A Buddhist Take on Christian Humility

Image result for diadochus of photiki

Humility features very prominently in Christian spiritual traditions as one of the most necessary of all virtues. A classic example of this in the Western tradition can be found in the 7thchapter of St Benedict’s Rule for Monks with its carefully described 12 stages. The Christian East is no less concerned with this most vital virtue. Here is one interesting example, from Diodochus of Photike’s Discourses:

When the irascible part of the soul is stirred against the passions, remember that it is time for silence- the hour of battle. But upon seeing that the upheaval is passing, be it through prayer or almsgiving, then it is the moment to let yourself be drawn by the ardent love of God’s words, affixing the wings of your mind to humility. For is a person does not humble himself exceedingly, he will never be able to speak of God’s greatness.

In Diodochus, humility is the necessary awareness of the inability of human intelligence to speak intelligibly of divine things – the things of God are beyond normal interpretive discourse. At times, the Christian tradition can seem to be saying that it is the inherent sinfulness of the human person that makes communion with God impossible and this can lead to the heavily value-laden judgements on human nature – we are simply too wicked, too undeserving, too base to be allowed into God’s presence. But I wonder if Diodochus is offering us a rather different angle. Might it in fact be the case that it is not our wickedness that holds us back from full awareness of God’s presence but the limitations of the ordinary workings of our minds?

An example from Buddhist tradition might offer a way into this rather different approach to humility. There is a traditional Buddhist teaching story that is included in an excellent little compilation of such parables by the Venerable Myokyo-ni called ‘Look and See’, published last year by The Buddhist Society in London. It goes like this:

King Milinda asked the Venerable Nagasena, ‘What is the difference between one who has passion and one who is free from passion?’
‘The one clings, the other does not cling.’
‘What do you mean by clings and does not cling?’
‘The one covets, the other does not covet.’
‘But as I see it, both he who has passion and he who is free from passion have the same wish, that, whether hard or soft, his food should be good; neither wishes for what is bad.’
‘He who is not free from passion experiences both the taste of the food and also the passion due to that taste; while he who is free from passion experiences the taste of that food, but not the passion due to that taste.’

In other words, the normal working of our minds often adds either desire or at least some level of expectation to the things we experience. We do not see things as they are but as we expect or desire them to be and this can lead us to a sense of dissatisfaction because we can say for sure that our desire will not be quenched by the experience of the thing we long for. The one who practices detachment from desire is thus enabled to experience things for what they are without expecting anything more from that experience. In that way, the food is tasted more purely and simply. The practice of learning how not to see things only in ‘my way’ is a practice of humility, but one which is simply conscious of the limitations of our habitual patterns of thought, not one which questions our fundamental value as human persons.

Diodochus may use the language of good and evil to describe our habitual patterns and, by contrast, a life lived in a godly manner, but his anthropology is fundamentally optimistic – it is quite within our reach to school our souls to be ‘readily disposed towards the good’. His method for doing this is not that far away from Buddhist practices of meditation and mindfulness – it is the constant remembrance of God through the prayer of the heart, through gratitude and through humility which is self-forgetting, not self-despising.

Christianity cannot stand alone

So said Dom Bede Griffiths in his book, The New Creation in Christ. This was a published version of his 1991 John Main Seminar in which he gave some of his clearest teaching on meditation. He recognised that, in a globalised world, religions inevitably had to rub up against one another but his concern was much deeper than the negotiation of inter-cultural encounters. His vision for Christian faith was a cosmic one (he would say simply a ‘catholic’ one) in which all people seek to ‘integrate their lives by bringing everything into the inner centre of the heart and finding the meaning of life, not in the external world, but in the inner reality of which the external world is a reflection.’ He considered the phenomenal world to be transient and that it may be transcended through a deep acquaintance with the fundamental reality of the Infinite. Such acquaintance is nurtured in the deeply human practice of meditation, a practice shared across religious traditions.

Of course, not everyone who meditates has an interest in exploring the realm of the infinite, but the religious traditions from which all forms of meditation ultimately derive are consistent in their insistence on this dimension of the practice. This is as true of Buddhism (which may be described as non-theistic, but only if you’re careful about what you mean by these terms!) as it is of any of the more straightforwardly theistic religions.

One of the big questions faced by any religious person who seeks to deepen their familiarity with another faith tradition is that of the nature of their encounter. Some suggest that there is a real possibility for multiple religious belonging, others seek a mutually illuminating dialogue. But one interesting attempt at a middle ground can be found in a conversation between Mark Vernon and Rupert Sheldrake, which you can listen to here. Vernon suggests a kind of ‘crossing over’ to another tradition in order to return to one’s own with a new insight. Many of those Western Christians who have looked to the East for religious inspiration have found that their immersion in the worlds of Hindu or Buddhist thought and practice have brought to light forgotten aspects of Christian spirituality. William Johnston is a fine, if slightly overlooked, example of this phenomenon which we might more readily associate with Bede himself or with Merton, Abhishiktananda, Tony de Mello or Enomiya-Lassalle. The chief gain for Western Christianity has been, I would argue, a reappropriation of Christian traditions of meditation which might otherwise have remained very marginal to our practice of Christian faith.

This project seems to me to have a lot of life in it yet, though I wonder if the early enthusiasm of the first generation of inter-faith explorers has been sustained. There are notable Christian voices still exploring this realm – Paul Knitter and Ruben Habito come to mind – but I wonder if there has been something of a reaction against this approach in favour of a more inward-looking emphasis as Western Christianity faces a decline in contrast to global trends in the opposite direction. I feel strongly that this is a poor response to a decline which masks a consistently strong demand in our culture for authentic spiritualities that are rooted in practice and open to other influences. It is interesting that the energy for such an approach appears to lie on the fringes of the church rather than at its heart (Russell Brand is a powerful advocate for this). We might do well to listen to these ‘fringes’!