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« Primal Vow & Covenant Theology | Main | Buddhism and Christianity: Is there compatibility? »

29 June 2005


Mark Walter

I can see "me" as 'Mark' being the son of the higher "Me", or the father. In Christian tradition this is the higher aspect called the soul. We could also call it the Higher Self, the father to the lower self, or son.

This interpretation would mean that Jesus, the son, was praying to his higher self, the father.

Correspondingly, the Universal energetic quality of my Self that is powering my physical body is my miniature aspect of the Holy Spirit.

I am not suggesting that my higher self is the highest possible God (although ulimtately it is). But in Jesus' case this may have been true.

Anyway, from this perspective I can see that I embody all three elements of the Trinity, truly made in God's image.



Thank you for your post. I don't know much about the doctrine of the Trinity, except the very basic, so I did learn more from what you wrote.

Buddhism also has a trinity, the Trikaya. Here is a URL to a good article on it. I think you will recognize many parralels to what you wrote!

My understanding of interbeing in the way you have described it is a little different. I like how you have described the we only exist in relation to each other, in our interbeing. I suppose from a buddhist perspectivce, I understand (or try to!) that we are dependent for our existence on outside causes because our inherent nature is actually empty. Take away the conditions, and we are not there. I suppose this is not really different from what you have written, though, come to think of it....

Namo Amida Bu




Thank you for your post. I don't know much about the doctrine of the Trinity, except the very basic, so I did learn more from what you wrote.

Buddhism also has a trinity, the Trikaya. Here is a URL to a good article on it. I think you will recognize many parralels to what you wrote!

My understanding of interbeing in the way you have described it is a little different. I like how you have described the we only exist in relation to each other, in our interbeing. I suppose from a buddhist perspectivce, I understand (or try to!) that we are dependent for our existence on outside causes because our inherent nature is actually empty. Take away the conditions, and we are not there. I suppose this is not really different from what you have written, though, come to think of it....

Namo Amida Bu



Mark and Lisa,

Thank you both for taking time to comment, and Lisa for the link you suggested! A caveat: what I post here is my own thinking about stuff, even when I "back it up" with references to ancient Christianity etc. So while much of what I said here about the Trinity can be found in lots of reputable sources (theologians), nevertheless it's my own idiosyncratic "take" on things that leads me to see Interbeing and Trinity as complementary ways of getting at the same experience. I imagine most good "traditional" Presbyterians -- let alone Christians -- who have a decent grasp on the basics of the faith, would be at least getting fidgety. I know the one time I mentioned to an Orthodox priest friend that I had found a reputable Orthodox theologian who maintained "Trinity" wasn't an arithemetic concept -- the number 3 shouldn't be taken literally -- my priest friend was pretty dismissive of my reading. However, I *did* find that; and if it wasn't Vladimir Lossky, and I think it was, it at least was someone of that stature. Still, the fingerprints of my own "spin" are all over this stuff ... so, beware :-P




I am curious how the number three could not be taken "literally". Even if one takes it metaphorically, three doesn't really imply that three was chosen must be important in some way, even if the division between the "three" parts are not clear. Maybe i am reading you too literally! :-)


Wouded Duck

As a member of the army of lapsed Catholics, I can tell you the Church holds the number of the Trinity quite literally. My understanding (which is anecdotal at best) is that the Church fathers adopted a polytheistic heirarchy in the Trinity in order to convert the polytheistic hordes. Defense of the Trinity seems to fall under the Catholic Church's age-old tradition of theological masturbation, as in 'angels on the head of pin' argumentation. Why bother? Rationalization of the Trinity won't help hardcore Catholics consider Buddhism, and a more 'complete' description of it doesn't help Catholics be better Catholics. I think we'd all be better off if we scrapped the Trinity and stopped worrying so much about the composition of a God we'll never see.


Lisa and Wounded Duck,

Thanks to you both for your comments.

First, to Lisa about taking the Trinity -- and the number 3 -- metaphorically rather than literally. I'll give a personal response to that question here; and then, if I can find my source again (!), I'll share why that more "official" spokesperson (theologian) said it in a later post here.

Speaking just personally: if I take 3 as a metaphor, and not as a literal number, then *for me* the Trinity is restored to the realm of poetry. And in poetry one can -- and ordinarily probably should -- take an affirmation seriously but not literally. If "Trinity" is poetic metaphor, then for me the "boundaries" between each of the Three are permeable. They invite in at least as much as they exclude. And if they are permeable, then, for example, *I* feel encouraged to find other Savior figures besides Jesus of Nazareth. To use the language of Christian tradition, the Second Person of the Trinity -- who was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, but who also existed in eternity *before* the human life of Jesus -- is a Saving Energy at work throughout *all* creation. If it's "just math," then the numbers 1, 2 and 3 rattle and tumble around ... but they begin at 1 and not before, and stop at 3 and go no further. If however they are poetry, if they are metaphor, then boundaries begin to blur. (In fact, *dualisms* begin to dissolve -- but that's another subject :-))

And by allowing the "Three" to be metaphor, then I (at least) have no trouble seeing the hand of the Second Person in the Buddha ... in Mother Theresa ... in the mythos of Hinduism ... in Lao Tze ... and on and on. Similarly, I feel encouraged to find other manifestations of Holy Spirit besides the biblical ones in the Hebrew Bible and the Christian Testament. And so forth. If "Three" is restricted to a literal wooden meaning of "3" ... well, the saving energies (my phrase) in other world religions and indigenous spiritual traditions seem to me to be excluded. This *Three* means what can be inferred from the biblical stories, that, and no more unless *they* (the stories) give some kind of warrant for finding the "Three" elsewhere as well. (And I happen to think the biblical stories do give that warrant; but personally, I find that to be a nice affirmation of what I believe already.)Metaphor invites inclusion, or it does for me at any rate; it invites a rich and prolonged exploration, wherever that might lead.

Another facet of the non-literal sense of Trinity -- and it's also possibly one that my source had in mind -- is simply that the numbers 1, 2 and 3 are discrete integers. But the Persons are *not* discrete Entities, living in some kind of splendid isolation from each other. Rather, in Christian understanding, each Person has its origins in the other Two; each exists only in the other Two; when One acts, the other Two are fully present and active as well. By removing "3" from the realm of the literal, and letting it be metaphor, the ineffable richness of the Interbeing of the Three is opened up. *Numbers* 1, 2 and 3 can only do so much, and are pretty strictly limited by the rules of conventional arithmetic. But *metaphors* 1, 2 and 3 can ... well, be Godlike

And that brings up one last facet of all of this, for me at any rate, and I suspect I'll find it in my "source" as well ... Ancient Christianity (centuries before the church in the West, Catholic and Protestant alike, became hyper-rational) insisted on the utter *ineffability* of God ... of the Godhead itself. One can say a little, but pretty soon one has to stop talking and enter the sacred silence. And it's fascinating to me that Eastern Orthodox Christianity, the oldest form of Christianity there is, still refers to its formal liturgy as "liturgical poetry." Poetry brings us to the ineffable, and then leaves us with the Sacred Silence (1 Kings 19:12 -- usually translated "still small voice," but in fact the Hebrew means something more like "the sound of utter silence"). An effective way to do that, is to insist *all* human language in this area -- the Holy -- is metaphor, and only metaphor; and that one proceeds best not by saying what God *is* ... but by what God *is not*. Saying the Trinity "is not" literally 3, is fully consistent with that understanding.

To both Lisa and Wounded Duck: I realize the "party faithful" within both Catholocism *and* Protestantism will insist that the "Tri" in "Trinity" means 3, no ifs ands or buts, and *PLEASE* let's not have any of this poetry stuff
;-) My source, however, is older than either of those streams: it is an Eastern Orthodox theologian, fairly mainstream and "de rigeur" for coming to terms with Orthodox theology and spirituality ... and Orthodoxy roots itself *exhaustively* in the 1st 8 centuries of Christendom. I'm fairly certain the theologian is the late (Russian) Vladimir Lossky ... but I'll have to dig. And if I find it, then I'll add the 2nd "official" part of my reply.



First off, see my recent article The Light in Enlightenment which shares somewhat the theme of this thread.

The problem with your diagnosis for me is that Christianity restricts being nondual godly & human to just Jesus -- all others keep out! [I think you mean nondual when you say dual, Steve.] THEN, insight into the nature of Jesus became restricted to church heirarchy.

To my mind, Christianity lost its way shortly after it began.

Most flavors of Buddhism, however, are pathways for an integral vision.

Depictions of the Primordial Buddha -- which may or may not relate to your Godhead/Primal Interbeing -- are often a Buddha riding sideways on an elephant: The union of consciousness and body. In Buddhism, the teaching is that we ALL have access to this transcendant vista. In Christianity, humans are chopped up into divisible souls.

In Christianity, people look up to Jesus as something they are incapable of. In Buddhism, we are to become Buddhas. We interbe as divine possibility. Not so in Christianity where the mass's best hope is to play in the string section on a big cloud called Heaven.

-- Tom [Buddhism Rules! -- by not ruling.]


Dear Tom,

Thank you for taking time to reply to my column (I guess that’s what these are called here). And please excuse my slow response – I have been away for awhile and only just now saw your post.

Before making any responses of my own, let me repeat – or rephrase slightly – what I wrote earlier about why I’m here. And that is: I’m here by invitation, to contribute pieces that help foster Buddhist-Christian dialogue. I happen to be a Presbyterian minister – serving a very small congregation; and I have a life-long interest in Buddhism. My own beliefs in this regard, at least as they affect my writing for this board, are these: I believe (archaic meaning of the word: “be-love,” am committed to with a depth I can only describe as love; head knowledge comes later, if ever)... I be-love that Christianity and Buddhism share a living encounter with the relative Absolute. The Absolute – the Unconditioned, the Uncreated – is unavoidably clothed in the relative garb of culture: the specific signs, symbols, myths and rituals made available by that culture. To get carried away with the relative is to miss the Point; to get carried away with the Absolute is to court serious harm to oneself and others.

That is a perspective not universally held throughout Christendom; but it is held in Christendom. And that brings me to my second point, which is: personally, I assume there is no such thing as a monolithic “Christianity” – nor a monolithic “Buddhism,” nor for that matter a monolithic anything among world religions. To refer meaningfully to “Christianity” one must be specific about whose practice of Christianity, when and where and under what circumstances. I’m sure the same could – and should – be said of Buddhism, Pope Benedict notwithstanding.

Just to give one example before moving on: my tiny little congregation considers itself “evangelical” in beliefs and practices, and expresses abhorrence at some of the social justice and ethical policies of our denomination. Nevertheless, after a few years as their pastor, holding hands in sickrooms and funeral parlors and everywhere in between, I have found that almost everyone – if I ask them, since I’m a known quantity who can be trusted even where we differ – will say: “No, I don’t believe practitioners of other religions are going to hell." "It all depends on the kind of life you live." "Other religions have truth too." And so forth. And if, somewhat teasingly, I confront them with how that differs from, say, John Calvin's position, they shrug, say they don't care, that's what they believe. In fact, a recent unrepresentative and “unscientific” self-polling among a group of fairly conservative (evangelical) pastors I know showed that only 1 of the 9 believed in hell; and almost as many have serious doubts about whether there is life after death. (Needless to say, that is a group that has worked hard over a long period of time to develop an extraordinarily high level of trust. My hunch is that similar congregations and similar gatherings of clergy which have similar long lives together, with resulting high levels of trust, will show similar patterns. We are not little automatons running around in a monolithic “Christianity” which in fact does not exist.)

My belief helps condition my style: I try hard to appreciate the differences between and among various religious traditions – not the least of which is within the innumerable branches (and twigs) of my own; but I also look for commonalities that might help promote dialogue and mutual respect and understanding.

Now having said all of that, may I say a few things by way of reply to your post? I will be making reference to biblical passages throughout my reply, and so let me hasten to say at the outset that my purpose is only to suggest “warrants” for the point of view I have taken. These are not "proof-texts" in the ordinary understanding of that phrase -- i.e. they do not "prove" anything, except perhaps in the archaic sense of that word, which is "to test." They do test a point of view. These are meant only to suggest possible beginning places, “primordial texts” if you will, which (for me -- and for Who knows how many others over the centuries; surely they are legion) qualify other texts.

>First off, see my recent article

I did, and found it to be very interesting. It reminds me of the recent book titled The Fabric of the Universe, on which I gave a lecture not so long ago. Also, at the end, it reminds me of much in the New Testrament, e.g. especially the Gospel of John where Light/darkness metaphor is so central (John 1:4; 3:19-21; 8:12; all throughout 1 John; etc. etc.).

> The problem with your diagnosis > for me is that Christianity
> restricts being nondual
> godly & human to just Jesus --
> all others keep out!

No, not all forms of Christianity do that. Mine certainly does not – and that’s why I write here. And in this complex human phenomena called Christianity – where one must always qualify any simplifying generality about what “Christianity” does or does not do by asking whose practice of Christianity is under consideration, when and where and under what conditions? -- there are any number of nuanced “takes” on that question. To name names: a Karl Barth or a Paul Tillich will come down in dramatically different places on that issue (the dual nature of Christ) than a Ravi Zacharias or a Tim LaHaye (the latter of Left Behind fame). There is a healthy stream within Christianity that affirms the original divine/human union in all humanity. Other streams affirm something not all that different, and for what it's worth this is my own belief: the original participation of human nature in divine nature – something that got sidetracked by the Fall (for sake of conversation let’s say a Fall into ignorance and obscurations), but nevertheless is there within us. And the revelation in Jesus of Nazareth was, in part, precisely the reaffirmation of that forgotten truth. If I teach or preach that, I will incur the wrath of the fundamentalist wing of my denomination – just as I will by insisting on our grasp of the “relative Absolute” – but most people will listen and respond with interest; and so far, at least I have not had my ordination questioned over it.

> [I think you mean nondual when you say dual, Steve.]

It’s perhaps confusing to say "dual" in this context, where in Buddhism dual and duality etc. have such specific and intense meanings; but in fact I mean dual. In this case I’m sticking fairly close to the traditional language, which is about the dual nature of Christ: fully divine, fully human, distinction without division etc.

> THEN, insight into the nature of Jesus became restricted to church heirarchy.

Hence the Protestant Reformation, and the “priesthood of all believers.” Actually I have my own problems with that – at its best the hierarchy was intended to preserve the Mind of Christ in direct transmission throughout the generations, not at all unlike the notion of lineage within Buddhism. It was intended to guard against the flagrant subjectivism that unavoidably broke out within Protestantism when, in effect, now everyone is his/her own Pope. (There is a saying in Eastern Orthodoxy to the effect that the Roman serpent [Roman Catholicism] hatched a Protestant egg [now everyone is a “pope”]. As a direct result, there are in the world today – according to UN statistics – something like 30,000 Protestant sects and denominations. But like all things human, hierarchy and tradition were and are subject to their own abuses and distortions. It's always a trade-off.

> In Buddhism, the teaching is that we ALL have access to this transcendant vista. In Christianity, humans are chopped up into divisible souls.

Again, which Christianity, practiced by whom, when and where, and under what circumstances? My read of the Bible, and of the key New Testament affirmations I – and many many others over 2000 years of tradition – would consider foundational and therefore qualifying all others, says otherwise. It says the Transfiguration of Jesus – and here I join with the Eastern Orthodox tradition among others – is the human future: our theosis, our deification, a process begun now (whether we know it or not, many of us would add, e.g. Barth and Tillich) and predestined to continue throughout all eternity. No, we will never become God – we will always and forever remain the creature, hallelujah, thank You for the good good creaturely simplicities and joys! (I would much prefer to appreciate a sunset or rolling around on the floor with my kids from a creaturely perspective and not a divine vista.) But no power of any kind anywhere will derail that predestined human telos. A bedrock passage in the New Testament for Eastern Orthodoxy in precisely this kind of discussion is 2 Peter 1:4: “…so that by them [God’s “precious and magnificent promises”] you may become partakers of the divine nature.” Ephesians 1 affirms precisely the same thing: viz. that participation in the divine nature was God’s intent for humankind even before creation. We were predestined for that end. (That's a much different "read" on that particular text than the one made by John Calvin in my own tradition; but it's also based on a much better job of exegesis than Calvin's.) After creation some ignorance and obscurations happened, so to speak; and so more had (has) to be dealt with in order to continue on that predestined path. But nothing derails the love and purpose of God (Romans 8:33-39, where “God’s elect” is Christ Himself, Who has gathered all humanity up into His humanity; and thereby “God’s elect” is each and every one of us even if we have not yet appropriated that truth for ourselves).

I am bothered by the phrase "chopped up into divisible souls." Maybe that's partly just a personal reaction to the image conjured by "chopped up" -- suggestive of violence? or if not quite violence, then at least of an inhuman procedure like chopping up vegetables for a salad? More than that, though, once again I have to insist that is just simply not true. Our individuality, our separations, are overridden by community in Christianity -- and here I come as close to suggesting a "monolithic" Christianity, in the sense of a well-nigh universal consensus, as I am willing to come. Our individuality, our separate personhood, is not annihilated by community. But it takes place in and only in, is engendered by and only by, and is restored in and only in, community. And to repeat myself here: the archetype is the Community of the Trinity. (C. S. Lewis once said he was a Christian not because he could explain Christianity, but because Christianity explained him, as well as his world. My reason for clinging -- yes, I cling, I cling -- to this belief is very much the same: not so much that it was "revealed" -- although I have no problem affirming that as well -- as that it explains me to myself.) Human souls are no more "chopped up" into separate lifeless bits, than each Person of the Trinity is "chopped up" into 3 completely divided, completely separate "Pieces." In fact the analogy is and always was intended to be quite precise: we are created in the image of God, of this Triune Community of Persons, of a God Who is first and foremost an "Us," an "Our," a "We" -- a plural Reality disclosed precisely at the moment of the creation of humankind (Genesis 1:26).

> In Christianity, people look up to Jesus as something they are incapable of.

In the “read” of Christianity I’m offering, it is more accurate to say we look to Jesus as something about ourselves we had forgotten and lost, and need to have restored. (At a Pure Land website, by the way, the sense of Other Power is quite like that in Christianity, even in its more evangelical versions.) In the stricter, more traditional view of Jesus' uniqueness, it is more accurate to say not that humans are "incapable of" this identity but rather that we refuse it -- we rebel against it, in order to be self-generated, self-existent ... in other words, to assume a false identity. ("Sin" in both Hebrew and Greek is taken from archery and means missing the bullseye. In its most ancient Christian sense, that means we center on self, not on God. It is first and foremost a question of "identity.") And needless to say, but I'll say it anyway, phrases like "self-generated" and "self-existent" easily generate a cascade of terms that showers luminously on both sides of the "Christian-Buddhist" divide.

> Not so in Christianity where the mass's best hope is to play in the string section on a big cloud called Heaven.

How delightfully demeaning! Were I to say something as simplistic about Buddhism, I wonder if I could be elected Pope Benedict?

> -- Tom [Buddhism Rules! -- by not ruling.]

steve [Jesus rules! – by not ruling, c.f. Mark 10:35-45; Philippians 2:5-11]


A p.s. to all of that "chopped up into divisible souls" vs. community business above:

Christianity from its origins has stressed two things. First, it has always affirmed that God is saving (making whole, rescuing from chaos and delusion) a people, and not just individuals. Individuals are saved within that community, not separately. My "saved soul" isn't chopped up or apart into anything but meaninglessness ... unless it is "saved into" God's people (the "Body of Christ" in traditional language).

Secondly, and concomitantly, God is saving the cosmos itself. See, e.g., Romans 8:18-22, which significantly is part of the same discussion I mentioned previously: nothing can derail God's saving purposes, in this case for the cosmos itself and all that is within it.

I need to tack this on to my previous post precisely because the egregious individualism, the "just-Jesus-and-me'ism" of modern evangelical Christianity, is what gets most of the press, at least here in the West. So in the spirit of there being no monolithic Christianity, I need to stress that what a friend of mine disdainfully calls "happy clappy Christianity" -- modern evangelical entertainment Christianity -- is only one strand. The far older, far more basic and far more serious strands are all about what I'm suggesting here: the salvation of the individual -- far from being a chopped-up divisive business -- is inextricably intertwined with the salvation of a people within a cosmos.


I hesitate to add to this already rich column, but here goes. I suspect that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity derives from the Buddhist teaching of Trikaya (mentioned by Lisa above - thank you). Buddha is three persons and one person. The three are Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya and Nirmanakaya - ultimacy, spirit, and concrete form. When we say Buddha we mean all three things, but they are also distinguishable. Buddha the man is dead. Buddhists do not take refuge in a corpse - they take refuge in a continuing spiritual reality that, in turn, points toward ultimacy, a reality that was manifest in the life of Siddhatha Gautama, sage of the Shakyas, circa 450 BCE who was "tathagata", i.e. "come from (spiritual) reality". I would not say that these three "inter-exist" - they are simply, from one perspective, three names for the same thing and, simultaneously, but from a different perspective, three different things. It's three because that's how many there are. To be four there would have to be something else, but we (religiously minded humans) have not found a need for another category, so three it is. Christians took this doctrine and gave to the three three corresponding representations from their own tradition - God as ultimacy, the Holy Spirit, and Jesus as nirmanakaya. At the level of metaphysical principle this is certainly common ground between the two religions and I suspect that the reason is that the Christians probably got it from the Buddhists in the first place - but, of course, I could be wrong (it could be he other way round or it could be parallel development based on the fact that this is a useful doctrine and if it is useful to one religion it may well be useful to another). Both the Trinity and Trikaya doctrines probably evolved after the founders of the two religions were dead. Buddha didn't coin this doctrine. Buddhists coined it in their attempt to understand what the phenomenon of the tathagatha was all about. The doctrine is, therefore, a human artefact, but, for my money, a very good one. It does go a long way toward helping us to understand how a person like that can be in one sense just like you and I and yet obviously not so. Those guys, Sid and Yesh, had certainly got something. If we call it spirit or light, why not? If we say that it indicates ultimacy beyond direct human comprehension - well, that's right, it does doesn't it? So I think this trinity-trikaya doctrine has plenty going for it. Any great teacher can be nirmanakaya - all they have to do is live a life that transparently presents spirit and ultimacy in the world. Now that's a tall requirement, but it is simple in principle and that's what religion is mostly about - tall requirements and simple principles. Best wishes and thank you very much to all the contributors to this thread - marvellous.



Thanks for your reply, and please excuse my slowness in responding. This has *not* been a quiet summer :-(( ...

I have heard (or read) once before, that Trinitarian doctrine might have Buddhist roots. By habit I'm inclined to suspect unrelated but parallel developments in such matters --"unrelated" at the historical level, although not necessarily at an archetypal level ("collective unconscious" and so forth) -- but would be interested to know more. Can you document this, or point me toward any sources so I could do a little digging on my own? I have reached the point in my own reading in Pure Land, that I never cease to be astonished at what seem to be *very* significant overlaps, regardless of "source" -- someone reading over someone else's shoulder, so to speak? archetypal rumblings and turnings in the collective unconscious? To myself I keep calling them, for no very good reason, "portholes" -- e.g. as in 2 ocean-going vessels, berthed side-by-side -- through which, with just a little accommodation to one another's "crew," a *lot* of spiritual energy can be exchanged. The more I read about "primal vow" and "the Name that calls" etc., well, if I were a teacher I'd suspect my two top students of swapping notes before, and answers during, the exam :-P (Of course, only to find out later they were telepathic, and the relationship was on a level entirely other than that of ordinary day-to-day reality :-P)

Meanwhile, *some*day I'll think of another blog to post.


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