A Northern Buddha

D. T. Suzuki, the scholar of Japanese religion, key early promoter of Zen to the West, was attending an Eranos conference in Switzerland in the 1950s, when in conversation with the Islamic scholar, Henri Corbin, he referred to Swedenborg, the eighteenth century scientist and visionary of Heaven and Hell, as the "Buddha of the North".

In an earlier phase of his life, Suzuki had devoted a five year period to the intensive study of Swedenborg from which had come both translations of some of Swedenborg's key works (from the English to the Japanese) and two studies - a biographical introduction and a comparative essay on Swedenborg and Buddhism.

These two latter texts were reproduced in the mid 90s, in an English translation, courtesy of the Swedenborg Foundation together with introductory apparatus and a fabulous afterword by the Buddhist and comparative scholar, David Loy, as 'Swedenborg: the Buddha of the North'.

In the space of less than 120 pages, collectively the book makes an excellent case for taking the visionary Swede seriously, most notably in Loy's concluding essay.

This essay opens by pondering why Swedenborg is not more prominent in dialogues between Christians and Buddhists. The reply might be that Swedenborg occupies a marginal (and contested) place in the history of Christianity (however undeservedly) yet counterbalanced by a remarkable (if hidden) space in the cultural history of the West.

Loy's essay beautifully explores a set of resonant relationships between Buddhism and Swedenborg. These range from exploring the doctrine of no self and how both see 'me' as a composite of processes rather than a fixed self to comparing and contrasting Swedenborg's after death views with those of the Tibetan Book of the Dead.

Here both see the after death state as deeply instructive for the possibilities now - what must I do 'now' to achieve heavenly life - and see that focused on a deepening scrutiny and awareness of different states of mind. But Buddhism is potentially more optimistic for the after death state. Seeing it as transitional and transformative one, whereas Swedenborg, much coloured by his Protestant Christianity, apparently offers only a this life chance to secure one's given place in the next. Though this given place is purely a reflection of your orientating state of mind not a judgement of an 'external' God. It was on this permanency that Blake criticised Swedenborg. Blake, like Buddhism, imagined heaven and hell as states you passed through to a deeper liberation, not as a permanent condition.

Interestingly it is in this re-visioning of God that Swedenborg also touches close to Buddhism. In Mahayana Buddhism, you have the perspective of the three bodies of the Buddha that everything is, that contains all reality. Swedenborg talks of God (in Cabalistic terms) as the 'great man', the universe is a body, a shaping and shaped reality of consciousness, in which every particular person finds their place through right exercise of their usefulness and the uses they find before them. God is both beyond 'us' and is 'us', not an objective something 'out there', but the subjective reality of all that is (or is potentially). Like the fundamental 'emptiness' at the heart of the Buddhist vision of things that Loy reminds us can also be translated as a fruitful potentiality.

Swedenborg thought that God is that fruitful potential in which and by which the kingdom of Heaven would become established by each person ever more closely identifying with and using creatively that potentiality continually gifted them by the divine. Or as a Buddhist might say by achieving nirvana in losing one's identity in the flowing nature of reality through navigating the potentiality of that reality with wisdom and compassion, so that every 'use' of it accords with its true nature.

Swedenborg continues, for me, to feel like that thinker, saintly practitioner, whose time is yet to come, rather than a quaint intriguing relic! A thought he himself held - the New Jerusalem is an evolving process, dependent on willing minds and hands, not an external imposition of a capricious God, towards which we must, to quote the Buddha, strive on with diligence.


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