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Part III Christian Reflections The bodhisattva selflessly realizes Buddha nature for the sake of all sentient beings. We have followed Śāntideva’s exposition of this path and now turn to Christian reflection on it. We have seen that “bodhisattva” is a term that encompasses a ground, an ascending practice, and a final realization. Its bookends are Buddha nature as the basis and Buddhahood as the result. The word can be used to look backward to an insect or a blade of grass, or to look forward to beings of cosmic splendor while referring to the same “one” or causal karmic stream. To cover similar structural ground in Christian terms, we will have to talk about distinctly different things: God as source, Christ as incarnation, humans as disciples and aspirants, and all of them in relation across time. If we seek a single consistent theme across all of these Christian elements, relating equally to ground, process, and attainment, then that theme would be communion or mutual participation. This chapter will focus on the no-self aspect of the bodhisattva path, the bodhisattva as aspirant, and the Christian as creature. Chapter 5, the following chapter, will focus on the realization aspect of the bodhisattva path, with the bodhisattva as Buddha. Chapter 6 will focus on enlightenment for the sake of all beings, with the bodhisattva as helper. In each case, I will explore how we might be instructed by this wisdom.1 When we explore the “ascending” bodhisattva path, we immediately come up against an obvious disagreement over whether there is any one actually on the path. Buddhists appear to deny the existence of selves, and Christians to affirm it. The non-reality of the self is central to the Buddhist teaching, and to the liberative practice associated with that teaching. Śāntideva’s text rests on the wisdom of anattā or no-self. He lays the ground for a bodhisattva’s unrestricted altruism in the argument 4 The Bodhisattva as Aspirant C R E AT U R E S A N D N O - SE L F 128 C h r i s t i a n R e f l e c t i o n s that it is essentially impossible to distinguish between one person and another because they are all equally insubstantial. If selves have no inherent qualities by which they exist or might be distinguished from each other, then there can be no distinction in how I treat them. Śāntideva explains how important it is to understand this and, equally, to experience and act in the world in light of that understanding. All sufferings are without an owner, because they are not different. They should be warded off simply because they are suffering.2 This core tenet of Buddhist traditions contrasts with Christian convictions about the created and eschatological reality of human persons. Śāntideva proposes that our failure to pursue the dharma and to escape our own suffering is based on the continuing misperception that there is a true “I” to be found in our experience. We saw the repeated hellfire appeals that he makes to his listeners to give up their attachment to the self because it leads only to future agony for the self that they are attached to. Better future conditions (e.g., better rebirths, pleasurable heavens) are but intermediate steps. Real release requires recognizing the utter emptiness of the self. And the sole means to do this are to attend now to that emptiness, analytically and experientially. The six bodhisattva perfections are progressive purifications of the defilements that together produce our self-impression. That impression is all that distinguishes us from others who are subject to the same defilements and share the same underlying emptiness. As it falls away, a practitioner is immersed in a unity that transcends subject and object, manifest in universal compassion and peace. This is the path that Śāntideva sets out. Though Christian readers may readily agree with Śāntideva’s picture of the futile character of the selfish life, their typical response is to look ahead to a renewed and redeemed self, a transformed proximate and ultimate future. In that movement , Christians do not linger over the idea of the insubstantiality of the self itself. There are reasons internal to Christian theology to be open to Buddhist instruction on this point. I will review how Buddhism enriches our understanding of the negative expressions of our creaturely character and, even more, of the positive possibilities in that emptiness. I will...


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