Karl White refers us to this quotation from a John Gray piece on William Empson in The New Statesman.
Empson’s attitude to Buddhism, like the images of the Buddha that he so loved, was asymmetrical. He valued the Buddhist view as an alternative to the Western outlook, in which satisfying one’s desires by acting in the world was the principal or only goal in life. At the same time he thought that by asserting the unsatisfactoriness of existence as such – whether earthly or heavenly – Buddhism was more life-negating and, in this regard, even worse than Christianity, which he loathed. Yet he also believed Buddhism, in practice, had been more life-enhancing. Buddhism was a paradox: a seeming contradiction that contained a vital truth.
Is Buddhism more life-negating than Christianity? No doubt about it. Empson is right on this point if not on the others. I would put it like this.
Both Buddhism and Christianity are life-denying religions in that they both reject the ultimacy and satisfactoriness of this life taken as end-all and be-all. But while Christianity denies this life for the sake of a higher life elsewhere and elsewhen, Buddhism denies this life for the sake of Nirvanic extinction. The solution to the problem of suffering is to so attenuate desire and aversion that one comes to the realization that one never existed in the first place.
Now that is one radical solution! It should appeal to anti-natalists and Schopenhauerian pessimists. And yet there is much to learn from Buddhism and its practices. Mindfulness exercises and other practices can be usefully employed by Christians. Christianity and Buddhism are the two highest religions. My own view is that a spiritual practice that draws on the resources of both is the way to go. They are of course incompatible in their metaphysics. But metaphysics is a product of the discursive intellect and to be transcended in any case. Both religions terminate, 'ultimate,' if you will, in the Mystical.
For Buddhism the problem is suffering. All is ill, suffering, unsatisfactory. The cause is desire as such. The solution is the extirpation of desire. The way is the eight-fold path. I have just summed up Buddhism in five sentences.
Pace the Buddhists, the problem is not desire as such, but desire inordinate and misdirected.
Buddha correctly understood the nature of desire as infinite, as finally unsatisfiable by any finite object. But since he had convinced himself that there is no Absolute, no Atman, nothing possessing self-nature, he made a drastic move: he preached salvation through the extirpation of desire itself. Desire itself is at the root of suffering, dukkha, on the Buddhist conception, not desire for the wrong objects; so the way to salvation is not via redirection of desire upon the right Object, but via an uprooting of desire itself.
Christianity enjoins redirection of desire upon the Right Object.
The two great religions have this in common: both preach the nihilism of the finite. I would say that any religion worth its salt must preach the nihilism of the finite, namely, the understanding that in the last analysis nothing finite is ultimately real. In fact, I would erect this into a criterion of the religious nature. If you have the insight into the nihilism of the finite, then you have a religious nature. If you do not, then you do not.
But while both of these great religions preach the nihilism of the finite, Christianity in its highest manifestation -- Thomistic Catholicism you could call it -- takes a positive line with a respect to the Absolute: the ultimate state and goal is not one of Nirvanic extinction and nonbeing, but of participation in the divine life via the Beatific Vision.
We are now hard by the boundary of the Sayable as we ought to be if we are serious truth seekers.
We can now define the worldling or secularist and the nihilist.
The worlding takes this world to be ultimately real, and the only reality. He is spiritually dead to its ontological and axiological deficiency. He is a Platonic troglodyte, if you catch my drift. He is incapable of transcendental speleology since he cannot see the Cave as a Cave.
The nihilist is spiritually awake as compared to the worldling. The nihilist sees the nullity and the vanity (vanitas = emptiness) of the finite and transient, but thinks it exhausts the Real. The adolescent nihilist's T-shirt reads: The finite sucks! (on the front) and There's nothing else! (on the back).