Who Are We? Part 3: Buddhism

READING: Luke 9:23-25
Then Jesus said to them, “You who wish to be my followers must deny your very self, take up your cross every day, and follow in my steps. If you would save your life, you’ll lose it, and if you’ll lose your life for my sake, you’ll save it. What profit is there in gaining the whole world if you lose and forfeit your heart in the process?

REFLECTION: Who Are We? Part 3: Buddhism

So last week we talked a whole lot about New Thought. Today, the third part of the series looking at the question, “who are we?”, we look at the Buddhist take on the question.

Last week, I also mentioned I would discuss some of my concerns about the New Thought paradigm. Actually, Buddhism’s critique of New Thought gets at my concerns very well. So by looking at Buddhism’s critique of New Thought in the first part of this talk, we are also looking at my concerns.

I first want to be clear. I do not mean to disregard or dismiss New Thought completely. It has so much good to offer. As I said, it helped bring down the harmful regime of Calvinism. What’s more, it was a huge step up from the hyper-negative and degrading teaching of Calvinism that pervaded the churches and the culture of the time. We should also note that no one has been intentionally killed nor has there been war in the name of Christian Science or the Unity Church. We cannot say the same for traditional Christianity or Calvinism.

Still, New Thought is not always helpful. I won’t get into the obvious point of New Thought’s avoidance of traditional medicine and medication. I will talk more about the side-effects of its hyper-focus, its extra strong focus, on positive thinking and correct thinking.

What is that side-effect? Well, it looks a like Calvinism in its effect.

Calvinism had people working hard to prove to themselves and to others that they were part of the elect, the chosen, the saved. New Thought has people working hard to be healthy, wealthy and wise and in a godly way. Both Calvinism and New Thought result in a lot of self-monitoring, self-checking, self-correction. To externally show vulnerability and weakness of any sort means you are not living up to who you believe you are as well as what you proclaim and believe about God. So there is a great deal of guilt and  sensing failure. I liken it to the times I see co-op people coming out of Hannaford. Yeah, I know I am supposed to be shopping at the co-op. It is good for the local economy and the co-op itself, and I should shop at the co-op more. But I want to save money or it is more convenient, so I end up at Hannaford. Yet I still feel guilty about it when I see co-op people coming out of Hannaford. Multiply this several times and you get what I am saying about the side-effect of Calvinism and New Thought. It is that sense of guilt for not living up to a certain standard that is set high.

Buddhism’s critique goes a step further. The Buddha actually confronted the New Thought tradition of his day, the Vedic tradition. The Vedic tradition in the Buddha’s time viewed the Self much like the New Thought movement did.

The Vedic and New Thought traditions view the true human self as like God. The self in the Vedic tradition, called atman, is:
1.)  Autonomous – tied to God, the core self is not reliant or dependent on anything else but self-subsistent, self-sustaining.
2.)  Unconditioned – like God, the core self is not conditioned, influenced, or effected by circumstances or what is happening around it
3.)  Unchanging – like God, the core self’s existence does not morph or evolve or change.
4.)  Perfect – like God and tied to God, the core self is utterly good and true

The Buddha said, this kind of self, an eternal, unconditioned, unchanging, and

perfect self does not exist. This is the famous teaching of No-Self, anatman in Sanskrit. It is not no-self at all, it is no self as defined by the Hindu philosophers of the time. The Buddha said that the only thing we can say about what is core to the human life is this:
1.)  we are not completely autonomous, we rely on other people, other things, and others’ actions both to be born and to grow up and to live. Without trees, I’d run out of breath. Without clouds, the earth would dry and blow away. Without my parents, I wouldn’t exist. Without someone who fed me, I would have died. Without someone who embraced me, I would be very unhappy and un-centered. In other words, interdependence and dependence on other people, things, and actions marks earthly life.
2.)  We are conditioned, influenced, effected by the circumstances all around us. Something essential in us is effected by war, violence, poverty, hatred, etc. An 8 year-old growing up in the very different circumstances of Syria is very different and will be very different that my 8 year-old growing up here. Something essential in us is effected by tragedies like abuse and conflict.
3.)  We change. Essential parts of us change. Our own language points to this. Self-improvement. If the self is unchanging it cannot improve, can it?
4.)  The self experiences suffering, struggle, and sin in this life. And it is affected by it. Perfection when you look at it is the absence of suffering and struggle and sin. This is not real in this life. We are prone to change, prone to growth, prone to cultivation and development. But never prone to perfection, at least in this life.

So the Buddhist project is to practice seeing things as they are. Buddhist practice is the practice of seeing ourselves as we truly are and of seeing who we are in relationship to other beings. And when we engage in this practice, we soon see that who we are is inextricably connected to who other beings are. Our individual self’s existence is linked to others’ existence. We see that our self and others selves dance together, mutually influenced, changed, conditioned, effected. The practice is seeing what Dr. King saw and then applying it in as many moments we can. 

Dr. King said:
“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be...This is the inter-related structure of reality.”

In many ways, the Buddhist view of the self is closer to Paul’s view of the old self, a self that is in his words, “merely of the flesh.” It is like the body. The old self is changing and mortal and wholly dependent on God’s grace. Yet too often that old self is seen as what it is not, as perfect, as separate and independent, as not needing anything, anyone, or any kind of grace.

So next week, we will talk about Paul’s view of self.


  1. There's lots here to ponder, Don. I was raised a conservative evangelical, with its mindset of always being a sinner who is never worthy of God's love or grace. It took years of cyclical depression and therapy, then the eye-opening experience of Clinical Pastoral Education classes, for me to finally realize that I was acceptable to God "just as I am."

    I was only marginally aware of the conflict between Buddhism and the Vedic tradition. (Indeed, I would guess most people don't know that Buddhism arose out of Hinduism.) It kind of reminded me of Luther's quite realistic view of humanity ("simul justus et peccator") over against Calvinism and --- though out of sync chronologically --- Methodism, with Wesley's concept of "sinless perfection." My son and I were talking about that very thing the other day after he had attended the ordination of a Nazarene friend of his. It was brought up several times during the ordination sermon and he thought, "Where'd they come up with THAT idea?"

    I'll be eager to read your next entry. -Doug


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