One of the first stories of the Bible is the story of Adam and Eve. It is a rich story of the origin of man and woman, with many lessons revealed within on how Western/Middle Eastern culture understands the nature of human beings. As Western Occidentals, understanding more how we were raised to understand human nature makes it easier to understand our orientation to the Buddhist philosophy and its understanding of the universe.
In the Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, Adam and Eve are the represented image of the origin of mankind. They were created to live in the Garden of Eden, where the world was idyllic. But Eve was tempted by the serpent and Adam tempted by his wife to eat from the Tree of Knowledge, thus gaining the knowledge of the world—including the understanding of good and evil. For disobeying God, Adam and Even were cast out of Eden to endure the hardships of our typical mortal life.
Wow! There are so many Western paradigms and schemas packed into that story. Even how each Judeo-Christian faith translates this story reveals depths of understanding in how we view ourselves within the World.
For example, the eating of the apple in Christianity equates to the “original sin” of man: or the transgression of disobeying God and hoping to be like him. Christian lives understand the nature of suffering as that constant dissonant struggle between doing what is right (God’s will) and what is convenient, expedient or self-gratifying (our urge towards unwholesome pleasure).
By contrast, the Jewish Tradition sees the apple as a test. The choice is to resist temptation and choose to live in innocence or choose moral awareness. In the Hebrew context, the choice is non-judgmental. In an odd sort of way, it was very similar the choice given to “Neo” in the movie “The Matrix.” No one is considered to make a wrong choice, but a choice that reveals the nature of man.
The Islamic translation of the story is that the apple was a test of loyalty. The sin was to question God’s law and their punishment was mortality. Unlike Christianity, where original sin is our heritage but forgivable, Islam’s message is that the first sin is a warning to those who follow.
In the very start of the Bible we are indoctrinated: there is a God, and he will tell you what to do. But, what does that mean to those of us from Western cultures studying Buddhism?
First, we must always be mindful that our deepest orientation and conditioning is based on this theory. Even those who deny its truth are doing so because that is the truth we were taught. An atheist raised in an atheist culture does not have the same mental viewpoint as one who was raised in the buckle of the “Bible Belt.”
The very fact that Occidentals are raised within their Judeo-Christian culture gives them unique perspective from other Buddhists. It is not a matter of being right or wrong, better or worse. We have the challenge to look past our cultural conditioning, but also have the advantage of being able to see the world from multiple perspectives; which gives us depth in our practice.
BUDDHISM AND THE BIBLE
The Adam and Eve story also gives us insight into 2,000 years of Occidental thought of mental evolution. The suffering of Adam and Eve starts with the loss of innocents, the angst that comes from understanding the moral difference between good and evil, the conflict of following free will against God’s authoritarian law. In short, it is a perfect example how Western society views the origin concept of “the Self.”
Adam and Eve explain the transition from instinctual animals to self-aware human beings. The story also shows the second transition from aware reasoning creatures into value judging humans. Out of ignorance we were tempted to develop answers to our questions—what is good, what is bad, what is right and what is wrong. However, what is really interesting is how easily we accept the answers of our parents and village elders without much critical introspection. And with the Adam and Even story why should we? God made the rules—we just follow.
This article is not to refute God, but to shed some light on Western modes of thinking. In many ways, when we look at the Adam and Even story we are able to directly see the Buddhist “Law of Dependent Origination.”
Through ignorance and consciousness the mind creates its own sense of identity to relate with the world the senses are interacting with. Once that mental formation exists, our contact with the world creates volitional value opinions (aka feelings). The cravings and clinging that is created with the world around us based on those values create the birth of all things—including our concept of good and evil.
Remove God, the Tree of Knowledge, a snake, and the garden; and what you are left with is the same concept of mental evolution the Buddha describes, which causes our existential suffering. We all feel “naked” in our ignorance and fear. We all crave for someplace safe we feel is out there but lost to us.
RETURN TO EDEN
The Genesis story of Adam and Eve is a tale intended to give us a founding orientation to obey God, resist the temptations of hubris, and the true nature of realize self-awareness. The message of the story is that we are flawed creatures that suffer from our nature to desire when we should just accept what is given. In a Buddhist context, it is a parable the reveals the how ignorance creates the delusion of “self” and ego (and thereby all other suffering in our lives).
For Christians, using the Buddhist context may bring a deeper understanding into the nature of man in a greater context of reality.
For a Buddhist raised in a Judeo-Christian culture, we can find a grab-hold in our investigation of our own conditioned understanding of the universe, how we fit in it and how to navigate our lives to find greater wisdom in our Buddhist practice.