One question that has preoccupied my mind from time to time is this: how does Dhamma practice with all its presumed mental and moral purification leading to nibbana relate to gospel salvation in Christ with sanctification of the soul in the Holy Spirit? Are they referring to the same thing? My answer is a resounding no. Let me explain.
LiberationOne who is sincerely practicing the path of liberation as taught by the Buddha embarks upon a rigorous process of moral, mental, and wisdom purification such that eventual liberation of mind from suffering and it roots (greed, hatred, delusion and their seeds or underlying tendencies) is completely effected. The mind is then free and unfettered, without blemish of defilement and unstained by suffering. This is nibbana. From the perspective of Dhamma, this is the end. There is nothing more to strive for or attain. Such a being, a liberated or awakened one, is morally pure and unable to behave in ways that harm others.
Redeemed?Is such a liberated or awakened being saved or redeemed in Christ? If so, is this person sanctified by the Holy Spirit in Christ? Well, again my answer is no. A liberated being, morally pure as he/she may be and mentally free as such, is not exempt from sin. The primordial sin of rebellion against and resistance towards God persists in such a being, albeit unrecognized and conveniently denied. Without acknowledgement of God and devoid of faith-filled surrender to Christ for redemption, the liberated or awakened being remains sinful and thus locked out of communion with the triune God. Yet, such a person may be morally and behaviourally excellent and in many ways far more so than those who profess faith in Christ. How can we understand this contradiction?
Professing is not PossessingFirst, a person who vocally professes faith in Christ may not necessarily be saved in Christ. This person may even be acting in accordance with all that we expect from a believer, at least on the superficially external front. For example, he/she talks about God and calls Him "Lord, Lord"; campaigns against abortion and homosexuality with vehemence; cast out demons in Jesus' name and so forth, all with hidden pride and self-congratulation as well as profound sense of self-righteousness. It remains possible that such a person does not know the Lord at all but thinks and asserts he/she does. A religious loudmouth and empty barrel does not make necessarily a Spirit-filled Christ-follower who is redeemed.
Sanctification in ProcessSecond, a person may be genuinely redeemed and saved in Christ through a supernatural act of faith as gifted from God, but remains early in the process when it comes to sanctification of the soul. Such a true Christ-follower is engaged in a sincere process of self-transformation enabled and empowered by the indwelling Spirit, and so demonstrates some degree of the Spirit's fruit, however mildly or partially, consistently or otherwise. Whenever such a disciple falls short in his or her thought-life and/or conduct, there is genuine acknowledgement of faults and positive re-engagement with a Spirit-alive, Spirit-led, Spirit-empowered life that glorifies God. There is an ongoing lifestyle of repentance (metanoia) that turns away from self-occupation and sin and strongly turns towards Christ-occupation and holiness. Though morally imperfect as yet, this authentic Christ-disciple and lover is on track and on the road to full sanctification in Christ. While seemingly less morally excellent than say a fully liberated person who has realized nibbana, such a Christ-disciple is nevertheless saved and thus enjoys a deep intimate communion with the triune God in Christ.
Nibbana and Common GraceIn the case of the liberated person who has fully realized nibbana, he/she, though unsaved and unredeemed, may have received loads of common grace from God (unknowingly) on his/her sustained and effortful journey of enlightenment. God is at work everywhere, even in the darkest places, and is active in all cultures. The Spirit of God blows as He will, and effects moral elevation in human souls while restraining evil in ways we may never fully comprehend. A nibbana-realized being is one possible example of Spirit's common grace. Of course, the person's own self-effort and dedication play an important role too.
Common and Salvific GraceThe next question is: how does Spirit's common grace that elevates one's moral fibre intersect with Spirit's salvific grace that supernaturally saves the person who has faith in Christ? Due to the image of God (imago dei) existing within all of us, every person longs for God ultimately, whether we know it or not. Yes, we are fallen image-bearers who have rebelled against God and thus broken mirrors of the divine. Nonetheless, the divine image persists and it is that image that propels our search for truth, goodness, and beauty. Calvin has a term "sensus divinitatis" for that innate human capacity to sense and perceive God in nature. I submit to you that it is our sensus divinitatis or imago dei (however broken and distorted) that enables our journey of moral and spiritual elevation in the absence of full knowledge of Christ. And in this process of elevation, God graciously helps us by His common grace. And at His appointed time, He may open the eyes of our heart so that we can be enlightened to our glorious inheritance in the saints as we come to know Christ in all His beauty and loveliness, wisdom and power, and His completed work on the cross on our behalf. Salvific grace then kicks in and sets us counterconditionally (counter to our sinfulness which deserves death) free and living in the freedom and life of Christ.
It is entirely possible that God saves us with His salvific grace at any time in our lives and at any point in our spiritual journey: be it at the time of our nibbana-realization; soon or long after our nibbana-realization; or a short or long way before that. Even as we are wallowing in our morally depraved or psychologically immature lives, way before we have embarked on any system of moral or character cultivation, God can break through to us to convict our souls and lead us into faith in Christ. Thus, salvific grace operates freely from and non-contiguously with common grace, even if contiguous action of common and salvific grace is eminently possible, for God is sovereign and thus in absolute control.
Dynamics of SalvationWhat actually happens when God's salvific grace breaks in and faith in Christ arises in our souls? Put simply: the Spirit of God regenerates our broken fallen spirit, the "old man" transmitted from Adam and the recalcitrant sin-factory wherein the sin-principle inhabits. This old creation is completely replaced by the new regenerated spirit fresh from God and we are "born from above" or "born again." The old man that we used to be is crucified with Christ and the new man that we now are is alive to Christ. Within this regenerated pure spirit thus dwells the Spirit of God, the indwelling Christ in everyone who has been saved. Our spirit's regeneration is a supernatural event concomitant with the arising of faith in Christ as Lord and Saviour. The arising of faith is also an illuminating conviction in the person and work of Christ, one that confers unwavering certainty in who Christ is and what He has accomplished for us. This is amazing grace indeed!
ConclusionIn summary, we can say that (1) the in-breaking of God's salvific grace; (2) the supernatural regeneration of our spirit (unborn awareness); and (3) the supernatural arising of faith in Christ are simultaneous and immediate. The (4) indwelling of the Holy Spirit in our pure regenerated spirit may also be simultaneous with or immediately after (1) to (3). Either way, the overwhelming reality of salvation in Christ is clear—grace-imparted salvation transcends liberation of nibbana through completing the path of Dhamma, though salvation can occur at any point in time: before, during, or after liberation or awakening. All in all, salvation in Christ is a miraculous (metaphorically earth-shattering) event that is truly worthy of being the 'absolute awakening and liberation' beyond anything the human mind can conceive or achieve.
My humble prayer is that all sincere seekers and meditators will realize this truth for themselves even as grace invades our petty prideful selves. May Christ be your salvation, dear friends.