ENGL 222: Modern Poetry

English 222
April 16, 2012
Dr. Egan-Ryan

“Do You See Nothing?”: The Syncretism of Christianity and Buddhism in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”

Nothing is everything. This is the steadfast belief of Buddhist tradition that T.S. Eliot conveyed so flawlessly in “The Waste Land”.  To end the cycle of samsara (birth, suffering, death), you have to firmly practice the doctrine of sūnyatā: that the world is “empty” and material objects are devoid of all meaning. The vast majority of Eliot’s audience believes the poem alludes to Christian beliefs as a way to comfort a disillusioned post-war generation, and that the Buddhist doctrine of sūnyatā attempts to discredit the premises of Christianity. However, Eliot has no intention of merely being another poet of the “lost generation”, nor does he wish to create a hierarchy of religions. As Thomas Michael LeCarner states in his argument, Eliot’s poem is an artistic re-creation of the cycle of birth, desire, suffering, death, and rebirth that is samsara. The human condition, however, expands further than either Western or Eastern traditions.  Repentance (Christianity) and sūnyatā(Buddhism) are necessary for salvation of all humanity, and both are portrayed in “The Waste Land”. If the reader fails to acknowledge Eliot’s deliberate syncretism of Eastern and Western religions, the poem’s purpose will be entirely lost. In “The Waste Land”, T.S. Eliot presents human condition as being the lack of understanding of sūnyatā and the need for repentance, transcending both Western and Eastern religious traditions.

Desire and longing in “The Waste Land” is what keeps the cycle of life, death, and rebirth moving; this is a Buddhist principle but it also features elements of Christianity in the poem. The characters have insatiable desires in every setting and even the earth itself is suffering with the thirst and desire for water. As Buddha himself says, “The Noble Truth of the origin of suffering…is this: it is this thirst (craving) which produces re-existence and re-becoming, bound up with passionate greed. It finds fresh delight now here and now there, namely thirst for sense pleasures; thirst for existence and becoming; and thirst for non-existence (self-annihilation)” (LeCarner). The desires of the characters can be traced through each section of the poem. The Christian belief is that greed, envy, and lust are all “deadly sins”, but in Buddhism tradition it is these emotions that consume us and actually keep the cycle of life alive. Though most readers believe the desire and longing to mean pre-war nostalgia, it is the Buddhist concept of samsara that is played out in the poem. The concept of samsara is blatantly voiced in the section entitled “Death by Water”. Phlebas “rose and fell/ He passed the stages of his age and youth/ Entering the whirlpool” (316-8). This is a precise description of the wheel of samsara because in this cycle, we wander and drift aimlessly through our stages of life until we are reborn again (LeCarner). In “The Burial of the Dead”, Marie is experiencing nostalgia, which is a form of desire because it is a longing for the past. Marie is described as having been “free” in the mountains and she longs for this feeling once more (17). The hyacinth girl recalls the previous year because she too is trapped in memory (35). The wealthy male and female in “A Game of Chess” who “drowned the [troubled, confused] sense in odours” (87-8) surround themselves with material possessions and are therefore kept in samsara because they cannot grasp the fact that material possessions are void of all meaning. The poor characters at the bar speak of getting “some teeth” (142) and taking abortion pills or “to bring it off” (159). The desire played out in “A Game of Chess” is against both Christian and Buddhist beliefs, but instead of the Christian God punishing the characters to death, they are damned to the continuation of life. This follows Buddhist tradition. “The Fire Sermon”, named after an actual proclamation of Buddha, lies at the center of the poem to highlight the perilous consequence of desire but Eliot also uses this section to weave in more references to Christianity. The real statement that Buddha made in “The Fire Sermon” is as follows: “The body is aflame…with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I say with birth, aging, and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs” (LeCarner). To capture the desire and sorrow of the human condition, Eliot creates a scene of unsatisfying sex in “The Fire Sermon”. The boy forces himself clumsily upon the girl:

         Endeavours to engage her in caresses

               Which still are unreproved, if undesired.

               Flushed and decided, he assaults at once;

               Exploring hands encounter no defence; 237-40.

The idea of engaging in sex out of boredom is considered a sin in Christian tradition, but as LeCarner says, indifference and the insatiability of our bodily desire is what keeps people trapped in samsara as well. In addition to using the characters to present the endless desire of the world, Eliot places the same concept in the actual earth in the poem. “Here there is no water but only rock” reveals the fact that nature itself is thirsty and longing for relief (331). This longing sets the cycle of samsara in motion over and over again, but it also presents Christian symbolism. The lack of water in the poem runs parallel to the lack of holy absolution. This thirst and desire does not halt life, but rather it forces hardship upon its very growth. Eliot demonstrates the ongoing cycle of samsara and birth with lines like “breeding/ Lilacs out of the dead land” (1-2) followed by “roots that clutch, what branches grow/ Out of this stony rubbish” (19-20). As LeCarner points out, the “breeding” of the lilacs out of the sterile landscape represents the constant cycle of life that is bred from desire in both humanity and the earth. Moving even deeper than samsara, Eliot incorporates the doctrine of sūnyatā in “The Waste Land” in the impermanent recycling of the characters and the larger themes of potential and nothingness.

To embody samsara, the poem features the same characters that flutter between life and death; each character struggling to grasp the doctrine of sūnyatā, thus entering the wheel of life over and over. Though this is an entirely Buddhist approach, the theme of rebirth still touches on Christianity because of the death and rebirth of Christ. Therefore, Eliot still accomplishes the syncretism of Christianity and Buddhism in the recycling of the characters and their latent understanding of sūnyatā. The first sign of this is the repetition of “Unreal city” on lines 60, 207, and 377. Eliot does this because he uses the same setting for each of these sections. Also, the city is “unreal” because it, like everything else, is incapable of having a fixed identity since the world is in constant change. The characters also lack a fixed identity and all have the potential to grasp sūnyatā but ultimately fail. In “The Burial of the Dead”, the speaker himself is “Living nor dead” and “knew nothing” (40). In the “Unreal city”, the speaker observes a crowd passing over London Bridge and he or she reflects they “had not thought death had undone so many” (62). Using words like “unreal” and “nothing” and throwing around the concept of death “undoing” so many people, Eliot makes it clear that the speaker has been reborn and recycled at least once in samsara. The speaker knew nothing because absolutely nothing has a fixed meaning, making everything unreal. Death has undone so many people because it is rare that a human actually grasps the concept of sūnyatā and they have no choice but to enter the wheel of samsara once more. The characters we get to know in “The Burial of the Dead” are recycled in to the man and woman in “A Game of Chess”. They sit in luxury, surrounded by “a burnished throne” (78), “sevenbranched candelabra” and “jewels” (82-4), while discussing the precise doctrine of sūnyatā in their conversation about nothing:

               “What is that noise now? What is the wind doing?”

               Nothing again nothing.


               “You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember

                “Nothing?”  (119-23)

This conversation seems empty but that is the exact point that Eliot is trying to make. The wealthy characters’ home is positively bursting with possessions but they cannot see that they will not leave samsara by obtaining more and more items; they will only leave the wheel by grasping sūnyatā, and the fact that “nothing is everything”. Furthermore, the characters are drowning in the sin of greed and cannot rise above their desires. Therefore, the same characters are reborn again and are seated at a bar, struggling with poverty. Even without all their possessions, the characters still cannot think philosophically (grasping neither Christianity nor Buddhism) and, as LeCarner mentions: life still does not have a meaning. Another representation of the lack of philosophical understanding is in “What the Thunder Said”. The scene is one of emptiness and “There is the empty chapel, only the wind’s home” (389). Not only does this line represent the syncretism of Christianity and Buddhism, but the mention of the “wind” is a sure sign that the same characters who discussed the wind in “A Game of Chess” exist in this section as well. Life still does not have a meaning though these people have lived over and over again. Along with the incessant rebirth of the same characters and their inability to grasp sūnyatā, Eliot also interweaves several references of both Christianity (the house of God) and Buddhism (the natural strength of the earth) to make the syncretism a success.

By referencing Christianity and Buddhism in the same instance on several occasions, Eliot not only presents the immense potential for the understanding of sūnyatā in the poem as a whole but also enforces the syncretism of Christianity and Buddhism. A prominent example of this occurs at the end of “The Fire Sermon” as follows:

               Burning burning burning burning

               O Lord Thou pluckest me out

               O Lord Thou pluckest


               burning (308-11).

The first line is directly from Buddha’s actual Fire Sermon. By incorporating this line, Eliot points out the fact that desire is indeed setting our bodies and our very earth ablaze, and to end the cycle of samsara and grasp sūnyatā we have to extinguish this conflagration. This line of Buddhist scripture is then followed by an exerpt from St. Augustine’s Confessions. Referencing St. Augustine, Eliot is highlighting the Christian theory of repentance and its significant influence on whether or not we go on to heaven and thus end our time on earth. Both references, Christian and Buddhist, deal with the end of our time on earth and samsara. Eliot does this intentionally because in order to get to heaven or end samsara one must either repent or grasp the concept of sūnyatā. This is heavy syncretism, and being that it is in the very center of the poem it represents the potential that lies beneath all of the characters’ plots. The potential to repent and understand sūnyatā is very present in a metaphorical sense but the textual representation of this is the potential for rain and the quenching of the earth’s thirst. Eliot demonstrates this potential in “What the Thunder Said” with the lines:

               In a flash of lightning. Then a damp gust

               Bringing rain

               Ganga was sunken, and the limp leaves

               Waited for rain (394-7).

This potential for rain is the embodiment of Christianity and Buddhism in itself because of its double-symbolism of Holy water and the drifting cycle of samsara and the impermanence (sūnyatā) in the world. To complete the syncretism, Eliot ends “The Waste Land” with the final line “Shantih shantih shantih” (434). Translated in sanskrit, this means “The Peace which passeth understanding”, and this draws a parallel to Philippians 4:7 that reads “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” This great level of peace can only be sūnyatā in Buddhist tradition and the belief in God in Christian tradition. The potential presented in the entire poem is for this peace. With this final interlocking of Christian and Buddhist traditions completes the syncretism and gives the meaning of the potential.

Eliot’s syncretism of Buddhism and Christianity in “The Waste Land” is monumental because it seamlessly weaves the beliefs of eastern and western tradition. In order to end the wheel of samsara, one must grasp the concept of impermanence and sūnyatā: that nothing is everything. To reach heaven, an individual has to repent and wean their affections to all objects in this life in order to prepare for life after death. The concept of rebirth and samsara ties in to Christianity because of Jesus’ death and rebirth. The characters in “The Waste Land” are aflame with desire and have the potential to realize that their insatiability and indifference are tied to their suffering. Nothing has a fixed identity; the world is of constant impermanence and change. To serve humanity and all religious beliefs we have to detach ourselves from our fleshy urges and desires and therefore end all suffering. When we realize this, we will achieve the greatest peace unknown to man: the Peace that passeth understanding.

Work Cited 

Thomas Michael LeCarner. “T. S. Eliot, Dharma Bum: Buddhist Lessons in The Waste Land.” Philosophy and Literature 33.2 (2009): 402-416. Project MUSE. Web. 8 Apr. 2012. <http://muse.jhu.edu/>.

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