05 October 2007

Correspondences in the Works of Gregory of Nyssa and the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra

St. Gregory of Nyssa (c.330-385 C.E.) is one of the earliest systematic theologians of the Orthodox Christian Church. Gregory defended the Christian faith against the undue influence of Greek philosophies, all the while relying upon those same philosophies to explicate orthodox doctrine. The nature of the phenomenal world, the relation of body to soul, the doctrine of the resurrection, and the eschatological expression of heaven became key topics in this debate with the Gnostics who championed ancient Greek ways of thinking. In this dispute, it is of particular interest that Gregory developed a Christian worldview that strikingly parallels the Mahāyāna theology described in the Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra. While there are seemingly irreconcilable tenets of faith separating Christianity and Buddhism, the writings of Gregory reveal surprisingly subtle distinctions between these religions on the dialectical monism that constitutes phenomenal reality and the 'blessed passionlessness' of the afterlife.

Bringing the Texts into Dialogue

Gregory of Nyssa was an Orthodox Saint who expounded upon the Christian scriptures, while the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra (hereinafter Nirvana Sutra) is itself a Buddhist scripture. Nevertheless, the works of Gregory and this last Sutra of the Mahāyāna canon share certain commonalities that allow for extended comparison, and which serve as a demarcation point for finding new common ground between these religions. Very general speaking, it can be observed that both share a distinctive pedagogical quality: they communicate a meticulously detailed picture of their respective cosmologies, and attempt to make eschatological reality accessible to the yet unenlightened. For his part, Gregory would draw upon philosophical and contemporary 'scientific' knowledge to show the reasonableness of divine prophesy to skeptics,[1] whereas the Nirvana Sutra makes use of analogies derived from phenomenal existence (e.g. a burnt seed, a bright gem, a medicinal tree, etc.) to serve as a bridge to crossover to right understanding. These pedagogical aspects make both sources available for comparative analysis, a feature that soon gives way to deeper and more meaningful correspondences—the most intriguing of which is found with a central message in the works themselves.

Gregory of Nyssa is best known for the development of Trinitarian theology in advancing the positions of his brother, Basil of Caesarea (329-379 C.E.).[2] But what is significant here for this comparative analysis is that, while other Church Fathers regularly made use of philosophy in their apologetics against heretics, Gregory went further and engaged in speculative expositions on divine scripture in wide ranging theological topics. Yet, even so, he did not fall into the error made by the anathematized Origen of Alexandria (c.185-254 C.E.). Gregory only used philosophy to explicate scripture—he did not create unscriptural theologumenon. Nevertheless, one element of Gregory's work, the doctrine of "restoration" (apokatastasis) would later be accused of Origenism,[3] a subject to which this paper shall return. And so, while this places Gregory in one respect at the margins of acceptable speculative theology, this unique position still offers a key point for comparison with the Nirvana Sutra.

The Nirvana Sutra is the final message of the Buddha before his parinirvana, and is considered the supreme and definitive expression of Mahāyāna. The Sutra presents an anonymous chronicler who documents the Buddha's responses to a series of interlocutors who query the Buddha on all matters of faith. The heart of the Sutra was completed around 300 C.E., with the text being expanded with additional material over the next century, and the Chinese edition finished in 421 C.E.[4] This places the Sutra in temporal relation to the works of Gregory, who wrote in the fourth century C.E. But the more substantive correspondence is with the doctrine of universal salvation. The Nirvana Sutra maintains that even the icchantika (those who have slandered Dharma and rejected the Buddha) still retaining the capacity for enlightenment, for their essential Buddha-nature cannot be destroyed—and in this respect, it stands in tension with the Chinese Yogācāra tradition. It is here that the Nirvana Sutra and the works of Gregory share more than an incidental resemblance. Both reach toward the other from their respective traditions on the subject of universal salvation.

A Christian Perspective on Buddhist Metaphysics

The Nirvana Sutra, the last of the sutras in the Mahāyāna canon, elucidates the Buddha Nature (Buddha-dhatu) residing within the world. The Buddha-dhatu is the supra-mundane expression of the True Self buried beneath negative states of mind and carnal disposition that characterize the non-Self. It is the human condition to become preoccupied with the impermanent non-Self, or not-the-Self (anatman), which is formed of the five skandhas. These are: (1) physical form or earth element; (2) sensible reality; (3) perception and conception of sensible reality; (4) intention and volition in actions; and (5), the states of mind (consciousness) that result from this amalgamation in the anatman. These skandhas however do not constitute the True Self (atman) for they are all impermanent, existing as transient conditions of life with no real principle of eternalness in-of-themselves. They form the 'mundane ego' which the unenlightened mistake for their true selves. Yet it is this very attachment to sensible reality that underlies the cycles of samsara trapping all sentient life in duhkha.

The True Self is equated with the Buddha-Principle (Buddha-dhatu) that emerges from the 'womb' of the Buddha-Matrix (tathaagatagarbha). The True Self is one's innermost essence (svabhava) and that part which can achieve Dharmakaya—the ultimate level of being, and the true reality of the universe itself. But only when a person has cleared away the kleshas (mental and moral afflictions, including desire, anger, and pride) from their inner world can the Buddha-dhatu be actualized. This True Self inheres the Buddha and the body-and-mind complex; the Buddha-dhatu is therefore both immanent to the person and transcendent with the entirety of universe—simultaneously. For this reason, the Buddha-dhatu can be said to exist in non-human creatures as well.

The Nirvana Sutra declares that, "all sentient beings without exception have Buddha-nature." The Zen Master Dōgen (1200-1253 C.E.), founder of the Sōtō school, understood this verse from the Nirvana Sutra as signifying that sentient creatures are Buddha-nature, not a symbol or representation, but inherently Buddha-dhatu. Graham Parkes concludes that Dōgen envisioned a cosmology inclusive of non-human life.[32] Likewise, we find that the tathaagatagarbha doctrine declares that all creatures have the potential to actualize their Buddhic Element and to become unpolluted by samsara. Even if it is only through transmigration in the six paths, wherein a human sentient being emerges capable of devoting themselves to Dharma, the species of the phenomenal world would appear to share the potentiality for emancipation.

In Buddhist cosmology, the phenomenal world continually repeats a four-stage cycle of formation, continuance, decline, and disintegration—cycles of change and rebirth through the four kalpas (æons or ages). A parallel to Christian cosmology is found here with this conception of an utopian past:

At the beginning of the kalpa, there were many beings. Each was garbed in the best of virtues. The light that shone from their bodies was so great that one did not need any more to depend upon the light of the sun and moon. [But] due to the power of the non-eternal, the light waned and the virtues lessened.[33]

Like the Christian paradise of Eden, the primordial 'great earth' falls and becomes the present phenomenal world of suffering and unrest. But in Buddhist cosmology, the cause is the principle of impermanence, not moralistic sin. In another interesting parallel to Christian ex nihilo cosmology, the phenomenal world is seen to be comprised of Form and Void, and that ultimate reality is related to this dialectical monism:

'O Kaundinya! Form is Void. By doing away with the form that is All-Void, one arrives at the Non-Void form of Emancipation. So does it obtain also with feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness.' Then the World-Honoured One spoke to Kaundinya: 'Material form is non-eternal. By doing away with this form, one arrives at the Eternal form of Emancipation. So does it obtain with feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness, too. By doing away with consciousness, one arrives at the Eternal form of Emancipation and Peace. This also pertains to feeling, perception, volition, and consciousness.'[34]

The phenomenal world is the milieu of the non-Self, and it too is impermanent and non-eternal—its apparent reality only being a consequence of karma. Yet within this Void, the Buddha-dhatu represents a true intelligible essence in a world of otherwise empty forms. It is through this dialectic of the insubstantial forms and intelligible essences that the non-eternal leads (through correct Dharma) to the Eternal, and the Void gives way to the non-Void of emancipation.

In this respect, Buddhist cosmology appears to be functionally analogous to the Orthodox Christian conception of sensible creation and intelligible reality. The five skandhas of the anatman, while encompassing mental states in addition to the sensible aspects of external reality, parallel certain functional dynamics of Gregory's division of the intelligible and sensible creation. Both systems describe phenomenal reality in terms of a dialectical monism wherein the impermanent sensible aspects (whether termed Void or ex nihilo) are simultaneously undergirded and transcended by the Buddha-Principle (Buddha-dhatu) and the 'Christ-Principle' (Logos-logoi), respectively. Such equivalences, naturally, begin to breakdown as each corresponding feature takes on a particular and distinctive expression in their respective religions—for Orthodoxy an expression of divine plenitude, in Buddhism a means to transpersonal compassion and contemplation of the Buddha (buddhanusmrti). Also in Christianity the Logos-logoi is a casual principle as well as an immanent aspect; in Buddhism the Buddha-dhatu is an immanent aspect only—karma is the cause. But the underlying similarities are not mere appearance or superficial resemblance, but operate as foundations within their cosmological schema extending into a consummation in eschatology. The main area of disagreement between these systems concerns the persistence of the phenomenal world. In Orthodoxy, the sensible world exists by the continuing will of God. In Buddhism, the phenomenal world is a by-product of karma. In both conceptions, however, the suffering that characterizes the present world order, whether termed duhkha or theodicy, is bound to the consequences of karma/sin.

Closing Statement

While important details vary considerably, it still remains that the basic schema of the cosmologies and eschatologies in both religions are surprisingly analogous. Phenomenal reality is defined in both by a dialectical monism, and non-human nature possesses intrinsic value that extends to an eschatological presence and consummation. Moreover, in each case, the human element is bound to non-human nature in this process of revealing; all of phenomenal existence is to be reconciled to ultimate reality in both Orthodox Christianity and Mahāyāna Buddhism through the human element achieving soteriological fulfillment. Eco-theologians will want to make special note of these common underlying themes. But the significance of this analysis also extends to other topics for interfaith dialogue. Profound doctrinal correspondences exist which make possible deep meaningful exchanges on other questions of theology, cosmology, and eschatology. The Nirvana Sutra and the works of Gregory do indeed reach toward the other, revealing a path of common, and in places, adiaphorous ground that can support a wide range of subjects for mutually enriching exchange.

Bibliography

The Ante-Nicene Fathers. 1997. Volume 2, "Fathers of the Second Century," eds. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson with contributing editor A. Cleveland Coxe. Albany, OR: AGES Software.
Blowers, Paul M. 1991. Exegesis and Spiritual Pedagogy in Maximus the Confessor: An Investigation of the Quaestiones ad Thalassium. Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press.
Collins, Steven. 1997. "The Body in Theravada Buddhist Monasticism" in Religion and the Body, ed. Sarah Coakley. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press.
Edwards, Denis. 1999. "The Ecological Significance of God-Language, Theological Studies 1: 708-722.
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Meredith, Anthony. 1999. Gregory of Nyssa. New York: Routledge.
The Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series. 1997. Volume V, eds. Phillip Schaff and Henry Wace with contributing editor A. Cleveland Coxe. Albany, Oregon: AGES Software.
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Pelikan, Jaroslav. 1974. The Christian Tradition – A History of the Development of Doctrine: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), Volume 2. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
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Notes:

[1] See "On the Making of Man," chapter 30 (A Brief Examination of the Construction of our Bodies from a Medical Point of View) in The Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers.
[2] For example, Gregory argued that the "perfection" (teleiôsis) of all divine action is performed by the Holy Spirit, thereby refuting the Sabellianists, a heretical sect that denied personhood for each expression of the Trinity. See Meredith (1999) p. 38.
[3] Pelikan (1974) p. 279.
[4] Encyclopedia of Buddhism (2004) pp. 605-606.
[32] Parkes (1997) pp. 116-117.
[33] The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāna Sūtra, (2000) Chapter Forty-Four, "On Bodhisattva Kasyapa." This English translation draws primarily from the 'Southern Edition' of the Chinese Daihatsunehangyo version of the original Sanskrit (now lost to history with the exception of a few remaining fragmentary pages).
[34] Ibid., Chapter Forty-Five, "On Kaundinya."
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