We have found in Mahâyâna Buddhism a subtle interplay between the wisdom that realizes the truth of emptiness, on one hand, and the compassion that re-enters the realm of conventionally existing beings, on the other. This recalls the dynamic of the Incarnation, reflected in Christian existence as set forth, though not systematically mapped, in the New Testament. The transcendent God, whom no one has ever seen (cf. Jn 1.18), and before whom the conventions of language collapse, makes himself known as his Word is spoken out into the realm of earthly forms, assuming compassionately the condition of the creature. The rich affinities between bodhisattva compassion and Christian charity must imply a potential rapprochement between the underlying outlooks on reality as well. The Buddhist analyses can clarify and temper the biblical vision, freeing it from the appearance of being an arbitrary or even bullying set of expectations. In return, the Christian kerygma can recall the Buddhist ideals from the rarefied space of a monastic or philosophical laboratory to the broken, fleshly texture of historical human life.
In Christianity the notion of emptiness has come into play in many contexts. It is central to such virtues as humility – ‘He must increase, but I must decease’ (Jn 3.) – and poverty, like that lived by Sisters of Charles de Foucauld who serve the Lord in countries like Pakistan, their sole possessions what can fit in two suitcases. There is much talk of fullness in the New Testament as well – not the inflation of the flesh, or of knowledge with that up, but fullness of life, of charity, of divine glory or of the Spirit. ‘Of his fullness we have all received’ (Jn 1.16) means that in living out our limited, fragile, empty existence in time we have come in contact with the glory that is revealed in Christ crucified, and are assured of the possession of eternal life.
Eliot and the Gîtâ
Between familiar Christian wisdom on the one hand and the strenuous dialectics of Mahâyâna on the other, the Bhagavad-Gîtâ, offers a comfortable middle ground. We saw earlier how it galvanizes Arjuna into action, and the moral qualms that its warlike message may arouse. Now let us accentuate the positive, the nondual wisdom about the life of action that this text has conveyed to Christian readers.
Sloth and escapism lead many to sign off from a life of action, but others are held back by a tender moral purism, a fear of getting their hands dirty. The Gîtâ is excellent therapy for this paralysis of the Beautiful Soul. To fight evil effectively one has to forgo excessive scruples of conscience. Recall how Bonhoeffer felt soiled by his noble struggle against Hitler:
We have been silent witnesses of evil deeds; we have been drenched by many storms; we have learnt the arts of equivocation and pretence; experience has made us suspicious of others and kept us from being truthful and open; intolerable conflicts have worn us down and even made us cynical. Are we still of any use?
From a standpoint of pacifist purism, Daniel Berrigan judges that the plot to assassinate Hitler was morally unjustifiable (though classical Christian ethics, Aquinas for example, permits tyrannocide). One commentator finds in Bonhoeffer’s situation an enactment of Luther’s enigmatic counsel to Melanchthon, pecca fortiter: ‘The conspirators had, to quote Martin Luther, “sinned boldly”. Their hands were sullied. They were now exhausted by a process which went against everything for which they had previously stood’. He finds a more recent example of the same thing in South Africa: ‘Many tactics employed in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa were morally ambiguous even though the libertarian movement managed so well to maintain the moral high ground. But armed struggle and resistance, whether above or below ground, invariably led to actions which were ethically problematic’. The danger of such a line of argumentation may be gauged by the eagerness with which it is seized on by terrorist organizations such as the IRA. Between impotent purism on the one hand and amoral opportunism on the other, a morality of conflict may have to live with irresolvable surds.
Paul Tillich might have been thinking of Bonhoeffer when he made the following remark on ‘freedom from the law’:
Freedom from the law in the process of sanctification is the increasing freedom from the commanding form of the law. But it is also freedom from its particular content. Specific laws, expressing the experience and wisdom of the past, are not only helpful, they are also oppressive, because they cannot meet the ever concrete, ever new, ever unique situation. Freedom from the law is the power to judge the given situation in the light of the Spiritual Presence and to decide upon adequate action, which is often in seeming contradiction to the law. This is what is meant when the spirit of the law is contrasted with its letter (Paul) or when the Spirit-determined self is empowered to write a new and better law than Moses (Luther) or – in a secularized form – when the bearer of freedom revaluates all values (Nietzsche) or when the existing subject resolves the impasse of existence by resoluteness (Heidegger).
This is not antinomianism, the licence to do evil that good may come of it, for Tillich, like Paul, upholds the law; interpreted as the essence of man, the ideal or ought, that is held up as a judgment on the alienated existence of man. But despite Tillich’s warnings against wilfulness, his language could easily be solicited for a New Age ethic that would encourage indulgence of any instincts seen as favouring one’s evolution.
The idea of an alliance between Nietzsche and the Gospel has considerable charm. Does anything in Krishna’s advocacy of the paths of action, knowledge or devotion correspond to such a revolutionary positing of new values? Most of the time Krishna preaches not freedom from the law but ‘do your duty’. Arjuna’s doubts about the rightness of his actions are reproved, not answered. Heideggerian resolve has much in common with Arjuna’s solution to his difficulties through decisive commitment to the duties of his station. But such resolve was surely often invoked, though not in so refined a form as in the early Heidegger, to overcome moral scruples and even to rejoice in crime during the Third Reich. Perhaps there is no foolproof way of acting in freedom, no insurance against falling into fatal error. An ‘informed’ conscience, and the cultivation of virtues, goes only half way to meet the exigencies of action.
Many of us first met the name ‘Krishna’ in the following enigmatic lines of T.S. Eliot, for whom the Gîtâ was ‘the next greatest philosophical poem to the Divine Comedy’:
I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant –
Among other things – or one way of putting the same thing:
That the future is a faded song, a Royal Rose or a lavender spray
Of wistful regret for those who are not yet here to regret,
Pressed between yellow leaves of a book that has never been opened.
And the way up is the way down, the way forward is the way back.
You cannot face it steadily, but this thing is sure,
That time is no healer: the patient is no longer here.
The initial response of Dame Helen Gardner was that this arcane reference, like a pistol shot in a concert hall, just would not fit in to the poem as a whole, unlike the discreet ‘Chinese vase’ of ‘Burnt Norton V’; other critics, back in 1943, judged that ‘his Christianity is sapped by Indian ideas; and yet he does not have the Indian wisdom either’. Yet today the allusion seems to help save the poem from a churchy enclosure; the rather muddled Hindu-Buddhist surmises fit well the persona of the speaker, seen not as an oracle but as a tentative seeker. The wisdom he gropes after here is to the effect that past agonies are not healed, future aspirations are mere nostalgia without a real object, and only the present is the place of ‘right action’ and of salvation – the place where we ‘consider the future/And the past with an equal mind’.
At the moment which is not of action or inaction
You can receive this: “on whatever sphere of being
The mind of a man may be intent
At the time of death” – that is the one action
(And the time of death is every moment)
Which shall fructify in the lives of others:
And do not think of the fruit of action. (‘The Dry Salvages’ III)
Krishna taught: ‘Whoever, at the time of death, gives up his body and departs, thinking of Me alone, he comes to My status (of being)… Thinking of whatever state (of being) he at the end gives up his body, to that being does he attain’ (8.5-6). Eliot steers this toward a paschal understanding of action, action that fructifies not in one’s next life but in the life of others. A Christian sense of sacrifice gives new colour to desireless action, while the Indian language adds spice to the Christian theme. Perhaps it does ‘sap’ or show up the conventionalism of some of Eliot’s Christian language, or perhaps such passages as the oft-derided lyric, ‘The wounded surgeon plies the steel…’ (‘East Coker’ IV), are already self-consciously conventional, as if the poet is saying ‘here is the story we Christians tell ourselves’, turning then to Krishna for a modern, existential transposition of the paschal theme.
‘The Dry Salvages’ on its own might leave the impression that Eliot’s commitment to action is undermined by a sense of oriental futility. The poem addresses the condition of those from whom action has lost inherent justification and become a chore, those whose life has lost its joy and become a condition of mourning or renunciation:
There is no end, but addition: the trailing
Consequence of further days and hours,
While emotion takes to itself the emotionless
Years of living among the breakage
Of what was believed in as the most reliable –
And therefore the fittest for renunciation. (‘The Dry Salvages’ II)
The final Quartet, ‘Little Gidding’, no doubt Eliot’s greatest utterance, reaffirms a thoroughly Christian, incarnational sense of action, in passionate attachment yet in free detachment from any clinging to success or self-glorification. Each action becomes a kind of martyrdom, a death and a resurrection. When he talks of
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life (‘Little Gidding’ III)
he is not advocating indifference, the false synthesis between extremes, but is rather celebrating the paradoxical conjunction of commitment and lucid detachment, each sustaining the other, Hence,
not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. (ibid.)
As the last words indicate, the attached-detached agent is the one who lives in the present, and for whom the perspectives of memory and of hope are enabling rather than paralyzing, for they are no longer occasions for clinging or distraction.
Like Becket in Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot seeks to purify the springs and motives of action. He does so, not through cogitations, but in fulfilling his duty in the present moment, like Arjuna, thus aspiring to:
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything) (‘Little Gidding’ V)
That is the condition of ‘the saint’:
The point of intersection of the timeless
With time, is an occupation for the saint –
No occupation either, but something given
And taken, in a lifetime’s death in love,
Ardour and selflessness and self-surrender. (‘The Dry Salvages’ V)
The milieu the Quartets most explore is that of the average believer, forging ahead amid doubt and failure:
There are only hints and guesses,
Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.
The hint half guessed, the gift half understood, is Incarnation. (ibid.)
This poetry of meditative surmise finds an anchor in a modest practical wisdom, a karma-yoga, ‘the wisdom of humility’ (‘East Coker’ V), which threatens to drag it down to a plodding drabness. The entire performance is dominated by the symbol of ‘Incarnation’ as the intersection of time and eternity in moments of intense vision or in a life of saintly action, as gloriously celebrated in ‘Little Gidding’. That symbol seems unaffected by the Indian sources, yet their presence in the poem at all intimates a more pluralistic, truly incarnated ethic and spirituality than Eliot was able fully to articulate.
Like the Gîtâ or the Divine Comedy, Four Quartets seeks to master ‘history’ from a height that conduces to fatalism, or that reduces human striving to the mere material of a ritual action. Something similar might even be said of the Fourth Gospel, the primary source of the Christian doctrine of Incarnation. Just as the Gîtâ, as the moment of highest ethical and spiritual reflection in the Indian epic, represents a turn inward that brings the proliferating traditions of the sprawling text into a transcendental contemplative perspective, so does the Fourth Gospel makes biblical traditions converge on a single luminous center, the ‘hour’ of the death and glorification of the Messiah. Yet just as the Gîtâ is not the last word of the epic, resolving all its contradictions, we need not assume that John is the last word of Scripture, bringing transparency to its tangled skein. Both texts are powerful syntheses and both texts claim supreme authority as revelations of the essential truth of God to humanity. Yet both can be relativized by being referred back to their contexts in the vast encyclopaedic stretches of the Epic and the Bible respectively. There is no last word of divine revelation that puts an end to the obscurities and contradictions, the pervasive undecidability, inherent in the history of human efforts to respond to divine inspiration.
To bury oneself in the mysticism of the Gîtâ or of John, disregarding the complexities of their wider contexts, would be a formula for sectarian fanaticism, however rich the syntheses these texts offer. Texts which offer a mystical solution to ethical and political (including church-political) problems can be dangerous. They point very eloquently to the absolute, but if one re-invests this pathos of the absolute in the complex realm of human affairs it can be quite destructive. John’s vision could nurture a demonization of the Jews or of any other group considered to be outside the fold of the true community. The Gîtâ could create unquestioning devotion to a cause, whether one of pacifist martyrdom or of revolutionary violence. That suspension of questioning would go against the seasoned skeptical wisdom of the Epic as a whole, just as a sectarianism inspired by John would go against the wisdom of the Bible as a whole. To put it more strongly, the Gîtâ and John requisition their respective traditions for the purposes of a genial theological standpoint, but to take either at face value as the distillation of the ultimate truth of its tradition is to forget that as documents born of a limited historical and cultural conjuncture both still belong to the realm of conventional truth, not ultimate truth. They enact the entry of the ultimate into history but this enactment itself is a conventional miming of something that can never be seized in a totally transparent manner.
As literary constructions the two texts are formally satisfying and self-contained, creating a circle of words, symbols, concepts, and emotions which is proposed to the reader as a spiritual abode. The rhetoric of John is marked by persuasive, almost hypnotic imperatives: ‘Come and see’, ‘believe in me’, ‘abide in my love’, ‘keep my commandments’, ‘love one another’. The Gîtâ has its share of such imperatives also, for example, ‘resort to yoga and stand up, O Bhârata’ (4.42), ‘fix thy mind on Me; be devoted to Me; sacrifice to Me’ (18.65). Both texts also have paranesis in the form of declarative sentences such as: ‘He who in action sees inaction, he is wise among men’ (4.18); ‘He who has seen me has seen the Father’ (Jn 14.9). Sometimes the imperatives of the Gîtâ impel to action or yogic practice, sometimes to jnanic insight or devotional trust, and ultimately to a nondual accord of the practical and the devotional. In John, too, there are imperatives to work or to keep the commandments, alongside more spiritual injunctions to faith, abiding, confidence; and ultimately the commandment of love unites both registers in a nondual synthesis. The nonduality of action and devotion in the Gîtâ is more starkly paradoxical, for the imperative to action culminates in the command to fight: ‘Slay Drona, Bhîsma, Jayadratha, Karna and other great warriors as well, who are already doomed by Me. Be not afraid. Fight, thou shalt conquer the enemies in battle’ (11.34), and it is in the midst of such bloody work that one is commanded to think of Krishna: ‘On Me alone fix thy mind, let thy understanding dwell in Me’ (12.8).
Devoted action ripens into a contemplative mode of life wherein actions immediately express the ultimate vision – the nonduality of the world and the divine in the Gîtâ, the Christic presence of God in the world and the flesh in John. In both texts, devotion toward a particular personal figure is one with opening of the mind to the absolute and universal. Faith in Jesus is acceptance of the Logos that enlightens the entire cosmos. Krishna, too, reveals himself as the inner essence and perfection of all things. To abandon oneself to him is to abandon oneself to the impersonal eternal divinity who speaks through him. In the Gîtâ impersonal jnâna is sublated and surpassed in bhakti (see 12.2-4), but this is not an abduction of jnâna into a narrow sectarian piety, for the figure of Krishna conducts jnâna speedily to its goal, through love. Likewise, the quest for knowledge of God in John culminates in bhakti commitment to Christ alone: ‘I am the way’ (Jn 14.6), and the enjoyment of knowledge of God remains in dependence on this commitment. This ‘way’ which the believer finds in Christ turns out to be the way of ultimate knowledge of ‘the one true God’, in nondual accord with concrete knowledge of ‘Jesus Christ, whom you have sent’ (Jn 17.3). The non-duality of Christ and the Father (Jn 10.30; 14.9) does not exclude Christ’s pointing beyond himself to the Father: ‘The Father is greater than I’ (Jn 14.28).
Two Johannine themes in particular invite comparison with the Gîtâ. First, the notion of incarnation in John 1.14, ‘the Word became flesh’, is modeled on the Hebrew shekinah, or dwelling of God among his people. But there is an extra dimension to this construal of Christ as the Word incarnate for which one might look to India for near-parallels. I take John 1.14 to refer neither to an alleged ‘moment’ of the Incarnation nor to a Chalcedonian conjunction of divine and human natures, but to the integral meaning of the Christ story as the realization of non-duality between the eternal divine Word or Wisdom and the realm of fleshly, historical, conventional realities. It expresses the resurrection consciousness of having encountered the ultimate in the realm of fleshly, historical action and experience: ‘what we have touched with our hands concerning the Word of life’ (1 Jn 1.1). The Johannine resistance to docetist depreciation of Christ’s flesh or attempts to overleap it a direct apprehension of the divinity might recall similar concerns in the Gîtâ: ‘The deluded despise Me clad in human body, not knowing My higher nature as Lord of all existences’ (9.11), though Indian notions of incarnation are no doubt quite docetist.
Second, the emphasis on non-duality is unique to John among scriptural authors. Paradoxical non-dual utterances such as ‘I and the Father are one’ (Jn 10.30) express a contemplative apprehension of the unity between the figure of Christ and the ultimacy of God. Such utterances are closer to the Upanishadic tat twam asi (‘That are thou’) than to biblical thought. Some exegetes try to reduce them to the Hebrew sense of the unity between the one who sends and the one who is sent, but this does no justice to their contemplative depth. The non-duality between Krishna and the ultimate divinity, and the non-duality between Arjuna’s actions in battle and his union with Krishna and through Krishna with the ultimate divinity, resemble the Johannine non-duality between Christ and the Father, and between the believers’ practice of mutual love and their abiding in Christ and in the Father. We tend to suppose that the Johannine topography retains the distinction of persons between Jesus and the Father and between Jesus and those who abide in him, whereas the Indian vision gravitates to a monistic fusion, in which Krishna and Arjuna ‘are really one self’. But non-dual statements should never be taken as flat declarations of simple identity. They rather declare a triumph over some duality that has been fully experienced, be it between wisdom and compassion, or between atman and Brahman, or between the incarnate Christ and the Father. Non-duality is an achievement of vision, never a brute initial datum. What is achieved is the release of the mind from captivation by dualisms that seem natural and inevitable but that are in fact a source of pain. This breakthrough does not abolish the reality of the ‘spheres of existence’ whose ‘impossible union’, ‘concord’ or ‘intersection’ (to use Eliot’s terms) is now revealed. Both come fully into their own in their recovered unity.
Should we accept John’s non-dual vision as the revelation of the ultimate truth about who Jesus was? Was this foreign, oriental way of thinking the necessary key to unlock his full significance? Or is Johannine gnosis but one part of the pluralistic spectrum of New Testament theologies? And may is also be said that the wisdom of the Gîtâ is but one of the many offerings in the Indian theological smorgasbord? Historical realism and a sense of the limits of any theological language will prompt us to adopt the latter viewpoint and to dethrone these texts from the absolute position they seem to claim for themselves. Or it may be that we understand better the true intentions of these texts when we de-absolutize them. It may be that they were never intended to be more than skilful pointers to ultimate reality, aware of their own fragile and makeshift character.
The non-duality between Christ and the Father is hinted at from the beginning: ‘And the Word was with God and the Word was God (or divine)’ (Jn 1.1) and finds climactic expression in such utterances as Jn 10.30. Another dimension of non-duality is signalled by John 1.14: ‘The Word became Flesh’ – a unity between the fleshly realm of our history and the inconceivable realm of eternal life. The entire Gospel proclaims that eternal life is here and now, right where we are. In the discourses of the supper room the mutual indwelling of Christ and the Father and of Christ and believers is fully realized when the believers love one another, in unity. Non-duality here is no longer a philosophical theorem or a theological paradox. It blossoms in the intimacy of love.
Non-Duality in Practice
The riddling expressions of Indian texts, their baffling insistence on non-duality, thus come to seem strangely familiar when we correlate them with Christian incarnational vision, which provides a solid basis for grasping the essential point of all these paradoxes. Christianity refers us to the world of human history, the fleshly world of our real lives, as the place where God is found. ‘God walks among the pots and pans’, says Teresa of Avila. There are many such sayings on the lips of the saints and they bring Christianity quite close to the this-worldliness of Zen. The Incarnation brings everyday human life into conjunction with the divine, in a supreme achievement of non-duality. It is by identifying with Christ's humanity, and not by leaping beyond it, that we are ‘made partakers of the divine nature’ (2 Peter 1.4). But Christian non-duality never compromises the sheer ontological distinction between Creator and creature. Even the human nature of Christ, though assumed by the hypostasis of the divine Word, is not divinized in such a sense as to melt its identity in fusion with the divine, or to annul the distinct human will of Christ. Neither is the divine nature subjected to creaturely weakness. To some the distinction between this Chalcedonian non-dualism and Indian non-dualism is the essential difference between East and West.
Seeing Christ in one’s neighbour is a way of practising non-duality. There is no distinction between rich and poor, male and female, ugly and beautiful, kin and stranger – to all we direct the same energy of goodwill in the moment of encounter. We shrink up in the presence of some people, expand in the presence of others, shun those who repel us and chase after those who attract us. There is a lot of high-handedness and injustice in this way of behaving, and it causes us to miss out on the full riches of the humanity around us. To bring the same respect, the same affirmation, to every other person, and to affirm especially of the less attractive person that ‘this is Christ!’ is a way of correcting the imbalance caused by our instinctive likes and dislikes.
By the same token, we should stop picking and choosing, and complaining about what is lacking in our living conditions. Each moment should be affirmed and accepted as a moment of grace. The Zen monk is privileged to clean the latrines, as an affirmation of non-discrimination. Samsara itself is nirvana, or at least it is our only current connection with nirvana. People generally live badly, chasing shadows, and making fools of themselves. Buddhism calls on us to stop, to affirm the reality present to hand, and to bring out energies to bear on it, and so to become wise.
This moralizing may be rather platitudinous, but it is a way of digesting and acclimatizing the language of the mystical religious texts and bringing them to bear on everyday practical issues. The cumulative value of such efforts at application can be seen in the emergence of engaged Buddhism as one of the prominent liberating forces in the globalized world of today, filling the void left by the collapse of Marxism. Marx penetrated the economic fabric of oppression, but Buddhism goes deeper, deeper than Freud too, in penetrating the spiritual roots of oppression and of self-oppression. And there is a non-duality between spiritual bondage and freedom on the one hand and political and economic bondage and freedom on the other. The analysis of both is mutually enhancing. Marxism failed not because of flawed economics, but because of its inability to integrate economics and comprehensive spiritual insight, an inability that left it a victim to the projections of class hatred and of a dogmatism that bred tyranny. Buddhism can enhance its critical force by taking on board economic and political analysis, and indeed must do so in order to be faithful to its own vision of non-duality, for economics and politics are of the essence of samsara, which is not different from the essence of nirvana. Christian theology of liberation should be developing in equal depth a synthesis of socio-political, mystical and psychoanalytical wisdom; but it has been stymied by heavy-handed Vatican repression. That is one of the chief lost opportunities of the post-Vatican II period.
Perhaps the single most important way of enacting the incarnational wisdom of non-duality is the act of forgiveness, an act that can be particularly timely today, putting to flight all the poisonous dualisms that have been given a new lease of life by the War on Terror, with its Manichean oppositions of Good and Evil, and by the reactionary turn within the Church with its polarization between Orthodoxy and Heresy. As I turn in conclusion to this topic, I hope to provide an anchor for the ideas explored so far and to indicate concrete steps that may build the path to peace in our violent times.
 Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (London: SCM, 1971), 16.
 John W. de Gruchy, ed. Bonhoeffer for a New Day (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 2.
 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology (University of Chicago Press, 1967), 3.232-3.
 Quoted, Paul Murray, T. S. Eliot and Mysticism [London: Macmillan, 1991], 339; Eliot read and annotated the Gîtâ as a student at Harvard (Lyndall Gordon, Eliot’s New Life [Oxford University Press, 1988], 121).
 T. S. Eliot, ‘The Dry Salvages’ III from Four Quartets (Collected Poems 1909-1962 [London: Faber and Faber, 1974], 209-10). Eliot and Tillich share a faith open to contemporary culture; the poet read Tillich in the fifties, drawn by a theology of forgiveness based on love rather than remorse; he read the first volume of Systematic Theology on a 1950 boat-trip to South Africa, later praising it as one of the deepest theological works of recent times (see Gordon, 238, 328).
 Paul Goodman, in Graham Clarke ed., T. S. Eliot’ Critical Assessments (London: Helm, 1990), III, 93.
 Ibid. Murray notes that the Buddhist phrase in the lines, ‘And right action is freedom/From past and future also’ (‘The Dry Salvages’ V) ‘expresses in code, or in shorthand, Eliot’s own private debt of gratitude to the Eastern tradition’ (141).
 Krishan, 218. ‘At XVI.7.15 Krishna is quoted as saying: “Know that I am Arjuna and Arjuna is me”’ (218-19).