Monday 20 May 2019

Twentieth-century Buddhists according to Owen Barfield, discussing CS Lewis, in relation to Alan Watts

From Owen Barfield on CS Lewis (1989) ed. GB Tennyson, page 13:

Lewis had spent his early manhood striving in all sincerity to experience living what Alan Watts has called 'The Supreme Identity'. 

Lewis's very success in that endeavour - compared with the average run of idealists, who do not even make the attempt - proved to him that insofar as the experience is genuine and not merely a complacently fancied experience, it reveals itself as a theoretical truth but a pragmatical error. 

It is and can be an intellectual experience only. 

When it comes to the will, there is no identity, and the prayer must always be 'They will be done', just because my own will, if I look it squarely in the face, is a rag-bag of lusts and feeblenesses and terrors.  

Not for Lewis, therefore, are the lofty strivings of the twentieth-century Buddhist and his condescending smile as he contemplates Christianity and all other formulated religions.

This is also my conclusion. That 'twentieth-century Buddhists' - i.e. more generally Western advocates of Eastern deistic religions - are (to use another and blunter terminology) complacent hypocrites (i.e. do not rigorously practice what they preach) and self-aggrandising advocate of the dark side (because they refuse to acknowledge and repent their lusts, feeblenesses and terrors).

Harsh, I know; but that is my evaluation - on similar grounds as Barfield describes for Lewis. Here and now and for us; Buddhism and the like are not just an ineffectual spiritual dead-end; but an inducement to self-justified embrace of the dark powers - and thus associated with joining and fighting-with the wrong side in the unavoidable spiritual war. (As did Alan Watts.) 

For us; God must be personal, and our religion must be Christian. No alternative. Doing this - each of us, for his own life - is not straightforward; but the conclusion to be drawn from such difficulties to get to work on making it possible


Anonymous said...

I believe you are a bit too harsh on Buddhism.

While it is true that most of its western advocates are complacent hypocrites (but that is true for most western advocates of /anything/), the method itself has its importance.

First, it is a way to God - and provided by God, I believe - for those who cannot relate to Him as to a person.

Second, the transformation of personhood that is at the core of real Buddhism is relevant even to Christians - in fact, it is something most Christians are missing in their religion. You cannot get closer to God while still clinging to the common human personality("ego", as Buddhists call it).


Bruce Charlton said...

@L'C - When it comes to core beliefs (etc); half correct doctrines are no use to use now, when things are coming to a point; and in a sense everything is half correct in the sense of containing truth (or else it could have no significant influence). We must be tough-minded about this stuff!

wrt 'twentieth-century Buddists' - it isn't a case of 'most' being smug hypocrites - it is that the most famous, influential, scholarly/ admired ones are that way!

William Wildblood said...

For a Buddhist consciousness is the thing that the spiritual quest relates to. For the Christian the thing is the person. The question is which is the more fundamental? I think it is the person. For it is the person that has consciousness and the only way round this is to reject the person entirely which, of course, Buddhism does. But then what really is left?

In the 20th century people may have initially been attracted to Buddhism because it does offer a profound psychological analysis of the human being. But it can also be (particularly for the Western psyche) a subtle temptation to pride. 'I' attain spiritual enlightenment without the need for a God or Christ. This is where Bruce's remarks here are quite correct.

Surely Buddhism is not about the transformation of personhood but the complete transcendence of it? And it is only a misunderstood Christianity that thinks you can get close to God without giving up the ego. The image of Christ on the cross tells us that is precisely what we must do.

Dividualist said...

You are certainly right about the "scholarly admired ones". Pretty much the only Western Buddhist teacher I admire is Lama Ole Nydahl and he is waaay too "politically incorrect" to be "scholarly admired". His students tend to come from the ranks of the practical rather than intellectual. And he absolutely puts getting rid of the lusts and the rest of the so-call disturbing emotions into the center. These days if anyone is scholarly admired instead of admired by the kind of guys who breed horses and lay roofs, that should in itself be suspicious.

Interestingly, when I was a practicising Buddhist (under Ole) I thought that the "thy will be done" idea in Christianity is excellent, because it means "my will NOT be done", so even though God and his will does not exist, it is very excellent for getting rid of our own wills, which is the whole point! Just because God does not exist for a Buddhist it does not follow that our chaotic, lustful, jealous, confused wills are a good thing. So I very much though the illusion of God is very a very good trick for those who cannot imagine why to get rid of their own wills without a personal deity. While in fact Buddhists now that getting rid of your will is its own reward, it requires no external reward. So thought I back then. (Novadays I am not sure where I stand with spirituality. Getting cynical.)

But there is one important angle. One that is hard to express but many know it. Chesterton knew it. It is that it is not "selfishness" that is a big problem but "self-centeredness" o "self-importance". Imagine Alan saving up his pay because he wants to buy a cool motorbike and he never donates to charity and when he is asked why he shrugs I am too small a fish to try and save the world, I am just trying to live my own life in a fun way. While Bob who is donating most of his salary to charities is prancing around feeling how super holy he is for doing so and pushes other people to donate more. While Alan is more "selfish", Bob is more "self-centered" or has higher "self-importance" and that is worse! Ole does recognize this and generally says the second has a bigger ego. I think Chesterton recognized this, but I don't know if Christianity has a terminology to express it.

Robert Brockman said...

I suspect the popular Western advocates of Buddhism *have no lineage* -- they have not been certified to possess the proper understanding by the previous generation. This is how we get people like Alan Watts.

The Buddhists I am in contact with are, if anything, *even more aggressive* than Christians in repentance. Example: occasionally you get a person who has used spiritual pride to beat down all their other sins so as to appear self-righteous. It can be difficult to get such people to engage in repentance. The Buddhist solution is to point out to the person that sure, they may have been "righteous" in this life, but what about all their past lives? So the person is encouraged to repent of all the crimes they cannot remember from past lives, which statistically include burning monasteries, killing monks and nuns, etc.

My assessment of the Buddhism vs. Christianity issue is that they represent two different "coordinate systems" for understanding the same underlying reality. The problem with simultaneously operating in both systems is that building and maintaining the mechanisms for "transforming" ideas between these coordinate systems is expensive, error-prone, and can distract from more important tasks. Worse, there is a very strong potential to "cherry-pick" from different religious systems so as to form an impenetrable armor of delusion around one's own ego.

That said, while most Christians should probably focus on Christian theosis, there is some value to checking in with the Buddhists from time to time. The fundamental differences are less than they appear, which is good news -- the Men of the East are not all doomed!

-- Robert Brockman

Bruce Charlton said...

@RB - The *fundamental* differences between Christianity and Buddhism are almost 100%! What is similar are aspects of natural religion (spontaneous types of 'paganism' underlie all religions) and the surface features - but the two religions are pointing in different directions.

I do believe that many Christians are mistakenly drawn to aspects that are core to Buddhism, perhaps esepcially intellectuals - but this is indeed a mistake.

All of which is aside from the fact that people of any or no religion may choose to follow Jesus - since we all know Jesus and what he would/did do, from our premortal spirit life, and we shall all be offered the gift of eternal life after our death (if not before).

William Wildblood said...

Regarding repenting of sins from past lives, how can you repent of a sin you may or may not have committed? That's just an intellectual exercise. Besides, it doesn't matter what you may have been or even what you may have done. It's what you are now that counts and repentance should not so much be for your actions as for your current sinful state, the corrupt condition of your heart now.

I'm a believer in reincarnation but past lives are immaterial from a spiritual point of view, especially if you can't remember them. All the seeds are in you now and the specific actions are not so relevant.

I don't think Buddhists and Christians do address the same reality at all and that is the problem. I used to think that but now I think that the spiritual world is not just one thing and that Buddhism actually rejects both creation and the creator to focus on the uncreated which is both its strength and its limitation. But there was a reason for creation and Buddhists miss this.

Robert Brockman said...

WW: "Regarding repenting of sins from past lives, how can you repent of a sin you may or may not have committed?"

If you've lived tens of thousands of past lives, you've committed them all. Also, from the Buddhist perspective, with enough enlightenment one can gain access to the relevant information to know this directly, thus the ritual is not an intellectual exercise.

WW: "Besides, it doesn't matter what you may have been or even what you may have done."

From a Buddhist perspective, the negative consequences of the bad behavior in past lives cannot be avoided, they *will* catch up to you and everyone else. If this was not the case, then our actions would not have meaning. Other people may be able to take the heat for you (Jesus being an ideal example), but the heat *is* coming.

WW: "I'm a believer in reincarnation but past lives are immaterial from a spiritual point of view, especially if you can't remember them."

Have you seen the movie Memento, the one about the anterograde amnesia sufferer with a time horizon of about five minutes? People with this neurological disorder experience a form of "reincarnation" in real time. One of the things that made the main character in Memento noble was his *faith in reality* and lack of nihilism that he maintained despite the severe constraints of his condition:

"I have to believe in a world outside my own mind. I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can't remember them."

-- Robert Brockman