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  • A Christian’s Appreciation of the Buddha
  • Bonnie Thurston

Es gibt, so glaube ich, in der Tat jenes Ding nicht, das wir >Lernen< nennen.

—Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

I must warn you at the beginning that what follows is an embarrassingly personal reflection—a confession even—and not a scholarly essay. I cannot be dispassionate about the Buddha, to whom in a roundabout way I owe both my status as an ordained Christian minister and perhaps the greatest joy of my life, the study and practice of the Christian scripture. How? In February 1970 I was given a copy of Hesse’s novel Siddhartha, a fictionalized account of the Buddha’s life. Already an active Christian, it was this gift, received my senior year in high school, that introduced me to Buddhism and to the reality of spiritual journey and the possibility of enlightenment. While I know the Buddhist meaning of that term, it serves for Christians as well, because our God could not leave us in darkness but made light the first creature (Gen. 1:1–5) and came among us as light (John 1:1–5). 1 When in the fall of 1970 my brother traveled to Japan, the memento I requested was a small statue of the Buddha. It is beside me as I write. In 1983 when we moved to Germany, the second book I bought in German was Siddhartha; the first was the New Testament.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to continue to study the life of the Buddha and the spread and development of his teachings. By the Buddha, of course, I mean Sakyamuni (“sage of the Sakyas”) Buddha (“enlightened one”), son of Suddhodana and Maya, whom they called Siddhartha (“wish fulfilled” or “goal realized”) and whom we also know as Gotama or Gautama (literally “superior cow”), whose dates are given variously as 560–480 B.C. or 460–380 B.C. 2 I am appreciative of what I have learned—applying the root meaning of that word, appretiare: “to see” or “to appraise.” The Buddha has helped me to see and to appraise or evaluate many aspects of life. The appreciation that follows, then, is both a grateful recognition as of benefits received and a sensitive awareness or an estimate. I have tried both to view the Buddha clearly and to appraise what he has meant in my life. In essence, Buddhism and the Buddha have been for me the means of establishing a personal, internal religious clarity about what I do believe, passionately. In a deeply Buddhist sense, the Buddha has been my raft. But he has not been my Savior.

There is, as Tillich noted in Christianity and the Encounter with World Religions, a point “in the depth of every living religion . . . at which the religion itself loses its importance, and that to which it points breaks through its particularity.” 3 It has [End Page 121] helped me to understand religions as fingers and the Divine Reality as the moon to which they point. And I am convinced that Tillich’s breakthrough point is usually reached by means of deep penetration into one religious tradition. Jacques-Albert Cuttat was exactly correct: “The more deeply a person probes into his own religious faith, the more he is able to understand the religious faith of others from the inside; conversely, the more a person explores religious connections other than his own, the more he deepens his understanding of his own religion.” 4 This has been my experience. Dialogue with the Buddha has given me great clarity about the Christ. And the study and practice of Christianity has afforded me my glimpses of the moon.

What, then, do I appreciate about the Buddha? What have I learned from him? To help focus my answer, I read or reread a number of different accounts of his life 5 and noted six specific aspects of his life and teaching (his quest itself; his powers of analysis; his pragmatism; his moral vision; his compassion; and the outcome of living, his ‘way’) that have attracted and taught me.

First, I am appreciative of the Buddha’s quest itself. To put it simply, according to the accounts...

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pp. 121-128
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