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End of July, +Jack C Crawford  asked "Do you believe that it's possible to be a Christian believer and still adhere to (i.e. seek) Buddhist Zen principles? background: I am a Christian who i…
October 5th, 2012

illustration (attribution, if any possible, is at the end of the article)

End of July, +Jack C Crawford  asked "Do you believe that it's possible to be a Christian believer and still adhere to (i.e. seek) Buddhist Zen principles? background: I am a Christian who is seeking."
This is part 2/N of my answer.

We have seen in part 1/N [ ] why Buddhism in general has a difficulty with the idea of the Creator, or even a Creator. However, this might lead to an abusive 'atheist' understanding. I already mentioned that there is no difficulty for Buddhism to accept a God superior to all other beings, and no difficulty to accept that God and these other beings could have all the experiential reasons needed to convince themselves that God actually is the Creator.
By all accounts, I based my previous answer on the Pāli Canon and the Theravāda school, i.e. the first Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. But Zen is part of the Mahāyānist traditions, and as such it does not reject the Pāli Canon but includes additional sūtras and śāstras from the second and third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma…

The Trikāya or "three bodies"

One of the 'new' doctrines made explicit by the later developments of Buddhism was the Trikāya or "three bodies," described in the Perfection of Wisdom literature (e.g. Aṣṭasāhasrikā prajñā-pāramitā). Interestingly enough, such developments started around Jesus' time. The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra and the Yogācāra school formalised the doctrine a few centuries later. 

The "three bodies" of the Buddha (or three aspects) are the Nirmāṇakāya, the Sambhogakāya and the Dharmakāya:
• the Nirmāṇakāya is the body "created, emanated, manifested," i.e. the body ordinary beings can see, which is conditioned in time and space. For us, the historical founder of Buddhism (Siddhārtha Gautama) is the Nirmāṇakāya we know of;
• the Dharmakāya embodies the very principle or possibility of Enlightenment and knows no limit or boundary. It is the un-manifested, inconceivable aspect of Buddha, out of which Enlightened beings arise and to which they return after their dissolution. The Dharmakāya is shared by all buddhas. It is not a 'being,' it has no essence and it relates to Emptiness and to the Tathāgatagarbha (Buddha-nature). It relates to the ultimate nature of reality, to 'thusness' (beyond discrimination). It has no activity and is completely beyond this world;
so another body is required to support Buddha-activity in the world:
• the Sambhogakāya is a celestial 'individualised' body. Buddhas and bodhisattvas can experience such a body and most bodhisattvas —in various heavens and "pure lands"— would benefit from the teachings of a buddha thanks to such a body and such a perception. For some Mahāyānist schools, this luminous body is visible to the most advanced practitioners: to see the Sambhogakāya (thanks to the ability to travel to the heavens) is a capability gained with the first bhūmi, the fruit from attainment of the first stage along the bodhisattva path…

The historical Buddha was a bodhisattva: many lives prior to realising Enlightenment, he had vowed to save all beings… However, after a few decades of teaching, he died. Before dying though, he stated that he could have lived much longer. Clearly we're not all saved from suffering just yet, so how come he died? This should now be clear: only a particular body, a particular Nirmāṇakāya, died!
Among the un-answered questions of Buddhism, one concerns the existence or non-existence of the buddha after death… We now know why: while the terrestrial Nirmāṇakāya 'dies,' the celestial Sambhogakāya still 'lives' and is still active. The Sambhogakāya regularly appears to us, in any form (teacher, monk, friend, drunkard, gambler, enemy, bridge, food, medicine, etc.) most appropriate to support us on the Path [see for practical consequences]. The appearance as Siddhārtha Gautama was only one of the bodies, and one of the means used to bring Enlightenment to us. The appearance of his death was simply a teaching device to prevent us from being complacent (i.e. counting on the presence of the Buddha 'later' and thus postponing spiritual work).

(For the avoidance of doubt, buddhahood is enabled by the Dharmakāya, but the practitioner reaching Supreme Enlightenment does not 'unite' with the Dharmakāya. This would reify the Dharmakāya, making it a 'thing' or a 'place' one can relate to or be a part of… 'Oneness' is not a Buddhist approach. Remember: a human Nirmāṇakāya —Siddhārtha Gautama— was Enlightened.)

God and messiahs

Buddhism is often described as atheist, but it should now be clear that it never was so (on a conventional level). By all standards, in the Pāli Canon and in the later Mahāyānist developments, 'deities' are accepted and talked about. Buddhism cannot accept any such a deity to be the Creator, but this is different from rejecting their existence entirely.

Later developments in Buddhism had no difficulty with the Dharmakāya, the Absolute, the principle of Enlightenment, the principle of Compassion, the unity of all things and beings, un-manifested, beyond existence and non-existence, beyond concepts.
Without blasphemy, I suspect many Christians could recognise God in such a description (if not for the 'Creator' aspect).

As far as I understand, God spoke to Mankind e.g. in the episode of the burning bush (Book of Exodus). So God has an activity, He/She can also 'hear' prayers, and imagery would suggest God also has a luminous body (be it as light, or as a bearded father). This would match quite closely the celestial body (Sambhogakāya).

However, God is never directly visible by ordinary beings. Manifestations, including angels, may be seen, but ones never sees God directly. The various manifestations would obviously match the terrestrial bodies (Nirmāṇakāya); saints, messiahs and possibly Jesus himself might be interpreted as Nirmāṇakāyas.


In spite of these similarities or possible equivalences, there are nonetheless important differences. I will cover these in depth in another post. 

For now, it is enough to say that Zen —most notably from the 6th Patriarch— explicitly took the Trikāya doctrine as a metaphor. However, this is not dismissive.
Emptiness is an effective conventional teaching, a teaching device addressing our very use of conventionality (allowing us to go beyond  dualities, and stay in the present fluid experience, free to respond to the conditions at hand).  [ and ]
Conventions, illusions and metaphors are key concepts in Buddhism, but this is not to say that they are seen as 'unreal' in any way. "Existence and non-existence" applies to conventions too; that is precisely the Middle Path. A misunderstanding of the nature of conventions, illusions and metaphors is the root of ignorance. The teachings on Emptiness are conventional (since they are 'teachings' using 'words') but they are like a sword cutting through ignorance: seeing the nature of conventions is the source of liberation. So to state that conventions, illusions, metaphors or dreams are 'unreal' in Buddhism would be a gigantic mistake: they are precisely the source of suffering and dissatisfaction! They are very real, they clearly participate in the causality that matters, i.e. the causality that makes us suffer!
The 'metaphor' of the Trikāya may thus be 'effective,' as a source of inspiration and a reminder on the Path. Zen would not reject listening to all beings [ (previously mentioned) ].

Temporary conclusion

As was mentioned in part 1/N, there are hypotheses that Jesus might have been in contact with Buddhist teachings. Mahāyānist developments, and the Trikāya doctrine in particular, took up around the time of Jesus and in the centuries that followed. So it is perfectly possible that teachings were shared both ways. The Dharmakāya was 'known' but was primarily a light metaphor in Theravāda Buddhism, and isuch a school ignored the Sambhogakāya; so it is conceivable that the Trikāya doctrine was partly shaped by contact with a Jewish perspective which included an Absolute God, an active God nonetheless, and manifestations (including messiahs)…
It also seems pretty clear that subsequent encounters between the traditions, thanks to merchants and missionaries, might have shaped further proximity between the Holy Trinity and the Trikāya.

Old and New Testament, first and second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma

I mentioned that the Mahāyānist developments were based on the 'second' and 'third' Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. Nāgārjuna —the key philosopher on Emptiness, i.e. the second Turning— is sometimes called the second buddha… Some practitioners have a hard time recognising a deep unity between the first and second Turning though [ ], e.g. Theravādins reject the idea that Mahāyānist sūtras are the words of the Buddha and they only recognise the Buddha they 'saw' i.e. Siddhārtha Gautama.

The shift between the first and second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma is not dissimilar to the shift between the Old and New Testament.
At the risk of caricaturing, one could say that on the Buddhist side, the focus went from 'individual liberation' and a fear of karma to "liberating all beings" and 'compassion.' It also went from following rules and precepts, to engaging with skilful means, i.e. a focus on adaptation to circumstances rather than on fixed rules. On the Christian side, one could say that the focus went from a vengeful God of the Jew (who dictates and punishes) to a God of Love. For some Christians, this also meant a switch from individual salvation and rules, toward compassion and adaptation to circumstances.
Generosity, Tolerance and Patience are values strengthened in the 'modern' developments of both traditions [ ]. Faith (in the helping power of benevolent saints and bodhisattvas) also becomes more accepted in Buddhism as a useful motivational tool (for some time, although it will have to be let go to reach liberation).

I believe we've now established that, except for the myth of the Creation, Mahāyāna Buddhism (which includes Zen) actually seems more compatible with Christianity —including as a historical, disruptive refocusing on compassion of older rule-based practices— than earlier forms of Buddhism.
It should already be clear that not all interpretations of who/what God is are compatible with Buddhism though. But for the Christians who see God as a principle of Love and holding Reality together, there is a clear similarity with the Dharmakāya.

(to be continued… on the difference between revealed truth and metaphor, reality and experience of it, et cætera. Also on day-to-day practices and values…)
[image from ]
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