Ever since the Beatles travelled to Rishikesh to learn at the feet of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Westerners have been attracted to Eastern spirituality. Western Christianity has seemed artificial, lifeless and powerless; while Eastern spirituality has a life-changing broadness about it. Below, Monk-Priest Damascene traces the path from Western desire to the East's authentic and life-changing answer.
Today, when thirty thousand people in China are becoming Christians every day—a number unprecedented in the history of the world—a growing number of people in the West are turning away from their Christian roots and becoming interested in ancient Chinese religion. Why is such a reversal taking place? Clearly, it is because many Chinese are now finding a true experience of Christ in the face of religious persecution by the communist government, while churches in the affluent, free West are losing an awareness of the essence of Christ and His teaching.
In modern Western society, many people turn away from the Christianity of their formative years because they find its truths smothered under an unreal kind of religiosity. They see that the people in the churches are not changing and becoming better, but rather are comforting themselves and each other in their unregenerate state. They find that the spirit of the Western churches is, at its core, little different from that of the world around them. Having removed from Christianity the Cross of inward purification, these churches have replaced a direct, intuitive apprehension of Reality and a true experience of God with intellectualism on the one hand and emotionalism on the other.
In the first case, Christianity becomes something that is acquired through rote learning, based on the idea that if you just get the words right—if you just memorise the key Scripture verses, intellectually grasp the concepts and repeat them, know how to act and to speak in the religious dialect of your particular sect—you will be saved. Christianity then becomes a dry, word-based religion, a legalistic system, a set of ideas rather than behaviours, and a political institution that operates on the same principles as the institutions of this world.
In the second case, the Western churches add the element of emotionalism and enthusiasm in order to add life to their systems, but this becomes just as grossly material as religious legalism. People become hypnotised by their self-induced emotional states, seeing a mirage of spiritual ascent while remaining bound to the material world.
This is not direct perception of Reality; it is not the Ultimate. It is no wonder, then, that Western spiritual seekers, even if they have been raised in Christian homes, begin to look elsewhere, into Eastern religions. It is also not surprising that so many are turning to the profound and enigmatic work of pre-Christian China, the Tao Teh Ching. They see a poetic glimpse of Christ in Lao Tzu—a reflection that is faint, but somehow still pure. And to them, this faint but pure image is better than the more vivid but tarnished image of Him that they encounter in much of what now passes for Christianity.
In the traditions of ancient China, the Western spiritual seeker can learn the basics of spiritual life which the churches failed to teach him: how to be free of compulsive thinking and acquire stillness of thoughts, how to cut off desires and addictions, and how to conquer negative emotions.
Some are satisfied to stay on this path. In others of us, however, a strange thing occurs. In one sense, we are making more spiritual progress than ever before, but at the same time we are inexplicably unfulfilled. In our newfound apprehension that there is something more than the realm of the ego and the passions, we come aware that there must be something even more—more than even the authentic Chinese tradition supplies. And we find that although we have left behind the Western Christian confessions, we cannot leave Christ behind.
Why is this? Some would say that, as Westerners, we have Christianity in our genes, as it were. But we would say more: that, even though we were exposed to an attenuated form of Christianity, still we were exposed to “the Christ Ideal”—as the great transmitter of Native American religion, Ohiyesa, called it. The very seed of the idea of Jesus Christ—God Who became flesh, Who emptied Himself into the creation, Who spoke the words that He spoke, Who died on the Cross to restore mankind to its original nature and thus to Paradise—is so powerful in itself that the tales and the teachings of all the world’s religions pale in comparison. But if Christ is so much greater as to be in a class by Himself, why is the Western religion based on Him in such a sorry condition? Why is it so externalised, materialistic and worldly? Surely, we believe, there must be more to Christ than that.
But it is more than just the idea of Christ that works in our souls. Christ Himself is at work in them. Having heard the revelation of Christ, we are now responsible for it, and now He helps us fulfil that responsibility. He helps us come to Him.
Our path to a true experience of Christ is often long and arduous. We in the modern West have become too sophisticated, to complex. When people talk to us of Christianity, we’ve heard it all before: we’ve already become conditioned to react in certain ways to Christian words and concepts. The reflexes they evoke in us are sometimes connected with an emotional trauma from the past that causes us to either cling to them or rebel against them. Clinging and rebellion are only two sides of the same coin: both are predicated on emotional involvement in words and concepts which claim to be Reality itself, but are not.
Moreover, these Christian words and concepts we have learned must vie with thousands of others from all the world’s religions and philosophies, which have now become available to us sophisticated moderns. This presents us with a paradox. Knowing that differing religions and philosophies cannot all be true at the same time, we tend to relativize truth. That is what our logical minds tell us to do. But, in the final sense, we are always wrong when we trust our logical minds.
How do we get past this? How do we become uncomplicated and unsophisticated? Can we simply unlearn all that we have learned?
No, we cannot, but what we can do is to separate ourselves from it in order to look at it with new eyes. For us Westerners to truly enter into the ancient Christian transmission and catch the essence of Christ’s teaching, it is necessary for us to crucify our rationalising minds and rise above the level of thought and emotion. For a society founded on Descartes’ proposition, “I think, therefore I am,” this of course means a kind of suicide; and it is to precisely such an ego-death that Christ calls us. Contemporary Western Christianity trains us how to think and what to think; whereas Christ Himself, as did Lao Tzu before Him, taught us how not to need to think.
The only way to get past a merely external apprehension of religious words and concepts is to seek, without compromise and self-pity, the Reality behind them. We need a vision of the Reality of Realities, total illumination, perfect communion with our Creator, and the birth of Christ Himself within us.
In the Christian East, we find clear guidance on acquiring stillness, overcoming the passions, dealing with thoughts, and cultivating the virtues, as well as precise teachings on spiritual deception which guide us more safely and surely on the path to God. Most important of all, we find the Undistorted Image of Christ which we had not beheld in other churches. In Him, Whom the ancient Akathist hymn calls the “Sunrise of the East,” we find the Beginning and End of our soul’s desire, and the door to eternal life.
Having been raised in a Western church, I have experienced first-hand the tarnishing of Western Christianity. I am relieved to say that Eastern Orthodox Christianity is different. It is at once fully Eastern, conveying genuine Eastern spiritual practices and having healing for body and soul. It is also fully Christian, resplendent in the Light of Christ, the ultimate revelation of the Ultimate Reality.
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Article by Hieromonk Damascene, adapted from the Foreward to, "Christ the Eternal Tao." Valaam Books, 2017.