IMG_0408I offer a brief apology to Buddhists – forgive me if I have mischaracterized your religious practices.

We are enjoined by St. Paul to have within us the mind that was in Christ – specifically in His self-emptying love in going to the Cross (Philippians 2:5-11). It is the very heart of humility. Of course there are difficulties when we seek to practice such a thing – difficulties for which I have already apologized.

Christians are not Buddhists.

We cannot undertake an effort of self-emptying in a vacuum. We cannot be humble merely in reference to ourself. The Christian goal is the “loss of self” in a certain context, but never in a manner in which there is nothing to be found where a self should be.

The point of St. Paul’s admonition, as well as the point of Christ’s own self-emptying, is not negative, nor may it be achieved through negative efforts. Self-emptying is an act of love – an enlargement of the heart – and extension of our person towards the person of others.

Thus self-emptying is never a matter of looking inwards – but always a matter of extension beyond ourselves.

The Christian vision of love always includes love of the other. There can be no “love” that exists apart from the personal. Even in our understanding of the Trinity – we may say, as does St. John – that “God is love,” but not in any sense of a self-existing non-referential love. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father. The Father loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Father. The Son loves the Spirit and the Spirit loves the Son.

Thus to say, “God loves,” is something of an incomplete sentence. Christian theology would argue that only in the Trinitarian revelation does the statement “God is love” make sense.

By the same token, humility is not a negative act, a “negation” of the self. Rather it is an opening of the self that allows room for the life of the other. God, who is ‘meek and lowly in heart,’ is just so because His life is open to creation and to His human creatures as it is open, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Humility and self-emptying are not the loss of self but the gaining of a true self (where self is understood to be synonymous with “life”). I often marvel at discussions of over-population. Ignoring the Malthusian nightmares of various Cassandras, I find that we are only crowded because there is not enough room for “false selves.” The world is hardly big enough for a single false self. However, love always has room. It is how God can be everywhere present and filling all things and yet have room for us.

Is there any room at the inn?

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


12 responses to “Self-Emptying”

  1. fatherstephen Avatar

    Photo: the star which marks the birthplace of Christ in the Church in Bethlehem.

  2. Romanós Avatar

    I didn’t quite understand why you offered apologies to Buddhists for mischaracterized their religious practices, if it was in advance in case you stepped on their toes, or in retrospect for something you’ve posted before. There is much in Buddhism that relates to the Orthodox Christian practice as far as inner watchfulness is concerned. It’s only that I have never been able to justify either our or their inner watchfulness, unless there is a personal God, with whom we have to do, as our ultimate purpose in life.

    Your last paragraph (not the question at the end, though it was well asked) grabbed my attention intensely.

    “I find that we are only crowded because there is not enough room for “false selves.” The world is hardly big enough for a single false self. However, love always has room.”

    These statements are pivotal and fundamental to reaching the right frame of mind in which to approach both the inner and the outer worlds. These are statements with which Buddhists, Christians and, indeed, all other people of faith and/or higher purpose should agree. Would that the world rulers and planners see the world this way, and cease troubling us with their plans and programs.

    Thank you, Fr Stephen, for this excellent post! Axios!

  3. fatherstephen Avatar


    My sense was that Buddhism might indeed seek “loss of self” without reference to anything, whereas Christianity does so to find to true self in Christ. Thus the apology.

  4. Moses Avatar

    I never really understood it that way before. A very fascinating way of putting it Father.

  5. David Avatar

    Yet another nifty paradox. As we humble ourselves, instead of shrinking we expand, but in our expansion we actually make more room for others.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Fr. Sophrony writes about the person in terms of expansion – and Archimandrite Zacharias (his disciple) writes of the “enlargement of the heart.” Both contend that through love a person can encompass the whole of the universe. Of course, I am presently still working on just filling the space I’m in…

  7. Jesse Avatar

    “Humility and self-emptying are not the loss of self but the gaining of a true self (where self is understood to be synonymous with “life”). I often marvel at discussions of over-population. Ignoring the Malthusian nightmares of various Cassandras, I find that we are only crowded because there is not enough room for “false selves.” The world is hardly big enough for a single false self. However, love always has room. It is how God can be everywhere present and filling all things and yet have room for us.”

    A great point – I often marvel at those I hear on the radio talking about over-population. Never once do they propose that we stop our desperate attempts (from cryogenics to the testing of medical procedures on animals to facelifts) to extend life indefinitely, regardless of the costs. It is all based on fear, which can only be solved by love.

  8. Basil Avatar

    Christ is in our midst!

    I’ve thought about the compassion, humility, and wisdom I’ve encountered in some devout, practicing buddhists. Some of their ‘spiritual practices’ are similar to Orthodox ascesis and ‘mindfulness’, though within an extremely different ‘paradigm’– different motives and goals, different understanding entirely.
    Yet, some of the genuine virtues (i.e. christian virtues) appear to be the fruit of some of these devout buddhists.
    Of course these are only outward appearances, and apprehended by my darkened eye at that. But I’ve thought it might demonstrate some of the character of the ‘realism’ and wholism of Orthodox Christian praxis: even if buddhists dont know why a practice really works, or what the real goal is (and should be), they still benefit from a God who cooperates with their own groping struggle, where the intention of the (buddhist’s) heart is good.

    It reminds me of my cousin who is currently studying to be a ‘western’ medical doctor, having already completed five years of ‘chinese medicine’ (and is already a certified ‘chinese medicine doctor’).
    He reflected on the “philosophy” and “theory” of chinese medicine– it’s quite ‘bizarre’ and certainly not ‘literally true’ or accurate! But over thousands of years of experience and feedback– the ‘theory following and being informed by the praxis’– it sort of ‘works’… even if it’s entirely ‘accidental’.

    Anyway just some thoughts.
    -Mark Basil

  9. Yannis Avatar

    I have heard it many times from Orthodox Christians that Buddhism is too abstract, as if this was a dimunitive quality whereas Christianity’s theological and doctrinal framework is perceived as solid and precise intellectually and metaphysically.

    There is a misconception to be sure here as far as i can see, and this most probably stems from reading the Buddhist spiritual tradition with a Christian lense of theological semantics – which is most likely bound to lead to misunderstandings.

    Buddhism relates to “emptiness” as that pure – empty from anything opaque – state that reveals the True (inner) Self within – the one that quietly observes and perceives, the One that is in an ever dynamic stillness, the One that is pure being itself.

    Christ himself points out in that very same direction, clearly and unambiguously: “For the Kingdom of Heaven is within you”, sure proof that we “are made in the image and likeness of God”.

    In the Buddhist tradition the Self is never named or identified – typically of Buddhism there are no attempts to conceptualise it, in the same manner that it is mistaken to try and conceptualise God in Christianity; transcendence is part of its nature. Identification breeds attachment, and attachment breeds the passions.

    Mahayana Buddhist Schools (that you clearly refer to here) goad their adherents to experience the Self with the Self (through ascetic practice and liturgical life).

    This is why it dispenses with a structure and particulars on the intellectual level. It aims at being, not at thinking of being, and so it systematically cuts off all the knee-jerk intellectual reactions that often lead in mental and emotional loops and dead ends; it “empties” the True Self from them.

    This process bears great parallels, if not outright similarities, with that of the Prayer of the Heart.

    Its true of course that the notion of a personal God is far more easier to relate to for many people – it certainly was easier for me – even more so when that person is Christ. It is also true that the actual experience of enlightment as Zen Buddhism understands it, does not presuppose God – or to quote Dr Suzuki “The Creator may or may not be in His Laboratory”.

    However, writing that Buddhism has “no context” for a perceived “loss of self” tends toward misperception of that tradition, in my humble opinion.

    Christians are not Buddhists indeed – nor do they need be – the last thing that can benefit serious spiritual seekers are religious “salads” – another symptom of the shopper mentality of the postmodern age. The integrity of each tradition is absolutely essential if its spirit is to be preserved, propagated and enriched whole.

    But this does not and should not prevent Christian and Buddhist from learning from each other in our respective spiritual struggles, or if not interested, from showing respect for particularities in approach and metaphysical language.

    There are many Paths to the Mountain Top.

    B est Regards & Congratulations for your Blog.


  10. julie Avatar

    Just a note – I so wanted to know what quotation from Paul I could use for the emptying of self – and was so excited to have you give me that quotation from Phiippians BUT Philippians has only 4 chapters! And I am sure you meant Phil 2: 8-11? Thanks for the article. Peace, Julie

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Julie, Thanks for catching the typo. I reversed the 5 and the 2. Got it corrected now.

  12. Peter Stocker Avatar
    Peter Stocker

    I love the expression “with love there is always room”. I have 7 children. There is always room. What you say is so true. You have to be unselfish and make room for others.

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