Birth, Death, and Regeneration: Why I Am Only a Kind of a Buddhist by Carol P. Christ


In a recent blog describing conversations with my friend Rita Gross, I said that I think of myself as a “kind of a Buddhist” because I have given up a great deal of the ego(tism) described by Buddhists. I also remarked that “I must be a Buddhist after all” because I accept my finitude and do not fear death. At the same time, I said that the idea of a relational world coheres with my experience and is more satisfying to me than the Buddhist theory of nondualism. When I speak of a relational world, I am referring to the worldview of process philosophy.

One of the central insights of Buddhism is the concept of “dependent origination.” This means that “no thing” exists in and of itself:  “all things” are related to and dependent upon “other things.” One of the key assumptions of western philosophy is that “things” exist in and of themselves: all things have an single, unchangeable “essence” or “nature.” Buddhism considers this assumption to be false: if all things are dependent on other things, then they cannot finally be separated from the web of dependence in which they exist. Buddhism insists, moreover, that the interdependent world is in flux. This means that what a thing-in-relationship is in one moment changes in the next.

Process philosophers, including Whitehead and Hartshorne, recognized that Buddhism affirms a central truth that western philosophy has denied: the truth that life is in flux and that no individual exists apart from or independent of others.

While agreeing on this fundamental insight, Buddhism and process philosophy provide different explanations of the ultimate nature of reality. Buddhist nondualism asserts that because there are no “separate” individuals, the notion that individuals exist at all is an illusion. Ultimately all is one, not two, not many.

For process philosophy reality is always dual or multiple.  Agreeing that there are no “separate” individuals, it affirms the reality of “individuals in relationship.” Individuals in relationship have no permanent “essence” for they are always changing. Process philosophy also affirms a divine individual who is always in relationship to the world or to a world.

For process philosophy, the divine individual changes with the changing world, while maintaining an essential character that is essentially good, loving, caring, and compassionate. While all other individuals are finite, the divine individual is eternal. This view coheres with my experience that a divine individual I experience as Goddess is always with me and with all others, as close to me as my own breath: loving and understanding me, inspiring me to love and understand the world more deeply.

Buddhism states that accepting dependence, finitude, and individual death is a struggle that can be aided and possibly achieved only through a lifelong (or many lives-long) practice of meditation. Buddhism suggests that it is very difficult for individuals to give up the desire to have and to hold onto people and things–most especially to the idea of an on-going self or ego. Buddhism teaches that this world is samsara, the cycle of birth and death, and equates samsara with suffering.

The reason I am only a “kind of a Buddhist” is that, insofar as I understand Buddhism, I find its view of samsara, the world in which birth and death occur, to be overly negative or pessimistic. I agree that suffering occurs in the world of birth and death. I agree that much of the suffering that human beings experience stems from our desires to hold onto things or states of reality that are always changing. I agree that one way to suffer less is to recognize that we cannot ever hold onto things or states of reality that are always in flux. I agree that it is important to give up the self-centered ego that imagines that the world was created to satisfy “my” desires.

While I do not believe that suffering can ever be “overcome” in a finite and ever-changing world, I continue to find a great deal of joy in finite, ever-changing life. While impermanent, this joy is nonetheless real. My version of Goddess spirituality, which I understand to be based in the worldview of Old Europe that was expressed in ancient Crete, celebrates “the joy of life” that is shared throughout the web of life. This worldview recognizes and accepts birth, death, and regeneration as fundamental principles that underlie life in an interdependent world. As I wrote in She Who Changes, I view all religions of renunciation as being based in matricide as rejection of birth through the body of the mother in favor of a so-called “higher spiritual rebirth.”

Pitcher Goddess MochlosFor me, the notion of samsara, as birth and death, is incomplete. Death is not the end, for there is always regeneration. I do not expect my individual life to continue after my death, but I find great meaning and joy in the recognition that life will continue after me.

I do not find the thought of my own inevitable death frightening or terrifying. Understanding that my life is finite, I am prepared for the moment when “my time is up,” and I feel quite prepared willing to step aside “when that time comes,” so that others may take my place in the cycle of life. I do not believe that accepting the moment of my own inevitable death will be a great struggle. I have already accepted it.

Carol P. Christ leads the life-transforming Goddess Pilgrimage to Crete (facebook and twitter).  Her books include She Who Changes and Rebirth of the Goddess and the widely-used anthologies Womanspirit Rising and Weaving the Visions. Goddess and God in the World: Conversations in Embodied Theology with Judith Plaskow will be released in June 2016 by Fortress Press, while A Serpentine Path: Mysteries of the Goddess will be published in the spring by FAR Press. Explore Carol’s writing. Photo of Carol by Andrea Sarris.

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Categories: Buddhism, Feminism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Theology, General, Goddess, Goddess Spirituality

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34 replies

  1. Thank you Carol, this is clearly and beautifully described.

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  2. Thanks Carol. Lots of thoughts circulating around in me right now; mostly about what it means here and now to be “One with All”. I think it will renew my day.

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  3. I remember when I first read She Who Changes. I had never heard of process philosophy. Your book opened my eyes. I also remember when we met when you did a book talk and signing of She Who Changes. We had a fairly long conversation (considering the crowd of people there) about how much like modern Paganism process philosophy is. I think both our eyes opened a bit wider.

    My primary goddess is Green Tara (though I do NOT do prostrations!) and I like the idea of mindfulness–mindfulness anything–but I am no kind of Buddhist.

    Thanks for writing this wisdom-filled blog. As usual, brava!

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    • Hi fellow pagan Barbara —

      The intern minister at my UU congregation, who is also a pagan, offered a wonderful sermon yesterday, where she depicted with the story of her life a few years back how she was happy to embrace mindfulness, but not the Buddhist concept of detachment. So she talked about “mindful attachment,” a translation into Buddhist terms of the life-positive attitude of neo-paganism. I thought you might enjoy it.

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  4. Extremely clear description of process philosophy. Thank you.

    Could you call this idea of the “unchangeable essence” Platonic philosophy, or do you feel the ‘essence’ idea dips into all forms of western philosophy?

    Do you think Einstein was influenced by process philosophy?

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  5. “I do not expect my individual life to continue after my death, but I find great meaning and joy in the recognition that life will continue after me.”

    Sappho declares: “I don’t know what to do; I am of two minds.”

    In my opinion we all have two selves or two minds, a body-mind and an immortal spirit, or true self, that will live on, whether we realize it or not. But if we all knew we had this incredibly delightful immortal spirit, why wouldn’t we end our lives prematurely, let’s say if the going gets a little tough, why hang about? Maybe we have evolved in a way that blocks that knowledge out so that then we hold on, reproduce, grow, evolve, become creative, etc. I wonder if it helps the species maybe, not to know too much. So in a sense, thanks Carol, your statement is right on, we are not here to worry about dying, but to enjoy our lives, love one another, evolve, learn and become creative.

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  6. Buddhists do not deny that there is joy in existence. It’s simply that clinging to that which gives you joy will cause suffering eventually because all states of experience rise and fall. Each moment is to be embraced, just as it is, including joy. Also, the state of being where there is a realization that all is one, is an altered state beyond everyday consciousness. It can’t be experienced through observation by the ordinary mind.
    Thanks for your insights.

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  7. Thank you. Many shared sentiments in my book, Midwifing Death: Returning to the Arms of the Ancient Mother in which I discuss Buddhism and actually the embedded misogyny within it as well as the spiritual sacred cycle of Goddess from Old Europe, on which the book is based.

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    • Sounds like a great book. I think we agree that religions that the idea that life in the body “just isn’t good enough” is a misogynistic idea.

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      • As a Buddhist, my response to having a body is to be fully present to it and all it’s variety of experience. There may be a kind of Buddhism that believes the body is “not good enough” or is problematic in some way, but I don’t think that’s a teaching of the Buddha. The body is impermanent, certainly. But the joys and the sorrows of the body rise and fall and my aim as a Buddhist is to be fully present to all of it.
        Also, detachment is not about being detached from one another or our physical existence, it’s about being detached from outcomes.
        Everything in Buddhism asks us to be fully aware and awake to all that is happening right here, right now.

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      • Thanks. Oh, yes, agreed! I think Buddhism as well as other “religions” are what I call “dead mother” religions–his mother died shortly after his birth and he becomes the hero after abandoning his wife and child. It is, however, the earth he touches for sustenance, deep in prayer as he goes through his trials and is offered milk curds by a woman for nurturance–all symbolic of the Sacred She, though She is not front and center. There are good teachings I appreciate. I’ve studied Buddhism and have received various transmissions but I have always returned to the femaleness of being–the earth and her milk! There is a book, The Sovereign All-Creating Mind The Motherly Buddha that “constitutes a radical attempt toward deconstructing Buddhist philosophy, and presents a feminist perspective on Buddhist spirituality. The text holds that being is the center and depth of existence, and is therefore accessible in everyday experience. The fleeting existence (samsara) is in its depth being, i.e., a state of complete integration (nirvana) which may well be described as divine reality of a feminine dimension.”

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      • Leslene, I think the passage in which Jesus is told that his mother is asking for him and he responds that those who hear the word of God and keep it are his (real) family is a version of what you call the dead mother theme. I always cringe when I hear Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and other feminists quote this passage positively…

        The real issue is not whether or not the mother died in the biography but whether or not she is honored or “transcended” in the spirituality that is proposed.

        Recently Stuart Dean wrote that Socrates mother was or may have been a midwife. Socrates however viewed himself as the true midwife who births not babies and bodies but ideas and souls. This is a misogynist and matricidal idea in my interpretation.

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      • Oh I think that passage is not helpful at all. Definitely cringeworthy!

        I think that because the theme of matricide woven throughout patriarchy, whether it is in the story or in the “spiritual” renderings of “religion,” it’s good to recognize the psychic imprint that still has collective consequence because the “dead mother” motif is everywhere and is rampantly reinforced by movies, books, mythology, cultural histories, science, etc.

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  8. I like this: “For process philosophy reality is always dual or multiple. Agreeing that there are no “separate” individuals, it affirms the reality of “individuals in relationship.” Individuals in relationship have no permanent “essence” for they are always changing.” This sentence gives me pause: “Process philosophy also affirms a divine individual who is always in relationship to the world or to a world.” Am not sure what is meant by “a divine individual.” What is divinity? Something other than the mundane or ordinary? I don’t know. Overall, though, loved this post.

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    • Hartshorne defined God (She or He) as a conscious individual whose body is the world who is related to all. The “nature” of the divine consciousness does not change, as She or He is always related to individuals in the world, feeling their feelings and responding with with love, understanding, care, compassion. However the experience of the divine individual changes as the world changes: this is in contrast to classical western philosophy which said that to be perfect is not to change in any way and in addition that to feel is to change and therefore the divine individual cannot “feel the feelings of the world,” and in addition cannot love the changing world. This divine individual is “in” the world and not omnipotent. I recommend Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes or She Who Changes if you want to know more about these ideas.

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  9. Thanks, Carol, for this philosophical post. It comes at exactly the right time for my upcoming spiritual book club meeting. We’re discussing Sam Harris’ _Waking Up_, a book that I find arrogant and dogmatic (namely Sam’s right and everybody else is a no-nothing. I don’t recommend this book). Your descriptions of “dependent origination” and “samsara” will help in our discussion tomorrow night.

    I am a non-dualist, but not a Buddhist and not an Advaita Hindu, but a pagan non-dualist. My non-dualism is panentheistic (if you can describe it that way). I experience myself both as an individual, and also as a part of the interconnected web of all existence. Just as there are many gods and goddesses in my pantheon, but all of them are ultimately parts of the interconnected web of all existence, I, too, am distinct and a part of Her. Ultimately all is one, not two or many.

    Of course, I change and in that sense I find Buddhism’s description of “dependent arising” useful. But I find it very difficult to believe that the Goddess, as I call the infinite ineffable being that makes up the entirety of the interconnected web of all existence, can be ultimately changeable. Of course, change occurs, but it’s like fish being born and dying in the ocean, but the ocean in some ultimate sense doesn’t change, because other fish are born and die (probably a bad analogy, but you get my point). My experience is both/and, both individual and a part of that ocean. The philosophy that comes closest to my point of view is that of Kashmiri Tantra. Like neo-paganism, Kashmiri Tantra affirms the senses, the emotions, the body, the mind and its “wanderings,” in fact any and every experience in our individual lives as a portal to the divine. This is the “via positiva” to Buddhism’s “via negativa,” where life is seen as “samsara.” In Kashmiri Tantra life in all its diversity is celebrated.

    I think I’ve been influenced by your description in _She Who Changes_ of religions of renunciation “as being based in matricide as rejection of birth through the body of the mother in favor of a so-called “higher spiritual rebirth.” I’ve been thinking about patriarchal religions in similar terms, but also thinking that they may be based on the different types of acculturation men and women get in patriarchal cultures, i.e. that men are socialized to become soldiers and, therefore, need a religion that helps them transcend the horrors of war, and that women are socialized to become care-givers, and as a result, may find themselves more drawn to religions of immanence that can help them in more everyday, ordinary situations. Any thoughts?

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    • I do think that the longing for immortality can be connected to the fact that men must be conditioned to be soldiers. Achilles returned to battle in order to gain an immortal name. Val Plumwood discusses the origins of the Platonic worldview in warfare in Feminism and the Mastery of Nature in chilling terms.

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      • As a Buddhist, my response to having a body is to be fully present to it and all it’s variety of experience. There may be a kind of Buddhism that believes the body is “not good enough” or is problematic in some way, but I don’t think that’s a teaching of the Buddha. The body is impermanent, certainly. But the joys and the sorrows of the body rise and fall and my aim as a Buddhist is to be fully present to all of it.
        Everything in Buddhism asks us to be fully aware and awake to all that is happening right here, right now.

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  10. My sense is that there are differences of interpretation about what is or is not the “essential truth” within all religions, including Buddhism. At the same time, Buddha did leave not only his power and position, but his wife and child behind. Is this or is this not a religion of renunciation? Actually, I would be very happy to hear that the answer to my question is “no” because there are ways to be Buddhist that do not consider having a wife or husband and children to be impediments to achieving enlightenment. However, the fact that we are having this discussion in relation to alleged facts about the life of the Buddha, suggests that there are elements of Buddhism (or Buddhist tradition) that are problematic in relation to life in the body and to life in a female body.

    It may be that Buddhist feminists will recognize these problematic elements in their tradition and work to transform them; however to transform them, they must be named.

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  11. Thanks, Carol. So well said. I wish you had been at AAR where some colleagues attended the panel for Karen McCarthy Brown and then had a festive dinner. So it must be when we each will leave these bodies. I think the image of compost that Emily Culpepper (I believe) originated and Rosemary Ruether calls Matrix is a good one for our future. Yes, one can be enthusiastic about if not eager to join the Mix. Best, MEH

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  12. Thank you for this post, Carol. It fits into my thinking about my own philosophy of life and what I can believe that will provide a foundation for myself.

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