- Buddhism and Christianity: The Meeting Place
Unquestionably one of the most intriguing documents unearthed in that explosive discovery at Nag Hammadi fifty years ago is The Gospel According to Thomas. It is exciting on many levels, and for Christians it constitutes both a boon and a challenge.
As a ‘sayings collection,’ Thomas purports to offer us the oral teachings of Jesus. Thus it is a godsend not only for Christians but for anyone in the world interested in what Jesus may have actually said.
One might expect, however, that a Christian living today, who is imbued with the more traditional or orthodox understanding of what Christianity is all about, would find Thomas challenging. Jesus is presented differently and—equally important—so is his message. But it is not the case that this message is absent in the canonical gospels, only obscured. What Thomas essentially holds is present in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John; but what is highlighted in Thomas is overshadowed in the others by narrative material. Still, if the canonical gospels are bearers of ‘good news,’ then what Thomas heralds is even ‘better news.’
What is more is that the Gospel of Thomas must strike Buddhists as remarkable. Christianity is usually presented as centering on Christ (“The whole of Christianity hangs on these words: Christ is God”), 1 and not only discussion but interfaith dialogue almost invariably, from the Christian side, revolve around doctrine. But the focus in Thomas is not at all incompatible with Buddhism, at least as Zen portrays it, as will be shown. Indeed, paradoxically, Thomas—though an ancient Christian text—could conceivably make more sense to modern Zen philosophers than to contemporary Christian theologians.
There is something else. John Cobb, engaging in dialogue with the Zen philosopher Masao Abe, has written: “Abe rightly points out that in Christianity there has been a problem about human reason, because it can come into conflict with divine revelation. He notes that Buddhism is free of this problem. Indeed, one of the attractions of Buddhism to Christians and to Westerners generally is that Buddhists seem quite free from the need to defend doubtful doctrines, because of their divinely grounded authority. One of the things Christians have most to gain through dialogue with Buddhists is a similar freedom.” 2 [End Page 19]
Cobb’s point here is not insignificant. ‘Doubtful doctrines’ might not at all serve as the healthiest foundation for a spiritual life; and relying on them, taking refuge in them, can easily tend to ensnare rather than liberate the spirit. Many psychologists have pointed this out. For one thing, psychologists decry complacency, which some doctrines can help to foster. Thus, although psychology understands full well the need to develop our psycho-spiritual health on the one hand, it is often critical of religion and how it is practiced on the other.
In this paper I intend to examine the Gospel of Thomas in the light of Zen Buddhism. There are three general but crucial areas concerning which Zen philosophers are unmistakably clear and absolutely adamant; and although in these areas Buddhism poses a stark contrast to orthodox Christianity, this is not the case when it comes to Thomas. Instead, Thomas appears to line up right beside Zen on these matters. What is more is that, standing together, Zen and Thomas would not only escape the criticism of modern psychology; they would join in leveling some of the same objections.
Thus it seems to me that, while Buddhists would naturally find Thomas a most welcome and interesting document, Christians, could they only bracket the ancient doctrines with which they have been inoculated, would also discover a rich and refreshing version of the Christian message. Indeed, although jolting at first, it might be that Thomas offers a more pertinent, more realistic, and more reasonable presentation than do the canonical gospels themselves.
Before proceeding it might be worthwhile, in the light of recent scholarship, to generally locate Thomas within the Christian framework. Clearly not orthodox, Thomas was at first assumed to be Gnostic; but that initial appraisal has turned out to be too quick and too casual, and now it is no longer widely held at all...