On the way home from Mass last month I encountered a different religion. One of my favourite places is the ground floor of the Victoria & Albert Museum, where the statues of the bodhisattvas are kept.
These are beings so holy that they escape the cycle of rebirth and attain the ultimate state of bliss called Nirvana. They are so good, however that they choose to stay in the world and keep human souls. Their vow is beautiful:
‘Living beings are without number: I vow to row them to the other shore.
Defilements are without number: I vow to remove them from myself.
The teachings are umeasurable I vow to study and practice them.
The way is very long: I vow to arrive at the end.’
One could do worse than to attempt to practice these words.
I have never felt drawn to the Buddhist notion of living several lives. But I do think, in some way I can’t fathom, we not only live on in the lives of those who have known us and loved us, but that we are not as separate as we think. ‘No man is an island.’ We are part of a great stream of humanity, and many elements of our thinking come from and go into others.
The thoughts of the late Pope John Paul II on this subject are worth considering:
‘Buddhism is in large measure an “atheistic” system. We do not free ourselves from evil through the good which comes from God; we liberate ourselves only through detachment from the world, which is bad. The fullness of such a detachment is not union with God, but what is called nirvana, a state of perfect indifference with regard to the world. To save oneself means, above all, to free oneself from evil by becoming indifferent to the world, which is the source of evil. This is the culmination of the spiritual process.’
‘At various times, attempts to link this method with the Christian mystics have been made – whether it is with those from northern Europe (Eckhart, Tauler, Suso, Ruysbroeck) or the later Spanish mystics (Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint John of the Cross). But when Saint John of the Cross, in the Ascent of Mount Garmel and in the Dark Night of the Soul, speaks of the need for purification, for detachment from the world of the senses, he does not conceive of that detachment as an end in itself. “To arrive at what now you do not enjoy, you must go where you do not enjoy. To reach what you do not know, you must go where you do not know. To come into possession of what you do not have, you must go where now you have nothing” (Ascent of Mount Carmel, i, 13, ii).’
‘In Eastern Asia these classic texts of Saint John of the Cross have been, at times, interpreted as a confirmation of Eastern ascetic methods. But this Doctor of the Church does not merely propose detachment from the world. He proposes detachment from the world in order to unite oneself to that which is outside of the world – by this I do not mean nirvana, but a personal God. Union with Him comes about not only through purification, but through love.’
Pope John Paul II, Crossing the Threshold of Hope (1994).