disclaimer: I don't claim to have a great deal of knowledge about either Augustine
, but this is an account of what I understood of what I read of theirs and what I thought about it.
Augustinian and Buddhist views of the world seem very different to begin with, but they are not without their similarities. Although they differ in their beliefs about individuals, that is, whether there is a self and soul or not, some of their motivations are for the same thing. The origins of the schools of thinking, too, have both similarities and differences. It is from the combination and modification of ideas that these philosophies arose, and in my own evaluation of them, I, too, modify and combine to create a philosophy fitting with my experiences.
A fundamental difference between Buddhist and Augustinian thinking is the state of the soul or self. In Buddhist philosophy, there is no self as in the inalterable sinew of the Augustinian idea. Rather, each person is a series of causally connected moments, no more discrete within the universe of moments than one drop of water is within a lake. To the Buddhist, what we perceive as soul is only an aggregate of experience, "the five aggregates of attachment…the Aggregate of Matter…the Aggregate of Sensations…the Aggregate of Perceptions…the Aggregate of Mental Formations…and the Aggregate of Conciousness*," which is also dukkha, commonly translated as suffering. "According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts…selfish desire…ill-will…egoism…it is the source of all the troubles in the world…*" For the Augustinian thinker, however, the self indeed exists. In fact, it is the soul that is most answerable to God (the existence of God is also a point of difference between Augustinian and Buddhist ideas). This soul was given man when "the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…‡" This soul, besides being a definite entity, does wrong. Man "bears about him his mortality, the evidence of his sinfulness…†"
Both Augustine Christianity and Buddhism see the human condition as less than desirable; they both find that man needs improvement: for the Buddhist, it is dukkha that hinders man, and for the Augustinian thinker, it is sin. Neither is happy, and it is the persual of a better, optimal condition that motivates the spiritual thought of both, although the differences between the preferred conditions are great between the two philosophies. The reason the human state is undesirable is also a point of agreement; it is the fleeting, transitory nature of human happiness that one wishes most to escape from. In Augustine's writings, he states that God is "ever burning and never extinguished!" He also writes that God is "incorruptible food.†" Similarly, the Buddha's "Third Noble Truth is that there is emancipation, liberation, freedom from suffering, from the continuity of dukkha…which is Nirvana…'Extinction of Thirst'.*" The goal of both the Augustinian and the Buddhist thinker, then, is to escape from the perishable and the desire for the perishable and to embrace and exist in the permanent. Where in Buddhism this escape is to nothingness, to the Augustine it is to God.
Augustine and Siddhartha Gotama arrived at this conclusion in comparable ways. Both spent time in their youth indulging in the carnal, Augustine by choice and Siddhartha Gotama because his father encouraged such indulgences in hopes that he would not choose to become a spiritual questor. As Augustine wrote, "I came to Carthage, where a cauldron of illicit loves leapt and boiled about me…my longing then was to love and to be loved, but most when I obtained the enjoyment of the body of the person who loved me.†" However, gleaning no true, lasting enjoyment from their experiences, they both concluded that it was not the manner in which to achieve their goals of enlightenment and release. One turned to his upbringing, to the lessons of his Christian childhood, the other to the monk's way until he came to his own conclusions. Again, their paths were similar. Both spent time learning from thinkers they later decided had been misleading, Augustine from the Manicheans, Siddartha Gotama from the wandering ascetics. Finally, they took what elements of philosophy and religion they found valid in previous thought and reshaped them to their own ideas. Rather than following either the opulent or the meager life, the Buddha realized he should live in moderation: "There are two extremes…which the man who has given up the world ought not to follow-the habitual practice…of those things whose attraction depends upon the passions, and especially of sensuality…and the habitual practice…of asceticism (or self-mortification)…§"
The tendency is to take the ideas of those who came before and make them one's own, combining, modifying, and adding to them until the result fits with one's inclinations and experiences. While the Buddhist notion of the continuum of being, that is, everyone affecting everyone else by their actions, fits with my perception of existence, many of Augustine's ideas also seem supported by my experience. For example, Augustine's treatment of doing wrong, that he knowingly engages in sin, reminds me of situations I have found myself in. "The malice of the act was base and I loved it," Augustine writes, "that is to say I loved my own undoing, I loved the evil in me-not the thing for which I did the evil, simply the evil: my soul was depraved and hurled itself down from security in You into utter destruction, seeking no profit from wickedness but only to be wicked.†" Even here, in this straightforward example, however, I want to modify. I feel I do not love wickedness so much as cannot stop myself from doing it. All the while I do it, I hate it. Still, Augustine's asking God to heal him, to take away his wickedness because he cannot heal himself, seems to me the only way to become sinless. The matter of God's existence I cannot yet broach. Of my own existence, whether I have a self, again I combine and modify, taking a middle stance, that my "self", the part of me that cannot be generally altered by experience, is the genetic part of me. It defines who I am and remains less plastic than most of my being (though it is not inalterable, in fact is being altered, to a degree). If I reproduce, it continues to exist after my death, albeit combined with another's genes. Therefore, the self is both perpetual and affected, a compromise between the Buddhist idea of anatta and the Christian idea of the eternal soul.
* Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught.
† Augustine, Confessions.
‡ Genesis 2:7
§ Siddhartha Gotama Buddha, "The Foundation of the Kingdom of Righteousness"