Buddhists Talk About Jesus, Christians Talk About The Buddhaby Rita M. Gross
What does Jesus mean to a Buddhist, or the Buddha to a Christian? What is it about the Buddha that is appealing to a Christian, or unappealing? In this volume 12 scholars, six of them Christian and six of them Buddhists, speak simply and from the heart about their personal relationship to the great religious leader from the other tradition. The diversity of views… See more details below
What does Jesus mean to a Buddhist, or the Buddha to a Christian? What is it about the Buddha that is appealing to a Christian, or unappealing? In this volume 12 scholars, six of them Christian and six of them Buddhists, speak simply and from the heart about their personal relationship to the great religious leader from the other tradition. The diversity of views within each tradition could be a shock to the average Buddhist or Christian on the street. Buddhists argue about Buddha's nature, Buddha veneration, and the role the Buddha plays in human liberation. Christians argue about Jesus' human and divine status, his uniqueness, and the role he plays in human salvation. The contributors celebrate the family likeness between Jesus and the Buddha, but they also acknowledge the differences as well, for it is at the points of difference that potentially there is the most opportunity for growth.
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A God, but Not a Savior
José Ignacio Cabezón
Iliff School of Theology
The adage about "location, location, location" as an operative principle is perhaps as true in theology as it is in other more mundane ventures. For a theologian, identifying one's location principally involves situating oneself with respect to one's religious tradition, but also vis-à-vis the secular currents of the past and present that have been for one intellectually influential. I take my task in this essay to be a theological one, and so perhaps it is not wholly out of place to begin with a few words concerning my theological location. Of the various hats I wear, one of the most important is the one that identifies me as an academic Buddhist theologian, one who works from out of the Indo-Tibetan tradition. As a Buddhist, my theological location has been largely shaped by the years that I spent as a monk in the Byes College of the exiled Tibetan Buddhist monastic University of Sera in southern India, where I received the bulk of my training in the classical textual tradition of Indo-Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism. As an academic, I have been molded by the Western buddhological tradition, with its strong emphasis on the philological study of texts, albeit tempered by the other concerns (e.g., material culture, social life, and a variety of theoretical issues) that are at the core of contemporary North American approaches to Buddhist studies.
My theological identity is determined not only by my chosen tradition and academic discipline, however, but also by my commitment tointerreligious dialogue. Dialogue, especially with the Christian tradition, informs and shapes my theology at the level of content. In this regard I have benefited greatly from the fact that I teach at a Christian seminary and that I am fortunate enough to have colleagues who are similarly committed to the intellectual value of the cross-cultural and interreligious exchange of ideas. In addition to influencing the intellectual content of my theology, dialogue also informs my religious life. The only religious praxis community with which I am presently affiliated is a community of Buddhists and Christians who meet on a weekly basis for a contemplative service that includes a common liturgy, readings from the two traditions, and periods of silent meditation.
No less important a part of my theological location is the fact that I was raised a Cuban Catholic. I rejected Christianity at an early age largely on philosophical grounds, and this no doubt opened up the space for my eventually embracing Buddhism. Nonetheless, I continue to this day to cherish many aspects of Latino-Catholic cultureits malleability and especially its ability to accommodate magic, its mystical bent, the passion of its piety, its emphasis on tradition and ritual, the richness of its artand this too, without a doubt, has influenced my theological worldview.
In what follows, readers will undoubtedly see in my mode of engaging the question my commitment to the historical-critical method, which is the result of my training as a buddhologist. They will see in the content of my response the doctrinal voice of Indo-Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism, my tradition of choice. In the organization of the essay and in its (alas, unfulfilled) wish to be complete, they will witness my penchant for scholastic systematicity, the legacy of my Tibetan Buddhist monastic training. They will also encounter a Jesus, or perhaps Jesuses, that are the result of (others') historical and textual study of the Christian sources. But within each of these Jesuses there is bound to be evident at least a glimmer of the Cuban Christ of my youth, the one Jesus that, over and above all of the others, I know most intimately.
If the identification of my location as a theological respondent is important, so too is the location of the object to which I am responding. More so now than at any other point of history, the location of Jesus is something that cannot be taken for granted. As Sheila Davaney says in her characterization of the work of Dominic Crossan: "Not only is historical material difficult to come by in relation to Jesus but, Crossan insists, what material we have represents value-laden interpretations yielding different and even contradictory portrayals of Jesus. From the beginning, according to Crossan, the various Christs of faith emerged, and the historical Jesus is available to us only within and through those theological portrayals."
My response in this essay is mediated theologically by my subjectivity as respondent, but it is equally mediated theologically by the portrayal of Jesus, who is the object of my response. In what follows I take myself to have chosen a relatively mainstream Jesus as the object of my reflections, realizing all the while that, especially in this hyperhistoricist, critical, and skeptical age, such a portrayal may be outmoded. How plausible my portrayal of Jesus is will have to be determined by those for whom Jesus stands as an object of faith and devotion. (I take the plausibility of the Jesus that we Buddhists have chosen as the object of our response to be at least part of the Christian respondents' task in this volume.) In any case, it is my hope that the Jesus I have chosen to represent will not be wholly a figment of my imagination, and that instead my portrayal (even if not my assessment) of Jesus will be one that is familiar to a relatively large number of Christians.
JESUS AS SOCIAL ACTIVIST AND CRITIC
This aspect of Jesus' identity has of course been emphasized by many New Testament scholars and has been the basis for entire movements such as liberation theology. It is said to be exemplified in Jesus' espousal of a radical egalitarianism, "something infinitely more terrifying than (contemporary democracy)," in his repudiation of class boundaries, in his antihierarchical views, in his skepticism about institutions, and in his empathy with and prioritizing of the cause of the poor and downtrodden of society.
Like Christianity, Buddhism also began as a reformist movement, but of a very different kind. Unlike Jesus, the Buddha was not a peasant; his followers seem to have been principally middle- and upper-middle-class men and women, as was his principal audience; and his criticisms were primarily directed at the Brahminical religious beliefs and practices prevalent in his day, not at the social structures that marginalized and oppressed men and women in ancient India. This is not to say that the Buddha was unconcerned with social issues, or that his teachings do not have social implications, or that they have not been used in history to socially reconstructive ends, but it is clear his goal was, rather than to transform the existing social order, to use it to further his religious ends. For example, whereas mendicancythat is, religious itineracyin other societies represented a flight from the social order and even a vehicle for social protest, it is clear that in India, at least by the time of the Buddha, it had already achieved a socially legitimized and institutionalized form.
This being said, there are clear parallels between the Buddha and Jesus as regards their reformist tendencies, and this certainly gives Buddhists a vehicle and framework for appreciating Jesus. The Buddha opened up the religious life (and therefore the possibility of salvation) to members of society that had hitherto been denied it: members of the lowest castes and women especially. Both figures were also exponents of a kind of theological reform that emphasized the interior life over external action. Nonetheless, as a program of social reform, Jesus' must be recognized as being the more radical and far-reaching, and this no doubt is why the Christian tradition to this day, even when impeded by its own institutional forms, has been at the forefront of social transformation.
Speaking personally now, I must say that this is for me one of the most appealing aspects of the legacy of Jesus. I consider my Christian brothers and sisters fortunate, and I rejoice in the fact that they have at the very core of their traditionin the very life of their foundersuch a clear and superb model for what it means to be a socially responsible person, a person of integrity, in the world. We Buddhists have a great deal to learn from this aspect of the life of Jesus.
JESUS AS MAGICIAN
I include within this aspect of the life of Jesus his various miracles, his exorcisms, his work as a healer, and even his resurrection. As regards these events, there are for the Buddhist tradition, as there have been in the West, two possible types of response. The first challenges the historicity or veracity of these events. It would attribute them to superstition or to later tradition, and, in its desire to make of Jesus either a charlatan or a paradigm of enlightened rationalism, it strips him of this aspect of his identity. I opt here for the second alternative: to take these events as historically factual. While doing so, however, I beg to differ with those Christians who consider these events as probative of various aspects of Christian theological dogma. That Jesus had these powersthat he could cure the sick, manipulate matter, cast out demons, raise others (and himself be raised) from the deadmost certainly points to the fact that he was an extraordinary individual. None of these events are for Buddhists outside of the realm of possibility. At the same time, they are not unique in history, nor is the person possessing these attributes unique. More important, they do not prove that such a person is God or that he or she is enlightened or worthy of worship.
Magic as such is theologically neutral for Buddhists. Most, and perhaps all, of the extraordinary feats performed by Jesus would be classified by Buddhists as "common accomplishments" (thun mongs ba'i dngos grub): common because they are feats that can be accomplished by Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike, requiring a certain degree of meditative competence, but no real degree of permanent spiritual maturity. This being said, the fact that Jesus performed these various actions for the benefit of others does point to an important fact; namely, that he was operating from an altruistic motivation, and this perhaps is the more important point for Buddhists: not that Jesus was a magician, but that he was a loving one.
I have always found it awkward to offer theological advice to a tradition that is not my own, even if, as I have mentioned above, it is a religious tradition that is an important part of my past and that I still hold dear to my heart. Given that the editors of this book have encouraged us to do so, however, I offer this guarded counsel, modulated autobiographically. My attraction to Tibetan Buddhism in large part is due to the fact that it is an unabashedly magical religion. In this sterile space of skepticism that is (post)modernity, I find it refreshing that my tradition is a place of mystery, a magical refuge inhabited by all sorts of spirits, a space where extraordinary events abound. This has certainly enlivened my religious life. Might magic do the same for Christians? Certainly there is precedent for this in the Christian tradition, in the life of Jesus but also in the life of the saints, and even in some aspects of liturgy. To attribute Jesus' magic to his divinity, it seems to me, has relegated magic to the transcendental sphere, making it inaccessible to those who need it most: us. Perhaps it is time to allow magic to enter Christian life in greater abundance.
JESUS AS TEACHER
I would venture to guess that of all of the aspects of the persona of Jesus that I deal with in this essay, none is more appealing to Buddhists than that of Jesus magister. This may say more about Buddhists than it does about Jesus, however, for Buddhists, at least scholastic Buddhists, have always seen the teachings of their master(s) as embodied in the concept they call dharma as constituting the core of their tradition. Hence, of the three refugesBuddha, dharma, and sanghait is the dharma that is considered the true (dngos) refuge. The doctor (Buddha) may diagnose the problem and prescribe the cure, the nursing staff (sangha) may administer it and help the patient in the process of recovery, but it is the medicine (dharma, as embodied in the Buddha's teachings and internalized in the lives of his followers) that is the real antidote to the illness.
Of course, a thorough Buddhist response to Jesus as teacher requires nothing less than a full assessment of his teachings. This is not possible here due to constraints of space. Such an assessment is further complexified by the fact that what constitutes the authentic teachings of Jesus are highly contested, having become for New Testament scholars a source of almost obsessive preoccupation. This being said, there are certain portions of Jesus' teachingsportions on which there seems to be at least partial consensus concerning authenticitythat I believe resonate well with Buddhist doctrine. These include at least portions of the so-called beatitudes (Mark 5:3-10). Equally attractive are the apparently authentic teachings of Jesus concerning love of the enemy (Matt. 5:43-48; Luke 6:27-28, 32-35), his admonition to repay evil with kindness, and his advocacy of charity (Matt. 5:38-42; Luke 6:29-30, 18:22) and of equanimity (Luke 10:30-35), all of which resonate well with the Mahayana Buddhist teachings on the virtues of universal and impartial compassion and with the perfections (paramita) of patience and giving. Mention should also be made of Jesus' emphasis on self- rather than other-directed criticism (Matt. 7:1-5; Luke 6:36-42; Thomas 26), as well as his counsel to followers concerning the importance of renouncing a life dedicated to the pursuit of wealth in favor of a simple itinerant's life dedicated to the pursuit of virtue through humility (Mark 6:8-10, 8:34-36, 9:35, 10:23-25, 29-31, 10:42-45; Matt. 6:25-34, 19:23-24; Luke 9:23-27, 10:1-9, 12:16-31; Thomas 14, 36, 63), all of which resonate well with the Buddhist monastic ideal.
While there is much that is appealing in what Jesus taught, there also appear to be lacunae in what Buddhists would expect to find in the collected teachings of a sage. For example, there is evinced in the extant material little concern for the welfare of living beings other than human beings. There is a lack of detailed teaching setting forth a systematic path to salvation, and, perhaps most disturbing, there is little or no mention of wisdom or gnosis, which for Buddhists is the very heart of the spiritual path. Of course, it might be the case that many of Jesus' teachings have been lost, and Gnostic teachings are indeed found among the New Testament apocryphal texts. Still, it is surprising to Buddhists that especially the idea of wisdom or gnosis should have been so marginalized by Christians.
In addition to what, from a Buddhist perspective, appear to be lacunae in the canonical teachings of Jesus, there is some material that is found in the canonical sources that seems quite foreign to Buddhists. Perhaps the best example is all of the apparently authentic material concerning the kingdom or imperial rule of God. Buddhists will obviously find this material problematic in part because of the deity whose kingdom is being prophesied (see below). Aside from this, however, I believe it fair to say that Buddhists also find the particular brand of Christian apocalypticism to be problematic. This is not to say that quasi-apocalyptic doctrines are unknown to Buddhists. What Buddhists find disturbing is the utter finality of the Christian apocalypse, which represents a break in history after which the fate of human beings is forever sealed. Such a notion is anathema to Buddhists principally because it implies that there exists a time after which the potential for the salvation of at least some beings becomes nullified. From a Buddhist perspective, history as we know it simply cannot come to an end until all beings have been liberated.
Of course, a great deal more could be said about which portions of the teachings of Jesus do and do not resonate with Buddhist doctrine. But perhaps this impressionistic treatment of the subject is sufficient to allow the reader at least a glimpse of the complexity of some of the issues.
JESUS AS GOD
Arguably the single most problematic aspect of Jesus' identity for Buddhists is his portrayal by Christians as God. I believe, however, that the nature of the Buddhist reluctance in this regard has often been misunderstood. The problem lies not in the claim that Jesus is the incarnation or manifestation of a deity. What Buddhists find objectionable is (a) the Christian characterization of the deity whose manifestation Jesus is said to be and (b) the claim that Jesus is unique in being such a manifestation.
Mahayana Buddhists believe that the universe is populated by a wide range of deities. Some of these are not more than spirits, who, like humans and animals, are subject to the vicissitudes of karma, and hence still bound in the cycle of rebirth (samsara). Nonetheless, because of previous spiritual accomplishments, many of these deities have developed the ability to manifest a variety of physical forms. Other deities, those who have attained the state of perfection known as enlightenment (bodhi), have gone beyond the cycle of involuntary rebirth. Such "supramundane" deitiesbeings who have attained the state of buddhahoodalso have the ability to manifest such forms, but in a much more highly developed fashion. The historical buddhas who manifest on the earth for the betterment of humankind are in fact considered the incarnations or manifestations (nirmana- or nairmanikakayas) of subtle, nonphysical "bodies" (dharmakayas). Moreover, especially in the Buddhist Tantric tradition, there is the notion that enlightened beings can create special incarnations that are embodiments of selective aspects of the enlightened state. Hence, Manjusri is considered to be the physical manifestation of enlightened wisdom (prajna), Tara to be the physical manifestation of enlightened power (samarthya), and so forth. In Tibet it is also not uncommon to find situations in which three different historical figures were (and are) identified as the body, speech, and mind incarnations, respectively, of a single enlightened source.
All of this is to say that Buddhists, at least Mahayana Buddhists, find little that is objectionable in the notion that Jesus is the manifestation of a deity or the embodiment of a particular quality or attribute like wisdom (Sophia)or "the Word" (Logos). Not all Mahayana Buddhists may of course themselves consider Jesus to be such a manifestation, but many will at least accede to the possibility. In any case, that Jesus could at least in theory have emanated from a divine source is within the realm of possibility for those who share the Mahayana worldview. Certainly, the events in the life of Jesus point to the fact that he was an extraordinary individual, and the claim that Jesus is a divine incarnation is as good an explanation as any for his exceptional qualities.
Mahayana Buddhists may thus be quite open to the possibility that Jesus had a divine source and that he therefore shares in the extraordinary status of the deity from which he derived. But as stated earlier, even some mundane deitiesdeities that have yet to reach the perfected statehave the ability to incarnate physically in the material realm. So the mere fact that Jesus is an incarnation may imply that he is extraordinary, but for Buddhists it does not guarantee that he possesses the quality of maximal greatness. That of course will depend on the nature of the deity that is his source. To identify the deity as the God of the Hebrew Bible, as Christians are wont to do, does not, it seems to me, strengthen the case for Jesus, for that deity seems from all accounts to be far from perfected. The God of the Hebrew Bible is a jealous one that demands the undivided loyalty of its followers, it demands of them blood sacrifice, it is partial and capable of seemingly malevolent actions, to the point of even engaging in violent reprisals against those who refuse to obey its will. Of course, Jesus' appearance in the world is seen by Christians as ushering in a new age, one that reveals a kinder, gentler, more universalistic side to the God of the Hebrew Bible. But the slate of history cannot so easily be wiped clean. Those who would identify Jesus with the God of the Hebrew Bible make him heir to a divine legacy that is, from a Buddhist viewpoint, at the very least of questionable worth.
If the association of Jesus with the historical God of the Hebrew Bible casts moral aspersions on the identity of Jesus, the association of Jesus with the God of later Christian theological speculation represents a different kind of stumbling block for Buddhists: a logical one. I am not referring here to the kinds of logical problems that result from the fact of Christ's dual human/divine nature, problems that also plague Mahayana Buddhist theories of incarnation with their dharma/rupa-kaya distinctions. Instead, the logical stumbling block for Buddhists lies in the attributes ascribed to God. Without attempting to give the reasons behind the Buddhist objections, let me simply list here the points of contention. (1) Buddhists repudiate the notion of a creator god, since they maintain that the universe is beginningless. (2) They reject the idea of a being who is primordially pure from beginningless time, since all beings, even enlightened ones, must at one point in time have been fettered in the cycle of suffering and rebirth. (3) They reject the notion of an omnipotent being. (3a) Especially when such a deity is said also to be omnicompassionate, Buddhists see these dual qualities as being contradictory to the existence of suffering in the world (the problem of evil). (3b) More specifically, most Buddhists balk at the idea that any deity is capable of granting liberation to a being who suffers in samsara. Salvation from suffering is earned through the process of self-purification, not bestowed on one as a gift from above. There is no god who is the creator of the universe, who is originally pure and primordially perfected, who is omnipotent and who can will the salvation of beings. Jesus, therefore, cannot be the incarnation of such a God. This of course leaves the Buddhist asking: With what deity is Jesus then to be associated?
This is ultimately a question that Christians will have to answer. Still, this does not preclude Buddhists from offering their own interpretation. On this issue the most charitable alternative a Buddhist could offer is one that identifies Jesus himself as a nirmanakayathat is, as the physical embodiment of an enlightened being. Though effortlessly asserted, however, such a claim has far-reaching implications, the defense of which is not easily dealt with, for, among other things, it leaves unexplained the contradictions between the teachings of Jesus and classical Buddhist doctrines. Of course, there exist hermeneutical mechanisms within Buddhism to deal with such contradictions, to wit, the doctrine of upaya or skillful means. But the point still remains: it is necessary to deal in some way with the implications of such a claim.
Finally, and briefly, Christians view Jesus' status as a divine incarnation to be a unique event in human history, and this too is problematic for Buddhists. As mentioned above, in Mahayana Buddhist cosmology the universe is believed to be filled with beings that have ontological relationships to one or another of a variety of deities. All such instances are, from one point of view, unique, insofar as each incarnation represents a specific aspect ofand therefore has unique relationship toa given deity. From this perspective it can of course be said that Jesus' status in this regard is unique, but as a phenomenon in the religious history of the universe, the manifestation of Jesus on the earth is far from the singular event that most Christians believe it to be. This at least is the Buddhist view.
JESUS AS MESSIAH
One of my most memorable adventures as a cultural intermediary occurred about twelve years ago when I translated for a Christian colleague who was visiting the monastery in southern India where I was living. He was there working on a translation of a Buddhist text, and I volunteered my services as interpreter. One day, in the course of his conversations with one of the senior scholars of the monastery, it came up that he was a Christian, and my teacher asked him to share some of his beliefs. My friend chose to focus on Jesus' identity as messiah. As I finished translating the words of my colleague, my teacher broke out in a fit of laughter, much to my embarrassment. He then proceeded to question his interlocutor in the kind of pointed and unabashedly adversarial way that is typical of the Tibetan monastic debate courtyard. There ensued a lively exchange, but when all was said and done, my teacher's basic question was this: How can the death of one individual act as the direct and substantive cause for the salvation for others?
Behind this interreligious impasse there are of course operative several Buddhist doctrinal presuppositions that are in marked contrast (at times even in opposition) to those of traditional Christianity, not the least of which is the Buddhist vision of what constitutes liberation. Several corollaries to the Buddhist view of liberation are especially relevant as responses to the Christian confession of Jesus as messiah. (1) Each of us is responsible for our own lot in life. We each cause our own suffering, and each of us is ultimately responsible for our own liberation. (2) Our salvation is not dependent on any one historical event. Specifically, our salvation is not dependent upon the appearance of any one personage in history. True, the actions of others can help us or hinder us on the way, but no action (or lack of action) on the part of another individualwhether human or divinecan seal our fate, either as regards salvation or damnation. (3) Soteriologically, there is no end to time, no time after which sentient beings will suffer, and thus long will there be the possibility of their liberation. (4) No being has the capacity to decide whether or not we will be saved. Salvation is not granted to us, or withheld from us, by some external force. It is self-earned. (5) No single action on our part can instantaneously cause our liberation. What brings about salvation is not mere belief or faith, even a faith that is sustained throughout an entire life. Certainly, it is not the instantaneous belief in something (e.g., the belief that Jesus is Lord) that brings about salvation, but the long and arduous process of radical mental transformation, which requires more than simply belief.
Together these various tenets make it impossible for Buddhists to accept a messianic creed of the traditional Christian sort. Jesus may have been an extraordinary human being, a sage, an effective and charismatic teacher, and even the manifestation of a deity, but he cannot have been the messiah that most Christians believe him to have been.
It will not have gone unnoticed that many of the Buddhist responses to Jesus presented in this essay have strong affinities to positions found in Christian Gnosticism. What historical links, if any, exist between Buddhism and Gnosticism remains for the most part an unresolved scholarly issue. That there do exist such links at least in the realm of ideas, however, can hardly be denied, and perhaps this is as good a time as any to suggest that such commonalities of perspective deserve greater scholarly attention. At the same time, despite the similarities, it is clearly too facile to simply equate Buddhism with Gnosticism, as Pope John Paul II does for clearly polemical purposes in a recent book.
The value of the above remarksto the extent that they have anymay lie principally in the fact that they provide Christians with a perspective on Jesus that is foreign and therefore fresh. If, in the process, they also manage to evoke the memory of a more familiar but forgotten voice, that of Christian Gnosticism, perhaps this is an overtone to the discussion that is not unwanted, adding as it does a thirdalbeit more mutedvoice to the dialogue; and that, it seems to me, can only add to its richness.
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