16 October 2007

Gautama the Buddha through Christian Eyes

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 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 absolutely right!" frequently came to my lips when I read the discourses. Although it can be argued that the dynamic of the oral tradition conditioned the texts in such a way that it cannot be assumed what is now read are the words of the Buddha, my experience was that a person emerged from my reading--a down-to-earth, practical, compassionate person, who met people where they were and yet pushed their thought forward in devastatingly effective ways through appealing to their experience of reason. For me, a person shone through the message as much as the message itself cast light around the person.

I brought to my encounter with Buddhism both an interest in the contemplative tradition of Christianity and a commitment to social action. I found the words of the Buddha as given in the Pali texts spoke to both of these. One message that leapt out at me from the Buddha through the texts was, "The way you see the world is wrong. Change." At every level, Buddha was in dialogue with the philosophies and thought patterns of his time: deeds, not birth as a criteria for judging humans; action, not withdrawal from action; diligent mental culture to transform the mind rather than ritual; questioning and discernment rather than blind faith--all this the texts show him affirming, and it appealed to me. For instance, in the Sigalovada Sutta of the Digha Nikaya (DN iii 180ff), the Buddha meets Sigala, prostrating to the quarters of the earth as his relations had always done, his hair wet in the early morning. He cannot give an explanation for his action. The Buddha's response is to stress that to assure right relationships--between parents and children, wife and husband, employer and employee--is the best way to pay homage to the quarters of the earth, an answer rooted in concern that society should be harmonious and governed by both rights and duties. Then, in the Samanamandika Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya II 22FF), a wanderer puts before the Buddha the view that the most virtuous person is one who does no evil with his body, speaks no evil, and intends no evil. "Then," the Buddha replies, "the most virtuous and spiritually advanced person would be a baby boy lying on its back." Effort to develop wholesome qualities and wholesome action is necessary--not simply refraining from wrong, the Buddha insists.

This practical, eminently sensible teaching spoke with the ring of truth to me. So did the picture repeatedly given by the Buddha of the consequences of ignorance and not-knowing; in other words, a world enmeshed and on fire with selfish craving, destroying harmony, and generating suffering. This accorded very well with my own analysis of the roots of global inequalities and violence.

The Buddha's encouragement of women also spoke to me through the texts. It is true that he is shown to hesitate when his aunt and foster mother come with a band of followers to request ordination. He then lays down extra rules for the nuns that ensure their subordination to monks. Yet the Therigatha (The Songs of the Sisters, Khuddaka Nikaya) shows him exhorting women to reach the very highest and implying that some had already done so.

The second way in which I have learned of the Buddha is through iconography, art, and devotion. I can remember a Christian priest once said something like this to me: "The Buddha image speaks to me of coldness, of noninvolvement, of a turning away from life. I prefer the image of Jesus Christ with his robes dirty, with the sweat of the poor." I can see why this was said but cannot empathize with it. Traditional Buddhist iconography does present the Buddha as detached, but my contact with text and tradition convinces me it is detachment from those qualities that cause havoc in society, not from concern for human suffering. Within a BBC World Service Words of Faith, a four-minute daily talk, I once made this comment on the sense of peace that emanates from the gigantic stone images of the Buddha at the Gal Vihara at Polonnaruwa in Sri Lanka: "It is not the peace of indifference or apathy. It is the peace of wisdom and compassion, which arises when the heart-rending nature of human violence and human greed is fully realized. It is not an anguished, twisted scream of horror at the nature of the world's inhumanity, but a silent, gentle embodiment in stone of empathy, compassion and strength."

This is what I see in the Buddha image. I sense it is what many Buddhists also see, and it is a source of strength. The Jataka or birth stories within the Khuddaka Nikaya of the Pali canon show the Buddha to be giving his body, his eyes, his blood, his limbs again and again for the good of others. This perpetuation comes to fruition when he is born as Prince Siddartha, and it is the fruit of this that the image conveys and devotion affirms. "Do not sink yourself in ego-centered anxiety, in frenzied activity and mental turmoil--relax, be mindful, accept that you will age and die, and develop compassion for all that lives." This is the message that seems to come from the image to me.

The third way in which I have learned of the Buddha is through the words of Buddhist friends. "What does the person of the Buddha mean to you?" was a question I asked many Buddhists in Asia and Britain when I was involved in making a series of radio programs on Buddhism. For some the Buddha was supremely a shower of the way, a wise, compassionate teacher, epitome of all that is good. Others went further and spoke of a much more personal sense of inspiration from the example of the Buddha's life. Yet others spoke of realizing enlightenment themselves. One senior Buddhist monk in Sri Lanka said this: "I like to have my Buddha living within me. His enlightenment was personal to him, but as the Mahayanists or Zen Buddhists would say, there's enlightenment in every grain of sand. Why not within me? So I've already got a pacesetter, the Buddha, in my heart so that it keeps inspiring me all of the time."

Such witness has warmed and thrilled me. It does not cause me difficulty as a Christian. I too gain inspiration from the Buddha and hope that his compassion and wisdom will permeate my mind and heart. Yet as a Christian there are inevitably differences in the way I see the Buddha and the way Buddhists do. For, alongside the Buddha, I place Jesus of Nazareth and his relationship with God. I can draw into myself the Buddha's urgent message about the destructive consequences of egocentric craving based on the illusion that there is permanence in our bodies, our possessions, or our happinesses. I can benefit from the practice of mindfulness upon which the Buddha laid so much stress. Yet I have to ask, "Do I believe the Buddha discovered the whole truth about human existence?" If I did, surely I would be a Buddhist. I am not. My encounter with the Buddha and what he taught has changed me irrevocably, but it has not destroyed my belief that there is 'other power' and such a thing as the grace of God.

As I talk to Christians about the Buddha, reactions vary. At one extreme, there are those who see the Buddha image as an idol and Buddhism itself as a cult. At one meeting I addressed, horror was expressed by some listeners when I said I used Buddhist methods of meditation. They believed I was dabbling in the cultic. There can be no doubt that some Christians have no empathy with the Buddha whatsoever, and this is reinforced by material published and broadcast by some conservative evangelical groups. Then at the other extreme are those who would call themselves Christian Buddhists, often through a close encounter with Zen. I am a member of a Buddhist-Christian dialogue group in which there has been deep mutual exploration and a high level of sympathy and understanding. At one weekend retreat at a Buddhist monastery, the shrine room was transformed by the placing of a Christian altar with an icon at the same level as the Buddha image. It was difficult to tell who was Buddhist and who was Christian as we entered, as most of us bowed to both images. In the middle ground are people like the priest I have quoted who have trouble with the concept of detachment in Buddhism and see the Buddha image as embodying an escapist or individualistic spirituality. In this case, dialogue can help to destroy misconceptions. Yet the strength of this view among Christians should not be underestimated, and it is compounded by the hijacking of the Buddha image by some New Age spiritualities.

My personal conviction is that the Buddha has a message for the whole of humankind, not only those who label themselves Buddhist. I do not believe that one has to be a Buddhist to revere the Buddha. The qualities of the Buddha resonate with those of other great religious leaders, whether Jesus, Guru Nanak, or Mahavira. There is a family likeness and this must be recognized and celebrated. But, of course, there are differences. The issue of divinity is just one. These should neither be voided nor seen as inescapably confrontational. For it is at these points of difference that potentially there is the most opportunity for growth. The apparent depth of difference can be proportional to the depth of the potential for mutual enrichment.
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