Defiled and Undefiled Willing: Exploring a Theme in St Maximos the Confessor and Yogacara Buddhism

Defiled and Undefiled Willing: Exploring a Theme in St Maximos the Confessor and Yogacara Buddhism February 26, 2019
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Jesus Christ, being the God-man, that is, being a divine person who assumed human nature to himself, is said to have two wills, one according to his divinity and one according to his humanity. This teaching sometimes confuses people because of how they understand what it means to will. If he is one person, should he not have one will? But, St. Maximos, the great theologian of the will, reminded us, the will is best attributed to nature, not to personhood, and it is only because of our fallen mode of willing that we, as persons, will not according to nature, but according to a sub-natural, individual, and therefore, defiled mode of willing. Jesus is God, and wills as God, doing all that God does, while also willing as a human, therefore, doing things which humans do such as eating, sleeping, breathing, moving, and the like. Such actions are natural However, we decide to act through deliberation, and so through such a mode of willing, we do not follow nature but act according to an individualized subdivision of our nature, making it less than natural, especially when we note that our deliberation is based upon an imperfect level of knowledge and so we have to make guesses as to what we think is best when we act. This means that we according to a fallen, individualistic mode of willing, where all things are willed in relation to the way we cut ourselves away from the common human nature.

Christ, being perfectly human, without any defilements in his will, willed according to what is natural, with a holistic approach to humanity instead of creating an individualistic distinction between himself and his humanity and acting upon that distinction. Maximos, knowing the way we confuse free will based upon our fallen mode of engaging our will, had to make sure it was not seen that Jesus likewise willed in a fallen manner. Jesus did not will based upon ignorance which focused selfishly upon himself, turning his personal distinction into an individualistic division from the rest of humanity. Rather, he acted in his humanity in a holistic fashion, in a way which differs from the way we normally will because of it:

The will and the mode of willing are not the same, just as the power of sight and the mode of perception are not the same. Will, like sight, is of nature. All things which have an identical nature have identical abilities. But the mode of willing, like the mode of perception – in other words, to will to talk or to will not to walk, and the perception of the right hand or the left, or of up or down, or the contemplation of concupiscence or of the natural principles in beings – is only a mode of the use of a power, of the employment of the will and of perception. [1]

Because Jesus wills in an undefiled manner, he willed, not selfishly for the sake of himself, but rather, for the sake of the whole of humanity. That is, in his actions, what he did was for our sake, overcoming the dualistic distinction between his self and us. Nonetheless, there was also something in him which surpasses us, because his person is divine and not human, so he wills naturally, but also “super-naturally,” able to bless humanity and the rest of creation by sharing the divinity with us: God became man so that man can become God:

Rather, He assumed, as good, that which is proper to nature and which expresses that power, inherent in our nature, which holdest fast to being, willing it for our behalf. These natural things of the will are present in Him, but not exactly in the same manner as they are in us. He verily did hunger and thirst, not in a mode similar to ours, but in a mode which surpasseth us, in other words, voluntarily. Thus, He was truly afraid, not as we are, but in a mode surpassing us. To put it concisely; all things that are natural in Christ have both the rational principle proper to human nature, but a super-natural mode of existence, in order that both the [human] nature, by means of its rational principle, and the Economy, by means of its super-natural mode of existence, might be believed. [2]

This, however, must not be used to suggest that Jesus did not will in a natural fashion. He did. He willed as a human, and acted out as a human, according to the perfection of human nature where human persons are discerned in harmonious interdependent relationships with each other.

Defiled Willing

Sin is unnatural, and so its mode of willing is unnatural. When we sin, we withdraw from God, but also from our common human nature, so that we will and act according to an imagined individuated self which we believe ourselves to be, seeking to preserve that self and its interests above all others. The person, which is relational, is elevated above nature to make for that conception of the self, so as to lose its personal quality. The fallen, individuated self, therefore, is defective, which is what we are to expect as a result of sin, following the way St. Bonaventure explained the effects of sin upon us:

Because the creature is from nothing and is defective, it can withdraw from acting because of God, so that it may do something because of itself and not because of God and thus something neither from God, according to God, nor because of God. This is sin, which is the corruption of mode, species, and order. Because sin is a defect, it does not have an efficient cause but a deficient cause, namely, the defection of the created will.[3]

Jesus, therefore, willed not by establishing some center of being based upon his person above his humanity, but rather, in accordance with his humanity. His humanity acted in unity with his divine nature, even though the two willed differing things: God does not will to eat, though Jesus did. The division of nature that is established by sin, cutting persons away from the perfection of nature through the establishment of self-centered individuals who deliberate according to their defiled conception of the self and act upon that deliberation is not found in Jesus. Likewise, as he came to heal the world from the effects of sin, it is something which he came to correct so that we, too, do not have to will according to defiled mental conceptions of an individuated self and the deliberations based upon those conceptions.

Our mode of willing, our sub-natural mode of willing, is normally based upon ignorance.  Our mind, being defiled by sin, creates a false sense of self which it puts over and above our nature. Since it is false, what is willed as a result of deliberations based upon such a foundation will be in error. Our mind is defiled, and because we base our actions upon the way our mind thinks, our actions are defiled.  This accords with the wisdom which can be ascertained from a study of Yogācāra. In Yogācāra, the defiled mind, manas, needs to be overturned. It teaches that the defiled mind is the result of delusions concerning a permanent individuated self, and so long as those delusions remain, we will stay defiled and experience saṃsāra (the defiled state of being tied with suffering). In relation to this, the Chinese translator and interpreter of Yogācāra thought, Hsüan-tsang, explained:

DELUSION ABOUT SELF means “ignorance.” It is called “delusion about self” because of ignorance about the character of “self” and because of delusion about the principle of no self. VIEW OF SELF means “grasping a self.” It is called “view of self” because one falsely posits a self in dharmas where there are no selves. SELF-CONCEIT means “haughtiness.” It is called “self-conceit” because the mind is exalted through pride in the self that is grasped. SELF-LOVE means “craving the self.” It is called “self-love” because on generates a deep attachment to the self that is grasped. [4]

The basis by which we establish this false conception of the self is said to be form our attachment to the world (which is in accord with many patristic commentaries on the fall). We are said to create and establish our notions of the self through the mind’s reliance upon the  “storehouse consciousness,”  that is an unconscious base in which is seeded with all the thoughts and actions we have done in the past which allows the results of such thoughts and actions to grow and interact with our mind and form the basis by which we experience the world. We innately experience this unconsciousness as a part of who we are, so that its contents are used to establish the characteristics which we believe creates our self-identity as well as suggest what we can and should become. Such an idea can be seen in many patristic writers, such as when Evagrius wrote, “When we have impassioned memories of certain things, it is because we previously entertained the objects with passion; in turn, when we entertain objects with passion, we will have impassioned memories associated with these.”[5]  The storehouse consciousness is itself defiled, and is a part of our fallen, defiled mode of being, as it makes us attached to the world and our body in a way contrary to nature:

Among these, “maturation.” Is that called “the store-consciousness” which has all the seeds.
Its appropriations, states, and perceptions are not fully conscious,
yet it is always endowed with contacts, mental attentions, feelings, cognitions, and volitions.
Its feelings are equanimous: it is unobstructed and indeterminate.
The same for its contacts, etc. It develops like the currents in a stream.

Its de-volvement takes place in a saintly state: Dependent on it there develops
a consciousness called “manas,” having it as its object-of-consciousness, and having the nature of always reflecting;
It is always conjoined with four afflictions, obstructed-but-indeterminate,
known as view of self, confusion of self, pride of self, and love of self. [6]

Jesus Helps Us Transform Our Will

According to many of the Fathers, the fall of Adam represents the disordered, unbalanced, way we have become attached to the material world, ignoring or losing sight of the spiritual or metaphysical principles which lie beyond the material world. We became attached to bodily being, confusing our self, our existence, with what we see in the body alone: it is of course a part of the whole, but when it is confused as being the whole, and we act in accordance to the body as if it was the whole of our being, then rational principles which transcend bodily forms of consciousness will be lost. This is in accord with the general direction Yogācāra takes with the storehouse consciousness, because it too is seen to be rooted in and attached to a bodily form of existence where we ignore (or are ignorant of) the truth of our being, allowing us to establish a false notion of the self by which we act and will. Jesus, however, willed not according to this false conception of the self, but with accordance to pure nature, and he leads us to follow him and likewise change our mode of willing. The destruction and defilement of sin would make this impossible were it not for grace, but due to grace, the transformation of our defiled mind is possible, so that it can become undefiled and pure: this is what it means to become an adopted child of God. We no longer think in accordance to an independent self which looks after and attaches itself to a false conception of the self and creation, but rather, we contemplate God and creation in a harmonious all-embracing vision which sees the interdependent relationship of all things and acts in relation to that interdependence (in a personal, relative fashion instead of a selfish, self-centered individualism cutting up creation). Thus, St. Maximos explained:

Natures endowed with intelligence and intellect participate in God through their very being, through their capacity for well-being, that is for goodness and wisdom, and through the grace that gives them eternal being. This, then, is how they know God. They know God’s creation, as we have said, by apprehending the harmonious wisdom to be contemplated in it. This wisdom is apprehended by the intellect in a non-material way, and has no independent existence of its own.[7]

Thus, as St. Maximos related in his works, the process of salvation is the process of turning our self-centered, individualistic, sub-natural way of being, including our sub-natural way of willing, into a natural way of being. Asceticism, the deliberate struggle against the inclinations which we have developed as a result of our defiled mind, helps us overcome various defilements, various seeds of thought, which influence our mind: it is not the goal, but a means to overcome our fallen mode of being so we can become who we are meant to be by nature. It is thus a love for what is good and true, for what is natural, instead of its rejection, though of course, it can work only because of the grace which is given to us, the grace which is implanted and seeded in us as a potential which we must voluntarily accept and engage to realize:

The mode of our spiritual birth from God is twofold. The first bestows on those born in God the entire grace of adoption, which is entirely present in potential; the second ushers in this grace as entirely present in actuality, transforming voluntarily the entire free choice of the one being born so that it conforms to the God who gives birth. [8]

Once we have been transformed from our unnatural, sinful mode of being, to our natural, undefiled mode of being, we will be conformed to God, and so will find ourselves experiencing the bliss of God, the everlasting kingdom of God. Jesus not only shows us this is possible by his own example, he makes it possible for us through his gift of grace. This is why St. Maximos’ discussion on the gnomic mode of willing is important: it shows us that it is not the way we are meant to be, and so long as we defend that mode of willing, we continue to defend a defiled, unnatural form of existence.

[1] St. Maximus the Confessor, The Disputation with Pyrrhus of our Father Among the Saints Maximus the Confessor. Trans. Joseph P. Farrell (South Canaan, Pa.: St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1990),10.

[2]  St. Maximus the Confessor, The Disputation with Pyrrhus, 17-18.

[3] St. Bonaventure, Breviloquium. Trans. Erwin Esser Nemmers (St Louis, MO: B. Herder Book Co., 1946),82.

[4] Hsüan-tsang, Demonstration on Consciousness Only in Three Texts on Consciousness Only. Trans. Francs H. Cook (Berkley, CA: Numata Center, 1999), 131.Likewise, Origen talks about how our deeds form our minds. See Origen, Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans. Books 1-5. Trans. Thomas P. Scheck (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2001), 103.  An analysis of patristic writers talking about seeds, following Scriptural reference to seeds, will likely demonstrate a similar point of view being established.

[5] Evagrius, “Praktikos” in Evagrius of Pontus: the Greek Ascetic Corpus. Trans. Robert E. Sinkewicz (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), 103.

[6] Vasubandhu, “The Thirty Verses” in Seven Works of Vasubandhu. Trans. Stefan Anacker (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, 1998), 186 [The verses have been reformatted to flow better on the screen].

[7] St. Maximos the Confessor, “Four Centuries on Love” in The Philokalia: The Complete Text. Volume Two. Trans. and ed. by G.E.H. Palmer, Philip Sherrard and Kallistos Ware (London: Faber and Faber, 1990), 176 [III.58].

[8] St. Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in Sacred Scripture: The Response to Thalassios. Trans. Fr. Maximos Constas (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 2018), 108.


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