Buddhist (D.T. Suzuki) Critique of the Cross

Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on the cross as evidence of the love of God which engages with the suffering of the world head-on provides a decisive answer to the Buddhist allegation that Christianity is a world-negating religion. Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki claims that the cruelty surrounding the crucifixion of Christ negates the simple realities of this life and does not compare well with the Buddhist sense of peaceful transition from this life to the next.

Christian symbolism has much to do with the suffering of man. The crucifixion is the climax of all suffering. Buddhists also speak much about suffering and its climax of all suffering is the Buddha serenely sitting under the Bodhi tree by the river Niranjana. Christ carries his suffering to the end of his earthly life whereas Buddha puts an end to it while living and goes on preaching the gospel of enlightenment until he quietly passes away under the twin Sala tree… when Buddha attained his supreme enlightenment, he was in his sitting posture; he was neither attached to nor detached from the earth; he was one with it, he grew out of it, and yet he was not crushed by it./1/

Suzuki adds, “Christ hangs helpless, full of sadness on the vertically erected cross. To the Oriental mind, the sight almost unbearable.” /2/ In contrast, Buddha still continued to preach after his enlightenment to all sorts of people, showing that he was deeply concerned with human affairs in various forms. That is to say, Buddhism, contrary to common misunderstanding, accepts life on earth with equanimity, in contrast to Christianity which is emotionally traumatizing, life-denying and world-abandoning.

Suzuki proceeds with a theological critique of the crucifixion.

Christians would say that crucifixion means crucifying the self or the flesh, since without subduing the self we cannot gain moral perfection…Buddhism declares that there is from the very beginning no self to crucify. To think that there is the self is the start of all errors and evils. Ignorance is at the root of all things that go wrong. As there is no self, no crucifixion is needed, no sadism is to be practiced, no shocking sight is to be displayed by the road-side. /3/

Suzuki’s assertion is premised on the Buddhist doctrine of sunyata. That is to say, all things are empty of intrinsic existence and nature and there is no ‘self’ (anatta). But one may retort at Suzuki, “Is not the denial of the ‘self’ itself an act of denial of the reality of life in the world, with all its sufferings?” In other words, suffering cannot be real if the subject of suffering itself is not real. However, this conclusion can only bring bewilderment to the person who is undergoing the brutal reality of pain and suffering. In the words of an ancient limerick:

There was a faith-healer of Deal,
Who said: “Although pain isn’t real,
If I sit on a pin
And it punctures my skin,
I dislike what I fancy I feel.”

Suzuki’s assurance that there is no ‘self’ and the impermanence of experiences in this world comes across as bringing cold comfort when placed alongside the poignant words from a haiku written by Kobayashi Issa, Japanese poet and lay Buddhist priest. Issa wrote the haiku after his two children died:

This dewdrop world –
Is a dewdrop world,
And yet, and yet…

Finally, Bonhoeffer might add that Suzuki’s critique of Christianity is both mistaken and misplaced. For Bonhoeffer, Christianity affirms that every aspect of the world is related to God as the realm of Christ-reality [Christuswirklichkeit] embraces the reality of the world, and the world has already been drawn into and held together in Christ. Bonhoeffer would refute Suzuki’s inference that Christian faith amounts to a flight from the world by insisting that with the revelation of ultimate reality in Christ, it follows that,

Whoever professes to believe in the reality of Jesus Christ, as the revelation of God, must in the same breath profess his faith in both the reality of God and the reality of the world; for in Christ he finds God and the world reconciled. And for just this reason the Christian is no longer the man of eternal conflict, but, just as the reality in Christ is one, so he, too, since he shares in this reality in Christ, is himself an undivided whole. His worldliness does not divide him from Christ, and his Christianity does not divide him from the world. Belonging wholly to Christ, he stands at the same time wholly in the world (E 201).

Bonhoeffer was not working with an idealized view of the world. He was living under the threat of a totalitarian government in Nazi Germany, and was personally involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler. He could take a hard look at evil around him with all its shortcomings because for him, notwithstanding appearances, the world has already been reconciled in Christ. Indeed, engaging with the world is inescapable since “Christian life is participation in Christ’s encounter with the world” (E 133).

Suzuki rightly recognizes that the cross is related to the resurrection. But he wrongly concludes that the cross that represents judgment and condemnation of the world implies that Christ’s subsequent resurrection and ascension was an act of abandonment of the present world in exchange for a better world beyond. A more nuanced understanding of the cross and the resurrection will bring into sharp relief Suzuki’s error in absolutizing what is only a negative moment (the cross) in the process of reconciliation.

The problem with the fallen world is that it always seeks an autonomous existence independent of God. This godlessness or human hubris is exposed and judged by the event of the crucifixion on the cross. At the same time this act of judgment does not constitute the final rejection or annihilation of the world. Human beings now live under the shadow of the cross, but the cross is also the place where salvation has become a new possibility. In other words, genuine worldliness begins by delivering the world, the penultimate, of its self-deception so that it is able to receive grace from the ultimate. Bonhoeffer elaborates,

The reality of the world has been marked once and for all by the cross of Christ, but the cross of Christ is the cross of the reconciliation of the world with God, and for this reason the godless world bears at the same time the mark of reconciliation as the free ordinance of God. The cross of atonement is the setting free for life before God in the midst of the godless world; it is the setting free for life in genuine worldliness. The proclamation of the cross of the atonement is a setting free because it leaves behind it the vain attempts to deify the world and…calls for simple life and action in the belief that the reconciliation of the world with God has been accomplished (E 297).

The Incarnation demonstrates God’s love for his creation, the crucifixion shows his judgment upon the creature, and the resurrection his promise of a new world to come. God’s becoming man means that man is called to be man, to be himself, a penultimate in the light of the ultimate. The cross shows the penultimate nature of the world, meaning that man is not to be deified but to live in the light of the final judgment.

Contrary to Suzuki’s charge, the resurrection does not annul life but makes it greater in the ultimate. “Thus, so long as the earth continues, even the resurrection does not annul the penultimate, but the eternal life, the new life, breaks in with ever greater power into the earthly life and wins its space for itself within it” (E 132). In dialectical terms, there is no dichotomy between the penultimate and the ultimate. The penultimate is not independent of the ultimate but leads to the ultimate. Conversely, the ultimate justifies the existence of the penultimate. In other words, Christian faith neither destroys nor sanctions the penultimate but assigns it its proper place.

/1/ D. T. Suzuki, Mysticism: Christian and Buddhist (Routledge reprint, 2003), pp. 117, 119.
/2/ Suzuki, Mysticism:Christian and Buddhist, p. 117.
/3/ Suzuki, Mysticism; Christian and Buddhist, pp. 119-120.

E Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics (Macmillan, 1965).

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