A legend describes how the Buddha received his spiritual
breakthrough, after he had searched for many years. Toward the close of
a long night of meditation, he finally awakened as the morning star
shone at daybreak. He had become a buddha--an awakened one.
Buddhism is the religion of the eye: its aim is insight, clarity,
enlightenment. The great breakthrough comes as soon as the false values
fade away in the light of truth. The world is not changed, but one sees
its true form, just as things in the world take on form and meaning
when the darkness of night gives way to the day.
We are surely justified in affirming that Christianity has had a
greater appreciation for the ear than for the eye. Lutheran Christians
in particular are conscious of being "the church of the Word." Hearing
the Word is the foundation of faith. The Word is received in obedience,
and obedience naturally involves listening. The prophets listened to
the voice of God, and they admonished the people to accept the Word.
Hearing and obeying the Word are basic characteristics of faith.
The encounter with the religions of the East can make us more aware
that faith also sees; we realize that the Bible itself attaches greater
importance to this function than we ourselves have done. Jesus taught
his disciples to see: "Blessed are the pure of heart," he said, "for
they shall see God" (Mt 5:8), and it is above all the apostle of love,
John, who makes the contrast between human blindness and the faith that
sees. Paul speaks of light for "the heart's eye": "Now we see in a
mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face" (1 Cor 13:12). This
insight is not some isolated intellectual understanding, but a
spiritual insight that accompanies an inner liberation.
It is not for nothing that the church was reluctant to emphasize
faith's character as "sight" and "insight," since it did not wish to
make a distinction between "ordinary" believers and so-called
"spiritual Christians," between the obedient hearers in faith and those
who appealed to "higher" wisdom and insight. But the church is
impoverished if it refuses to acknowledge the need to see with greater
clarity. Faith too knows a growth in insight, a movement toward seeing
with "the heart's eye."
The Bible has a strange expression that recalls the description of
the Buddha's spiritual breakthrough. We are told to hold fast to the
message of the prophets, which is like "a lamp shining in a dark place,
until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts" (2 Pet
1:19). Faith is not only obedience. Faith includes a search for
enlightenment, a desire to see with greater clarity and insight. May we
not look forward to the day when the morning star rises in our hearts?
Various meditation practices from the East have gradually begun to
disturb our one-sidedness. I do not intend to discuss here the validity
of their many promises of harmony and world peace; but there is no
doubt that this interest in meditation and inner silence has led many
people to appreciate new approaches to religion. For the church, these
movements have been a timely reminder that there are aspects of reality
that our traditional piety has not taken with full seriousness.
It is no exaggeration to say that many spiritual seekers find the
church superficial and garrulous; they abandon the church because their
religious yearnings find no place in it. They long for the deep
dimension of faith, and they look in vain in the church for silence,
mystery, meditation--they are not looking for more words about
God, for better explanations, or elegant formulations! They want to
travel into the landscapes of faith, to sense the mystery, and see the
inner connections of things.
We live our faith with many senses: we want to hear, but also to
see. We need guides who can open our eyes, so that the morning star may
rise in our hearts.
Notto R. Thelle, D.Th., is a professor in the
Faculty of Theology, the University of Oslo, Norway. Having studied
Buddhism at Otani University in Kyoto, he acted as associate director
of the NCC (National Christian Council) Center for the Study of
Japanese Religions in Kyoto from 1974 to 1985. He was also a visiting
scholar at the center in 1999 and 2000.
This article was originally published in the April-June 2008 issue of Dharma World.