Saturday, April 20, 2002

Encounter: Who Was/Is Jesus, Buddha, Krishna?

"Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?"(Matthew 11:3)

One day soon after we had started to meet, I asked the kids in our Monday Club (See April 6) if they knew anything about who Jesus was. We talked for a bit and then one of the Thai boys said, "My uncle is a Buddhist monk. I want to know about who Buddha was." I had to admit I knew little about Buddha but I promised I'd find out as much as I could. That started me on a new course of study that continues to this day. I began with the encyclopedia, then checked out books through my seminary library, went on-line to Buddhist sites and perused the bookstores. I even found a Buddhist group that met at the local Unitarian Church and attended a few dharma talks. Over the years I've met Buddhists from Southeast Asia and America and asked questions and discovered that the average Buddhist lay person knows about as much about his faith as the average Christian lay person which isn't a great deal. I also discovered I couldn't tell a whole lot of difference between the faith expressions of most lay Christians and lay Buddhists and that they share many of the same beliefs about moral living, heaven and hell, etc. Of course, there are belief differences, but especially in the popular practice of religion, many things are similar.

I also discovered that in the Buddhist religion as in the Christian religion, there is great vast difference between what is believed and taught and the actual practice and lived experience of average people. There are at least as many varieties of Buddhism as there are varieties of Christians and a wide range of doctrinal differences. There is also a great difference in teachers or pastors. Some are definitely more learned and spiritual than others. As in all professions or vocations, doctors, lawyers, teachers, pastors or whatever, half of them graduated in the bottom half of their class and some of them profess in the words of a Methodist pastor I once knew, "I picked the job where I could make the most money with the least amount of work."

I also became curious to learn more about other eastern religions such as Hinduism and Taoism so my quest has expanded into these areas also. As much as I am gratified and fascinated by what I have discovered and as much as I try to learn about these other pathways, I will always be an armchair Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist. At best, these other religious studies have given me a deeper understanding and appreciation of my own faith. I am a better Christian for learning more about Buddhism. But as I have agreed with and identified with my brothers and sisters in these other religions, I also am aware that I am not part of the culture that produces and nurtures a primary religious experience in these areas. One cannot become a Jew, Christian, Buddhist by reading some books, taking some classes or being initiated, baptized or confirmed. Religion and faith are a lifetime experience and take place within a particular cultural context. The Native American people insist on these same principles. No matter how fascinated European Americans may be with their culture, you can't be a Native American by attending a few sweat lodges or putting feathers in your hair. One must be born and bred into the culture, or at least, adopt the culture in such a way that your entire life is lived and immersed in the community. Religion is not an interesting and pleasant occasional weekend experience at a retreat center.

As a Protestant pastor, as much as I approve and appreciate Catholic Christians veneration of Mary, and even though I have added recitation of the Rosary to my prayer life, I never will have the "feel" of Marian spirituality that a life-long Catholic will have because it has not been an integral part of my cultural experience. I will continue to study Marian theology, though, because I am deeply interested to learn about anything that people have found to be a window to God. So who are/were Jesus, Buddha, Krishna?

They are icons, windows through which we may gain a glimpse of God. Think of a round tower set high on a hill with an uninterrupted view of the landscape in all directions. All around the tower are windows, each with a different view, but not the same view because each window is focused on and reveals a different part of the landscape. Yet, because the tower is round, each view will contain part of the view of the other windows at the periphery although each window is centered primarily on one aspect of the landscape.

The view from the Hindu window is centered on the universal nature of God or Brahma. The view of the Buddhist window is centered on the interior aspect of the universal spiritual experience. The view from the Christian window is centered on the historical, incarnational aspect of God. This is highly simplistic, of course, and there are other windows besides, each focusing and revealing in greater clarity a different piece of the landscape. The point is, we gain wisdom by looking through as many of these windows as possible, but the views are so complex and detailed we don't have the time to really concentrate on more than one particular view. Besides, what we are able to discern from each view will depend on the tools we bring with us to the search, like the knowledge an astronomer has when looking through a telescope at the night sky. We need language, symbols, a whole thought world in order to understand and interpret what we see. Each of the different religions is a complete and coherent discipline with sets of symbols, language and experience that reveals in greatest possible clarity what humans have been able to learn about a small portion of the whole God experience. We not only see through a glass darkly, but only partially. And as in particle physics, what we see is conditioned by the position of the observer.

So when I met with the Monday Club the next week, I shared the little bit I had been able to learn about Buddha with the children. Then I told them that if they really wanted to learn more, and learn it well, they needed to encourage their parents to find a Buddhist community to become a part of and they needed to study and participate and practice and pray and learn as much as they could and they would benefit greatly and so would their families and so would their whole community because Buddha had laid out a pathway for them to follow through the wilderness of life that was sure and certain to lead them where God wanted them to go.

I explained that I could not teach them as well about Buddha as I could about Jesus because that was the pathway I had learned. But I could teach them about the pathway of Jesus and if they followed this pathway they would benefit greatly and later if their parents took them along another pathway, they would have discovered a lot that was already familiar because we were climbing up the same mountain, only by different routes.