Tuesday, 11 April 2006

More Thoughts on the Human Condition

We would like to present a few more thoughts on the human condition. After we wrote the orignial post, we realized that we had not presented Buddhism quite correctly—at least not in a formal sense. In the Four Noble Truths of the Buddha, the human condition is suffering, and the cause of suffering is desire. We said in our original post that Buddhism taught in the Four Noble Truths that the root cause of the human condition, of human suffering, was ignorance. We were not correct. However, we think that what we said is not far from the deeper meaning of the Four Noble Truths taken in the context of the Eightfold Path. For the Eightfold Path clearly emphasizes meditation (we use the term loosely here so as to avoid getting into a discussion of the stages of Buddhist contemplation) as the means to liberate man from the human condition. This seems even more evident in later manifestations of Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism and Japanese Zen, where Buddhism is primarily a meditative system of one kind or another, and the ascesis is used as a means to support that meditative system.

Moreover, in Tibetan Buddhism, there seems to us to be an emphasis on meditation over and above the other aspects of the Eightfold Path, such as right conduct. While one aspect of the Eightfold Path is right conduct, interpreted even by the Buddha himself to include chastity, we understand that in Tibetan Buddhism, what a westerner would understand to be chastity is not emphasized at all. This puzzles us, and we wonder if any of our esteemed blog readers could clarify the attitude of actual Tibetan Buddhism to right conduct and chastity.

Even, however, if we take a more Theravada form of Buddhism (with the little that we ourselves know), where there is a deeper emphasis on the literal meaning of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path than in historically later forms of Buddhism, even so, the ascesis that a monk does to liberate himself from desire does not seem to be quite the same as the Christian ascesis for purification of the passions, the foundation of which is, in the tradition underlying the Philokalia, also desire. It seems to us that even in the historically earlier forms of Buddhism, ascesis, while intended to reduce desire and emphasize patterns of behaviour that support liberation, is really a foundation for the meditative system which itself is to lead to liberation or enlightenment. It is in this sense that we think that we were correct in saying that in Buddhism the root cause of the human condition is ignorance, to be solved by meditation.

We can contrast this with the Christian understanding of the human condition. The human condition is the result, as we said, of sin, both that of Adam and that of each man individually. The solution to the human condition in Christ's teaching is that we know God and his son whom he has sent. Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Hence the movement of the person in Christianity is a movement away from sin to knowledge, including contemplative knowledge, of God and Jesus Christ. However, this is, first, not a matter of an ideology that we adopt as Orthodox Christians of things to do and not to do; nor even a matter of an emotionally-charged pietistic relationship with Jesus, perhaps with an emotional emphasis on his suffering on the Cross. It is a matter of an ontological (a big word; it means: 'in the depths of our souls') transformation of the person brought about first by the Mysteries of the Church—Baptism, Chrismation and Holy Communion—and then by repentance.

It is in the Mysteries of the Church that we encounter the ultimate meaning of Christ's Crucifixion: Baptism is a participation in his death so that we might live with him in his Resurrection. It confers the forgiveness of our sins (for recall that the root cause of the human condition is sin); it grants us grace—the presence of the Holy Spiritto turn to God and his Son Jesus Christ in our personal lives. This turning to God after our baptism is usually seen as repentance. This repentance is to purify the person from sins committed after his baptism, and from the passions, the root cause of which is indeed desire. (It should not surprise us that in many and various places people have realized that desire is the root of emotional disorder.) It also allows the person to know Jesus Christ in greater fullness.

It is usually said that Jesus Christ is known in prayer, and this is true as far as it goes, but our whole being should be prayer, our whole life, our whole being. Hence, this purification which arises from repentance is a living thing, a movement to a greater and greater knowledge of and participation in the life of Jesus Christ, or, more properly expressed, the life of the Holy Trinity. Hence, when we say that the movement of Christianity is from sin towards a knowledge of Jesus Christ, this is neither intellectual (ideological) nor pietistic (emotional), but ontological (spiritual). It involves a spiritual relationship with the Holy Trinity, a participation, as the Elder Porphyrios put it, in the Uncreated Church which is ultimately the Three Persons Themselves of the Holy Trinity. We experience this participation in the Uncreated Church as Life, as Light, as Joy, as Love for God which spills over into love for our fellow man. It is such an encounter with the uncreated Church that led the emissaries of the Ruler of Kiev to say of the Divine Liturgy in Constantinople: 'We did not know whether we were in Heaven or on earth.'

Hence, in the Christian understanding of the human condition the movement is from sin to life. This life is understood as a relationship with, as a union with, as a spiritual knowledge of, God and his Son Jesus Christ. And this life brings us to the fullness of our own personhood. This relationship is founded on the gift of the Holy Spirit that we receive in Baptism, and especially in Chrismation. This relationship and union is consummated in the Mystery of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. That is why it was important for St Mary of Egypt to receive Communion before she died: for the completion of her movement from sin to knowledge of and union with God and his Son Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. We are all, or should be, on the same road.

Kalo Pascha!
Orthodox Monk

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