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Each great teacher locates the fundamental problem of human living differently: The Buddha cites suffering; Socrates points to ignorance; and Jesus identifies faulty love. In addition, all three Masters teach that the task set for each human soul is to travel from illusion to reality…

Unlike the Age of Faith, in Postmodernity, or more accurately in the Kali Yuga, the Hindu Dark Age when all the great faiths are on the wane, the spiritual life has been all but extinguished by materialism and driven into obscurity by a global consciousness allied with cultural relativism. The demanding task at this moment in history is to attempt to recover in some way or other the spiritual life, not the restoration of a particular religious belief or ritual.[1] To explore the deepest aspect of who we are, we need guides, so we have no solid recourse but to turn to one of the three great teachers of humankind, to the Buddha, Socrates, or Jesus. As part of a spiritual recovery program, we will emphasize the common ground that the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus share, not that we do not recognize fundamental differences between the three.

Before turning to these three Masters, we should note that the other major wisdom traditions, Taoism, Hinduism, and Islam, are not based on a teacher. Lao Tzu, the author of the Tao Te Ching, left no trace of his life; scholars surmise he was a gentleman recluse, heartsick at the ways of men and women. The fundamental spiritual texts of Hinduism, the Vedas and the Upanishads, are not attributed to any author, although upanishads means “sitting near a teacher.” The Qur’an, the sacred text of Islam, is regarded by Muslims to have been dictated to Muhammad by God, so that Muhammad is a prophet, not a teacher.

If we tentatively adopt the Buddha, Socrates, or Jesus as a guide to the spiritual, or interior, life, we immediately encounter a problem: Not one of the three great teachers of humankind wrote a single word. The Buddha left no text describing the Path to Ultimate Reality, to Absolute Truth, to Nirvāṇa. His spoken discourses and monastic rules were summarized and memorized by his followers. Collections of teachings attributed to the Buddha were passed down by oral tradition and first committed to writing about 400 years after his death. The Buddha spoke Ardhamagadhi and not one of his words is preserved in that language; in the canonical texts, the Buddha speaks in either Sanskrit or Pāli. The oral transmission of the Buddha’s teaching undoubtedly resulted in additions to his original teachings; in Tibetan Buddhism, the sayings of the Buddha occupy one hundred volumes!

Many stories of the Buddha’s life are clearly fabulous inventions of the early Buddhist authors. Before Siddhartha’s mother conceived him “she saw in her sleep a white lord of elephants entering her body, yet she felt thereby no pain.”[2] When due course the Holy One issued from the womb, he appeared “as if he had descended from the sky, for he did not come into the world through the portal of life; and, since he had purified his being through many eons, he was born not ignorant but fully conscious.”[3] When Siddhartha attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree, “pleasant breezes blew softly, the heaven rained moisture from a cloudless sky, and from the trees there dropped flowers and fruit out of due season as if to do him honor.”[4] When the Buddha died, there occurred “a tremendous earthquake, dreadful and astounding, and the thunders rolled across the heavens.”[5]

Like the Buddha, Socrates did not write a word, although he had a reoccurring dream that told him to “practice and cultivate the arts.”[6] Until his trial, he thought the art in his dream was philosophy. In prison, the thought occurred to him that the dream referred to popular arts; to clear his conscience he attempted moral fables in the style of Aesop but said he had no talent for such writing, and, as a result, none survived his critical intellect. The life and teachings of Socrates are known to us primarily through the dialogues of Plato and the reflections of Xenophon. Scholars believe that Xenophon’s accounts of Socrates lack philosophical sophistication and historical accuracy. Consequently, most of us rely upon the Platonic dialogues and, in addition, ignore the so-called Socratic problem, the impossibility of determining what is Socrates’ thought and what is the thought of Plato spoken through the mouth of Socrates used as a literary device. Virtually everything we know about Socrates comes from Plato, and perhaps like the early Buddhists authors, Socrates’ life was embellished by his literary and philosophical disciple.

Scholars generally agree that Jesus and his followers spoke the Galilean dialect of Aramaic, the common language of Judea in the first century A.D. The words of Jesus recorded in the New Testament are in Koine Greek, the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean during the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

The difficulty of ascertaining what Jesus actually did and said has been handled in two opposed ways. The first way, that of fundamentalist Christians, is to regard the Gospels as written by the Apostles inspired by God, so the deeds and words of Jesus reported in the sacred texts are literally true. The second way is that of modern scholarship, where the accepted rule is that any oral teaching becomes adorned and augmented as it is passed on from listener to hearer and becomes transformed when written. The Gospels, in this view, are considered as historical artifacts that authentically report some of Jesus’ actual deeds and sayings but also contain elaborations and even inventions of the early Christian community. Harvey K. McArthur, a New Testament scholar, reports that among modern Gospel researchers, “There is general agreement that the Christian community played a creative role in shaping the Oral Tradition for its own use in preaching, disputing, and catechizing.”[7] To further complicate the issue, the New Testament resulted from the Church selecting texts from a mass of early Christian documents.

Because they did not write a single word, the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus must have wanted their teachings to be practiced, not to be the subject of discourse aimed at possessing the correct ideas or to serve as matter for intellectual debates that would lead to more and more schools proclaiming what the Masters really meant. The Buddha admonished his followers, “You must make the effort. The Great [Masters] of the past only show the way.”[8]

The Buddha realized that metaphysical speculations result in quarrels and controversies that direct a seeker to regard his or her position as the only true one and thus are a barrier to Enlightenment. A monk once complained to the Blessed One that he gave no answers to such much-debated questions as: Is the universe eternal or non-eternal? Finite or infinite? Is the soul the same thing as the body, or is it different? Does one who has found the truth, an Arahant, exist after death, or does he not exist after death? The Buddha answered that such questions tend not to edification.[9]

Many Buddhists truly believe that engaging in pointless philosophical speculations leads to liberation and use such quarrels and controversies as a way to avoid walking the demanding Path to Nirvāṇa. The Buddha taught that the Path to the cessation of suffering is a practice, not a system of ideas: “Much though he recites the sacred texts, but acts not accordingly, that heedless man is like a cowherd who only counts the cows of others—he does not partake of the blessings of the holy life.”[10] Reciting sutras, observing fasts, and keeping the precepts will not bring a disciple closer to Nirvāṇa.

The danger inherent in writing down an oral teaching is that the word can be mistaken for the object. Father Raymond Braga, a Romanian Orthodox Priest, interred in a Communist prison for eleven years, said that before his solitary confinement, “I was a priest, I was a monk, and I’m ashamed to say that God, my God, was the God of the Book. But God is alive, is experience, is personal experience.”[11] Father Braga seems to be telling us that merely reciting the Creed in church, reading the Scriptures, and performing the correct rituals, many of which are cultural, does not make the interior life flourish or draw a believer closer to God. For many Christians today, the best church is one where they experience the joy of belonging to a loving community. Church attendance makes the worshipper feel good, and spiritual experience means an intense, warm feeling of well-being. For such churchgoers, the coffee hour after service is the best part of Sunday morning.

The experience of Father Braga also shows us that while Christianity may be about believing complex and often baffling theological propositions that supposedly lead the believer to Heaven, holding those beliefs is not to walk in the footsteps of Jesus. To follow Jesus, or the other two great teachers, for that matter, is to practice a certain way of life that is given by the core teaching of the Master, a practice that should eventually transform the disciple in this world and yet connects him or her to the transcendent.

The core teachings of the three spiritual Masters are not that difficult to unravel. Mircea Eliade, the great scholar of religion, points out that while researchers may never be able to reconstruct the Buddha’s “authentic message,” the earliest documents written in Pāli and Sanskrit cannot be a “radically modified version” of his teaching of the Path to Nirvāṇa.[12] The Buddha, at the age of thirty-five, preached his first sermon to five ascetics, his old companions, in the Deer Park at Isiptana near Benares.[13] He told them that human existence is inseparable from suffering; that the cessation of suffering occurs by extinguishing carving; and that the liberation from craving results from ardently following the Eightfold Path: “right views, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration [meditation].”[14]

That life is suffering follows from the principle that nothing in this world is permanent, unchanging, or eternal. No one disputes that everyone ages and dies; yet, most of us refuse to encounter the inevitability of old age and of death. Everyone has experienced the sorrow that results from the loss of a loved one. The Buddha does not deny that life can be filled with pleasure and even joy. Again, no one disputes the pleasure of fine food, excellent wine, and good sex. The joys of harmonious family life, artistic creation, and scientific discovery are undeniable. But no happy condition in life is everlasting. A young girl’s kitten dies, and she laments. Her sorrow at the time outweighs any of the joys of life. All of this is indisputable.

The prescription for the cessation of suffering is simply said: Remove the cause of suffering—the craving for existence—and suffering disappears. “Whoever in this world overcomes his selfish cravings, his sorrows fall away from him, like drops of water from a lotus flower.”[15]

But every one of us desires the impossible—that life and all its pleasures and joys would continue forever, unchanging. We desire that our youthful beauty and physical vigor would last forever. We wish the ecstasy of our first love would be eternal. Often, we desire what can never be, that our wretched childhood had been happy, that we are loved by all, or that we had the body and the physical skills of an Olympic gold medalist. As long as we refuse to accept reality, we suffer. When our “cravings overcome [us, our] sorrows increase more and more, like the entangling creeper called birana.”[16]

The Eightfold Path directs us to be attentive to the interior life, and maybe for the first time, we notice the nonstop monologue going on in our heads. My incessant, internal jabbering is absolutely stupid and is of no conceivable interest to anyone, not even to me. Like a monkey swinging from one tree to the next in a tropical forest, my mind leaps insanely from one topic to another. Nevertheless, it is virtually impossible to shut it off. Many traditional meditation practices, such as “watching” the breath and reciting a mantra, are spiritual techniques to stop the inner monologue.[17] Unless we are interiorly silent, we cannot really hear other persons, experience nature, or encounter the innermost depths of our being. The Buddhist Path to Enlightenment is simple but difficult: Shut up and experience Nirvāṇa, “the extinction of desire, the extinction of hatred, the extinction of illusion.”[18]

Also at Benares, the Buddha preached his second sermon, The Discourse on Not-Self, and “while this discourse was being spoken, the minds of the monks of the group of five were liberated from the taints by nonclinging.”[19] Arguably, anattā, a Pāli word that literally means no-self, is the most important and most difficult concept in Buddhism, since it led the five monks to instant enlightenment. When “I” is experienced as an illusion, and thus annihilated, craving is extinguished and Ultimate Reality is experienced. “The traveler has reached the end of the journey! In the freedom of the Infinite he is free from all sorrows, the fetters that bound him are thrown away, and the burning fever of life is no more.”[20]

But if each one of us were merely a particular compound of body, sense perceptions, memories, and ideas, then no escape from Samsara, the never-ending wheel of birth and death, would be possible. The Buddha told his disciples, “There is, monks, an unborn, not become, not made, uncompounded…therefore an escape can be shown for what is born, has become, is made, is compounded.”[21]

Perhaps departing somewhat from traditional Buddhism, we will call the culturally-constructed self the false self and the unborn element within each of us the true self.

By focusing on the interior life, ignoring the gods of Hinduism, and rejecting the Indian caste system, the Buddha laid the groundwork for the first universal religion that embodied a teaching not tied to particular cultural precepts. The other immense historical influence of Buddha rests upon the monastic communities he founded. With shaved heads and dressed in yellow robes, monks and nuns took vows of poverty and chastity. They lived by begging, carrying bowls in which people put food as they traveled through villages. Each day the Buddha, himself, took up the beggar’s bowl and passed from house to house, like a honeybee that goes from flower to flower, taking nectar without doing harm to any flower. The monasteries ensured that the teachings of the Buddha would not die with the Master; furthermore, traveling monks spread the new spiritual insight that the cessation of suffering and the path to Enlightenment were open to all men and women.

The Buddha died at the age of eighty, from accidentally eating poisonous mushrooms. His last words were addressed to the contemplative monks gathered around him: “Impermanent are compound things; strive [for enlightenment] with earnestness.”[22]

Bhikkhu Bodhi, an American Buddhist monk, explains why the Buddhism spread so rapidly throughout India and Southern Asia: “The Buddha’s teaching speaks to the central problem of human existence, the problem of suffering, and it offers to show a way out of suffering to perfect peace, to unconditional happiness.”[23]

For Socrates, the central problem of human living is ignorance. We all suffer from double ignorance: We do not know that we do not know. The first step in the Socratic enterprise is to examine our opinions through dialogues aimed at showing our ignorance. In ancient Athens, for example, every aristocrat “knew” what it meant to be an excellent human being, for each took himself to be one. Under Socrates’ skillful questioning, these aristocrats revealed that their ideas about human excellence were contradictory. Through dialogue, Socrates reduced his interlocutors to speechlessness—they could not speak without contradicting themselves—or to anger, if they refused to admit that they did not know.

If we willingly accept our ignorance, then we are ready to pursue the truth by a dialogic examination of opposing viewpoints. The model of Socratic teaching through questioning is in the dialogue Meno: Socrates asks a slave boy how to double the size of a given square, a nontrivial problem in elementary mathematics; eventually under Socrates’ skillful questioning the slave boy arrives at the solution.

Although Socrates said of himself, “The wisest of you men is he who has realized, like Socrates, that in respect of wisdom he is really worthless,”[24] he lived in a manner that could be emulated in some important ways. When asked by Phaedrus, a young follower of Socrates, whether myths about nature gods were true, the Master said, “For me there’s no such leisure [to study these myths]. And, my friend, the reason is this: I am still not able to ‘know myself,’ as the Delphic inscription enjoins, and it seems laughable for me to think about other things when I am still ignorant about myself.”[25] Socrates commanded himself and us to seek an answer to the one great question that confronts every human being—“Who am I?”

Culture, of course, tells us who we are and what to pursue in life. In modern life, Homer, Aeschylus, and Pericles do not tell us who we are; democracy, capitalism, and the Nation-State do. From childhood on, we learn that we are isolated, autonomous individuals, that we are consumers, and that our destiny is that of the particular Nation-State we happened to be born into. Many of us become enslaved to the predominant illusions of Modernity—individualism, consumerism, and nationalism.

Socratic dialogue is a powerful way to unmask the opinions and beliefs that are peculiar to the modern era. When we grasp that culture gives us a false self, we see that we truly do not know who we are. This move from double ignorance to simple ignorance forces us to relentlessly pursue the question “Who am I?”, a question that initially seems unanswerable.

Like the Buddha, Socrates held that the self is impermanent. He learned from Diotima, an old woman of great spiritual depth, that “although we speak of an individual as being the same so long as he continues to exist in the same form, and therefore assume that a man is the same person in his dotage as in his infancy, yet, for all we call him the same, every bit of him is different, and every day he is becoming a new man, while the old man is ceasing to exist, as you can see from his hair, his flesh, his bones, his blood, and all the rest of his body…. Neither his manners, nor his disposition, nor his thoughts, nor his desires, nor his pleasures, nor his sufferings, nor his fears are the same throughout his life.”[26]

The Socratic enterprise is simple to state but difficult to execute: Strip away through dialogue the ideas stuffed into our heads by culture and eliminate our culturally-instilled habits of thinking and feeling; then, the True, the Good, and the Beautiful will shine forth with all their splendor.

Socrates lived in two worlds: the temporal world of power, wealth, and honor, where Athenian citizens were buffeted about by public opinion and changing fortune, and the eternal world of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, where a person remains obedient to the higher, unchanging order, no matter how other men and women behave in practice. Like us, Socrates lived among the rich and the poor, the powerful and the weak, the ambitious and the lazy, the good and the bad, the loving and the hateful; but unlike us, his actions in this world were governed by the eternal.

At his trial, Socrates likened himself to a gadfly given by God to Athens, a well-bred but sluggish horse that needed to be aroused by stinging. He, the gadfly, the whole day long, would light upon the citizens of Athens to arouse them from their slumber of ignorance. The Athenians, like us, rested contentedly with opinions that flattered them into thinking they were possessors of the truth and practitioners of justice. Irritated at being suddenly, if only momentarily, awakened, Athens, with a slap of its tail, put Socrates to death.

For Jesus, the ignorance of who we truly are and the suffering of humankind are inextricably bound to a narrow self-love. To repair this flaw in humanity, Jesus introduced a new understanding of love, agápē, as the apex of love that had no counterpart in the ancient world.

In Koine Greek, the language of the New Testament, love is divided into four kinds, storgē, philía, erōs, and agápē.[27] Storgē, often called familial love, is a natural affection that arises from the familiarity of persons, such as two women who daily sit next to each other on a commuter bus. The most intense form of storgē is that of a parent for an offspring; storgē, however, is so broad that it even refers to the relationship between pets and their owners. Philía usually translated as friendship, although the meaning of the Greek word is wider and can include the bond that holds together a polis, an organization, or even a buyer and a seller in the marketplace. Erōs is an intense desire to be joined to another person, to beauty, to truth, or to any good outside of oneself. In essence, erōs is the natural desire for full existence that rests on self-love.

In Modernity, under the sway of capitalism, love is often seen as an economic transaction, for ideally, no one acts for the sake of another, since self-interest governs all human relations. An individual can at best offer an exchange to another motivated by self-interest, expecting some kind of return, such as pleasure, devotion, money, or power. Underlying this view is the opinion that an individual barely holds on to life, needing food, shelter, clothing, and other goods that are easily lost. An individual hopes to take much and give little in return; his or her existence is beggarly. If by nature we are isolated individuals, then loving other individuals for their sake is impossible.

Ayn Rand, a staunch advocate of individualism, claimed in her book The Virtue of Selfishness, that an individual who pursues another’s good “has nothing to gain from it, he can only lose; self-inflicted loss, self-inflicted pain and the gray, debilitating pall of an incomprehensible duty is all that he can expect.”[28]

In the New Testament, the Greek word erōs does not occur once, while agápē, used infrequently in ancient Greek, occurs 116 times. In the Iliad and the Odyssey, a verb form of agápē means “greet with affection;” the word in other ancient texts denotes the love for one’s children or spouse. The Christian meaning of agápē is God’s selfless love for human persons, a love that cannot be earned and excludes no one. Such love gives and expects nothing in return. In the King James Version of the Bible, agápē is often translated as charity, a word that now means to most people giving handouts to the homeless or contributing to United Way. In the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, agápē is translated as love, an ambiguous word in English that can mean sexual love, affection for another, or even a strong like, say for a particular sport or food.

When Jesus commands us to “love one another; even as I have loved you,”[29] he calls us to friendship with God by directing us to love without reward. If we have a genuine friendship with God, we will love the same way He does; we will love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, even though we can never be friends with them. God loves all persons, for “He makes His sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rains on the just and on the unjust.”[30]

For the ancient Greeks, friendship with God was an impossibility, if not an absurdity. Aristotle argued friends must be more or less equal: Persons much inferior in station “do not expect to be friends” with kings.[31] “When one party is removed to great distance, as God is, the possibility of friendship ceases.”[32]

In the deepest sense, the Christian life in this world is building up a friendship with God, beautifully summed up in the first epistle of St. John, “If we love one another, God abides in us and His love is perfected in us.”[33] When God dwells in us, we are still in the world and yet lifted beyond it; we obtain a new perspective and see the divinity in each person.

We do not experience divine love within us because we love our false self, the image of who we want to be, separate from God. The false self wants to exist separate from God’s will and God’s love. But such a self is an illusion—nothing can exist separate from God. To abandon the reality of God, to exist in oneself and to seek satisfaction in one’s own being is not quite to become a nonentity, but is to verge on nonbeing.[34] The only reality we possess stems from our relationship to God; however, we believe that the false self is the fundamental reality of existence to which everything should be ordered. In other words, the false self holds that it is God. We fail to see that the false self is an illusion, with no more permanency than a smoke ring, doomed to disappear with the body. Jesus warns us not to use up our lives in pursuit of power, honor, and knowledge that in the end are of no consequence: “For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”[35]

Jesus preaches, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[36] The Apostle Peter concludes, “His divine power has given to us all things that pertain to life and godliness… [so that we] may become partakers of the divine nature.”[37] Many Church Fathers were fond of telling their brethren, “God became man, so man might become God.” The aim of human life is union with God and deification.

The prescription Jesus gives for abundant life is simple—love without desire for reward—an impossible prescription to follow if all human love is founded on self-love. “Agápē itself surpasses our natural facilities,” Thomas Aquinas argued.[38] Yet, we can exceed human existence when the Holy Spirit infuses agápē into our souls. St. Paul says, “God’s love [agápē] has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.”[39]

Mysteriously, Jesus walked among the Galileans, “doing good,” “healing every disease and every infirmity,”[40] and teaching previously hidden truths about God and man to the poor, the forgotten, and the sinful. During his public life, Jesus knew fatigue, abandonment, and the misunderstanding of friends, and he became more and more isolated and encircled by hostility. Jesus was aware of the preparations for putting him to death and often spoke to his disciples of the suffering and death that awaited him. He told them that in Jerusalem he would be “delivered to the chief priests and the scribes, and they will condemn him to death, and deliver him to the Gentiles; and they will mock him, and spit upon him, and scourge him, and kill him; and after three days he will rise.”[41]

David Bentley Hart, an Orthdox theologian, suggests that Jesus’ teaching spread so rapidly throughout the Roman Empire because of the “distinctive behavior of Christians—including temperance, gentleness, lawfulness, and acts of supererogatory kindness” …and also because of the “unimaginably exalted picture of the human person—made in the divine image and destined to partake of the divine nature.”[42]

A natural question arises: Which great teacher should we follow? To support their chosen beliefs, ardent sectarians divide the teachings of the three great Masters of the interior life into the one true way and the false or very limited perspective of the other two teachers. Yet, all three great teachers hold that a divine element exists within each one of us and that because we are blind to our transcendent nature, our lives are run by illusion. Furthermore, all three great teachers tell us that suffering, sickness, and death are inescapable and must be faced head on, despite our fears. If we cower back, hoping to find lasting happiness in this world, our delusions will place us on a road to more and more suffering. If anything the twentieth century has taught us is that secular faith in Paradise on Earth inevitably leads to mass political murder. Life in this world must be directed by spiritual truths, not material desires or fantasized political goals.

Each great teacher locates the fundamental problem of human living differently: The Buddha cites suffering; Socrates points to ignorance; and Jesus identifies faulty love. In addition, all three Masters teach that the task set for each human soul is to travel from illusion to reality. Not to know who we are is the human condition.  Every person, no matter what the historical period, identifies the deepest part of himself or herself with the cultural context in which human nature is expressed and developed. We experience nature, other persons, and the transcendent through a false self given to us by culture, and are thus separated from Nirvāṇa, the Good, or God (for now we are not concerned what to call the transcendent world). As a result of the separation from the transcendent, each one of us is attached to delusion, to cultural opinions, or to empty religious rituals. Through their actions, the three great teachers direct us to perfect the interior life in order that the true self reunites with Nirvāṇa, the Good, or God. The Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus were not interested in metaphysical speculation or the science of nature—nor was religion in the sense of ritual and dogma essential to their being.

Each great teacher gives a different path to the transcendent, although each path aims to dissolve the attachment to self. The Buddha sets us on the path of meditation. He tells us to turn inward, to still our monkey mind that jumps from one thought to another, and discover in silence Nirvāṇa. Socrates offers a different kind of mediation, one we will call analytic contemplation. Through intellectual examination of culturally-given opinions and habits of feeling and thinking, the false self can be stripped away, allowing the true self to burst forth to commune with the Good. Jesus presents the path of love, whose aim is the destruction of ego-centered desires. Through egoless love (agápē), a person shares in the life of God. Each of the great teachers tell us that if we live well in this world, we will encounter Nirvāṇa, the Good, or God.

The path of love is not absent in the teachings of the Buddha and Socrates. The Buddha gave his sermons “for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world.”[43] Socrates on his last day on Earth, before drinking the hemlock, attempted to assuage his friends’ fear of death.[44] All three great teachers are models of compassion; each showed sympathy for and a desire to alleviate the suffering of others.

The Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus, each in his own way, calls for a transformation of human living. We, the unenlightened, believe that the false self given to us by culture is permanent and survives death. Each great teacher tells us that the false self mindlessly carries out the dictates of culturally-instilled desires and that only the true self is genuinely free. All three Masters call for the death of self and a spiritual rebirth beyond egoistic desires, beyond religious practices, beyond any given culture, beyond the laws of society, into the law of love, into compassion for every living being.

For a postmodernist desirous of communing with the transcendent probably the best way to proceed is to follow all three great teachers—to meditate, to engage in analytical contemplation of the self, and to love in an egoless fashion. Each of these spiritual practices supports the other two. Yet, any spiritual seeker in the present era must keep in mind that in Modernity love was rejected and replaced by self-interest and enmity. Thus, of all three paths to the transcendent, the most neglected path, that of love, must be embraced. Also, a postmodernist should keep in mind that the movement from the Buddha to Socrates to Jesus may be a progressive opening of the interior life, from pure consciousness to the True, the Good, and the Beautiful and finally to the life of God.

The divine element within us desires to return to its origin to participate in the abundance of Divine Life. Such an end cannot be achieved by individual effort; communion with the Divine Mind is a gift. For that to happen, a person must summon the courage to walk along the spiritual path toward reality, to walk in the footsteps of the Buddha, Socrates, and Jesus; then, he or she will be headed toward genuine freedom, ultimate happiness, and the source of all.

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Notes:

[1] The spiritual nature of the human person is the capacity to be connected to all that is. See George Stanciu, “Wonder and Love: How Scientists Neglect God and Man,” The Imaginative Conservative (June 2016).

[2] Asvaghosa, Buddhacarita: Or Acts of the Buddha in Buddhist Scriptures, p. 2.

[3] Ibid., p. 3.

[4] Ibid., p. 214.

[5] Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha, trans. by Sister Vajira & Francis Story.

[6] Plato, Phaedo, 60d-61c. Unless indicated otherwise, all cited works of Plato are in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989).

[7] Harvey K. McArthur, Understanding the Sermon on the Mount (London: Epworth, 1961), p. 24.

[8] The Dhammapada, trans. Juan Mascaró (London: Penguin Books, 1973), 20:276, p. 75.

[9] See “Parable of the Poisoned Arrow” in Bodhi, In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourse from the Pali Canon, pp. 231-232.

[10] Dhammapada, 1:19.

[11] Raymond Braga, Interview, John Paul II: The Millennial Pope, produced and directed by Helen Whitney, PBS /Video.

[12] Mircea Eliade, A History of Religious Ideas: From Gautama Buddha to the Triumph of Christianity, Volume 2, trans. Willard R. Trask (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982), p. 91.

[13] “The Buddha’s First Sermon, Known as the Foundation of the Kingdom of Righteousness or the Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Dharma,” in Buddhism: A Religion of Infinite Compassion, ed. Clarence H. Hamilton (Indianapolis, IA: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952), pp. 28-29 and “The Sermon at Benares” in The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, ed. E. A. Burtt (New York: New American Library, 1955), p. 30.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Dhammapada, 24:336, p. 83.

[16] Dhammapada, 24:335, p. 83.

[17] The inner monologue seems to be universal, although its content and intensity probably varies with culture. For an intercultural perspective, see Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying (San Francisco: Harper, 1992), Ch. 5.

[18] Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, (New York: Grove Press, 1974), p. 37.

[19] Anatta-lakkhana Sutta: The Discourse on the Not-self in In the Buddha’s Words: An anthology of Discourses from the Pāli Canon, trans. Bhikkhu Bodhi (Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2005), p. 342.

[20] Dhammapada, 7:90, p. 48.

[21] Burtt, ed., Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha, p. 113.

[22] “The Death of the Buddha,” in Buddhism: A Religion of Infinite Compassion, ed. Clarence H. Hamilton (Indianapolis, IA: Bobbs-Merrill, 1952), pp. 28-29.

[23] Bhikkhu Bodhi, “The Buddha’s Teaching As It Is,” a ten-part lecture series.

[24] Plato, Apology, 23b.

[25] Plato, Phaedrus A Translation with Notes, Glossary, Appendices, Interpretive Essay, and Introduction, ed. Albert Keith Whitaker and trans. Stephen Scully (Indianapolis, IN: Focus, 2003), 229e-230a.

[26] Plato, Symposium, 207d-e.

[27] For a detailed discussion, see C. S. Lewis, Four Loves (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1960).

[28] Ayn Rand, The Virtue of Selfishness (New York: Signet, 1964), p. ix.

[29] John 13:34. All Biblical quotations are from the RSV. `

[30] Matthew 5:45.

[31] Aristotle, Nichomachean Ethics, trans. W. D. Ross, in The Basic Works of Aristotle, ed. Richard McKeon (New York: Random House, 1941), Bk. VIII, Ch. 7, 1159a1.

[32] Ibid., 1159a5.

[33] 1 John 4:12.

[34] See Augustine, City of God, Bk. 14, Ch. 13.

[35] Matthew 6:21.

[36] John 10:10.

[37] 2 Peter 1:3, 4.

[38] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II, Question 24, Article 2.

[39] Romans 5:5.

[40] Acts 10:38; Matthew 9:35.

[41] Mark 10: 33-34.

[42] David Bentley Hart, Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), pp. 153, 213.

[43] Quoted by Rahula, p. 46.

[44] See Plato, Phaedo.

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4 replies to this post
  1. Dear Dr. Stanciu,

    I ask these questions with all sincerity, did Buddha die on the cross? Did Socrates die on the cross? If I entered a Roman Catholic Church, would I find three crucifixes, one with Buddha, one with Socrates, and one with Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of God, who is God of Very God? I do not follow anyone’s footsteps, because I do not expect to die a death of crucifixion. If I did die such a death, it would not be for the sins of the whole world. Jesus made the bold claim that no one goes to the Father except through Me, Jesus Christ our Savior; the Love of God that the human spirit cannot see. The Holy Spirit who comes to us from the Father and the Son awakens our repenting spirit through his holy word of the Gospel.

    I am reminded of a hymn sung in my childhood, “What a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear…”

  2. What a brilliant essay…i want only to thank you for the writing, i wish i had been able to understand what you have said when i was twenty…it has taken a lifetime to be able to grasp what you have just written…now i must sit and contemplate….thanks very much

  3. It seems St. Paul figured it out late in his ministry when he realized that it was not he who had lived but Christ who lived in, and through, him. Did not the Lord say to die, to self, that you may live, in me. Did not Buddha and Socrates remain and die in the dark, incapable of transcending themselves, while we Christians have the light of the world, life Himself, and His Spirit to guide us home? Some day Buddhists, pagans and all those other good people will make glorious Catholic Christians. Thank you Mr. Stanciu for this wonderful, informative essay. Nobody ever said it would be easy, but somebody said it would be worth it. Eye has not seen, ear has not heard, nor has it entered a mind what God has in store for those who follow Him.

  4. As a Christian who might hope one day to be a glorious Pagan, I cannot help but believe The Light has been seen by many, in many cultures. Which of us can say for certain there is only one way? Remember that Leo XIII told us the Church fosters “whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report.” And through the True, Beautiful, and Good, in a myriad of forms, may the Road be revealed. Thank you, Dr. Stanciu, for another insightful and inspiring essay.

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