Today I showed one of my classes the episode “Footprint of the Buddha” from the classic series The Long Search. The first time I watched it, I was particularly struck by one of the ways host Ronald Eyre summed up a key emphasis of Buddhism. He sits in a wooden chair and observes that if he sits there for a little while, he may be quite comfortable, but after 24 hours sitting in the chair he’d be in agony, after doing so for 24 years he’d be a cripple, and in 240 years he’d be bones – and the chair would probably not be in great shape either. And so, although things have the illusion of permanence when viewed in the present, nothing really is. In Buddhism, even the gods are transient, so how much more everything in this world? And if there is nothing in the world that one can cling to, then one is faced with only one alternative, an almost unthinkable one: letting go.
My first thought on hearing this summary of Buddhism was how very much it reminded me of Rudolf Bultmann’s definition of faith (in keeping with the existentialist Christian tradition) as depending on nothing but God, as letting go of all so-called certainties, including doctrinal and religious ones, which turn out to be idols when we cling to them.It is perhaps not surprising that those of us who have let go, who have surrendered, whether within the Buddhist or the Christian tradition, whether aware of particular teachers’ and theologians’ teachings and ideas or not, have shared a similar experience of being born again, of awakening or enlightenment. The experience itself is liberating and cathartic – and those of us who have had it are usually persuaded that it tells us something important about the nature of reality, even though the opinions on precisely what the experience offers in terms of concrete beliefs differs. That is as it should be, since letting go must include letting go of claims to certainty about such matters and the recognition that they are idols, or at least that they can become such if we fail to recognize them as being less than ultimate.
There is nothing to cling to. Do you have the courage to let go?