November 22, 2001
It is difficult to pin down any one tradition of Buddhism, its branches perhaps even more diverse than the many offshoots of Christianity, its teachings abstract and resistant to easy definition. And yet, just as Christianity holds Jesus Christ as its central focus and source of cohesion, Buddhism looks to Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) as its common founder. However, even here, Buddhism evades precise generalizations because it is possible to be a Buddhist without venerating Buddha himself.1 To large degree, Christianity looks much more to Jesus Christ as a savior and companion, whereas Buddhism is centered much more on a path or approach than on the Buddha himself.2
According to Buddhist apologist José Ignacio Cabezón (whose views may not typify those of all Buddhists), the Buddhist view of the universe, or at least the one of the Indo-Tibetan Mahayana (the “Greater Vehicle”) Buddhist, maintains that the universe is “beginningless,” so the idea of an act of creation by a deity not only foreign but unnecessary.3 According to Cabezón, there are many deities with many incarnations, thus the concept of Jesus being unique in this regard is rather dubious.4 At least for Cabezón, the “utter finality of the Christian apocalypse” (as some readings of Revelation suggest) is also a disturbing concept, as the only way “history as we know it” could cease is when all have achieved ultimate enlightenment.5 Cabezón further suggests that the idea that Jesus stemmed from “a being who is primordially pure” (God) is absurd, for even enlightened beings were at one time bound to samsara, or the cyclical pattern of life, death, and rebirth that are a natural outgrowth of one’s karma, or the universal law of attachment. Even rebirth as one of the Hindu gods does not eliminate one from samsara—again, not until the attainment of nirvana.6 Cabezón appears to borrow his conceptions of deity from Hinduism; the Buddha himself was noted for his agnosticism on matters of ultimate beginnings, ultimate endings, and the realm of the gods: he focused much more extensively on the here and now.
Whereas many sides of Christianity teach that humanity is born into sin, a characteristic shared in common with the primordial couple9 and that Jesus became the Christ and Son of God through whom salvation is obtainable,10 Buddhism generally sees the great enemy of humanity as attachment and ignorance. In Buddhism it is possible to achieve a state of enlightenment, or nirvana,7 seen both as a state of conscious awareness in the here and now bringing detachment and peace as well as an ineffable state upon death: a final release from samsara, the wheel of life. Contrary to popular belief, in the latter sense, nirvana is not the annihilation of the anatman, or non-soul, but an ineffable state8 that takes place after the death of one who realizes a “knowing” of the truth of one’s “non-self in the [great] void” or illusion of reality, known as sunyata.11 In sum, it is not seen as having the faith to believe in something unseen, it is coming into an awareness of a fact of reality: it is coming into enlightenment, a seeing clearly.
Reminiscent of the Hinduism out of which Buddhism arose, Buddhists such as Cabezón believe that there are multiple incarnations of deity. For this reason, Jesus may be accepted as incarnation out of many, unique in his own way perhaps, but not exclusively unique as many Christians believe.12 Furthermore, Buddhists do not believe that any being is capable of redeeming another; no deity is an ultimate creator; all were initially subject to samsara. Therefore, Jesus, as the manifestation of a deity, was not able to provide the salvation that many Christians claim is only possible through him. In Cabezón’s words: “Salvation from suffering [as opposed to salvation from sin13] is earned through the process of self-purification, not bestowed on one as a gift from above.”14 It follows that Christ may have shown an example of a potential path toward ultimate enlightenment, but this example was then misunderstood by many Christians who hold to an exclusive view of Christ as Savior that does not admit to other possibilities.15 Bokin Kim, a Won Buddhist, is very optimistic about the possibility, however, that Jesus is a figure worthy of non-exclusive emulation, looking at him through the eyes of Won Buddhism’s founder, Chungbin Park Sot’aesan.16
Concerning founders, both Buddha and Jesus were in their early thirties when their ministries began, though again, there were some interesting variations: Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) was an earthly prince who renounced his royalty in his search for enlightenment, whereas Jesus was born to a young peasant girl. Both men became teachers and acquired converts, though Jesus tended to attract a greater following amongst the people of little consequence, while Siddhartha seemed to attract a middle to upper class following.17 Both were concerned with the betterment of humanity and appalled at suffering and misery. Both were considered to be wise teachers.
Christian apologist Paul Copan seeks to defend the Christian view that Jesus is the one and only son of God; he is particularly interested in trying to lay to rest allegations of the early Christians reinterpreting Jesus’ purpose on earth. He builds his case by arguing that the gospels are supported by historical and archaeological evidence.19 Believing that they have passed this test of authenticity, he argues that if the early Christians fabricated these stories, they would very likely have also written in their own beliefs on the prevailing, controversial issues that were of great concern to the believers of their day, such as circumcision, spiritual gifts, divorce, and eating meat sacrificed to idols: he believes they would have treated issues addressed in the Pauline epistles.20 He argues that, given the epistles pre-date the writing of the gospels, the fact that the gospels contain no record of such disputes further supports their credibility.21
Copan also attempts to defend the veracity of the gospels by citing their comparative recency. Given the strong oral tradition in Palestine, it was common for rabbis to learn entire sections of Scripture and based on this knowledge, the gospels were likely written within thirty years of Jesus’ earthly ministry.22 Copan believes that writing something so obviously fallacious as the bold claims of Jesus, His rendering of miracles, and His resurrection would be very improbable if the early Christians had any hope of maintaining credibility. To his mind, then, the easiest and simplest explanation is that these events really did happen and were not merely inventions. He concludes his argument by pointing to the simplicity and unsophistication of the gospels, which he believes furthers supports the likelihood that real, everyday men wrote them. If such men wished to swindle others, he thinks it likely they would have attempted to smooth their fabricated tales, working diligently to make sure there were no inconsistencies in the alignment of their writings.23 To this end, he feels the discrepancies within the gospels actually lend to their credibility, rather than detracting from it.
Is this the only way to answer the question of Jesus and the exclusivity that many Christians bestow upon him? Not according to Marcus J. Borg of Oregon State University who numbers himself among the Christian believers. He argues that the claims of Jesus were never meant to be taken literally, but serve as a metaphorical representation of truth; that Jesus was merely saying that He was the way of the Christians out of many equally viable paths—that “we are speaking of who Jesus is for us [italics in original]”:24 “As a Christian, I do not think Jesus is the only way. He is neither indispensable for salvation, nor unique (except in the sense that every person is unique). The exalted terms with which he is spoken of in the New Testament (as messiah, son of God, Lord, Word of God, Wisdom of God, light of the world, bread of life, and so forth) are not literal doctrinal truths but are all metaphors pointing to what Jesus became in the experience and tradition of the early Christian movement.”25 He admits that this view likely isn’t popular among many traditional Christians in North America, but he feels that it should be: that it can, and should, be viewed as one of the great religions of the world, and not as an exclusive claim to salvation.26
John Dominic Crossan of DePaul University, also a Christian, is of a similar mind. He defines particularity and speaks of what he feels are its obvious ramifications in spiritual discernment:
Suppose I awoke tomorrow morning beside my wife Sarah and announced, “If I had not met you, fallen in love with you, and married you, I would probably have met, loved, and married someone else and be waking up next to them this morning.” That is, of course, a very bad way to start the day. But it is both absolutely true and absolutely inhuman. If it is true, then why is it most imprudent to start the day with its announcement? Particularity is the answer. One experiences and must experience a beloved spouse as “peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely” destined for that relationship and not as an interchangeable cog in a relational machine. As with human love, so it is also—and even more profoundly—with divine faith. It must be experienced as “peculiarly, specially, or even uniquely” right, true, valid, and correct. In anything that is of supreme importance to us, be it spouse or family, hobby or passion, job or profession, language or country, there is an inevitable slippage from a to the. But out of the corner of our minds we recognize that a has become the, and we know that this is perfectly human and presents no problem—unless it is taken literally and the equally relative absolutes of others are negated. So it is, also or especially, with one’s faith or one’s religion. It must be experienced as the manifestation of the Holy, but we must never forget or deny that it is actually a manifestation for me and for us. To be human is to live in a as the; to be inhuman is to deny that necessary slippage.27
Rita M. Gross, a Buddhist writing from her former fundamental Christian background, does not see the two religions as being very compatible. Her method of reconciling the claims is to evaluate each religious system on its overall benevolence. Her concern is skirting the boundaries between relativism and absolutism: “While, in general, relativism seems superior to absolutism because it is more humane and less ethnocentric, logic compels one to admit that there must be limits to relativism. Finding that boundary is never easy.”28 She then goes on to speak of evaluation of religion on its utility, and in this way, she advocates “conceptual relativism along with minimal moral and methodological absolutes.”29 After a discourse on trying to parallel the similarities of Buddha and Jesus she writes, “I prefer, in the long run, to let the two myth and symbol systems stand as they are—unique, radically different, and magnificent. That solution, however, requires everyone to renounce exclusive and absolute claims for and about their conceptualizations of the ultimate. That includes Christians and their claims for the uniqueness, unsurpassability, finality, indispensability, and universality of Jesus!”30
With all of these perspectives placed in full view, how do I, as a Christian, believe that the doctrines of Christ and Buddha align? Before answering this question, I will first say that each of the authors I have read offers a unique and interesting approach to the solution and each, I believe, can be neatly divided into a basic “either-or” premise: either you accept the claims of the historical Jesus or you don’t, instead seeking some way to rationalize his teachings.
For a long time, particularly when I first became a Christian, I struggled with this idea of Jesus being the only way to the Father. I wondered how this possibly could be. In fact, it was predominantly what caused me to lose my faith the first time around, to scrap all the Christianity I had been taught as a child. I later regained my faith after experiencing a series of supernatural encounters, but I was still left with my intellectual questions. In my reading of the gospel accounts (particularly St. John), there is very little room left for any middle road: Jesus seemed to unambiguously say exactly what he meant to say. What if, upon death, we really do pass through a tunnel of light and will be greeted by the now risen and gloried Christ whether we know him by name or not? What if the NDEs (near-death experiences) of men like Ian McCormack, stung by the lethal box jellyfish, typify the experience of death complete with their proverbial accounts of the “tunnel of light”? ( Part I and Part II of his experience are available as downloadable MP3s: note that his story was told at a church and a portion of the second half is an “altar call” in an evangelical-style service. Skipping this portion of the audio will have no ultimate bearing on his experience.)
Let me propose a thought experiment. You and I suddenly find ourselves in total darkness. We do not know where we are at or how we got here. Unbeknownst to us, we are actually standing in the center of an extravagant mausoleum that is made of ten by sixteen inch (25.40 cm. by 40.64 cm.) granite blocks inlaid with jade, ivory, and other precious and semi-precious stones, with a half-inch (1.27 cm.) of mortar between them. The room is a sizable one, with sixty-foot (18.28 m.) wide walls rising to a height of twenty-five feet (7.62 m.) on each side, with a domed ceiling also made of pure granite. But we are unaware of this fact, of course, for we have no idea where we are or how we got here.
We could just keep standing here in a stupor, but eventually we will get hungry or bored or frightened or any number of related perceptions. We can fret all we will or deny that anything has happened, but we are here, so now we must come to our senses and make the most of our situation, determining what we can about whatever we can. So we carefully (because one false step could land us in a pit or someplace else equally undesirable) begin to grope around in the dark. We call out somewhat fearfully and our voices return a hollow echo. Clue number one: we must be enclosed in some kind of building! Eventually we collide with something quite solid (the granite wall) and we can go no further. Now we could foolishly declare there was nothing there, but it is rather obvious there is indeed something there: a solid article of material reality blocking our path. We can’t see it, but we can feel it, hear our voices bouncing back at us from it, and we could, though we are unlikely to, try licking it or smelling it. In short, we can use any of our other senses other than sight to try to determine what this thing is.
Eventually I find my voice, and I say to you, “It feels like a wall. Yes, I’m sure of it now. And I think it’s made of brick.” Suddenly my mind flashes back to a memory of a recent visit to Paris. When I was there, I saw a number of houses covered with yellow bricks. After a moment of deliberation, mentally revisiting the cityscape in my mind, I feel certain of its likelihood in regard to this seeming wall in front of me. So I continue, “In fact, I’ll bet it is made of yellow bricks. Yes. Yellow bricks, and probably, um, seven by ten inches (17.78 cm. by 25.40 cm.) in fact. I wonder if there is a way out?”
I will not belabor the point. You would also have your own conclusions, and maybe neither one of us would be totally right. But more than likely one of us would come closer to the truth than the other, even if neither one of us was entirely correct.
The wall is the unknown force “out there.” Every religion in the world has its own take on what this force is. Even the atheist who says it does not exist disbelieves the sensation of selfhood and consciousness, instead choosing to believe that consciousness as such is an elaborate illusion evolved over centuries of human evolution.
No one can see the wall. We know that logically there has to be some kind of explanation for it, even if we are all wrong. Logically it would seem that there must be one final answer, one final reality, even if we are all wrong when we all think we are right. For example, if I say the mausoleum wall is made of yellow bricks, that does not change the reality that it is made of granite blocks of different proportions than my own feeble approximations. In like manner, it only stands to reason that some religions are going to be closer to the truth than others. If there are parallels between all of them, we can be reasonably certain that those areas are on target. Regardless, logic would tell us that despite the attractive notion that all religious paths lead to the same eternal garden, this answer is problematic.
I have since come to believe that the very thing that caused me so much consternation—that in the gospels, Christ claims to be the way, the truth, and the life—would be exactly what we would expect if he really was speaking the truth. If that were the case, he has no need to justify his claims, for truth is truth. I think it quite possible then that upon death, whether we know who he is not, he will be the figure we all greet, the narrow gate who stands as the living gatekeeper between worlds.
There is, however, one other issue this opens up. What about the belief many Christians hold in the idea of hell? Would Christ’s statement, if true, imply that all the people who believe in another religion other than Christianity are doomed to eternal punishment? I do not ultimately know anymore than anyone else knows what lies on the other side of death, if anything. But I have tossed this question around in my mind and come up with a few possibilities. I do not presume to speak for other Christians, much less for Christ himself. However, I do think that my arguments have the support of Scripture.
The author of Hebrews suggests that God knows each person’s heart intimately32 and that he is a fair, just, and merciful God, “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.”33 The Revelator suggests that God will judge a person34 based on what he or she knows, not what he or she doesn’t35 and the author of Luke that all people will be without excuse.36 Implicit in the idea that one is “without excuse” is the idea that one will be judged fairly: that all will, in one form or another, have been consciously given a chance for repentance.
If this is true, then one who has never heard but lived to the best of his or her moral conscience very well could be allowed entrance into heaven through the one way of Jesus to the Father; for “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”37 On a similar note, Christian and retired physicist Lambert Dolphin maintains, “Though there is but one way to God according to Jesus, there are many ways to come to Jesus as the Messiah.”38
Does this imply that a Christian should not be interested in sharing the faith? That was all part of what Jesus sent his disciples into the world to do39 and the motivation was one of love, of having discovered the answer. For the gospel message is far more than just a statement about what happens after death: it is all about the ministry of reconciliation, a process that takes place in the here and now every bit as much as in any worlds to come.
There is no reason why Buddhists and Christians cannot live in harmony with each other. Siddhartha Gautama called for a peaceable and self-controlled life, just as our Lord admonished us to love everyone, even our enemies,40 “For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?”41 Christ holds out a radical message of love and benevolence toward all while being uncompromising in his teaching.
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