Buddhism and Eastern Asceticism Compared to Orthodox Christian Asceticism*
An Excerpt from The Hidden Man of the Heart
by Archimandrite Zacharias
It is unfortunate that
there is widespread confusion, not to mention delusion, in the inexperienced,
whereby the Jesus Prayer is thought to be equivalent to yoga in Buddhism,
or 'transcendental meditation', and other such Eastern exotica. Any similarity,
however, is mostly external, and any inner convergence does not rise beyond the
natural 'anatomy' of the human soul. The fundamental difference between
Christianity and other beliefs and practices lies in the fact that the Jesus
Prayer is based on the revelation of the One true living and personal God as
Holy Trinity No other path admits any possibility of a living relationship
between God and the person who prays.
Eastern asceticism aims at divesting the mind of all that is relative and
transitory, so that man may identify with the impersonal Absolute. This Absolute
is believed to be man's original 'nature', which suffered degradation and
degeneration by entering a multiform and ever-changing earth-bound life. Ascetic
practice like this is, above all, centred upon the self, and is totally
dependent on man's will. Its intellectual character betrays the fullness of
human nature, in that it takes no account of the heart. Man's main struggle is
to return to the anonymous Supra-personal Absolute and to be dissolved in it. He
must therefore aspire to efface the soul (Atman) in order to be one with
this anonymous ocean of the Suprapersonal Absolute, and in this lies its
basically negative purpose.
struggle to divest himself of all suffering and instability connected with
transient life, the eastern ascetic immerses himself in the abstract and
intellectual sphere of so-called pure Existence, a negative and impersonal
sphere in which no vision of God is possible, only man's vision of himself.
There is no place for the heart in this practice. Progress in this form of
asceticism depends only on one's individual will to succeed. The Upanishads
do not say anywhere that pride is an obstacle to spiritual progress, or that
humility is a virtue. The positive dimension of Christian asceticism, in which
self-denial leads to one's clothing with the heavenly man, to the assumption of
a supernatural form of life, the Source of which is the One True,
Self-revealing God, is obviously and totally absent. Even in its more
noble expressions, the self-denial in Buddhism is only the insignificant half of
the picture. In the mind's desire to return to its merely 'natural' self, it
beholds its own nakedness in a 'cloud of divestiture'. But at this point there
is a grave risk of obsession with itself, of its marvelling at its own luminous
but created beauty, and worshipping the creature more than the Creator (Rom.
1:25). The mind has by now begun to deify or idolise its self and then,
according to the words of the Lord, 'the last state of that man is worse than
the first' (Matt. 12:45).
Such are the
limits of Eastern styles of contemplation, which do not claim to be the
contemplation of God, and are in fact man's contemplation of himself. This does
not go beyond the boundaries of created being, nor does it draw anywhere near to
the Truth of primordial Being, to the uncreated living God Who has revealed
Himself to man. This kind of practice may well afford some relaxation or sharpen
man's psychological and intellectual functions, yet 'that which is born of the
flesh is flesh' (John 3:6) and 'they that are in the flesh cannot please God'
In order to be authentic,
any divestiture of the mind from its passionate attachments to the visible and
transitory elements of this life must be linked to the truth about man. When man
sees himself as he is in the sight of God, his only response is one of
repentance. Such repentance is itself a gift of God, and it generates a certain
pain of the heart which not only detaches the mind from corruptible things, but
also unites it to the unseen and eternal things of God. In other words,
divestiture as an end in itself is only half the matter, and it consists of
human effort operating on the level of Created being. Christianity on the other hand, enjoins the ascetic to
strive in the hope and expectation that his soul will be clothed, invested, with
the grace of God, which leads him into the fullness of the immortal life for
which he knows he has been created.
Many admire Buddha and compare him to Christ. Buddha. Buddha is
particularly attractive because of his compassionate understanding of man's
condition and his eloquent teaching on freedom from suffering. But the Christian
knows that Christ, the Only begotten Son of God, by His Passion, Cross, Death
and Resurrection, willingly and sinlessly entered into the totality of human
pain, transforming it into an expression of His perfect love. He thereby healed
His creature from the mortal wound inflicted by the ancestral sin, and made it
'a new creation' unto eternal life. Pain of heart is therefore of great value in
the practice of prayer, for its presence is a sign that the ascetic is not far
from the true and holy path of love for God. If God, through suffering, showed
His perfect love for us, similarly, man has the possibility, through suffering,
to return his love to God.
Consequently, prayer is a matter of love. Man expresses love through
prayer, and if we pray, it is an indication that we love God. If we do not pray,
this indicates that we do not love God, for the measure of our prayer is the
measure of our love for God. St. Silouan identifies love for God with prayer,
and the Holy Fathers say that forgetfulness of God is the greatest of all
passions, for it is the only passion that will not be fought by prayer through
the Name of God. If we humble ourselves and invoke God's help, trusting in His
love, we are given the strength to conquer any passion; but when we are
unmindful of God, the enemy is free to slay us.
* Webmaster note: The title was added for publication on this site. The untitled excerpt is from Chapter 5, "The Building Up of the Heart by Vigilance and Prayer".
From The Hidden Man of the Heart: The Cultivation of the
Heart in Orthodox Christian Anthropology, by Archimandrite Zacharias
(Waymart, PA: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2008), pp. 66-68. Copyright 2008, The Stavropegic Monastery of St John the Baptist, Essex, UK. Posted on 8/9/2008 with
the permission of the publisher.