Minneapolis, MN – Building from my previous post on World Spirituality, I want to take a closer look at the relationship between Buddhism and Christianity, focusing on an interpretation of the particularly sticky and potentially enlightening matter of Jesus. What could the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus mean in light of the Buddhist critique of substantialist notions of self, other, world, and God?
Typically the life of Jesus is understood within the context of a worldview or implicit metaphysic that assumes the autonomous, substantial existence of self, other, world, and God. Because of this assumption, the entire story of sin and salvation is interpreted in terms of power. The moment you posit the essential existence of self, other, world, or God, you set up a dynamic of relationships between those essentially existing things that is based on power and force of will. A struggle ensues as the claims of different selves and identity groups come into conflict with each other. Self-interest is born. The outcome is decided by means of strength. Human history becomes the story of the triumph of the self or group, whether through force or persuasion, over all obstacles and all others. The Christian salvation narrative usually assumes this substantialist metaphysic. The story of Jesus is usually told as an epic struggle in which the hero/savior, in perfect obedience to the will of a transcendent all-powerful God, vanquishes the enemies of sin, death, and the devil. Good overcomes evil, and the hero returns at last to gather the souls of the righteous together in paradise. The eternal fate of the individual soul is determined by God, who, on that great and terrible day, will judge all people. Depending upon your doctrine, you will be judged either according to the good or evil you have done, whether or not you have believed in the saving power of Jesus Christ, or according to God’s own predestined decree. The righteous, whether by works or faith or sovereign whim, go to heaven. The unrighteous, whether by sinful acts or unbelief or sheer bad luck, go to hell.
But Buddhists do not believe that such “things” as the self, other, world, and God exist, at least not in the way that we tend to think that they exist. These “things” have no self-existing or enduring substance or essence. There is no soul to be judged or saved. In fact, the belief that things have substantial existence is seen by Buddhists as the fundamental delusion at the root of all suffering. From that delusion springs the pursuit of self-interest, the “craving” and “aversion” which together with ignorance or delusion constitute the three “poisons” or root causes of all suffering. Once I believe that I exist in some substantial, lasting, or enduring way, I become very concerned about securing that self, establishing my own identity, getting the things I want, and avoiding the things I don’t want. I become willing to manipulate or harm others in order to secure for myself the things I need. Death is the greatest threat to self, and immortality becomes my ultimate concern. Traditionally, Christianity provides a solution to this dilemma that functions entirely within the assumed context of the eternal soul or substantial self. Jesus becomes a means toward the ultimate security of the essential self– the very thing that Buddhists identify as the fundamental delusion .
But what happens if we look at the story of Jesus without assuming this substantialist metaphysic? What does the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ tell us about the categories of self, other, world, and God if the Buddhists are right that such things don’t ultimately exist in the way we assume? Could it be that Jesus also was addressing this fundamental delusion? Could it be that Jesus’ own life and work was in fact a radical critique of the metaphysics of substance? If Jesus does share an intimate identity with his Father, as he seems to have claimed, then what does the life of Jesus reveal about the true nature of God? Does not the cross of Christ itself represent the crucifixion of our substantialist notions about God? Isn’t it the case that Jesus is so singularly redemptive for the very reason that he uncompromisingly reveals the true nature of self, other, world, and God– completely subverting the substantialist paradigm underlying the violent drama of human relationships? Isn’t the point of Jesus, finally, to show us in no uncertain terms that God is love? Continue reading