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  • The Buddha through Christian Eyes
  • Elizabeth J. Harris

It was in Sri Lanka in 1984 that I had my first ‘encounter’ with the Buddha. When at the ancient city of Anuradhapura, I stole away from the group I was with to return for a few minutes to the shrine room adjacent to the sacred bo tree, the one believed to have grown from a cutting of the original tree under which the Buddha gained enlightenment. Devotees dressed in white were sitting or prostrating silently. I joined them and looked toward the image, which showed the Buddha sitting in meditation against a painted scene of pale blue sky, white clouds, and mountains. Suddenly the image became more than mere plaster. All I can say is that it communicated. It beckoned. Against the blue of the sky, the serene head became suffused with cosmic significance. I know that there was unfinished business between me and the Buddha.

The moment was prophetic. Two years later, I returned to Sri Lanka to study Buddhism and stayed over seven years. ‘Study’ is not quite the right word because, together with the academic, I also sought to immerse myself in Buddhism with the wish to see it through the eyes of Buddhists. I practiced meditation under Buddhist teachers, participated in temple devotion, and joined pilgrimages. It was a process that meant temporarily letting go of much that was dear to me as a Christian. But the rewards were inestimable. Never again has the image at Anuradhapura ‘spoken’ to me. In fact, on return visits it has appeared artistically poor, certainly no match for the older stone images, open to the air, in other parts of the city. But then, around and inside that very shrine room in May 1985, Tamil guerrillas gunned down 146 innocent devotees, rupturing centuries of devotion with pools of blood.

My seven and a half years in Sri Lanka make it almost impossible for me to write about the Buddha as a complete outsider. I remain a Christian, but the Buddha has become part of me. An exquisitely carved wooden image of the Buddha in meditation is now part of my home. The peace that emanates from it gives me strength. In complete honesty, I can say that I revere the Buddha.

But what Buddha do I revere? Do I revere the Buddha in the same way as Buddhists? To reflect on how my appreciation of the Buddha may be different from that [End Page 101] of Buddhists is not easy, for Buddhism contains within itself so many faces of the Buddha. There is the historical Buddha of the earlier parts of the Pali canon, the Buddha of the later hagiographic biographies, the Buddha of popular devotion, Mahayana Buddhism’s vision of multiple Buddhas and cosmic buddhahood, the Buddha of what has been termed Protestant Buddhism. Yet I sense that there is a common thread within all of these faces—namely, the Lord Buddha as the supreme embodiment of compassion and wisdom, the one who has seen into the nature of reality and the human predicament and has taught the path of liberation.

All that I know of Buddhism tells me that the person of the Buddha is central. The devotion shown to the image is more than would be given to a human teacher and more than would be given to a god. Acchariya manussa is one phrase used in the Pali texts—“wonderful man.” He is human, yet more than human in that he was enlightened and worked toward this enlightenment without outside aid through countless lives of self-sacrifice and virtue. This I believe all Buddhists would agree to, and such a being is supremely worthy of reverence.

How does my appreciation tally with this? It is the Theravada tradition that has nurtured my own understanding, and it has done so in three ways. First, there has been my reading of the Sutta Pitaka of the Pali canon. In the first two years of my time in Sri Lanka, I read through most of the nikaya of the Sutta Pitaka, albeit in translation, and I found myself encountering again and again a teacher I could respect and revere. “How...

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