G.K. Chesterton once teased his contemporary proponents of comparative religion as arguing that:
Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, especially Buddhism.
He was right in that enthusiasm for a “common truth” in all religion seems almost by definition to resolve comfortably in the domain of a Buddhist-inspired mysticism. Modern advocates of a universal religion still tend to fall into the trap of equating Christ with the Buddha, and then cutting out the bits that don’t fit.
But Chesterton was not especially well informed about Buddhism, and I suspect that those who want to Buddhify Christ may be thinking a little too narrow in their approach to the problem.
That’s not what this post is about, however, and lest I get sidetracked let’s keep things simple.
After some years of consideration and study, it seems fairly straightforward that what is described in Buddhism as Sunyata or ’emptiness’ corresponds to the apophatic or “negative theology” aspect of God as something that defies the grasp of our intellect.
Buddhism may therefore be viewed from a Christian perspective as a conceptually negative attempt to enter into a profound mystical relationship with God, both understood and experienced as the hidden foundation of all reality.
From a Buddhist point of view, orthodox Christianity is a little harder to grasp. Okay, it’s actually a lot harder to grasp without conceding some points that don’t seem to lie in the usual ambit of Buddhist metaphysics.
But if all form arises from emptiness, and we understand (thanks to negative theology) that by ‘God’ Christians refer to this emptiness, then wouldn’t we have to allow that ‘creation’, or the coming into being and sustenance of all things, must be the same as the arising of forms out of emptiness?
The stumbling block of an anthropomorphised view of God as some kind of Zeus-like deity sitting above the clouds and contemplating how to interfere in our lives is not the view held by orthodox Christianity.
The real stumbling block is that orthodox Christians believe Jesus Christ to have been an incarnation (coming into form) of God (emptiness), as a true expression of the emptiness, in a way that differs from the Buddha, where the Buddha is understood to be an ordinary human who realised emptiness.
You can see why there is such a temptation to reduce Christ to the level of a Buddha, or to say that Christ’s claims of divinity were misunderstood by his followers, or that they are somehow the ‘equivalent’ of the Buddha’s enlightened state.
Yet at the same time, some Buddhist sects have gone in the opposite direction, elevating and even divinising the Buddha until he represents not just an awakened or enlightened human, but enlightenment and emptiness itself.
Some people are offended by Christian exceptionalism. That’s understandable, but Buddhism can also be exceptionalist in its own way – viewing other religions as inferior paths that do not contain the complete truth – it’s just that reincarnation allows Buddhism a much more relaxed attitude on a number of issues.
Since I’m angling for a Buddhist perspective on Christianity, let’s look at it from the more pragmatic perspective of the individual path to enlightenment. When Christians hold up the crucifix they are venerating the image of the highest possible being (God) that was reduced to the lowest and most miserable human condition – unjust suffering and death at the hands of others. They venerate this image in the understanding that the dead God-human did not remain in death, but came back to life, and in so doing revealed the truth about life, death, God, and humanity.
Is it any wonder that his followers subsequently lost their fear of death, changed their lives, and gained a new understanding of their relationship with God?
Each religion makes sense in its own context. We can also find points of contact between the different religions. But when we do this we are stepping outside the original frame of either religion. To try to make them all fit together is inevitably a different activity. To see them as saying the same thing is ultimately a solitary experience.
I guess the real question is whether it is otherwise for anyone else?