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The Structure of Christian Existence by John B. Cobb, Jr.


John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. Published by University Press of America, Inc., 4720 Boston Way, Lanham, Maryland 20706, Copyright 1990. Used by permission. This material was prepared for America Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 6: Buddhist Existence


The development of axial man out of archaic civilization may have taken place both earlier and more gradually in India than in the other major centers. By the time of Gautama in the sixth century, the development was already complete. Gautama’s work must be seen as interaction with and modification of a situation in which axial man already existed.

The earlier stage of this development is expressed in some of the Upanishads, and it may be that already by the ninth century, the axial stage of consciousness had been reached. On the other hand, the Upanishads also include much material of a mythical sort, and the line between the mythical and rational is far from clear. It is possible that the emergence of men dominated in their self-understanding by conscious rationality hardly antedates the sixth century.

The question of dates is a minor one for our purposes. Our major concern is to gain some understanding of the form taken by the axial revolution in India. What fundamental interest determined the categories by which the rational consciousness organized its world? What categories, in fact, structured this world for Indian man?

To gain a basis for understanding the Indian development in its distinctness, it is necessary to risk a few generalizations about the role of religion in archaic civilization. In primitive cultures, there was no such thing as religion as one among the activities and functions of the society. The mythical symbol structure gave meaning to all activities, and thus the whole of life participated in the sacred. Whatever did not participate in the sacred lacked reality and fundamental acceptability. By sharing with the whole tribe in this one reality, men existed primarily as parts of the whole rather than as individuals in voluntary or involuntary association.

But with the rise of civilization, as we have seen, increasingly important areas of life came to be governed by an alternate symbol system. The conditions of civilized life forced on man a greater degree of separateness from the community. Participation in the larger whole became not so much the given reality as something hungered for. Man experienced himself as estranged from unity and wholeness and thrown into a world in which individual existence was a burden. In this situation, religion functioned in two major ways. It continued to function in continuity with the mythical symbol systems of the past, as the foundation of meaning and communal unity and the magical means of obtaining desired goods. But now it began to function also as the means for overcoming the sense of isolation and separateness that civilization brought with it. Of course, these functions can be separated sharply only from a later perspective. Yet we can identify in ancient civilizations the beginnings of a ministry to the felt needs of individuals alongside the communal celebrations and magic rites.

In India, the emerging conscious rationality focused its attention on interpreting the traditional religious activities in terms of the increasingly insistent needs of individuals to find freedom from the suffering of isolation and estrangement. Axial man emerged in the process of the religious quest itself. The victory of rational reflection occurred in the struggle to find freedom from the pain and suffering of individualization and separateness.

For almost the whole of Indian thought, the pain of the human situation was accentuated by the view that present existence is only a small part of the whole. That is, one did not think of birth and death as the beginning and ending of experience. Rather, they were only transitions from one state of being to another. This conviction of immortality, far from comforting and reassuring the suffering individual, indicated to him that even in death he could not escape the burden and terror of existence.

It is difficult for us to understand just what is involved in this ancient doctrine of transmigration. Probably it antedated the emergence of that kind of individuality treated in the last chapter. In its primitive form, it did not mean that the reflective individual conceived of himself as having had innumerable prior lives and as destined for many future ones. Rather, it reflected a less individualized understanding of existence, in which what persisted were impersonal processes that gained particularized expression in human experience. Where a heightened sense of individuality emerged in the axial period, the problem was changed, but it is significant that the vision of beginninglessness and of endlessness constituted the context of thought for the axial thinkers of India. The meaning and character of this endlessness was interpreted and reinterpreted, but rarely did there emerge the clear sense of radical beginning with physical birth and radical ending with physical death that the Western mind often mistakenly identifies with universal common sense.

Most Indian thinkers, in their passionate quest for release from the unbearable situation in which the individual found himself, also shared a common assumption that the experience of isolation and estrangement pointed to a reality other than that which is immediately and obviously given. The sheer phenomenal flux and the sheer givenness of separate existence were rationally unintelligible as well as existentially unendurable. The task of thought was so to penetrate through this phenomenal world that man could find his way to reality itself.

Thus in India, the quest for individual salvation from the pain of sheer individuality was immediately and inextricably involved with the ontological or metaphysical question as to the real. Far earlier than in the West, many of the major possible answers to this question were formulated with profound sophistication and insight. The fact that the metaphysical quest was inseparable from the existential one meant that each answer to the former was also a religious movement or school. In a purely schematic way, we can note some of the varieties of Indian thought and their diverse implications for the quest for release or salvation.

The two fundamental metaphysical possibilities considered by the Indian thinkers were pluralism and monism. Pluralism is the view that ultimate reality is composed of numerous monads, that is, that the whole of reality is constituted by the addition of its parts. Monism is the view that the appearance of multiplicity is finally an error, that reality is finally one, and that all diversity must be seen in the light of that truth. We can consider briefly the kinds of consequences that were drawn from these fundamental convictions. (For the treatment of Jaina, Sankhya, and Vedanta, I am largely indebted to Heinrich Zimmer, Philosophies of India (Meridian Books, Inc., 1956)

The chief pluralistic doctrines were Jaina and Sankhya. In the Jaina view, all monads were material entities, but they differ from each other greatly in their intrinsic heaviness or darkness. The life monad, that which man knew as himself, was by nature the most ethereal form of matter and belonged at the top of the universe. But the accumulated results of its actions had contaminated it with the weight and darkness of the grosser monads. Man was called to release himself from this contamination and involvement. By cutting himself off from those activities that increased his involvement in the world and by worship, he could gradually free himself and rise toward his rightful place. He did not, in such a process, cease to be an ontological individual, but he was freed from all those properties which distinguished him from other individuals in any way except numerically.

In the Sankhya view, the life monads were differentiated more radically from the world of things. There was something more like a dualism of mind and matter, or of the psychic and physical. The difference was understood as such that there could be no actual ontological contamination or involvement of the life monads in the material sphere. In reality, they remained quite free and pure. The problem was that this reality was concealed from the busy ego. It believed itself to be constantly affected by all the changing world of things. The task was to still the restless activity of the mind so that the true self could become visible in its absolute imperturbability. When man recognized himself thus for what he was, wholly beyond the sphere of change and suffering, he experienced reality and was released from the illusion of actual participation in change and suffering. He did not cease to be an individual monad, numerically distinct from all other monads. But again, as in the Jaina view, all that appeared to distinguish one individual from another qualitatively was stripped away. In the fulfilled state, there was release from all consciousness of separateness and, indeed, from consciousness as such.

The difference between these two views was that for the Jaina the involvement of the life monads in the world was real, whereas for the Sankhya it was an illusion. This difference had as its concomitant some difference in the way of seeking release. For the Jaina, the task was that of real purification, requiring definite modes of action and abstinence from action. For the Sankhya, what was required was an intellectual and existential freeing from error. Reflection and psychic discipline had their importance for the Jaina, and action and abstinence from action had their importance for the Sankhya, but the development of particular psychic disciplines was especially associated with Sankhya, whereas the attempt to avoid totally any destruction of life was a peculiar mark of Jaina.

In sharp ontological contrast to these pluralistic philosophies was Vedanta. Vedanta insisted that ultimately all reality was one and that all plurality was mere appearance. This applied, of course, to the outer world. The variety of sense experience was only the variety of ways in which the one metaphysical reality, Brahman, presented itself superficially to men. But much more important, the true self of every man, Atman, was also one with Brahman. We must pause briefly to consider what this meant -- that Brahman and Atman were one.

Atman was not the conscious ego of axial man nor the teeming unconscious experience out of which this arose. In the Vedanta analysis, both conscious and unconscious were phenomenal and transitory expressions of an underlying subject, the ultimate self. But this ultimate self turned out upon analysis not in fact to be characterized by the variegated experience of the psyche. It was the subject of all that experience, but in its own nature it was unaffected by it. The subject of change did not itself change. Thus, like the life monads of Sankhya, it was qualitatively undifferentiated. But Vedanta went farther. The ultimate undifferentiated subject of a man’s experience, that is, his self, could not be other than the ultimate undifferentiated subject of any other man’s experience or, indeed, Brahman itself, the one unchanging subject of all change. Thus man s true self, in distinction from his apparent self, was that one unchanging reality that expressed itself in all the appearance of change.

The religious implications of Vedantist monism were not very different from those of Sankhya pluralism. For Vedanta, like Sankhya, the problem was not real contamination or separateness or evil, but the misleading appearance from which true knowledge could free men. To gain this true knowledge could not be merely a matter of rational assent to the doctrine that Atman is Brahman. It must be, also, progressive experiential realization of this unity. For this purpose, psychic disciplines like those associated with Sankhya were appropriate.

In the account of these Indian philosophies, it has been necessary to introduce a term heretofore avoided -- the term "self." In our Western usage, it is tempting to identify the self with the seat of existence as defined in the preceding chapter. For us, the self is the center from which our conscious experience is organized. However, this identification cannot be made in a comparative study such as this one.

The seat of existence of Hindu man, no less than of Western man, was in the rational consciousness, and he recognized the natural tendency to identify this with his self. But precisely this tendency is what he rejected, and this in diverse ways. Atman, which is translated as "self," had connotations of ultimacy and self-identity that did not fit the seat of existence. The Indian recognized, as few Westerners have done before modern times, how much of the psychic life is organized around centers largely independent of the seat of existence. Hence, he sought to overcome the habit of self-identification with the seat of existence and to discover the true self as something quite different. Such an undertaking required a type of awareness of the psychic processes rarely attained in the West. In the West, the identification of the self with the seat of existence has been virtually unquestioned until recent times, although many of the connotations of the Indian Atman have confusedly been associated with it.

The most important individual figure to appear in the axial period of Indian history was Gautama Buddha. His focus of interest, like that of the schools discussed above, was release or salvation from the endless and meaningless chain of being. But his reflection was, in some respects, more radical than the others. The transition from archaic to axial modes of thought had occurred in India without a sharp break. Metaphysical reflection had continued to employ categories derived from the mythical background and context of thought. Metaphysics and myth interpenetrated each other and lived comfortably in mutual tolerance. Down to the present day, the Indian thinkers, who employ the most lucid rationality in their own reflection, often defend the appropriateness of religious practices on the part of the masses that have almost unbroken continuity with the mythical past. Since axial man had appeared in India without demanding any radical break with the past, he left the masses largely undisturbed in their preaxial state.

Buddhism, in contrast, insisted on a much more drastic departure from the past. Any conceptuality by which man tried to understand ultimate reality was, it was convinced, tainted and distorting. (So that distinctions may be clearly seen, the Buddhist view is presented in its opposition to the Hindu schools. Gautama himself did not teach in this way.) The very idea of a "reality" in contradistinction to the appearance of things represented for it a false conceptuality. Brahman was not "real" and Atman was not "real." "Reality" as such was a null class; it was a part of that mythical mentality that was only partly rationalized in the metaphysical schools. The whole speculative thrust of these schools was, from the Buddhist point of view, misguided or unenlightened, for the very good reason that its questions were meaningless. When one was truly enlightened, one turned one’s attention away from the mythical-metaphysical to the practical. Conversely, the safest path to enlightenment was also to be found in the practical.

By the practical, of course, Buddhism did not mean what we moderns might mean, namely, the production of goods and the improvement of socioeconomic conditions. It meant, rather, the identification and practice of that way of life which led to freedom from anxiety and suffering and the achievement of serenity in complete independence of outward experience. Such serenity in its ultimate form involved the transcendence of any concern for self and, hence, of all selfhood. But since such serenity did not depend on grasping the truth of some metaphysical formula, the road to its attainment lay in moderation and acceptance of things as they were rather than in ascetic discipline and paranormal experience.

The denial of the reality of the self, Atman, may seem to be itself a metaphysical doctrine requiring the attainment of a special state of mind for its acceptance. In a broad sense of "metaphysical," this is true. But we must remember that the term "metaphysical" even today has connotations derived from the experience of the sacred and from myth. That is, metaphysical seems, in many ears, to point to an " eminent ,‘ reality transcending the obvious and mundane world of commonplace experience. The metaphysical is thought of as that which is above or beyond the transiency of the merely temporal. Atman certainly had these connotations in most Indian thought. The reality of Atman was eminent in relation to the merely phenomenal, apparent world, including the ego and its normal consciousness. In part, this eminence consisted in its freedom from change and decay. In Vedanta, this eminence was fully articulated in the doctrine that this Atman was really Brahman itself, the one, ultimate, supersensible, holy reality.

The denial of Atman, therefore, on the part of Buddhism was not some strange metaphysical doctrine to the effect that the flow of experience did not occur or that there was no seat of existence in human experiences. It was, rather, the denial that there was some other dimension of reality in comparison with which this one was mere appearance or illusion.

If there was no reality beyond the successive moments of experience, then man’s self-understanding as a permanent subject enjoying adventures through time was an illusion. Whatever unity the successive experiences had must be a function of these experiences themselves. Since this unity could not be caused by either past or future experiences, the agent and ground of unity through time was seen to be the present occasion of experience. To the extent to which in each moment a man believed himself to be identical with his past and future, that identity persisted. With it, there continued regret and anxiety and, above all, desire. To the extent that through enlightenment a man recognized the unreality of this relation, the present moment of experience was, in fact, freed from it and from the concomitant emotions. Man thus could achieve serenity in a nontemporal moment. (From my Whiteheadian viewpoint, Buddhism seems subtly to have exaggerated the capacity of an actual occasion of human experience to determine its own relation to its predecessors. Buddhism attributed true causality to the prehending occasion only, holding that it alone is ultimately responsible for how it prehends its predecessors. This doctrine led to the theoretical ideal of an occasion that suspends such prehensions altogether. Whitehead holds that the decisions of the past occasions inescapably play a causally efficacious role in setting the limits of the present occasion. This means that the present occasion must take account of past occasions and reenact aspects of them. This does not deny the possibility of a very different relation to this past from that which is normal to us. Nevertheless, from the Whiteheadian perspective, the ideal of the timeless moment is an illusion.)

A similar analysis applies to the Buddhist understanding of the environment. Buddhism did not deny the reality of the environing world, but it believed that the world as given in the ordinary reflective consciousness was a product of the concepts, hopes, fears, and desires of man. In this way, the Buddhist believed, the world was falsely perceived as substantial, causal, and filled with meanings for human existence. Enlightenment reduced the environment to mere momentary congeries of elements lacking all significance for human existence. In this way, the emotional life could be disengaged from attachment to and involvement in the world. (Once again, despite the far-reaching similarities between Whitehead’s ontology and Buddhism, a Whiteheadian must record his judgment that Buddhism is involved in a subtle illusion similar to that of much Western philosophy. By concentrating on experience in the mode of presentational immediacy, Buddhism is led to empty the environing world of real significance for human existence. It correctly shows that in this mode the supposed causality and the human meanings that are found are humanly projected. This process of projection may be subjected to human control. However, Buddhism does not finally acknowledge the inescapable causal efficacy of the past, an efficacy only partly subject to the control of the present occasion of human experience. This efficacy means that the environment has real significance for human existence, which may or may not correlate closely with projected meanings.)

This process can be explained in the categories by which this book is organized. In these terms, Buddhism accepted the world as given in the reflective consciousness as real. But we have seen that the world, in relationship to which we actually live, is a significantly ordered world This significant ordering is partly by signals and partly by symbols. It is guided largely by organic needs and by conscious and unconscious desires.

The Buddhist correctly saw that man’s emotional involvement with his world is a function of this significant ordering and that this significant ordering is man’s own work. Destitute of such ordering, the phenomenal environment is simply what it is, barren of reference to past or future. Recognizing this, the Buddhist learned to suspend or interrupt his habits of significant ordering.

The overcoming of self-identity through time can also be described in the categories developed in the preceding chapters. The final ontological individual is the actual momentary occasion of experience, in this case, of human experience. Each occasion is influenced by many factors, only one of which is the group of preceding occasions of human experience that conjointly with successor occasions constitutes the human soul from birth to death.

Among primitive peoples, this relationship to previous and successor human occasions had not attained such .decisive prominence as to constitute human individuality in the full sense. With the rise of civilization, however, human identity through time became much more marked, and by the axial period it was fully established.

Where the sense of identity was strongly developed, the sense isolation was an inevitable concomitant. We have already seen how important a role this played in ancient religion and in axial thinking in India. Concomitantly, there arose an acute problem for reflection, a problem we have still not solved.

On the one hand, we experience an overpowering sense of identity through time. On the other hand, the actual experiences that give the content to this one identical selfhood are constantly changing. If we trust the sense of identity, we seem driven to regard the changing experiences as nonessential to our ultimate selfhood. In their different ways, Jaina and Sankhya took this road. If we strip that which constitutes our identity of all particularity, as these philosophies did and had to do, if they were to display the identity as absolute, then there is nothing left by which to distinguish one individual from another. Vedanta drew the reasonable conclusion of monism.

In none of these movements was the identity through time especially prized. It was the given fact, not even deeply affected by birth or death, in terms of which man constituted a problem for himself. If this sheer identity could be freed from its involvement in the phenomenal and transitory world, then there could be peace, and this was the common goal of all the philosophical schools of India.

But despite the immense self-evidence of self-identity through time for all civilized peoples, we have seen that it is not an ontological necessity. The primacy of our relation to past and future occasions of our own experience in relation to other experiences is not absolute. Individual identity through time is a matter of degree. Hence, it may be that the quest for an absolutely self-identical subject of change is fruitless. Perhaps what man must realize instead is that each moment of experience is simply what it is. Perhaps the marked individuality that characterizes civilized man is just what must be overcome. Perhaps it is constituted by fears and hopes and desires, and perhaps it is just these things which bind man to the endless and meaningless chain of existence from which he needs to be freed. This, I take it, was the distinctive direction of much Buddhist thought.

A central thesis of this book is that the diversities among cultures are not simply in their leading ideas but also in the structures of existence they embody and express. Hence, the remainder of this chapter is devoted to a more direct statement as to how these Indian views of man’s situation express and encourage peculiar structures of existence.

Among the Indians, as among all axial peoples, the reflective consciousness gained autonomy from the unconscious and was effectively rationalized. The seat of existence established itself in this rational consciousness, and from this center it overcame and reinterpreted its mythical heritage. This resulted in the emergence of freedom and individuality, as explained in the last chapter. However, the Indian was not satisfied with this general axial structure of existence .and struggled against it. He rejected the new axial existence because of its isolation and suffering. Nevertheless, he participated too fully in it to seek release in a return to mythical existence.

The Hindu attempted to overcome his self-identification with his rational consciousness by objectifying that consciousness in its totality and thus transcending it and dissociating himself from it. What this meant for the structure of existence is far clearer in its negative than in its positive meaning. Negatively, it meant that whatever aspect of conscious or unconscious experience could be conceptualized or objectified was distinguished as other than, alien from, and, finally, even indifferent to the self. Although this did not lead to a return to the dominance of the unconscious, it did prevent the new seat of existence in consciousness from entering upon any further development. Because the seat of existence in each moment negated itself, its consciousness of itself as continuing through time, as responsibly purposing, willing, and controlling, was constantly undermined.

That this led to positive psychic states, which are to Western eyes both strange and remarkable, is clear. That it actually led to the realization of an undifferentiated and unindividualized self is much more questionable. This would be possible only on the assumption of the reality of such a metaphysical entity, and on this point Buddhist skepticism has much justification. From the point of view of the assumptions with which this whole analysis proceeds, the structure of existence to which Buddhism led is much more fully intelligible than the Hindu goal. My view, like that of many Buddhists, is that the ultimate ontological individual is a momentary occasion of experience. Such occasions came to be organized into a linear succession characterized by continuity and cumulation. When the whole of consciousness has its center within consciousness, axial individuality emerges. This center identifies itself with the comparable centers in past and future dominant occasions in the organism. But since this self-identity through time is not ontologically given, it can also be destroyed without destroying the succession of occasions themselves.

Axial individuality could be overcome by rejecting consciousness in favor of unconsciousness and thus relapsing into a preaxial state, but it could also be removed -- or rendered ineffectual -- by dissociation of each momentary occasion from its connection with its predecessors and successors. Since the connection is constituted for consciousness by memory and anticipation, the unity through time could in principle be broken by cessation of memory and anticipation, or by viewing one’s own past and future in just the way one views any other past and future.

It must be emphasized that the past and future from which each occasion was thus dissociated was not only the relatively remote past and future, temporally separated from the present by minutes, but also the immediate past and future, only a second or less away. When one ceased in each moment to identify oneself with these predecessor and successor occasions, the conscious connection between these occasions was trivialized and axial individuality was overcome. Identity through time was relegated to the unconscious, while the seat of existence remained in consciousness. Thus at the level of full conscious control, the individuality produced by consciousness was destroyed. With it were removed desire and anxiety, and these were replaced by serenity, disinterestedness, and perfect unconcern.

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