Monday, April 19, 2010

Christian and Buddhist Moral Education

Much could be written about the continuities and disparities between Christian and Buddhist life-worlds. One fruitful point of entry into this religious labyrinth is that of moral development: what does it look like to educate oneself ethically into a mature practitioner of either tradition? In my brief remarks below, I will explore the biographical account of the Buddha, as recorded by first century CE Brahmanical convert Ashvaghosha, and that of Augustine, as documented in his own Confessions. It will be shown that despite overlapping diagnoses of the disease plaguing humanity, the two men prescribe divergent treatments with differing rates of recovery.

Written during his first three years as the Bishop of Hippo, Confessions exhibits Augustine at his most reverentially penitential. Reflecting on his intricate journey to faith, Augustine admits to repeatedly falling victim to the “disease of the flesh,” the deadly pleasures of which formed “a chain that I dragged along with me” (1961: 128). From his youth onward, corporeal desire and an unquenchable craving for material satisfaction “exuded mists which clouded over and obscured my heart, so that I could not distinguish the clear light of true love from the murk of lust” (Ibid: 43). He writes of how his soul repeatedly fell below its holy potential, rusting the imago Dei as he sought the illusive happiness of superficial pleasure and bodily comfort. Augustine, of course, does not consider his shortcoming especially unique. Though well intentioned, most humans direct their will in good faith toward the wrong object of desire and thereby generate their own misery. It is not that the material world itself poses a danger to human flourishing. Rather, we are seduced and distracted by it, neglectful of the One deserving of our attention and praise: “Whatever you feel through the senses of the flesh you only feel in part. It delights you, but it is only a part and you have no knowledge of the whole” (Ibid: 81). For Augustine, individuals will grow ever restless so long as they continue “clinging to a world which they can never hold” (Ibid: 106).

As a child, the Sakyamuni Buddha was exposed to the incredible wealth and luxury after which Augustine once so desperately thirsted. Born a prince, he grew up around “untold treasures,/ all sorts of wealth and gems” (2.2), as well as the “playful drunkenness and sweet laughter” of countless palace women (2.31). After venturing beyond the compound’s walls and witnessing the transience of life, however, the Buddha came to share Augustine’s suspicion of the sensual realm: “Learning the danger of sickness, my mind/ is repelled by pleasures/ and seems, as if, to recoil” (3.47). Like Augustine, the Buddha fears humanity’s investment in the proximate, i.e. that which is “subject/ to the ups and downs of fate” (11.16). Resembling “torches of straw in this world” (11.23), materialism may bring temporary enjoyment but will ultimately empty out into pain. The subsequent emotional and psychological agitation translates into the first of the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. On this account, our frustration (dukkha) with life derives from the fact that a specter of fear and anxiety always lurks, even amidst happiness. The cause of this suffering, the Buddha goes on to surmise, is the yearning (tanha) we develop for those pleasures that “do not sate a man full of desires” (11.10). Celebrated as ambition and progress in the Western Euro-American ethos, this unflinching drive towards corporeal fulfillment pierces us “by the arrow of this samsaric life” (11.57).

Having similarly condemned the human inclination to fasten one’s life to external gratification, Augustine and the Buddha both advocate self-disciplinary measures intended to rein in such uncontrollable longing. Augustine maintains that individuals must activate their dormant memory of God, thereby recalibrating the focus of human activity. Since God, on his view, resembles the neo-Platonist Supreme Good, a perfection beyond words, God alone embodies the proper object of devotion: “For wherever the soul of man may turn, unless it turns to [God], it clasps sorrow to itself” (Augustine, 1961: 80). Literally turning from a life of folly, marked by the ignorance of egotism, to exultation in Truth, the Christian follows Christ’s example of realizing her love of God. Often, this transformation necessitates significant self-restraint. It manifests in a charitable asceticism that does not require devotees to wholly reject the world but rather “abandon my worldly hopes and give myself up entirely to the search for God and the life of true happiness” (Ibid: 127). Imagining the perfected state, Augustine writes: “When at last I cling to you with all my being, for me there will be no more sorrow, no more toil. Then at last I shall be alive with true life, for my life will be wholly filled by you” (Ibid: 232). For Augustine, however, fallen humanity’s desperate attempts to chart the way back to God do not guarantee success. In fact, full perfectibility may not be possible: “And sometimes you allow me to experience a feeling quite unlike my normal state, an inward sense of delight which, if it were to reach perfection in me, would be something not encountered in this life, though what it is I cannot tell. But my heavy burden of distress drags me down again to earth” (Ibid: 249). Nevertheless, if humanity awakens through memory to its ultimate interest in God, it may hope for enough self-perfection to be fully loved by God again.

Though different in kind, the Buddha also sought an awakening. Unlike Augustine, he is also reported to have achieved it (hence the honorific title). Sitting under the Bodhi tree, having resisted the charming machinations of Mara’s materialism one last time, the Buddha reaches enlightenment (nirvana). Compared to the extinguishing of a flame, this experience of liberation does not entail an eternal life in blissful union with the Divine, however. Whereas Augustine redirects his reverential appreciation towards God for having created the ‘house’ of his existence, the Buddha shatters the ‘house’ altogether. For Buddhist ethics, this nirvanic demolition serves as the teleological destination of the good life. It depends on a practice of self-discipline outlined in the Noble Eightfold Path, which includes the cultivation of wisdom, bodily comportment and mental exercise. In contradistinction to Augustine, for whom self-restraint takes on a more rigorous (although far from self-negating) form, the Buddha clears a middle way between mind-numbing hedonism and extreme asceticism. As demonstrated by his encounter with renouncers in an ascetic grove, the Buddha would likely affirm Augustine’s commitment but reject his intention, fearing that it perpetuates the cycle of re-death: “Not that this effort is totally vile,/ which seeks the noble, forsaking the base;/ But wise people with the same kind of toil/ ought to attain that state in which/ nothing needs to be done again” (7.25). While Augustine prioritizes a reorientation of the will, the Buddha would likely argue that “because the body acts and ceases from action/ under the control of the mind,/ It is the mind, therefore, that requires to be tamed” (7.27). Turning to Augustine, he would possibly remark: “your dharma aims at attaining heaven,/ and my desire is to be free from rebirth” (7.48). For the Buddha, complete ethical maturation is possible through the dharma of cessation.

Although both men strive to release themselves and, by extension, their respective religious worlds from “the snares of its own delusion” (1.75), they travel different paths. Augustine climbs the mountain of moderate asceticism toward the peak of union with God, while the Buddha burrows down into the underlying impermanence of the phenomenal world. Either way, the first step of the journey must take humanity away from the forest of sensuous desire.


Ashvaghosha. (2008). Life of the Buddha. trans. Patrick Olivelle. New York, NY: NYU Press.

Augustine. (1961). Confessions. trans. R. S. Pine-Coffin. New York, NY: Penguin.

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