BUDDHISM’S QUESTION: “What can we learn from Jesus of Nazareth about compassionate living?”
In 2001 the Dalai Lama, a global leader in Buddhism, declared, “Jesus Christ also lived previous lives.” He explained: “So, you see, he reached a high state, either as a Bodhisattva, or an enlightened person, through Buddhist practice or something like that.”
What did the Dalai Lama mean by that? Bodhisattva means “enlightenment being” and refers to someone on the path to becoming a Buddha. Before escaping into nirvana from the endless cycle of death and rebirth, Bodhisattvas choose to stay in this world in order to help others on the path to enlightenment. In fact, they can exchange karma with others in order to help them along the path, thus exercising grace. Since Jesus taught so much about grace, could he have been a Bodhisattva?
If you rewrite history, you can say just about anything that sounds good. In fact, you can literally add in several histories from previous lives so that the teachings resonate better. We should not take the Dalai Lama’s words lightly, for he is a very sophisticated, world-renowned religious leader. The bottom line is that Buddhists, like Hindus, are much less concerned about past events than they are the present realities, less interested in why to believe something than they are interested in how to live practical, compassionate lives in the midst of a dark and confusing world. Although the first Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (563-483), was a historical figure, the main thing he did was teach. Buddha means “enlightened one” or, more literally, “awakened one,” and Buddhists focus mostly upon right understanding, right mindset, and right orientation toward the universe—upon seeing clearly because the lights are on.
So if confronted with the message of the Bible, the main question a Buddhist might ask (if they ask any question at all) is, “What can we learn about helping others live fruitful, compassionate lives?” As to what actually happened in first-century Palestine, that makes little difference today. As to the exclusive claims of Jesus—such as his claim to be God and his claim to bring salvation to his people by paying for their sins with his own blood—those do not resonate well with Buddhist teaching. Masao Abe, another world-renowned Buddhist teacher, put it in his book, Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue:
This notion of the event of the Cross as the criterion for judging not only Christianity but also all non-Christian religions is, I am afraid, not compatible with the dynamic typology of world religions which presupposes the experience of the Holy in everything finite and particular; nor is it possible for Buddhism to accept such a position. (Buddhism and Interfaith Dialogue. Masao Abe and Steven Heine (Jun 1, 1995) ISBN p. 99.)
According to Abe, because they presuppose “the experience of the Holy in everything finite and particular,” they must reject Jesus’ claims. Does this vague statement imply that we can be the judges of spiritual truth, regardless of historical events—particularly “the event of the Cross”?
Even if they reject Jesus’ claim to be the Savior of the world, many have found parallels in the ethical teachings of Buddha and of Jesus, so they can find at least temporary common ground there. Treat others as you would want them to treat you; cultivate not just right habits but also right motives; refuse to horde worldly treasures; etc. These fit well within Buddhist teaching practice.
But now at its core, classical Buddhism refused to acknowledge any god and embraced, not atheism, but rather non-theism. The statues that often fill Buddhist temples do not necessarily represent a god or gods or messengers of gods, but instead, represent someone who has attained the truths and mental qualities of an enlightened being. Perhaps they could represent bodhisattvas, as the Dalai Lama suggested Jesus did. Regardless, the goal is not to know a personal god but to attain perfect oneness with the cosmos that renders a person non-existent—in the way a drop of water ceases to exist when it enters the ocean. One who truly realizes that all things are interdependent escapes from their own personal cravings (and thus their source of suffering) as they enter into oneness with the cosmos.
However, the far more popular school of Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, believes in a more personal eternal Buddha or creative force that has had many manifestations. Mahayana Buddhist teachers say the early core teaching of Gautama represents only the more elementary aspects of Buddha’s teaching. It claims he secretly gave additional, more profound teaching to his intimate disciples, and taught the importance of a personal Buddha. In fact, most Buddhists are looking for a final Buddha, Maitreya, whom they believe will appear at the end of the age.
Regardless, none of these teachings or beliefs are rooted in history. Furthermore, the Christian gospels make demands upon people that Buddhists cannot agree to. As Masao Abe said, they are “not compatible” with their presuppositions. So they must reject the claims and simply look for what ethical teachings they can agree with.
Let us now consider a non-religious worldview and look at Naturalism’s question.