Was T. S. Eliot a Buddhist? by Michele Seminara

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

T. S. Eliot – Four Quartets

Several years ago I taught a Buddhist class on the profound subject of emptiness, and I used this quote to illustrate what I felt was our true goal in life  – to consciously return home.

Not home in the sense of an external place, but as an internal place of perfect inner peace and connectedness – a state which Buddhists enticingly call the union of bliss and emptiness.

Bliss refers to our most subtle and clear-seeing level of mind, an intoxicating place existing deep down beneath the turbulence of our conceptions.

Emptiness is a little trickier. Essentially it is the theory of how things don’t exist – that is, they are empty of existing independently, either from all other phenomena, or from the minds that perceive them. Which is not the same as saying that things do not exist at all! Just that they do not exist in the way they appear to.

Of course this may sound rather strange – our world certainly appears to be a very solid and independent place, doesn’t it?  It feels very much as if it’s existing ‘out there’, quite separate from our mind, which exists ‘in here’.

But as Buddha, and now quantum physicists have discovered, appearances are nearly always deceptive, and our reality is far from ‘real’. Like a dream, a mirage, a magician’s illusion… while things do exist, it is only just, and not in the solid way they appear to.

With our mind we make the world

Buddha said, and while this in itself is not a problem (in fact in the end it is the key to the solution) failing to understanding the world’s illusory nature is.

For when we fail to recognize the intimate connection between mind and its projections, we find ourselves searching through all  the world’s places for the answer to our problems.  Not understanding the true internal origination of our pleasure and pain, we expect more from life than it can realistically deliver, and are left constantly, heartbreakingly wanting…

Spiritual paths (of all descriptions) take us in the opposite direction. Buddhist means ‘inner being’ and its practises take you on an internal journey, returning you to your very source, your own true nature, emptiness.

As we meditate we delve deeper and deeper inside our own minds, exploring down through ever more subtle levels and challenging ourselves to redefine who we think we are.

We try to bring our conscious awareness to this process, even during times of sleep and death, for it is at these times of least external distraction that we have the greatest opportunity to access the most clear seeing level of mind – the clear light of bliss.

When this blissful state is manifest our mind is naturally unclouded by the stories it habitually creates about our world, ourselves and others. During these moments we have a powerful opportunity to understand our own true nature and to reunite with our true ‘home’. Tragically, for most, this opportunity is missed.

Like a tourist lulled into unconsciousness on a train, we sleep through what passes by outside the window of our perceptions, never fully aware, and therefore never fully able to experience it. Night after night, life after life, our internal explorations naturally take us ’home’, but time and again we fail to recognize it clearly – for what it is, or for who we are.

Hoodwinked by the dream of our own projections, we grasp instead onto what is not (was never) really there, except in our own minds making…

As Albert Einstein said,

Reality is an illusion, albeit a persistent one.

Our search for happiness (or satisfaction, peace, home, enlightenment) in all its myriad expressions (as urgings for love, sex, drugs, shoes, money, success) is really all about this divine drive for union with our true selves.

As Eliot pointed out in the Four Quartets, this is our real job, our highest purpose – to return to that primordial union of bliss and emptiness (or God, he would call it) and to consciously know that state for the first time. To recognize ourselves as we really are – free of race, gender, job, social status, ego; what’s left after all these are gone is what there is.

But this is at least a lifetimes work, perhaps many lifetimes…

Was T .S. Eliot a Buddhist?  Being a Christian, I’m sure he would not have said so.  And yet, unsurprisingly, it seems our shared purpose is the same.

23 thoughts on “Was T. S. Eliot a Buddhist? by Michele Seminara

  1. I think most religions, including Christianity, are at their profoundest and deepest levels, practising what Buddhists teach, and live… and there is a school of thought that Jesus in the lost years did in fact study Buddhism … so maybe TS Eliot was a Buddhist in this sense…This was a lovely explanation of those deepest levels , thank you Michele

    • Valerie! That’s just what I think – T.S. may not have felt he was a Buddhist, but perhaps at the deepest level all our spiritual teachers draw from the same well. It would make sense, wouldn’t it? Thanks so much.

    • Hi Malcolm – good question! While Eliot was clearly not a Buddhist (although the proposition did make for a catchy title!) I do think he was quite open to and influenced by Eastern traditions – perhaps especially in The Waste Lands. From the third canto ‘Fire Sermon’ inspired by Buddha’s Ādittapariyāya Sutta, to the referencing of the Upanishads at the end of the poem, there is a quite a bit in there. More generally, I think that the asceticism of the Theravadin Budhhist tradition really appealed to Eliot as a remedy to the troublesome ‘burning burning burning’ of man’s desires: plus there is an awful lot of death and re-birth going on in the poem (albeit of a Christian nature).Perhaps, in the end, the teachings of Buddha and Jesus are more alike than not? Shantih, Shantih, Shantih…..

  2. Michele, First, Congratulations for being published in this magazine. It was so cool for me to read an essay of yours, being that I’ve only read your poetry thus far. I was captivated by the topic, and I really needed to read such a thoughtful essay this week. I’m feeling quite disconnected to any spiritual side these days and I find there is a longing for more of this–a sustenance if you will. Sadly, I only find disconnection and intolerance in organized religion.I love the perspective you share at the end about “Shared purpose.” I believe the most authentic journeys of understanding DO have a shared purpose, regardless of the labels we mere human BEINGS seem to mislabel them as. Thank you for this thought-provoking work. I will continue to search for my inner being, and find inspiration in guides like you.

    • Hi Michael! Thank you so much for taking the time to read this.Sadly, I think a lot of people feel disconnected to their spiritual side these days – our Western culture doesn’t exactly foster it! The ‘outside’ can be so busy and distracting, we forget that a lot of peace, and also pleasure, can be found if we journey ‘in’. I think meditation (or prayer) is a bit like exercise – you kind of just have to start, it will be difficult and a bit painful at first, but if you persist, it becomes a pleasure, and even a healthy addiction! If you don’t get you’re daily dose, you feel off centre, and begin to forget how good it made you feel. Thats been my experience anyway. And I couldn’t agree with you more about the ‘labels’; they just divide us. Hope you and family are keeping well. Take care.

  3. Thank you for the beautiful and enlightening:) post. I appreciate how you have considered and explicated some complex notions so clearly, and also elegantly. Especially helpful to this traveller: “[o]ur search for happiness…in all its myriad expressions…is really all about this divine drive for union with our true selves…..” Peace

  4. Nice work, Michele. The older I get, the more connections I see between the old wisdoms, and new scientific ways of explaining the world.
    Thought-provoking and elegantly written.🙂

  5. amazing post…..Michele…..the explanation you have given above is elegant no doubt!!!
    love reading your posts🙂 great work indeed!

  6. Such an interesting article, Michele! Knowledge spreads its influence wide and it isn’t always easy to see all the ways one may be affected. Like the ripples from a stone thrown into the water, we are all throwing so many wonderful ideas into the pool! Your point on The Waste Lands is convincing🙂

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