Walking to Carm after snowstorm
White snow, white sky –
I cannot tell where one begins
and one ends.
I was raised as a Christian, and when I was a child, I would often watch my grandmother read from her Buddhist sutras in the morning with some curiosity. At the time, all that I understood was that she believed in a giant stone statue that, according to my mother, ‘didn’t do anything.’ Now, I am no longer Christian, but the lines that divide the world’s religions continue to pique my curiosity. I had always had a vague notion that Buddhism and Christianity were too fundamentally different to compare, but according to Thomas Merton in Zen and the Birds of Appetite, there exists a metaphysical plane in which the two religions intersect. That is, both religions regard ‘Avidya’ (“ignorance”), a condition in which “man…spend[s] a great deal of energy in justifying the false view he takes of the world and of his place in it” as the cause behind all suffering (Merton, 82). However, the ‘solutions’ taught by each religion differ.
In Christianity, there is a clear line between good and evil. Humans are innately evil and ultimately irredeemable by their own efforts; they must be granted salvation by filling themselves with Jesus Christ, who will guide them away from the suffering world towards heaven (Merton, 84). In doing so, they essentially replace their evil selves with Christ and thus embody Christ’s good charity and generosity. There seems to be an element of transformation or change involved in this process.
In Buddhism, unlike the distinction seen in Christianity, good and evil are inseparable. Buddhism teaches people to empty themselves and to let go of the self-ego, and in doing so achieve “perfect compassion” – a compassion that seems to be a natural outcome of relinquishing one’s individuality in order to become a part of a bigger whole (Merton, 84). Furthermore, Buddhism does not provide a reward for living as a good person (such as heaven), but rather teaches a method for coping with the world we live in: “Buddhism is not a way of running away from the world but of overcoming it through growing knowledge through active love towards ones fellow beings” (Merton, 94). Whereas Christianity reaches for fullness with Christ and God, Buddhism speaks of emptiness, one of infinite potentiality and limitlessness. And with Buddhism, it is not a transformation but a simple realization of awareness: that he was “empty from the beginning” (Merton, 129).
As I discern both the similarities and differences between these two religions, I remember back to the time when I thought my grandmother was silly for believing in a giant stone statue. It makes me wonder about truth, and whether ‘truth’ actually exists. It makes me wonder whether the Christian ‘solution’ or the Buddhist ‘solution’ is the ‘right’ way (or perhaps some other religion I know nothing of) and then, I feel I am falling into a trap for thinking that a ‘right’ way exists. So long as a person finds some form of peace with their lives, does it matter whether they found it by being ‘full’ or by being ‘empty’? With these thoughts, I find myself thinking back to my grandmother. She passed away two years ago so I cannot ask her now, but I wonder if she ever found peace with her life.