Rita M. Gross – This Buddhist’s View of Jesus – Buddhist-Christian Studies

Jesus Christ through Buddhist Eyes
This Buddhist’s View of Jesus
Rita M. Gross

The topic
of developing a Buddhist view of Jesus is challenging to me on many
levels, for many reasons. Not the least of them involves my own unhappy
childhood and young adulthood being trained as a member of a version
of Christianity that expressed an extremely exclusivist position
regarding religious pluralism. Nevertheless, I have long practiced
Buddhist-Christian dialogue as a Buddhist, in part as an antidote to
that unhappy past, as a deliberate attempt to heal the wounds inflicted
on me by an exclusivist and doctrinaire version of Christianity. So why
does this task of developing a Buddhist view of Jesus remain difficult?

In part this task is difficult because it is unfamiliar. In my world
religions classes, I routinely present Jewish views of Jesus, but there
is little reason to discuss Jesus in the perspectives of other major
religions and I have almost never broached the topic. In my feminist
theology classes, I again discuss feminist reactions to Jesus, but
there is little reason to present a feminist Buddhist perspective on
Jesus. Little Buddhist literature about Buddhist reactions to Jesus and
few Buddhist assessments of Christianity exist, though the reverse is
not true,
which perhaps indicates that fellow Buddhists have also felt little
need to develop a reaction to or a position about Jesus. But it is also
difficult because in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, we often discuss more
abstract and less troublesome topics than the traditional Christian
evaluation of Jesus, with its undeniably exclusivistic and universal
truth claims. Thus, in many ways, I have been able to keep a distance
between my own experiences of Christianity and my own experiences of
Buddhism. Encountering Christians in Buddhist-Christian dialogue and
teaching Christian feminist theology are really much simpler than
trying to untangle my own Buddhist reactions to central Christian
claims, including especially claims about the ultimate and universal
significance of Jesus.

Nevertheless, it is clear that my task in this essay is to react to
Jesus as a Buddhist, something I have not done formally in any other
context. Therefore, I have proceeded with the assumption that my task
is to find the relevant Buddhist categories for interpreting Jesus in
Buddhist terms, to delineate them briefly to non-Buddhists, and then to
apply them to Jesus or to Christian claims about Jesus. This assignment
is not as innocent or as easy as it seems at first reading. The first
difficulty is determining who or what one is reacting to in the exercise
of developing a Buddhist view of Jesus. Depending on who or what one
understands Jesus to be, or depending on which Christian claims about
Jesus one comments upon, a Buddhist could have radically different views
about Jesus. So clearly, the first task in developing a Buddhist view of
Jesus is to determine which Jesus will be discussed. Then, secondly, it
is difficult but important to maintain the primary focus as a Buddhist
focus, using Buddhist rather than Christian categories to control the
discourse. I say this because

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much of the literature seems to compare Buddhism to Christianity, placing
Christianity and Christian categories in central focus and matching
concepts from the Christian point of view. I want to match concepts with
Buddhist categories as my central reference point, fitting the Christian
Jesus into a Buddhist framework.

How should I, as a Buddhist, determine what is meant by the Christian
category Jesus? As is evidenced by the radically different images
of Jesus in popular Christianity, by much recent scholarship on the
Gospels, and by a diverse body of Christological writings, Christians
themselves would be hard pressed to give a definitive or a short answer
to the question “Just who or what am I supposed to be discussing from a
Buddhist point of view?” Am I to talk of the historical Jesus, of the
Jesus of the Gospels, of the Jesus of the early church, or of Jesus
as understood through central theological doctrines, such as Trinity
and Incarnation, which are actually much later in their genesis? My
assignment, which is to discuss “the Jesus of Christianity,”
does not really solve that problem, since there are so many Jesuses
of Christianity. But I think we can safely assume that “the Jesus
of Christianity” includes all the above except, perhaps, the
historical Jesus, who is a recent construction and not so central to
many Christians’ religious lives. In any case, I shall direct most of
my comments to Jesus as he has been interpreted by major stands within
Christianity and will not try to solve the problem of whether he ever
intended to leave such a message or what his own intended message may
have been.

With that decision, we invite some ghosts to enter. Christianity is
not only something I learned about academically or at a distance,
as would be the case for most Buddhists. Rather, as already said, my
early indoctrination involved an extremely exclusivist interpretation
of Jesus. Experientially, for me, the central Christian claim about
Jesus is the exclusivist interpretation of belief in Jesus’ redemptive
death and resurrection as the only way to ‘salvation.’ Though I know
intellectually that inclusivist and pluralist Christian views of Jesus
are well developed, nevertheless, to me they do not seem to carry
the normative and traditional weight that the exclusivist position
carries. And exclusivist truth claims in religion, I would argue, are
among the most dangerous, destructive, and immoral ideas that humans
have ever created.

Therefore, for me, the first hurdle that must be negotiated in developing
a Buddhist view of Jesus is the hurdle of exclusive truth claims,
which involves developing a philosophy of religious pluralism, based
on Buddhist categories, that is radically nonexclusivist. This task is
so central for me because of the way in which I left the only kind of
Christianity I knew experientially. Though I was, and still am, quite
sincere in my spiritual inclinations and quite capable of understanding
abstract theological concepts, I was also “too thoughtful” and “asked too
many questions,” as it was put to me. During my senior year of college,
I was excommunicated for heresy and confidently told that I would go to
hell for my religious views. The major bone of contention was my view of
religious pluralism, namely that people of all religions “could be saved,”
as I naively put it in those days before I had studied much comparative
religion. I had been indoctrinated that all non-Christian religions
and most other versions of Christianity were ‘false.’ Ridicule of these
other beliefs, pity for people misguided and deluded into adherence to
such folly, and devotion to the

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cause of converting them to ‘the one true faith’ were daily
fare. Obviously, the exclusive claims made on behalf of Jesus
by Christians appalled me even as a teenager, and my repugnance for
exclusive truth claims on the part of religions–any religion–has not
diminished since. Thus, part of my journey is working out both a theory
and a praxis of religious pluralism that is neither relativistic nor
universalistic, that encourages both commitment to one tradition and
appreciation of other traditions.

I am aware that currently most liberal Christian theologians are as
appalled by this tradition of exclusivism as I am. I am also aware
that the World Council of Churches and the Roman Catholic Church, in
Vatican II, have come to a position on religious pluralism that is often
called the ‘inclusivist position,’ which is claimed to diverge sharply
from the exclusivist position. The inclusivist position “affirm[s] the
value and dignity of all religious paths.” Nevertheless, this position,
like the exclusivist position, “attributes to Christ and Christianity
. . . an ultimacy and normativity meant to embrace and fulfill all
other religions.” Additionally, according to Paul Knitter, inclusivist
Christians also “interpret the uniqueness of Jesus in terms of finality
and unsurpassability.”
As a Buddhist, I find these claims offensive, and I think most
non-Christians probably share my reaction. Nor would I feel comfortable,
as a Buddhist, in making the same claim about Buddhism vis-à-vis

I am also aware of an even newer and smaller voice in Christian theology
called the ‘pluralist’ position. I have much more sympathy with this
position, which claims a “possible parity of all religions and
. . . eschew[s] any final or absolute truth.” What I am not in sympathy
with is their claim, at least as expressed by Paul Knitter, that “Jesus’
uniqueness [is] the universality and indispensability of
His message and mission.”
My objections are fairly subtle; this claim seems to state both that
Jesus is unique among religious figures and that he had a message and a
mission that the world cannot do without, for I see no other way to read
the words universal and indispensable in Paul Knitter’s
statement. As a Buddhist, I’m not at all sure that I see Jesus as unique,
as universal, or as indispensable, which makes me question this version
of Christian pluralism. I realize that as a Buddhist I probably often
feel and sound the same way about the message and mission of Buddhism
that Paul Knitter sounds about the message and mission of Jesus. But
I try to regard that tone in my rhetoric as a failing rather than a
virtue. Such assessments of Buddhism are so demeaning to non-Buddhists.

These two recent Christian attempts to disown the dominant doctrines
throughout most of Christian history cannot, for me, undo the emotional
damage done by exclusivist indoctrination, atone for the historical record
of inhumane acts and attitudes motivated by exclusivist attitudes, or
counter my impression that most of my Christian students and neighbors
are not inclusivists or pluralists. True, the person in the street usually
is rather unfamiliar with the depth dimension of his or her religion and
is probably a rather poor spokesperson for it. Buddhist popular religion
is not especially edifying either. However, I object to the Jesus of
popular religion as interpreted by major strands of Christianity not
because this interpretation is unedifying or crude, but because this very
widespread and prevalent interpretation is dangerous, destructive,
and degraded.
The impact of the Jesus of Christianity on people

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in other world religions has often been quite negative. The gap between
the esoteric Jesus of nonexclusivists and the exoteric universal and
indispensable savior whom all must confess and often are compelled to
confess is enormous. I will speak, admittedly prompted by ghosts of
confirmation classes past, to this more familiar Jesus found in the
rhetoric of many, many Christians.

Some have criticized me throughout the years for not regarding the
conservative sect in which I was raised, with its strongly exclusivist
position, as an aberrant and degraded form of Christianity. Such critics
argue that I could have found another version of Christianity that
would have been less given to such exaggerations. I am also told that
my assessments of Christianity are not accurate because they are too
colored by my experiences with an extreme position. Unfortunately, whether
correctly or incorrectly, I cannot see this sect as so completely aberrant
a form of Christianity, but only as an extremely vociferous exponent of
a common position. Most other Christians are not so sure about who will
populate heaven and hell as were the members of this sect, but exclusivism
and absolutism are entailed by the central claims made about Jesus, as
interpreted by large segments of Christianity throughout most of Christian
history. And, in spite of the presence of inclusivist and pluralist
Christian thought, many of the Christians I encounter are still taught
the exclusivist position by their churches and are completely unaware
of other Christian positions on religious pluralism. Every semester, I
encounter students who have been indoctrinated to such positions very
recently. For example, my Catholic students all know that Catholics are
not supposed to use birth control, but few of them know that Vatican II
recommends a somewhat inclusivist view of religious pluralism. Since
religious exclusivism is much more dangerous and has caused a great
deal more pain than has the practice of birth control, one would think
that educating Catholics about their church’s contemporary position on
religious pluralism would be a higher priority.

This train of reasoning, whether correct or incorrect, keeps me, as an act
of prophetic faithfulness, from adhering to a religion for which absolute
and exclusive truth claims are or have been central and which, therefore,
has a poor historical record of dealing with religious pluralism and
coexistence. That is why I could not become a liberal Christian. That
is also why I continue to focus on alternatives to religious exclusivism
as the heart of my Buddhist view of Jesus.

Religious Language and Religious Pluralism

Since religions make verbal statements that are frequently taken as
accurate assessments of ultimate reality by their adherents, it might
be wondered how any religion could avoid absolutism and exclusivism. It
might further be wondered if I could, without violating my own pluralistic
principles, adhere to Buddhism, since Buddhism, like Christianity, is one
of the few religions that even tries to promote itself to outsiders. I
want to try to deal with these very reasonable questions by talking
about the Buddhist attitude toward verbal and conceptual formulations
of truth, which I find highly attractive precisely because it seems to
me to allow a position that is neither relativistic nor exclusivistic.

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Regarding the purpose of doctrinal statements, in my view Buddhism and
Christianity differ sharply. I have not found a more succinct or accurate
summary of the Buddhist position than that of Paul Griffiths: “[T]here
is a methodological principle . . . that has to do with the nature of
religious doctrines. Briefly and rather crudely, this principle suggests
that religious doctrines have utility rather than truth; that their
importance lies in the effects they have upon those who believe in them.”
Space does not permit me to demonstrate that this is indeed the Buddhist
position, but let us assume that Griffiths is correct.

In Buddhist terms, this means that verbal doctrines are ultimately in
the realm of upaya, skillful means or method, not the realm of
prajna, intuitive clear seeing or ‘truth.’
This is an extremely fruitful insight, for Buddhism, like Christianity,
would affirm that prajna is unitive and the same for all people
in all cases. But truth is not a matter of doctrines and doctrines
are neither true nor false; they are more or less useful in the
circumstances at hand. Truth, or prajna (literally, “superior
knowledge”), has always been understood more as ability than as a body
of information, more as ‘knowing’ than as ‘knowledge’ in Buddhism. It
can be hinted at and pointed to, but even the finest doctrine is merely
a pointer. Nothing makes this point more forcefully than the famous
“raft parable” attributed to the Buddha. “Oh Bhikkhus, even this view,
which is so pure and so clear, if you cling to it, if you fondle it, if
you treasure it, then you do not understand that the teaching is similar
to a raft, which is for crossing over, and not for getting hold of.”
Truth is extra-verbal and verbal formulations of truth are
approximations, not final statements.

On the other hand, upaya, usually translated as “skillful
means” or “method,” has always been understood to be multiple, even
infinitely various, because what is crucial is finding the method or tool
appropriate to the circumstances at hand. The more skilled the
interpreter or teacher of Buddhism, the greater his or her repertoire
of appropriate skillful means. No one would be so foolish as to expect
to find a tool that works for every task and, therefore, one should not
attempt to find a one-size-fits-all doctrine. One would be foolish to
universalize or absolutize a doctrine or to claim that only adherents
of this doctrine are adequate spiritually.

The point that doctrine is in the realm of upaya rather than the
realm of prajna is important and subtle because westerners are
extremely likely to miss it as a result of their cultural training and
preconceptions. First of all, neither the distinction between method
and truth nor the claims that they are of coequal importance is part
of the Western frame of discourse. Second, if the distinction were
even recognized, westerners would be likely to regard prajna as
‘real’–really true–while upaya would be regarded as secondary
and approximate. In the many years that I have spent trying to assimilate
genuinely Buddhist modes of apprehension, nothing has been more foreign
than the coequal status of prajna with upaya or the
relegation of verbal truths to the realm of upaya. Thus I find
these conceptual possibilities to be a genuine relief and a way out of
absolutist modes of discourse that I had found unbearable.

Though again space does not permit a demonstration, I think the mainline
traditional Christian view is quite the opposite. Doctrines may contain
utility, but their

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most important function is their truth value as is evidenced by the
longstanding concern with what people will confess verbally. There is
a close link between words and truth in many Christian assessments and
more trust that words can convey truth than is typical of most other
religions. Therefore, verbal doctrines are primarily evaluated as true
or false, not as salutary or destructive. This method fuels the hope
for, and often the claim of, final truth in verbal form. As a result,
Christians, more than most other religious traditions, try to distill
true doctrine into a succinct creed and often regard adherence to that
creed as more important than understanding of it. Confession of those
verbal doctrines matters ultimately. Hence, these doctrines are easily
absolutized by claiming exclusive truth for them, and nonadherents are
easily regarded as inferior.

To regard doctrines as more important and worthwhile for their verbal
utility than for their verbal truth and to judge them more by their
effects on adherents than by their verbal contents seems to me to
overcome absolutism with all its attendant problems while not falling
into relativism. First of all, with this attitude, one does not have to
absolutize one’s own concepts of truth nor to long for a world in which
all agree on the same expressions of truth. Rather, religious symbol
systems could coexist and complement each other like colors of a rainbow.
A religious myth or symbol would be regarded as a poem rather than
as a historical or scientific statement. I would argue that most
exclusive truth claims in religion are based on regarding religion
as more akin to what westerners now call ‘history’ or ‘science’ than
what westerners now call ‘art’ or ‘poetry.’ Superficially, many people
think that the question in historical or scientific disciplines is the
question of truth or falsity, while the question for art, poetry, or
mythology is a question of taste or aesthetics. Generally, people are
much more flexible and nonexclusive about aesthetic judgments than
about historical or scientific claims. No one would want to abolish
all poetry in the world except for one’s favorite poem, nor even expect
everyone to agree that this is the most wonderful poem ever written. Why
should it be different with religious doctrines, which are ultimately
mythopoeic, not discursive, in their mode of discourse? Ironically, such
an attitude would also make religious statements more rather than less
like scientific or historical statements, because those who understand
these disciplines realize that scientific and historical statements are
hypotheses, subject to a continual process of change, adjustment, and
refinement, not some final and absolute statement. No sensible person
is ever more than provisionally committed to a hypothesis, which does
not lessen its force to explain or motivate in the absence of a better
hypothesis. With the world’s religions, we have a number of reasonably
cogent hypotheses about some rather unanswerable questions. The myth
and symbol system surrounding Jesus could well be one such hypothesis,
but that has not been a mainstream understanding of the Jesus of

One who judges a doctrine on the basis of what it does rather than on
its literal or verbal truth value also has another excellent basis for
appreciating a foreign symbol system that is conceptually incompatible
with one’s own. It can be appreciated not only as a wonderful poem and
an interesting hypothesis, but as a source of

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humane behavior in the world. Such is the basis for the Dalai Lama’s
encomiums of Christianity in his frequent pleas for tolerance, mutual
respect, and coexistence among the world’s religions: “Through the various
religious systems, followers are assuming a salutary attitude toward their
fellow human beings–our brothers and sisters–and implementing this good
motivation in the service of human society. This has been demonstrated
by a great many believers in Christianity throughout history. Many have
sacrificed their lives for the benefit of humankind.”
This statement is made despite major doctrinal differences between
Buddhism and Christianity–of which the Dalai Lama is well aware–and
his own personal devotion to the Buddhist symbols and doctrines.

At the same time, assessing doctrines on their utility means that
the charge of relativism, often brought against pluralists, is
countered. While, in general, relativism seems superior to absolutism
because it is more humane and less ethnocentric, logic compels one to
admit that there must be limits to relativism. Finding that boundary is
never easy. But clearly, any doctrine that encourages intolerance and
mutual hostility would be negatively evaluated, using the criterion of
utility. Most doctrines do not, in and of themselves, engender mutual
disrespect and hostility, unless they are absolutized. And
almost any doctrine, whatever its contents, could then be utilized
inhumanely if it is absolutized. Thus at least one limit to relativism
would be the absolutizing of any doctrine or any doctrine that cannot
be de-absolutized by the very nature of its claims. Such doctrines,
because of their exclusivism and absolutism, cannot claim parity or
equal validity with other doctrines that do not seek such a monopoly
on religious expression. (Is monotheism the prime example of such a
claim?) Pluralism and doctrines that are absolutized cannot coexist. Given
the frequent and widespread negative results of absolutism, it seems clear
that, using the method of judging doctrines on their utility, this impasse
can be resolved morally only by renouncing doctrinal absolutism. Probably
conventional Christian claims about Jesus fall under judgment of being a
conceptual absolute. I also feel quite certain that the Jesus myth does
not have to be subjected to such absolutisms.

Sometimes when I argue in this fashion, people accuse me of merely
substituting one absolute–pluralism–for another. But they misunderstand,
for I am suggesting a methodological absolute, not a doctrinal
absolute. There is every difference in the world between a methodological
absolute and a doctrinal absolute. This methodological absolute–that
doctrines should be evaluated on the basis of their effect on behavior,
not their verbal truth value–definitively undercuts any attempt to
establish a doctrinal or ideological absolute. Precisely this is what is
required in the world, at least at present. Furthermore, we also notice
that the methodological absolute of evaluating doctrines on the basis
of their utility allows us to posit ethical absolutes, such as
nonharming, even though conceptual or doctrinal absolutes are impossible.

If we reflect further, we also notice that despite glaring oppositions
at the level of symbol and doctrine, the world’s major religions have all
produced a remarkably similar core basic ethic. We also must notice that,
unfortunately, they have produced remarkably similar ethical distortions
as well, of which patriarchal sexism is one of

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the more widespread and serious. This should indicate that no major
doctrinal system is so far off the mark that it cannot produce a relevant
ethic, nor so perfect that it guards its adherents against ethical
failure. It should also indicate that the specific symbol, myth, and
doctrines of choice are not all that central and that the more urgent
realm for ultimate concern is our interactions with our world, not our
modes of symbolizing or theorizing that world.

Thus it is clear that I am neither advocating mere relativism nor merely
substituting one absolute for another. I am advocating conceptual relativism along with minimal moral and methodological absolutes. Because absolutes can be so dangerous, they should always
be kept to the barest possible minimum, but sheer relativism is equally
dangerous. To refrain from conceptual and doctrinal absolutes while
giving one’s loyalty and energy to ethical and methodological absolutes
is the appropriate negotiation of that difficult passage.

Finally, I want as a Buddhist to react to the evaluation of some Christian
pluralists who, while they do not absolutize the Jesus of Christianity,
nevertheless posit an ‘indispensability and uniqueness’ for his message
and mission. Such rhetoric pressures non-Christians at least to think
Jesus was an extraordinary, extremely incredible human being, even if they
don’t agree with Christological doctrines. Many, even members of groups
that have not been treated well historically by Christians, such as Jews
or feminists, politely make the case that Jesus was really okay–it’s
what Christians have done to him that’s the problem. Such rhetoric is,
I believe, a concession to Christian pressure to venerate Jesus even if
one does not worship him.

I have questioned whether such Christians take the time to do a basic
exercise in empathy in which they would imagine how such claims come
across to non-Christians. Returning for a moment to the criterion
of utility as a norm for judging concepts, such claims seem to me to
be seriously lacking in upaya, or skillful methods, because of
their negative effects on listeners such as myself. To me they certainly
are not attractive, and I feel an unwelcome pressure to revere Jesus as
someone whom I find unique and indispensable, which is not the case. For
me, emotionally, when Christians insist that Jesus must be seen as
indispensable and universal in his message and mission, it becomes almost
impossible to appreciate him in any way at any level. Such rhetoric
pushes me to the opposite reaction: “Why should I?” I would prefer to
be allowed to have no opinion, to be neutral and agnostic regarding the
uniqueness and indispensability of Jesus’ mission and message.

The Christian pluralist’s claims for the indispensability and uniqueness
of his message and mission put me in the unwelcome position of having
to explain why I cannot share that judgment even though I do not wish
to disparage Jesus any more than I wish to venerate or praise him. I
am serious when I say that I can see no basis for venerating Jesus as
a human being in a league by himself unsurpassed or unequaled by other
human beings in his heroism, compassion, wisdom, or godliness, or in
the cogency and relevance of his message. I can’t get that extreme of
uniqueness out of my reading of the New Testament.

I suspect that many conservative Christians might, in a roundabout
way, agree

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with me. Humanist and rationalist Christians often emphasize the human
Jesus as a uniquely impressive human being. The more traditional Christian
reason to see Jesus as unique is to state that he is “the only begotten
son of God.” This separates him from all other human beings, whose
task is to worship, rather than to venerate him. And his task is to do
what no human can do–to atone for sin and redeem humanity. This way
of understanding Jesus emphasizes the mission over the message and sees
Jesus as external savior who confers or bestows liberation on another. In
Buddhist terms, this is the essence of theism, the most puzzling and
unrealistic doctrine of Christianity to a Buddhist. At this point, as
a Buddhist, I simply pull back to listen.

A Buddhist Jesus

But setting aside claims at any level, whether absolute or relative, as
to the uniqueness and indispensability of Jesus’ message and mission,
how could a Buddhist fit Jesus into a Buddhist framework? In listening
to comparisons of the Buddha and the Christ, I have often been struck
by the impression that, because of the political hegemony of Western
thought modes, most of the discourse regards the Jesus of Christianity
as the normative figure and tries to understand the Buddha in his terms,
by comparison with him. I want to reverse that process and try to explore
what a genuinely Buddhist Jesus might be like.

This process begins by noting a less serious–though perhaps more
interesting–difference between Buddhism and Christianity than Christian
claims about the uniqueness and indispensability of the message and
mission of Jesus. The Christian tendency is to locate truth in the
messenger, whereas Buddhism tends to focus on the message. This I think
correlates well the Christian tendency to personify the ultimate while
Buddhists tend toward nonpersonal metaphors about ultimate reality. I
cannot think of any reason to argue that one style is more conducive
to humane behavior than the other, so using the principle of assessing
doctrines on the basis of their utility, I see no reason to draw these two
styles into competition with each other. Because I regard absolutism and
exclusivism as the problem, I would not critique the Christian tendency
to center on the messenger, but its tendency to absolutize the Messenger.

Though Buddhism does not focus on the messenger, nevertheless it has
developed a considerable repertoire of anthropomorphic and personalized
symbols that can be of considerable significance on the spiritual path
of the Buddhist. Using the method of mutual transformation through
dialogue, I want to suggest that Christians seeking ways to go beyond
absolutizing the Messenger might well study Buddhist ways of mythologizing
and conceptualizing their personal and anthropomorphic figures, which are
important and spiritually helpful, but are not absolutized. Therefore, I
will indulge in a constructive fantasy, imagining how I would see Jesus
interpreted if Buddhist ways of interpreting the messenger were to be
utilized by Christians.

This exercise should be grounded in several generalizations about

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figures in Buddhism. First, in every case, there are numerous examples
of each type. No one is ultimately unique, though each has ordinary
uniqueness–that is to say, individuality. Second, they are always
human examples and ideals, not lords of an unattainable state. They
are exalted and may be far beyond my current abilities, but not
beyond my human capabilities. Thus, we approach them with veneration
but not with worship. This distinction between worship and veneration
is critical for explaining the difference in attitude and ritual mood
between nontheism and theism–and often between Asian and monotheistic
forms of religion. Veneration honors and respects someone who has
attained a great deal and inspires the venerator to strive toward that
attainment, but there is no metaphysical duality between venerator and
venerated. Worship declares allegiance and praises or thanks the other,
acknowledging an ultimate duality between worshiper and worshiped.

When discussing important anthropomorphic symbols in Buddhism and
comparing them to the Jesus of Christianity, the first figure that comes
to mind is, of course, the Buddha figure. Hence, Christians who wish
to draw parallels between Jesus and other important religious figures
often suggest this comparison. After all, both the Buddha and Jesus
are seen as founders. Buddhists, however, are more likely to compare
the Jesus of Christianity with the bodhisattva figure. I share that
judgment because classically, rather different claims are made about
the Buddha than about Jesus, their biographies are only superficially
similar, and their missions are quite different. That both are seen by
historians as founders of a new religion is too superficial to create a
profound similarity. I doubt that either saw himself as founder of a new
religion, nor do their followers regard their religions as nonexistent
before the Buddha or Jesus lived.

The major difference between a Buddha and the Christ, which causes these
two figures to be quite dissimilar, concerns what their followers believe
each can do for the faithful. Buddhists go for refuge to the Buddha as
example, but the Buddha’s own enlightenment solves only his problems, not
theirs. Vicarious enlightenment is not possible according to Buddhist
analysis (except for Pure Land Buddhism). Christians have faith in
Jesus as the redeemer, whose sacrificial death does what they cannot
do, providing the means for reconciliation with a transcendent deity by
vicariously atoning for all sin. Vicarious atonement and redemption are
the only possibility in classical Christianity.

From this vast difference in declaring whether or not the primary task
of the founder is to vicariously save or free the faithful follow other
important differences. There is only one Jesus of Christianity, whereas
all forms of Buddhism, including those that claim there is only one
Buddha in each world age, affirm the existence of multiple Buddhas,
the Buddhas of the three times. These Buddhas are more identical than
unique; they are difficult to distinguish iconographically and the salient
points of their mythic biographies are identical. The point being made
is that, wondrous as are the accomplishments of a Buddha, they are not
unreduplicatable. The extent to which a Buddhist is encouraged to strive
for Buddhahood differs considerably among the various strands of Buddhism,
but that others besides Siddartha

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Gautama become Buddhas is affirmed by all forms of Buddhism, and none
claims that Siddartha’s Buddhahood saves anyone else.

All forms of Buddhism also mention in passing a little-known figure,
the pratyekabuddha, often translated as a “solitary Buddha.” The
meaning of his or her solitariness is that this person understands
fully and becomes enlightened without a teacher, simply by deducing the
spiritual and physical laws of existence through contemplation. This
person not only is not a student of another, but also, unlike a Buddha,
does not teach. For this reason, the pratyekabuddha is not dwelt
upon or honored in most forms of Buddhism. But the importance for a
comparison with the Jesus of Christianity is the Buddhist affirmation,
again, that salvation need not be mediated by another and that the
enlightenment of a Buddha is not unique.

Given Buddhism and Christianity as they are currently
constituted, Jesus is not very similar to either a Buddha or a
pratyekabuddha. Furthermore, the dissimilarities mirror the major
doctrinal differences between the two religions. When we discuss the
Buddhist bodhisattva figure, however, we find that real similarities
exist between the two religions in their current forms. The bodhisattva
is known to all forms of Buddhism but is much more central to Mahayana
than to Theravadin forms of Buddhism. Not by definition, but by derived
implication, a bodhisattva is a future Buddha, someone who has taken
the vow to achieve complete perfect unsurpassable enlightenment for the
benefit of all sentient beings, rather than to rest with the individually
salvific enlightenment of an arahant. In Mahayana Buddhism, this
is the ideal of all serious adherents of the religion and most take the
bodhisattva vow. Those with a casual knowledge of Buddhism often are more
familiar with the great mythic bodhisattvas of the Mahayana pantheon, but
to emphasize them to the exclusion of the ordinary mundane bodhisattva
is incorrect. For one who takes the bodhisattva vow, the emphasis is
generally not on the ultimate goal of final enlightenment, but on the
intermediate lives of the bodhisattva, who trains ceaselessly in wisdom
and method (prajna and upaya of the first section of this
paper), and who is willing to go to any lengths or make any sacrifice
that would help others progress spiritually.

Some obvious parallels can be made with the Jesus of Christianity. In
Buddhist terms, Jesus seems much more like a bodhisattva than like a
Buddha to me. This is because of his willingness to suffer on behalf of
others and the extent to which, according to the text itself as well as
all forms of Christianity, he put the well-being of others before his own
comfort–an important, emotionally moving ideal for Mahayanists. Also,
insofar as the imitation of Christ is an important moral ideal in
Christianity, the individual Christian’s attempt to be Christlike is
similar to the Mahayanist’s assumption of the bodhisattva’s task. This
comparison also downplays some of the contrasts that make the comparison
of Jesus and Buddha less apt. In both cases, the emphasis is on the
passion of the compassionate helper, not on the eventual achievement or
results of that passion, which, as we have seen, are quite different.

In Buddhism, it is even clearer that there are many bodhisattvas than
it is that the Buddha is not unique. Thus it is easy for a Buddhist to
see Jesus as ‘a bodhisattva,’

[End Page 72]

as there is no dogma or assumption that all bodhisattvas belong to the
Buddhist religion. Since a Buddhist would not say “the bodhisattva,”
implying that there is only one unique bodhisattva, a Buddhist could
easily see Jesus as a bodhisattva without acknowledging Christian claims
about his uniqueness or universality. In sum, this is a way that Buddhists
can appreciate Jesus in Buddhist terms with a minimum of conflict between
Buddhist assertions and Christian assertions. Probably, however, even
the Christian pluralist wouldn’t be satisfied, since a Buddhist could, if she or he wanted, venerate Jesus as a bodhisattva, but no Buddhist
would claim that one must venerate this bodhisattva,
or insist on “the universality and indispensability of his message and
mission.” But at least Buddhist and Christian pluralists could agree that
there is no problem with the continued existence of the two religions
with two different conceptualizations of the ultimate.

The final Buddhist anthropomorphic figures that I will discuss are not
well understood by many, but in my opinion they provide the most authentic
way of incorporating Jesus into a Buddhist conceptual system. Therefore,
these figures could be most productively contemplated by Christians
interested in using Buddhist materials to expand their understandings
of the Jesus of Christianity. The yidams of Vajrayana Buddhism,
colorful beings who are depicted with great variety in Tibetan art, are
anthropomorphic personifications of enlightened activity. These beings
are of both genders, often with multiple heads and arms, portrayed in
vivid primary colors, sometimes alone and sometimes in sexual embrace,
sometimes wrathful and sometimes peaceful. Though outsiders are most
familiar with them as art objects, their true significance is their
esoteric use in meditation, as so-called meditation deities. They are
visualized by the meditator, who also recites a liturgy explaining all
the symbolism contained in the colors, attributes, and poses of these
deities, performs hand gestures that express these meanings, and intones
a mantra specific to the deity. There are many yidams in Vajrayana
Buddhism and they are not ranked in a hierarchy. In a vague way, a certain
yidam might be especially appropriate for a specific individual,
stage of life, or situation, but this is a matter of utility, of method,
of using the right tool for the job, not of right or wrong, correct or
incorrect, conceptually.

These deities, however, are quite different from the deities of
monotheistic religions, at least as their deities are usually understood
by monotheists. As anthropomorphic representation of enlightenment,
they are not metaphysically separate creators and saviors. As such, they
are not ultimately separate from the meditator, who identifies with the
deity by visualizing him or herself as the deity, using this method to
wake up more quickly one’s own enlightened qualities. In this kind of
meditation, it is possible to relate fully with a deity emotionally
without falling into the conceptual trap (from the Buddhist point of
view) of metaphysical dualism.

To see Jesus as a yidam would probably seem incongruent to
many Christians. Yet to me this is the most attractive and reasonable
possibility of all. This may in some part be due to the fact that I
myself, despite my personal history and my conceptual disagreement with
much Christian conceptual apparatus, can appreciate Christian liturgy very
deeply if I take it as Christian sadhana, thinking of it in much

[End Page 73]

the same way that I think of Buddhist sadhana liturgies invoking
the meditation deities with whom I have worked in my own practices. I
must confess to occasional fantasy of what a sadhana invoking
Jesus in yab-yum form would entail and how beneficial it could be!

There are also substantive reasons for suggesting this possibility. Using
the criterion of utility, of assessing a religious phenomenon in
terms of its effect on those who adhere to it, Jesus as the yidam of a Christian sadhana would encourage profound emotional,
psychological, and spiritual transformation in those who performed
this sadhana. This transformation, after all, is the important
factor. My studies as a historian of religions lead me to suspect that
all successful religious activity in fact does what is explicitly and
consciously sought in the practice of sadhana–self-transformation,
temporary and permanent, through using all human faculties (body,
speech, and mind) in meditative or contemplative ritual. To do so through
visualization of and identification with a yidam as anthropomorphic
representation of enlightenment, as well as of one’s own potential, is
simply to be very explicit and self-aware about one’s goals.

Interpreting Jesus as a yidam intersects in interesting ways
with central Christian interpretations of Jesus as “the incarnate son of
God.” If we interpret Jesus as an incarnate son of God, with an emphasis
on the incarnate person rather than on his task of atonement
and redemption, the conversation can go in a direction quite different
from usual Christian claims. Is it necessary to see Jesus as uniquely incarnate? The usual answer is yes. It is a truism that, while
Christians are urged to be Christlike, no one of them aspires to become
Christ. To me, as a Buddhist, this idea seems almost self-defeating. To
put it most bluntly, to me it would be supremely frustrating to be told
on the one hand that I should be Christlike, but on the other that I
am condemned and predestined to failure in that central task. To see
Jesus as model of incarnation rather than as sole possible example of
incarnation would be so much more inspiring and attractive.
And that would be the effect of regarding Jesus as a yidam whose
sadhana one practiced both in formal meditation and in life. Such
an interpretation of Jesus would also mesh well with the most basic
effect of incarnational theology, which is the sense of sacramental
or sacred presence in the world that flows out of a theology of deity
incarnate in the phenomenal world. A sense of sacred presence within
the phenomenal world overcomes the remoteness of a transcendent deity
and also overcomes the metaphysical dualism between deity and humanity.

Christians, however–even pluralist Christians–might well find my
suggestion ludicrous and state cogent reasons why. I have anticipated at
least some of their objections and could reply. First, they might say,
the identification with Jesus is unacceptable and blasphemous. But I
would suggest that if one is serious about the imitation of Christ, such
meditations are rather effective means to that end. Second, many would
say that yidams are clearly mythic projections, whereas Jesus is
a historical character. My reply would be that the Jesus of Christianity,
theologized as the second person of a trinity, is also highly mythic and
that the Jesus of empirical history is untraceable. Religion is not made
of empirical history; it is made of mythical

[End Page 74]

history, of highly selective symbolic interpretations of historical
events, even for those religions that are ‘historical.’ Jesus is
effective and transformative for Christian piety of all levels
of sophistication insofar as he functions as what Jungians would
call an archetype, not because of his historical existence. I do not
think such a statement psychologizes religion but rather explains how
religious doctrines, which are mythic projections, work to transform
their adherents.

However, I also have different reservations about the suggestions I
have just made. They explain how I as a Buddhist would understand Jesus
if I for some reason were compelled to fit Jesus into my religious
universe. There is no real reason why I should do that, since I
reject the Christian pluralists’ claim for “the universality and
indispensability of his message and mission.” Nor do I presume that
Christians should be attracted to my solution of what is essentially
their problem–the meaning of the Jesus of Christianity to Christians who
coinhabit a global village with non-Christians. I prefer, in the long
run, to let the two myth and symbol systems stand as they are–unique,
radically different, and magnificent. That solution, however, requires
everyone to renounce exclusive and absolute claims for and about their
conceptualizations of the ultimate. That includes Christians and their
claims for the uniqueness, unsurpassability, finality, indispensability,
and universality of Jesus! Except for that claim, he seems fine as he
is and doesn’t really need to be reconceptualized in Buddhist terms. I
have never understood why Christians feel they would lose so much if
they gave up those claims about Jesus. To me it seems they lose nothing
important and would gain cohumanity with the rest of us.

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire


This essay was first prepared for a conference on Views of Jesus
from the Perspectives of the World’s Religions, held at Vivekananda
Monastery and Retreat Center, Ganges, Michigan, September 1990. It has
been substantially revised for publication.

Paul Griffiths, Christianity through Non-Christian Eyes (Maryknoll,
New York: Orbis, 1990).

From the brochure announcing the conference for which this paper was
initially written.

Paul Knitter, “Key questions for a Theology of Religions,” Horizons 17, no. 1 (1990), pp. 92-97.

Ibid., p. 97.

Griffiths, p. 236.

In Mahayana Buddhism, upaya and prajna are the two most
important disciplines of and skills sought by a bodhisattva. Though both
are equally important and necessary, and the goal of religious practice
could be said to the “union of upaya and prajna,” this
union of the right and left hands brought in anjali, the mudra
of folded hands, or the union of male and female in the sexual embrace
of the yab-yum icon. In other words, this union is the union of
nonduality, not the union of monism. This extremely subtle point cannot
be overemphasized.

Ruhula Walpola, What the Buddha Taught, (New York: Grove Press,
1974) p. 11.

This is one of the most familiar metaphors for the multiplicity of

Griffiths, p. 164.

Interestingly, many Christian feminists are also suggesting that Jesus
be seen as model of incarnation, rather than as sole representative
of incarnation.

Buddhist-Christian Studies 19.1 (1999) 62-75
Copyright ⓒ 1999 The University of Hawai’i Press. All rights reserved.

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