On Beckh’s “From Buddha to Christ”: Suffering, Illness and Conquering Death

Buddhist and Christianity may be seen to have different views on suffering. At least in early Buddhism, the aim is to end suffering, to dissolve the ego, abandon attachments, extinguish the thirst for life, realise Nirvana, and to finally end the cycle of rebirth. At the center of Christianity, there is the cross, a symbol of utmost suffering and of torture that ends with death – or rather, with resurrection, which brings a totally different view of suffering, more aligned with the archetype of the phenix rising from the ashes. A new kind of life arises as death is conquered.

But certain developments within Buddhism bring it closer to the Christian view – some aspects of Buddhism may even be regarded to be more Christian than Christianity itself is. It is these two ideas that I will try to make sense of and justify in the following, using Hermann Beckh’s “From Buddha to Christ”, which I have just finished reading, as a starting point.

Hermann Beckh (1875–1937) was a legal practitioner with a deep personal interest in Buddhism. Being unsatisfied with job, he started studying Indian and Tibetan philology. Eventually he became professor religious studies at the Humboldt University in Berlin for a few years around 1920. He then became active in the Christian Community in Germany, lecturing and conducting independent research. He also authored a number of books, which have been “rediscovered” recently. All of his publications are now being translated into English.

“From Buddha to Christ” treats many aspects of the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity, most of which I will not go into here. One central idea, however, which Beckh received from Rudolf Steiner, is this one: It is because Buddha was right in saying that life is suffering that the deed of Christ is of utmost significance. Through Christ, new ways of relating to the sufferings of life become available. In other words, without the Buddha being right, there would be no meaning to the life of Christ.

Beckh illustrates this by considering a Christian response to the five fundamental ways of suffering that were central to the Buddha. The Buddha stated in the famous Sermon at Benares that:

  1. Birth is suffering
  2. Old age is suffering
  3. Illness is suffering
  4. Death is suffering
  5. To be united with what one does not love or separated from loved ones is suffering
  6. Not obtaining one’s wishes is suffering

Beckh refers to a lecture that Steiner held on the 11th of April 1909, where he comments on each of these one from a Christian perspective:

  1. Birth is not suffering: It is a portal to finding Christ
  2. Old age is not suffering: As we age, we grow more and more into the spiritual world
  3. Illness is not suffering: It is an opportunity to overcome an obstacle through the healing power of Christ
  4. Death is not suffering: Death has been conquered by Christ
  5. To be united with what one does not love is not suffering: Through Christ, love expands to include even our enemies. To be separated from loved one is not suffering: Through Christ we can find a way to remain united with everyone, both during life and after life has ended.
  6. Not obtaining one’s wishes is not suffering: Through not getting what one wants, one is purified, and Christ makes one sense that even compelled renunciation purifies

In short, suffering is an opportunity, a way to grow, a way to heal. Suffering can be conquered, it can lead to an expansion of love, and it purifies. All this can be gained not by seeking to escape earthly existence and reaching Nirvana, but by taking part in human life, and especially by encountering its hardships. On such a view, a deeper transcendence can be found through or even in immanence.

However, as Beckh indicates as well, later forms of Buddhism, such as Mayahana, may be seen to have already been influenced by Christianity (p. 14). The most obvious example of this is the Boddhisattva vow, or the ideal that the individual postpones their own awakening until everyone can awaken and seeks to help others along the way. There is an interesting connection between this ideal with the notion of the higher guardian of the threshold in Steiner’s work, which we will not explore further here. However, we can make Beckh’s view even more radical, and argue that later forms of Buddhism in some ways are more Christian than Christianity itself.

A related point is that, in Beckh’s view, Buddhism differs from Christianity in that Buddhism has laid down a clear path of spiritual realisation. This could be shown by comparing the comprehensiveness and specificity of Buddhist meditations manuals to Christian ones. I will not do this here. However, to justify the claim that Buddhism in a way realises the Christian response to Buddhism stronger than Christianity itself, I will look into a few examples from the Buddhist meditation manual The Royal Seal of Mahamudra, written by the Tibetan Buddhist Ngawang Kunga Tenzin (1680-1728). This manual outlines a way in which, among other things, suffering, illness and death can themselves be made part of a path of spiritual realisation aiming at experiencing the whole of reality, including all aspect of earthly existence, as sacred.

One essential part of the practice of using the hindrances or obstacles as part of the path consist of understanding. One understands why, for example, suffering arises. Then one recognises that further thoughts about being in a good or bad situation, including clinging to a better life and related hopes and fears, are not helpful. This may seem like a familiar view from early Buddhism. However, then something strange follows: One takes the suffering itself as the path – one rests right on the problem. One concentrates on whatever the suffering consists of directly. For example, if there is suffering because the body hurts, one focuses on the painful sensations and the felt resistance in the body. Furthermore, one uses the suffering to awaken love and compassion towards everyone that is suffering. More specifically, one can use practices such as Tonglen, in which you take on the suffering of others on order to transform it.

When using illness as a path, the approach is basically the same: You work with your view, your understanding of the phenomena of illness, and meditate on whatever experience of the illness is present:

As to actually using sickness as the path, when there is pain, don’t slip into blocking it or curing it. No matter what disturbance in the elements or pain arises, think that it is a cause for purifying negativity, recognize the vivid feeling of physical and mental sickness and pain itself, and entrust the core of the meditation to that very recognition.

So, the illness is understood as leading to purification – it is “a broom that sweeps away obscurations”.

The meditations on death are in fact quite complex, but the pattern is similar: One uses the experience of death as a meditation object and this makes death a catalyst of realisation. If successful, one learns to control the process of death and rebirth in such a way that one is no longer reborn – which would equal the awakening of early Buddhism – but one may also choose to be reborn at a place where one may be most effective in participating in the awakening of all beings. Interestingly, these practices seem to be practiced with some degree of success. I’ve written about this earlier, and recently a study about this was published in the journal Mindfulness.

To summarise: Suffering can become part of the way, it is not necessarily something to avoid or be liberated from. Rather, it is a portal to awakening. Illness may lead to removing of obstacles. And death may be conquered. Through these examples, it has hopefully become clear how some Buddhist approaches are indeed aligned with the Christian view. Furthermore, the theory presented in Buddhist meditation manuals, and the practice of Buddhist meditators, may be deeper than the one found in the Christian tradition, essentially making Buddhist practice more Christian than the one found in Christianity itself. Where do you find the most concrete instructions for conquering death? Buddhist meditation manuals. Who are actually working on conquering death? Buddhist practitioners.