Whose Service is Perfect Moksha

Orthosphereans – not just the contributors, but our formidable commenters – write to explicate the Tradition of the Christian West: to those who are not Traditionalists, or Westerners, or Christians; to each other; perhaps especially to ourselves.

“Explicate” is a lovely word. It derives from the Latin explenare, literally “to out-fold;” although in English we would translate it as “to unfold.” And there is no better way to explicate an idea for one’s own edification than to explain it to someone else. The process of explanation is an exploration. All these verbs are related: “explain” derives from explanare, “to out-plane” – i.e., to make the crooked straight, the rough places plain – while “explore” is from explorare, “to out-flow,” or as we would say, “to pour out,” as of living water, or worlds. John Evelyn combined all three notions in the first text on forestry, presented to the Royal Society in 1664, in which he spoke of buds that “explain into leaves.”

When we explain, explicate, or explore, we become the occasions of novel introductions to the world, new creations; for such motions result in the concrete implementation in our minds, and ergo our lives, of conceptual configurations that might otherwise have lain forever dormant in the realm of the possible, unexpressed except in the eternal contemplation of the Logos. All such apparent novelties are, of course, in one way or another, types of an archetype that has often otherwise iterated in the history of the world; new buds explicating on an ancient tree. There is nothing new under the sun; yet utterly new every morning is the love our waking proves.

So it is with the renascence of Tradition, whose renewed flux from the womb of time we would attend as doctors.

We are all of us engaged in a massive fathomless project – intellectual, moral, sophialogical – of rediscovering our true and ancient Tradition: what it is, whence it springs, how it works, what it means, and how we may show it forth, not only with our lips, but in our lives. Like any flow, a conversation such as ours here is a turbulent process, although by no means chaotic. One never knows what might next rise to the surface. Is it mere flotsam, or is it a turtle, old and wise? Is there ever after all such a thing as “mere” flotsam on the stream of time? Is Providence, however profligate, ever just sloppy? No; full plenary is a completion. So, as each atom is a system of all things, each signifies all things. No matter how humble or unexpected, then, anything may provide to us a moment of holy delight.

This happened for me just the other day, when an amiable new commenter disagreed with my post about morality, and urged that Buddhism provides a truer notion of moral salvation than Christianity. I was happy, because his comment elevated to my attention a misapprehension about the Christian understanding of moral salvation that is quite common, not just among the unchurched but among Christians too. His admirable description of Buddhist moral theory was, in fact, quite a good explication of the Christian doctrine of moral salvation; and his innocent caricature of the Christian doctrine was an apt description of the moral predicament of those who have not gotten the Gospel, and are therefore still subject to the Law, rather than masterful exponents and flowers thereof – slaves, rather than Kings and Queens.

Describing the terrific situation of those who have not admitted themselves to the salvific Passion Christ undertakes on their behalf, Miklos Hollender writes:

Like most Western thinkers you reduce morality to objective rules vs. subjective desires. So it is the human will hitting the wall of laws, rules, rationality, this is how we can envision Western concepts of morality, a beast beating against a cage or trying to make peace with it.

Is this not a wonderful depiction of the struggle of the human will with the constraints of the Law? Mr. Hollender writes:

The Eastern/Buddhist method is to examine why do we even desire or want things! Why do people want to kill, steal, fornicate etc. and Buddhism reduces it to the illusion of separating the world from the self. Sin is basically the wrong ways to overcome this separation basically trying to put the world into the self (conquests, stealing, sexual conquests, greed etc.) or put the world under the self (desire for power), or make the self better than the world (pride, vanity) and so on.

Now this is just great! Substitute a bit, in the gentlest way, and without really changing the gist, you get:

The [Christian] method is to examine why do we even desire or want [wicked] things! Why do people want to kill, steal, fornicate etc. and [Christianity] reduces it to the illusion of separating [the Will of God, and ergo the manifest course of the created order that is preponderantly obedient thereto – or as the Chinese would have put it in their translation of the Greek “Logos,” the Tao of Heaven] from the self. Sin is basically the wrong ways to overcome this separation basically trying to put the world into the self (conquests, stealing, sexual conquests, greed etc.) or put the world under the self (desire for power), or make the self better than the world (pride, vanity) and so on.

Brilliant! Mr. Hollender continues:

So from this point of view objective rules are needed only for self-centered people, cages are only needed for beasts. People who overcame the self just cannot do anything bad.

This is a wholly different way of thinking about morality: instead of trying to make rationalistic rules why we shouldn’t steal, it is about becoming the kind of person who never wants to. And you don’t need objective morality for that, all you need is realizing the self is not real.

Of course it only works for a small number of monks and yogis who really care about overcoming the self.

Exactly: The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the Law (1 Corinthians 15:56). If you want release from the suffering of your slavery to sin, your subjection to the penalties of the Law, and release from your cage of death, all you need to do is recognize the plain and simple fact that God, as God, is of course the most important thing of all, and that compared to him your own reality is as nothing; so that it is only fitting, proper, and indeed the exquisite fulfillment of all your deepest desires, to obey his first commandment: to Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind, and all your strength. There is one other thing, true. But it is like the first, and if you can manage the first, the second will be easy, because people who overcome their inordinate love of themselves and other worldly things (including their neighbours) on account of their abiding, overwhelming love for God just cannot do anything bad; cannot do anything but good.

Not that this is easy, of course, for we are obstinate fools; and this is true even – indeed, perhaps especially – for the greatest yogis and monks. But it is there for the taking. As Christians, we don’t need to undertake decades of austerities as yogis or monks to approach Nirvana. All any of us need do is knock, and then step across the threshold of the door that then opens to us. And this may happen at any moment of life; “in school, or in lanes, or at sea, in church, or in trains, or in shops, or at tea.” It sounds silly and small, and so it is; like a seed of mustard. No matter how mundane or profane your circumstances at this moment, no matter how picayune the objects of your present activities, nevertheless the door is always waiting there behind you, right now, standing ajar. All you ever need to do is turn, and pass that threshold. “Profane” means “before the Temple;” i.e., standing at the vestibule of the sanctuary, just outside the Gate of Paradise.

So every Christian is anointed a priest of the order of Melchizedek: all of us are incipient Temple mystics, Saints and Prophets, as well as Kings and Queens in Heaven. All we have to do is ask, and our patrimony will be given back to us, as if we had never, dreaming we were prodigious, wandered prodigal away from our true home. And when that happens, we shall find that objective rules are not for us anymore. When we recognize and conform our souls to the true order of things, in which God is Lord, we shall be ourselves agents, ambassadors and angels of the Law. As full and perfect embodiments of that Law, we shall find it an instrument of our power, in just the way that (on good days) our bodies now are.

On bad days, it’s miserable to be embodied. On good days, it’s magnificent. So with the Law. When we sin, it sucks the life out of us: “vice” is “weak.” In virtue, our power overflows – explores – to joy.

There is much loose talk about freedom. But the freedom of the sinner to sin is the freedom of the caged beast to flail against the bars of his cage. The cage – i.e., the order of being, the Law, the Logos – must and will prevail. Once we recognize where we really are, we realize that the cage is the altar of our transfiguration. When we offer ourselves a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice, when we surrender our lives to the life of God, and so are consecrated to him, we become ourselves altars, living stones of the Temple of which we are each a synecdoche, and stars of those worlds of worlds, of which the Temple is in turn the synecdoche.

The Law is the very provision of our being: our being as bodies, as bodies embodied in worlds, as procedures of worlds; as ourselves principalities and powers of worlds. When we worship God, we remember who we really are, and become what we had always been able to be, what we were at first made to be: gods. The net then no longer constrains, but enables us, for it is by that net that we are knit together in the first place.

In the Anglican Order for Morning Prayer, or Matins, the Collect for Peace runs as follows:

O GOD who art the author of peace and lover of concord, in knowledge of whom standeth our eternal life, whose service is perfect freedom; Defend us thy humble servants in all assaults of our enemies, that we, surely trusting in thy defence, may not fear the power of any adversaries, through the might of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The collect translates a fifth century prayer – which is to say, that it is not peculiarly Anglican, or Western, but “merely Christian:” orthodox, and catholic. The phrase “whose service is perfect freedom” translates cui servire, regnare: whom to serve is to reign. To be a vassal at all, one must be somewhat lordly, no? No vassal is any good to his Lord, who is not a free, fell warrior and noble knight; and a good vassal cannot but be ennobled somewhat by his service.

True freedom then is not license to sin, but liberation from sin, and from death its wages, and from the sting thereof, and from the power of the Law. And liberation from the Law is liberation of the Law, to work in the world by way of its full implementation in, as and through us. The Tao flows inexorably throughout the created order, exploring it from one end to the other. Ought we not therefore to coordinate ourselves thereto? The might of omnipotent Providence explains all things – if we be then for it, what can be against us?

In the Sanskrit, liberation from the illusion at the root of sin is moksha.

9 thoughts on “Whose Service is Perfect Moksha

  1. I think you may be somewhat intoxicated with Christian charity and ecumenical good cheer. Extinguishment of the self, as in Buddhism, is really rather different than redemption of the self, as in Christianity. Despite the book of Ecclesiastes, our central insight is not that “all is vanity,” and for us the beginning of wisdom is not a conviction that the self does not exist. As I understand it, our central insight is that “everything is broken” (fallen), and the beginning of our wisdom is that “I am broken too.” The proposition “I am a sinner” normally entails the corollary “who deserves and must expect eternal damnation.” Now, obviously, there’s another rather important step in the Christian conversion experience, but my point here is simply to affirm that a sense of sin, a fear of hell, and a hope for heaven imply an indestructible self.

    I don’t disagree with your general point that living “in Christ” is very different than living “under the law,” but the history of antinomianism in Christianity suggest that we ought to proceed cautiously here. As I understand it, we Christians do not deny that men are beasts who need a cage, we deny that all of them will always be beasts who need a cage.

    • Agreed. But then I don’t think I said that at moksha the self is extinguished; indeed, rather the opposite, with my talk of living stones. Buddhism does wrongly say that, if I understand it properly (but I doubt that I do). A thing cannot be liberated that does not actually exist. If at reconciliation with Truth the self either ceases to exist, or is revealed never to have existed in the first place, “moksha” is a misnomer, all talk of liberation is misdirection, and a better more honest term for the final goal of Buddhist spiritual work would be “death everlasting.” But this becomes a reason why I wonder whether I have understood Buddha.

      The Law is the condition of our being. Only if we disagree with that condition does it appear to us as a cage. In that case we appear to ourselves as unruly beasts who need cages to keep them from hurting themselves and each other. So we do need them, and will – until we don’t.

      At that point we shall realize that the iron bars are our moral skeleton, that as the forecondition of our being the limit of the Law is the basis of action, and power. We will not then simply wink out of existence at this realization, subsumed like drops in the sea. On the contrary, our actuality will increase with our power; the realization will make us more real. What will fall away then is, not the self, but the self’s errant notion of self-sufficiency.

      • Even if the self is not extinguished, it’s pretty clear that moksha is deliverance into a state where all desire is extinguished. This strikes me as an impossible state, since to be in it would be to desire the absence of desire. But my purpose was not to criticize Buddhism. I was just cautioning against papering over large differences between Christianity and Buddhism. Compare, for instance, the doctrines of desire. As a Christian, I do not look forward to a day when desire is extinguished . I look forward to a day when it is rightly ordered and perfectly satisfied. Christ said “I have laid a table before thee.” He did not say “there’s no food in my Father’s house, but do not be dismayed because no one is hungry there.”

      • I did not mean to paper over the important differences between Christianity and Buddhism. I agree that with respect to desire, the difference between them is that Buddhism promises the extinction of desire, while Christianity promises its complete fulfilment.

        Mr. Hollender suggests that Buddhism seeks to understand why we desire anything at all, and he proceeds to explain why we desire wicked things, and how we may achieve liberation from wickedness. He does not tell us how Buddhism says we may achieve liberation from desire as such.

        And it was to his comment, rather than to Buddhism proper, that I was responding.

        So far as I understand it – again, not very far – Buddhism does itself indeed insist that desire per se arises from the illusion of existence. This makes no sense to me, as a matter of logic: how can anything, any sort of experience, even illusory experience, arise from sheer non-being? So far as I can see, if Buddhism is correct that in reality nothing exists, then Buddhism is an illusion. Buddhism strikes me as self-refuting.

        I can’t therefore help thinking that I must be misinterpreting it.

      • That’s been my experience as well. Some paradoxes have taken me to a higher level of understanding where they make sense. Others haven’t. When it comes to Buddhist paradoxes, my mind is a dead weight.

  2. Interesting, as always. I hope the Ortosphere is here to stay – I don’t know where else I would get food for spiritual thought. Which unfortunately says something about the state of the Churches around here….. 😦

  3. I understand “desire” in Buddhism to correspond to “concupiscence” in Christianity. It is considered essential in the Mahayana, for example, to cultivate a burning *desire* to achieve enlightenment in order to work for the salvation of all sentient beings. So there’s desire, and there’s desire.

    I share Kristor’s sense, however, that much of how Buddhism has been explicated to the West has been so obviously self-refuting or even nihilistic (the self does not exist?) that I remain unconvinced that it has anything to do with the Buddha’s teachings. After all, in the stories, when the Buddha achieved anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (perfect enlightenment), he emitted the “roar of a lion”. I doubt very much that if he had discovered that the self does not exist, he would have had quite *that* reaction.

  4. Pingback: Apokatastasis of the Damned | The Orthosphere


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