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By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

4/6/2013 (1 year ago)

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

If we view Being one way, the Christian answer is the reasonable choice. If we view Being another way, the Buddhist answer is reasonable

The insight that Buddha shares with classical philosophy and Christianity is that we are finite creatures that "thirst," and our effort to quench our "thirst" through created, finite things, however desirous or noble these may be, does not satisfy, does not resolve the problem of "thirst."  The "thirst," moreover, is always in some way selfish, and not only leads to our suffering, but to others' suffering as well.  We appear to be condemned to an eternal wheel of unsatisfied desire, of suffering.

Article Highlights

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

4/6/2013 (1 year ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: Buddha, Jesus, Living Water, Thirst, von Balthasar, Buddhism, Christianity, Andrew M. Greenwell


CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - One of Buddha's central teachings involved the notion of "thirst," or (in the Pâli language) tanhâ. It is this "thirst" that explains suffering, dukkha.  This explanation of the origin of suffering based upon thirst is the Buddhist doctrine called dukkha samudaya, and it is considered to be the second of Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.

Inasmuch as we are limited, bounded, changing, and contingent beings always in the process of becoming, we suffer from cravings or "thirsts."  It is all-pervasive in the cosmos.  There is first of all the sort of "thirst" for sense-pleasures, for wealth, for power, kâma-tanhâ

In Buddha's mind, this "thirst" was not limited to things of the sense.  It also included the more noble desires of man.  It included the realm of ideas, of ideals, of opinions, and of beliefs, in which case this particular kind of thirst was called dhamma-tanha.

For Buddha there were yet other "thirsts," thirsts we might call metaphysical or existential.  There was a thirst for existence and becoming (bhava-tanhâ), and a thirst for non-existence or self-annihilation (vibhava-tanhâ).

The Buddhist notion of tanhâ seems to be analogous to St. John's three concupiscences: "For all that is the world, is the concupiscence of the flesh, and the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life . . . which is of the world."  (1 John 2:16). 

From St. John's epistles the notion of these sort of "thirsts" travels into St. Augustine and from St. Augustine it lands in Pascal's Pensées and his three libidines, three lusts: the lusts of the flesh, of knowledge, of domination or power:  "All that is in the world is the lust of the flesh, or the lust of the eyes, or the pride of life; libido sentiendi, libido sciendi, libido dominandi.  Wretched is the cursed land which these three rivers of fire enflame rather than water!" (No. 458)

"Buddha was right at this point," Hans Urs von Balthasar writes in his Theo-Drama, "the insatiable 'thirst' that characterizes finitude, and which arises from the constant finitizing of the formal object, must be quenched."

The insight that Buddha shares with classical philosophy and Christianity is that we are finite creatures that "thirst," and our effort to quench our "thirst" through created, finite things, however desirous or noble they may be, does not satisfy, does not resolve the problem of "thirst."  The "thirst," moreover, is always in some way selfish, and not only leads to our suffering, but to others' suffering as well.  We appear to be condemned to an eternal wheel of unsatisfied desire, of suffering.

The Christian, along with Plato and Aristotle, would recognize that this "thirst" occurs because of man's failure to discipline or subordinate his "thirsts" under the proper order.  The suffering comes from believing that created things are our end, when, in fact, our only end, our last end is the infinite God, the First Cause.  We try to fit a finite object into a space where an infinite object is the only thing that can fit in it.

In von Balthasar's words, this "thirst" arises from our efforts to "nourish the [human] spirit's infinite capacity for Being, for the True, and the Good, with mere finite substance." 

Famously, St. Augustine characterized this "thirst" which comes from seeking finite things other than the infinite God as restlessness.  "God," he wrote in his Confessions, "you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in you."

Though classical Western philosophy and Christianity share this notion of "thirst" with Buddhism, the two systems are at completely opposite poles on the cure for this "thirst." 

Both Buddhism and Christianity recognize that the release from "thirst" can be achieved through dissolution.  Cupio dissolvi, I wish to be dissolved, says St. Paul (Phil. 1:23-24).  Buddha also wish to be dissolved. 

Both Buddhism and Christianity recognize that there has to be a sort of "death" of the ego, of self.  "I no longer live I," wrote St. Paul in his letter to the Galatians (Gal. 2:20).  Buddha would have nothing to do with the "I," with ego.  In the doctrine of anatta or egolessness, the "I" is in a sense unreal and must be escaped from.

But beyond this, Buddhism and Christianity part ways on the very issue of how to quench the "thirst," and how, and into what, one is to be dissolved.

The Buddhist, who despairs of Being, turns to non-Being to quench his "thirst" and ease his suffering. 

Christianity, on the other hand, turns to Being and thereby turns its back on non-Being as an answer to the "thirst" with which we are afflicted. 

Turning to infinite Being or turning to non-Being are both plausible answers to the problem of man's "thirst" depending upon how we view Being.  If we view Being one way, the Christian answer is the reasonable choice.  If we view Being another way, the Buddhist answer is reasonable.

Buddha, Hans Urs von Balthasar writes, is right that the cure for this "thirst" might be achieved "by attempting to dissolve the finite spiritual centers," that is, each one of us, "into nonfinite Being (that is, Being [Sein] that is not existing being [nicht-seiend]."  But this is only true, von Balthasar points out, "if Being is not Spirit," that is, if Being is of the same or similar stuff as matter.

Buddha's answer to dissolve our finite spiritual centers into nonfinite Being, Being that is not existing being, is horribly wrong if "Being is Spirit," that is, if God is Spirit, if God is something wholly Other than the created world.

If God is the Creator, and if God created the material world ex nihilo, out of nothing and without change to himself, he is entirely separate from His creation.  God is therefore outside both time and place and therefore not subject to change.

In his divine nature, God, as Christianity understands God, is impassible: he does not change and therefore cannot suffer.  "For I am the LORD and change not."  (Mal. 3:6)  An impassible God would seem the perfect solution to the "thirst" of passible beings which leads to suffering.

Because God is wholly Other, finite man cannot know this God, the "Being who is Spirit," unless this God reveals himself to man, either in his creation or in Himself.  The creature cannot know the Creator directly.  The Infinite Being is beyond the grasp of any finite being. 

For all Buddha's impressive exertions, he apparently never saw or knew the Creator, and he never saw or knew God as Father.  He therefore despaired and settled for dissolution "into nonfinite Being," as von Balthasar puts it, "Being that is not existing being."

Our faith tells us that Buddha is wrong.  We believe in an impassible God, a God who is wholly-Other and separate from the cosmos, who revealed himself to Abraham, to Moses, and to the Jewish prophets.  In the fullness of time, this wholly-Other God became man and entered into this world. 

The impassible Word of God, from whom all things came to be and without whom nothing came to be, "became flesh," became passible, "and dwelt among us."  (John 1:14).

As St. Leo said in his famous Tome, "the impassible God did not disdain to be passible Man." 

As this truth is said in the Te Deum we have been praying during the Octave of Easter: Tu ad liberandum suscepturus homine, non horruisti Virginis uterum.  "You," the impassible God, "having taken upon yourself to deliver man, did not abhor the Virgin's womb," and so become passible.

St. Paul announces this truth in memorable words.  Jesus, who though "being in the form of God," that is impassible, "did not regard equality with God something to be grasped at."  "Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of slave, coming in the likeness of men," that is, he became passible.  (Phil. 2:6-7)

As Joseph Ratzinger (now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI) put it in his book Eschatology, "the Christian sees the true Bodhisattva," to be Christ, the Christ "in whom Asia's dream" to quench its thirst, "became true."

Jesus, the impassible God who did not disdain to become passible man, changes the equation.  When one puts faith in the Lord Jesus, the way of Buddha into non-Being as a means to quench one's "thirst" is manifestly not the way.  Jesus said: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life.  No one comes to the Father but through me."  (John 14:6)

This is a peremptory teaching.  If Jesus is "the way, the truth, and the life," Buddha is not.  And the only possible warrant for Jesus' peremptory claim is, and can only be, that he was what he claimed he was: the impassible God become passible man.  The veracity of that claim was confirmed by Christ's Resurrection.  The Resurrection proves the impassible God's victory over the passible world of suffering.

Jesus met a Samaritan woman at a well, a well called Jacob's well, near the town of Sychar.  They spoke of "thirst," and they spoke of its remedy: "living water," aqua viva.  "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again"--tanhâ.  "But whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst; the water I shall give will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."  (John 4:13-14)

Jesus is the remedy for our "thirst."  In her encounter with Jesus, the Samaritan woman discovered this.  In our encounter with Jesus, we discover this.

This impassible God who became passible man said, as one of the last words on the Cross, "I thirst."  (John 19:28)  This was an entirely different "thirst" from the thirst Christ felt when asking the Samaritan women for a drink.  (John 4:7)  This certainly is a different "thirst" that the thirst of our disorder--tanhâ.  This "thirst" of the God-man on the Cross was of an entirely different kind, of an entirely different order. 

This was not the "thirst" of passible man.  This was the thirst of the impassible God.  This was the infinite thirst of the impassible God for us.  Another word for the infinite thirst of the impassible God for us is mercy.

""God's mercy can make even the driest land," the land which thirsts for God, "become a garden, can restore life to dry bones," said Pope Francis on Easter Sunday.  "God's mercy always triumphs."

By his suffering sacrificial death on the cross, Jesus conquered suffering, sin, and death.  We think of this often.

We do not often think of it, but through his thirst on the Cross, Jesus, the "living water," also conquered "thirst."

"Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters," said the prophet Isaiah (Is. 55:1).  Indeed, come, all you who are thirsty, come to the living waters which are offered to you in Christ, and Christ alone.

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Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at agreenwell@harris-greenwell.com.

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That all cultures may respect the rights and dignity of women.
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