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.”
For 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.