- Encountering Jesus and Buddha: Their Lives and Teachings
Renowned German theologians Ulrich Luz and Axel Michaels offer a compelling contribution to the cannon of comparative theology in Buddhism and Christianity in their latest book, Encountering Jesus & Buddha: Their Lives and Teachings. Luz's and Michaels's work is unlike more typical endeavors within comparative theology in that it is not a contribution to "interreligious dialogue," it is not intended to be sociological [End Page 260] or descriptive, and it is not a work searching for religious and/or theological intersection(s) between Buddhism and Christianity. (The authors are firm in their assertion that there are no areas of intersection and that only "parallels" exist between the two religions.) Instead, through a series of discussions and responses, the authors choose to focus on the phenomenology at the heart of Christianity and Buddhism, as evinced through the historicity of key religious figures, the non-self and denial of the self, and social justice, among other areas. Two sections that are especially thought-provoking are the sections on historical figures (Jesus and Buddha) and on the no-self, particularly as understood within each religion.
The authors begin their dialogue on the historical Jesus and the historical Buddha by observing how each figure is not only differently situated, but also is differently understood within the religion. That is to say, there is only one Jesus (and will only ever be one Jesus), but, apart from the historical figure of Siddhartha Gautama, there are many Buddhas (with each age producing its own Buddha). (In sum, it is the difference between immanence [Buddha] and transcendence [Jesus].) With this understanding, the authors open the section on historical figures by focusing on the Buddha. Drawing on the scant historical biographical details (as opposed to those touting a more divine background) that can be gleaned from various religious texts and cannons, the authors note that the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, was born in the "borderlands" between India and Nepal, was a member of the Brahmin class (and thus lived in relative affluence compared to the rest of the population), married and had a child, and began his life as a religious man anywhere between the ages of nineteen and twenty-nine. These sources also provide information on the socioeconomic conditions that led to the formation and rise of Buddhism, such as the impact of mercantilism and the growth of cities. In contrast, those sources pushing the concept of the Buddha's divinity and divine origin do not look at the underlying socioeconomic conditions, choosing instead to focus wholly on the Buddha, from conception (the Buddha was variously conceived as a bodhisattva taking human form to an elephant planting a "seed" on the side of a princess) to holy man. Despite the variances between the historical Buddha and the divine Buddha, the authors make it clear that despite being a historical figure, the "Buddha" is not limited to one moment in history, unlike Jesus. Further, discussion of the historicity of the Buddha sparks questions as to the relevance of the historical Jesus, which achieves the authors' goal and part of the aim of comparative theology: an examination of one religion on its merits can lead to new questions—and insights—about (another) religion. The section is further strengthened through reference to the authors' extensive tables detailing various Buddhist source texts and writings along with explanations of what each contains.
The historicity of Jesus, as well as the historical Jesus, occupies an entirely different place in Christianity as compared to the place of the historical Buddha in Buddhism. The authors note that the construct of the "historical Jesus" arose from the desire on the part of the laity to understand Jesus when, according to the authors, they had already lost faith in the church's teaching about the two natures of Christ. Thus, the introduction of the historical Jesus in theological studies. Luz and Michaels [End Page 261] supplement their studies in the historicity of Jesus by including tables denoting each...