With the possible exception of Bodhidharma himself, the greatest of all Zen masters is usually considered to have been 趙州從諗, or, as it is pronounced in Modern Mandarin, Zhàozhōu Cōngshěn. In Japan, he is known as Jōshū Jūshin. Most commonly, he is known merely as Zhaozhou or Joshu (henceforth I drop the diacritics). The tendency in writing about the Chinese Zen masters these days is to use the original Chinese forms of their names. Since Zen came to the English-speaking world mostly via Japan, older books typically use the Japanese forms of the name. Thus, for example the noted Zen scholar and popularizer D. T. Suzuki, in his seminal works on Zen, always refers to the worthy we are considering here as “Joshu”. For the rest of this post, I’ll follow his lead. Yes, it’s less accurate; but then again, the Chinese of the Tang dynasty, during which Joshu lived, was pronounced significantly differently from modern Mandarin; and Joshu probably didn’t pronounce his own name as “Zhaozhou”. Certainly, with Western religious figures, it doesn’t bother us that we don’t use the original forms of names–that we call the carpenter of Nazareth “Jesus” instead of Yēšūă‘ and his disciple “Peter” instead of Kêphā. I certainly first encountered and developed an admiration for Joshu under his Japanese name; so Joshu it will be for the rest of this post.
About three years ago I read an SF (science fiction) novel in which one of the protagonists suspects that the other is either an alien or a robot (or perhaps a bit of both, and thus in effect a cyborg, though that term was never used). I enjoyed the novel, actually, but I noticed a trope that I’ve encountered before in SF. The first tip-off about the possibly non-human nature of the second protagonist is when she is observed not breathing. In a sequel novel, it is made explicit that the second protagonist is indeed a technologically-augmented alien (and thus, as noted, a cyborg) and that she does not need to breathe, eat, or sleep, although she chooses to do all three in order to blend in to human society, and also because she’s developed a liking for those actions. Additionally, I should point out, she doesn’t need to go the bathroom, either. Yes, the second novel went there…. I still liked it, though, which may say something about me.
Robots (and their variant, androids) don’t need to breathe, eat, or sleep, either, though some can eat. It is made explicit in Star Trek: The Next Generation that Data, the resident android, is capable of eating and drinking, though he doesn’t need to. In fact, one humorous vignette in the first TNG movie, Generations, is this:
In the process of testing out his emotion chip, Data drinks the liquor that Guinan offers him. He hates it, and orders another–but the point is that he is indeed capable of drinking it in the first place.
Another thing about robots is that they are immortal and seem never to need repair or recharging. In the TNG two-part episode “Time’s Arrow”, the crew find Data’s head in an archeological dig in a cave in San Francisco. It has apparently been there since the 19th Century–thus nearly half a millennium. Later in the show, Data’s head is blown off, and his body is recovered. His “future” head is reattached, and it works perfectly, while his “past” head is left in San Francisco, to be found in the 24th Century.
Similarly, in the Stephen Spielberg movie A. I. Artificial Intelligence, the boy android David spends two thousand years underwater, awaiting the granting of his wish by the Blue Fairy (you’ll have to see the movie if you want an explanation of the plot point!), until the future Mecha (sapient robots that have replaced the now-extinct human race) rescue him and restore him to the surface. He is after two millennia fully functional. In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, Marvin the Paranoid Android is functional after 576,000,003,579 years (he counted!) in the radio series, and “thirty-seven times older than the Universe itself” in So Long and Thanks for All the Fish, though there it is noted that he has had ongoing repairs.
So what am I getting at with all this? Read on!
I am continuing with my use of older essays, written in a different context, as new blog posts. Longtime readers know I’m Catholic, but that I became so only after an extended period of studying the various world religions. This was originally written to a friend to give a brief explanation of my thinking on why, for me, at any rate, Catholicism was the right choice. I might not phrase everything quite the same way if I wrote this today; and the format is of an explanation to another person; but I am editing it but lightly, leaving it substantially as originally written. I should also point out that this is strictly personal–others of other faiths will have their own reasons for why they joined the traditions to which they adhere. This post is intended to be descriptive of myself, not evangelistic of others.
If your inclination upon reading the title of this post was to say, “What?!”, let me note that you would have been less likely to do so if I’d said, “Attaining Nirvana”. You still might wonder what the heck that has to do with Orientalism, Protestantism, and translation–we’ll get to all that–but at least you’d recognize the word “nirvana”. “Nirvana”, though a loanword from Sanskrit, has become sufficiently naturalized in English that we no longer need to use all the diacritical marks of proper Sanskrit transliteration (according to which it would be “nirvāṇa”), nor do we even have to italicize it (as is the proper usage for foreign words not considered to have been assimilated). Moreover, most people have at least a vague notion of what nirvana means. True, for most Americans not familiar with Buddhist thought, “nirvana” is more of a synonym for “paradise” than its correct meaning of “blowing out” or “extinction” in reference to finite, conditioned existence. Still, the point is that it’s hardly an unknown word to the average modern English speaker.
What’s interesting is that we use the Sanskrit term “nirvana”. The oldest scriptures of Buddhism are the so-called Pali Canon, which, though most closely associated with Hinayana* Buddhism, is more or less accepted in most existing branches of Buddhism. Pali is an ancient language of India (technically, a Middle Indo-Aryan language), and it is related to Sanskrit. The relationship of Pali to Sanskrit is somewhat like that of Italian to Latin–that is, a later language that has derived from an earlier, “classical” language. Whether Pali derived directly from Sanskrit or not is debated, but the analogy is good enough.
We’ve looked at universalism in the Abrahamic and Dharmic religions, and in a summary way in the other major (and minor) religions of the world. In this post I’d like to see what, if any, broad patterns we can find, and what their relevance is in general and in particular, specifically in regard to universalism as a concept.
In the case of traditional and folk religions, the very concept of an afterlife often seems murky–the dead inhabit a shady, insubstantial realm such as the Greek Hades or the Hebrew She’ol. Alternately, they may inhabit the realm of the deified or semi-deified ancestors. These two possibilities are not exclusive, it should be noted. Some such religions, such as that of the ancient Celts and some strands of the ancient Greek religion, had some sort of belief in reincarnation (or “metempsychosis”, as the Greeks referred to it). By and large, there is no consistent idea of reward and punishment–Heaven and Hell–in most of these faiths. To the extent that there is, it is either ambiguous or applicable only to a few (such as the Greek Elysian Fields and Tartarus) or it seems to have been imported from other religions (any notions of heavens and hells in Chinese and Japanese religion, for example, come from Buddhism).
In general, I think it fair to say that there is no clear evidence for reward and punishment in the afterlife in any of the religions that precede the Axial Age, with the probable exception of the religion of Ancient Egypt and the possible exception of Zoroastrianism (so many Zoroastrian writings have been lost and there are so many issues with dating the ones we have, that there is some ambiguity as to how old certain doctrines actually are). I think it is also safe to say that there is also no clear evidence of reward and punishment in the afterlife in the traditional and folk religions that have survived to modern times, except insofar as they’ve been influenced by so-called great or world religions.
Last time, we looked at universalism in the Abrahamic faiths. In this post, I want to look at universalism in the Dharmic religions. The Dharmic faiths are the great religions which originated in the Indian subcontinent, stemming ultimately from the ancient beliefs of the Indo-Aryan peoples. The oldest of these is the religion we refer to as Hinduism, traditionally known to its adherents as Sanātana Dharma, “the eternal religion”. From Hinduism gradually developed the Śramaṇa movement, which developed eventually into Buddhism and Jainism. The most recent of the Dharmic faiths, Sikhism, came into being in the 15th Century, evolving from the branch of Hinduism known as the Sant Mat movement.
All of the Dharmic religions share certain basic concepts. Chief among them are
- The idea of an eternal universe that goes through infinite cycles of creation, evolution, decline, and dissolution
- Many levels of existence beyond the earthly
- A belief in reincarnation or rebirth, in which beings take on numerous lives in numerous realms
- A belief in karma, the principle by which one’s actions are requited, for good or for ill, in the present life and/or future lives
- Finally, a belief that beings can ultimately end the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara) through proper spiritual practice
Having laid our the similarities, let’s look at the religions individually.
Better than a thousand hollow words
Is one word that brings peace.
Better than a thousand hollow verses
Is one verse that brings peace.
Better than a hundred hollow lines
Is one line of the law, bringing peace.
–Gautama Buddha in “The Thousands” from the Dhammapada as translated by Thomas Byrom; courtesy Wikiquote