- Jesus and Buddhism: A Christian View
Like several of the contributors to this collection of essays, I begin with my own vantage point. By profession a historian of Jesus and Christian origins, I am by confession a Christian of a nonliteralist and nonexclusivist kind (once Lutheran, now Episcopalian). As a Christian, I am interested in the theological implications of my work as a historian. As a student of Buddhism, I am an amateur whose knowledge is limited to what I have learned from teaching world religions at the introductory undergraduate level.
The essays illustrate a classic issue in interreligious dialogue: What shall we compare? Exoteric forms or esoteric core? If Buddhism (esoteric or exoteric) is compared with external forms of popular-level Christianity over the centuries, the gulf is great indeed. But if we compare the historical Jesus and the mystical stream of Christianity (its internal core) with Buddhism, then there are important points of contact.
As a Jesus scholar and a Christian, I address two central subjects raised by the essays, the first more historical and the second more theological. I briefly compare the historical Jesus and the Buddha and then reflect about the exclusivist and absolutist claims made about Jesus by the most common forms of Christianity.
The Historical Jesus and the Buddha
Jesus was a Jewish mystic. This is radical shorthand for my fuller five-stroke sketch, as well as foundational for it. As a Jewish mystic (or Spirit person, by which I mean the same thing), Jesus became a healer, wisdom teacher, social prophet, and movement founder. 1 This sketch is the basis for comparing the historical Jesus and the Buddha.
Of the contributors, José Cabezón says the most about recent historical Jesus scholarship. I agree with him about much. Both Jesus and the Buddha opened up the religious life to marginalized people, stressed the interior life, and inaugurated reformist movements. Both traditions take spirits and ‘magic’ seriously. 2 I agree that the major difference is Jesus’ much greater emphasis on social justice, which leads to a further difference: Jesus was killed, his life cut short because he was a social [End Page 93] prophet, whereas the Buddha died from food poisoning. Jesus’ public activity was thus very brief, perhaps as little as a year, compared to the forty or fifty years of the Buddha.
To return to similarities, I cite two more. Both Jesus and the Buddha had transforming enlightenment experiences of a mystical kind at about age thirty. Both became teachers of a convention-subverting wisdom flowing out of their enlightenment experiences.
Because Cabezón expresses uncertainty about the second claim, I summarize the reasons why I see Jesus as a teacher of an enlightenment way of wisdom similar to that taught by the Buddha. 3 ‘Seeing’ (enlightenment) is strongly emphasized not only in sayings of Jesus but also in the metaphorical ‘spin’ given to some of the stories reporting the healing of blindness. Moreover, inviting a new way of seeing is the primary rhetorical function of Jesus’ aphorisms and parables, his most common forms of teaching.
Furthermore, imagery of ‘the way’ is central to Jesus and the gospels, pointing to a foundational similarity to the teaching of the Buddha. There is the broad way and there is the narrow way; those who humble (empty) themselves will be exalted; the path to a new way of being involves dying to an old way of being. This emphasis points to an internal spiritual-psychological process very similar to Buddhist ‘emptying’ and ‘letting go.’ ‘Dying’ and ‘letting go’ are metaphorical synonyms. 4
Jesus’ way undermined convention and affirmed a radical recentering in that which is beyond the domestications generated by convention: the sacred. As a mystic, Jesus knew this from his own experience. 5 Like the Buddha, he taught differently because he had seen differently.
Thus I have become persuaded of a foundational similarity between ‘the way’ taught by the Buddha and ‘the way’ taught by Jesus. 6 I tell my students that if Jesus and the Buddha were ever to meet, neither would try to convert the other—not because they would regard the task as hopeless, but because they would...