At a splashy social event this past summer, at which only a few folks did I actually know, I found myself seated next to a middle aged woman, whose quiet reticence stood in marked contrast to the noise and bellicosity that now and again take hold of me. And she said something so shocking that I don’t suppose anyone who heard it will ever be the same again. Certainly not the poor fellow she skewered with her question.
“Why does the Buddha never open his eyes?”
The thrust of the dagger was swift and unexpected. The hapless young man to whom she’d just put the question, a dewy-eyed sophomore from an elite New England Jesuit college, had been eagerly instructing the table on the teachings of the Buddha, whose wisdom he was ever so grateful to his professors for having taught him. In fact, he was positively aglow with enthusiasm for the entire Religious Studies Program—which, having supplanted the distinctively Catholic element in its showcasing of “a wide range of religious traditions and theological perspectives,” to cite the expensively produced college catalogue—goes out of its way not to encumber its students with anything specifically Roman Catholic. This surely accounts for its annual “Community Day Of Prayer,” during which everyone is encouraged “to celebrate the rich faith traditions at the college,” thus relativizing at one stroke the whole Christian scandal of particularity.
“So tell me” she persisted, “why doesn’t he ever open his eyes?”
The confused young man simply did not know. Nor did anyone else seem to know. In fact, it had not crossed the mind of anyone in that little group to wonder why. Not even after the woman, bless her heart, went on to observe that, in obvious contrast to the blind Buddha, the eyes of the saints appear to be wide open all the time.
Odd, isn’t it?
Odder still, as I was subsequently to learn after a quick Google search of Gautama Buddha, is the fact that despite never having opened his eyes, they are nevertheless the color of blue, that being among the thirty-two reported characteristics of the amazing Buddha.
Why hadn’t the young man known these things? Could it be that even his professors did not know? But that is scarcely possible given all that they already do know; indeed, given the considerable cachet attaching to the school they represent, they certainly should know. I mean here is a distinguished Religious Studies Department, boasting of a great swath of courses designed to “address religion as a fundamental dimension of human history and personal experience,” its bright students armed with all the requisite skills in order all the more “systematically to explore” the whole sweep of diverse traditions and perspectives laying claim to the mind and heart of man. So what is the name of this celebrated institution that hugely prides itself on the diversity of its faculty and students, its rich multi-faith traditions, where—notwithstanding a reputation for being one of the nation’s leading liberal arts colleges—a fact as plain as Buddha’s own face should have gone so blithely unnoticed?
It is the College of the Holy Cross, located some forty miles west of Boston, which is where a century and a half ago the Rev. Benedict Joseph Fenwick, S.J., Boston’s then second bishop, first decided to found a college. Intense anti-Catholic prejudice, however, prevented him from doing so in Boston, thus the school now sits amid beautiful and stately buildings on a hill in Worcester, second largest city in New England, which must be a bit like being the second highest building in Wichita.
But that was all a very long time ago, back when enlightened opinion was not nearly so widespread as it is now, certainly not among Catholic colleges and universities. Why even Jesuit schools were bastions of antique superstition back then. Today, of course, things are so infinitely better, thanks to the salutary winds of progress and reform sweeping all the reactionary cobwebs away. And while much of the old nomenclature survives (I mean, really, how can you change the name of the school? What would the alumni think?), there cannot be much left that would warm the heart of its nineteenth-century founder and first president. What an antediluvian he’d have been in today’s academia! Along with all those countless graduates who matriculated at the College of the Holy Cross in the time of its first innocence; long before, that is, the period of the Great Flood when, to quote the poet Yeats, “The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere / The ceremony of innocence is drowned.”
The Honorable Frank Shakespeare, for example, with whom my wife and I became friends when we first lived in Rome (he was, during the Reagan years, our nation’s Ambassador to the Vatican), who had himself been a graduate of Holy Cross back in 1946 when, as he once told me, the place was solidly Catholic. The changes since that halcyon time had, not surprisingly, left him deeply saddened and dismayed.
Those were the days when the college motto, In Hoc Signo Vinces, really meant what it said, namely, the promised words spoken by Christ in a dream to the emperor Constantine, “In this sign you shall conquer.” And so, deploying the Sign of the Cross, he succeeded in routing the enemies of Rome, converting to the true faith, then proceeding to free the Church from the bloody bonds of persecution by declaring her chief citizen of the empire.
It was also a time when there was actually a Department of Theology, whose mission was, to borrow an expression first coined by Romano Guardini back in the 1930s Unterscheidung des Christlichen (distinguishing what is Christian). All that is distinctively, irreducibly even, special and unique to Christianity, in other words, is to be given pride of place, whence to penetrate the whole life of the institution, including faculty and students alike.
We’ve certainly traveled a great distance since then. As Blessed John Paul II used to say when making his pastoral rounds through France, Eldest Daughter of the Church: “What have you done with your baptismal promises?” So might those who care about Catholic Higher Education, about the preservation of its integrity in a world threatened by centrifugal and chaotic forces on every side, put the question to today’s College of the Holy Cross, where in the shadow of the Pierced and Crucified Christ, young men and women are more often encouraged to imbibe the teachings of a plump fatuous looking fellow, sitting cross-legged on the floor with eyes closed upon the world, than the One who called himself “the Way, the Truth, and the Life.”
And, really, if this is what nirvana means, if this is the Buddha’s idea of a life spent in mindfulness, then maybe its time to get off the pagoda. Why would any sane person want nirvana anyway? I mean, look at the etymology of the word: it means being extinguished, vaporized, the sheer evacuation of existence. From the Sanskrit verb nirva, which is the act of being blown out like a candle, the word implies a state of complete cessation, of no longer being there, a condition of absence, vacancy. How can this be bliss?
In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre, when the need to know why was on everyone’s mind, I remember reading about one of the teachers who had tried to tutor the young man, the student-turned-killer, but gave up because, as she put it, there was such an emptiness she felt whenever he came into the room. The presence of an absence. A vacancy. As if there were no there there.
Is that too much of a stretch? Perhaps. But, in all seriousness, what’s wrong with these people? How does one set about disabusing such folk of nothingness, nada? Not only has their pilot light gone out, which would be deplorable enough, but they actually seem to prefer wandering about in the darkness. Indeed, the darkness is the light. Such sublime imbecility is no easy matter to overcome. Like hearing a Mozart concerto on the radio, only to switch it off at once lest the jackhammer in the street go unheard.
It is all so terribly sad to think about. Jesus Christ, we are told, will hang in agony upon the cross until the end of the world. But not at the College of the Holy Cross. Deus est qui Deum dat, Augustine tells us, sounding the deep recurrent chord in the great Catholic symphony. And he is right: God is truly he who gives God. He is the gift who keeps on giving, which happens precisely in the gift of His Son, whom we have all conspired to crucify. Yet through the gift of his death, God gives us unending life.
And what does the Buddha give? Nothingness. Although at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, it seems you still have to pay for it.