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« Buddhist-Christian Dialogues at Naropa University | Main | Reconciling Anger Towards Pope Benedict »

26 April 2005



A difficult, massive question, resulting in a massive blog (apologies)! Salvation is seen differently between religions and within religions and from age to age. Is it describable at all without placing it in context?

A quick survey might help. Religion has had many purposes. There are social dimensions: as a vehicle of social cohesion (the family that prays together, stays together); as a means of exercising authoritarian control (same sex relationships are iniquitous); and in legitimising the extension of power (God is on our side). In these uses, salvation (in heaven etc) is the deferred reward for good behaviour, and follows from believing in certain things and then acting in certain ways: conforming, avoiding sin, seeking converts, becoming a martyr etc etc.
Then there are personal dimensions, giving purpose and meaning to the individual life where none is otherwise apparent. In these uses, salvation follows when existential dread is successfully (?) challenged in the restoration of personal meaning within the context of some sort of transcendent belief system.
And there are revelatory or transpersonal dimensions, wherein the legitimacy of religion is located: communication with/apprehension of the Gods/God/Unborn, experienced by the few (shamans, oracles, high priests, gurus, roshis, mystics of all persuasions, Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, Abraham) and accepted in faith by the many. In these uses, salvation follows the personal revelation, when existential dread more-or-less evaporates in an experience of cosmic meaning. The content of the revelation and the use to which it is put also varies according to the predilections of the enlightened one: here lies one major source of competition between religions.

I can see I’ve already got completely bogged down in you-pays-your-money-and-you-takes-your-choice relativism. I can’t help this – like all of us, I’m a product of our age and can’t in honesty escape the postmodern mindset. But I’m keen to avoid a relativistic understanding of salvation: how can I do this without dismissing it?

One way might be to accept the relativism, and allow for it in the definition. It’s where religions promise certainties that they fall foul of relativism. And the certainties that they promise are in the most part to be taken on faith. What is the nature of this faith? An article in the Guardian last week dismissed faith as ‘ungrounded certainty’. But what if we abandon certainty as a goal and define faith as ‘grounded uncertainty’? Here, faith isn’t based on improvable assertions outside experience but on experience itself: by opening to and accepting all experience as it arises, we are grounded in (necessarily relativistic) truth as we perceive it; from this is obtained the strength to face, even celebrate, the uncertainty of life, which for me constitutes salvation. It has a distinctly Buddhist feel to it: it is open, not closed; it admits doubt of necessity; it is untargeted. It is also compassionate. Will this do?



I agree with what you've written; I think you have broken it down very well.

But you do leave out the sense of 'winners and losers' which pervades conservative religion. It isn't just reward for good behaviour, it is escape from the clutches of Satan or escape having to suffer an endless series of dredful lives. Many flavors of religion derive their power and gain followers using the carrot AND the stick. I would say these are corrupted religions, hollowed-out perpetual-motion machines.

I would say that 'salvation' is not a proper construction.

It is perhaps painfully the case that a TRUE RELIGION* cannot be popularly embraced as yet since such a thing would present marketing difficulties.

What if there is no obstacle course that people need to traverse to be ultimately warmed by the light of perfect security, comfort and love? Such a thing might sound like 'spiritually self-indulgent eroticism' to some.

* I have no specific thoughts on the one TRUE RELIGION; just tossing the idea/ideal out there.


Dear Tom

Yes, forgetting to mention hellfire (etc) is a bit of an omission – maybe it was implied slightly in the authoritarian control bit. The thing is, I find the threat of hellfire so obviously to do with social control and the exercise of power that I hardly see it as religious at all – but I recognise this is my own view of religion, and avoidance of hell (or suffering, or rebirth as an Untouchable etc) has been a, perhaps the, major religious motivator for some people. Is this selfish motivation inevitable when religious salvation is primarily a personal concern – I believe in God so I will go to heaven, or I practice vipassana so I will become enlightened (and whilst I may feel compassion for the rest, their own salvation is entirely their own lookout)? And is this necessarily a ‘bad’ thing, that this kind of religion has a selfish motivation at its heart?
I’m wondering what you mean when you say ‘salvation is not a proper construction’. Salvation runs through all religions like a golden thread – we are saved from sin, from hell, from ourselves, from endless rebirth, from greed, hate and delusion and so on. I am absolutely sure that people have religious experiences – born-again conversions, spiritual realisations, satori, oceanic experiences and so forth – which shake them to the core and which are experienced as salvific. Are you saying that these people are kidding themselves? I don’t think that having a salvation experience makes one a winner – surely the point of salvation is that one lets go/transcends/ceases caring about all of that competitive stuff. (But I do sense that if a genuine salvation experience is taken back to an all-consuming ego it can cause gross self-aggrandisement and can lead to extraordinary claims of messiah-like status - it seems to happen quite a lot in the New Age movement. But that doesn’t disqualify the salvation experience itself, although it does show that it doesn’t necessarily result in wisdom).
I do regard any attempt at proposing a True Religion as fraught with difficulties. How would you know it’s True? Every religion worth its salt has made this claim, and fought to the death over it. There are wonderful people in all the faiths with open hearts and compassionate outlooks; and there are monomaniacal despots in all of them as well, frequently ending up in positions of supreme power … mentioning no names ……. For me, the thing that distinguishes the true heart is the degree of compassionate openness to the experiences of others (whether judged as good or bad) and this quality is independent of any particular system of belief. (Indeed, religion often seems to get in the way of it!) But if a genuine experience of salvation enables a person to substantially let go of the selfish ideas of winner/loser, success/failure, achiever/loser, worthy/unworthy, then the conditions are set for this heartfelt opening to the other. Or so it seems to me.



You write: "(and whilst I may feel compassion for the rest, their own salvation is entirely their own lookout)? And is this necessarily a ‘bad’ thing, that this kind of religion has a selfish motivation at its heart?"

I, of course, answer YES, it is a 'bad' thing. And I would expect that just about every Mahayana Buddhist would, too.

People have religious [ie mythic] experiences which shake them just short of the core and then add an overlay of interpretation. What shakes them to the core is a momentary loss of self -- I do believe.

As for the True Religion, I am not designing one, I am just suggesting that it is somewhere out there. While I love the idea of folks from different religions interacting, I cannot blame the new pope or anyone from supposing that, somehow, their religion is better. At least I can't for folks who have 'chosen' their religion in contrast to those who just are happily stuck with the religion of their parents.

But I do rather much believe that if we have consciousness after we die, God or Buddha or Uncle Ray will walk over to us and say "The conservative Christians are the only ones who got it right" OR "Buddhism IS the one right religion" OR "The terrorists DID get their twenty virgins after crashing into the Twin Towers." So, my mythic TRUE RELIGION is the one construction of God and Truth and Everything that is correct on every particular.

But I am guessing that religion really has just about everything to do with being unselfish, which is what I believe IS at the unvarnished core of mythic experience.

I am not so sure that displays of compassion mean a lot. Yeah, it is certainly nice that the orphans of the world get cared for, don't get me wrong. But if the compassion on display is just performance to get a better condominium in heaven, then it is a muddy compassion, how ever many orphans get fed and bathed.

So, I am sort of mostly agreeing with you, Tony -- except I don't sign on to the ideal of salvation.



I had a conversation with a Tibetan Buddhist, who did recognize a selfish motivation involved in awakening: how can I liberate others unless I am liberated myself beforehand, which necessarily means working on the self? Is the search for liberation for oneself selfish? Is it possible to save others from drowning without having learnt to save oneself first? (Ooops, that S-word again!) I’m not seeking to attack the supremely inspiring Mahayana tradition at all, but am just trying to be honest about the motivations of seekers. If initial selfishness (as expressed in seeking liberation for oneself) results in the falling away of selfishness and the arising of great compassion for others, it surely must be worth it and is a Good Thing. It’s using selfishness to destroy itself.

But I also wonder how many of us achieve that sublime condition to be able to say that selfishness has been vanquished. Most of us have to live with varying degrees of selfishness and self-concern, and struggle to achieve any kind of enlightenment at all. So for us, selfishness and compassion (which can arise as a corrective or response to selfishness) exist together in an uneasy dynamic. If such compassion is muddy, it’s still better than nothing. But compassion, I am tempted to say, is ALWAYS selfless – it is selflessness in action, opening to the other in complete acceptance. (By selfless, I mean without concern for the self rather than no-self). Selfish concern for the sufferings of others is merely the accumulation of merit, a concept which I’m very uneasy about. (Even so, I’d still prefer that orphans get fed, whether through compassion or merit accumulation!)

Here’s another thought about salvation (which I’m still grasping at – I’m just very uncomfortable at dismissing a central revelation of other faiths) in a Buddhist context. What if I define it as a subspecies of liberation? It would then be the particular experience of liberation which follows the gate of suffering to the dharma. Personal catastrophe/despair can awaken people to the truth of their existential condition, and here the revelation of no-self would be experienced as a liberating salvation. So salvation becomes a phenomenological experience, rather than a value-laden concept requiring the winner/loser dichotomy. Is this acceptable?


Couple of comments:
- If one has seen into the portal of hell one does not take it lightly.
- If we cannot help others until we are enlightened ourselves, it might be quite a while before anybody gets helped, and, unless we help others how would the merit that led to enlightenment be generated?
- Compassion must have something to do with fellow-feeling and that implies being less than perfect.



An easy conjecture as to where salvation comes from is that it is our child-self yelling out to be rescued from our troubles. "Oh, please help me, Big Daddy. I am stuck in the mud."

We would all love to be rescued -- to win the lotto, to have our problems disappear miraculously, to have Batman descend from the sky and pull us from the trainwreck.

"Salvation" is predicated on the childish idea that "I am special," "My chains to ugliness, disease, stink and death are breakable," "I am not like the others."

The reason struggling to exhaustion, or suffering greatly can be very beneficial, spiritually, is because it pushes us past childish ideas of being saved. When we find that we AREN'T saved, then we can more easily see ourself in the failure and agony of others.

So, Tony, I end up, then, agreeing with the final paragraph of your last post. Perhaps my problem is one of semantics?

Dave/Dharmavidya: We do help each other without being enlightened, obviously. There are many reasons why we might help one another. When the compassion of shallow-feeling individuals is involved, cannot that be described as "compassion-lite," or mere "social awareness?"

I think that particularly wonderful human beings are like great artwork or great music. The idea of "perfection" is problematic. The very very best has a great many charming flaws.


I like the reference to "charming flaws". Life is bitter sweet. I suppose what is at stake is whether religion is life-affirming or life-denying. It is very easy to read many passages of Buddhism or Christianity in a life denying way or to find a life affirming alternative rendition. Perhaps salvation could refer to saving the life. This, however, leads on to other issues since life defies reason and predictability. Systematization of the message - something that Buddhists have proved great masters of and Christians have also engaged in - can itself be life denying. What happens to the living god or the living buddha if/when we characterise them as flaw-free?


There is also quite a lot in the standard presentation of Buddhism by many authorities that is life denying. Try this, for instance, from Junjiro Takakusa's book, The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy, p.19-20, on the Four Noble Truths:
1. that life consists entirely of suffering;
2. thatsuffering has causes;
3. that the causes of suffering can be entirely extinguished;
4. that there exists a way to extinguish the causes.
Now whatever quibbles one has about the proposition that life is all suffering, the logic of this proposition is that life=x and x can be eliminated. The unstated but unavoidable conclusion is that the goal of the Buddhist path is the elimination of life.

There is a lot of this sort of thing about. The near standard equation of the term vijnana with consciousness, for instance, followed by the fact that vijnana is listed as a skandha and that skandhas are eliminated in enlighenment means that enlightenment is a condition without consciousness. Much the same problem arises in the stanard translations of several other skandhas - "feeling", "perception" etc.

It does puzzle me that leading scholars put forward this kind of thing not just rarely and exceptionally, but very commonly and frequently.


"Dwelling in the great treasury of light all day and all night, you turn yourself into a lowly hireling, roaming in misery, a longtime pauper. This is your own conceit of inferiority, having forgotten the call of your noble origins. How sad it is to take up a nightsoil bucket and become a cesspool cleaner, thinking of the body of pure light as a defiled body full of misery. This is the saddest of the saddest, which nothing can surpass . . ."
-- Ejo, Asorption in the Treasury of Light

I agree, Dharmavidya, that life is not life denying. Thus, I think the re-birth breakthrough that people report having before they find their way to Jesus [or commit to Zen, or whatever religion one is tangled up with] is swathed in delusion, unfortunately. We over-react to a glimpse of ego freedom, and paint this great freeing, wonderful/terrible experience with the banner colors of the religion we best know.

Thus, there is no salvation. Batman doesn't descend from the sky.

"Enlightenment is a condition without consciousness," you say. Its manifestation on consciousness seems to be what intrigues us.

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