Resources / The Cross and the Lotus

The Cross and the Lotus

by Steven Sim

1. Introduction

We live in an age fertile for the growth of Buddhism, a religion once upon a time seen as a highly metaphysical and mythical belief which did not appeal to the rational mind. Yet as we begin to see the relaxation of the grip of modernity in our lives, when truth is not so much perceived as controlled and static, but chaotic and dynamic, when materialism failed to address the deepest desire of mankind, when the supernatural is once again explored and extolled, when spirituality is pursued minus the autocracy and authority of organized religion, Buddhism flourished.

As the religion began to gain popularity, and in this age where interfacing with different ideologies is inevitable, to dialogue with Buddhism is certainly a good initiative if not a necessary one. As we approach them in dialogue whether in words or in actions, whether for evangelism or not, let us be a fairer critique to their position. And to be able to do so, we need to equip ourselves with a fairly reasonable understanding of this complex and complicated religion. And of course, understanding their position, we not only strive to be fairer critique but also better neighbours to our Buddhist friends. This is the objective of this presentation. In this paper, we are going to explore the foundational system of Buddhism by hinging our discussions on the issue of sufferings. “Why sufferings?” one may wonder. I believed that suffering, being the universal experience of mankind is one of the more stable common ground we can climb onto in our engagement with other ideologies. An atheist cannot but to acknowledge the reality of suffering though he may blatantly reject the existence of God. And as we go on, we would discover that Buddhism is a religion which deals primarily with the sufferings of humanity.

I employed my studies of Buddhism alongside with my experience in interacting with Buddhists as resources for my paper. Therefore, I would say this presentation is aptly titled; A Dialogue on Sufferings. I am, we are, attempting herein to interact with the Buddhist religion in the next few paragraphs of my presentation.

2. Suffering as the Starting Point of the Quest to Enlightenment: A History of Buddhism

Since birth, the would-be Buddha, Prince Siddhattha was shielded from the reality of the life and of the world by the façade of luxury built by his father around him. He had the best palaces, the best companions, the most beautiful women, the riches clothing and food and in short the best of life. But providence would have it that one day he would encounter something that would change his life and the course of history forever.

One of the most significant moments of Buddhism must have been the beginning of Siddhattha’s quest towards enlightenment. The Prince encountering the Four Sights of an old man, a sick man, a dead man and an ascetic was moved by the awesome reality of the nature of birth, aging, sickness and death that he was greatly disturbed. The encounter began to spur him to contemplate on the solution to mankind’s predicament, i.e. sufferings caused by the natural processes of life. And when he realized that he could not find an answer in the world that his father had created for him, Siddhattha, determined more than ever to pursue the way to escape sufferings. In Siddhattha’s time and still true in our time in certain cultures, the quest for enlightenment was one which required the renunciation of the sensuous world. In the Indian-Hindu culture, the path of a vanaprastha, that of a holy pursuit for the ultimate truth in life, is a prescription not only recommended but also seen as one of the final phases of a man’s life. Thus in leaving behind his home, Siddhattha’s action was justified if not commendable. Yet Siddhatta’s renunciation was unique because as most would dedicate their old age (60-80) to the pursuit of spiritual truth, he left his home to join the ascetic band at the prime age of 29.

One of the Buddha’s first experiments to seek the truth was self-mortification. In order to escape the sufferings caused by the sensuous cycle of life, the ascetics subject their bodies to yet worse pain and sufferings. The purpose was to relieve one’s mind from the body and concentrate on some kind of higher reality possibly by revelations of the gods. By subjecting his material self to torture, the ascetic seeks to detach his true nature from the body and attain liberation. This practice of exposing the body to extreme and intense sufferings and pains was Buddha’s first experiment. After his enlightenment, however, the Buddha criticized mortification as “painful, ignoble and misery” . When he was an old man, he commented that he did not gain any enlightenment nor supernatural prowess by such practices. He soon left extreme asceticism and embraced a balanced and more sober practice of reflection and meditation which he called the Middle Path.

3. Suffering as the Foundational Problem of Mankind: Buddha’s Discovery

After his enlightenment, Buddha preached this first sermon to his first five followers:
This, O Monks, is the Noble Truth of Suffering: Birth is suffering; decay is suffering; illness is suffering; death is suffering. Presence of objects we hate, is suffering; Separation from objects we love, is suffering; not to obtain what we desire, is suffering. Briefly, the fivefold clinging to existence is suffering.
This, O Monks, is the Noble Truth of the Cause of suffering: Thirst that leads to re-birth, accornpanied by pleasure and lust, finding its delight here and there. (This thirst is threefold), namely, thirst for pleasure, thirst for existence, thirst for prosperity.
This, O Monks, is the Noble Truth of the Cessation of suffering: (It ceases with) the complete cessation of this thirst,--a cessation which consists in the absence of every passion,--with the abandoning of this thirst, with the doing away with it, with the deliverance from it, with the destruction of desire.
This, O Monks, is the Noble Truth of the Path which leads to the extinguishing of craving of suffering: that holy eightfold Path, that is to say, Right Belief, Right Aspiration, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Means of Livelihood, Right Endeavour, Right Memory, Right Meditation. 
In this maiden sermon, the Buddha expounded two important teachings of Buddhism, the Four Noble Truth and the Eightfold Path. As his starting point from the beginning of his search while still in the palace was the sufferings related to the processes of life, the solution he found was related to these issues, that is, how to escape from those sufferings. Buddhism which he founded therefore can be said to be primarily formulated to deal with the issue of sufferings. One Buddhist scholar observed that Buddhism is therapeutic in character and an ancient commentator refer to the teachings of the Buddha as medicine for the sick (suffering) world . Very early, Buddhism has already established that they are here to provide an answer to grief, lamentation, suffering, sorrow and despair.

What was the Buddha’s eureka-model of sufferings? The First Noble Truth was that Suffering is universal. Buddha’s exposition of suffering in man is both physiological and psychological. It was an existential reality that cannot be denied. So long as the biological process is continual, the man will be exposed to sufferings. So long as the mind is attached to hate and love, the man will be exposed to sufferings.

The Second Noble Truth explains that sufferings arise because of men’s cravings. Such desires lead to attachment that in turn gives rise to love-hate emotion that ultimately leads to sufferings. There are three types of craving, craving for sensuous indulgence, craving for being and craving non-being.

The Third Noble Truth explains the cessations of sufferings. If craving is the cause of sufferings, then cutting the tree at its root requires the removal of cravings in life. When this happen, the being is liberated from sufferings and like the Buddha, he attains the state of bliss called Nibbana.

The Fourth Noble Truth explains the way to achieve the removal of cravings. Buddha prescribed what is now known as the noble eightfold path, as listed in the sermon above, to be cultivated by the Buddhists.

4. The Hope of Sufferings: Nibbana

One of the most difficult teachings to understand in Buddhism is the concept of Nibbana. Yet this is the most important one because Nibbana is the goal of all practicing Buddhists . There is a common misunderstanding however that Nibbana is the equivalent to the Christian heaven or paradise. Nibbana is not a place, it is not paradise but is beyond paradise (in the Buddhist understanding of heaven/paradise). What is Nibbana? If Buddhism purports to solve the problem of sufferings, Nibbana being the ultimate goal of all Buddhists, is the final solution of sufferings. An ascetic once enquired Ven. Sariputta, “What is Nibbana?” and Sariputta answered him “The destruction of lust, the destruction of hatred and the destruction of delusion…is called Nibbana”. And in the Ratana Sutta, those who achieved Nibbana was described as “the old [kamma] is destroyed, no new [kamma] to be reproduced, those whose hearts are detached from a future birth, their seeds of existence have ceased, their desires do not spring up again – are extinguished like a lamp”. In the light of the Third Noble Truth, at the removal of desires or lusts, sufferings cease.

There are four characteristics of Nibbana, namely , 1) total release from sufferings, 2) total absence of sufferings, 3) total absence of the need for restoration and 4) eternal. In order to arrive at such state, the Buddhist saint Avaghosa explained that “a sage obtains Nibbana when the desires and the passions have been consumed”. Therefore Buddhism stressed on being dispassionate, not only without emotional attachment to things external, but also without any attachment to the self, which the Buddha taught does not exist. But one must not assume that Nibbana is without joy. The Buddha himself said that Nibbana is the highest happiness. This is not sensuous happiness but “an ease” or “satisfactory joy” or a happiness that is derived from emancipation or liberation from an unpleasant experience.

The next question will be, how does one achieve or arrive at Nibbana? As taught by the Buddha in the Fourth Noble Truth, the ceasing of sufferings can be achieved through the eightfold path. By cultivation of all the right practices in one’s life, the Buddhist man is aiming to be dispassionate because through “dispassion is one freed (or liberated)” . And he is expected to do this on his own because such liberation or salvation cannot be attained through the agency of another. The Buddha, his teachings (Dhamma) and the community of monks (Sangha) can only be served as a guidance map towards the destination (Nibbana); one has to walk the journey himself.

“you yourself make the effort for your salvation the Buddhas are only Teachers who can show you how to achieve it”

5. The Bodhisatta’s Compassion towards Suffering Humanity

Although it was mentioned prior that salvation or rather liberation from sufferings into Nibbana is a self-effort, there are some schools of Buddhism which evolved from the orthodox teachings. We shall in this paper discuss a unique concept of liberation taught by the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism which is the predominant Buddhist school in China, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, some part of Indo-China and Malaysia.

Bodhisatta is a being destined to attain buddhahood in the future. The authoritative scriptures in the Theravada tradition only ascribe this title to Prince Siddhattha in his previous existence (or previous lives) before his final birth as Gotama Siddhattha. That notwithstanding, the concept of Bodhisatta practically has no implication to the Theravadins. The Mahayana school however places much emphasis on the Bodhisatta. He is believed to be a being who postponed his entry into Nibbana so that he may return to the world to show and help others to attain enlightenment. The Bodhisattas are therefore considered to be the all-loving and all-compassionate beings who assumed some sort of saviour-role to help Buddhists who pray to them. The identity and the historicity of many of the Bodhisattas cannot be affirmed. Some from the Theravada tradition even claimed that certain Bodhisattas were later fabrications and did not really existed. But the nature of the Buddhist faith is such that both can still live peacefully alongside one another. The lack of scriptural control and the fluidity of the religion allow Buddhism greater space to evolve compared to religions like Christianity or Islam.

One popular Bodhisatta is Avalokiteshvara (Chinese: Guan Yin; Japanese: Kanon; Tibetan: Chenrezig/Padmapani) who is known among the Chinese Buddhist as the All-Merciful and All-Compassionate Bodhisatta Who Hear the Sounds (fig. prayers) of the World. He is said to have appeared in different manifestations to devotees in their afflictions to offer miraculous interventions. Another prominent Bodhisatta figure in Mahayana tradition, especially the Chinese Buddhism is Di Zhang Wang Pu Sa who made a vow to postpone his entry into Nibbana until he brings liberation to all the beings suffering in Hell. One final example is Amitabha, the Patron Buddha of Pure Land Buddhism. It was believed that Amitabha out of great compassion for humanity used his metaphysical power to create a paradise-world so that every devotee who put faith in him by chanting his name will be able to be reborn in that place and from there be given a more condusive environment for cultivation towards enlightenment.

In all these examples, the Bodhisattas are ideal beings to be emulated and honoured and more often than not, worshipped by the devotees. And as followers of the Bodhisattas, Mahayana Buddhists put more emphasis on showing compassions to the sufferings of others than personal liberation, which is the characteristic of the Theravadin school. While Theravada Buddhists organized themselves around certain individual monk, who often live in isolated hermitage, to study the scriptures and to meditate, the Mahayana Buddhists organized themselves as communities supporting one another, each trying to live out the ideals of the Bodhisatta. More often than not, they were the ones who are actively involved in community projects such as recycling campaigns, blood donation drives etc.

6. The Cross, The Suffering God and The Hero of The Afflicted

Buddhism is a religion began because of the realization of the undeniable existence of sufferings in the world. Its whole system of belief therefore revolved around meeting the question of sufferings. Answers were provided as to why we suffer, but more importantly, the Buddha’s mission was to point to the question, how can a person end his sufferings? He showed the equations, he drew the plans and drafted the map. The Buddha pointed to a goal which he said he has arrived and claimed that upon arrival, all sufferings will cease. Thus far he showed us, then he gave us a parting advice: “Work hard to gain your salvation”.

Christianity too is a religion of suffering. I shall not elaborate too thoroughly here, but I shall raise just three points for our reflections.

The Cross, being the well-worn symbol of Christianity is not a cool accessory to wear, at least not at the time when Jesus lived. It was a symbol of criminality, embarrassment, pain, punishment, shame, suffering and sorrow. No one would in their sane mind be identified much less found donning a miniature crucifix. All who were identified with the Cross was without choice. All, except one man who chose to don the cross. He must either be insane or …

The Suffering God, someone very long ago painted a series of pictures of God. In the first picture, God was not on his holy throne, nor was he in his white shinning robe. God looked a bit funny in that picture. He had his sleeves rolled up, as if preparing to get down to business, or get into the mud. It was not really a picture of God one would prepare to imagine. But it was nothing like the second picture. In the second picture, God was bloody all over, he was despised and rejected, he was stricken, smitten and afflicted, he was wounded, crushed, chastised, whipped, oppressed, he was slaughtered. It was a bloody picture. God was tied up and was beaten, he was abused. Now I know why he rolled up his sleeves, he was getting ready to be abused. Was he insane? No, he is God.

The Hero to the afflicted walked into the hall, he took the scripture scroll and began reading as if receiving an important mandate.

  • The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me
  • To bring good news to the poor
  • To liberate the captives
  • To bring sight to the blinds
  • To bring liberation to those who are suffering from oppressions
  • To proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour!

This Hero was mandated, was chosen was anointed to go into a world where sufferings are real and intense. He will go and suffer with them. More than that, he was to bring REAL hope to meet REAL sufferings. He will go and suffer for them. He was not insane, he was God.