On his death bed, just before he breathed his last, the Buddha gathered his disciples around him and offered these last words of wisdom:
“You are a light unto yourself. Seek not any external refuge. Salvation is found in no other place than yourself.”
I’ve been taking the advice of a good friend, and dabbling in the primary texts of other belief systems. In our day and age, it is very unpopular to try to summarize or categorize complex belief systems too narrowly. No one likes to be labeled, or stereotyped. Yet, there are some larger, more basic categorizations that are legit, and necessary to define when we begin distinguishing between differing worldviews.
I was recently reading a book by Os Guiness entitled “The Call: Finding and Fulfilling the Central Purpose of Your Life“. He identified varying ways people seek meaning or purpose in life. Here’s a terribly insufficient summary:
1. One perspective perceives desire itself as the main problem of human existence. We long, desire, hunger for meaning – and this very desire leaves us in an endless cycle of disappointment. The answer for these folks (e.g., Buddhists, Hindus) is to detach oneself from all desire or seeking. Stop searching, stop desiring, stop longing for the ultimate good, and instead “just be”, exist in “the now”, and strive, or rather stop striving, in order to enjoy a state of detachment, or “enlightenment” or nirvana.
2. Another perspective (Guiness calls it the Greek view of love - eros) is the great human ascent toward certain desired goods an goals. In this view, opposed to the previous Eastern view, we recognize the innate human longings, cravings, yearnings for appetizing goods — beauty, honor, recognition, truth, justice, love — as a healthy starting point for seeking fulfillment and significance. Yet, the problem we run into here is that we buy into the lie that we can actually satisfy these deep longings if we can somehow possess these particular goods.
Yet, experience continually demonstrates that these finite goods never quite fill that infinite vacuum in the human soul. American consumerism is a living parable of this point: we possess more stuff, more freedoms, more luxuries than any other civilization in history, and never has there ever been a higher number of unsatisfied, depressed, unfulfilled, empty souls. And never have we seen more people turning to addictions in order to temporarily numb the gnawing discontent.
3. And so, following Guiness’ argument, we come to the third, and most promising approach to happiness, joy, fulfillment and purpose. This classic, biblical answer to human longing and desire is well known, but is always a timely reminder to me as i go about my busy, distraction-filled days. As Guiness summarizes, “the way of agape says,
“By all means love, by all means desire, but think carefully about what you love and what you desire.” Those who follow eros are not wrong to desire happiness but wrong to think that happiness is to be found where they seek it. The very fact that humans experience desire is proof that we are creatures. Incomplete in ourselves, we desire whatever we think is beckoning to complete us (Guiness, 13).
And here the classic Christian answer sheds new and hopeful light onto the dark landscape of human yearning. St. Augustine said, “You, God, have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” The Bible beckons us to “Seek happiness in the Lord, and He will satisfy the longings of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). Human desire and a sense of incompleteness is an invitation to find wholeness in the One in whose image we are created, and who has created us for a life in intimate communion with Himself.
And so i return to the last words of the Buddha. Whether or not we like general categorizations in religious systems, or drawing blanket conclusions on a particular worldview, one must admit a radical difference between the Buddhists answer to the search for human fulfillment and purpose, and the Christian approach. Either desire is evil, and human longing is part of the problem (Buddhism); or, desire is good, and human longing is the quiet whisper of the Creator to the human soul, beckoning us to find our heart’s deepest longings satisfied in Him.
Either we listen to the Buddha and find the light of salvation by turning inward to ourselves (“Salvation is found in no other place than yourself”), denying any refuge outside ourselves (see quote above). Or, we listen to Jesus, opening our hearts to the One who says,”I am the light of the world”, and let His truth and love illuminate our darkened hearts and minds. There is a clear choice here. Choose wisely.
For God, who said “Let light shine out of darkness,” is the one who shined in our hearts to give us the light of the glorious knowledge of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).
Now this is eternal life — that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you sent” (John 17:3).
I have come as a light into the world, so that everyone who believes in me should not remain in darkness” (John 12:46).