- The Buddha
When I think of the Buddha, the subject of my scholarly study, the picture my mind produces is soft and blurred at the edges—out of focus but not in a way that makes it difficult to see or understand. It is more in the way a photography studio uses background and light to project the subject forward. The Buddha, in my mind’s eye, seems friendly, accessible. This Buddha, my Buddha, manages to combine great warmth and great mystery.
By contrast, when I think of Jesus, the object of my faith, I see clearly a well-defined personality. There is no portraiture here. It is more like a candid snapshot taken by a very good camera with plenty of natural light; a great photograph, a picture that produces a clear image, in my mind at least, of a person I know and understand. It is a picture of someone walking around Palestine doing great deeds, a father to my Buddha brother—and to me.
I love both the Buddha and Jesus. I have loved Jesus since early Sunday school days in Huntington, Indiana, at the Bible Baptist Church on Lake Street. I have loved the Buddha since I first began reading about him in graduate school at Northwestern University and listening to Walpola Rahula lecture about him in classes there. Both the Buddha and Jesus were great men, doing divine things that have changed the world for billions after them. The differences my mind produces are in the realm of qualities. I love them both, but I see them differently.
Why the differences? I suppose one reason is that they are different. Gautama Buddha lived in sixth-century B.C.E. India where he was the son of a king, chose a life of religious itinerancy, and died of food poisoning at eighty years of age. Jesus lived in Palestine in the first century C.E. where he was the son of a carpenter, chose a life of religious itinerancy, and was crucified by the Roman authorities after being convicted on a charge of political subversion.
They both chose a life of religious itinerancy, to be sure. But the meaning of each of those traveling lives has been the subject of great debate, both within and without their respective religious traditions. Disagreements abound. In fact, in one of those [End Page 105] odd quirks of human cantankerousness, the deeper one gets into each of the traditions, Buddhism and Christianity, the more diverse and passionate are the views about the Buddha and the Christ.
The diversity of views deep within each tradition can be stunning to the average Buddhist and Christian on the street, who tend to have a rather homogenized view of each other—kind of a standard life story that could be easily summarized in the pages and pictures of a comic book. But deep within the traditions, Buddhists argue about Buddha nature, Buddha veneration, and the role the Buddha plays in human liberation. Christians argue about Jesus’ divine and human status, his uniqueness, and the role he plays in human salvation. One good thing about all this disagreement: it makes my musings about the Buddha and Jesus pale in comparison.
Still, I would like to understand better. Why do I see the Buddha and Jesus differently?
Socialization and History
Surely the most important reason can be summarized in one word: socialization. I was raised to love Jesus, to believe in him. Here’s how I was raised to see Jesus: Jesus is God’s son, born to a woman named Mary and a man named Joseph. God sent Jesus to help human beings lost in a morass of bad deeds, psychological confusion, and social injustices. This melange of evil is so pervasive among human beings that solutions can only come from someone outside the system, willing to enter into the system and guide others out, both by what he says and by what he does—how he lives his life.
What Jesus said, what Jesus did, and who Jesus was—all are unique. Others of us can try to live like Jesus—indeed, we should. But none of us, not one, can...