Jesus and Buddah

On 22nd January 2013 there was a large audience for an ‘Engaging Issues’ lecture by the Revd Donald Horsfield.    Here is the text of the lecture:

Jesus and Buddha: Crossing Religious Boundaries.  That’s the title of my talk.  But there’s something not quite right about it and some of you may have spotted what it is, and I’ll come to it in a minute.

Any title is a bit like a newspaper headline.  It tends to be over-simplified, it’s meant to grab people’s attention, and get them to buy the paper.  I wanted a title that would do something like that.  Not get you to buy a newspaper, but get you to come to this lecture and to that extent it’s been successful!

Nevertheless, it’s still ‘not quite right’, and the incorrectness is related to the first part, Jesus and Buddha.  But before I explain that, I want to look at the second part, Crossing Religious Boundaries.  Should we cross religious boundaries?  Should there be any boundaries in the first place?  My answer is Yes and No.  Yes we should cross them, because No, there shouldn’t be any.

These boundaries have been erected because religions have deceived themselves into thinking that they have exclusive rights to some infallible truth which therefore needs protecting.  Boundaries also have the purpose of keeping believers safe, within the confines of that particular religion.  Believers are warned not to go near the boundaries.   Don’t be tempted to cross over, or even look over!

Thankfully some do look over and even cross over, but they have to pay the price of doing so which in the past has been a very high price.  Excommunication was the mildest form of punishment, but even that was a consignment to damnation unless the person could be persuaded to repent, perhaps through the tender mercies of the Inquisition.  Others have fared much worse, actually being given a foretaste of Hell, by being hanged, drawn and quartered, their heads impaled on spikes for all to see as a warning to others to keep away from the boundaries.

These days of course, the boundaries are not policed with such close scrutiny.  But the condemnations, anathemas and curses are still there, inscribed in doctrines, creeds and scriptures.  We can read about the terrible judgement rained down on the innocent people of Jericho.  Even Paul, who said some good things, also, according to Galatians (1:8f), condemns to Hell all those whose understanding of the gospel differs from his.

Religious boundaries need to be dismantled, and people encouraged to ‘cross over’, to find out what’s there on the other side.

I shall be mentioning two or three books that have influenced me on my journey across religious boundaries.  Anything written by Karen Armstrong is highly recommended, and the one related to tonight’s topic is called A HISTORY OF GOD.

I never realised God had a history!  It was a real ‘eye-opener’.  In an evolving universe everything has a history, even God.  We need to know how the idea of God has evolved as we ourselves have emerged, and are still emerging, from more primitive times.  That fact of God having a history is itself enough to make us suspicious of any boundaries, especially if they are considered to be indissoluble.

Religions too have evolved as people have tried to make sense of being alive in this amazing and mysterious Universe.  Unfortunately these religions have seen themselves as an end already arrived at, rather than being a ‘means to an end’.  And so they have been competitive (or missionary) rather than having a common purpose.

Richard Holloway, a former Anglican bishop of Edinburgh, has just written his autobiography, called LEAVING ALEXANDRIA.  He tells of his `increasing disbelief’ in religious claims to possess precise information about God’s opinions (p235)

It was this ‘religious dissatisfaction’ that pushed him to the boundaries and encouraged him to cross over.  His book is a very moving and stimulating read for anybody who is feeling dissatisfied with the present religious situation, as indeed Karen Armstrong is, and on the cover of Holloway’s book she says, “This is a poignant memoir, written with intelligence, integrity and wit.  It lays bare the ludicrous and entirely unnecessary mess we have made of religion “.

That mess has been largely created by religions making their exclusive claims, and drawing their boundaries.  Nevertheless religions will almost certainly continue to exist, in one form or another but hopefully not as they are at present.  We need another Reformation but not just a ‘restatement’ of what religions consider to be unchangeable.  But a radical, root and branch reformation, much more than just a rearranging of the deckchairs on the Ark of Salvation, before it disappears under the waves.

And we can begin with the crossing of religious boundaries, to see what’s on the other side and in all humility, learning from what we see.  Some have been willing to do this and I have in mind two such people.

Both of them have written books which I have read, and which have strongly influenced what I’m saying tonight.  One is a Buddhist and the other a Christian.  They have both crossed religious boundaries, and as a result, the Buddhist says that he is a more enlightened Buddhist and the Christian says that he is a better Christian.

The Buddhist is called Tek Na Han (which in his own language looks like this – Thich Nhat Hanh), and the title of his book is LIVING BUDDHA, LIVING CHRIST.  In this book he clearly shows what Christians and Buddhists have in common and what they can learn from each other.  He is Vietnamese, and was in Vietnam in the 1960s when American napalm bombs were raining down on women and children, villages, animals and gardens, with horrifying destruction of life and property.  He was nominated by Martin Luther King for the Nobel Peace Prize and at present lives in France, but travels widely in pursuit of world peace.  And he believes, like many others, that there will never be world peace until there is peace between religions.  He says that, “we must allow what is good and beautiful and meaningful in other traditions to transform us; but please – do not practise religious imperialism.”   Or I would add, any other form of imperialism.

The other book is by Paul Knitter, who is a Roman Catholic.  He spent 14 years training for the priesthood.  As a Jesuit he was then given a teaching appointment, passing on to others the infallible teaching of the one true church.  But eventually, there came a time when he “began squirming with discomfort” at some of the things he was saying, but which of course he was supposed to believe, although when he asked himself if he did, he didn’t!

He was beginning to go through a process of ‘religious evolution’, experiencing a personal reformation.  He came to see that “everything we say about God must be symbolic, pointing to a Reality that is beyond words.”  At the heart of his discomfort was the realisation that the Church actually regarded its own doctrines and scriptures, as ‘literally and objectively’ true.  And of course, that’s why they had to be accepted and believed, without question.  We may ask, why didn’t he see this before?  Well, we all have our blind spots, do we not!  Better late than never!

In the process of his personal reformation, reading widely and thinking more deeply, Knitter discovered the wisdom and the relevance of Buddhism.  He eventually resigned his priesthood, and is now the Paul Tillich Professor of Theology and World Religions at the Union Theological Seminary in New York.  He has written a lot of books, but the one I am referring to is called WITHOUT BUDDHA, I COULD NOT BE A CHRISTIAN.  Talk about a ‘magnetic title’!  I strongly recommend it to anyone in search of religious truth.  He says in the book, “the only way I can be religious, is by being inter-religious.  l can be a Christian, only by also being a Buddhist.”

Which brings me at last to the first words of my title JESUS and BUDDHA.  There is something wrong in aligning these two names.   They are not to be compared and contrasted because they are not equal and opposite.  But I think they do make a good title and as such have served their purpose.  But now I must apply the necessary correction.

The name Jesus refers to the largely historical figure, Jesus of Nazareth.  I say ‘largely historical’ because we know that in the Gospels, which refer to Jesus’ life and teaching, there is also mixed in, material created by the Church, written to ‘prove’ what the church believes about him.  Which is circular reasoning of a very high order!  I remember being ‘theologically gob-smacked’ in my student days, by what I now see as an obvious truth.  It was first observed in the 19th century by a Roman Catholic scholar, Alfred Loisy, who said, “Jesus proclaimed the coming of God’s kingdom, but the Church came instead”.  He was of course immediately excommunicated and presumably is still somewhere, suffering for his sins, being punished for his presumption in speaking truth to power.

The truth is that the teaching of ‘Jesus, about the kingdom’, was replaced by the teaching of the ‘Church, about Jesus’.  The fact of this ‘shift’ is now commonplace in New Testament Studies, but is generally kept out of sight of people sitting in the pews because it may confuse their simple faith.

Richard Holloway who always speaks his mind clearly and forcefully, identifies that shift in these terms:-

  • It is a shift from poetry to packaging.
  • From a movement to an Institution.
  • From the man of Nazareth, who challenged principalities and powers, to the God-man of Christian Orthodoxy, who demands our belief.
  • From the Jesus of History to the Christ of Faith. (p155)

That’s the shift that happened and we need to know that it happened.  And we need to know how and why, the Jesus of history became the Christ of faith.

Five hundred years or so before the time of Jesus, Siddhartha Gautama was born in North India.  He later became known as The Buddha, and was the founder of Buddhism.  And so my title should have been JESUS and GAUTAMA, two historical figures whose teachings can be compared and contrasted.

OR..on the other hand, it could have been CHRIST and BUDDHA – because just as Gautama (which from hereon is the name I will use), just as Gautama became The Buddha: in the same way, and for the same reasons, Jesus became The Christ.  And I now want to look at how this happened.

In general usage and popular understanding, Christ is a kind of surname for Jesus.  But this is not so.  They didn’t have surnames the way we do.  It was only after his death that the followers of Jesus gave him this title of ‘The Christ’.  He was understood to have been anointed with divine power and authority, to bring the world as we know it to an end and usher in the eternal kingdom and reign of God.

Any such figure, of one who will finalise God’s plans for this world and restore some lost paradise, is obviously an ideal or mythical person.  A projection of some deep yearning within the human psyche.  A product of the human predicament where we are aware of our imperfections and incompleteness and so looking for someone to put things right.  A Saviour who will BE that perfection and completeness which it is said we need, and which only God can provide.  This is a common feature of the religious outlook.  That’s what God is there for.

The Jews are looking for their Messiah.  Moslems are waiting for the Last Imam.  And even though Christians have identified their Christ, they’ve sent him off to heaven and are still waiting for his return.

Within humanity as a whole there is a general recognition of this condition, of something unattainable at present but worth waiting for, expecting something to happen because ‘hope springs eternal’.  We ‘see through a glass darkly’ at present but there is a fuller picture somewhere.   We’re just waiting for that last piece of the jigsaw to be put in place.

Scientists have their own response to this human dilemma.  They were looking for the so-called Higgs-Bosun which they thought might be the ‘God particle’ but it wasn’t.  It was not the last piece in the jigsaw, completing the ‘big picture’, so they’ll just have to keep looking for something that will never be found!

In the Christian religion this myth about `the end times’, the Apocalypse, has been embodied in the person of Jesus.  He has become The Christ.  He is the God-particle, the one who fulfils God’s purposes here on earth and opens the way to eternal life in a new heaven and a new earth.  But that’s been put ‘on hold’, the mystery remains and we are back where everybody is still waiting for an end that is inconceivable in an evolving universe.

Any figure who fulfils this final role is clearly an expression of our own deep need as human beings.  He puts the last piece of the jigsaw in place and all will be complete.  We shall then know God as fully as we are known by God.  But this is an ideal.  And ‘myth’ is the only vehicle for moving us towards the ideal.  So on this understanding, Christ is not a person somewhere who will one day appear riding on the clouds coming to finalise God’s intentions for creating us in the first place.  So what is Christ?  What does the word Christ mean?

I quote now from a Biblical scholar GWH Lampe, who in his Bampton Lectures of 1976 entitled GOD AS SPIRIT writes, “Christ is an ideal or mythical person who symbolises the goal to which the Divine activity is tending.  He stands for the end towards which God’s creativity is directed, the perfect integration of God’s Spirit with human personality.”  For me that is the most perceptive and illuminating theological comment that I’ve ever read! And it tells us how, and why, Jesus was elevated to the role of being the Christ.

Gautama had a similar role to play within Buddhism.  The context is quite different but the question behind it is the same.  Is there anyone who can `save us’, who can enlighten us as to the purpose of our existence in this mysterious universe, and show us the way to fulfilment?  The very word Buddha means to AWAKEN.  And Gautama had an experience of awakening to a deep truth about life, just as Jesus had an awakening at his baptism in the river Jordan.  And for both Gautama and Jesus, it was a call to teach others what they had seen.

Long before Darwin and the concept of ‘evolution’, Gautama saw that everything was in a ‘constant flow of inter-connected movement’.  Nothing stays the same.  He said that suffering is caused when humans break that ‘inter-connection’ by selfishly craving for, and holding on to things for themselves.  He says that suffering can be overcome by ‘turning away’ from that craving (in Christian terms – repentance), and letting go of the ‘self’ (in Christian terms – dying to self ), and then showing compassion or love, to all and everything in a suffering and unenlightened world.  There are clear similarities there to the teaching of Jesus, who said ‘repent, for the Kingdom of God is at hand’, die to self and live for others!

Gautama felt the need to share this truth so that others could experience the same enlightenment, just as Jesus invited people to experience the kingdom of God where loving kindness (agape) is the supreme value.  After Gautama died people followed his teaching and experienced their own enlightenment; awakening to the truths Gautama taught, and this experience they described as the birth of their own Buddha Nature… their true identity… just as Christians experienced in Paul’s words, “for me to live is Christ” (Phil 1:21)

And so Gautama became The Buddha, and in the same way 500 years later, Jesus became The Christ.  They both had a life-changing influence on their followers, setting them off on a life-time’s adventure of discovering their true nature which is to be ‘One with God’, who, as Paul says, is Father of all, works through all, and is in all.

What I want to do now is cross further into Buddhist territory and see if I can find any new insight into my own Christian religion.  And I’ll jump in at the deep end and start with the concept of God.

For Buddhism, indeed for all religions, God is a Sacred Mystery, indefinable, incomprehensible, ineffable.  The word ‘God’ can only be a pointer to a reality beyond the word itself, but unfortunately Christianity got itself trapped in words by defining God in dogmas and credal definitions.  For Buddhists words are a means to an end, never an end in themselves.  Even the word Buddha can be an obstacle to experiencing the reality it represents.

This way of ‘thinking about words’ is actually already there in Christianity.  Paul pointed it out in his Corinthian letter (2 Cor 3:6) where he says, “Words can be a deadly trap – it’s the Spirit that sets you free, and gives you life.”  And then the Church goes and ‘sets those very words in stone’ in its infallible scriptures, how ironic!

Zen Buddhists have a saying, “If you meet the Buddha – kill him”.  Which is strong language for a non-violent movement!  But the point is so important.  Don’t let ANY form of words, even the word Buddha itself, deflect you from your own path to enlightenment.  If Buddhism can help to liberate Christianity from its captivity to words, from the dangers of literalism and fundamentalism, I can only say Thank God !

Gautama was not interested in ‘theologising’ about the existence of God.  He said that discussing the existence of God is a waste of breath and a waste of time.  It’s obvious that God doesn’t exist as we exist, as somebody, somewhere in the Universe.  Even to ask the question ‘does God exist’ is to show a lack of spiritual insight.  Buddhism thinks of God, if at all, as existence itself, the Ground of all Being in whom WE exist and have OUR being, accessible to us as our own deepest self, our true nature.

Once again this truth is already there in the Jewish and Christian scriptures.  But it has been overlooked and not developed.  It’s been subordinated to other teachings.  It is the concept of God, understood as Jehova, which means ‘I AM’.  It is the present tense of the verb ‘to be’.  God just IS – existence itself.  Not past and not future (they belong to the dimension of time).  God just IS, present, now, eternal being.  God IS and we ARE, part of the same verb, and we can come to realise our oneness with the ‘Ground of All Being’.

So what happened to this insight into the meaning of God?  It got trapped in the words and culture of a particular time, given a name and a masculine gender.  They called `him’ Jehova, gave him a throne and put a crown on his head and royal robes round his shoulders.  God help us and deliver us from such deadly literalism and revive our poetic instinct.  And if Buddhism can help us we should be grateful.

I turn now to look at the concept of ‘salvation’, which is there in one form or another in all religions.  For many Christians there is a growing dissatisfaction with the traditional teaching and understanding of salvation which sees Jesus as ‘the lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world’.

This way of thinking is getting less and less acceptable to more and more people.  What kind of a God is it whose destructive anger can only be averted by the sacrificial death of his own son?  No wonder people have stopped going to church!  As Knitter points out, Jesus is there regarded as ‘a kind of repairman, who fixes the problem between God and humanity by bridging the gap caused by sin.’  What seems to be going on is some kind of ‘divine transaction’ in some other realm, which you then have to say that you believe in, in order to be saved.

The whole of that religious framework, where ‘atonement’ is made by Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross, is for many Christians no longer credible.  We don’t belong to that world of sacrifices offered to appease the wrath of an angry God (in spite of the popular hymn which says “on the cross when Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.)

There is another way of understanding the Christian message.  Indeed the very idea of sacrificial substitute is contrary to what Jesus stood for.  It’s not so much ‘changing’ God’s mind as ‘revealing’ God’s mind.  In Matthew’s Gospel (9:13, 12:17) Jesus tells his followers “Go and find out what this Scripture means – God desires mercy not sacrifice.”  Well, it seems they didn’t bother to do that and neither did the church that came after.  In fact, the Church turned Jesus into the very sacrifice that God says he doesn’t desire!

It’s far better, simpler and wiser, to understand the ‘body of Jesus’ as the body of his teaching.  Jesus was ’embodied’ in what he said, and it’s the truth of his teaching that saves us, just as the teaching of Gautama brings enlightenment to his followers.

We can understand salvation as fulfilling the potential that we already have, of being ‘made whole’, and becoming what we have it in us to be.  Salvation as a journey, a process that we can engage in, rather than being given a seat in the Ark or a ticket to Heaven.  To put it in Christian terms, the Kingdom of God is within you, discover its power and live in its light for you too are a child of God as Jesus was, as Gautama was, as potentially everybody is.  In Buddhist terms, salvation is waking up to the truth that in essence you are already one with the Eternal, but you have to learn how to realise it and live in the light of it.  Salvation is an awakening to our unrealised spiritual potential, rather than being a passive observer of some divine drama which has to be believed in.

Tek Na Han says, “there is not much difference between Christians and Buddhists.  Most of the boundaries we have created between our two traditions are artificial.   Our differences are mostly differences of emphasis: only the manifestations are different, the essence is the same.”

Buddhism is not a missionary religion.  It does not seek to win converts on the grounds that it is right and other religions are wrong.  Tek Na Han says that, “all people are pregnant with the potential for awakening and enlightenment”,  and that both the teaching of Jesus and Gautama can be the catalyst to make it happen.  That people should work it out in their own context, no need to change religions unless you are denied the freedom necessary to enable it to happen.

Nevertheless, Buddhism can offer a `wake up call’ to Christianity and remind us of treasures that we already have but which have been buried and overlaid with subsequent teachings designed to control people.  This ‘wake up’ model was already there among the first followers of Jesus before it got buried under theories of substitutionary atonement.  Paul knew of it and it’s there in the Ephesian letter (5:14) where it says, “Wake up sleeper; rise from the dead, and Christ will shine upon you”.   Wake up to the truth that you are a child of God – and live as one.

Buddhism says live as fully as you can in the present moment; be mindful of your connection with all things and respond with compassion.  And in doing so you will discover your true identity, your Buddha Nature.  Christianity says love others as you love yourself for in doing so you are loving God.  And you will discover your true nature which is Christ in you.  The context and wording may be different but the essence is the same.  Tek Na Han concludes that, “if you are a true Buddhist you are also a Christian and vice- versa.”   Paul Knitter regards himself a Buddhist Christian.

They have both crossed religious boundaries and they are all the richer for it and I for one am grateful that they are now sharing their riches with others.