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  • Buddha Loves Me! This I Know, for the Dharma Tells Me So
  • Donald K. Swearer

I intend no disrespect to either the Buddha or the Christ by my rewrite of Anna Bartlett Warner’s 1859 Sunday school song, “Jesus Loves Me.” That one might construct the Buddha in the image of a loving Jesus may be more startling or offensive to Buddhists (and also to Christians) than the modern, apologetic view of the Buddha as a rational renouncer. Versions of both can be textually justified; however, each is a reification that reflects the bias of the interpreter. Both ignore the complexity of the figure of the Buddha within the varied and diverse traditions of Buddhism. My starting point in the following essay acknowledges this complexity as well as the inevitable limitations of my personal interpretation of the Buddha, necessarily conditioned by my experience. I propose to structure the essay around two polarities—universal/particular and wisdom/compassion—looking first at the Buddha and then briefly reflecting dialogically at the end of each section on the figure of the Christ.

Buddha: Universal and Particular

In my personal experience in Buddhist Asia, especially Thailand, and my studies of Buddhist traditions, in particular the Theravada, I have been impressed by the creative tension between the universal and particular dimensions of the figure of the [End Page 113] Buddha. Even the modern Western view of the Buddha evidences this tension. Typically the word Buddha evokes the story of Prince Siddhattha’s renunciation of his royal status, subsequent quest for enlightenment, and eventual realization of nibbana. 1 In the hands of a comparative mythologist such as Joseph Campbell, the detailed embellishments of the Buddha’s sacred biography are absorbed into the tripartite, monomyth structure of the hero’s narrative—separation, attainment, return. For Campbell, the story of the historical Buddha, Siddhattha Gotama, represents a rite of passage, a deep psychological truth of self-discovery symbolized by other heroes in world mythology. Despite the antistructuralist critique by historical and textual scholars, as well as the feminist criticism that the heroic journey does not reflect women’s experience, in one form or another the Buddha reified as an exemplar of the universal paradigm of the individual’s journey of self-realization continues to capture the Western imagination.

A somewhat more sophisticated version of the universal hero motif is the Buddha as ‘rational renouncer,’ an interpretation favored by both Buddhists and scholars of Buddhism who portray the Buddha as an empiricist and pragmatist somewhat on the order of William James. In this view, Prince Siddhattha’s quest was a rational response to the experience of suffering, and the truth he perceived on the night of his enlightenment was nothing more nor less than a direct perception of the universal law of cause and effect obscured to ordinary awareness. De-emphasizing both the ascetical and devotional aspects of the Buddha’s sacred biography, the rational renouncer school of thought places its emphasis on epistemological transformation characterized in Buddhist texts as “seeing things as they really are.”

The Buddha as universal hero and as rational renouncer can be critiqued as modernized, rationalized, westernized reifications of the Buddha, an example of the ‘orientialist’ distortion that characterized the colonial project. Charles Hallisey has pointed out that such reconstructions of the Buddha were not merely the products of Western scholars but owed much to Asian Buddhists as well. 2 But are we to assume that throughout the history of Buddhism, similar hermeneutical moves and debates over the nature of the Buddha did not exist? I find a tension in the Buddhist tradition between two contrasting images of the Buddha: as an exemplar of a universal truth, and as a being defined by the contingencies of human particularities.

Theravada Buddhists find strong support in the sutta for a humanistic interpretation of the Buddha. In particular, they argue that the Buddha of the early Buddhist canonical texts specifically denied that he was a god, and that he was a teacher of the truth he perceived at his enlightenment. They find support for this view in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, wherein the Buddha tells his followers that when he dies the teaching and the disciplinary rules he...

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