Swedenborg: Buddha of the North
By D. T. Suzuki

Reviewed by Barbara Darling-Smith

Philosophy East and West
Vol. 49, No. 2 (April 1999)
pp. 231-235

Copyright 1999 by University of Hawaii Press
Hawaii, USA


 

 

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Philosophy East and West, Vol. 49, No. 2 (April 1999)

The intriguingly titled Swedenborg: Buddha of the North is a useful work in comparative philosophy. The volume brings together Andrew Bernstein's English translation of D. T. Suzuki's Swedenborg (the centerpiece of the book), his translation of

 

 

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Suzuki's brief essay "Swedenborg's View of Heaven and 'Other-Power,'" an explanatory introduction by Bernstein, and a valuable Afterword by David Loy. (The Introduction and the Afterword were published earlier in issues of Arcana.)

    In his introduction, Andrew Bernstein puzzles over a twofold mystery: why did the eminent Buddhist scholar Suzuki latch onto the Swedish Christian mystic Emanuel Swedenborg so eagerly in the years between 1910 and 1924, and then seemingly lose interest, with only brief and incidental references to him in later works? He finds the answers in Suzuki's biographical and historical context. Suzuki must have been exposed to Swedenborg's thought during his years in the United States at the turn of the century, and on his return to Japan his distress at the rise of both soulless technological growth and introspective self-absorption there led him to advocate Swedenborg as a model for spirituality. Swedenborg's use of religious insights to build a better society was relevant and significant for Suzuki in the first two or three decades of this century in a way it was not later on, when, Bernstein argues, Suzuki's response to the increasingly militaristic Japanese mind-set was a retreat to private individualism. No longer did he quote approvingly Swedenborg's ideas about using religion as a moral force; instead he lauded an apolitical understanding of Zen. Furthermore, the congruence Suzuki found between Swedenborg and Buddhism led him away from explicit reference to Swedenborg's particular expression of spiritual insights and toward the universal truths that could be spoken of in Buddhist terms. For Suzuki, concludes Bernstein, Swedenborg "vanished into the thin air of Buddhahood."

    D. T. Suzuki's exploration of Swedenborg's thought begins with a biographical picture of Swedenborg as a nobleman and a brilliant scientist. (Swedenborg's elite social status was important for Suzuki, Bernstein had noted earlier, because Suzuki himself had taught the elite sons of Japanese nobles.) Swedenborg's training and career as a research scientist, argues Suzuki, lend credibility to his reported observations of heaven and hell. Suzuki is also awed by Swedenborg's announcing ahead of time his own death, after which "he abandoned his earthly body," and by his faculty of clairvoyance and his trips to heaven and hell. His humble nature, simple and disciplined lifestyle, and industrious production further impressed Suzuki, as did his insight into the connection between breathing and the "internal breath," which correlated with spiritual revelations.

    Suzuki is most interested, of course, in Swedenborg's philosophico-religious teachings, which he finds similar to Buddhist teachings: the exhortation to jettison the "proprium" (self) in order to work in harmony with divine providence, that is, divine wisdom and love. Suzuki is particularly struck by teachings Swedenborg presents in Divine Love and Wisdom and in Divine Providence: the identification of God and human life; the imagery of the Divine as a sun, radiating its heat (love) and its light (wisdom) to all creation; and God creating the universe and everything in it from himself, with the purpose of returning all things to the Divine.

    Suzuki is perhaps most attracted to Swedenborg's resolution of the question of free will versus providence. First, our subjective human experience is of free will, which we exercise in harmony with our reason. Yet the reality is that, hidden to humans, divine providence is behind all that happens. At the same time, says

 

 

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Suzuki, Swedenborg also insists that human beings do respond out of freedom to the divine invitation to enter heaven, by loving, by accumulating good deeds, and by avoiding evil.

    Suzuki's brief essay on "Swedenborg's View of Heaven and 'Other-Power'" returns to this tension between human freedom and the efficacy of the divine will. Swedenborg's conviction, as articulated by Suzuki, is that we are free to choose heaven or hell, love or evil. Yet this only seems to be a result of our own freedom; it is actually the divine will which implants in us the desire for heaven. However, even though salvation comes from other-power, we ourselves must freely prevail over "the consequences of karma and the depth of our evil passions."

    Suzuki sees a strong parallel between the Buddhist path and Swedenborg's Christian insight: in both, it is other-power that gives us freedom, and human reason which enables us to become aware of our need to repent. Thus the Divine regenerates us and grants us "rebirth in paradise" (in Buddhist terms) and "repentance and resurrection" (in Christian terms). Innocence is achieved not through knowledge but through enlightenment, that is, the realization that we are not good by ourselves but by divine power.

    David Loy's Afterword, "The Dharma of Emanuel Swedenborg: A Buddhist Perspective," makes the perceptive point that even though Buddhist-Christian dialogue has been a growth industry in religious studies in recent years, Swedenborg has wrongfully been left out of that discussion. I agree and find this to be symptomatic of the failure of Christian voices in that dialogue to attend sufficiently to the contributions of non-mainstream Christian groups.

    Loy's thorough exploration of the various resemblances between Swedenborg and Buddhism begins with the denial, made by both, of the reality of our intuitive sense of self -- "the sense that I am a self-existing being whose thoughts and actions are self-generated." Just as Buddhism denies the Hindu doctrine of a soul, Swedenborg challenges the Western idea of a self behind all our activities -- and both are postmodern in this denial. Both Buddhism and Swedenborg see our "self" as being brought about by a variety of forces. And both exhort us to overcome the delusion of self by letting go of self. Closely related to this insight is the teaching of both Buddhism and Swedenborg that love of self should be exchanged for selfless love of neighbor. Yet both reject absolute renunciation; Swedenborg counters harsh Christian asceticism by calling for enjoyment of pleasures, and Mahāyāna Buddhism contradicts the Pāli rejection of passions as the source of duḥkha by viewing the passions themselves as wisdom and enlightenment.

    A second resemblance Loy articulates is that both Swedenborg and Buddhism describe the Divine in terms that overcome the limitations of both a personal God and an impersonal Absolute. Loy acknowledges that the theistic Christian milieu which shaped Swedenborg differs radically from the Buddhist nontheistic stance. But Loy suggests interpreting Swedenborg's analogy of the Divine as a formless sun, radiating warmth to all his creatures, to mean that God is a potentiality fulfilled only through his creation -- a view startlingly similar to the Mahāyāna understanding of śūnyatā as "'empty essence' that gives life to everything."

 

 

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    Loy explores a third parallel between Buddhist insights and Swedenborg's thought: the teaching of radical interdependence. He likens the Hua-yen image of Indra's Net, with its myriad jewels each reflecting all of the others, to Swedenborg's description of a Grand Man, that is, a Whole composed of all the realms of heaven and hell. And Loy insists that Swedenborg's emphasis on both the interdependence of all that is on every other entity in the universe and the dependence of every being (non-self-existent things) on the spiritual potentiality from which their reality comes is the richest way to understand the Buddhist doctrine of interdependence.

    Loy describes the affinity between the Buddhist tenet of karma and Swedenborg's discussion of evil and its consequences as perhaps the most striking similarity of all. Both perspectives teach that we become the kind of person our habitual actions make us. And Loy makes the provocative suggestion that perhaps Swedenborg's travels in heaven and hell taught him esoteric Buddhist symbolism.

    Even in areas of disagreement, notes Loy -- for example, Swedenborg's orthodox understanding of Christ as unique God-Man and the varying descriptions of the spirit world/afterlife -- common ground can be found. Although Swedenborg affirms the traditional Christian doctrine of Christ as unique Savior, Loy finds a tension in his thought, expressed in the reason given for the necessity of Christ's incarnation on earth: growing evil on earth made it necessary for a savior to come to redeem humankind. This rationale, argues Loy, is better at supporting the periodic appearance of avatars (in Hinduism) and reincarnations of the Buddha than it is at proving the uniqueness of Christ.

    Further, parallel answers to the question of what happens after death go deeper than similarities between Swedenborg's vivid images of the world of spirits and the Tibetan Buddhist symbolism expressed in some Bardo texts. Seemingly irreconcilable differences are found between Buddhist accounts of what happens after death, which unanimously affirm rebirth in the saṃsāric cycle or nirvāṇa, and Swedenborg's description of the traditional Christian once-for-all experience of either heaven or hell. Yet Loy discovers some ambiguity even here: though Buddhism does not see hell or any other saṃsāric realm as permanent, some Bardo passages seem to warn that the spirit can descend to a hell from which there is no exit; and Swedenborg's insistence that divine love is never withdrawn from anyone, even in hell, could suggest the possibility of transformation even there -- though, Loy admits, Swedenborg does not seem to accept that possibility.

    This book has three key assets. First, it brings the intriguing spiritual insights of Emanuel Swedenborg to a wider public, and it does so clearly, in terminology comprehensible by the intelligent lay reader. Providing greater exposure for this original and deeply spiritual thinker is indeed a contribution.

    Second, it provides new material for the ongoing conversation between Buddhists and Christians. The fruitful interchange on these issues begun by Suzuki and continued by Loy opens up new paths for mutual enrichment of practitioners and scholars of the two faiths.

    Most importantly, however, the insights of Bernstein, Suzuki, and Loy expressed here can serve as encouragement for reflection on these key issues by people of

 

 

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various faiths and passions and philosophies beyond the Christian and Buddhist communities. The poignancy and urgency of the philosophical questions and persisting human concerns addressed by these thinkers (What happens after we die? By whose power can our lives be transformed -- human power or divine? How can we escape our habits of self-love?) are significant enough to be the basis for interaction across all kinds of boundaries, and the more voices encouraged to enter the dialogue, the better for us all. This book models for all of us a generous spirit of learning from those outside our own narrow communities, and this is its greatest contribution.