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  • The Body(sattva) on the Cross:A Comparative Theological Investigation of the Theology of the Cross in the Light of Chinese Mahayana Suffering Bodhisattvas
  • Paul Hedges

This paper sits within the field of Christian-Buddhist comparative theology and will explore the concept of the crucifixion in relation to Chinese Buddhist images of suffering bodhisattvas. While the bodhisattva is normally portrayed as placid and serene and to have transcended suffering, I will argue that some form of suffering is either implicit or demonstrated within various stories associated within specific figures, focusing especially on Dizang (Kshitigharba) and Guanyin (Avalokiteshvara). The way that these bodhisattvas suffer may be an area for profitable exploration in terms of Christology in comparative or intercultural theology. Given the limits of space the paper does not proceed to develop a new Christology, but rather presents the argument that the image of a suffering savior is not alien to the Buddhist world, at least in its Sinitic portions, and so opens the potential for developing such speculation.

the cross and interreligious engagement in an asian context

The cross as a symbol of the Christian tradition has a long history and carries many connotations.1 While images of the crucifixion appear relatively late in Christian iconography, which suggests that, at least at first, the Christian community did not emphasize it as a theological motif,2 it has, nevertheless, become of central importance and is embedded within the scriptural writings that the Christian tradition have come to take as normative. As such, it is not something that can easily be bypassed. This may seem a truism, and many theologians would take the cross, especially the crucifixion, as a central motif of paramount importance. However, except in missionary polemics, it is a facet of the Christian tradition that is often downplayed or ignored in interfaith contexts, especially in comparative work. Rather, where Jesus [End Page 133] appears it is as a teacher, as the Cosmic Christ, or in other guises, rather than as the wracked and tortured body on the cross.3

Reasons why the motif of the cross are often absent in interreligious contexts are manifold. In relation to Islam, for instance, it represents a central point of historical disagreement over the events, with many Muslims believing that Jesus was not actually crucified and that another (often Judas) was substituted in his place.4 As such, the facts of the cross form a problematic matter of contention about what happened, so shared traditions of Jesus as Messiah or revealer of God are more common topics.5 In relation to Judaism, the Gospel texts that surround the event are some of the central sites for the foundation of the two millennia tradition of anti-Semitism with which the Christian tradition is implicated, and are therefore deeply problematic as areas of discussion.6 Moreover, the question of Messiahship and whether such a fate could befall the Messiah (something which also comes up in Christian-Muslim discussions) also become matters of debate. Here, Jesus as rabbi and teacher within a shared Jewish heritage would seem a more fruitful and respectful area for discussion. If we turn to the religions of South and East Asia we tend to find not such distinct theological problems, rather the symbolism of the crucifixion is something that, it has been noted, is seen as offensive and a sign that Christianity is a primitive and bloodthirsty tradition.7 Many Hindus, however, revere the Cosmic Christ seeing him as like many avatars, while Mahayana Buddhists have spoken of Jesus as a bodhisattva.8

Given the problems it may give rise to, for many Christian proponents of inter-religious engagement there is often no mention of the cross, or indeed its importance may be denied. Perhaps paradigmatically, John Hick gives us a clear example of a theologian who denies the divinity of Jesus and therefore the efficacy of the cross as a means of salvation in terms of most traditional forms of atonement (although it may still stand as an act of an exemplary atonement, where Jesus’s death stands as an act of self-giving love).9 However, such Christological reworkings have met with little positive reception within Christian communities.10...


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pp. 133-148
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