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Metamorphoses of the Soul
Paths of Experience Vol. 1

Schmidt Number: S-2114

On-line since: 15th January, 2008

LECTURE 8
Buddha and Christ 55 ]

Berlin, 2nd December 1909

Ever since its foundation, the spiritual-scientific movement has suffered from being confused with all sorts of other tendencies and strivings of the present day. Particularly it is accused of trying to transplant certain eastern spiritual currents, especially that of Buddhism, into the culture of the West. Hence our subject today has a special relevance for spiritual research: we are going to consider the significance of the Buddhist religion on the one hand and that of Christianity on the other, from the standpoint of Spiritual Science. Those who have often attended my lectures here will know that we intend a study in the scientific sense, ranging widely over world-events from the point of view of spiritual life.

Anyone who has thought at all seriously about Buddhism will know that its founder, Gautama Buddha, always refused to answer questions concerning the evolution of the world and the foundations of our human existence. He wished to speak only about the means whereby a man could come to a way of existence that would be satisfying in itself. This fact alone should be enough to distinguish Buddhism from Spiritual Science, for Spiritual Science never refuses to speak about world origins and the great facts of evolution. And if one particular aspect of Spiritual Science is being more and more confused with Buddhism — namely our treatment of repeated earth-lives and the working of spiritual causes from earlier lives into later ones — it is strange that Spiritual Science should be charged on this account with being a form of Buddhism. By now people should surely have grasped that Spiritual Science is not concerned with names but with ascertainable truth, independently of any name that may be given to it. The fact that the doctrine of reincarnation or repeated earth-lives is to be found among the ideas of Gautama Buddha, though in a quite different form, has no more significance for Theosophy or Spiritual Science than the fact that the elements of geometry are found in Euclid. Just as it would be absurd to accuse a geometry teacher of practising “Euclidism”, so is it absurd to bring a charge of Buddhism against Spiritual Science because it has a doctrine of reincarnation and similar ideas are to be found in the Buddha. At the same time we must make it clear that Spiritual Science provides a means of testing the spiritual sources of every religion — including Christianity, the basis of European culture, on the one hand, and Buddhism on the other.

The notion that Spiritual Science wants to be “Buddhism” is not confined to persons who know nothing of Theosophy. Even the great Orientalist, Max Muller, 56 ] who has done so much to make oriental religions better known in Europe, cannot rid himself of it. In discussing it with another writer he used the following analogy. If, he says, a man were to be seen somewhere with a pig that was a good grunter, no-one would be surprised; but if a man could mimic the grunting to perfection, people would gather round and look on it as a miracle! By the grunting pig Max Muller means the real Buddhism, which by then had become known in Europe. But its teaching, he continues, was attracting no attention, while false Buddhism, or what he calls “Madame Blavatsky's theosophical swindle”, 57 ] was gaining wide acceptance.

The analogy is not very happy. Even apart from the fact that it is hardly polite to represent the true Buddhist teaching, which came to birth with so much travail, by the grunting of a pig, the analogy implies that Madame Blavatsky succeeded extremely well in producing an exact imitation of Buddhism. Madame Blavatsky deserves credit for having set the ball rolling, but nowadays very few thoughtful theosophists believe that she was successful in reproducing true, genuine Buddhism. Just as a teacher of geometry is not required to produce a replica of Euclid, so a teacher of Theosophy is not required to reproduce Buddhism.

If we wish to immerse ourselves in the spirit of Buddhism in the sense of Spiritual Science, so that we may then compare it with the spirit of Christianity, we had better not proceed immediately to its deeper doctrines, which can readily be interpreted in various ways. We will rather try to gain an impression of its significance from its whole way of thinking and forming ideas. Our best course is to start with a document that is very highly regarded in Buddhist circles: the questions put by King Milinda to the Buddhist sage, Nagasena. 58 ] Here we find a conversation which brings out the inner character of the Buddhist way of thinking. Milinda, the mighty and brilliant King who has never been defeated by a sage, being always able to repulse any objections brought against his own ideas, wants to converse with Nagasena about the significance of the immortal, eternal element in human nature which passes from one incarnation to the next.

Nagasena asks the King: “How did you come here — on foot or in a chariot?” “In a chariot”, the King replies. “Now”, says Nagasena, “let us inquire into this question of the chariot — what is it? Is the axle the chariot? No. Is it the wheel? No. Is it the yoke? No. And so”, says Nagasena, “we may go through all the parts of the chariot; none of them is the chariot. Yet the chariot we have before us is made up entirely of these separate parts. ‘Chariot’ is only a name for the sum total of these parts. If we set aside the parts, we have nothing left but the name.”

Nagasena's aim in all this is to lead the eye away from the physical world. He wants to show that the composite form designated by a “name” does not actually exist as such in the physical world, so that he may thus bring out the worthlessness and meaninglessness of the physical sense-perceptible as the sum of its parts.

In order to make the point of this parable quite clear, Nagasena says: “Thus it is also with the composite form that is man, which passes from one earth-life to another. Is it the hands and head and legs that pass from one earth-life to another? No. Is it what you are doing today or will do tomorrow? No. What then is it that constitutes a human being? The name and the form. But just as with the chariot, when we look on the sum of the parts we only have a name. We have nothing more than the parts!”

We can bring out the argument even more clearly by turning to another parable that Nagasena sets before King Milinda. The King speaks: “You say, O wise Nagasena, that what passes from one incarnation to another are the name and form of the human being. When they appear again on earth in a new incarnation, are they the name and form of the same being?” Nagasena answers: “Behold, your mango-tree is bearing fruit. Then a thief comes and steals the fruit. The owner of the mango-tree cries: ‘You have stolen my fruit!’ ‘It is not your fruit’, the thief replies. ‘Your fruit was the one you buried in the ground, where it dissolved. The fruit now growing on the tree has the same name, but it is not your fruit.’” Nagasena then continued: “Yes, it is true — the fruit has the same name and form, but it is not the same fruit. Yet the thief can still be punished for his theft. So it is with what re-appears in an earthly life compared with what appeared in previous lives. It is only because the owner of the mango-tree planted a fruit in the earth that fruit now grows on the tree. Hence we must regard the fruit as his property. It is similar with the deeds and destiny of a man's new life on earth: we must look on them as the effects, the fruit, of his previous life. But what appears is something new, as is the fruit on the mango-tree.”

In this way Nagasena sought to dissolve everything that makes up an earth-life, in order to show how only its effects pass over into the next life on earth.

This approach can give us a much better idea of the whole spirit of Buddhist teaching than we could gain from its general principles, for these — as I said — can be interpreted in various ways. If we allow the spirit of Nagasena's parables to work upon us, we can see clearly enough how the Buddhist teacher wishes to draw his disciples away from everything that stands here before us as a separate human Ego, a definite personality; how he wishes to direct attention above all to the idea that, although what appears in a new incarnation is indeed an effect of the previous personality, we have no right to speak in any true sense of a coherent Ego which passes on from one earth-life to the next.

If now we turn from Buddhism to Christianity, we could — though it has never been done — rewrite Nagasena's examples in a Christian sense, somewhat as follows. Let us suppose that King Milinda has arisen from death as a Christian and that the ensuing conversation is permeated, with the spirit of Christianity. Nagasena would then have to say: “Look at your hand! Is the hand a man? No — the hand alone does not make a man. But if you cut off the hand from the man, it will decay, and in two or three weeks it will no longer be a hand. What then is it makes the hand a hand? It is the man who makes the hand a hand! Is the heart a man? No! Is the heart something self-sufficient? No, for if we separate the heart from the man, it will soon cease to be heart — and the man will soon cease to be a man. Hence it is the man who makes the heart a heart and the heart that makes the man a man. The man is a man living on earth only because he has the heart as an instrument. Thus in the living human organism we have parts which in themselves are nothing; they exist only in relation to our entire make-up. And if we reflect on how it is that the separate parts cannot exist on their own, we find that we must look beyond them to some invisible agency which rules over them, holds them together and uses them as instruments to serve its needs.”

Nagasena could then return to his parable of the chariot and might say, speaking now in a Christian sense: “True, the axle is not the chariot, for with the axle alone you cannot drive. True, the wheels are not the chariot, for with the wheels alone you cannot drive. True, the yoke is not the chariot, for with the yoke alone you cannot drive. True, the seat is not the chariot, for with the seat alone you cannot drive. And although the chariot is only a name for the assembly of parts, you do not drive with the parts but with something that is not the parts. So the ‘name’ does stand for something specific! It leads us to something that is not in any of the parts.”

Thus the spirit of Buddhist teaching aims at diverting attention from the visible in order to get beyond it, and it denies the significance of anything visible. The Christian approach sees the parts of a chariot, or of any other object, in such a way that the mind is directed towards the whole. From this contrast we can see that both the Christian and the Buddhist approach to the outer world have definite consequences. And if now we follow the Buddhist approach to its logical conclusion, its consequences will be plain to see.

A man, a Buddhist, stands before us. He plays his part in the world and performs various actions. His Buddhist teaching tells him that everything around him is worthless. The nothingness and non-existence of everything visible is impressed upon him. Then he is told that he ought to free himself from dependence on this nothingness in order to reach a real, higher state of being. With this aim in mind he should avert his gaze from the sense-world and from everything he could learn about it through his human faculties. Turn away from the sense-world! For if we reduce to name and form everything offered by the sense-world, its nothingness is revealed. No truth is to be found in the sense-world displayed before us!

What does the Christian way of thinking make of all this? It regards any single part of the human organism not as a separate unit, but as embraced by a real, unified whole. The hand, for example, is a hand only because man uses it as a hand. Here the thing we see points directly to something behind it. This way of thinking thus leads to findings very different from those that derive from the Buddhist way. Hence we can say: A man stands before us. He exists as a man only because behind him stands a spiritual man who activates his constituent parts and is the directing source of whatever he does or accomplishes. That which animates the parts of his organism and lives in them has poured itself into the visible being, where it experiences the fruits of action. From thus experiencing the sense-world it extracts something we may call a “result”, and this is carried over into the next incarnation, the next life on earth. Behind the external man there is this active man, this doer, who does not reject the outer world but handles it in such a way that its fruits are garnered and carried over to the next life.

If we look at this question of repeated earth-lives from the standpoint of Spiritual Science, we must say: For Buddhism, the principle that holds a man together during life does not endure; only his actions work on into his next earth-life. For Christianity, the principle that holds a man together is a complete Ego; and this Ego endures. It carries over into the next earth-life all the fruits of the preceding one.

Hence we see that what keeps these two world-outlooks decisively apart is the quite definite difference between their respective ways of thinking, and this counts for much more than theories or principles. If in our time people were not so wedded to theories about everything, they would find it easier to recognise the character of a spiritual movement from its typical concepts.

All this is connected with a final difference between the Christian and Buddhist outlooks. The core of Buddhist doctrine has been set forth in immensely significant words by the founder of Buddhism himself. Now this lecture is truly not being given in order to promote opposition to the great originator of Buddhist teaching. My intention is to describe the Buddhist world-outlook quite objectively. It is precisely Spiritual Science that is the right instrument for penetrating without sympathy or antipathy into the heart of the various spiritual movements in the world.

The Buddha-legend brings out clearly enough, even if in a pictorial form, what the founder of Buddhism was aiming at. We are told that Gautama Buddha, the son of King Suddhodana, was brought up in a royal palace, where everything around him was designed to enhance the quality of life. Throughout his youth he knew nothing of human suffering or sorrow; he was surrounded by nothing but happiness, pleasure and diversions. One day he left the palace, and for the first time the pains and sorrows, all the shadow-side of human life, met him face to face. He saw an old man withering away; he saw a man stricken with disease; above all, he saw a corpse. Hence it came to him that life must be very different from what he had seen of it in the royal palace. He saw now that human life is bound up with pain and suffering.

It weighed heavily on the Buddha's great soul that human life entails suffering and death, as he had seen them in the sick man, the aged man and the corpse. For he said to himself: “What is life worth if old age, sickness and death are inescapably part of it?”

These reflections gave rise to the Buddha's monumental doctrine of suffering, which he summarised in the words: Birth is suffering, old age is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering. All existence is filled with suffering. That we cannot always be united with that which we love — this is how Buddha himself later developed his teaching — is suffering. That we have to be united with that which we do not love, is suffering. That we cannot attain in every sphere of life what we want and desire, is suffering. Thus there is suffering wherever we look. Even though the word “suffering”, as used by the Buddha, does not have quite the meaning it has for us today, it did mean that everywhere man is exposed to things that come against him from outside and against which he can muster no effective strength. Life is suffering, and therefore, said the Buddha, we must ask what the cause of suffering is.

Then there came before his soul the phenomenon he called “thirst for existence”. If there is suffering everywhere in the world then man is bound to encounter suffering as soon as he enters this world of suffering. Why does he have to suffer in this way? The reason is that he has an urge, a thirst, for incarnation in this world. The passionate desire to pass from the spiritual world into a physical-corporeal existence and to perceive the physical world — therein lies the basic cause of human existence. Hence there is only one way to gain release from suffering: to fight against the thirst for existence. And this can be done if we learn to follow the eight-fold path, in accordance with the teaching of the great Buddha. This is usually taken to embrace correct views, correct aims, correct speech, correct actions, correct living, correct endeavour, correct thoughts, and correct meditation. This taking hold of life in the correct way and relating oneself correctly to life, will gradually enable a man to kill off the desire for existence, and will finally lead him so far that he no longer needs to descend into a physical incarnation and so is released from existence and the suffering that pervades it. Thus the four noble truths, as the Buddha called them, are:


  1. Knowledge of suffering

  2. Knowledge of the causes of suffering

  3. Knowledge of the need to end suffering

  4. Knowledge of the means to end suffering


These are the four holy truths that were proclaimed by the Buddha in his great sermon at Benares in the fifth or sixth century, B.C.after his illumination under the Bodhi tree.

Release from the sufferings of existence — that is what Buddhism puts in the foreground, above all else. And that is why it can be called a religion of redemption, in the most eminent sense of the word, a religion of release from the sufferings of existence, and therefore — since all existence is bound up with suffering — of release from the cycle of repeated lives on earth.

This is quite in keeping with the conceptions described in the first part of this lecture. For if a thought directed to the outer world finds only nothingness, if that which holds together the parts of anything is only name and form, and if nothing carries over the effects of one incarnation into the next, then we can say that “true existence” can be achieved only if a man passes beyond everything he encounters in the outer sense-world.

It would obviously not be right to call Christianity a “religion of redemption” in the same sense as Buddhism. If we wish to put Christianity in its right relationship to Buddhism from this standpoint, we could call it a “religion of rebirth”. For Christianity starts from a recognition that everything in an individual life bears fruits which are of importance and value for the innermost being of man and are carried over into a new life, where they are lived out on a higher level of fulfillment. All that we extract from a single life becomes more and more nearly perfect, until at last it appears in a spiritual form. Even the least significant elements in our existence, if they are taken up by the spiritual and given new life on an ever more perfect level, can be woven into the spiritual. Nothing in human existence is null and void, for it goes through a resurrection when the spirit has transformed it in the right way.

It is as a religion of rebirth, of the resurrection of the best that we have experienced, that we should look on Christianity — a religion for which nothing we encounter is worthless, but is rather a building-stone for the great edifice that is to arise by a bringing together of everything spiritual in the sense-world around us. Buddhism is a religion of release from existence, while Christianity is a religion of rebirth on a spiritual level. This is evident in their ways of thinking about things great and small and in their final principles.

If we look for the causes of this contrast, we shall find them in the quite opposite characteristics of Western and Eastern culture. The fundamental difference between them can be put quite simply. All genuine Eastern culture which has not yet been fertilised by the West is non-historical, whereas all Western culture is historical. And that is ultimately the difference between the Christian and the Buddhist outlooks. The Christian outlook is historical: it recognises not only that repeated earth-lives occur but that they form an historical sequence, so that what is first experienced on an imperfect level can rise in the course of further incarnations to ever higher and more nearly perfect levels. While Buddhism sees release from earth-existence in terms of rising to Nirvana, Christianity sees its aim as a continuing process of development, whereby all the products and achievements of single lives shine forth in ever-higher stages of perfection, until, permeated by the spirit, they experience resurrection at the end of earth-existence.

Buddhism is non-historical, quite in the sense of the cultural background out of which it grew. It turns its gaze to earlier and later incarnations of man and sees him in opposition to the external world. It never asks whether in earlier times man may have stood in a different relationship to the external world or whether in the future this relationship may again be different — though these are questions that Christianity does ask. So Buddhism comes to the view that man's relationship to the world in which he incarnates is always the same. Driven into incarnation by his thirst for existence, he enters a world of suffering; it matters not whether the world called forth this same thirst in him in the past or will do so in the future. Suffering, and again suffering, is what he is bound always to experience during life on earth. So earth-lives are repeated, and Buddhism never truly connects them with any idea of historical development. That is why Buddhism can see its Nirvana, its state of bliss, as attainable only by withdrawing from the ever-repeated cycle of lives on earth, and why it has to regard the world itself as the source of human suffering. For it says that if we ever enter the physical world, we are bound to suffer: the sense-world cannot but bring us suffering.

That is not Christian, for the Christian outlook is historical through and through. It recognises that man, in being born again and again, faces an external world; but if these encounters bring him suffering, or leave him unsatisfied, deprived of an inwardly harmonious existence, this is not because earthly life is always such that man must suffer, but because he has related himself wrongly to the external world.

Christianity and the Old Testament both point to a definite event, as a result of which man has developed his inner life in such a way that he can make his existence in the world around him a source of suffering. Suffering is not inflicted on us by the world we perceive through our eyes and ears, the world in which we are incarnated; humanity once developed something within itself which placed it in a wrong relation to the world. And as this is inherited from generation to generation, it is still the cause of human suffering today. In the Christian sense we can say that from the beginning of the earth-existence human beings have not had a right relation to the outer world.

This comparison can be extended to the fundamental doctrines of the two religions. Buddhism emphasises again and again that the outer world is Maya, illusion. Christianity, on the contrary, says: Man may indeed believe that what he sees of the outer world is an illusion, but that is because his organs are so constituted that he cannot see through the external veil to the spiritual world. The outer world is not an illusion; the illusion has its source in the limitations of human seeing. Buddhism says: Look at the rocks around you; look where the lightning flashes and the thunder rolls — it is all Maya, the great illusion. Christian thinking would reply that it is wrong to call the outer world an illusion. No, it is man who has not yet found the way to open the spiritual senses — his spirit-eyes and spirit-ears, in Goethe's words — which could show him how the outer world is to be seen in its true form. Christianity, accordingly, looks for a pre-historical event which has prevented the human heart from forming a true picture of the outer world. And human development through a series of incarnations must be seen as a means whereby man can regain, in a Christian sense, his spirit-eyes and spirit-ears in order to see the external world as it really is. Repeated earth-lives are therefore not meaningless: they are the path which will enable man to look at the outer world — from which Buddhism wishes to liberate him — and to see it irradiated by the spirit. To overcome the physical appearance of the world by acquiring the spiritual vision that man does not yet possess, and to dispel the human error whereby the outer world can seem to be only Maya — that is the innermost impulse of Christianity.

In Christianity, therefore, we do not find a great teacher who, as in Buddhism, tells us that the world is a source of suffering and that we must get away from it into another world, the quite different world of Nirvana. Christianity presents a powerful impulse to lead the world forward: the Christ, who has given us the strongest indication of the forces that man can develop out of his inner life-forces that will enable him to make use of every incarnation in such a way that its fruits will be carried into every succeeding incarnation through his own powers. The incarnations are not to cease in order to open the way to Nirvana; but all that we can acquire in them is to be used and developed in order that it may experience resurrection in the spiritual sense.

Herein lies the deepest distinction between the non-historical philosophy of Buddhism and the historical outlook of Christianity. Christianity looks back to a Fall of man as the source of pain and suffering and onward to a Resurrection for their healing. We cannot gain freedom from pain and suffering by renouncing existence, but only by making good the error which has placed man in a false relationship with the surrounding world. If we correct this error, we shall indeed see that the sense-perceptible world dissolves like a cloud before the sun, and also that all our actions and experiences within it can be resurrected on the spiritual plane.

Christianity is thus a doctrine of reincarnation, of resurrection, and only in that light may we place it beside Buddhism. This, however, involves contrasting the two faiths in the sense of Spiritual Science and entering into the deepest impulses of both.

All that I have said in general terms can be substantiated down to the smallest details. For example, we can find in Buddhism something like the Sermon on the Mount in the Matthew Gospel:

He that hears the law — that is, the law imparted by the Buddha — is blessed. He who raises himself above the passions is blessed. He who can live in loneliness is blessed. He who can live with the creatures of the world and do them no harm is blessed. And so on.

Thus we could regard the Buddhist beatitudes as a counterpart of the beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount. We have only to understand them in the right way. Let us compare them with the text of the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew's Gospel. 59 ] There we hear at the beginning the powerful words: “Blessed are they who are beggars for the spirit, for they will find within themselves the kingdom of heaven.” It is not said only “Blessed are they who hear the law”; there is an addition. We are told: Blessed are the poor in spirit so that they have to beg for it, for “theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” What does that mean? We can understand such a saying only if we keep before our souls the whole historical character of the Christian outlook.

First of all, we must remember that all the faculties of the human soul have a history; they have evolved. Spiritual Science takes this word “evolved” very seriously, as meaning that what is there today has not been there always. It tells us that what we call our intellect, our scientific way of thinking, did not exist in primitive times; in place of it there was something we might call a dim, hazy clairvoyance. The way in which we now achieve knowledge of the world was unknown to these early people. But there dwelt in them a kind of primitive wisdom which went far beyond anything we have been able to establish today. Anyone who understands history knows that such a primitive wisdom did exist. In those early times human beings did not know how to build machines or railway engines, or how to dominate their environment with the aid of natural forces, but their vision of the divine-spiritual foundations of the world went far beyond our present knowledge.

This vision did not come from thinking things out. Men could not then proceed as modern science does. They were given inspirations, revelations, which arose dimly in their souls. They were not wholly conscious of them, but they could recognise them as true reflections of the spiritual world and of the ancient wisdom. But as in the course of evolution man passed from life to life, he was destined to lose the old hazy clairvoyance and the ancient wisdom and to learn to grasp things with his intellect. In the future he will unite the two faculties: he will be able to look clairvoyantly into the spiritual world while retaining the forms of modern knowledge. Today we are living in a transition stage. The old clairvoyance has been lost, and what we now are has developed in the course of time. How has man reached the point of being able, as a self-conscious being, to get to know the world through his intellect? In particular, when did self-consciousness first come to man?

It was at the time — though world-evolution is not usually interpreted so exactly — when Christ Jesus appeared on earth. Men were at a turning-point given for what has produced the finest achievements of our own time. The coming of the Christ into human evolution marked the transition from the old to the new. When John the Baptist proclaimed “The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand”, 60 ] he was simply using a technical expression for the experience that would come to men when they began to gain knowledge of the world through their own self-consciousness and no longer through inspirations. The Baptist's call means that knowledge of the world in terms of concepts and ideas is near at hand. Men are no longer dependent on the old clairvoyance, but can now investigate the world for themselves. And the most powerful impulse for this new way of knowledge was given by Christ Jesus.

Hence there is a deep meaning in the very first words of the Sermon on the Mount. They might be interpreted: Men are now at the stage where they are beggars for the spirit. In the past they had clairvoyant vision and could look into the spiritual world. That time is over. But a time will come when man, through the inner force of his Ego, will be able to find a substitute for the old clairvoyance through the Word which will reveal itself within him. Blessed, accordingly, are not only those who in ancient times gained the spirit through twilight inspirations, but also those who no longer have clairvoyance because evolution has brought them to that stage. They are indeed not unblest, those who are beggars for the spirit because they have lost the spirit. Blessed are they, for theirs is that which reveals itself through the Ego and can be achieved through their own self-consciousness.

Further we read: “Blessed are they who suffer”, for although the outer sense-world is a cause of suffering because of our relationship to it, the time has now come when man, if he will grasp his self-consciousness and unfold the forces which dwell in his Ego, will come to know the remedy for his suffering. Within himself he will find the possibility of consolation, for the time has come when any external consolation loses significance, because the Ego is to have the strength to find within itself the remedy for suffering. Blessed are they who can no longer find in the outer world all that was once found there. That is also the highest meaning of the beatitude, “Blessed are they who thirst after justice, for they shall be filled.” Within the Ego itself will be found a source of justice that will compensate for the injustice in the world.

So it is that Christ Jesus points the way to the human Ego, to the divine element in man. Take into your inner being that which lives in the Christ as a prefiguration; then you will find the strength to carry over from one incarnation to another the fruits of your lives on earth. It is important for life in the spiritual world that you should master what can be experienced in earthly existence.

Bearing on this is an event which in the first instance is one of suffering for Christianity — the death of Christ Jesus, the Mystery of Golgotha. This death is of greater significance than ordinary death; Christ here establishes death as the starting-point of an immortal, invincible life. This death is not merely as though Christ wished to free himself from life; he suffers it because from it works an ascending power, and because out of this death there is to flow eternal life.

This was felt by those who lived in the early centuries of Christianity, and it will be recognised more and more widely when the Christ Impulse is better understood. Then people will understand how it was that six centuries before Christ one of the greatest of men left his palace, saw a dead body and formed the judgment — death is suffering, release from death is salvation — and resolved that he would have no more to do with anything that lay under the dominion of death. Six centuries go by until the Christ comes, and after six more centuries have passed a symbol is raised which will be understood only in the future. What is this symbol?

It was not a Buddha, not a chosen person, but simple folk who went and saw the symbol; saw the cross raised and a dead body upon it. For them, death was not suffering, nor did they turn away from it; they saw in the body a pledge of eternal life, a sign of that which conquers death and points away from everything in the sense-world.

The noble Buddha saw a corpse; he turned away from the sense-world and decided that death is suffering. The simple folk who looked upon the cross and the body did not turn away from the sight: for them it was testimony that from this earthly death there springs eternal life. So it was that six hundred years before the founding of Christianity the Buddha stood before the corpse, and six hundred years after the coming of Christ simple folk saw the symbol which expressed for them what had come about through the founding of Christianity. At no other time has there been such a turning-point in the evolution of mankind. If we look at these things objectively, we come to see even more clearly wherein lie the greatness and significance of Buddhism.

As we have said, man was originally endowed with a primal wisdom, and in the course of successive incarnations this wisdom was gradually lost. The appearance of the great Buddha marks the end of an old epoch of evolution; it provides the strongest historical evidence that men had lost the old wisdom, the old knowledge, and this explains the turning away from life. The Christ is the starting-point of a new evolution, which sees the sources of life eternal in this earthly life.

In our time this important fact concerning human evolution is still not clearly understood. That is why it can happen today that men of fine and noble nature, unable to gain from modern viewpoints what they need for their inner life, turn to something different and find release in Buddhism. And Buddhism does show in a certain sense how a man can be lifted up out of sense-existence and through a certain unfolding of his inner forces can rise above himself. But this can occur only because the greatest impulse and innermost source of Christianity is still so little understood.

Spiritual Science should be the instrument for penetrating ever more deeply into the concepts and outlook of Christianity. And precisely the idea of evolution, to which Spiritual Science does full justice, will be able to lead men to an intimate grasp of Christianity. Spiritual Science can therefore cherish the hope that a rightly understood Christianity will stand out ever more clearly from all misinterpretations of it, without transplanting Buddhism into our time. Any attempt to do this would indeed be shortsighted, for anyone who understands the circumstances of spiritual life in Europe will know that even those movements which are apparently opposed to Christianity have drawn their whole armoury of weapons from Christianity itself. There could have been no Darwin or Haeckel 61 ] — grotesque as this sounds — if a Christian education had not made it possible for them to think as they thought; if the forms of thought had not been ready for those who, after a Christian education, use them to attack, so to speak, their own mother. What these people say, and the tone of voice in which they say it, are often apparently directed against Christianity, but it is Christian education that enables them to think in this way. It would be unpromising, to say the least, for anyone to try to graft something Oriental into our culture, for it would contradict all the conditions of spiritual life in the West. All we need to do is to get a clear grasp of the fundamental teachings of the two religions.

A more exact study of contemporary spiritual life will indeed bring out such a lack of clarity within it, that men of the highest philosophical eminence are impelled to reject life and are thus moved to sympathy with the thoughts of Buddhism. We have an example of this in Schopenhauer: 62 ] the whole temper of his life had something Buddhistic about it. For example, he says that the highest type of man is he whom we may call a “saint”; a man who in his life has overcome everything that the outer world can offer. He merely exists in his body, deriving no ideals from the world around him; he has no aim or purpose, but simply waits for the time when his body will be destroyed, so that every trace of his connection with the sense-world will have vanished. By turning away from the sense-world he nullifies his own sense-life, so that nothing may remain of all that leads in life from fear to suffering, from suffering to terror, from passion to pain.

This is a projection of Buddhist feeling into the West, and we must recognise that it comes about because the deepest impulse in Christianity is not clearly understood. What have we gained through Christianity? From the purest form of the Christian impulse we have gained precisely what separates Schopenhauer decisively from one of the most significant personalities of recent times. While Schopenhauer's ideal is a man who has overcome everything that external life can give him by way of pleasure and pain, and waits only for the last traces holding his body together to be dissolved, Goethe sets before us in his Faust a striving character who passes from desire to satisfaction and from satisfaction, to desire, until finally he has purified himself and transformed his desires to such a degree that the holiest element that can illuminate our life becomes his passion. He does not stand and wait until the last traces of his earthly existence are extinguished, but speaks the great words: “Not in aeons will the trace of my days on earth pass away.” 63 ]

The sense and spirit of all this is presented by Goethe in his Faust just as in old age he described it to his secretary, Eckermann: 64 ] “For the rest you will admit, that the closing passage, when the redeemed soul is borne aloft, was very difficult to manage. With such super-sensible, hardly imaginable things I could easily have lost myself in vagueness if I had not made use of clearly outlined figures and images from the Christian Church to give the requisite form and substance to my poetic intentions.”

So it is that Faust climbs the ladder of existence, represented in Christian symbols, from mortal to immortal, from death to life.

We see in Schopenhauer the unmistakeable projection of Buddhist elements into our western way of thinking, so that his ideal man waits to reach the state of perfection until the last traces of his earth existence have been erased, together with his body. And this vision, Schopenhauer believes, can interpret the figures created by Raphael and Correggio in their paintings. Goethe wished to set before us a man who strives towards a goal, well aware that whatever is achieved in earthly life must be enduring, interwoven with eternity. “Not in aeons will the trace of my days on earth pass away.”

That is the true, realistic Christian impulse, which leads to the reawakening of our earthly deeds in a spiritualised form. That is the religion of resurrection. It is also a realistic philosophy in the true sense, for it knows how to draw down from spiritual heights the loftiest elements for our life in the world of the senses. Thus we can see in Goethe, like a dawning glow, the Christianity of the future, which has learnt to understand itself. This Christianity will recognise all the greatness and significance of Buddhism, but, by contrast with the Buddhist turning away from incarnations, it will recognise the value of each existence from one incarnation to the next. Thus Goethe, in a truly modern Christian sense, looks at a past which brought us to birth out of a world, and at present in which whatever we achieve — if only its fruits are rightly grasped — can never pass away. When, therefore, he links man to the universal in the true spiritual-scientific sense, he cannot but join him on the other side to the true content of Christianity. Thus in his Urworte-Orphisch he says:


As on the day that lent thee earthly being,

The Sun took salutation from the planets,

So didst thou start thy course and so hast sped it,

According to the law of thy first sending.

So must thou be: thyself thou canst not flee from.

Thus have the Sibyls, thus the prophets, spoken.


Goethe could not write in this way, describing the connection of man with the whole world, without indicating that the human being, born out of the constellations of existence, is in the world as something that can never pass away but must celebrate its resurrection in spiritualised form. Hence to these lines he added two more:


No time, no power, can bring to dissolution

The form once cast in living evolution.


And we can say: No time and no power can destroy what is achieved in time and ripens as fruit for eternity.




Last Modified: 07-Sep-2017
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