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  • This Buddhist’s View of Jesus
  • Rita M. Gross

The topic 1 of developing a Buddhist view of Jesus is challenging to me on many levels, for many reasons. Not the least of them involves my own unhappy childhood and young adulthood being trained as a member of a version of Christianity that expressed an extremely exclusivist position regarding religious pluralism. Nevertheless, I have long practiced Buddhist-Christian dialogue as a Buddhist, in part as an antidote to that unhappy past, as a deliberate attempt to heal the wounds inflicted on me by an exclusivist and doctrinaire version of Christianity. So why does this task of developing a Buddhist view of Jesus remain difficult?

In part this task is difficult because it is unfamiliar. In my world religions classes, I routinely present Jewish views of Jesus, but there is little reason to discuss Jesus in the perspectives of other major religions and I have almost never broached the topic. In my feminist theology classes, I again discuss feminist reactions to Jesus, but there is little reason to present a feminist Buddhist perspective on Jesus. Little Buddhist literature about Buddhist reactions to Jesus and few Buddhist assessments of Christianity exist, though the reverse is not true, 2 which perhaps indicates that fellow Buddhists have also felt little need to develop a reaction to or a position about Jesus. But it is also difficult because in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, we often discuss more abstract and less troublesome topics than the traditional Christian evaluation of Jesus, with its undeniably exclusivistic and universal truth claims. Thus, in many ways, I have been able to keep a distance between my own experiences of Christianity and my own experiences of Buddhism. Encountering Christians in Buddhist-Christian dialogue and teaching Christian feminist theology are really much simpler than trying to untangle my own Buddhist reactions to central Christian claims, including especially claims about the ultimate and universal significance of Jesus.

Nevertheless, it is clear that my task in this essay is to react to Jesus as a Buddhist, something I have not done formally in any other context. Therefore, I have proceeded with the assumption that my task is to find the relevant Buddhist categories for interpreting Jesus in Buddhist terms, to delineate them briefly to non-Buddhists, and then to apply them to Jesus or to Christian claims about Jesus. This assignment is not as innocent or as easy as it seems at first reading. The first difficulty is determining who or what one is reacting to in the exercise of developing a Buddhist view of Jesus. Depending on who or what one understands Jesus to be, or depending on which Christian claims about Jesus one comments upon, a Buddhist could have radically different views about Jesus. So clearly, the first task in developing a Buddhist view of Jesus is to determine which Jesus will be discussed. Then, secondly, it is difficult but important to maintain the primary focus as a Buddhist focus, using Buddhist rather than Christian categories to control the discourse. I say this because [End Page 62] much of the literature seems to compare Buddhism to Christianity, placing Christianity and Christian categories in central focus and matching concepts from the Christian point of view. I want to match concepts with Buddhist categories as my central reference point, fitting the Christian Jesus into a Buddhist framework.

How should I, as a Buddhist, determine what is meant by the Christian category Jesus? As is evidenced by the radically different images of Jesus in popular Christianity, by much recent scholarship on the Gospels, and by a diverse body of Christological writings, Christians themselves would be hard pressed to give a definitive or a short answer to the question “Just who or what am I supposed to be discussing from a Buddhist point of view?” Am I to talk of the historical Jesus, of the Jesus of the Gospels, of the Jesus of the early church, or of Jesus as understood through central theological doctrines, such as Trinity and Incarnation, which are actually much later in their genesis? My assignment, which is to discuss “the Jesus of Christianity,” 3 does not really solve that problem, since there...

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