Some Buddhist/Christian Comparative Theology: “The Way to the Spirit is Through the Flesh”
Just a little diddy I wrote for Paul Knitter’s seminar on Jesus and Buddha. I’ve been too lazy to blog so I’m dumping it on here. Tell me I’m wrong, I dare you! I have mastered Christian and Buddhist though! Mwahahaha (yeah right).
As a Christian, I have approached comparative theology and interfaith dialogue fully intending, with various levels of success, to withhold critiquing Buddhism with Christian doctrine or understanding. Rather, as a Westerner with a relatively facile understanding of the deep mysteries of my religious neighbors, use it as a chance to delve further into my own tradition via the perspective of outsiders. Reflecting on the Buddhist perspectives and critiques of Christianity within Buddhism, I recall a quote attributed to Jacques Lacan: le vérité surgit de la meprise - “The way to the spirit is through the flesh.” It is this sentiment that I have seen embodied in the thought and practice of our Buddhist interlocutors, and it is a point, religious attitudes which emphasize concepts such as “belief’ and transcendence as containing salvific efficacy. By turning to Buddhist wisdom, it is my hope that Christianity can recover the “fleshy,” embodied practices that lead toward liberation. Inspired by John D. Caputo’s recent theo-philosophical reflections, I think that it is useful to speak of “’flesh’ not bodies, because while I agree, indeed insist, that religion is all about bodies and I am interested in ‘religious bodies’ of all sorts, I am distinguishing ‘flesh’ as the site of pleasure and pain, suffering and jouissance, from the body as ‘agent,’ as the site of action, agency and movement.” So while Buddhism is certainly not anti-activism or action, and the stereotype of Buddhists “not leaving their cushions” is a patently false straw man, it is indeed the site of the “flesh” where Buddhist study and insight has impacted me most, in the wisdom of its rigorous practice as spiritual discipline. Christianity, especially in its liberal, politicized form, can be predisposed to thinking primarily of bodies while neglecting the flesh. With nothing but good intentions, it can be the case that Christian communities create movements to heal the world before healing themselves. Indeed, I have found abrasiveness in my own attempt to be a productive member of community by ignoring the discipline of my own flesh, and by extension my own spirit. For me, “flesh” in Buddhist teaching is best articulated in the teaching of “Mindfulness.”
It seems Paul Knitter is quite right in observing that the practice of mindfulness, or smrti, is not typically “An ingredient found in most Christian pantries –or, if found, used too sparingly.” Now, of course, to be clear, “flesh” being the site of “pain and pleasure” does not mean a reduction of our experience to physical sense input. Rather, “flesh” denotes the site of pain, anxiety, fear, explosive joy, etc. Thus, “Mindfulness,” as a precursor or even prerequisite for action, is analogous to the experience of the “flesh” before the “body,” as Caputo put it, is moved to action, agency, and movemen . To be sure, one of the strengths of Christianity is its emphasis on certain absolutes and ideals – charity, grace, forgiveness, compassion, agape love, and, for better or worse, “justice.” The downside of these more or less eschatological ideals, again as Knitter maintains, is that they “can be dangerous if they prevent us from really being mindful of and responsive to what the moment contains and is trying to teach us.” When Christians both assume, more or less a priori, that we understand the ideals for which we seek, and also rush to enact them (whether it is in the form of street evangelism or political demonstration), we certainly run the risk that we are closing ourselves to vital information available to us in the present, not to mention the un-preconfigurable, unforeseeable “to come.”
Thich Nhat Hahn is right to point out that what separated Jesus from the rest of us fools (my summation) is that he was already enlightened by the time of his Baptism by the Holy Spirit – he was “in touch with the reality of life, the source of mindfulness, wisdom, and understanding within Him, and this made him different from other human beings.”  This understanding of the mindfulness of Christ has implications that may lead us to rethink “incarnation” within the Christian imagination, not just something about “bodies” in the sense which I have been using the term, that of action and agency, e.g. within Christianity the actions of Christ: death, atonement, resurrection, healing, feeding, etc. but also “flesh,” which means that the incarnation is not reducible to God’s “substance” being within Jesus (homoousian), but Jesus being mindful, on a moment to moment basis, throughout all of his life, aligning his own will with that of God’s. Incarnation as mindfulness explains Christ as a savior of both the “flesh”- the site of momentary sensations and feelings – and our “bodies,” with which we act in response to the flesh, grounding us in mindful discipline, and “embodying” the actions which naturally result from perfect, or even salvific (to pass back to Christian vocabulary), mindfulness.
Study of Buddhism has thus been a stark wake up call to remember quotidianism, daily practice, daily attention, daily discipline, of the flesh before the action of bodies. Chödrön explains the Buddhist understanding of homelessness as the “hanging out in an uneasy space.” There is a certain anxiety that comes with leaving the routine (the undisciplined routine in contrast to the aforementioned quotidianism), the familiar, and the “cozy,” that should call to many Christians who do not take seriously enough the call of Christ to be willing to take radical steps in the direction of the Kingdom, which we cannot articulate in full. Hence, here is yet another case of what I see to be a “fleshy” endeavor recalling Lacan’s dictum “The way to the spirit is through the flesh.” Through mindfulness, we are lead into “uneasy places,” forging new routines, uneasy routines, which lead us toward the Kingdom. As Jesus’s mindfulness (at least in part) constituted his divinity (or Enlightenment). Furthermore, mirroring Jesus’s own divinization, or incarnation, we too become the incarnate Kingdom rather than the idealized Kingdom in our own imaginations and dreams. We shift focus from eschatological vision (which is not evil in its own right, and is important) to embodied, fleshy, bodily, grounded agents of transformation. We cannot, as Christians holding beliefs about spirits and souls, afterlives and salvation, skip this critical step. Spirit only through flesh; “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it”(Matthew 10:39). Here, Jesus seems to be demonstrating the principle we have been discussing. Only by taking ones eyes “off the prize,” so to speak, in living life for life’s sake, not the reward, may one find what they seem. If we want “spirit,” we must forsake it for flesh. For mindfulness leading to action, there is no alternative route; it is the paradox of our deepest longing. By learning the art of mindfulness not only from our own Gospels, but with the help of our Buddhist brothers and sisters, it is my hope that this principle is enacted: those who forsake the Kingdom of God to be mindful to one’s neighbor and environment find the Kingdom of God.
Roger Haight points out that the incorporation of the story of creation into the Christian account of creation is one way to see the entire universe as sacramental. Similarly, I believe the grafting of mindfulness as a way to understand the Kingdom and the incarnation of Jesus is another way to view all that is as sacred. (and interconnected!) Paul Knitter reminds us of the power “Sacrament of Silence” that silence, what we typically ignore as emptiness, as a way of not suppressing that which haunts us, our inner reality that we may want to drown out. Mindfulness is how we engage silence and do so sacramentally, so that we can accept whatever it is to avoid “knee jerk feelings of fear, anger, or envy.” These negative feelings are the account of separating the flesh from the body, acting without mindfulness, losing touch of oneself in the world.
Perhaps more now than ever, amid financial meltdowns, political injustice, and any number of misgivings, the call to mindfulness, to return to the “flesh,” grounded in the moment, will help us as Christians who strive for justice to remember not just of the old cliché that we must heal ourselves in order to heal others, but additionally that the means by which we achieve our goals are not as simple as attacking the goals themselves – at every turn we must remain vigilant within ourselves to, what our flesh is experiencing, in order to assess situations carefully and accurately. Caputo asks, “When the life of flesh comes in contact with God (ultimate reality), is it compromised or intensified, relieved of carnality or lifted up into a higher carnal life?” Christians and Buddhists may well disagree about the answer to this, but in no way does it undermine the importance of journeying to discover the answer, together. Buddhists and Christians should not be assimilated, this is not meant to be a homogenizing piece of comparative religious study, but simply what one faith tradition may see as a prophetic practice (among others which may not be so prophetic!) in the other. Just as the correspondence between theologian and activist Rosemary Radford Ruether and Catholic monk Thomas Merton revealed that the former chided the latter for not acting enough, while the latter chided the former for not spending enough time in quiet reflection in a monastery, each seems to have seasoned the other with the reminder that the flesh and the body cannot be divided, each is in need of the other to be valuable. Practice is nothing if it is blind and rash while reflection and mindfulness seems wasted if it is not utilized to change the world, even if in some small way. May we all live incarnate lives of the flesh leading to wise bodies seasoned with discipline, awareness, and compassion.
 Zizek, Slavoj. “A Glance Into the Archives of Islam.” God in Pain: Inversions of Apocalypse. By Boris Gunjevic, Slavoj Žižek. New York: Seven Stories, 2012.
 Caputo, John D. Syllabus of “A Theology of the Flesh,” Syracuse University, 2009. Online.
 Without Buddha 151
 I seriously, seriously doubt that we can reasonably agree about what that word means. The standard definition of “the administering of deserved punishment or reward” seems woefully inadequate in a Christian context to me, but clearly not for others. People “getting what they deserve” seems horribly undesirable, but perhaps that’s due to my above average moral deficit…
 Knitter, Paul F. Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian. Oxford: Oneworld, 2009. 181
 Thich Naht Hahn. Living Buddha, Living Christ. New York: Riverhead, 1995. 27
 This is an idea I picked up from John Cobb somewhere
 Chödrön, Pema. The Wisdom of No Escape: And the Path of Loving-kindness. Boston: Shambhala, 1991.124
 Haight, Roger. Spirituality for Seekers 20
 Knitter 162.