Human beings seek to be happy, to know the truth, to do good. In this quest we find fulfillment and happiness. A life of mere pleasure-seeking, of constant entertainment, of restless money-making, of power-seeking, will not bring one happiness or truth, and will not help one become a truly good human being.
To the best of my knowledge, three different and especially profound ways to live well and happily have emerged in human history: life under God as explored by Hebrew prophets, Jesus, and the saints; the discovery of reason and the search for wisdom and happiness as lived and taught by Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and their philosopher-disciples; and the way of the Buddha with the search for inner calm and insight. To these three irreplaceable ways one should also add the works of science and scholarship that may usefully contribute to one’s search for happiness and truth. (Historically, western science is an offshoot of Greek philosophy.).
In my judgement, one seeking to live happily, and to understand the truth about man’s place in reality, should have recourse to Judaeo-Christian spirituality; to reason and the life of the mind that is philosophy; to meditative practices as developed within the Buddhist tradition; and to the best insights from science. There are other spiritual traditions that are very rich indeed, and no doubt one can draw spiritual nourishment from them (such as from Hinduism, the Tao, or from native American spirituality). One way or another, four enormous figures of human history keep presenting themselves in my search: Moses as the carrier of the I AM; Jesus as the human being fully immersed in God; Socrates and the unending quest for truth by means of right reasoning, with its openness to divine reality; the Buddha and the quest for inner peace and freedom from suffering.
As I look back on my life, and consider how to spend time remaining for me on earth, these figures keep emerging as demanding my attention and study. Moses is known primarily through the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, in the Law, and in the Chosen People; Jesus is known through the same scriptures, but above all in lovingly doing the will of God and in the lives of His saintly people; Socrates is known through right reasoning, and especially as embodied in the texts of Plato and Aristotle, and their learned disciples through the ages; and the Buddha is known through his teaching, (the Buddha-dhamma), and through diligently practicing mindfulness-meditation.
The ways of the prophets, of Jesus, of Socrates, and of the Buddha, are not identical, nor can they be unthinkingly harmonized or “syncretized.” Each of these ways is valid, and requires a committed life. To give an example of an enormous tension between them—a tension demanding much study and thought—Moses and Jesus lead one into the mystery we call “God.” Socrates, open to all truth, respects “the gods” and God, but employs reason as moved through an inner dialogue with divine reality as it presents itself to consciousness. The Buddha is consistently non-theistic, avoiding all speculation on the gods, and any explicit reliance on divine help in the search for inner peace.
For years I have allowed my faith in God and Christ to be illumined through the life of reason as developed by Socrates and the best human minds who have written philosophy. On this path I have very far to go, but I found reliable models, as in St. Anselm, with his “faith seeking understanding.” The more difficult challenge is to explore and live more fully the mutual penetration of the way of Christ and the way of the Buddha. While being true to the God of Moses and of Jesus Christ, and true to right reasoning, I must seek to practice meditation as guided not only by Christian mystics and saints, but by Buddhist meditators. Only in meditative practice, and in right living, can one gain insight into how living faith in God, the life of reasoning, and the Buddhistic way of “being lights unto yourselves” are essentially one, or harmonize. For all that is true is good, and worth seeking.
One must live the truth to understand it. Otherwise, one is merely speculating and playing intellectual games—an enormous problem in our culture and in mass education today. The light of Christ, of Socrates, and of the Buddha all reveal our culture and contemporary ways of living as deeply flawed and self-destructive. In the question of Jesus, “What does it profit a man, to gain the whole world, and lose his life?” In the Socratic insight, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” And in the light of the Buddha, “To cross the stream of life, bale out this boat!”