Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Questions, Part 1: Buddhism and Christianity

This post inaugurates a new series, wherein I publish questions and responses to questions that have been posed by readers, attendees at lectures, and so forth. Hope this is of some small benefit.


Question: Would you say that Jesus and Buddha were the same?

Answer: Same in what sense? Please understand that in my religion, as it has evolved, Jesus is considered an influential Bodhisattva. In Christianity, as it has evolved, there is no corresponding idea about Buddha, at least among the mass of followers. There is all sort of language in the Bible that points to a jealous God, and so forth. There is a great deal of violent imagery, about fighting, and retribution, some of it almost Vedic in the most bloodthirsty sense, whereas in Buddhism we do not have so many tortured symbols. Jesus is nailed to a cross, and Buddha is sitting under a tree. We of course have wrathful deities, and wrathful images, but this has to be appreciated in context.

Now, to be fair, Jesus appears roughly 500 years after the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni—that is the most conservative, modern interpretation of Buddhist history—and a lot can happen in that time. For example, if we look back 500 years, we are in the 1500s. In the 1500s, we cannot imagine technology as it exists in this century. We have no frame of reference.

Similarly, by the time of the Cult of Jesus, conditions have changed in Buddhism and we have examples of gifted Buddhists who are managing to get themselves thrown into pits of fire. I therefore cannot criticize Christian imagery too much, as it probably reflects its time.

I cannot say that Jesus and Buddha are the same, because I am a simple-minded Buddhist and I believe that Buddha was fully enlightened whereas Jesus, however gifted, was not a Buddha. Maybe if I was a different sort of Buddhist I could say that Jesus was one of Buddha’s manifestations.

I have a prejudice to overcome. I tend to evaluate a teaching by its results. When I look at Christianity, I see a great deal of suffering and bloodshed. The Christian saints, for example, are evaluated by how well they suffered and reached salvation. This has no parallel in my world. Buddhist saints are evaluated by how well they reached salvation and ceased suffering. However, I can certainly see and accept rich communion between Mahabodhisattvas and Jesus.

I personally think Jesus was probably a Mahabodisattva. If he wasn’t, he certainly tried.

Question: So is Jesus related to Buddha?

Answer: Philosophically? Yes and no. Jesus says he is the Son of God. Buddha is not God, neither is Buddha a God, if you follow the distinction. Somebody asked Buddha, “Are you a man or a god?” Buddha replied, “I am awake.” Yet, to the extent that Buddha is Buddha, maybe Jesus was Buddha’s son. This would be son in the philosophical sense. Jesus is reputably born of a virgin womb, which is certainly provocative in Buddhist terms. In a sense, he is uncreated. Maybe Jesus is a face of time.

You know, there are certainly some interesting things you can find if you know where to look.

For example: Jesus is hungry and he sees a fig tree. There are leaves on this tree, so he thinks there may be figs to eat. He looks, and finds none, so he curses the fig tree and it immediately withers. I think that story is in the Bible, in the Book of Mark. Contrast this with the Four Glances, mentioned in the Hevajra Tantra, which predates Jesus by centuries, and the commentary by Ngawang Lozang: “The measure of one’s attainment in the four glances is as follows: with just a glance to dry up a tree, that its fruit does not ripen, and overthrow it upon the ground... .” There are all sorts of things like that.

Again, we have to understand that Jesus appears a few hundred years after Buddha, and it defies critical thought and historical evidence if we believe that Buddhist philosophy had no influence on the evolution of Near Eastern philosophies and philosophers. When I read the Bible, I very clearly see that there was philosophical contact between the Near East and Southern Asia. For example: you can see this in the Bible’s criticism of yoga—and if you take this as a hermeneutic matter, it speaks volumes about the chronologies involved. I mean, date yoga and then date the Bible.

Question: The Christian God is the one true God. Yes or no?

Answer: Many people have felt that way for the last 2,000 years. Still, there have been a great many other “true gods” who have held sway and explained things for much longer periods than the Christian God has. The Christians believe their God has refuted the existence of any other gods. I do not understand why the process of refutation stopped with one, and why the Christian God did not refute its own existence, but apparently that is where the Christian philosophy terminates.

I suggest you read the Bible and make your own decision.

I am not particularly qualified to make comment in this area.

I just know there is a lot of Buddhism in the Bible, if you know what to look for. Read 1 Corinthians 13, for example. Or take Titus 1:15, which says, “To the pure all things are pure, but to those who are defiled and unbelieving nothing is pure; but even their mind and conscience are defiled.” That is an essential Vajrayana Buddhist premise. There is no difference between Christianity and Buddhism on this point, so you see, there might be some ground for dialogue.

Question: Did you ever hear that Jesus studied Buddhism, or that he knew
Buddha, or that he studied in Tibet? Could it be true?

Answer: I heard that. Supposedly, there are “lost years,” or something like that, correct? Actually, I have heard all sorts of fanciful legends to the effect that there are secret records about Jesus buried under the Potala, in Lhasa, or that the Dalai Lama passed secret messages about Jesus to the Pope, and so forth.

I do not think such notions can pass the test of history.

Shakyamuni Buddha dies in 881 BCE, according to the traditional view, or 483 BCE, according to the view of Western historians. Alexander the Great goes adventuring through Asia with 60,000 heavily armed Macedonians, slaps Babylon along the way, and winds up in India in 327 BCE. Around 112 BCE the Silk Road opens.

The first Buddhist texts arrive in Tibet only around 433 CE, when Jesus has been dead for about four centuries, and the foundations of Buddhism in Tibet are only traced to the seventh century CE. The main problem is that Buddhism in Tibet only takes hold at the time of Padmasambhava’s arrival, which is the eighth century—or 762 CE to be exact—when Jesus is reportedly sitting next to God.

Any contact between the historical, temporal Jesus and Buddhism is going to be confined to the last years of the first century BCE and is going to be a product of philosophical crossfertilization arising along the Silk Road, with all sorts of Greek overtones. There were indeed Indian Buddhist missionaries active at that time—this was the time of the Kusana Empire, if I am not mistaken, and this was a time of royal sympathy for Buddhism—but there were certainly no Tibetan Buddhist missionaries for the simple reason that there were no Tibetan Buddhists—or at least none we know about.

Maybe Jesus met Padmasambhava. Maybe Jesus was Padmasambhava in disguise. That is a possibility, but the issue of probability is up for grabs. I do not think the germane issue is whether Jesus studied Buddhism or not, or whether he knew Padmasambhava or not. I think the germane issue is if the people who wrote the Bible ever had any contact with Buddhism. I believe they did, but I do not think this occurred on any meaningful level. If it had, they would have been Buddhists, not Christians. Still, I will repeat what I said before: there is Buddhism in the Bible, and it had to come from somewhere. My suspicions rest on the influence of Alexander and his contemporaries. The more you study Alexander, the more you come to realize what a profound effect he had on religion and medicine, to name but two areas.

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