In this paper I wish to compare and contrast two great religious figures, indeed founders of religions – whether that was their intention or not – who have had a profound effect on the world. I believe their different approaches, sometimes representing the creative tension of opposites, is of vital importance. I come to the task as a Christian, a minister within the Uniting Church in Australia. Having so declared myself, I have sought to give an even-handed treatment to the comparison of these figures before me. I cannot, of course, speak as a Buddhist and do not know that faith in the manner that an adherent does. I do, however, have a very sympathetic ear for that faith.
On the other hand, I am aware of how any confessional believer can so easily misunderstand their own faith given their enculturation within the tradition and self-interest in preserving it. This can often result in a blinkered approach which limits one’s ability to see the radical insights their faith founder is presenting to them. For me, this danger arises from a commitment to Christian faith. I could hazard a guess that like dangers lurk for those committed to Buddhism. Further to this preface, I must say that I have no intention to cause offence. If there be mistakes of understanding or interpretation, these I regret and I would ask for a response, given that this may be but the first statement in an ongoing interfaith dialogue.
Last, before we begin our task, we can only deal with the accounts of the Christ and the Buddha as they come to us. Thus I deliberately distinguish between the titles of faith later attached to them, and their original given names. Those titles are titles given by their followers and as such, colour the accounts they give to us.
The earliest account we have of Jesus’ life is that contained in the Gospel of Mark, written some 40 years after he passed away. Given that in Paul’s letters, written only 25 years after Jesus’s life, we can already see the Christ of faith strongly developed, as distinct from the Jesus of history, we need to appreciate that we can never find the actual Jesus with any real certainty. Such a premise must even more shape any understanding of the historical life of Siddhartha Gautama, as distinct from the Buddha of faith, for the earliest Buddhist texts come from at least 200-300 years after his life. We can only speak then with any certainty of both the Christ and the Buddha of faith. As to their real relation to their original historical forms, we can only try to surmise. When I use their original given names, we need remember that I am doing so when speaking of them in their ‘historical’ manifestations as they come to us through accounts coloured by their author’s faith, already seen by them as far more than mere historical figures. The real Jesus, the real Siddhartha Gautama, we can never know.
I wish to confine my task in this paper to that of understanding the ontology of the two figures of the Christ and the Buddha. Ontology has to do with the person, their self-understanding and the analysis of the human condition. I will therefore examine how they, as understood by their followers, viewed the human condition and what they prescribe in order that the human condition may become whole and complete. This, in the Christian tradition, is usually called ‘salvation’ while in the Buddhist tradition the word ‘enlightenment’ is most appropriate. I will largely leave aside, therefore, such things as the styles of worship, methods of meditation, their commonalities of ethics, and their understanding of religious life, only briefly returning to these things at the conclusion of this paper. They are derivative, after-all, from how their followers understand the ontology of the two figures. The task I have set myself in this essay, therefore, is to go to the very core of both Christian and Buddhist understanding. This search will, of course, avoid such simplistic, indeed sloppy, understandings whereby all religions are seen the same. Instead our study will show, hopefully in a non-judgmental manner, the wide differences in how Buddhism and Christianity understand the human condition at their very core. I will then seek to show that these opposed understandings held in creative tension, will assist us in the important task in moving forward as a human community. Such concern for praxis/practice rather than theory, should lie at the heart of any theological enquiry. Having laid down the groundwork and rationale, let us begin.
How do these two figures view and understand the human condition and what are their solutions for where that human condition essentially falls short? As I have already said, we will find a wide difference between the two views. This wide difference is not all of their own doing but is rather a product also of their different religious and cultural traditions both before and after their time. As we shall see, the East and the West offer a different diagnosis of the human condition and having done so, offer a different “cure” for its deficiencies. Despite these differences, and they may be said to be at opposite poles to each other, they often share the common mythological symbols found at the heart of cultures all around the world. Indeed it is precisely in how these figures use these shared symbols which most clearly makes evident their different ontological understandings. Let us start with these shared symbols and the different interpretations given to them by the two traditions.
I want us to commence our task with a tree. This may appear to be a strange place to begin but it is from such a place that we can start to understand both the Buddha and the Christ and the important things, both different and common, they are saying to us. The tree has a long tradition, both in the West the East, as being the ‘axis mundi’ or world centre. In looking at the tree I shall begin with the West, for it is the tradition I know best. There, the tree has represented both life and wisdom. As such, it represented something positive. Right back through time from the Sumerians and on through successor Mesopotamian cultures, such as the Assyrians and the Babylonians, the tree was central. Indeed the Assyrians have been called “the people mad about trees.” An example of a story involving trees which can be traced through these cultures is that of the Epic of Gilgamesh where the hero figure, Gilgamesh, in pursuing eternal life, must pass through many trials in order to achieve it. Finally he reaches eternal life, represented as a tree. On claiming it however, while he rests from his labours, he loses it, stolen by another creature and that creature being the snake! To that creature we will return in a moment. In the Old Testament or Hebrew Scriptures, the axis mundi tree of wisdom and of life is separated into two, the tree of wisdom, of which Adam and Eve partake, and the tree of life. These trees lie at the centre of a garden from which four rivers run to the ends of the earth. This place, given the older mythology this story draws on, is almost certainly Babylon – we are all familiar with the hanging gardens of Babylon.
In the garden, human beings are living in a style of blissful ignorance, unaware of right or wrong, existing in a state of primal innocence, lacking the necessary wisdom to make such distinctions. This is about to change with the snake’s entrance. This creature has a long mythological importance right across the world, with myths having arisen independently in such unconnected cultures as the Ancient Near East, South East Asia, Central America and Australia among others. Historically, the snake has been associated with that wisdom that gives eternal life. The snake apparently has that capacity given that it can shed its skin when old and be born “anew”. It is not as if the ancients were silly enough to take this literally. It is the symbol or metaphor that counts. Only we in the modern age are foolish enough to take symbol and metaphor literally in religious discourse!
The serpent enters the garden to tell these human beings how they, too, can acquire such wisdom. They need but eat of that tree forbidden them, the tree of wisdom. The patriarchal nature of the society ensures that it is Eve who first succumbs to the serpent’s temptation. That patriarchal bias, of course, has already been established with Eve, the woman, being born out of Adam, in direct contradiction to the biological reality whereby it is woman who gives birth to man. Eve in turn, tempts Adam. The effect of succumbing to this temptation is immediately deleterious. Understanding their nakedness before God, and in the older Jewish tradition this speaks of both the recognition of their existential insignificance along with their moral nakedness, rather than physical nakedness, the latter only becoming the Christian interpretation in the 4th century under the anti-material/body influence of Neo-Platonism, they seek to hide. Understood from the Old Testament/Hebrew Scripture’s viewpoint they have done the wrong thing in grasping at those things which properly belong only to God. God alone is the Lord of life and the font of wisdom and it is not the place of human beings to possess these attributes. Having gained wisdom on their own terms, God, fearful that they likewise will obtain on those same terms, eternal life, drives them from the garden. Thus the serpent is viewed negatively in the West. It symbolises the acquisition of knowledge on one’s own terms rather than those of God. (1) Thus in the Genesis story the snake is punished by having to slide on its stomach. Likewise the tree will be viewed negatively throughout the Hebrew Scriptures where those in Israel are warned against worship of what is usually translated as the ‘grove of trees.’
In the Jewish tradition, in contrast to the idea that one can grasp hold of God through wisdom or knowledge on one’s own terms, or earn God’s choice, that choice is something which is seen as entirely a thing of grace. Israel does nothing, indeed can do nothing, to earn the right to be the people through whom God will work the divine plan for the world. God instead gracefully chooses Israel, that grace continually being present right through its history. Even when that history turns bad, as it often does, God is understood as being present, chastising God’s people as a parent to an errant child, before again restoring them.
Let us move forward now to Christ. At the commencement of his ministry he is subjected to temptation during forty days spent in the desert. The temptations he suffers there are like those first presented to Adam and Eve, the claiming of those powers, properly belonging only to God, on one’s own terms – to turn stones to bread, to leap from the parapet of the Temple with angels miraculously saving him, and to control by power the kingdoms of the world (Matthew 4: 1-11). These would surely show his being like God as divinity. Unlike his predecessors, he successfully resists these temptations. Right through his life Jesus is subject to those same type of temptations, a use of power and might which would prove his divine wisdom and power, but on his own terms. Indeed behind all these temptations to such use of power, evil, as concretised in the figure of the Devil, is seen.
Thus when so likewise tempted by Peter he exclaims ‘Get behind me Satan (Mark 8:33). That temptation continues for him even until the point of his death where he is challenged tauntingly to perform a miracle by miraculously coming down off the cross. In that crucifixion scene of course, we have, as in the garden, the tree and the human being, with that human being here, as were those of old, subjected to the temptation to grasp at divinity, in this instance as just said, by miraculously coming down off the cross. While the snake is absent in the actual gospel accounts, it is interesting to note that this creature is often found in depictions of the crucifixion, usually around the base of the cross, often crushed and defeated, for Christ on the cross is seen as overcoming evil, as represented by the serpent. The tree/cross rather than being the tree of wisdom where one seeks to grasp eternal life by one’s own terms and efforts is transformed to be that tree where life is given graciously in a manner at odds with human wisdom. What wisdom after-all could ever contemplate God, fully present in Jesus, being executed? What is being said in the Christian story is that Christ, who is both life and wisdom, overcomes evil and provides for us, out of grace alone, that wisdom and life which we could otherwise never have of our own effort. True wisdom and life lies beyond our capacity. It must come as a gift of God in the gift of God-self (2) as Christ on the cross. Christ, often identified as the second Adam, succeeds where the former Adam fails. In defence of Adam it could be argued that Christ was of a different order ontologically (to do with his essential person-hood), being in Christian belief divine a part of the Trinity from the beginning of creation, as well as human. Still, Christian faith affirms that despite this, it was not any easier for Christ to overcome temptation, for being fully human, ‘he was tempted in every way as are we’ (Hebrews 4:15). Christ, through his life of perfect wisdom and obedience lived to God, brings humanity to God by fully realising the human potential to live before God. To those who wish to avail themselves of this grace, they, too are forgiven their wrongdoing, something they could never do of their own volition and appear pure before God.
The temptation for Christ is to claim the God role as classically understood, the temptation to power. By grasping this role he would negate the need to suffer. Christ, however, never grasps this right to divinity, unlike human beings, who, as represented by Adam and Eve demanded divinity with its wisdom and eternal life, on their own terms, this not being theirs by right, however.
Both Judaism and Christianity, and then later Islam, are religions of grace. Salvation comes from outside, from God, as grace. Of course, in Judaism and Islam, grace comes directly from God with no intermediary figure needed, while in Christianity, it is given through Christ, who, in order to so offer it, must be understood as fully God, but in enfleshed form. In these three Western religions, one’s own efforts are never enough, always leaving one short and needing to depend on the gracefulness of God. The transcendence of God in these three religions is associated with this. God is understood in terms so transcendent that one could never, through human effort, reach the divine. Both Judaism and Islam go to great lengths in order to show this. In Judaism, the divine name is never uttered nor the divine imaged, while in Islam, not only is the divine never imaged but neither is the human figure, as made in the image of God/Allah. This tendency is less strong in Christianity, especially after the influence of Protestantism.
Let us now turn to the East and the Buddha. Here, likewise, we find the symbols of tree, snake and human being, along with temptation. As in the West, so in the East, the symbols of tree and serpent have a long and significant history. The tree acts in a similar manner as as axis mundi but the serpent is viewed, as in the older universal tradition, as being a positive force. In the Buddhist tradition Siddhartha Gautama sits under the tree in a determined effort to find knowledge, understood as wisdom, which will free him from the suffering (“dukka”) brought about because of wrong perception. This misconception relates to the inability to understand the absence of the self (“anatta”) and a belief in the permanence of things (“anicca”). In the East, the Buddha’s meditative turning-within to seek wisdom is an entirely appropriate thing to do. Knowledge, the true understanding of reality, which is salvation, is found from the journey within. It comes to those who pursue that task. This is contrary to the view of the West where, as we have seen, salvation is a gift which comes from outside. In the Buddha story we also have the demonic figure, here called “Maya”. Maya is unreality, the representation of all those material and other things we perceive as real, but which are not. This blindness to reality, indeed this craving for those things which are, ultimately, unreal, is the basis of our suffering. In this framework, Maya, then, has no real substance. Rather, it represents the internal turmoil in Siddhartha Gautama’s mind in this meditative watch, whereas the temptation for Jesus in his encounter with the Devil in the desert was to power, wisdom on one’s own terms. The temptation for Gautama is one of wrong perception.
The serpent, viewed positively in the East as the symbol of the wisdom, which Siddhartha Gautama is seeking, comes to assist him in this journey by offering protection from the rising waters by wrapping itself around Siddhartha seven times so can be raised above the water on his journey to Buddha-hood as well as unfurling his cobra’s head to protect him from the rains. Both the number seven and the primeval waters as symbols of chaos have strong mythological meaning in both the East and West.
It is interesting to compare the temptation of the Buddha with that of Jesus. While the Buddha’s temptation is to perceive things of unreality as reality, the temptations that assail Jesus are more about ethics. They have to do with the temptation to power, especially that of charismatic political power which can be used to secure what seems to be a legitimate end, but which uses means so at odds with the ends, they would make them impossible. Western religion has this socio-political concern at its centre . Sin (literally meaning missing the target, a term also used by some Buddhists), is to live corporately unjustly, while for a Buddhist, “missing the target” is the result of misconceiving. Correct mindfulness (“Vipassana”) rather than political action, lies at the heart of Buddhism. This is not to suggest of course that Buddhists do not take political action as something arising out of their right mindfulness.
The different temptations as they present themselves to Buddha and Christ speak cogently of the two very different natures of the two religions. Western religion, indeed Western thought, including Christianity, understands itself in a linear manner. Time has a beginning and an end, or eschaton. This idea of a golden age, that at the beginning of time seen as a time of innocence, that at the end, as perfect culmination, is widespread through western myth. One’s actions are shaped by the vision of the end, understood as a coming perfection. That eschaton is elegantly presented in the Greek Scriptures or New Testament (3) in the last two chapters of the book of Revelation with the city of precious stones descending down from heaven to earth, a time of no more night, a time of plenty with crops harvested monthly and all in harmony and well-being (Revelation 21-22). In Western thought a hero is usually involved in the struggle to overcome evil in order to bring about that good. The Gilgamesh story, referred to earlier, is one such example. Like Gilgamesh these heroes are usually warriors. This is all a classically male outlook and attitude to the world connected to the solar reality, the latter having a linear aspect in that daily it has a beginning and end, while also having a brilliance which shows up both good and dark deeds. Within Christianity Christ is viewed as the hero figure. He, of course, is not the classic warrior figure, instead fighting his battle on a different plane. Nonetheless fight he does, against the greatest adversary, Satan, understood properly metaphorically as the temptation to power on any terms, even when those terms promise the good end.
Understood in its proper manner, so comprehensive is Christ’s victory over these temptations, the end or eschaton is believed to have already begun in him, though it will not be complete till the final end itself. Christ with his commitment to the underside of history, as he joins the suffering experienced there, is where that eschaton begins. The resurrection comes as the first vindication of his way and represents the first sign of that eschaton. Christ’s action then is the decisive movement toward the reign of God, that reign of justice and peace, the true reconciliation and harmony of all things.
As we have seen this linear understanding lies at the heart of Western thought and religion. The vision of the coming eschaton however has its negative side. Is not this forcing of the Kingdom of God, with the sure conviction that any means are permissible in order to bring it, the very temptation which threatens the West so strongly today? Think of both Christian and Islamic fundamentalisms! Politics likewise is framed around this same temptation to power even for the supposedly good end. The true lesson to be drawn from Christ event is that the reign of God does not come in some manner where a project of self-interest using any means of power, is given divine sanction by the invocation of Christ’s name, but rather comes through the one suffering and broken on the underside of history. In Christ there is then found a radically judgment cast on our manner of politics, including, or perhaps especially including, that carried out in his name, as well as a challenge to cast our lot with those on the underside of history rather than with those who write it.
The cosmology of the East, on the other hand, is cyclical. Rather than having a beginning and being oriented to an end, time moves in an ever-ongoing cycle. While in the West the divine is ultimately found at the eschaton, in the East the divine is found in the constant eternal which sits behind the passing present. The divine meaning is found by penetrating behind that which is apparently real to that which is essentially real. This cyclical view is much more connected to the female and to the lunar, these symbols being used in that both experience a monthly cyclical reality. This same view informs most of the world’s indigenous philosophies or mythologies. One penetrates to the divine, eschewing means of action by instead turning inwards in understanding as given in meditation. The wisdom so gained allows one to see through the unreality immediately present to the senses, to that which is essentially real, non-sensible to the world.
To the West the East points to the ever recurring unchanging cycle of reality which makes the efforts of western heroes and such useless. Thus does the great mythologist Joseph Campbell speak of that ever ongoing cycle of the East licking up the dust of heroes. To the external world the East essentially takes an attitude largely of indifference. Certainly within Buddhism one is called to compassion (karuna) but that compassion is only one of the parts of that great eightfold path which leads to self enlightenment. It is derivative from the central essential truth that one should not be preoccupied with that around them for essentially it is maya. Thus within the Theravadan tradition particularly this individual path is followed, as a monk, one having left society, to the exclusion of all else, in devotion to this task. This lack of corporate concern with the world, finds a corrective in the broader view of the later Mahayanan tradition, especially in the concept of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva is that enlightened one who having achieved release to nirvana chooses instead to remain upon earth so as to impart the saving message. Such a figure accumulates extra merit this being able to be passed to others for their salvation. This as grace is similar to that of the Christ whose merit is able to be passed to all others for salvation.
The different cosmologies are picked up in the placements of the eschatological moment. For the Christian, as earlier pointed out, that comes at the end of time with the descent of the city ofJerusalemand the resultant harmony in nature which it brings. Within Buddhism the great eschatological moment occurs with its celebration of nature’s harmony comes with the Buddha’s enlightenment, in which celebration all of creation shares. The eschaton rather than being at the universal end, when all the physical order is brought into harmony in justice and peace, comes at any moment when an individual finds enlightenment by leaving the world as maya behind.
Given their differing understandings of the divine the contrasting religions thus offer different methods of communicating with that divine. As just stated at the heart of the Buddhist form is meditation whereby one finds the real essence behind the ever-changing illusion. This is essentially non-relational in that it deals with the ground of one’s being. Thus one turns inwards in such practice. At the heart of Christian devotion, on the other hand, is prayer, particularly that form known as intercessory prayer, a prayer of relation, whereby one petitions God to change the external world. The prayer of Jesus, called the Lord’s Prayer, is a classic case in point.
In passing it may be said that in Western philosophical terms the tension between the East and the West is that found in that contrast between two western figures, Plato, where reality is other-worldly, and Aristotle where things progress toward reality or the eschaton. With its concern for the world and in seeking to progress that world it is little wonder that science, for better and for worse, arises in the West. Likewise, the great political movements, capitalism and Marxism, for example, with their belief in progress, may be seen as a secular versions of the old eschatological vision.
Thus far we have been exploring contrasts between Buddhism and Christianity. We have found that their cosmologies in their sense of time, their placement of the ideal, their means of obtaining that ideal and the thing central to the human condition which causes us to miss that ideal, are radically different. Given their contrasts does this mean one must be held to the exclusion of the other in that one is right and the other wrong? I do not believe so. Rather these differences, I believe, are best held in creative tension, rather than in the exclusion of one or the other, or in being simplistically explained away in an attempt at homogenisation. Held correctly in tension they can lead us to a deeper dimension of the truth, that deep truth of the human condition and its needs.
Each faith with its differing emphases represents our deep human needs at different stages of the human journey. This is why in each of the two religious traditions we are examining each finds a corrective. An example is that tension between, grace, whereby salvation is given from outside, and self-effort, whereby the same is found from within. The partial nature of each solution is seen in that each of the traditions develops the other side in order to bring itself to completion. Thus Theravadan Buddhism with its strong emphasis on effort finds a necessary corrective in Mahayanan schools of grace. Avalokitesvara in these schools becomes the great symbol of compassion extending grace to those who call upon him. In the PureLandSchool, where grace is most predominant, the mere calling upon the name of Nama Amida Butsu allows one to gracefully receive salvation. Elsewhere the reading in good faith of one verse of the Lotus Sutra, is able to bring one salvation. The Lotus Sutra, literally the Lotus of the Good Law is understood as grace replacing the old law in much the same manner as Christians understand a new testament of grace replacing that of an old testament of law. Such developments within Buddhism bring it very near to the heart of Christianity, which begins as a grace-filled religion where calling upon the name of Christ brings one saving grace.
Likewise Christianity being so centred on grace, over time finds a corrective in the need for effort, for works. The letter of James is a very early case in point where it is seen that, ‘faith without works is dead’ (James 2: 18-20). Here works/effort is seen in terms of ethics, the caring for and sharing with the poor. This of course moves beyond concern for the neighbour’s welfare into the directly political option which lies at the heart of Christianity and its two western relatives; Judaism and Islam.
A further dimension, however, of effort enters into the faith, the need for the attaining of wisdom, the reception of this being the ‘working out of one’s salvation’ (Philippians 2:12). This emphasis is clear in the non-canonical Gospel of Thomas, the dating of which is controversial, but which is held by some significant scholars to be earlier than the gospels accepted into the Christian Scriptures. To read this gospel is almost to think that one is reading a Buddhist text! Here one through turning inwards in self-effort in seeking wisdom, following the like action of the Christ, finds salvation. ’If you bring forth that which you have within you, what you have will save you’ (Gospel of Thomas, Saying 70). In this gospel Christ rather than giving salvation shows the way for the individual to find their own salvation. Again within the early development of Christianity further dimensions on self effort come with the need to stand firm in faith against those who would persecute believers. Thus those martyred were believed to have been lifted to a higher way. Later, when Christianity was legalised and then became the popular folk religion with martyrdom no longer an option, those seeking a higher way through self effort retreated to the desert where they endured a self-inflicted martyrdom through their own strenuous spiritual discipline. That led to the continued self sought higher way with the development of the monastic movement. These forms of Christianity centred on meditative prayer and contemplation not too dissimilar to that of the Buddhist sangha (monastic community).
As said earlier these two different faiths then, with their different emphases are best left then in creative tension rather than in any attempt to harmonise them or to dismiss in a simplistic manner any differences between them. Though their outcomes in terms of behaviour and ethics may often be similar we need acknowledge the essential tension between each of the faiths’ prime emphasis for it these emphases at the heart of each religion which speak each in different ways to our deep human need. This is, as we have seen, very clear in this grace/self-effort works dichotomy of which we are speaking.
How might this work? There are times for all of us, and situations for some people perhaps always, where there is a need to receive a message of grace. Salvation in such instances needs to be a given, not demanding strenuous effort and discipline. In the brokenness we all share from time to time, and which some in particular always seem to experience, let there be received in the place of brokenness a message of grace, that message which lies at the heart of the Christian message. In such cases we find what a number of Christian theologians have called, ‘God’s option to the poor.’ Yet we know that grace received into the wrong hands can be a self-serving justification for all manner of things. It was the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who in those years the German church was giving justification to the Nazi regime, spoke of ‘cheap grace’ and the call for a ‘costly discipleship.’ In such cases Christians need balance their faith in Christ with their sharing the faith held by Jesus himself. Thus the graceful action of God in Christ giving salvation needs to be counterbalanced with the faith of Jesus with its central tenet the work of the justice and peace implicit in the reign of God. For Christians when cheap grace too abounds there is a need perhaps to take cognisance of that which lies at the centre of Buddha’s message, a faith commitment that radically changes one’s whole orientation. This message of demand we all need to hear at points in our lives. Perhaps some need to almost exclusively hear that message of demand, for true spiritual effort. This would be especially so for those whose manner of oppressive living is all too easily justified by them by appeals to religious grace alone. Such spiritual effort as prescribed by the Buddha with its radical questioning of the world and even the call to leave it will preclude such comfortable accommodation, in the name of grace, of faith with the world. I would hazard a guess that some Buddhists who easily lapse into a grace justification of their lives likewise once again need to hear their founder’s radical demand.
Another great tension brought out in the comparison of the two faiths is that centred round what I will call history/politics, the linear; and the circular ecological. As earlier stated, Christianity is essentially political. It draws on the Jewish story of the Exodus, the journey from slavery to freedom. The beginning point for that journey comes in Moses’ experience of God in the burning bush (Exodus 3). On asking God’s name Moses is given the reply ‘I am who I am’ or ‘I am what I am becoming.’ As a name this makes no sense deliberately so for God is not to understood in such a static manner as having a name, and it important to remember that names as definitions of personality were essentially important in the Ancient Near East, but by what God is becoming in God’s actions in history. Thus the account follows where God promises to liberate the enslaved people. Christian faith understands Jesus as bringing about a new exodus, one which even triumphs over the greatest captivity, that of death itself. This liberation thus moves to also include the metaphysical sphere but in so doing it never leaves the political sphere behind. Thus his preaching and enacting through his miracles the signs of what he calls, ‘the kingdom of God.’ That Jesus in preaching and enacting his exodus message is essentially political is clearly seen in that the empire crucifies him as a rebel, by means of crucifixion, a punishment so reserved for such political figures. Jesus in such actions as his desert sojourn, his giving of the new law on the mount and baptism in the Jordan identifies himself with the Moses/Joshua Exodus tradition. That earlier tradition was, of course, centred on the escape from the Egyptian bondage, the passing through the desert to freedom, the reception of the liberating Law on the mountain and the crossing through the Jordan to liberation. Jesus parallels all these events.
This political message centred on liberation is essential in our world today. We need ‘heroes’ such as Jesus who, even at the cost of their lives, strive mightily against injustice and wrong. This concern for the right was shaped by his commitment to what he called the Kingdom of God. This essentially is, as pointed out earlier, the bringing of all things into right relationship, with each other and with God. The Kingdom necessitates change to the status quo. When this is change toward the right values this may be called progress, at best liberation.
History, however, shows us that this ‘progress’ has often become absolute in its own right, justifying all manner of things, with little relation to the good. Such progress used for its own ends, or even for oppressive ends, has brought us not only evil religio-political systems, promising the ideal often associated with messianism, but also with disastrous ecological ends. We need therefore always to temper our concern for progress and the human condition with the wisdom inherent in Buddhism and its practices, such as meditation, which enable us to see to the heart of that being promised, and with a holism that embraces ecology. Buddhism reminds us of the essential folly of progress, indeed the unreality of that which we are so often concerned to exploit for our own ends. We must not however, allow this to become an excuse for passivity. The idea that the real lies behind and beyond the external world in another place has the propensity to make us too accommodating to the evil of the world.
How do we face a world rife with injustice? There are times when we need blessed rage. With the Christ we need to throw ourselves against the great de-humanising forces of history. Like him we need enter the world of those being crucified daily. Jesus’ life and death stand as the great protest against those forces of wrong. The Buddha shows us a different way, a way of equanimity beyond the vicissitudes of the world. Without the clear headedness and clarity of mind associated with such practices as meditation we all too easily act politically in a reactive way only fuelled by an anger that never gets us anywhere. Further we are likely to take on the oppressor’s methods in opposing them. I have earlier spoken of the dangers of that sort of political agenda. The classic symbols of the two religions, the young man Christ crying in anguish against injustice upon the cross, and the Buddha growing old in meditation need again to be held in creative tension.
Another interesting point of comparison between the Buddha and the Christ is where they actually share something in common. Both Buddha and Christ are unable to be contained within the categories of the faith into which they were born. Jesus was born, lived as, and died a Jew. It became quite clear to many of his early followers however, that his message could no longer be contained in the old framework. This was because Jesus’ message was such a protest against aspects which had corrupted that faith tradition. That protest was directed at two things which lay at the heart of Judaism as he experienced it practiced. Thus he protested against his faith’s exclusivist tendencies as expressed in such edifices as theTemplewith its hierarchical order of courtyards which served to exclude or marginalise women and Gentiles. Likewise he opposed the aspects of the letter as well as the practice of the Law, when he viewed them as weighing heavily on the poor who, because of their economic situation, were unable to adhere to its demands. His rejection of these things led his early followers, almost all of them Jewish, to see themselves first as a reform movement within their Jewish faith tradition before, with increasing tensions between them and the more traditional schools of Judaism, they were excluded from the synagogue in the last years of the first century (4). The followers of Jesus then became increasingly Gentile as the divide between their faith, which had become known as Christianity, and Judaism became greater. Philosophical differences developed over time which made it even less possible for this new tradition to fit into the framework of the old. An increasing emphasis on the person of Christ and his divinization were prime in this. The associated idea of the Trinity was another such development.
Siddhartha Gautama, like Jesus, was born into a faith tradition. He, upon his enlightenment, was to reject much of that tradition. Like Jesus he protested against points of that tradition, which to him were obnoxious in that they were repressive. The clearest case in point is his rejection of the caste system. With right diagnosis of one’s problem and by right means to cure it, salvation was open to anybody. None were to be seen as a lesser class, less able to attain this. He, himself, was not a member of the religious Brahmin class but rather a member of the warrior, therefore government class, the Ksatriya. Likewise as in the case of Christianity, Buddhism also developed philosophical differences which meant that it couldn’t be contained within the old religion. Its unorthodox understandings of karma and impermanence are prime instances which led in time to a wider differentiation with its mother faith, Hinduism.
As such, both the Christ and the Buddha offer a crucial critique of all religious traditions, including those named after them, and their propensity to stagnate. To those who look for religious certainties they give little comfort. Indeed a more radical interpretation would place both figures outside even of what we call religion, that term being derived from the Latin ‘to link.’ In their teachings both Buddha and Christ offer a radical critique of religion understood as such linking of the society together in service of the status-quo. Little wonder such radical views exist that interpret both figures as secular protests against their religious traditions. Thus within Zen Buddhism we have the sentiment, ‘if you see the Buddha on the road kill him’ while the Jesus scholar Dominic Crossan charges that of Jesus, we ‘have turned the iconoclast into an icon.’ The iconoclastic tendencies of both Jesus and Gautama represent something we can all draw a lesson from when we become too comfortable in our religious systems.
We still need to be open to the founder’s radicalism. A particular case in point is that relating to women. Both the Buddhist and Christian histories are hardly edifying on this matter. The majority of forms of practice in both religions still place women in a second class category. Numerous gospel stories attest to Jesus’ radically different treatment of women from the culture around him, while the Buddha welcomed his step-mother into the sangha. Unfortunately both these breakthroughs were negated by those who latter who would come in their name and inequality of the sexes is still a pervasive practice in both Buddhism and Christianity today.
Another area in which the founder’s radicalism still issues a challenge to us is in their treatment of the poor. Jesus has a particular concern for the poor. Born in a poor family he preaches and enacts the ‘kingdom of God’, that which is good news to the poor, and finally is even crucified by those for whom it represented a threat, for that stance. Siddhartha Gautama, despite the advantages his birth in a princely family brought him, in the most radical manner rejected the hierarchy of his society as represented by the caste system. His call to ‘karuna’ (compassion) leaves no room for any such discrimination as represented by that system. Indeed it is surely the recognition of the depth of compassion which he had and the fear of his turning his back on the princely role to which he was born if he saw the pain of the world, which lie behind the stories of him being sheltered in the palace and not allowed to explore beyond its walls even up to his adulthood.
Modern forms of both Buddhism and Christianity need again be awakened to their founder’s religious impulse. Forms of Buddhism with their materialism, such as the Sokka Gakkhai sect in Japan and practices associated with the Dharma Paya shrine in Bangkok seem to be a long way removed from the Buddha’s original precepts while the vision of a statue of the Buddha 150 metres high, built in Bodh Gaya, the place of the Buddha’s enlightenment, to last 1,000 years seems to fly directly in the face of Buddhist impermanence. Christianity likewise has been infected in its modern forms. Theologies built around a ‘prosperity gospel’ seem to have little to do with the one who spoke of ‘foxes having holes and birds of the air having nests, but he himself having nowhere to rest his head’ (Matthew 8:20). The increasing co-option of the Christian gospel by right wing politics in service of the wealthy likewise would seem to stand at odds with the one who sided so with the poor and was found on the underside of history.
The ways of the Buddha and the Christ each in a different manner speak to us of our deep human needs, sometimes casting harsh judgment on how we understand our reality. They each do so, sometimes in very different ways. Their very different use of primal mythological images attests to these differences. They cannot be simply harmonised nor should one be chosen over the other by total exclusion of that other. Rather, they need be held in creative tension with each other, each drawing lessons from what is often its opposite. In the bringing together of such opposites, and in the recognition of where they hold commonalities, we will be well served by our recognition of what both the Buddha and the Christ bring to us.
Rev John Queripel has ministered widely in the Uniting Church in Australia in both urban and rural settings and as a university and prison chaplain. Currently he is minister at the Chapel by the Sea, Bondi Beach in Sydney and chairman of the ACT/NSW Synod Relations With Other Faiths Committee and NSW Council of Christians and Jews for the Uniting Church of Australia.
(1) Earlier in the West the snake had a long history being viewed positively as a symbol of wisdom/life. This positive view manages to survive in the Hebrew Scriptures with the account of Moses making the bronze snake which has miraculous curative powers. That symbol of the snake entwined around a pole is still with us as representative of medical practitioners.
(2) This method of speaking is preferable to identifying God as ‘he’ or ‘him’ for one of the real geniuses of Jewish religion is the refusal to objectify God in any ontological manner i.e. to do with essential being, including that of gender.
(3) It has increasingly become the practice of referring to the Christian Scriptures as including the Hebrew and the Greek scriptures thereby avoiding the pejorative term, “Old Testament”, which can be seen as offensive to those of the Jewish faith.
(4) In contrasting Jesus to his faith tradition, Judaism, we need to take care not to slip into the trap of painting that tradition negatively so that Jesus stands out positively as one who abrogates it in the name of liberation and freedom. Often Christians see Jesus bringing grace as opposed to the cold legalism of the Jewish Law. This is unsatisfactory, for as pointed out earlier, the Jewish people understood their faith, including the Law, as something God had given them in grace. Jesus lived and died a Jew and was regular in his attendance at the Temple and synagogue. Having said that, it is clear that Jesus stands as a radical in his tradition, his radical stance evident early in his ministry when he said that new wine can’t be contained in old wine bags. (Matthew 9:17).