Unraveling Saint Buddha

Cross of St. Thomas the Apostle.
Cross of St. Thomas the Apostle

History and tradition are filled with twists and turns, highs and lows, glories and embarrassments.   Sometimes, though, sorting through it all is the path to truth.

When the apostles were sent into the world to convert it, many went beyond the boundaries of the Roman Empire. See generally, The Founding of Christendom, by Carroll. One of these was St. Thomas, who famously had to touch Jesus’ wounds to declare him “My Lord My God” thus fully realizing who He was. See John 20:28.

Thomas went to India. See here. While he was not successful in converting India to Christianity, there is evidence that he went, and evidence of ancient Christian areas in India. He is said to have come to Taxila in Western Punjab (currently in Pakistan) and evangelized. His efforts to convert the region may have been largely wiped out in later years by Kushan attacks, perhaps around 120 A.D.. See Carroll.

Still, stories persist through history of Christianity in India, a Christianity spread by Thomas, in the centuries after Christ. Indeed, there have even been stories of saints.

King Abenner, for example, is said to have persecuted the Christians of the third or fourth century, who tried to spread this foreign religion in his lands. He resisted and fought them at every turn. One day, though, his astrologers told him that the stars revealed that his only son, Josaphat, would become a Christian.

This horrified the king, and to prevent it the prince was kept close and watched over as much as possible. Still, the prince lived in the world and one day he met a hermit named Barlaam in the surrounding desert. Barlaam was a Christian and Josaphat became curious about his strange faith. Slowly, over time, Josaphat became a Christian. Eventually he left his palace to live in the desert to explore, practice and teach his faith.

In the Middle Ages, Barlaam and Josaphat were held as saints and added to the Roman Martyrology, with their feast being celebrated November 27. The making of saints in that time was looser than it is today, and some saints whose stories have been questioned have been backpedalled from a bit in later times. See, for example, the story of St. Christopher. But, based upon the standards of the time, St. Josaphat was most certainly a saint of the Church.

Regions of India were later captured by Alexander the Great, and some of the stories from the East traveled through Greek and even Arab cultures on their way to the West. Names were anglicized, specifics were lost. And at the end of the process there was St. Josaphat, the son of a king who went off into the desert with his faith. He was actually born Siddhartha Gautama but his title was Bodhisattva, in Arabic Budhasaf, in Greek Ioasaph, in Latin Josaphat.

Also known as Buddha.

Buddha, the pre-Christian son of a king who went off into the desert with his faith. A story that had adapted as it worked its way West over centuries, and he emerged as St. Josaphat. See here and here.

How could such a thing happen? Surely it is an embarassing mistake that should be left in the dust of history. Surely such a thing could not happen for a reason.

While it would be quite wrong to suggest that Siddhartha Gautama’s teachings are compatible with Christianity in the broad sense (see here), the idea of God as Being itself has always been a part of Christian thought, and that very teaching may be a place to meet the modern culture, and bring it to where it needs to be.

But first we have to talk about being.

As with many things, it begins in the Old Testament. Indeed, “If . . . they should say to me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them? God said to Moses: ‘I AM WHO AM.’ He said: ‘Thus shalt thou say to the children of Israel: ‘HE WHO IS hath sent me to you.’” See Exodus 3:13-14.

St. Augustine of Hippo, the great doctor of the Church, himself noticed the connection between this verse and similar words from Jesus. “Amen, amen, I say to you, before Abraham came to be, I AM,” Jesus Christ said in John 8:58. This, of course, dovetails with John’s revelation that Jesus was the Word of God, and as God’s Word He preceded time itself. See John 1:1. (See here for more on the Logos.)

From all of this St. Augustine could only conclude that “God is present in, and to, the whole universe in such a manner as to be whole in the whole universe and whole in every part of creation, including the minutest and most insignificant part.” See generally here. St. Paul’s writings, looking back, did not disagree with the idea that Christ, as God, was Man but more than Man. For example: “[A]ll things were created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” See Colossians 1:16-17. Indeed “in Him we live and move and have our being.” See Acts 17:28.

St. Thomas Aquinas picked up the thought developed by St. Augustine, himself exploring and writing on the idea that God is the sheer act of being itself. (See here a pertinent section of the Summa Theologica.) Others in the Middle Ages also pondered this simple yet complex truth. However, the development of this aspect of Christianity was all but stopped as the Middle Ages came to a close, and the Age of Reason began.

To get into contact with being, sometimes science, reason and even our ego-ridden thoughts themselves must necessarily be set aside. That is not to say that thought is bad, just that they it is not all the awareness can do, and often it is the only way to see that putting ourselves first is far from the best frame of mind.  “If man is to petition God in the right way, he must stand in the truth.  And the truth is: First God, first his Kingdom (cf. Matt 6:33).  The first thing we must do is step outside ourselves and open ourselves to God.”  Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI.

We have spent a few too many centuries on the side of reason over spirit, and ego has taken a firm hold during that time.  At the encouragement of society, we have sided more and more with only one-half of what we are.

To see an object in nature and just sit with it and drink in its part in the majesty of God’s creation is of value to everyone. To just feel yourself breathing and sink into the present moment with God can quiet the ego for just long enough to notice the stirrings of the soul. To tame your thoughts, know that they are not what is essentially you, and to clear a space in them for God can bring a profound spirituality  whose truth is undeniable.

The saints have spoken to this, but as much as the Age of Reason buried this truth under an endless stream of thoughts, the Church too, did not develop it as fully as it might have. The Church, too, turned more toward reason–as rightly it should have to act as a check on the culture and how it sought to use reason.  That said, reason is powerful and necessary, but it is, at most, half of life. The Church, through its history, knows this well.

St. Thérèse of Lisieux put it this way: “I know from experience that ‘the Kingdom of God is within us’ (Luke 17:21), that Jesus has no need of books or doctors to instruct our soul; He, the Doctor of Doctors, teaches us without the sound of words. I have never heard Him speak, and yet I know He is within my soul.”

Meister Eckhart said: “The eye through which I see God is the same eye through which God sees me; my eye and God’s eye are one eye, one seeing, one knowing, one love.”

The depth of spirituality passed on through St. John of the Cross, who spoke of the trinitarian God found in silence (see here) was preceded by a history going back to the very beginning. The Desert Fathers of the early Church were contemplatives, planting that seed of what today is often called mysticism. A seed which later fed the Eastern and Western Churches as they developed. And they natually found much to contemplate, and to try to set aside, in their own thoughts.

Ego is not a word in the Bible, but the battle with, and against, ego is on every page. It is there at the beginning, See Traditium article on Ego. It is there in the time of Jesus, and he challenges it directly: “For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Matthew 14:11. See also Traditium Quotes on Humility.

When people do not take a moment’s time in their whole lives to meditate for a few minutes and come to the realization that they are not their endless stream of thoughts, the culture that ends up being produced should surprise no one.

Ego in its quest to be right all the time, and a culture that acts as if it is post-God thrives in a relativism it is no longer cautioned away from. That is, if there is no truth, then ego can always define itself as in the right. On a supernatural level, this is poison. Embracing the search for truth is the cure for this pathology. See Traditium: On Relativism. The Church has found the truth, and offers it. But in so doing, it must always embrace what is true. And, in looking to history, we see that it has.

The Church Christ founded, before there even was a Bible, had to go into pagan lands, lands that believed something completely different than what the Church taught. While a modern might believe that this process involved Christians going into these cultures, stamping their feet and declaring their truths until everyone converted, catholic evangelism was often quite the opposite. While it held fast to the essential truths, it reached out to the culture where it was. St. Patrick started with the Celts worshipped Sun to tell them of the Son. He is said to have used the clover to describe the trinity.

Behind him the England he left was invaded by Germanic tribes that St. Augustine of Canterbury was sent to convert. And when he returned with news that this was impossible, he had to be ordered back to try again–to try to reach them where they were.

There are stories like this from all over the world. Juan Diego, together with Mary, brought a vision of God to the Mexican people that brought them into the faith. See here. The image of Mary that appeared on his cloak showed her as a native. Did Mary look like a native of Mexico? Probably not, but one would have to admit that she was probably closer to that image than the lily white she is depicted in so much of Western art. Not that either are offenses, they both point to the truth, and that is the point. To evanglize is to meet the culture where it is, to embrace its truths and unite them to the truth of Christ, where that is possible.

The Church, when and where it effectively evangelizes, assimilates. It does not succumb to the culture, does not bargain away its truths, but it enters the conversation where the conversation is. It looks for the truths of the culture and explains how all truth is from God, and here is what that means to you. St. Paul, when struggling to teach in Athens of just one God, came upon an altar to the unnamed God and used it make his point. People began to listen. Acts 17:23.

A similar act of meeting the culture where it is is necessary now. Yet the great Christian tradition of God as Being itself, Christ as the Word which holds the world together, remains undeveloped.

St. Josaphat sits on the sidelines.

He is a symbol, not of Buddha, but of the essential facet of truth touched on by doctors of the Church. In him is the mysticism of the Eastern Church which the Western Church should revisit. (See here and here.) In him is the essential truth that God is Is, God is Being and to recognize that we should, we must, sometimes sit in the quiet with our souls, we must marvel at creation, we must exalt God by the simple act of admiring His work. Just as St. Francis of Assisi spoke of Brother Moon and Sister Sun as he admired creation, we must step back from the small view of our overwhelming worries about the past and anxieties about the future, to the big view of a gratitude for God whose eternity can be felt only in the quiet of the present moment.

To be certain most aspects of Buddhism are incompatible with Christianity And Buddhism is not entirely the tidy distillation that is fed to Hollywood or eager adherents in the United States. It is as marred as any human endeavor. Its obfuscations and divisions in the nations it is practiced in are there for the viewing. But it asserts this one truth, a Christian truth, and that undeniable truth should be assimilated into what we proclaim is true about God, and what is true about Christ. It should be re-connected to the God who is I AM and the Christ who was, and will always be, the Word. God is Being, and while we glorify him, ponder his word, and recognize that we were made in His image, we can also just be.

God is Love. 1 John 4:8. Love is not found in books, not captured by words, not measurable by science. Thinking all day long will not be enough. To feel it you must set your thoughts aside and enter the moment. The same is so for many truths.

Sin, on the other hand, is ego curving onto itself. (For more on Incurvatus In Se see generally here and here.) Chief amongst the sins is pride, which is unchecked ego. If this is so, the desire to just be, to just connect with the moment and marvel at the glory of the God Who Is, is a help. And the more a person thinks that reason explains everything, and that they are only what they think, the more they need that help. After centuries of living in the mind, a carefully guided return to the soul is something this culture desperately needs.

Where is the evidence that this culture is running on unchecked ego? A few years ago Eckhart Tolle was all the rage. The author of the Power of Now and A New Earth, Oprah made him even more prominent. His works, for the most part, were a spin on certain aspects prominent in Buddhism, presented in a form that appealed to those who wanted the impossibility of being spiritual yet not religious. He started with the simple truth that people spend little or none of their time actually present in the moment, in the now. He pointed out that noticing this will reveal the grip that ego has on us, and how unaware we are of it. In this he was right, and in feeding the popular culture this truth he met with great success.

Certainly the totality of what Tolle proposed is not compatible with Christianity, but to deny the kernel of truth in what he restated, and that it resonated precisely because it was truth, is imprudent. To dismiss it because the culture likes it, or because it is not prominent in the recent Magisterium, could even be looked at as uncatholic.

The culture must be evangelized where it is, with the aspects of Christianity that will help it get to where it needs to go. Lost to the Age of Reason is the fact that reason is not all that is. That what you can see is not all there is. That your thoughts, your body, your possessions, your accomplishments, are not you. You are a soul, connected to your Maker by everything you look at, everywhere you go, because God, as well as everything else He is, is the sheer act of Being itself. It is time to reach back to the great thinkers of the Church and dust off that great Christian truth, drink it in, and then go forth to evangelize the culture.

As with all truths, it will undoubtedly begin people on a path to the others.

Copyright 2013, Traditium.
(Permission has been granted by the author to reprint the work in whole when together with copyright information and a link to Traditium.)

5 thoughts on “Unraveling Saint Buddha”

  1. “But, based upon the standards of the time, St. Josaphat was most certainly a saint of the Church.”

    Isn’t St. Josaphat _still_ a saint?

    And if so, what does that mean exactly, if the narrative of Barlaam and Josaphat stems ultimately from the Bodhisattva narrative?

  2. Hello, Judith’s friend Dave Polson here! I loved reading your well-researched essay; it was good writing and meaningful. This was my favorite passage:

    we must step back from the small view of our overwhelming worries about the past and anxieties about the future, to the big view of a gratitude for God whose eternity can be felt only in the quiet of the present moment.

    So true. I worry constantly but I am calmed when I am with God in the present moment.
    Thank you for sharing this piece.

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