On Christian Practice and Mahamudra: A Reflection

On Christian Practice and Mahamudra

Stuart Higginbotham

I am preparing to begin a focused year of study on Himalayan/Tibetan Buddhism in January 2023. For a dozen years I have read and studied in various formats, but this season calls for something more intentional. Even as I realize how limited my understanding is, I have been paying close attention to resonances between my own experience with Christian practice–especially as grounded in the Christian contemplative tradition–and the insights of Tibetan Buddhism. I have been drawn to explore the dynamic engagement between these two traditions for many years. Who knows why, but it continues to be deeply meaningful for me. 

For all these years, I have never felt as though I needed to collapse either Christianity or Buddhism into some least common denominator, giving myself a space to say that the traditions are, necessarily, saying the same thing. I honor the distinctions. Maybe they are speaking toward the same thing, the same reality or hope of human existence and searching. More than ever, I believe they are speaking from the same thing, as in the same existential questioning posture about what it means to be human today. At its best, the Christian tradition nurtures such a holistic theological anthropology–what Raimon Panikkar would describe as a cosmotheandric grounding. It is in this space that I felt called to stand.

In particular, I have noticed even more clearly that there are resonances around how we understand the “self,” in both Christianity and Tibetan Buddhism (indeed, within Buddhism broadly understood, but my particular interest is with the Himalayan tradition). One could argue that Christianity, as it is now experienced, has absorbed much of the Greco-Roman emphasis on rationality on one hand as well as the modern Western emphasis on the individual, autonomous “self” as well. Perhaps this is why it is so difficult to hear the Gospel in today’s cultural context: the baggage of such a highly-emphasized hyper-individualism thwarts the deeper wisdom of the teaching.

In my own practice, the insights and practices of Himalayan Buddhism have given me images, practices, and language to actually describe what I have long felt to be true about the wisdom teachings of Christianity–underneath the baggage that has accumulated in the Christian tradition over the centuries. It is not that we can return to some pristine moment in the history of Christianity and reconstruct that; rather, I am intrigued at how my experiences with Buddhism seem to nurture an even deeper experience with and through Christian practice here and now–honoring the broader tradition itself while also paying attention to what I would describe as the movement of the Living Spirit. In a way, my own experience and searching connect with both the Christian contemplative tradition and the wisdom of Himalayan Buddhism to form a sort of meaningful chord.

With my experience of Christianity, such a heavy  emphasis on this strict individualism has led to a particular emphasis on “personal salvation” that is hyper-focused on the preservation of a rigid, set “self.” Such a focus on the preservation of such an image of the self confused me even as a child, because I would ask what “self” was preserved, saved if you will, if a child had died. Would they be a child forever in heaven? How would that be perfect? Would there be some vague normalized or Platonic-type perfect form that was preserved for eternity? If they died at a very old age, would they continue on in this elderly form for eternity? Even as a child, questions such as this made me question. And, I was always frustrated when my teachers would insist on rigid interpretations of certain aspects of the faith while allowing for unknowns or interpretations in other aspects.

In the Himalayan tradition, there is a rich set of foundational teachings called Mahamudra, which, translated, means Great Seal. The “seal” in this instance refers to the honoring of the reality of existence, namely marked by cognizance and emptiness. According to the Mahamudra teachings, there is no strict “self” that is independent in its existence. This is what is meant by the Buddhist teachings of “no-self.” It is a balanced approach, a middle-way, between the rationalized fixation of a strict self and a nihilistic understanding of existence. 

When we consider what “we are,” what “I am,” I am invited to experience this awareness in terms of this spaciousness, this emptiness, and in terms of cognizance and wisdom. These two foundational aspects describe the primordial awareness–what “I am” in the essence of “myself.” The Buddhist understanding of the four noble truths posits that our suffering finds its root in our grasping onto this rigid illusion of a separate self. Our struggle is with grasping and illusion, and our practice, therefore, invites us into a space to experience a release from this illusion. Further, much of our grasping is focused on the illusion of our thoughts, what we understand our minds to be–but which is a very superficial image. We are called to rest in this spaciousness awareness, what is called rigpa

Again, I stress that the core wisdom emphasizes that our understanding of “self” is grounded in interdependence with all reality rather than in a strictly separate identity which we grasp and cling to–and protect, etc. When we can reflect deeply here, don’t we see how so much of our struggle truly does rest with this fixation on grasping onto the illusion? Buddhism is not nihilistic; rather, it posits such an interdependent view of reality–grounded in this primordial awareness that is spacious and cognizant.  As Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche (1920-1996), one of the greatest Buddhist teachers of the 20th century described, “The point I’m trying to make here is that everything is included within the seeming and the real. As for the real, remember that mind is primordially empty. It is original wakefulness that is empty in essence, cognizant by nature, and all-pervasive in its capacity. This original wakefulness, yeshe, is not a blank void; it is cognizant. It has the ability to know. When we talk about the real, the original, this is what it is” (As It Is, vol. 1, 52).

In another example of this insight, Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche (1910-1991), himself one of the greatest masters in Himalayan Buddhism, reflects on the writings of Patrul Rinpoche (1808-1887). Dilgo Khyentse’s commentary on Patrul Rinpoche’s The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones is a powerful reflection. In the introduction, there is a reference to Chandrakirti (600-650): 

First, conceiving of an I, we cling to an ego.

Then conceiving of a mine, we cling to a material world.

Like water in a water wheel, helplessly we circle;

I bow down to the compassion that arises for all beings. (8)

These words from fourteen centuries ago ring so true today.

Dilgo Khytense himself speaks to this struggle in his commentary, building on Patrul Rinpoche’s description of “illusion” and the hope for liberation in our understanding: “However, these days, such understanding is rare. Delusion is piled upon delusion and proliferates like the antics of monkeys imitating one another; it has gone so far that it is hard for us to find a way out of it all. We have lost sight of the true nature of things, so it is difficult for us not to waste our lives” (42). In such a state, we are called to practice even more deeply so that we can experience release from such grasping onto this illusory self that thwarts our awareness of the true nature of things.

Now, at first read, many may think that these insights from Himalayan Buddhism have absolutely no relation to Christianity. Many may feel that the core teachings of Christianity focus on the personal salvation of a particular soul so that that soul may spend eternity in heaven. Indeed, this has been such a heavy emphasis within certain Western contexts, especially, that maybe we cannot actually see teachings right in front of our very eyes. I want to argue that there is an enormously important grounding within Christian practice–nurtured by the wisdom of the Christian contemplative tradition–that resonates so deeply with the insights of the Mahamudra wisdom.

An icon of all saints from the monastery at Mega Spelio, the Great Cave, Greece

How does Christianity view “the self?” The honest truth is that it is complicated, because there are layers of interpretation throughout the centuries that have all flavored the original texts, if you will. There is, within the Gospel texts and Pauline writings, in particular, a strong emphasis on an understanding of “self” that resonates with the Mahamudra wisdom of interconnection–of releasing the grasp on such a hyper-individualized perspective. 

Look firstly at Jesus’ own insights in the Gospel of John. In the 17th chapter, Jesus is praying for his disciples, and he says:

“I ask not only on behalf of these but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that they world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (John 17:20ff)

This text has long stood as one of the hallmarks for the Christian contemplative tradition’s emphasis on a non-dual awareness of our existence, and it truly does resonate with the insights from the Mahamudra teachings–as does St. Paul’s writings, in fact.

In the twelfth chapter of the First Letter the Corinthians, Paul is describing the image of how we all share in the Body of Christ:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the Spirit we were all baptized into one body–Jews or Greeks, slaves or free–and we were all made to drink of one Spirit” (I Corinthians 12:12-13). Any rigid separate self is let go here in favor of seeing our interconnection within the whole.

In the Letter to the Galatians, the writer there (in the Pauline tradition), connects with this theme by emphasizing an interconnected reality that breaks down the rigid distinctions that society held at that time–and still does:

“As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).

Further, In one of the beautiful and poetic passages in all of the Biblical texts, Paul reflects on the particular posture, if you will, that he sees as the hallmark of Christian practice and identity: emptiness. It is a powerful and convicting image that challenges us to consider how we act and live in the world. 

“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

Who, though he was in the form

Of God,

Did not regard equality with God

As something to be exploited,

But emptied himself,

Taking the form of a slave,

Being born in human likeness.

And being found in human form,

He humbled himself

And became obedient to the

Point of death–

Even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6-8).

To claim that a posture of emptying is the essence of what it means to pattern one’s life on Christ’s own life is a powerful and radical claim to make in today’s culture.

Indeed, one can find many examples of this insight on an interconnected identity throughout other texts as well, and it is important to acknowledge the rich insight of this Christian contemplative tradition that reduces this grasping of a hyper-individualized self in favor of resting in a fuller identity of mutuality.

The image embodied by Jesus and by St. Paul’s writings show us what can be argued as the heart of Christian wisdom–an insight nurtured by countless mystics and sages throughout time. Even while our current Christian context may be marked by a rigid focused on a strict “self” that must be guarded, and that so easily pits us against one another in the illusion of a zero-sum mentality, there persists the wisdom within the Christian texts themselves that can nurture the answer to so much struggling in the world today. 

Perhaps no season of our life emphasizes this as much as the days around the Feast of All Saints, when we celebrate our connection with loved ones and all beings throughout space and time. Linear time breaks down in this season and we visualize ourselves as we truly are: joined together in one great mutuality of being. As the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews reminds us, “we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1). Here, we say that the veil is thin and we see life as it really: a life of union that transcends every barrier.

Indeed, one can imagine Chandrakirti and Jesus having a very meaningful conversation when we lay Chadrakirti’s words 

First, conceiving of an I, we cling to an ego.

Then conceiving of a mine, we cling to a material world.

Like water in a water wheel, helplessly we circle;

I bow down to the compassion that arises for all beings. 

Alongside Jesus’s own words from the Gospel of Matthew (also included in St. Luke’s account):

“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these…” (Matthew 6:25-29).

Perhaps now is the time when those of us who have been identified with one particular religious practice can turn toward one another even more fully, with curiosity and expectation, to see how the wisdom of another tradition can cut through the baggage of our own. Given the tension and strain we feel in the world today, I know how grateful I am for the way that Himalayan Buddhism continues to encourage me to release my own grip on such a rigid illusion–with the promise of enormous peace.

November 5, 2022

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