You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery”. But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.
— Mathew 5: 27-29, New International Version
It is all but certain that Mathew 5:27-29, with its strongly worded suggestion that hell awaits those of us who lust, has both terrified and dismayed more than one newly post-pubic boy or girl. At that age, one is scarcely in control of one’s lusty thoughts, let alone one’s lusty desires.
Even though I am now 54, I still have a distinct memory of a moment in middle school when I was absolutely seized by the entirely accidental, one-second-long, sight of a classmate’s white lace panties. If at that instant a bolt of lightening had struck me, I would not have noticed the additional shock.
It seemed to me at the time that it took ten minutes before I could again think. And my very first thought afterwards was embarrassingly geeky: I thought of Mathew and wondered how anyone — anyone! — could be expected to control their sexual feelings.
Although it was a trivial event, it played a large role in shaping what I thought of Christianity during middle school and high school. I had until then fervently embraced Christian ideals — or, at least, what I understood at the time to be Christian ideals — even though I was most days an agnostic.
But I began to suspect the ideals might be hopelessly impractical, and I turned an increasingly skeptical eye towards them. By the time I began reading Nietzsche at 15, I was pretty well prepared to accept the notion that Christian ideals were not the Alpha and the Omega of values.
Strange how so much seems in hindsight to have ridiculously depended upon the second-long sight of someone’s white lace panties.
Of course, there are varying interpretations of Mathew 5: 27-29. A lot seems to depend on how you interpret the Greek, epithumeo. It is commonly translated along the lines of “to lust”, or “to lust after”, which seems to suggest to many of us that merely desiring to have sex with someone out of wedlock will land us in hellfire. And those of us who think that way appear to be in good company. John Calvin, for instance, wrote, “This teaches us also, that not only those who form a deliberate purpose of fornication, but those who admit any polluted thoughts, are reckoned adulterers before God.”
Other folks interpret the passage more kindly. Some argue that epithumeo should be translated as “a strong desire”, “to desire greatly”, or “to long for”. And a few go so far as to suggest that, taken in context, it means, “to covet”. In both instances, the notion seems to be that only an unusally strong or covetous desire will land you in hell.
Yet, regardless of how the passage should be understood, it is a pretty safe bet the passage is quite often understood to condemn those of us who have any desire at all for sex with someone to whom we happen not to be married. C. H. Spurgeon almost joyfully writes:
So that the unholy desire, the lascivious glance, everything that approximates towards licentiousness, is here condemned; and Christ is proved to be not the Abrogator of the law, but the Confirmer of it. See how he shows that the commandment is exceedingly broad, wide as the canopy of heaven, all-embracing. How sternly it condemns us all, and how well it becomes us to fall down at the feet of the God of infinite mercy, and seek his forgiveness.
On the surface, at least, Christianity seems to raise quite a racket over the notion that our thoughts are absolutely crucial to our moral standing. Yet, the notion that thoughts — mere thoughts — can be of great consequence to us was not entirely new by the time of Jesus.
The author of Matthew might have been the first person to stir hell into the mix, but the Buddha is alleged to have said some similar things 500 years before him. For instance: “All that we are is the result of what we have thought. The mind is everything. What we think we become.” Again, “Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts.” And, last, “We are shaped by our thoughts; we become what we think. When the mind is pure, joy follows like a shadow that never leaves.”
To me, that last quote is the most significant of the three I’ve presented here because it tells us the benefit of guarding our minds against negative thoughts. That is, a pure mind, free of negative thoughts, finds “joy”. And, although I suspect that word “joy” is quite possibly a poor translation, the idea remains that some sort of happiness is to be had by cultivating a pure mind.
If we may now compare the Buddhist notion with the Christian one, we see certain similarities. First, there is the idea that our thoughts are not merely idle, but have real consequences for us. Both the Buddhists and the Christians seem to agree on that.
Yet, in the Christian case, as commonly understood, the consequences are potentially devastating: Eternal hell. Naturally, I wish to say to Matthew, “Lighten up! Those were rather nice panties. And besides, it was an even nicer person who was wearing them. For that, I’m going to hell? Could you be any more absurd?” Of course, the Christian emphasis on hellfire is distasteful, unless your aesthetic sense rivals that of a wolverine.
In the Buddhist case, the consequences are much less grim, if no less serious. Instead of eternal hell, there is dukkha. Dukkha is most often translated as “suffering”. And, while it has that implication, I prefer to return to its original meanings. There are three that I know of.
First, the word was once used to denote a lose fit between a chariot wheel and its axle, such that the wheel wobbled. Second, the word was once used to denote a poor fit between a potter’s wheel and its stand, such that the wheel screeched when turned. And, last, the term was used to denote a dislocated shoulder or hip. The common meaning to all three cases is something like, “out-of-jointedness”.
Of course, there are many words to describe the consequences of that out-of-jointedness, “…including suffering, pain, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration.” Or, perhaps, in other words, “hell on earth”.
If, when comparing the Buddhist and Christian notions of what negative thoughts lead to, you squint very long and very hard, the two notions can seem remarkably similar. Especially, if you broaden the Christian concept out from its narrow reference to sexual desire, and instead think of the concept as encompassing any poorly managed desire, whether a poorly managed desire for sex, or money, or power, etc. And after that, you can take the Christian concept of hell and declare it is a mere metaphor for suffering on earth. In the end, after all that intense squinting, the Buddhist and Christian notions might seem pretty much the same.
That’s a lot of squinting, though.
I have a little story that illustrates to me one of the most important differences between the Buddhist and Christian views of negative thinking.
Some long time ago, I came across an Evangelical Christian website that was busy conducting an informal survey on the subject of, “Should women and girls dress modestly to help their brothers in Christ avoid lusting for them?” The question brought to my mind a Zen tale of two monks:
[The monks] were travelling when they came to a swollen stream. Standing in the road beside the stream, wondering how she might cross, was a beautiful young woman. Without hesitation, the older monk picked up the woman and carried her across the stream. She thanked him and went on her separate way. The two monks then travelled on together for several hours, until the younger monk, deeply troubled, could no longer remain silent. “Brother, aren’t we forbidden to have any physical contact with women?”, he asked. Replied the older monk, “I put her down several hours ago, but you are still carrying her.”
Now, the word, dukkha, in addition to all the other many ways it can be translated, can also be translated as “clingingness”, or “emotional clingingness”. And, when we hear the tale of the two monks in light of that fact, it might become apparent to us that the younger monk was clinging — emotionally clinging — to the young woman long after she was gone and out of his life. While, of course, the older monk had both physically and emotionally let go of her several hours ago.
To my mind, that tale illustrates that, to the Buddhist, the real problem is not simple sexual desire, but rather, sexual desire that is clung to, that is nursed, that is dwelt on, that is cultivated, and thus sustained beyond its natural course.
Put differently, it is not, perhaps, the thought itself that makes it negative, but our all too human tendency to emotionally cling to the thought that makes it negative — a tendency that, unfortunately, can often lead to “… suffering, pain, discontent, unsatisfactoriness, unhappiness, sorrow, affliction, anxiety, dissatisfaction, discomfort, anguish, stress, misery, and frustration“.
Last, it seems to me that the Christian concept of negative thoughts, understood in its broadest possible sense, all too often leads to the notion that others should take responsibility for our thoughts and feelings. The Evangelical website phrased it as a question, “Should women and girls dress modestly to help their brothers in Christ avoid lusting for them?” But why should that even be a question? From a Buddhist perspective, we — and we alone — are responsible for our emotional clingingness.
At any rate, it’s early in the morning, the birds are singing, and it’s time to turn my attention elsewhere.