dinted by telling criticism, or by the Buddhist teaching that there is no separate self and that we exist only as a sequence of dependently co-arising occasions. Adherents of religious traditions are gripped by the same fear and rage when their tradition is convicted of error or wrongdoing. They will elude the criticism by pointing to an inner core of the tradition that is immune from error or sin, just as we cling to the image of an inner self. From a Buddhist point of view religions are merely skilful means, shaped in function of constantly changing historical conditions, so that a religion that boasts of its unchanging core is by that very token becoming an unskilful, dysfunctional affair, a blockage to enlightenment. It is certainly no coincidence that two Christian cultures notoriously resistant to change – Ulster Protestantism and le Catholicisme du type irlandais – should have been involved in the Northern Ireland conflict. The dispute between Nationalism and Unionism is on its own a deadly clash of essentialisms, but its religious underpinning fits it like a glove. Like faded beauties who are blind to their wrinkles, these traditions are oblivious to the mismatch between their self-image and the political and religious realities of contemporary Europe. It may be that the more deluded one’s self-perception, and the more ridiculous it makes one look to bemused observers, the more resistant it is to correction.
The Buddhist middle way is the way of emptiness, between substantialism (or essentialism) on the one hand and nihilism (or total loss of identity) on the other. There is no separate self. The self is dependently co-arising at every moment in intricate interaction with the various conditions of its existence, including past moments on the continuum of its karma. The self that exists now is not the self that existed in the past nor will the future self be the self that exists now. Instead of grasping at self as a separate reality and worrying about its survival we should deal with the here and now, with the conditions making for bondage and for release.
When, bhikkhus, a noble disciple has clearly seen with correct wisdom as it really is this dependent origination and these dependently arisen phenomena, it is impossible that he will run back into the past, thinking: ‘Did I exist in the past? Did I not exist in the past? What was I in the past? How was I in the past? Having been what, what did I become in the past?’ Or that he will run forward into the future, thinking: ‘Will I exist in the future? Will I not exist in the future? What will I be in the future? How will I be in the future? Having been what, what will I become in the future?’ Or that he will now be inwardly confused about the present thus: ‘Do I exist? Do I not exist? What am I? How am I? This being – where has it come from, and where will it go?’ (Bodhi, 552)
Letting go of representations of a fixed ego, a substantial soul, is a way to reconnect ourselves with the total interrelationships within which our existence in reality is taking place, to reconnect ourselves with the cosmos, or with the dependently arising thusness of things. Thusness (tathatâ), or the way things ultimately are, the ultimate way of things, is not correctly conceived as being to the exclusion of non-being, or as non-being to the exclusion of being, or as partially being, partially non being, or as neither being nor non-being. All these expressions are abstractions imposed on the living present. (For this tetralemma, see Bodhi, 546, 548.)
Formations of continuity, such notions as career, success, lifework, vocation, marriage, or such notions as the soul, variously subject to the disease of sin and the healing of grace, are products of grasping. The temporal continuum such notions attempt to reify is full of discontinuities between one moment and the next. The self is a sequence of fleeting occasions. The continuity of a beloved other or of God is the continuity of a series of turnings to that other, the continuity of a constantly changing tale we tell ourselves about that other. Formations such as church, nation, race, ancestry are also products of grasping, collective ego-obsessions, painful delusions. Studying the historical process of the formation of the discourse that produced these entities one realizes their dissolution is inscribed in their construction. Their continuity is that of a constantly rewoven story and when the web entangles us it is time to start telling the story differently, or even tearing the conventional web to let some ultimate awareness come through, awareness that in the here and now there is no Jew or Gentile, male or female, Irish or English, but only the irreducible contingency of dependently arising occasions.
The substantialized self is provided with a grandiose mythic history. We attribute a masterful continuity to our aims and acts, mistaking what is the product of habit formations or of a willed pose for an expression of our abiding essence. To measure this idealized self-image against the actual facts of one’s performance inflicts a salutary narcissistic wound. The same is true of a nation’s idealized self-image. Revisionists seek out facts that show the heterogeneity of history and its shifting alliances, in order to reveal the unitary nationalist reading of history as a product of the imaginaire. As the differences between the present and the past come into sharper focus, the pure identities posited by ideologically shaped history are shown to be constructs of recent vintage. Revisionism does not fix the absolute objective truth about history, for that, too, is a delusory goal. But it can free us in the present from the fixated stories about ourselves that prevent us from apologizing for or forgiving the crimes of the past. To use revisionism skilfully for this purpose we should reverse the common approach whereby the ones accused seek to minimize their guilt while the accusers maximize their wrongs. In the ideal society of reconciliation, the historical aggressors would apologize even to excess for the wrongs inflicted, never giving themselves the benefit of the doubt, while the victims would seek to strip away the exaggerations and simplifications of received propaganda and to air the old grievances in a more modest and even deprecatory manner, conscious of shameful blots on their own record as well. This self-emptying approach is being achieved in much present discussion of Irish history.
The extreme of substantialism whereby one asserts oneself goes hand in hand with the extreme of nihilism whereby one negates the other. If we are real and substantial there must be another who is unreal and insubstantial, the reprobrate, the heretic, whom we have always been good at reducing to nothing. When we insist on the purity and completeness of the Catholic faith we tend in the next breath to negate the Protestant faith, failing to see that a blow against the Christian faith and practice of others is a blow at Christian faith as such. Dogma itself, the effort to hammer out foolproof definitions of the content of faith, can hardly be taken as an unambiguously benign achievement given the amount of blood spilled in its name. It breeds ‘attachment to views’ by its very nature, and instils in those with right views a sense of superiority to those with wrong. True, ‘right view’ (samma ditthi), knowledge of the Four Noble Truths, is the first step on the Buddhist Eightfold Path. If dogma were wholesome right view in a Buddhist sense, it would only be our excessive attachment to it that should be diagnosed as unwholesome. Perhaps there is something in the Four Noble Truths that discourages the arrogance of orthodoxy, much as the Sermon on the Mount does. The teaching is too practical in its challenge to boost the sense of mastery that dogmatic knowledge gives. In any case the fundamental Mahâyâna scriptures, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, consider all views to be ultimately wrong views. We are familiar with the idea that objectifications of God may be distortions. But for Mahâyâna, objectification of anything at all, as when we name or conceive such items as chairs and tables, is a false way of thinking, having at best a provisional, conventional validity. Perfect insight is nonconceptual; it is non-grasping, non-acquiring, non-addictive. It is perfectly detached from the conceptual formations arising in the realm of daily transactions, being peacefully attuned to the ultimate thusness of things.
Language about God like language about self, nation, world, has at best only a conventional validity. To insist emphatically on any view about God is to build too much on a fragile foundation. However, perfect insight does not entirely discredit our dealings with the conventional counters of speech and conceptuality. ‘Perfect insight is not different from the real nature of those characteristics of the attached mode which, conventionally, the perfection of insight is supposed to eliminate’ (Potter, 85). Even though the ultimate subverts all the fabrications and attachments of the conventional, and there is no bridge between the two levels, nonetheless what is really being aimed at in my delusive conventional language about God is retrieved at the ultimate level in a quite different key. Notice how these paradoxes affect the affirmation, ‘God exists,’ one of the views to which religious people are likely to be addictively attached. We can say: ‘God exists’ is conventionally valid but ultimately invalid, in the sense that any naming or conceptualizing of God is a distortion. Or we can say that the ultimate truth intended by the statement, ‘God exists’, is established fully only at the ultimate level of perfect insight. Dogmatic assertion has, then, a very limited and modest role, and is always outstipped and overshadowed by a sense of its inadequacy to the ultimate reality that it seeks to point to from within conventional discourse.
Religious traditions are dependently arisen formations, human language serving as conventional vehicles of ultimacy, skilful means that often become unskilful when we forget their function as a mere means and try to make them substantial ends in themselves. If religion is a set of conventions empty of substantial identity, what then becomes of the substantial God of Christianity and the very concrete determinate identification of God in the scriptural word and in the Word Incarnate? Buddhism strongly affirms that the ultimate is not Brahman, not a ground, not a substance or personal being. Can divine ultimacy accommodate itself to these negations? The Johannine God is not substance but spirit, love, light – empty or nirvanic realities pervading the dependently arising world. The Incarnation of this God means that a certain disposition of conventional forms allows the emptiness of God to shine through – thus the story of Jesus becomes an eloquent Word revealing the empty face of God. This new understanding of the economy of New Testament revelation does not seem to me to contradict the doctrines of Nicea and Chalcedon; rather it moves to a new paradigm, a new language-game, largely incommensurable with the thought-frame of the Councils.
The construction of character in novels has an apotropaic function, warding off anxieties about the coherence of selfhood and providing models of identity for the society (Miller, 94-100). In traditional usage ‘God’ functions like the stable character in a traditional novel, anchoring the coherence of religious and philosophical discourse. In current discourse God as stable character is yielding to God as space of deconstruction. If we think of God as a gracious encompassing reality, we also know that it is a reality that cannot be securely pinned down, and that reveals itself in its withdrawal, as what forever eludes our grasp. Similarly, the stable self to be redeemed, the soul, is yielding place to a process of liberation or redemption which goes on collectively and in which the individual’s story finds its context. When we try to pin down our individual identity and its destiny we fall back on some frozen myth about who we are, and miss out on the changing life that is going on all around us. Joyce, who spent his life battling against the rigidity of mind he found in his homeland, pushes awareness of the constructedness and fluidity of identity almost to the point of a Buddhist deconstruction of self, as he shows how character is pieced together out of a protean bundle of possibilities or from the materials provided by the culture. Dismantling fixated identity, modernist writing recalls us to a focus on the moment of experience as it arises and passes. This penetrates to the true substance of human existence, purging away the projections inherited from the past. The self arising and passing is a non-self, a self that knows itself to be an ephemeral conventional construct. Joyce’s soundings of Irish speech and consciousness reveals how the mind is bound by cultural stereotypes and how a web of fabrications (prapanca) interposes between it and the real. All religious representations belong to that web too. Critical work on these fabrications may enable us to refashion them creatively as a skilful means conducive to enlightenment. The work of the artist is in this sense aligned with the Buddhist endeavour. Perhaps it is via literary rather than religious culture that Buddhist wisdom has its best hope of gaining entry into the Irish soul.
The Ontology of Apology
Today we are taking the first steps to a culture of forgiveness, when it will be normal and normative for nations to work at forgiving those who have injured them and seeking forgiveness from those they have injured. When nations actively set out to seek forgiveness for the wrongs they have inflicted, they make it easier for the wronged nations to express forgiveness, and even in some cases to ask for forgiveness in return. The hour of apology has struck for the churches in particular, for the crimes of the past were often sanctioned by Christian rhetoric that allowed them to be committed in good conscience. Popes launched crusades with the cry, ‘Dieu le veut’ and not until Islam had ceased to threaten Europe did people call this in doubt. Elizabeth congratulated her genocidal adventurers in Ireland, telling them they had given glory to God. The warrant for such thinking goes back to an archaic stratum of the Bible itself: read Numbers 25 or 31 (but there are hundreds of such texts). Crimes thus sanctified were painted into a glorious pageant so that their horror could not be perceived.
The scandal of religious crime is a topic for endless meditation and analysis, not to be swept away by an opportunistic expression of regret. Indeed, the recent gestures of apology from the Vatican have been attended by some signs of unwillingness to probe very deeply into causes. It is argued that the Church in its intangible essence and in its authoritative magisterium remained entirely innocent; only its erring, unworthy children engaged in betrayal of the Gospel – sometimes in their excess of laudable zeal for the defence of truth. That zeal itself, and that fixated notion of truth, are immunized to critical questioning. The crimes of the past are seen as something ultimately unintelligible, part of the unfathomable mystery of evil, of Original Sin. Instead of seeking healing through radical analysis it is easier to shrug and sigh about being a Church of sinners, with the fatalistic implication that we are bound to sin again in the future. Such language is designed to prevent recognition of the fact that it was not weak, lukewarm Catholics but saintly and orthodox ones, including Doctors of the Universal Church such as John Chrysostom, Bernard of Clairvaux and Robert Bellarmine, who vilified Jews, preached Crusades, and lit the fires of the Inquisition. The complacent assumption that it is easy to be enlightened and to be free from racism and other disapproved attitudes thrives on the contemplation of the crimes and follies of great saints and thinkers in the past. A more pertinent reflection would be that if they did not escape such blindness, we are no more likely to, as indeed the daily record of our behaviour continues to show. Perhaps we cannot forgive the crimes of the past on behalf of their victims, but we can learn that our own crimes, conscious and unconscious, will also need forgiveness, unless we have indeed attained a state of enlightenment which both Christianity and Buddhism agree to be rare. Seeing the errors of the past should be the first step to seeing our own errors. The depths of blindness that history reveals are the depths in which we still grope, but the study of history makes us aware of our state, and can a step to awakening. Deludedness is our lot; yet we are also assured by both religions that ultimate gracious reality is immediately present to us and in us, so that the overcoming of delusion is not to be feared but to be longed for.
Apology is still not a popular policy in Christian circles. The Stuttgart Confession of 1945 in which German church leaders repented for the suffering caused by Nazism (no mention of the Holocaust) ‘provoked a widespread anger in German Churches, media and politics’ and even Jürgen Moltmann thought the Confession had no raison d’être: ‘a person who acknowledges their guilt becomes vulnerable. They have their head bowed down so as to no longer remain in control of their acts, whilst on the other hand, the victims keep for longer their vivid memories’ (Gatwa, 17). What makes apology and forgiveness difficult is that they imply an emptying of the ego, a humiliating kenosis. Institutions are as self-protective as individuals, fearing that too much humility will result is a sell-out, a dissolution of inherited identity..
Religion has performed a noble task in upholding the victim’s memory, and using it to instil vigilance for the rights and freedoms of oppressed people. To expose the sacred history of these wrongs to a revisionist reading, it is felt, would be a betrayal of the dead and a form of blaming the victim. It is true that one of the effects of historical oppression is to induce a great lack of self-confidence in the victims – Jews, gays, colonized peoples have often suffered from self-hatred. Fear of apology today is fear of a negation of what the Church has been, a nihilistic loss of identity. But ancestral memory turns poisonous when it becomes a source of resentment and prickly self-righteousness, breeding the sense that revenge is a sacred duty, or that the results of historic injustice must be undone by such methods as ethnic cleansing.
The fixated quality of such memory is based on the purism with which the myth of identity is upheld. Ireland, cast in the role of eternal victim, fails to see that the role has become stale and rotten, and that the crimes recently committed in the name of that victimhood are not a glorious affirmation of unchanging identity but a proof that identity is a process of perpetual change, for the glorious patriot of yesterday is revealed as the contemptible terrorist of today, yesterday’s victim as today’s sadist, yesterday’s visionary of freedom as today’s myopic obscurantist. People feel that it is wholesome and uplifting to swear by an unchanging identity, religious or national. To realize that any identity, any orthodoxy, is no more than a provisional arrangement, a story that may serve a useful purpose, allows one to engage with the treasured past of one’s ethnic or religious tradition in a more skilful way. This frees one to criticize the past with the confidence that one’s identity, always a provisional and changing matter in any case, will benefit from the exercise.
The practice of apologizing for the crimes of one’s predecessors or accepting forgiveness in their name raises many tantalizing problems. By what right do we speak on their behalf? And what good does our apologizing do for their victims? It is good to meditate on this issue, for it is another path leading to the Buddhist insight into the non-substantiality of the self. To recognize the gap between my present and my past ego, or between the present ‘Ireland’ and the past ‘Ireland’, is to be freed from a fixated sense of identity. To cling to an essentially pure and unchanging self (or nation or church) is to be at war with the empty texture of reality and of history, and so to condemn oneself to an exhausting struggle.
Even when apology or forgiveness bear on a crime committed by an individual in his past life, the one forgiven is no longer precisely the one who committed the crime. The crime was the product of a contingent congeries of conditions which can neither be recreated nor undone. Apology and forgiveness in regard to long past events are bound to work with simplistic reifications of those events, and with feelings about them that are full of delusion. But the effect of these practices is to break the hold of this reification and delusion, for it replaces one set of attitudes to the past with another set that lays a better basis for present and future relationships. Apology and forgiveness allow the past to be past, so that it need longer extend its paralysing spectral clutch to the present. Coming to terms with the past (Vergangenheitsbewältigung) is a futile, merely academic business if pursued as an end in itself. The active initiative of apology and forgiveness takes the past as theme for addressing present relations between the one who apologizes and the one who forgives. To be skilfully brought off, such initiatives must be more than arbitrary spur of the moment gestures. They should be the precipitate of long reflection, just as the realization of non-self comes from long practice of meditation and analysis.
For people to discuss the injuries and grudges that have poisoned their relations for centuries, working together on them so as to build toward radical reconciliation, is not only a realization of the central Christian and Buddhist aims; it is a task that has become imperative for all nations today, given what we know of the lethal potency of unrepented and unforgiven historical crimes. The forces that unleash mass carnage may seem more powerful than those behind our first faltering steps toward a culture of reconciliation. But those are the forces of illusion and fixation, these the force of reality. In a world of total interdependence and constant change, the fixated discourse of hate declares war on reality, and is immediately obsolescent, though it may persist in its delusion for a long time, creating a hell on earth.
Nâgârjuna’s Medicine of Emptiness
Nâgârjuna (second century founder of Madhyamaka, the ‘central philosophy of Buddhism’) reinforces the message of the Perfection of Wisdom sutras by dialectical arguments showing the invalidity of all views and the impossibility of ascribing substantive existence to any reality whatever. He builds on the general Buddhist sense that the objects projected by our passions have no real existence. Hatred generates hate-objects, demonizations, which are intrinsically delusive – energy invested in hatred is energy invested in imprisoning ourselves more and more in a delusion. Nâgârjuna adds an interesting twist: if the object of a passion has no real existence, the passion itself is doubly unreal:
Attachment, aversion and illusion derive from the imagination; they arise in function of the good, the bad, and misconceptions. The passions arising in dependence on the good, the bad, and misconceptions do not exist in themselves, and so do not exist in reality. (MMK 23.1-2)
The passions are doubly insubstantial: ‘the defilements, in virtue of depending on these attributions [of pleasantness or unpleasantness to things] and upon our relation to pleasant and unpleasant things, all of which are themselves empty, are empty of inherent existence. Indeed, they are not only dependently arisen, but depend upon things or features of those things already shown to be empty’ (Garfield, 285). The three poisons have no substantive existence, since the subject suffering from them does not, and since the appraisals of good and evil on which desire and aversion thrive are projections of the imagination. Commenting on the above text, Candrikîrti quotes: ‘Desire, I know thy root; thou art born, as is well known, of the imagination. I shall imagine thee no longer; then thou wilt no longer exist for me’ (De Jong, 180). All stirrings of passion project, and give power to, an imagined object. When we feel desire or hate we should pause to deconstruct its projections, not lodge in them complacently. The annals of Northern Ireland offer many rich targets for Nagarjunian analysis: not only the idolized or detested objects that loom large in the imagination of both parties, but also the feelings that these objects inspire.
Fear and hatred are based on the imaginative projection of the delusive objects of these passions. Avoidance of danger and resistance to evil is more skilfully achieved if one is free of these passions. To entrench oneself in them is an over-reaction that in doubly insuring the stability of the threatened ego in condemns it to a self-made prison. The ego lives by fear and hate, or rather is a product of fear and hate, as delusive and fixated as they are. ‘We had fed the heart on fantasies,/The heart’s grown brutal from the fare’ (Yeats). When the other is demonized and one’s own Cause is given a grandiose mythic status, imagination is feeding on delusive objects, and the hate and clinging they inspire, for all the power of their deadly grip, are wanting in some ultimate reality. Anything that presents itself to our awareness as having substantial existence is a target for Nâgârjuna’s sceptical dialectic, and for meditation based on it. We are to reflect, insistently and serenely, that the alleged substance is dependently co-arisen, that the ego, for example, is an assemblage of contingent factors, all coming into existence and passing out of existence at lightning speed. What really exists is not the substantial ego but a constantly dissolving momentary phenomenon, something that is empty of all substantial presence or identity, something that acquires its relative and provisional identity only through the operation of the verbal conventions that construct the world of our experience. Our self is a history, a process, which we block and paralyze by our innate presumption of its inherent existence.
Passions, delusions, sin, error, bondage are insubstantial because the self is insubstantial:
The defilements are somebody’s.
But that one has not been established.
Without that possessor,
The defilements are nobody’s. (23.4)
While earlier Buddhist scholasticism had talked of ultimate components of reality, the Perfection of Wisdom sutras declare that everything without exception is empty. ‘On the level of what is an ultimate, primary existent there is nothing. On such a level, therefore, there is an endless absence, an endless emptiness. Thus to think that dharmas have primary existence is to grasp. As an exhortation this is an appeal to complete letting-go’ (Williams, 136). Again, whatever the controversies such a doctrine may suscite, it can have a powerful practical bearing on a situation such as that in Northern Ireland in which people cling desperately to identity and have great trouble in letting go. Even if we follow the softer Yogâcâra (mind-only) version of the doctrine of emptiness – as meaning merely that the ultimate way of things is empty of subject-object duality – this, too, strikes a body blow at the sharp distinctions between opposed tribes and traditions.
Our belief that we live in a world of solid substances and stable essences is profoundly reassuring, and that is why we cling to it. For Nâgârjuna this very belief is a sickness and the security it brings is no more than the persistence of a noxious addiction. His diagnosis applies not only to the obvious bulwarks of egocentic delusion – my ego, my possessions, my habits, my ideological views – but also to the fixated quality of religious ideas, insofar as they free us from one set of addictions only by making us prisoner of another, somewhat as in the stereotype of the alcoholic who becomes a religious fanatic. Such a message is terrifying at first, yet in the end it serves to cast out fear. ‘Emptiness is also the antidote to fear... For if all is empty, what is there left to fear?’ (ib.).
To live in a world of conventions, without sacred cows or taboos, treating all identities sceptically, is to move in freedom along the Buddhist middle way:
Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the middle way. (MMK 24.18).
Everything whatever is a conventional construct. But this very insight goes beyond the merely conventional. To recognize the conventionality of the conventional is to recognize the ultimacy of emptiness. We are tempted to fall into a simple dualism, between conventions on the one hand, including the conventional constructions of religion as skilful means, and ultimacy on the other, the ultimacy of emptiness, expressing itself in all these conventional vehicles. To counter such a fixation on ultimacy or on emptiness Nâgârjuna ‘argues that emptiness itself is empty. It is not a self-existing void standing behind a veil of illusion comprising conventional reality, but merely a characteristic of conventional reality’ (Garfield, 91). Though the ultimate reality of emptiness subverts and overthrows our conventions, whereas the conventional reality of dependently co-arising phenomena is ensconced within them, nonetheless ‘it remains a distinctive feature of Nâgârjuna’s system that it is impossible to speak coherently of reality independent of conventions’ (89).
Garfield’s phrase, ‘merely a characteristic of conventional reality’, reduces the force of the doctrine of emptiness. He tends to distance Nâgârjuna from the Perfection of Wisdom sutras, interpreting his arguments as cool rationalism rather than as aids to mystical vision. But to discover emptiness is surely more than noting a characteristic; it involves a radical turn-about in one’s entire existence. To be sure, talk of ultimacy always brings us back to the conventional world, experienced just as it is, without delusive projections and fixations. The Zen master’s ‘Have a cup of tea’ enacts this empty, non-clinging acceptance of the here and now as it arises and passes away. But before this return there is the shock, the breakthrough, the enlightenment-experience of encounter with emptiness. Perfect insight, which only Buddhas fully enjoy, is quite other than conventional conceptualizations, and if it reinstates the conventional it does so only as a skilful means, just as an angel enjoying the Beatific Vision might consent to use earthly language to convey some hint of it.
Nâgârjuna dissolves fixated conceptions of bondage (MMK 16) and error (MMK 23), along with the correlative reified concepts of liberation. If reifications of bondage are the very source of bondage, reifications of release, of nirvana, are what most blocks release. MMK 25, ‘Examination of Nirvana’, loosens up our thinking of release, freeing us from the rigid dualism of bondage and release that most religion becomes trapped in.
Unannihilated, not permanent,
This is how nirvana is described. (MMK 25.3)
All the categories of the conventional world simply fail to apply to nirvana. It emerges as this very inapplicability. The ultimate breakdown of conventional categories, which go only so far and no farther, signals the breakdown of samsara – but this does not mean that nirvana emerges as that to which the failed categories can at last be satisfactorily applied – whether in the sense that nirvana is intrinsic being at last, or is nihilistic nothingness, or both, or neither.
We step back from our bondage to conventions and dualisms not to some comforting monistic transcendental ground, but rather to ‘the groundlessness of all experience’ (Huntington, 26). What is dependently-arisen neither has intrinsic being nor it is a nihilistic nothing – its mode of being is empty of such grounding substantial identity. Nirvana or ultimacy would be nothing more than the fully enlightened realization of this emptiness (by a Buddha). ‘Just as the ultimate truth is related to the conventional as an understanding of the way things really are as opposed to the way they appear to be, nirvana is related to samsara as a state of awareness of things as they are as opposed to a state of awareness of things as they appear to be’ (Garfield, 322). ‘Nirvana is simply samsara seen without reification, without attachment, without delusion’ (331). Northern Ireland presents us with samsara at its most painful. To see it as nirvana is not a matter of some cool Wittgensteinian common sense. Rather one must bring the powerful machinery of delusive reification and all its deep emotional correlatives to a complete halt, through seeing their utter emptiness. That seeing will not be accomplished by conceptual analysis alone, but requires a leap to the detached wisdom of the Buddha-eye.
This emptiness philosophy not only stops us from substantializing such entities as ‘enemies’ or ‘nations’; it also stops us from investing our energies in the cult of a substantialized Absolute. Absolutism is a mentality to which religious people are very prone, and the only religion that seriously tries to counter this tendency is Buddhism. The biblical religions dismantle idolatry and its illusions, but constantly urge total unquestioning surrender to God in faith. That language can be interpreted as awakening us to the freedom of the Spirit, but in practice its effect more often is to imprison us in a doctrinaire or fanatical attitude. Such faith is immediately mobilized in militancy against those who do not share it. The hymns of Catholic Ireland has the same rousing quality as its nationalist ballads: ‘We stand for God, and for His glory,/The Lord supreme and God of all./Against His foes we raise the standard,/About His cross we hear His call... To Thee we pledge our lives and service, Strong in a trust that ne’er shall die’. Today’s hymns have a wimpier quality, as they aim to induce contemplative awareness rather than stir up the ‘fervour’ so prized in the past.
Even our search for peace may be infected with an absolutist tendency, in the sense that it may be motivated by a residual desire to be rid of the uncomfortable other that prevents us from having peace now. If peace means the construction of a new community by an ongoing process of encounter and sharing, then this is not a nirvanic utopia but a new way of living the dependently arising situation of our samsaric here and now. Peace cannot arise from an impatient sweeping aside of current contingencies but only as a turn-about in our attitude to them and a working through together of the bloody history that we have constructed apart. Peace is the process of recovery from collective delusions, whose deathly face has been manifested in outbreaks of murder. If nirvana has no real existence but is merely the cessation of clinging to illusions of real existence, so peace is a cessation of clinging to all the delusive passions that cause violence. Such peace is most likely to flourish when we have grasped the mere conventionality of all the names and identities that generated conflict.
How Wisdom Frees us for Forgiveness
The bodhisattva’s benevolence even seems to abolish the law of karma. ‘It is really difficult to reconcile the law of karma with the spirit of forbearance. Such frigid metaphysics may teach passive resignation, but not loving forbearance... We forgive with the heart, and not with the head’ (Dayal, 212). The bodhisattva practice of transference of merits likewise transgresses the boundaries of strict karmic thinking. ‘The doctrine of karma in its unmitigated form repudiated the bond of social solidarity and dissolved society into a vast number of isolated spiritual atoms’ (191). If, rather than being an inconsistency, this transcendence of karma has a basis in the experience of emptiness, then emptiness would play a role analogous to the grace which in Pauline theology frees us from the law.
Does emptiness clear the ground for the daring leaps of bodhsattva compassion? Compassion is directed actively to the welfare of all beings, and seems to presuppose their real existence. There is a much debate as to whether the warm attitudes of compassion and forgiveness are compatible with the vision of emptiness that would deny to the objects of these attitudes any substantial existence. One may say that ‘wisdom without compassion is empty, compassion without wisdom blind’, but only rarely do Mahâyâna texts claim that compassion arises naturally from insight into emptiness. Wisdom certainly sweeps away a lot of fixations that may seem necessary to compassion but that ultimately block its exercise. Wisdom pulverizes the projections that attach to the names of ‘Irish’ and ‘British’, ‘Catholic’ and ‘Protestant’, ‘I’ and ‘you’, ‘us’ and ‘them’. These terms are merely linguistic fabrications, having a possible use in conventional contexts, but without an ultimate substantial referent. They easily become a net that traps us, and then we feel that it is our moral duty to remain trapped in that net, through upholding stale forms of loyalty and solidarity. Buddhist compassion begins at a point beyond these conventional self-identifications. The illusions of ego that wisdom demolishes are a source of suffering, and compassion, starting from this premise, takes on an educative mission of freeing people from these illusions.
Prajnakaramati in his commentary on Sântideva’s Bodhicaryavatara (an influential eighth-century Madhyamaka philosophical poem presenting the bodhisattva ideal) suggests that the doctrine of non-self is compatible with compassion if we see that compassion as directed not to the illusory self, but to the components, the five aggregates (skandhas), to which this illusion reduces when it is analyzed. Unfortunately, this ingenious theory has no support in early Buddhism, which frankly sees compassion as concerned only with illusory beings; the Sarvastivadins at least see the Buddha’s compassion as a surface or screening (samvrti) idea, whose object is the illusory living beings. Furthermore, the Mahâyâna doctrine that all things are empty applies to the skandhas too, so a compassion directed to them would equally subscribe to an illusory substantiality. Thus compassion can be practised only by descending from the heights of wisdom and compromising oneself with the dodgy realm of conventionality. There is occasional mention of an objectless compassion, but this seems a rather forced attempt to invent a compassion that is in direct accord with the wisdom of emptiness. (Here I am drawing on Lambert Schmithausen’s draft paper in Franco and Preisendanz.)
Sântideva has a rather Pauline sense of the interdependence of living beings, and his dissolution of a unified self intensifies this: ‘The bodhisattva should earnestly cultivate the idea of the equality of the other and the self, thus: “For all are joys and sorrows are the same; thus I must protect them as myself. Like the body, which is disunited because of the difference of its members, yet is deemed worthy of protection as one, so is the whole world of living beings, though different, precisely thus (to be protected as a whole), since sorrow and joy are the same to all’’ (8.90-1; trans. Matics, adapted). I should be no less concerned about the sorrow of others than about the pain I myself shall suffer in future because of my present actions, for this future ‘I’ is after all no less alien to me than the person I see as other (8.98: ‘It is another who has died and another who is born’). ‘There is no “he” of whom there is sorrow; and because of this, whose will be this “his”? All sorrows, without distinction, are ownerless; and because of misery they are to be prevented. Why then is restriction made?’ (8.101-2). The non-existence of the self here becomes the direct foundation of altruism. The logic of this argument may be merely pragmatic, and it is conducted in any case at the level of conventional rather than ultimate reality. In fact, Sântideva goes on to use another argument which extends rather than annuls the concept of self: ‘Because of habit, the concept of an “I” becomes located in drops of semen, in blood, and in things belonging to another, although in reality the concept is false. So why should the body of another not be taken as my own? It is not difficult, because of the remoteness of my own body’ (8.111-12). Here Sântideva is avowedly trafficking in conventionalities, with the purpose of creating altruistic attitudes, culminating in the exchange of oneself and the other (7.16; 8.120). Whatever the status of the arguments, one point is made clear: suffering, the result of karma, is an evil to be healed wherever it is found, be it in the other, be it in oneself; a neat differentiation between my suffering and the other’s suffering depends on an attachment to substantialized identity and is alien to the spirit of Buddhism.
Buddhist wisdom, then, brings a scathing scepticism to bear on the various hallowed identities over which people fight, but it is a compassionate scepticism, dissolving oppositions to discover a commonality of suffering in which the opponents are united. Where Catholics and Protestants, Unionists and Nationalists, see in each other’s chauvinism an offensive arrogance, the Buddhist perspective sees an identical suffering based on an identical illusion. Here is the chief cause of suffering, and the chief target of the educative mission of compassion. When church leaders speak for ‘their people’ they implicitly underwrite the tribalism that has poisoned religious identity, failing to bring into play the Gospel perspective that, like the Buddhist one, signals what the two sides have in common rather than what divides them. Religious faith has been cultivated in Ireland in opposition to the openness of the critical mind, and despite superficial changes since Vatican II this syndrome continues to operate.
The Reification of Evil
Buddhism is suspicious of the radical dualism of good and evil. To posit absolute good and absolute evil is to set up on the one hand a substantialized object of worship and on the other a target for a nihilistic urge to destroy. To be on the side of the Good is a formula for boosting the ego and its delusions. To be implacably opposed to evil easily converts into hatred of those thought to be the bearers of evil or to be tainted with it. Evil, especially with a capital E, or as a noun, is a mystifying and dangerous word. It projects an image of evil as some kind of magically contaminating substance, to be rejected with a shudder. It is a word that leads to violence, for one easily imagines other human being to be bearers of this contamination. Racism and all other forms of prejudice are reinforced by the rhetoric of Evil and its hold on the imagination. In contrast, milder and more functional terms such as ‘bad’ and ‘unwholesome’ invite not instinctive condemnation but the lucidity of reflective judgment, which is always conscious of the relativity of good and evil. The principal aim of Buddhism is not to destroy evil but to dispel ignorance. In any situation, Buddhism brings the play of analysis to bear in all situations, refusing to be balked by ‘the mystery of evil’ as by some unintelligible surd. Wickedness is construed as bondage to ignorance. To condemn it is only the first, pedagogical step toward compassionate healing of the ignorance that gives rise to it.
When we think of evil as the product of ignorance, the temptation of hate and destroy those we conceptualize as evil persons yields to compassion for the ignorance that holds them in bondage. They become objects of positive benevolence. Such an attitude refuses to allow negativity a place to stick. Even a Hitler can be seen as pitiable, in bondage to ignorance, and drawing on himself the karmic consequences of his acts. Karma looks after the punishment of crime – the dread that bad people will ‘get away with it’ has no place in Buddhist psychology. In any case the dualism of ‘good people’ and ‘bad people’ has no place in a world where all are suffering, due to the passions arising from beginningless ignorance. The duality of wisdom and ignorance is not a stark dualism. Wisdom is born of ignorance as the overcoming of it; ignorance contains the latent possibility of wisdom.
Current American attitudes to crime and punishment provide a juicy target for the application of these Buddhist insights:
If we are all somewhat insane, then the insanity defense is always somewhat applicable. The universality of greed, malice, and delusion means there can be no presumption of unfettered free will or simple self-determination. Freedom is not a matter of the individual self-will (often motivated by greed and the like), but a result of overcoming that kind of willfulness; it is not gained by removing external restraints, but a consequence of self-control and spiritual awakening. This denies the distinction that we are usually quick to make between an offender and the rest of us. According to Buddhism, the best method of treatment is education... The Vinaya supports this notion that our preoccupation with guilt is based on an erroneous understanding of human nature and an erroneous conclusion about the best way to change human nature. ‘Guilt says something about the quality of the person who did this and has a “sticky”, indelible quality. Guilt adheres to a person more or less permanently, with few known solvents. It often becomes a primary, definitional characteristic of a person’ (Zehr, 69). In contrast, Buddhist emphasis on the transience of everything means that there is nothing indelible about our unwholesome mental tendencies. Deep-rooted ones may be difficult to eradicate, but that is because they are a result of past habits, not an ‘essential’ part of us. (Loy 2000)
Do human beings have the right to punish, that is, to inflict suffering on others? Punishment supposes a righteous self on one side and a reprobate self on the other. But for Sântideva these rigid distinctions of self and other are false to the texture of reality. Instead we should focus on reducing suffering wherever it arises. To inflict suffering on others is tantamount to inflicting it on ourselves. Punishment we can leave to the cosmic justice of karma. The ethos of righteous punishment envenoms the business of law. If justice is to be attained, then primary emotions of the sort drummed up by US prosecutors should be kept rigidly at bay. Imprisonment should be a regrettable necessity, not a cause for vindictive glee, and it should have an educative and rehabilitative purpose. This is utopian, yet more profoundly rational than the litigious victim-culture of today, which ends up causing individuals and nations to become querulous and childish as they pursue the delusive ideal of ‘closure’ for their traumas. The obscene and barbaric culture that has grown up around capital punishment in the United States is partly the result of an adversarial legal system that excludes any healing of the tragic human situation, and that invokes emotion only in a manner likely to undermine one’s faith that verdict and sentence are the fruit of reasoned reflection. The victims’ relatives leave the court unsatisfied, so they seek closure or catharsis in the spectacle of execution.
Punishment or revenge must force its object to assume an unnatural stability – it must be the same person who committed an ‘offence’ in the past and who now ‘atones’ for it; and of course the punishing self is fixated in a rigid stance as well. To sustain the delusion of identity underlying ideas of punishment or revenge we have to keep on telling the hateful story, keep on constructing our own identity as offended and the other’s identity as offender. Forgiveness dissolves the ‘offended’ self and the rigid representation of the other, in order to resume an interchange between the momentary occasions arising and passing away here and now in the space of the present connection of the two parties. Neither the offense nor the forgiveness are states – they are acts and processes lived in the constantly changing moment. When the Gospel insists that the one who refuses to forgive is not forgiven, the reason is that forgiveness is primarily directed at the forgiver, dissolving the rigid ego that takes offense and bears a grudge. One who cannot dissolve this rigidity cannot benefit either from the gracious dissolution of a rigid image of him that is effected when he is forgiven by another. The one forgiven may not have developed any repentant consciousness; in which case the blessing of forgiveness will return on the head of the one forgiving. We need not be always waiting for the other to make a move in the dialogue of reconciliation. Forgiveness is a blessing primarily to the one who forgives, a release from sclerotic illusions of ego.
The Northern Ireland peace process has brought a massive suspension of the desire to punish, through the release of killers on both sides. To many this is felt as a body-blow to their sense of identity and to their sense of justice. Few will find it cathartic. But when we consider that even the worst atrocities in Northern Ireland were committed in the name of justice, while the instruments of State justice itself were corrupted by being dragged into the war, this suspension of justice can be seen as something more than craven opportunism. It is an admission of the conventionality and the limits of human justice, which always needs to be inserted into a wider context of education, rehabilitation, and elimination of the social roots of crime. Thirty years of bloodshed have left a legacy of moral anxiety that cannot be dissolved by summary processes of law. It is handed back to the community, to be dealt with in penitent reflection. If no such movement of educative clarification occurs, then the wounds will continue to fester silently for all the time it takes for the events to fade from living memory.
Religion has become a trap by its projection of really existing vices and errors and by a converse reification of virtue and truth. Since the virtue and truth are the imaginary correlate of the vice and error to which they are opposed, the mind that hypostasizes them is caught in a vicious binary dualism, belonging to the imaginaire (in Lacan’s terminology) though in our theological cogitations we convince ourselves that it has the objectivity of the symbolic order. Dogmatic truth satisfies a clinging to an imagined stability, and needs as its counterpart some demonized heresy. Candrakîrti (on MMK 23.14) tells of a magician who produces the phantasm of a woman. Troubled by desire of her a monk diligently reflects that she is a bad object, impermanent, painful, empty, void of personal substance. But his efforts are misguided since the woman does not exist at all. To a dependently arising situation his imagination has given a supplement of illusory substantiality, and all his subsequent deconstruction overlooks this initial positing. In the same way, much Christian overcoming of error, vice, sin, guilt, overlooks the initial error of judgment that posits the substantial existence of error, vice, sin, guilt in oneself or others. Meditation on sins has the effect of undercutting illlusory conceptions of oneself as flawless, but it can also substantialize the sin, project onto the accidental occasions an imaginary coherence, and thus substantialize the sinner as a really subsisting atman. Conviction of sin is the work of the Spirit (John 16.8); it cannot consist in fixating the identity of the sinner, but rather in setting it in motion, as the Spirit is in motion. Candrakîrti’s strange statement that the extreme of desire is the extreme of detachment, the extreme of aversion the extreme of the absence of an object, and the extreme of error the extreme of emptiness (De Jong, 195-6) suggests that to reify oneself as a sinner is the same thing as to reify oneself as righteous; it is the opposite of the existential dynamic of Luther’s simul iustus et peccator or of Chesterton’s ‘the saint is one who knows he is a sinner’. Reified orthodoxy is the same as reified heresy, and the opposite of that flexibility of thought and questioning which is true orthodoxy or wholesomeness.
The idea of the atonement, and every aspect of the ancient ideology of sacrifice that is taken up in Christianity, can be understood in terms of the dynamics of forgiveness. Jesus shed his blood ‘for the forgiveness of sins’. Forgiveness is at the center of his healing ministry, more fundamental than physical healings or exorcisms. Mutual forgiveness of one another sets us right with the source of our being. Sin is not merely wrong acts, but a deadly blockage between human and human and between humankind and ultimate reality, and forgiveness is the only way to dissolve this blockage. The study of anthropology and the experiences of recent history have shown us how deeply rooted the instincts of arrogance and hatred are in our nature. The aggression that powered human evolution has now become a perilous legacy, an original sin, transmitted not only in our education but in our genes. The forgiveness of sin has less to do with appeasing an offended God than with releasing humankind from the grip of this disease.
René Girard has attempted to rethink the Atonement along anthropological lines. Jesus, as the scapegoat of human mimetic rivalry, faces death in such a manner as to contest and undo the deadly machinery of sacrificial violence. His attitude of non-violence and of forgiveness seems weak and inept, yet it reveals something that lies at the depth of reality, the perpetual graciousness of God. Jesus draws on himself the violence generated by human greed and ambition, eloquently countering it in his death with an expression of forgiveness, compassion, humility, and love: ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’ (Luke 23:34). Even in furnace of persecution the bodhisattva does not forget to put forth the healing energies of loving-kindness, compassion, and equanimity. Jesus has a bodhisattva’s insight into the bondage of his enemies to delusive passions and delusive objects of passions, rooted in a delusive idea of self, and he exerts educative compassion on their condition, to release them from suffering. Wherever the Cross is made known, the same compassionate education is continued. The truth revealed in the event of the Cross is as old as creation – the truth of God’s loving-kindness constantly pressing on his creatures despite their closed hearts. God’s reconciling of the world to himself works not by magic but through the eloquent expression of forgiveness and compassion in all the gestures of Jesus culminating in his death. Wherever the Cross is remembered God’s work of healing, through the Spirit, is something phenomenologically accessible. To human arrogance it is a stumbling block or mere folly, but when its meaning is discerned this exhibition of failure and weakness is understood to be ‘the power of God and the wisdom of God’ (I Cor. 1:24).
It may be objected that the Cross has been an emblem of violence and tyranny in crusades and colonization. That means that the Cross has not been understood. Today we understand it better, because we see more clearly how damaging is the disease to which the Cross brings the cure. Greed, hatred, and delusion are writ large in contemporary history and are studied in depth by psychoanalysts and sociobiologists. Alongside the wisdom of the Buddha, the power of the Cross is increasingly being recognized as the supreme antidote. (Buddhist gentleness suggests to us the question whether the harshness of biblical language – especially in the gospel denunciations of Pharisees and ‘the Jews’ – has been an appropriate method of conveying the wisdom of the Cross.)
Against substantializing and magical theories of the Atonement, we do well to set in high relief the salvific impact of the Cross as registered in human experience; that impact reaches far, to the very depths of humankind’s biological and psychological make-up, and it can correct even what is human all too human in the letter of Scripture and the activities of the Church in history. Redemption, too often conceived as a magical behind the scenes process, is worked out in history as the deconstructive impact of the figure of the Cross, dissolving the barriers set by human arrogance and fixation against the liberating space of divine ultimacy. God’s reconciliation of humankind with Godself takes phenomenological profile as the power of the Cross – epitomizing an entire trajectory of awareness and enactment – to put humans back in touch with gracious ultimacy. What is experienced as dramatic divine intervention can also be grasped as the human process of opening to the ever-available ultimacy, an opening supremely expressed and enabled in the life and death of Jesus. A phenomenology of breakthroughs of ultimacy need not overlook the conventional processes which are the vehicle and the basic of such breakthroughs.
Focusing on these phenomena, we realize that grace is not an abstruse invisible substance. It is the core of reality itself, constantly operative, awaiting our realization of its power and presence. One might compare this presence of grace with the notion of ‘original enlightenment,’ central in Japanese Buddhism (and powerfully rehabilitated in Stone 1999). For Buddhism, at least in the optimistic form that prevailed in medieval Japan, the status of Buddhahood is open in principle to any human being; indeed we already have the Buddha-nature and need only wake up to the fact; even grasses and trees can be Buddha, or rather already have the Buddha-nature just as they are! The reason for this is that Buddhahood is identical with the suchness of things; to become a Buddha is to be what one is and to be it to the full. This is attained not by the intercession of a Buddha but by each individual discovering and following the path to Buddhahood, or simply awakening to Buddhahood. Such a system of salvation seems a blank denial of Christian claims about sinful humanity’s radical need of a Redeemer. But let us remember that Christian thinkers have always rejoiced in the radical goodness of being, none more so than that prince of soteriological pessimists, Saint Augustine. All that exists is good to the core, and evil is a mere deficiency in being.
Forgiveness has deep foundations in the universality of grace and the basic goodness of being. If to understand all is to forgive all, then understanding the aggressor is the foundation of enduring forgiveness. The enlightened one is able to forgive the enemy even when he is immediately threatened by him or is suffering at his hands. ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’ (Mt. 5.14) – a text little quoted when most needed – is not the slogan of some masochistic ethic of impossible divine agape, but a practical strategy for dissolving the bonds of hatred. It issues from insight into the very texture of existence. Buddhist meditation and analysis clarifies that texture and thus restores to the Christian ethic its full transparency. These resources surpass what is to be found in Christian tradition, where Platonic frameworks of thought were a source of psychological obtuseness as well as of insight and where the venom and fanaticism found in some parts of Scripture – even in some parts of the Gospels, were intensified. We reach out to this Buddhist medicine and accept it with relief and gratitude, as a sick person gratefully drinks the funny-tasting potion that will restore lost health.
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From THE JAPAN MISSION JOURNAL, vol. 56, 2002