The Buddha and the Epiphany

January 2nd, 2019

“Wise men,” magi, magians, St. Matthew tells us, come “from the east” to Jerusalem seeking to “worship” the “king of the Jews” (Mt. 2:1-2). They have been guided by the light of “his star” which “rose”, which they “saw” — this occasions their thirst to worship One who is, presumably, otherwise unknown to them. They don’t seem to come on the basis of scriptural knowledge, for it is the “chief priests and scribes of the people,” called together by Herod, who from their own study of the scriptures supply these Eastern wise men with the location to which they should travel.

At Christ’s manifestation to the wise men, even as only a young child, they both worship and offer gifts. The worship of Christ’s person pervades Matthew’s Gospel in a way that is a clue to Jesus’ ultimately divine identity. That’s the Epiphany Christians celebrate: the manifestation of the Christ, even as a child, as the star-illumined divinity who will be “ruler” and “shepherd” of Israel (Mt. 2:6), “God with us” (Mt. 1:23). The wisdom of these wise men of the East leads them into Christ’s presence where they worship and give gifts; they have come into the presence of the divine Epiphany in our midst, and so they themselves have experienced an epiphany, a revelation, a manifestation of God.

More colloquially, we use the word epiphany to describe any revelation, deep new insight, fresh world-reorienting understanding. And, indeed, Christians ought to think that even the true epiphanies of those who don’t identify as Christian bear a ray or refracted beam or glint of that luminous Epiphany of epiphanies, and are “good and perfect gifts from above, coming down from the Father of Lights” (Js. 1:17). This is one way Christians might sort the awakening of the Buddha as recounted in the poet Ashvaghosha’s legend, the Buddhacarita.* It runs approximately as follows.

Young, married, a king’s son living the posh life of luxury in a palace, the prince has been shielded from the reality of the transience of all things by being shielded from the realities of old age, sickness, and death. But the gods intervene, and the young man sees an old man, a diseased man, and a corpse on subsequent trips outside the palace. This prompts the young Buddha to withdraw from the women in the palace and express his dawning epiphany: “It is not that I despise the objects of sense, and I know full well that they make up what we call the ‘world’. But when I consider the impermanence of everything in this world, then I can find no delight in it…. If people, doomed to undergo old age, illness, and death, are carefree in their enjoyment with others who are in the same position, they behave like birds and beasts…. Successful high-mindedness seems to me incompatible with both extinction and attachment to sensory concerns, and appears to require that one is in full control of oneself…” (40-41).

The prince is moved to deep pity for all creatures, nonhuman as well as human, and goes on solitary retreat sitting “at the foot of a rose-apple tree.”

There he sat down, reflected on the origination and passing away of all that lives, and then he worked on his mind in such a way that, with this theme as a basis, it became stable and concentrated. When he had won through to mental stability, he was suddenly freed form all desire for sense objects and from cares of any kind. He had reached the first stage of trance, which is calm amidst applied and discursive thinking. In his case it had already at this stage a supramundae purity. He had obtained that concentration of mind which is born of detachment, and is accompanied by the highest rapture and joy, and in this state of trance his mind considered the destiny of the world correctly, as it is: ‘Pitiful, indeed, that these people who themselves are helpless and doomed to undergo illness, old age, and destruction, should, in the ignorant blindness of their self-intoxication, show so little respect for others who are likewise victims of old age, disease, and death! But now that I have discovered this supreme Dharma, it would be unworthy and unbecoming if I, who am so constituted, should show no respect for others whose constitution is essentially the same as mine.’ (42-43)

In this passage we see the young Buddha at meditation: achieving detatchment from sensibilia, experiencing rapture and joy, and being oriented to compassion for other beings. A root of much Buddhist practice and spirituality may be seen here. All this, it seems to me, should be regarded by Christians, wherever and by whomever it is achieved, as authentic epiphany: authentic participation in that Epiphany of God in the world which is the incarnation of Jesus Christ. The similarity of the Buddha’s trance state to states of consciousness achieved by Christian mystics in meditation/contemplation is manifest. Yet there are aspects of the Buddha’s transformation which may make Christians nervous or pensive: one is a worry about a (perhaps Gnostic seeming) rejection of the material world, and another is a worry about a presumption that one can achieve total self-mastery. But to be fair, one would first have to admit that these worries would apply to significant swathes of the Christian spiritual and mystical traditions, which often resonate deeply with the Buddha’s insights as stated. Moreover, the Gnostic worry seems misplaced. What is described in the passages above is not a rejection of the material or the sensory — this is explicitly denied in the Buddha’s own words. Rather, what is commended is the cultivation of an interior posture of “detatchment” — a practice and habit commended strongly by many Christian mystics — and note that this all leads to an increase in compassion for other persons and even other nonhuman beings. The Buddha’s practice returns one to earth with compassion — no condemnable Gnostic escapism here.

Something even stronger should perhaps be said here. In the last generations of Christian piety and even elite scholarship, in the USA in particular, there have been strong world-affirming, body-affirming, creation-affirming currents, carried out against anything that seemed even a little gnostic, a little too spiritual, and founded on an insistence on the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ (itself harkening back to classic fundamentalist-liberal debates). The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is, doubtless, a primitive Christian teaching; my concern here is that in our uber-materialist scientific age we’ve doubled down hard on it in a way that clinically attenuates its mystery. St. Paul, recall, insists that resurrected bodies are spiritual (rather than fleshly). Moreover, the resurrection accounts in the Gospels seem intentionally mysterious, enigmatic, even at turns bizarre. Even as we affirm a resurrection of the body we ought to affirm the fact that we have no real idea what that means, since it’s now a “spiritual” body. Moreover, and with the Buddha, early Christians would’ve unequivocally affirmed the superiority of spirit to flesh, and shared the Buddha’s lament about the bodies of this age: they age, they get sick, they die, and in all of these processes they suffer quite a lot. This emphasis needs to be re-heard by Christians; and in that re-hearing we can agree with the Buddha’s epiphany above.

The worry about total self-mastery, on the other hand, seems like it would merit more careful reflection, and that would require more engagement of the nuances of Buddhist spirituality and Christian theology than has been here offered.

May Christ’s Epiphany fill you, O wisdom-seeker, with lights and epiphanies of eternity in the very midst of this world of transience — of old age, illness, and death. 

*The Buddhacarita is a first century CE work, and the first full-length biography of the Buddha. The historical Buddha lived in the 6th or 5th century BCE, and so questions of the historicity of the tale’s details can’t be satisfactorily resolved – for those who desire such satisfaction. Translations are readily available; I’m using the one in Edward Conze, trans., Buddhist Scriptures (New York: Penguin, 1959), entitled The Legend of the Buddha Shakyamuni.

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