Process Theology and the Bodhisattva Vow
by Jay McDaniel
Philosophy may not neglect the multifariousness of the world — the
fairies dance, and Christ is nailed to the cross.
Alfred North Whitehead
Dancing Fairies, Suffering Saviors
When the fairies dance we naturally feel delight. There's something beautiful and ticklish in our souls. A lightness of heart. We dance in our imaginations even if we cannot dance on the ground.
And when a man is nailed to a cross, we naturally share in his suffering and those who mourn for him. His pain and their pain become our pain, too. We may not have have nails in our skin, and we cannot pretend that we feel exactly what he feels. But we have something of his feelings inside us, too. We have nails in our heart.
In our felt connection with fairies and saviors, free spirits and burdened souls. we learn something about ourselves.
Some people believe we live in a competitive world where each person is and ought to be out for himself. But those of us influenced by process theology or Buddhism see things very differently. We know that we are not skin-encapsulated egos cut off from the world by the boundaries of our skin. We are open spaces.
Indra's Net and Mirror Neurons
Neurobiologists provide us with a biological explanation. They tell us that within our brains there are mirror-neurons which mirror the subjective states of those around us.
This makes sense to those among us who are Buddhists or who try to follow the way of Jesus. We are friends of the mirror-neurons. We believe that they are one way of revealing what Buddhists call Indra's Net.
Indra's Net is a metaphor for the seamless web of inter-existence. It is the image of a vast network of jewels, each of which has an infinite number of facets. If you place a dot on one of the facets on one of the jewels, and then look at the other jewels, you will see the dot in them, too, because they reflect the
In Whitehead's philosophy each moment of experience is a jewel in Indra's Net.
We have made a promise inside our hearts to share in the joys and sufferings of all living beings and respond, as best we can, with loving-kindness.
We know people of other religions and no religion who have made the same promise. It is a deeply human promise: a kind of fundamental choice that changes your whole life. You don't live for money or fame or power anymore, if once you ever did. You don't worry about being recognized or being famous, if these were once your preoccupations. You don't aspire to be a celebrity. Buddhists call it the Bodhisattva Vow.
The Bodhisattva Vow is the promise to postpone any kind of ultimate freedom -- call it nirvana or heaven or ultimate peace -- until all sentient beings can join you.
If it happens that you are given a choice to "go to heaven" or "return to the world" through a process of reincarnation, you will return and be born again, again and again. You will not enter heavenly gates until everyone else, the dancing fairies and suffering saviors, can come, too.
There's a special intuition involved in making this vow. It is an intuition shared by Buddhists and followers of the Jesus way, and by many, many others. Whitehead put it simply when he said that all actual entities are present in one another even as they are different from each other.
The Multifariousness of the World
In order to pay attention to the whole of life, from the dancing fairies to the crucified saviors, we need to be wide open. We cannot hide from joy or pain, beauty or calamity.
We cannot be naive optimists who see the world through rose colored glasses or naive pessimists who see the world through overly darkened glasses. We need to be clear eyed, open to the beauty and the terror.
The Open Mind as Mirror-Like
Buddhists tell us that clear eyed minds are compassionate yet mirror-like, reflecting the world as it appears, moment by moment, and say that, when our minds are compassionate and mirror-like in this way, we can respond authentically to each situation. We can respond in the spirit of the bodhisattva: the one who promises to postpone final nirvana until all sentient beings can join her.
The Open Mind as Compassionate
In Mahayana Buddhism this promise may or may not be taken literally. The Mahayana Buddhist may or may not believe in a final nirvana, in which all living best eventually rest and toward which all hearts strive. But she does indeed believe in the subjective aim that lies behind the promise.
The subjective aim is to give yourself to others without being attached to consequences, again and again, over and over, for as long as you live.
This giving of yourself is not necessarily an act of sefl-sacrifice. In Buddhism as in process theology, the idea that there must be a conflict between caring for oneself and caring for others is an illusion. Often in life the well-being of others and the well-being of oneself are two sides of one coin. We love our neighbors as ourselves because our selves cannot be sharply separated from our neighbors.
In Buddhism as in process theology, the universe is a vast network of inter-being or, perhaps better, inter-becoming, in which individual selves are dependent on, and present in, other selves. Ultimately we are all in it together.
The Two Side of Love
The subjective aim represents an awareness of this togetherness and also a fundamental choice in life: a choice to live for others and not simply oneself. A Christian might call it the choice for love.
An influentiqal Christian theologian influenced by process theology, Thomas Oord, tells us that love has two sides: a listening side which shares in the sufferings and joys of others like Christ on the cross and a responsive side that responds to what is known in the listening by acting in ways that promote the well-being of others.
Oord's insight rings true to Mahayana Buddhists. The life of compassione involves receptivity and responsiveness, moment by moment, as emerging from the open mind.
The Open Mind as Responsive
To the Call of the Moment
In order to live in a compassionate way, the mind of a bodhissatva is flexible and creative. It is responsive to the joys and sufferings of other sentient beings and thus responsive to what process theologians such as Thomas Oord calls the initial aim from the divine reality or, as I will speak of it, the calling of the moment.
I speak of this aim as the call of the moment because, for process theologians, this calling can be responded to whether or not a person believes in a divine reality. It is part of the very spirit of the divine reality, and for process theologians it blows through the earth and within human hearts freely, without requiring any particular form of belief, religious or otherwise.
The calling of the moment is a fresh possibility which, if actualized, offers the best possible response to the situation at hand, given the circumstances at issue. The calling of the moment is the ideal response, relative to the needs of all involved.
The key is flexibility. Every moment has its calling but the calling changes from moment to moment. In some moments the calling is to share in the joys of other and laugh with them, in others it is to share in the pain of others and cry with them.
In order to laugh when it is time to laugh, and cry when it is time to cry, the open mind is not attached to fixed expectations or fixed views. And it is not attached to habitual responses derived from the past, emotional or intellectual, which prevent receptivity and responsiveness to the present.
Emptiness is Form and Form is Emptiness
The open mind is new at every moment. The bodhisattva knows that this moment is the first time and also the last time that this moment will occur. If she is influenced by the Perfection of Wisdom school of Buddhism, she will hadd that this moment rightly understod is nirvana. Nirvana is not a distant place to arrive at, it is this moment, here and now.
Wisdom, Compassion, Creativity
To be sure, there is a constancy in the calling. Always the calling is for a response that is wise in its sensitivity to the interconnectedness of things and always it is compassionate in its sensitivity to the needs of oneself and others. Often it is also creative in its actualization of novel possibilities.
But what is wise and compassionate and creative in one circumstance may not be wise and compassionate and creative in another. Thus the open mind must also be a creative and flexible mind. The open mind has an improvisational quality.
And then we need to respond authentically, in light of the calling of the moment and the times, sometimes with a "yes" and sometimes with a "no."
But always with feeling.
Maybe Buddhism can help us.
At least non-zombie Buddhism.
Zombies are people who can't feel anything. They are animated corpses who walk around in a hypnotic state. They don't care if the fairies dance or Christ is nailed to the cross.
Sometimes people think of Buddhist non-attachment this way. They think of it as a state of affairs in which people become zombie-like in order to avoid feeling the pain of the world or enjoy its pleasures.
To them Buddhists seem to be detached from the world in order to find a personal peace. They hear the theme of non-attachment and think "escape."
The Way of All Ideologies
In the video above Michael Stone proposes that Buddhist non-attachment is just the opposite of zombie existence. He says that it is a way of being fully engaged with the world in an active way, but without clinging to fixed views.
Stone represents a more this-worldly strand of Buddhism, now found in many parts of the world, where Buddhism is a way of being present in each moment of life in a compassionate yet non-clinging way.
A leading proponent of this kind of Buddhism is the monk Thich Nhat Hanh, seen in the image to the left. He is a prime mover in the tradition of engaged Buddhism.
In the spirit of Thich Nhat Hanh, Stone says that genuine non-attachment is non-attachment to fixed ideas so that we can be more open and responsive to the world. This purpose of not being attached to fixed views is to avoid dogmatism and prejudgement, so that we can be open to what presents itself as it presents itself in a loving and non-clinging way.
What are fixed views? They are habitual ways of thinking that have become hardened and solid, to which people cling, consciously and unconciously, with inordinate attachment.
Sometimes we speak of fixed views as ideologies. Prominent examples of influential philosophies in our time include Christianism, Islamism, Scientism, Modernism, Liberalism, Conservatism, and Cynicism.
From the perspective of engaged Buddhists, these ideologies get in the way of compassion and also wisdom. True wisdom does not lie in having a fixed view, but rather in intuitively realizing that reality is fluid and flowing, never containable in, or reducible to, any fixed view.
Buddhism teaches us that we can have views and convictions, but that we must not cling to them or make gods of them. We must hold them with a relaxed grasp.
Is Process Philosophy a Fixed View
The idea that reality is fluid and flowing sounds a whole lot like process philosophy. So does the Buddhist idea that, amid the fluidity, all beings are really becomings and that all are connected to one another forming an evolving, organic whole. It is no surprise that many Whiteheadians have sympathy for Buddhism.
Nevertheless, it is understandable that people like Michael Stone are suspicious of philosophies. Maybe even all of them.
Stone and others like him rightly sense that philosophies of any kind -- however Buddhist in tone -- easily become ideologies.
Certainly this is a dangerprocess philosophy. When process philosophy becomes a definitive worldview which is fixed and static in the mind's eye and which is then applied to the world like an algorithm, it becomes deceptive and oppressive. If becomes a false god.
Of course this is not its intent. Most people embrace process philosophy because they think it can help them become more open, not more closed, to the multifariousness of the world.
Process philosophy can indeed help people become more open and mindful...if those who embrace it avoid making an absolute of process philosophy.
Not Process Philosophy
but process philosophy
Here again engaged Buddhism can help. In order to avoid absolutizing Buddhism, some engaged Buddhists speak of being buddhists with a lower case "b."
Learn from Buddhism, they say, but don't make a god of it. It is a tool for understanding and an invitation to mindfulness, but not something to cling to as if it were filled with final answers.
Process philosophy can be approached in the same spirit. Learn from it, but don't make a god of it.
We process philosophers are at our best when process philosophy functions as a flexible attitude toward life, guided by some general ideas which form an outlook on life.
We are at our worst when process philosophy functions as a definitive worldview concerning which we seem smugly certain.
When we process philosophers give the appearance of having all the answers, process philosophy itself becomes an ideology. Call it process-olatry.
The Need to Be Right
Ideologies gain their power because they satisfy an individual and collective need to be right.
The need to be right is very different from the need to be accurate. When engineers design airplanes, we want them to be accurate. When accountants keep books, we want them to be accurate.
The need to be right is the need to feel valid as a person because you have the "right" beliefs or views. Most people I know -- myself much included -- have moments when we are seduced by this need. In certain moments we become:
1. The argumentative person who pretends to be open to truth but really just wants to win a debate.
2. The defensive person who is closed to new ideas because they might shatter a fortress of belief.
3. The combative person who approaches life as a battle between good and evil, and who is fairly certain she knows exactly what good is.
4. The paternalistic person who always needs to be sharing good news with others because, after all, she possesses the Truth.
5. The dominating person who always needs to have the last or final word.
6. The inwardly rigid person who is afraid of disorder, novelty, and surprise.
Argumentativeness and defensiveness, combativeness and paternalism, domination and rigidity -- these are personality traits which accompany an inordinate need to be right.
His ideas intersect nicely with the spirit of some postmodern thinking today. We hear inklings of non-attachment from postmodern thinkers in Europe such as Jacques Derrida and Giles Deleuze, whose decentering rhetorics never let us rest in the illusion of alleged certainties. They are masters in the arts of anti-essentialist thinking. Whenever they have arrived at anything resembling a fixed position, they move on, inviting us to do the same. They are not in the business of proffering "positions" but rather in undertaking journeys with no fixed destination.
We hear inklings as well from Whitehead whose writings, when read with Buddhist-influenced eyes, invite us to look at the world in terms of moments or occasions of experience which are new at every moment, and which cannot be captured in predictable words and phrases. Zen and Postmodernism and Whitehead are partners in process.
All three point toward a non-attachment from fixed views, so that we can be more fully immersed and engaged in a multifarious world: the world of dancing fairiess and dying saviors, of flowering tulips and terrible catastrophes.
The value of Buddhism is that it offers a practice that can enrich our capacities for non-attachment: namely meditation. Thich Nhat Hanh emphasizes this often. If we enter into conscious breathing; if we spend a little time each day being mindful of what is happening in the rhythms of breathing in and breathing out, we might just be able to share, in a conscious way, in the breathing of the poor and powerless of our world, listening to their sighs and also their joys, knowing that they and we alike form a seamless web of inter-dependence. Buddhism offers a way of practicing process thought, however named.