Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Reverend Ryuei's version of The Christ Narrative as (Buddhist) Sutra

One of the earliest things I posted here is a short piece called "The Christ Narrative As Metaphor". I don't claim it is an original idea, although I did arrive at it independently (which doesn't mean free of influences to my thinking but rather that it wasn't plagiarized). Then today I am reading a comment in another blog left by Ryuei (an American Nichiren Buddhist minister) and I come across this...

In the Flower Garland Sutra and in passages from some other sutra cited in Shantideva's Shiksasamucaya there are vows by the bodhisattvas to the effect that they wish to take on all suffering and go into all the lower realms for the sake of all suffering beings. That sure sounds like vicarious atonement to me! The problem of course is that by the stricter standards of Buddhist teachings of cause and effect one cannot take on the karma of others like that. But one can create merit through solidarity with others and then transfer that merit. And in the deeper understanding of Mahayana it is pointed out that since there is no self or other ultimately how can we talk about individualized karma?

Another thing is that in various sutras and in Shantideva's Bodhicaryavatara the bodhisattvas vow to be food and drink for others - and to someone with a Catholic heritage like myself that sounds an awful lot like Eucharist. Even more interestingly, I recently discovered that the word "sambhog" in "Sambhogakaya" (the Enjoyment or Bliss Body of the Buddha) can also means "to consume." It is in fact taught that advanced bodhisattvas do have a sambhogakaya just like the Buddhas. If you read the accounts of the Resurrection in the Gospels and the way Paul talks about encountering Christ on the road to Damascus, it is readily apparent that what is being presented is by no means a simple resuscitation. In fact, in some of the encounters the disciples and Mary Magdalene don't even recognize Jesus at first! Huh!?

It seems to me that if a Buddhist with no knowledge of Christianity were to read these encounters for him or herself without anyone else providing any commentary or background they would assume that what happened was that an advanced bodhisattva (say Samantabhadra) decided to appear in the Mediterranean Basin in the first century to try to communicate as much as could be communicated of the five precepts, the law of cause and effect, the Dharmakaya (personified as "abba" or "daddy"), the Pure Land in this world (the Kingdom of Heaven) and bodhicitta. Then he ran afoul of the authorities, got himself killed, and then by an "act of truth" (satygraha) typical in Jataka tales restored himself but in a Mahayana twist did so in the sambhogakaya form to his closest followers. His teachings and Way was then distorted into a Greek mystery religion and Greek philosophy was used to try to make sense of it all and in the process deified him as the One and Only Son of God whose sacrifice one must have faith in for salvation, thus turning a skillful means into a barrier against the True Dharma.

The point is not to try to suggest, as others have attempted to do before, that during the "missing" years of the life of Jesus he was in a city such as Alexandria where Buddhist monasteries had been established prior to his birth, learning the Dharma and then trying to re-image it for a Jewish audience. In fact, it has been suggested that things may have gone the other way - that some variant of the early Gospel inspired the Mahayana vision of the Bodhisattva. (And no, I am not trying to push that idea here either). If, however, you find the substance of these comparisons to be of interest, that is if you are willing able to go beyond objections such as "Who influenced whom?" or "Anything associated with that religion is inferior, suspect, or false because I heard its members teach A, B, and C!" to appreciate the common experience and disposition at issue, allow to recommend some reading for follow-up.

First would be Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers by Thich Nhat Hanh (see my comments here). It is a collection of transcribed Dharma talks over the period of a few years, and it is especially relevant to this topic in terms of how Thich Nhat Hanh describes the idea of life, death, rebirth, and the Eucharist from a Buddhist perspective. To paraphrase, there is indeed a bodily resurrection of Christ and it happens every time someone is faithful to the spirit of the life and message of Jesus (in other words the faithful are a part of his dharma body). Next would be Manifesting God by Fr. Thomas Keating (which I discussed here a few months ago) as well as an appendix at the end of Fr. Keatings seminal work, Open Mind, Open Heart: The Contemplative Dimension of the Gospel. This appendix (available online here) outlines how Fr. Keating sees the Gospel from the perspective of his Catholic tradition AND from the perspective of deep contemplative/mystical awarenss. Here are ten of the forty-two points made...

1. The fundamental goodness of human nature, like the mystery of the Trinity, Grace, and the Incarnation, is an essential element of Christian faith. This basic core of goodness is capable of unlimited development; indeed, of becoming transformed into Christ and deified.

2. Our basic core of goodness is our true Self. Its center of gravity is God. The acceptance of our basic goodness is a quantum leap in the spiritual journey.

3. God and our true Self are not separate. Though we are not God, God and our true Self are the same thing.

4. The term original sin is a way of describing the human condition, which is the universal experience of coming to full reflective self consciousness without the certitude of personal union with God. This gives rise to our intimate sense of incompletion, dividedness, isolation, and guilt.

5. Original sin is not the result of personal wrongdoing on our part. Still, it causes a pervasive feeling of alienation from God, from other people and from the true Self. The cultural consequences of these alienations are instilled in us from earliest childhood and passed on from one generation to the next. The urgent need to escape from the profound insecurity of this situation gives rise, when unchecked, to insatiable desires for pleasure, possession, and power. On the social level, it gives rise to violence, war, and institutional injustice.

6. The particular consequences of original sin include all the self serving habits that have been woven into our personality from the time we were conceived; all the emotional damage that has come from our early environment and upbringing; all the harm that other people have done to us knowingly or unknowingly at an age when we could not defend ourselves; and the methods we acquired--many of them now unconscious--to ward off the pain of unbearable situations.

7. This constellation of prerational reactions is the foundation of the false self. The false self develops in opposition to the true Self. Its center of gravity is itself.

8. Grace is the presence and action of Christ at every moment of our lives. The sacraments are ritual actions in which Christ is present in a special manner, confirming and sustaining the major commitments of our Christian life.

9. In Baptism, the false self is ritually put to death, the new self is born, and the victory over sin won by Jesus through his death and resurrection is placed at our disposal. Not our uniqueness as persons, but our sense of separation from God and from others is destroyed in the death dealing and life-giving waters of Baptism.

10. The Eucharist is the celebration of life: the coming together of all the material elements of the cosmos, their emergence to consciousness in human persons and the transformation of human consciousness into Divine consciousness. It is the manifestation of the Divine in and through the Christian community We receive the Eucharist in order to become the Eucharist.

Points #2 and #3 are particularly interesting in that Fr. Keating also frequently refers to God as Ultimate Reality and espouses here what is sometimes referred to as a panentheistic view of God. There is a similar discussion in Going Home in which Thich Nhat Hanh makes the same case in terms familiar to many Buddhists, that of the wave and water. There are other points of convergence as well but I will leave it to the interested reader to continue their own investigation from here.

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