Thomas Aquinas and the Buddhists

If you ask me if I believe in God, I’ll usually say something like, “The short answer is yes. The long answer starts with, what do you mean by God, and what do you mean by me?”

‘What do you mean by God?” is a really important question, for another time. ‘What do you mean by me?” is the other central question. Even deistic religions must answer it, to define the relationship between the beleiver and his or her God.

Thomas Aquinas addressed the question, ‘What do you mean by me?” for most Christian traditions. His answer, simply put, was that we are sinners, connected to God only by his begotten Son. He derived this answer by way of Biblical inquiry: “What does the Bible say? How can we interpret it to understand our place in the world it defines?”

Other traditions make this inquiry in other ways. To my way of thinking, Buddhism has found the most satisfying way into the question. Instead of finding answers in a sacred text, Buddhism has established a centuries-long tradition of direct inquiry: “What is this thing called self? Why, I happen to have one right here. In fact, it’s me. Let’s look carefully at this thing called me. what is it? How does it work?”

One could debate whether the Buddhist direct inquiry is scientific. But it’s certainly closer than Biblical inquiry. If I want to understand the nature of DNA, I look at DNA, not the Bible. The main difference here is reflexivity: the mind studying itself.

What’s interesting is that a self can use its self-studies to further its development, alter and refine its perspective. Open itself, if you will. And as the mind deepens, the world looks different.

Even the Christian Bible reads differently. Jesus seems much more intelligible. We are struck more by His compassion than His sonhood. Whether or not we continue to beleive in His exclusive role, His example is more accessible.

Moreover, an inquiry into the nature of my self leads naturally to an inquiry into the nature of selfhood generally, which would include Jesus. What kind of self was Jesus? When he said, “I and the Father are one,” who was the “I” he spoke of? How was that self constituted?

The Christian tradition is not devoid of these insights. Meister Eckhart is a favorite Christian spiritual luminary. Jim Marion is a modern seeker who has written a very interesting book, “Putting on the Mind of Christ.” I hope to see the Christian tradition move in this direction.


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