Buddhist and Christian Soul-Making

So far as I know, John Keats coined the phrase “soul-making” in a letter to his brother and sister in May of 1819.
He writes:

“…suppose a rose to have sensation. It blooms on a beautiful morning. It enjoys itself–but there comes a cold wind, a hot sun–it cannot escape it, it cannot destroy its annoyances. They are as native to the world as itself: no more can man be happy in spite, the worldly elements will prey upon his nature.

The common cognomen of this world among the misguided and superstitious is ‘a vale of tears’ from which we are to be redeemed by a certain arbitrary interposition of God and taken to Heaven. What a little circumscribed straightened notion! Call the world if you Please ‘The vale of Soul-making.’ Then you will find out the use of the world. (I am speaking now in the highest terms for human nature admitting it to be immortal which I will here take for granted for the purpose of showing a thought which has struck me concerning it): I say ‘Soul making.’ Soul as distinguished from an Intelligence…There may be intelligences or sparks of the divinity in millions–but they are not Souls till they acquire identities, till each one is personally itself. Intelligences are atoms of perception–they know and they see and they are pure, in short they are God. How then are Souls to be made? How then are these sparks which are God to have identity given them so as forever to possess a bliss peculiar to each one’s individual existence? I–low, but by the medium of a world like this? This point I sincerely wish to consider because I think it a grander system of salvation than the Christian religion–or rather it is a system of Spirit-creation. This is effected by three grand materials acting the one upon the other for a series of years. These three Materials are the Intelligence, the human Heart (as distinguished from intelligence or Mind), and the World or Elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other for the purpose of forming the Soul or Intelligence destined to possess the sense of Identity.”

Keats offers his scheme of salvation as an alternative to the Christian religion, which he says later in the same letter has disenchanted and depersonalized the world because of its obsessive monotheism. Without an “elemental space suited for the proper action of Mind and Heart on each other,” the Intelligence is unable to mature into Individuality. The Soul remains a potentiality unable, through the schooling of a living universe, to self-actualize.

I’m interested in the spiritual fruits that may mature by bringing Keats’ scheme into conversation with Mahayana Buddhism and Esoteric Christianity. For the Buddha, selfhood was an illusion to be dissolved. Ego is not only a source of suffering, but its cause, since only such a false sense of identity allows one’s inherent Buddha-nature to become deformed by grasping after the fleeting images arising and perishing in the round of samsara. Samsara, for Keats, is the vale of tears. Nirvana is realized when our true identity, dependently co-arising with all that is and is-not, replaces the false identity of the ego.

The teachings of Christ suggest that within each of us dwells an innocence akin to Adam’s prior to the Fall. Through love of our neighbor, the world, and God, each of us may be born again, “not of the water, but of the Spirit.” Then, “not I, but the Christ in me” lives eternally within the heart of the Creator. The world becomes a vale of soul-making when Earth is no longer radically separated, due to our sin (or clouded perception), from Heaven. Instead, an economy is opened between the Above and the Below, such that creative divinity participates even in the shaping of the dust from which our bodies emerge and return. Each becomes, like Christ, a Son or Daughter of God. The Soul gains an identity by making itself particular, learning from the trials of the World aided by the universal Intelligence aflame within it. Soul-making is no less a task for humanity than incarnation is for divinity. To become who we really are: perhaps in this mission both Buddha and Christ are our partners.

I’ll be exploring some of these ideas further in an essay to be posted soon!

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13 Comments Add yours

  1. Joe says:

    Great post, Matt. That quote was great, too. I, too, am much more interested in soul-making than soul-having (or -inhereting). Miss ya buddy, hope you’ll be in Fl soon.

    1. Thanks, Joe. I’ll be visiting Fla at some point this summer. Not sure when yet. Still feeling out the possibility of traveling to Stuttgart this summer as well. I’ll let you know!

  2. Casey says:

    You are SO heading for a collision with the Big It, man. Let us know when it happens.

  3. Bryce Laliberte says:

    If you’re planning on exploring the subject of a natural religion in light of human nature, I’d like to see you answer the challenges of a skepticism from both atheism and revealed religion that might hold objections against such a project.

    Not to mention, personally, I’m apt to thinking Christ and Buddha are diametrically opposed, Buddhism being the religion of self-negation vs. Christianity being the religion of self-absolution. So I’m curious to see you give an interpretation to these two spiritual leaders, but, to be honest, even more curious to see your interpretation of the spiritual traditions they founded.

    1. Christ and Buddha may seem like teachers who offered opposed teachings, but I think this is an appearance due more to cultural context than spiritual essence. Siddhartha Gautama was responding to a Hindu tradition, Jesus to a Jewish. Hindu’s needed to be liberated from the oppression of a caste system and the potential self-aggrandizement resulting from a misreading of the Vedic truth: “Atman is Brahman.” The teaching of every sentient being’s inherent Buddha-nature and the emphasis on anatman (non-self) are more a result of these needs. Buddha wasn’t a systematic thinker, but a spiritual physician. Jesus began his ministry in a time when Judaism was being increasingly tied down by Law and guilt, and so taught a path to self-innocence through Love. Not that the concepts are identical, but I think there is much affinity between what Paul referred to as “the Christ in me” and what Buddhist texts call “Tathāgatagarbha,” the seed or embryo of Buddhahood at the core of every being.

      I’ve explored the relationship between these traditions in an essay written a few years ago: https://footnotes2plato.com/2009/08/24/gnostic-consciousness-knowing-with-spiritual-beings/

      I’ll be exploring it again, perhaps also with some space devoted to atheism, in an essay to be posted in a few weeks.

  4. Gary Smith says:

    If we take dust to be electronic pixels and Intelligence to be the Author, then that author shapes up a particular piece of writing with his flying typing tapping fingers. The work will be with or without soul. That is to say, it will be with or without personal identity. That is always the problem of writing. Too often we, those of us who profess a love of wisdom, come up with an over-intellectualized, scholarly work. Dispassionate! Always heeding the Cartesian admonition that truth is in the clear and distinct. We must be objective and universal by intellectual force. What to do? It is in our academic blood. And we are too often without soul.

    In spite of all that I still love your calm, clear style. I suspect or rather I know it is the end of a great mass of prior, unseen intellectual tension.

  5. dmf says:

    are you rejecting the historical understanding, say of bart ehrman, that jesus was an end-times preacher, and if so will you be discussing bultmann et al?

    1. I think I will try to depict these beings, Jesus Christ and Gautama Buddha, as both historical and mythical, spiritual and symbolical. It is only our literal and unimaginative age that demands they be one or the other, human teacher or divinity. In the context of soul-making, these distinctions are less important, anyways, since as Jung put it, if it has psychic effects, it is real.

      1. dmf says:

        was just trying to get a sense of your methodology and how it relates to historicism, not sure what it would mean for an age to not be literal-minded or imaginative (thinking/believing is an act of imagination) just on an individual level try not believing anything that you believe, can’t be done (As Jung and Stanley Fish remind us we don’t have our ideas/complexes as much as they have us), what one can do is try as Jung suggested to dream the dream on in active (read not conservative/habitual) imaginative practices.
        The danger of denying history is that one might also deny politics/ethics, especially as relates to supercessionism.
        If you get a chance check out Kerslake’s book on Jung/Deleuze.

  6. Lfs says:

    In my opinion there is a profound difference as Christ fulfilled prophesy and made a claim that “whosoever believeth on me shall have Eternal life”. He also claimed, “The only way to the Father is through the Son”. The similarity lies in the philosophy; Christ told us to “love thy neighbor as you love yourself”. “Do unto others as you would have them do to you”. And to “love the Lord God with all your heart, mind and Soul”. Christianity in it’s perfection is a “selfless” love. The focus is on “giving up you r life for your friend”. Buddhism is a Religion which promotes oneself as his own God. Christianity is a ‘relationship’ with and a surrender to
    God, the Jewish God of Abraham, Moses, Isaac, JDavid etc. On down to Jesus who created the “heavens and the Earth, amd claims to have known you before you were conceived.All prophets with a bloodlines whose “Prophesies” are coming and have been coming to pass. ie: The Book of Revelations, which takes a biblical scholar to disect but a worthy cause.

    1. Fred says:

      Nope, Buddhism certainly does not promote “oneself as his own God”. Anatman (no-self) is at the very core of Buddhism! That makes it even more “selfless” than Christianity.

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