16 December 2008

When Jesus met Buddha

Something remarkable happened when evangelists for two great religions crossed paths more than 1,000 years ago: they got along.

Was the Buddha a demon? While few mainline Christians would put the matter in such confrontational terms, any religion claiming exclusive access to truth has real difficulties reconciling other great faiths into its cosmic scheme. Most Christian churches hold that Jesus alone is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, and many also feel an obligation to carry that message to the world's unbelievers. But this creates a fundamental conflict with the followers of famous spiritual figures like Mohammed or Buddha, who preached radically different messages. Drawing on a strict interpretation of the Bible, some Christians see these rival faiths as not merely false, but as deliberate traps set by the forces of evil.

Being intolerant of other religions - consigning them to hell, in fact - may be bad enough in its own right, but it increasingly has real-world consequences. As trade and technology shrink the globe, so different religions come into ever-closer contact with one another, and the results can be bloody: witness the apocalyptic assaults in Mumbai. In such a world, teaching different faiths to acknowledge one another's claims, to live peaceably together side by side, stops being a matter of good manners and becomes a prerequisite for human survival.

Over the past 30 years, the Roman Catholic Church has faced repeated battles over this question of Christ's uniqueness, and has cracked down on thinkers who have made daring efforts to accommodate other world religions. While the Christian dialogue with Islam has attracted most of the headlines, it is the encounters with Hinduism and especially Buddhism that have stirred the most controversy within the church. Sri Lankan theologians Aloysius Pieris and Tissa Balasuriya have had many run-ins with Vatican critics, and, more recently, the battle has come to American shores. Last year, the Vatican ordered an investigation of Georgetown University's Peter Phan, a Jesuit theologian whose main sin, in official eyes, has been to treat the Buddhism of his Vietnamese homeland as a parallel path to salvation.

Following the ideas of Pope Benedict XVI, though, the church refuses to give up its fundamental belief in the unique role of Christ. In a widely publicized open letter to Italian politician Marcello Pera, Pope Benedict declared that "an inter-religious dialogue in the strict sense of the term is not possible." By all means, he said, we should hold conversations with other cultures, but not in a way that acknowledges other religions as equally valid. While the Vatican does not of course see the Buddha as a demon, it does fear the prospect of syncretism, the dilution of Christian truth in an unholy mixture with other faiths.

Beyond doubt, this view places Benedict in a strong tradition of Christianity as it has developed in Europe since Roman times. But there is another, ancient tradition, which suggests a very different course. Europe's is not the only version of the Christian faith, nor is it necessarily the oldest heir of the ancient church. For more than 1,000 years, other quite separate branches of the church established thriving communities across Asia, and in their sheer numbers, these churches were comparable to anything Europe could muster at the time. These Christian bodies traced their ancestry back not through Rome, but directly to the original Jesus movement of ancient Palestine. They moved across India, Central Asia, and China, showing no hesitation to share - and learn from - the other great religions of the East.

Just how far these Christians were prepared to go is suggested by a startling symbol that appeared on memorials and stone carvings in both southern India and coastal China during the early Middle Ages. We can easily see that the image depicts a cross, but it takes a moment to realize that the base of the picture - the root from which the cross is growing - is a lotus flower, the symbol of Buddhist enlightenment.

In modern times, most mainstream churches would condemn such an amalgam as a betrayal of the Christian faith, an example of multiculturalism run wild. Yet concerns about syncretism did not bother these early Asian Christians, who called themselves Nasraye, Nazarenes, like Jesus's earliest followers. They were comfortable associating themselves with the other great monastic and mystical religion of the time, and moreover, they believed that both lotus and cross carried similar messages about the quest for light and salvation. If these Nazarenes could find meaning in the lotus-cross, then why can't modern Catholics, or other inheritors of the faith Jesus inspired?

Many Christians are coming to terms with just how thoroughly so many of their fundamental assumptions will have to be rethought as their faith today becomes a global religion. Even modern church leaders who know how rapidly the church is expanding in the global South tend to see European values and traditions as the indispensable norm, in matters of liturgy and theology as much as music and architecture.

Yet the reality is that Christianity has from its earliest days been an intercontinental faith, as firmly established in Asia and Africa as in Europe itself. When we broaden our scope to look at the faith that by 800 or so stretched from Ireland to Korea, we see the many different ways in which Christians interacted with other believers, in encounters that reshaped both sides. At their best, these meetings allowed the traditions not just to exchange ideas but to intertwine in productive and enriching ways, in an awe-inspiring chapter of Christian history that the Western churches have all but forgotten.

To understand this story, we need to reconfigure our mental maps. When we think of the growth of Christianity, we think above all of Europe. We visualize a movement growing west from Palestine and Syria and spreading into Greece and Italy, and gradually into northern regions. Europe is still the center of the Catholic Church, of course, but it was also the birthplace of the Protestant denominations that split from it. For most of us, even speaking of the "Eastern Church" refers to another group of Europeans, namely to the Orthodox believers who stem from the eastern parts of the continent. English Catholic thinker Hilaire Belloc once proclaimed that "Europe is the Faith; and the Faith is Europe."

But in the early centuries other Christians expanded east into Asia and south into Africa, and those other churches survived for the first 1,200 years or so of Christian history. Far from being fringe sects, these forgotten churches were firmly rooted in the oldest traditions of the apostolic church. Throughout their history, these Nazarenes used Syriac, which is close to Jesus' own language of Aramaic, and they followed Yeshua, not Jesus. No other church - not Roman Catholics, not Eastern Orthodox - has a stronger claim to a direct inheritance from the earliest Jesus movement.

The most stunningly successful of these eastern Christian bodies was the Church of the East, often called the Nestorian church. While the Western churches were expanding their influence within the framework of the Roman Empire, the Syriac-speaking churches colonized the vast Persian kingdom that ruled from Syria to Pakistan and the borders of China. From their bases in Mesopotamia - modern Iraq - Nestorian Christians carried out their vast missionary efforts along the Silk Route that crossed Central Asia. By the eighth century, the Church of the East had an extensive structure across most of central Asia and China, and in southern India. The church had senior clergy - metropolitans - in Samarkand and Bokhara, in Herat in Afghanistan. A bishop had his seat in Chang'an, the imperial capital of China, which was then the world's greatest superpower.

When Nestorian Christians were pressing across Central Asia during the sixth and seventh centuries, they met the missionaries and saints of an equally confident and expansionist religion: Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhists too wanted to take their saving message to the world, and launched great missions from India's monasteries and temples. In this diverse world, Buddhist and Christian monasteries were likely to stand side by side, as neighbors and even, sometimes, as collaborators. Some historians believe that Nestorian missionaries influenced the religious practices of the Buddhist religion then developing in Tibet. Monks spoke to monks.

In presenting their faith, Christians naturally used the cultural forms that would be familiar to Asians. They told their stories in the forms of sutras, verse patterns already made famous by Buddhist missionaries and teachers. A stunning collection of Jesus Sutras was found in caves at Dunhuang, in northwest China. Some Nestorian writings draw heavily on Buddhist ideas, as they translate prayers and Christian services in ways that would make sense to Asian readers. In some texts, the Christian phrase "angels and archangels and hosts of heaven" is translated into the language of buddhas and devas.

One story in particular suggests an almost shocking degree of collaboration between the faiths. In 782, the Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna arrived in Chang'an, bearing rich treasures of sutras and other scriptures. Unfortunately, these were written in Indian languages. He consulted the local Nestorian bishop, Adam, who had already translated parts of the Bible into Chinese. Together, Buddhist and Christian scholars worked amiably together for some years to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist wisdom. Probably, Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical good will, and we can only guess about the conversations that would have ensued: Do you really care more about relieving suffering than atoning for sin? And your monks meditate like ours do?

These efforts bore fruit far beyond China. Other residents of Chang'an at this very time included Japanese monks, who took these very translations back with them to their homeland. In Japan, these works became the founding texts of the great Buddhist schools of the Middle Ages. All the famous movements of later Japanese history, including Zen, can be traced to one of those ancient schools and, ultimately - incredibly - to the work of a Christian bishop.

By the 12th century, flourishing churches in China and southern India were using the lotus-cross. The lotus is a superbly beautiful flower that grows out of muck and slime. No symbol could better represent the rise of the soul from the material, the victory of enlightenment over ignorance, desire, and attachment. For 2,000 years, Buddhist artists have used the lotus to convey these messages in countless paintings and sculptures. The Christian cross, meanwhile, teaches a comparable lesson, of divine victory over sin and injustice, of the defeat of the world. Somewhere in Asia, Yeshua's forgotten followers made the daring decision to integrate the two emblems, which still today forces us to think about the parallels between the kinds of liberation and redemption offered by each faith.

Christianity, for much of its history, was just as much an Asian religion as Buddhism. Asia's Christian churches survived for more than a millennium, and not until the 10th century, halfway through Christian history, did the number of Christians in Europe exceed that in Asia.

What ultimately obliterated the Asian Christians were the Mongol invasions, which spread across Central Asia and the Middle East from the 1220s onward. From the late 13th century, too, the world entered a terrifying era of climate change, of global cooling, which severely cut food supplies and contributed to mass famine. The collapse of trade and commerce crippled cities, leaving the world much poorer and more vulnerable. Intolerant nationalism wiped out Christian communities in China, while a surging militant Islam destroyed the churches of Central Asia.

But awareness of this deep Christian history contributes powerfully to understanding the future of the religion, as much as its past. For long centuries, Asian Christians kept up neighborly relations with other faiths, which they saw not as deadly rivals but as fellow travelers on the road to enlightenment. Their worldview differed enormously from the norms that developed in Europe.

To take one example, we are used to the idea of Christianity operating as the official religion of powerful states, which were only too willing to impose a particular orthodoxy upon their subjects. Yet when we look at the African and Asian experience, we find millions of Christians whose normal experience was as minorities or even majorities within nations dominated by some other religion. Struggling to win hearts and minds, leading churches had no option but to frame the Christian message in the context of non-European intellectual traditions. Christian thinkers did present their message in the categories of Buddhism - and Taoism, and Confucianism - and there is no reason why they could not do so again. When modern scholars like Peter Phan try to place Christianity in an Asian and Buddhist context, they are resuming a task begun at least 1,500 years ago.

Perhaps, in fact, we are looking at our history upside down. Some day, future historians might look at the last few hundred years of Euro-American dominance within Christianity and regard it as an unnatural interlude in a much longer story of fruitful interchange between the great religions.

Consider the story told by Timothy, a patriarch of the Nestorian church. Around 800, he engaged in a famous debate with the Muslim caliph in Baghdad, a discussion marked by reason and civility on both sides. Imagine, Timothy said, that we are all in a dark house, and someone throws a precious pearl in the midst of a pile of ordinary stones. Everyone scrabbles for the pearl, and some think they've found it, but nobody can be sure until day breaks.

In the same way, he said, the pearl of true faith and wisdom had fallen into the darkness of this transitory world; each faith believed that it alone had found the pearl. Yet all he could claim - and all the caliph could say in response - was that some faiths thought they had enough evidence to prove that they were indeed holding the real pearl, but the final truth would not be known in this world.

Knowing other faiths firsthand grants believers an enviable sophistication, founded on humility. We could do a lot worse than to learn from what we sometimes call the Dark Ages.

2 comments:

Jeremiah said...

Thank you. I highly appreciate all you are writiing. I am learning much.

akhter said...

The Universal Appeal of Islam

By the soul, and the proportions and orders given to it. And its enlightenment as to its wrong and its right.' [91:7-8]

Islam is the religion of fitrah, i.e. human nature, and morality according to the Quran is something INHERENT in the nature of man. So true is this fact that the Holy Book draws attention to it in order to convince humanity of the truth of the Day of Judgement. If the Quran did not believe that all men possess a realization of 'good' and 'evil', why would it consider using it as an example to draw attention to the accountability in the next life?

The misunderstanding by many that Islam defines morality reveals a fundamental flaw in thinking and correction regarding the role of revelation is necessary because it affects the way Muslims present their religion. Instead of appealing to human nature in presenting their religion, Muslims have presented Islam in so many different ways, including a political and economic ideology, totally divorcing Islam from its universal appeal and in fact, the manner in which is was presented by the Prophets (AS). They present Islam as acting from 'without', and not from within the depths of his soul. The point of revelation is not to enforce a 'system', but to complement the human personality. Revelation was sent to remind men of their ultimate destiny and to regulate all those components (i.e. emotions, passions, hedonism and reason according to Moiz Amjad), that make up a human being so that he can achieve harmony in life. Without revelation, men tend to fall into extreme, whether it is through his own reason or heart. History is a testimony to this. Those that tended to have extremely sensitive 'religious' feelings often fell into ascetism viewing the world as evil. While the good people went to monasteries and churches, the world was left to those interested only in pursuing their selfish ends at the expense of the weaker class. This attitude towards piety clouded their view regarding 'war' as a means to achieve a just social order. It is absolutely no coincidence that the remarks of the Quran regarding monasticism and monkery are made in the context of 'jihad'. Thus, revelation balanced their perspective on attaining piety and goodness. As opposed to those who left the world, there were those whose worldliness tended to make them oblivious to the plight of others. They failed to see that although most wealth is earned was the result of their own hands, much of what they earned could be rightfully attributed to forces that were not the result of their own effort. Those that weren't as selfish realized this and acknowledged that there must be some way in which they could express their gratitude. But they were in a state of confusion, what the Quran calls 'dalalah', on what should they spend, how much should they spend and so forth. They could not figure it out through their own mind and faculties, so God in His Infinite Mercy sent revelation to complement this natural urge and provide them with the most balanced way to spend. Even the divisions of zakat took into account the labor of the individual, with fields that were primarily watered by purely natural forces being subjected to more tax than fields that involved more labor-intensive work.

Without this recognition of human nature, this attitude of presenting Islam from a manner of 'without' has has gone to such extremes that piety is often presented by certain circles as an adoption of certain norms and practices that are part of a specific culture. Revelation as we see, deals with those UNIVERSAL values that are part and parcel of human nature. They give us practical rules that allow for the proper expression of these human values, without which life becomes a dis-integrated mess. Men emphasize one aspect of their personality without given due prominence to another. One of the greatest examples of Muhammad (S) is his balanced and purely integrated personality. Before Islam, we find that he (S) was actually quite 'introverted' seeking recourse to the caves outside Mecca to think about life and its mysteries. But as soon as revelation descended upon him, shattering his very being, it resulted in all the depth and dimension of his personality to shine through. His simplicity was complemented by a profound sense of self-respect. His quiet nature was complemented by his strength when he saw the hudood of Allah, Glorious is He, being violated. A personality so vast and powerful that it totally changed the course of world history, inlfuencing not only the desert Arabs, but Europe as well. It is not coincidence, besides being paradoxical, that the proclamation "Read" to the UNLETTERED Prophet gave birth to the 'empirical sciences' that has so heavily influenced the modern world.

To present Islam in contradiction to the fitra of man goes directly against the universal teachings of the Quran and the Prophet (S). When the Quran says to enjoin the MA'RUF and forbid the MUNKAR, these terms do not signify acts of shareeah but universally recognized principles of good and evil. We find in the Quran commands to pay the mehr in accordance with the MARUF, which in Arabic refer to the NOBLE TRADITIONS OF A SOCIETY. If a rich man pays a mehr to his wife not in accordance to what is seen as noble in his society, he is not fulfilling the spirit of the Quran. The Quran tells the man that if he desires to marry a widow, whose husband had just died, he may indicate his desire to marry her only by taking into account the MARUF, which also includes the sensitives of a people of a particular culture. The shareeah never defines this MAR'UF because the traditions and cultures of men are so diverse, but here we find the Quran's love of all those GOOD traditions that originate out of the good nature of man. We find the Prophet (S) and His Companions (R) praising the MARUF even before Islam. In fact, Muhammad (S) had marvelled upon hearing a verse of pre-Islamic hanif poet, who died right before the coming of Islam, and proclaimed to the effect, "By God, this man came to the door of Islam."

Diversity is one of the signs and marvels of God, indicating His Wisdom, Mercy, and Providence according to the Divine text. In fact, to go against it would be declaring war on nature. The Prophet (S) said to the effect that if somebody came and told you a mountain moved, you can believe it, but if somebody came and told you a man changed his nature, i.e. his fitra, never believe it. Men cannot win a war against their own self, and their is no way possible the Creator of man could reveal a Book that contradicts his nature. "Does God not know what He created? He is the Subtle, the Aware."

This is precisely why God Almighty says, "We never sent a Messenger, except from his own people." Because of the nature of the role of a Messenger in making the truth clear to the people he presents it to, God, the All-Knowing sent one who could relate to the experiences of them. Further, the Quran itself speaks in such a way that it appeals to the various levels of intellect that make up these people. The Holy Book says to the effect that "We have explained the Quran in various ways so that men may take heed." It possesses the simplicity to charm the villager, and at the same time, its words possess such depth that a scientist who has studied all the various disciplines that humanity has discovered throughout time can find in it knowledge to quench his thirst. It possesses such musical charm that the poet Labid, whose verse use to hang on the Ka'aba, renounced his poetry saying to the effect that he forgot all his poetry once he learned the Quran. The Quran appeals to the diverse taste of men, both aesthetic and rational, or 'mind and heart'.

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