The Uncarved Block vs. the unattainable ideal

Jamie teased me because I didn’t offer an analysis of the Enyadatta allegory in my previous post. It’s almost like she’s implying that I’m opinionated ….

I wanted to let the allegory stand on its own initially. But here’s my analysis (thereby proving Jamie right!). I’d like to compare the Buddhist allegory to two other religions, Taoism and Christianity. First, I will return to the Taoist principle of the Uncarved Block; then, I will revisit the Christian principle of transformation.

The Uncarved Block

About a week ago, I explained P’u, the Taoist principle of the Uncarved Block. The principle establishes things in their natural, unaltered state as a Taoist ideal.

According to P’u, we should not strive to change things into something they are not. Instead, we should try to discern the true nature of everything we encounter and work in harmony with things as they are.

I see a significant degree of affinity between P’u and the Enyadatta allegory. I’m not sure what a Taoist or a Buddhist would say about this. I assume the differences between Buddhism and Taoism are real and significant; but I’m an outsider to both religions, and the differences are lost on me. The whole time I was reading The Tao of Pooh, I was thinking “This is a lot like Buddhism”.

I suppose it’s like explaining the difference between Roman Catholics and Baptists to a person who has only a superficial understanding of Christianity. Anyway, I see an affinity between the two religions.

According to the Enyadatta allegory, each individual already has the Buddha-nature. Thus the individual does not need to change who he or she is. On the contrary, all striving after transformation is counterproductive. The Buddha tried that path, starving himself to the point of death, before he renounced such striving as folly.

The only requisite change is a shift in our self-consciousness:  we must learn to see ourselves as we truly are. Roshi Yasutani might say, You already possess the Buddha-nature; stop striving to effect a change you don’t need to make.

What is this but the Uncarved Block, “things in their natural, unaltered state,” as one’s proper focus? The principle is Taoist; the allegory is Buddhist; but it seems to me there is a significant affinity between them. At the risk of oversimplification, this is the way of the East.

The unattainable ideal

The West offers a very different way, at least insofar as it is consistent with Christianity. Christian theology would never say, “Each individual already has the Christ-nature.” On the contrary, Christianity is highly critical of things in their natural, unaltered state.

Human beings are “bent”, as C.S. Lewis puts it in his science fiction trilogy. We are corrupt, depraved, fallen — take your pick. Christianity teaches that human beings need to be rescued (saved) from this lamentable condition:

For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! (Rom. 7:22-25)

In other words, Christians restlessly pursue an unattainable ideal. The ideal is holiness:  aka godliness. The God-nature is not our innate possession; indeed, it is unattainable.

Christianity teaches that we can’t achieve the ideal no matter how hard we strive after it. There’s a certain agreement, then, between Christianity and Buddhism. The Buddha renounced striving; so do Christians who properly understand the Gospel.

The core doctrine of Christianity is that salvation is God’s work, not ours. Salvation is by grace, we say, meaning that we do not achieve it (by disciplined striving) so much as we receive it:  i.e., God intervenes to save us in recognition of the fact that we are unable to save ourselves.

In many respects, my theology is unorthodox (which annoys Christian readers of my blog at intervals). But here my theology is quite orthodox! I freely acknowledge that I am “bent” and unable to effect a change in my condition by my own power. If there is any possibility of rescue, it will be accomplished by God’s wisdom, love and power, not mine.

This doesn’t mean that I constantly berate and belittle myself, or that I wallow in guilt. I don’t do any of those things. But I do try to remember that I am not self-sufficient,1 and I try to show God the gratitude that is due him for accomplishing what I could not.

Christianity and Buddhism agree, then, insofar as both repudiate striving. On the other hand, Christians emphasize the necessity of transformation where Buddhists and Taoists do not. “Things in their natural, unaltered state” are things alienated from God. Things transformed, things rescued and recovered — that is the Christian ideal.

Wisdom of East and West

I must add, this is not an argument for the superiority of Christianity over the religions of the East. On the contrary, it seems to me that each worldview has merit. I think the Prayer of Serenity recognizes the merit of both paths:

prayer of serenity

Maybe this plaque looks hokey — just another piece of Christian merchandising. Regardless, the prayer itself (composed by Reinhold Niebuhr, a Christian theologian) is profound:

  • The serenity which enables us to accept things as they are is embodied in the philosophies of the East.
  • The courage which enables us to effect fundamental change, where it is needed, is embodied in the philosophies of the West.
  • Wisdom lies in knowing which philosophy to apply when.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1An aside: Paul speaks at one point of the “offence” of the cross (Gal. 5:11). Elsewhere (1Co. 1:18ff.) he describes the cross as foolishness to some and a stumbling block to others.

Whatever that description may have meant in the first century context, its application to modern Westerners is readily apparent. The message of the cross is, “You are not self-sufficient” — a highly offensive word in a society where self-reliance is idolized.

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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Jamie
    May 06, 2007 @ 21:25:57

    You, opinionated? Did I imply that? lol 🙂

    Anyway…this is another wonderful post. I love the contrasts you draw out here, and I agree with you that the Christian perspective you identify is not necessarily superior. Though I think Christianity is right about the flawed nature of all human beings (and though I staunchly oppose the idea that enlightenment comes from within), it’s also true that there is a time and a place for accepting things as they are. Not that the latter idea is absent in Christianity, but it tends to be more heavily emphasized in Eastern religions. I appreciate you drawing attention to the contrast.

    Reply

  2. Sadie Lou
    May 07, 2007 @ 19:34:27

    Very cool post, Stephen. I like it a lot. We are in total agreement on salvation through faith by grace. I learned a little about some Eastern religions too–thanks!

    Reply

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