by Elizabeth J. Harris
Part 6 – The Self in Buddhism and Christianity
Sri Pada, in Sri Lanka, is over 7,000 feet high and has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries. At the summit is a huge footprint, claimed variously to be that of the Buddha, Adam, and Lord Shiva. From December to May is the pilgrimage season. Each night during this season, thousands of devotees climb up an illuminated, lengthy ascent of steps. From a distance, the dark shape seems to have a diamond necklace thrown down its side. Sometimes the crowd is so large that pilgrims have to pause at each step they climb. The pressure on the leg muscles is incredible. An elderly Buddhist friend of mine climbed on such a night. She told me that the only way she could force her legs through the ordeal was to say of the pain, “This is not mine, this is not me.”
She says the same in her meditation practice, and I have learnt to do so too. When sitting in absolute stillness, irritations come, mosquitoes bite, pain from the knees shoots up, the strong urge to relieve itchy skin arises. But it is possible to conquer the wish to move or scratch by seeing the pain simply as pain and not as belonging to an “I.” The pain becomes an object for meditation. It becomes a process that can be observed. This snaps the thread of our usual response to irritation, which is to claim it as ours and to seek to be rid of it. And it can also train the mind to detect and halt negative reactions to other forms of attack on our persons in everyday life.
All this touches on anatta, the Buddhist concept of no-self or no-soul. Anatta was seized on by nineteenth century Christian missionaries to Sri Lanka as something which proved Buddhism was absolutely nihilistic. For instance, Rev. Thomas Moscrop, a Methodist missionary, claimed in 1889 that Buddhism “is too pessimistic, too cold, too antagonistic to the constitution of human nature to take the world captive” (The Ceylon Friend, 16 October 1889). But I have not found nihilism in what Buddhists have said to me about anatta. Some years ago, one friend said, “If there is no belief in self, there is no worry; there is no reason to become angry or hurt.” To her, the idea was liberating. It was freedom from being tied to self-promotion and self-protection.
I can remember how deeply her words challenged me. They helped me to see that Buddhism and Christianity are not in opposition here. The frameworks are different but the practical path towards human liberation touches both. Both religions speak about a wrong concept of the self. Buddhism says: Don’t think you are fixed, unchanging. You are forever flowing, shifting, interconnected with the whole cosmos. Free yourself from clinging to the idea that you are separate and have to fight against the world to keep your identity intact. Christianity also has something radical to say. The Methodists, a Christian denomination which arose in eighteenth century England, have a Covenant Service on the first Sunday of each new year in which they pledge obedience to God. At one point they say, “I am no longer my own but thine.” Saint Paul, in his letters to new churches, speaks of having lost his old self. To the Christians of Colossae in Greece, he says, “For you have died and your life is hid with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). All of these sayings point to a death of the egotistical self and a loss of self-sufficiency and self-worship.
Both Buddhism and Christianity say that the self which insists on its separateness from the rest of life is doomed. Buddhism says that such a self has no objective existence as an unchanging entity. Christianity says the self has to die to give way to a higher power of love. Both point to the liberation that comes when we transcend care for self, when we refuse to exert protective ownership over our lives and persons. I have certainly found that if we do not cling to pain, hurt, and fear as ours but accept them as part of the changing flux of existence, if we do not seek to protect our identity and safety at all costs, we will be able to climb more than Adam’s Peak. We are liberated into a new way of seeing and a new openness to the ever-changing process of existence.
Copyright 1994 Elizabeth J. Harris / enabling.org