The more I learn about Islam the more I believe something obvious: Religions are not the same. I don’t mean that Islam and Hinduism and the others do not point their adherents toward the one God (or “ultimate reality,” or whatever). I just mean that they do this in really different ways, ways that often seem contradictory.
But there is one point of similarity that I really wonder about. I suspect a deep connection between Buddhism and Christianity when it comes to a certain concept of the individual. Some Buddhists talk about the “no-self.” What this means is that the idea of the self, that is, the concept of I, the first person singular, “is a fiction, a concept created by the mind but lacking any substantial reality. (Quote taken from John Powers’s A Concise Introduction to Tibetan Buddhism, p. 49.) Another way of saying this is that the thing you think you are, your soul, your unchanging essence, simply does not exist.
This is of course a pretty radical idea to the Western mind, but there are distinct traces of a similar theme within the Christian tradition. An example: Meister Eckhart, in his German Sermon 6, claimed that, after encountering God all created things (including himself) are not just lowly by comparison but are in fact nothing: “I do not say that they are a small thing or that they are nothing but that they are an absolute nothing.” This idea is sometimes called annihilation in God, and is not an uncommon theme in the contemplative literature. And it’s an idea that I really like. (It’s also an idea that, so far as I can tell, shows up in Sufism, and perhaps other places too.)
It’s not a bad thing. It’s a relief and it’s liberating. Think about Jesus and his words about having to die before you can live. Once you cast off the burden of “yourself,” you can really begin to act freely in the world. At least that’s the idea.
Of course there is all that other stuff in Christianity about the specialness of the individual, etc. I know it’s there. I just wonder about things like this. When I see such hints of convergence it makes me suspect that somewhere deep, at a place I have never understood, the obviously different religions share a common taproot.