One approach to claiming a place for Buddhism in contemporary society and contemporary academia is to focus on its similarities with other religions and philosophies.
In contrast, however, I have long considered it important to explore the differences. The rhetoric of “all religions are ultimately the same” does not sound liberal, open and accepting to me. It sounds instead like a rationale for imposing uniformity, and a reason not to change what one is already comfortable with.
One way of thinking about the difference between Christianity and Buddhism is what I’ve come to call “narrative trajectory.” That is, the story line of Christian thought (including its deep pervasion in putatively secular social and historiographic thought) is an arc that starts from Paradise as the initial human condition, runs through the Fall, and ends with Redemption.
This is a stark contrast to the Buddhist narrative arc of ignorance as the initial human condition (ground), practice to overcome ignorance (path), and awakening (goal). The critical issue for understanding these structures is an existential one: we are always already and only in the middle of both narrative structures. Both the beginning and the end are socio-cognitive constructs developed to frame the existential experience of what Heidegger called “being thrown” (geworfen) into the world.
This analysis of the structure of the Christian narrative trajectory is parallel to that given by Eric C. Miller in his post “‘I was a wild man’: How to decode Evangelical testimony” (Religion Dispatches, 16 July 2015). Miller talks about the three part structure of Evangelical testimony in terms of “sin, repentance, and redemption.” He points to the narratives of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus, and the Prodigal Son.
While the terms of the analysis are not identical, it seems to me that the three parts Miller identifies as the Pauline version are instances of the Fall and Redemption portions of the narrative arc that Suzanne Kirschner describes in her The Religious and Romantic Origins of Psychoanalysis: Individuation and Integration in Post-Freudian Theory (Cambridge, 1996), from which I’ve drawn the narrative structure of Christianity. While the Pauline version is truncated in relation to the Biblical pattern of Paradise, Fall, Redemption, the Prodigal Son version matches quite well. That structure Miller describes as the narrative of “those who once were found, then lost—and are now found again.”
Miller discusses the fact that evangelical sources prescribe ways of narrating one’s own experience according to the sin, repentance, redemption structure. He notes that
The result, all too often, is a flat, uniform pattern of thought and speech stripped of all distinction. And yet, invariably, it will be clear, simple, digestible, and useful.
The utility, I would suggest, derives from the familiarity of the narrative structure as such. The individual character of life experience is re-formed/de-formed so as to fit the narrative. Because the structure of the narrative is the same as other instances, it is easily interpreted and accepted. In other words, interpretation of one’s own experience is learned socially, and reinforced through use.
Narrative trajectory provides an analytic for examining the structure rather than the details of different personal stories. It is not simply the case that this is a matter of beginning, middle and end, but the value of one’s experience is determined—and indeed in the conversion narrative—enhanced by learning to recount it according to the expectations of one’s audience.