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The Nature of the Soul and Salvation in Christianity and Buddhism

M. Alan Kazlev

It is interesting to consider what, if anything, the two great world-religions of Christianity and Buddhism have to say about the nature of the soul and salvation.

According to Christianity, man is irredeemably imperfect, a helpless sinner, separated from God and lacking all Divinity, and totally unable to save himself through his own efforts alone.  Yet God still loves this sinful being, and so he sent Christ as an expression of His love and the means for man to attain salvation. Salvation does not mean transcending the personality or ego; the personality remains as an imperfect little creature, the only difference being it is no longer separated from God.

Buddhism has a rather different understanding of human nature to Christianity, being based on and expressed in a psychological rather than a theocentric or theological framework. All phenomenal existence is of the nature of suffering, and there is no such thing as a persisting ego or soul, only a kind of mechanical continuation of past physical, psychological, and spiritual actions or impulses; this is what is called "karma". Karma - the law of cause and effect - maintains and perpetuates this unpleasant existence of suffering and endless death and rebirth. The only escape lies in self- transcendence, in rejecting totally one's karmic personality and all its psychological self- perpetuating factors. In the more negative and puritanical Southern School - Hinayana or Theravada - which is atheistic, denying that there are higher powers which can aid one - this means through constant self-effort and meditation one becomes an Arhat, a "noble one", who enters into the eternal quiessence of Nirvana. In the more progressive Northern School, the Mahayana, which includes Tibetan Buddhism and Zen, and does recognise the possibility of help from above (in the form of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and the Grace of the Guru), although never denying the central importance of self-effort, it means ultimately becoming a Buddha or "Enlightened Being", and thus realising one's identity with the Absolute Reality. One is then able to exist in this world or enter nirvana, but whatever one chooses one is free from ignorance, suffering, and personality.

Buddhism differs positively from Christianity in that it does accept - indeed, it totally emphasises - the possibility of transcending the personality, of attaining a higher or transpersonal state of being. It also differs positively in emphasising the importance of self-effort; an ideal with little or no relevence in Christianity, where all that matters is the grace of God and Christ. This is not to deny the contribution Christianity does make with its understanding (lacking or at least undeveloped in Buddhism) of the Grace of the Divine, even if it absurdly limits that Grace to a single path.

In a sense, Christianity and Buddhism complement each other.

Christianity is the religion of the heart, or feeling, yet it has allowed the heart to develop without the necessary counterbalance from the head, or the thinking faculty. The result that we have in Christianity a religion that on the one hand is superb in its emphasis on brotherly love and the all-powerful Grace and mercy of the Divine, on the other is so lacking in metaphysical understanding that it sees the Divine as a kind of friendly "Big Brother" in the sky (or even for the evangelical / born again types, as it has been pointed out sarcastically, a cosmic bellboy, just pray for something and He is obliged to answer), while being totally incapable of seeing the possibility of human consciousness transcending its imperfect humanness.

Buddhism, in contrast, is the religion of the head, of thinking and analysis and self-discipline through mental self-control and focussing (meditation). It provides techniques of self-transformation so sadly lacking in Christianity. It also has the insight to understand that the human personality - or anything else in the cosmos for that matter - is not a fixed thing, created by God for all eternity, but a sort of flux or continuum, no more possessing a constant nature than does the wave which passes over the surface of the water. This is an insight which exoteric Christianity, with its emphassi on duality, lacks.

Yet just as Christianity allowed the intellect to whither or be stifled, so Buddhism failed to develop the Heart to the same level as the intellect, and one finds in Buddhism a religion which, for all its valid emphasis on compassion and good deeds, is strangely cold and clinically analytical. This I find to be especially the case in the more conservative or Southern (Theravada) branch of Buddhism.  Only in the Mahayana school was this countred, and even then not to the extent of heart-development of Christianity.

And yet, for all their respective insights, both Christianity and Buddhism deny the existence of a Higher Personal Self. For the Christian, man on his own is a helpless sinner; and the only "Higher Self" is Christ. For the Buddhist, man (i.e. a human rebirth) is only a segment in an infinitely long karmic chain, and possesses no persisting soul. And although whilst in the human body one has the unique opportunity to attain Nirvana or Buddhahood, this state of Absoluteness is impersonal, it has nothing to do with any individual "Higher Self".

So we find that in neither of the two most developed religions of the world - Christianity, which takes the theme of the Personal God or Savior, and Divine Grace, to its ultimate development; and Buddhism, which conversely takes the theme of self-effort to its conclusion - is there any conception of the Higher Self.  Both have a pretty good (although each quite different) understanding of the mundane personality, but both are totally unaware that there are any principles of selfhood beyond that.

Thus, recognising the existence of the mundane personality, the Christian says: you are and always will be imperfect, but God still loves you and has provided the means for you to eternally maintain your existence ("Eternal Life" or "Being Saved").  Intuitively, Christianity recognises that the incarnate personality cannot indefinitely survive without the body, and so it speaks of a "bodily resurrection", whereby the old physical corpse will somehow come back to life and be eternally young.  This of course is a fantasy, as is any possibility of indefinitely maintaining the structure of the lower personality.

Meanwhile, the Buddhist says: you are nothing but an aggregate of psycho-physical factors (skadhas), but the experience-continuum you represent can discard this imperfect nature and return to its own integral Absolute nature (Liberation, Buddhahood).

Buddhism provides an excellent psychological analysis of how the personality works, in terms of various intellectual, emotional, physical, and spiritual factors of consciousness (dharmas). But this analysis, profound and inspiring as it is, never goes beyond the personality.

In short, Buddhism has an accurate psychological understanding of the personality, but no understanding of the Higher Self. Christianity has a kind of intuitive understanding of the personality ("man") and the Higher Self ("Christ"), but this understanding is indefinite and mythological; it lacks the precision and scientific analysis of the Buddhists. Thus Christianity is unable to recognise that the only "Christ" is one's own Higher Self. The great psychologist Carl Jung however did recognise this fact, which is why he called Christ a perfect representation of the Self - the inner totality of the psyche.

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page by M.Alan Kazlev 1999-2003
page uploaded 23 November 1999; last modified 23 March 2003