I've copied the following exchange from the comments section of a recent post over at Malcolm Pollack's fine blog. Malcolm's words are in bold. Read Malcolm's original post to get the context for this exchange, which is something of a side discussion that doesn't directly address Malcolm's central points.
The comment exchange was refreshing for me, and a reminder that I'm capable of writing about more than just step counts, food, and my bowel habits.
My first reaction:
“Religion wants a ‘skyhook’: something above us upon which we can depend, and with which we can make a kind of contract. In return for our faith, and for a promise of effort and self-sacrifice in the required virtuous forms, we are given protection, or even salvation.”
I think this is a good descriptor for theistic religion, but not so good for something like Theravada Buddhism, which stresses empiricism and self-effort: no one can save you from your suffering but yourself. (Folkloric types of Mahayana do view the Buddha as a sort of gift-giving divinity—I see this in Korea all the time—so I’m not including Mahayana here.)
Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans is also good for theistic religions, but not so good for either philosophical Taoism or the more sere strains of Zen Buddhism, both of which steer the adherent way from “divine drama” in favor of an appreciation of the ordinariness of ultimate reality. You’re not supposed to “Wow!” the Tao: it’s enough just to know and to follow your situation.
Yes, I thought about that as I was writing this post. (I thought about you at the same time, as you have a sophisticated understanding of the sacred and the soteriological aspects of the great religions, and I thought you might raise this point.)
How to square the Buddhist religious impulse with the others? I think it’s that Buddhism does indeed rely on a skyhook, but one that takes a different form (and, as compared to the for-public-consumption versions of the other great religions, a more esoteric one): the skyhook in Buddhism is erected by lowering the self. The vector pointing from the believer to the sacred is a matter of relative position; while most religions have the practitioner stand where he is and build a ladder to something above him, Buddhism sees the sacred already at hand, and the great work is to remove the obstruction of the petitioning Self. But the relative status of the self and the sacred — with the self, properly understood and properly positioned, being a negative infinity in relation to the sacred — is the same.
My two cents. What do you think?
My reaction (slightly edited):
Mahayana Buddhism’s central insight is that nirvana is samsara, i.e., the ordinary phenomenal world is ultimate reality—there is no separation, thus no vector pointing from believer to sacred because the two are not-two. Zen’s “finger pointing to the moon” image is, I think, a direct denial of any skyhook, at least as Zen Buddhism reckons things.
I’m not sure what to make of the phrase “lowering the self.” There is a no-self doctrine in Buddhism, called anatman in Sanskrit (“no-soul”) and wu-wo (無我) in Chinese (“no I”), but what this means is not that “there is no self,” tout court, but rather that the self exists yet has no fundamental reality because it is “dependently co-arisen,” i.e., it is the confluence of convergent and contingent circumstances. Buddhism is said to strike a middle way between eternalism on the one hand (a permanent, unchangeable self imbued with aseity) and nihilism on the other (no self at all).
If, by “lowering the self,” you’re referring to a sort of de-emphasis of the self/ego in Eastern thought as compared to the affirmation/elevation of the same in certain strains of Western thought, then I think you’re on solid ground. I also don’t think that anything I’ve written here really detracts from the point you’re trying to make since you’re making it from a Western perspective. Religiously speaking, the story of the West is the story of theisms (and even when the Europeans reached the New World, they encountered natives who were also theistic in their own way), so “skyhook” language may not be inappropriate.
Just to be even more pedantic, I should note that certain Westerners, in considering Buddhism some sort of special case among world religions, often mistakenly claim “Buddhism isn’t theistic.” There may be a sense in which that’s true, but it’s true only to the extent that we strip Buddhism of its religious elements and see it purely as a philosophical system—and then strip it even further so that we consider only the metaphysics taught by the Buddha himself.
Buddhism, taken as a living, evolving tradition, however, has plenty of theism in it: many lay Buddhists view the Buddha and his bodhisattvas as divinities to which one can offer petitionary prayers that are little different from the prayers offered by lay Catholics to the saints and the Blessed Virgin. In traveling outside of India and settling into other lands, Buddhism has always taken on the local religious color, adopting the local deities and making them part of Buddhist cosmology (with the understanding that those deities are not above the laws of karma or the Three Marks of Existence: no-self, impermanence, and suffering). So again, to that extent, even Buddhism may be said to have its skyhooks.
[end of exchange... so far]
Had I gone further, I'd have noted that, in non-theistic Buddhism, there isn't anything with which to make a contract and on which to depend; that's more a trait of theistic (which roughly corresponds to saying folkloric) Buddhism, so I'd still link any "skyhook" concept with theism. Original Buddhism teaches one to test reality for oneself and to "seek your salvation with diligence"—supposedly the Buddha's final words. What you do is up to you.