Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Is Buddha a better Jesus?

English: Christ_and_Buddha_by_Paul_Ranson
Image via Wikipedia
There are many complex psychological, cultural and historical forces at work influencing why a segment one society adopts the religious narratives and symbols of another: the new cultural form is appealing to those disenfranchised by or disillusioned with the traditional form, it fills a gap that societal changes have created, etc.

Any single explanation of the appeal of Buddhism in the West, then, would be as incomplete as any single explanation for the appeal of Christianity in the East. But that doesn't make adding something new to the list of reasons for such a shift isn't worthwhile.

Here is a candidate for the list of reasons why people in the West find Buddhism appealing: Buddha is a better Jesus.

That is to say, the Buddha offers many of the things people who grew up in or around Christianity like about Jesus but without many of things they don't want.

Or another way to put it is that people may have an image of the kinds of things Jesus represents, such as peace, non-violence, suffering for the welfare of others, conscious union with the deepest aspect of reality, which they find appealing or compelling, but which is connected to a larger Biblical narrative and associated imagery that the find offensive or that just doesn't ring true for them.

Here are a few examples:

1. While Jesus does talk about love, non-violence, peace, forgiveness, patience, caring for those that others ignore or abuse, praying for those who do not like us or who wish to harm us, and the like, he is also quoted as teaching about a final judgment and discriminating between those who are to be welcomed by God and those who are to be "cast into the outer darkness".

There is a debate between different theological strands within Christianity about the meaning of these
teachings as well as those of the apostles, whose letters make up the rest of the New Testament and the overall context of the Jewish tradition from which Christianity emerged. For example, there is a echo of Proverbs 25:21-22 in Romans 12:20 in which being kind to one's enemies heaps hot coal upon their heads.

One camp emphasizes this as an indictment of  ones enemies in the cosmic judgement that is to come, wherein one can accept the blows and humiliation one suffers today by knowing that it will increase the torment of ones enemies tomorrow. The other camp suggests that hot coals represent shame and that this isn't about eternal torment but rather turning the hearts of ones enemies by showing them love in the face of their abuse.

This distinction leads those in favor of judgment to see the world in very black and white terms of "us" versus "them", the servants of God vs. the enemies of God, and a celebration of the imagery of bloody retribution executed by God's wrath, in which the plow shared are beaten into swords and the wine press into which the unrighteous are thrown overflows (see Joel 3 for one of many examples of such depictions). Following God and even Jesus to truth and peace ultimately involves violence, war and bloodshed (Revelation 19:11-19).

Buddhism does not deny conflict, war, and violence, only that they cannot lead to harmony, peace and stillness. The teachings of the Buddha do not deny there are those who wish us harm, or the reality of demons (with the distinction between literal and figurative being largely irrelevant), but because of the insight emptiness and its implications of interdependence, impermanence, and non-self, these must be answered with love and humility. Not to indict them, or because God is the only one with the right to judge and punish, but because we are all are part of one another.

Our enemies are really our mothers and fathers, brother and sisters, daughters and sons, close friends and lovers, who are sick with delusions of greed, anger and ignorance. They have forgotten themselves and are suffering in this sickness, and the only antidote are the fruits of wisdom of compassion, even when the manifestations of this concern may seem stern. Even our demons are simply things we have suppressed or denied and which only grow larger and more powerful the more we fight them with the power of our egos.

This generic Buddhist take on these matters can be very compatible with some Christian views, but directly opposed to others. If one favors the compassion and unity wins out over all approach, if this rings true for ones heart and mind, Buddhism, at least as it is taught in the West, offers this without the conflicting teachings and imagery. This does not at all mean, by the way, that Buddhists and Buddhist teachings are free of sexism, homophobia, racism or other humanly derived and culturally informed attitudes of discrimination or intolerance.

2. Jesus is said to have died for the sake of all of humanity, and yet there continues to be debate among Christians about just what this means. Does it only apply to those who have the right theology, who perform the proper rituals under the necessary conditions, or possess some other qualifier? There is also ambiguity about just what it is people are saved from in this narrative.

The same difference of perspective outlines above divides the of understanding the Bible in general and the teachings of Jesus in particular all the way through, and a nearly identical split in understanding can be seen in the meaning of the Passion itself. Was Jesus offering people a chance to escape a judgment of eternal torment and simultaneously building a case against those who refuse to repent by his innocent anguish and death, or does the Passion stand as a shaming symbol to turn people away from the violence generated by a self-cherishing myopia of the soul? Is the Cross a warning and a lifeboat or is it a sign of love and solidarity with those broken in either body or spirit?

Does Christianity really teach a unifying and reconciling Universalism or does it teach a divisive and polarizing Triumphalism?

Buddhism lacks the ambiguity presented here. The various realms one encounters, which include different levels of Hell and Heaven among many others, may seem to last forever but are in fact temporary. Moreover, the suffering one experiences has a potentially purifying effect.

While it is true that Buddhism says one should strive to learn and practice the Dharma, the living teachings of the Buddha, in order to move beyond a state of perpetually bouncing between these realms to an awakening which frees one from such involuntary rebirths, there are Sutras which clearly suggest that even the most evil people will one day discover the nature of enlightenment.

Again, there are Christians who teach something similar, who proclaim that the purpose of life is to learn how to love and that all of our trials and triumphs can lead us beyond our narrow and constricted state to one of complete openness and joy for ourselves and others. Yet the must still deal with apparent contradiction in the Bible on this matter and incompatibility with the views of their fellow disciples of Christ.

3. Jesus is intimately associated with the Biblical presentation of God, which many find to be erratic and inconsistent.

The personification of God and especially the anthropomophized depiction of God leads to a variety of concerns such as whether God is being shaped in the image of the human mind or society and the challenge of theodicy (i.e. the moral problems of God being both personal and all powerful in the face of issues such as evil, divine judgement and wrath, etc.). This in turn leads to a great deal of philosophical hand-wringing and theological cognitive dissonance which both obscures and complicates God as an intellectual topic of study or analytical problem to be debated.

Rather than choose among a myriad of well-known or obscure examples, the problems of the Biblical depiction of God are well known and much discussed and have remained fairly constant for centuries. Once more, there are Christians who are striving to rediscover and reframe the image of God in terms and imagery that either transcend or renew these Biblical portrayals, and there are those who oppose them.

Serious contradictions arise between those Christians who claim God is not a God of fear, hatred, or wrath, a God who takes sides or plays favorites, and the Bible and larger historical tradition of Christianity which does see God as making such distinctions among people and acting in fits of jealousy and anger. This results in a problematic relationship between those Christians who say God is a being of pure acceptance and welcome and rest who isn't interested in theology and judgement and the tradition these same Christians claim as the basis of their faith. This requires even more theological and exegetical contortions to accommodate such convictions.

Buddhism neither requires nor refutes the idea of some ultimate reality or ground of being. Consciousness is generally seen as the nature of this source and substance of form and emptiness, and the human experience of this source is said by some Buddhist teachings to be akin to boundless compassion and wisdom. Yet by not making a Creator-Creation analogy, the issues of theodicy become irrelevant.

There are Christians, especially those involved in contemplative practices, who come to views that are remarkably similar to Buddhism, and yet as before there are many more who reject anything other than a relative view of the Biblical presentation of God.

This bring us back to the original speculation: For those from a Christian background, even if not from a Christian identity or practice, what they like and find meaningful or beneficial about the image of Jesus is often found in the image of the Buddha, while the teachings of the Buddha lack many of the things these same people find problematic or unappealing about Jesus, the Bible, and the Christian tradition. Hence, in a strange sort of way, they may find Buddha to be a better representation of what they want or expect from Jesus. Nor is this just for the undereducated who don't really know theology, as the book Without Buddha I Could Not Be A Christian demonstrates.

Note that the point here isn't about whether Buddhism is "truer" than Christianity in some objective sense, or that the Buddhist tradition is free of problems or inherently superior to Christianity. The point is whether it may appear that Buddhism is doing a better job of offering what some people want or expect from Christianity than Christianity itself. This is based on the generic presentation of Buddhism in popular magazines, books, and websites.

How do you understand the appeal of the Buddha for people with a Jesus-centered spiritual background?

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