a sermon by the Rev. Mark Worth (delivered in 2010 perhaps)
We don’t talk much about salvation. Universalists say don’t need to be saved from hell because a loving God wouldn’t damn us in the first place. Mark says he sees parallels between the teachings of both the Buddha and Jesus that “saves” Christianity for him, that helps him appreciate Jesus more, and helps him be a better Christian-Buddhist- Humanist.
- From Thich Nhat Hanh, Living Buddha, Living Christ, Riverhead Books, New York, 1995On the altar of my hermitage in France are images of Buddha and Jesus, and every time I light incense, I touch both of them as my spiritual ancestors. I can do this because of contact with real Christians. When you touch someone who authentically represents a tradition, you not only touch his or her own tradition, you also touch your own. This quality is essential for dialogue.
- From the Rev. Marlin Lavenhar, “Was Jesus a Buddha?” a sermon at All Souls Unitarian Church, Tulsa, Oklahoma, March 28, 2004.
By the time I reached my early twenties, I had become disillusioned with Christianity and Jesus. So, as I set out to travel the world, I was determined to learn about the many other religions. … Hindu Swamis along the Ganges River in India used the parables of Jesus to teach me about Hinduism. I learned from Muslims living in the Middle East that Jesus is a major figure in their religious tradition. I spent time studying various forms of Buddhist meditation in Japan, Tibet, India, Thailand, and Korea, and my Buddhist teachers had many positive things to say about Jesus.
We are in the Christian season of Lent, a good time to talk about Jesus. My sermon title, “How Buddhism Saves Jesus,” is meant to be both serious and somewhat provocative.
I know some people who would immediately react, “Jesus doesn’t need saving; Jesus is the one who saves us all.” Many Christians believe that Jesus, by dying on the cross, saves those who believe, so we might go to heaven and avoid hell. But that’s not what I’m talking about. I don’t believe we need to be saved from a God who will punish us for billions upon billions of years, in fact for all of eternity. What kind of God would punish us forever for things we may have done in a mere ninety years here on earth? That would not be justice.
In our UU tradition, the Universalists were historically the “no hell” church. They said that a loving and just God would not create a torture chamber called hell, and then create people so flawed that we needed to be sent there. The Universalists said that sin is like an illness; it should be healed, not punished. That makes more sense to me than a God who would set up a system in which many people, created in God’s image, have to be punished for eternity.
So I’m not talking about that kind of salvation. Yet I do believe that we need a kind of saving, here on earth, in this lifetime. To me, “salvation” – which is related to the word “salve,” a balm for healing – salvation means healing ourselves and the world, which we do by living a life that is not self- centered or self-absorbed, but is a life of loving-kindness and compassion. And that, in fact, is very close to the Buddhist idea of enlightenment.
So I want to talk about how Buddhism helps to save Christianity and Jesus for me. Because, like the Rev. Marlin Rev. Lavenhar, I went through a period of rejecting pretty much everything I had been taught about Jesus and the Christian religion. By the time I was sixteen, I had decided that the idea that anyone had literally been born of a virgin, could walk on water, turn water into wine, and restore dead people back to life, made no sense.
Other ways to understand Jesus ~
That’s still true. Yet, the Jesus that I had rejected was based on the literal thinking of a child. As an adult I decided that Jesus was worth another look. Because in ancient times every great person, Hercules, Theseus, Moses, Samson, Alexander the Great, Pythagoras, Julius Caesar, Confucius, the Buddha, all had miracles attributed to them. That’s just the way people thought then. But it’s not the miracles, not the magic, that is important. It’s the teachings of the person, and the results of their lives, that we should be looking at.
Let’s consider the fact that there are many forms of Christianity: Consider the difference between Roman Catholics and Quakers, between Mormons, Episcopalians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Greek Orthodox, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Congregationalists. They’re all very different.
And even in the first few centuries after Jesus lived, Christianity had as much variety then as there is today – there were Ebionites, Marcionites, Montanists, Donatists, Sabellians, Adoptionists, Gnostics, Arians, and more. Eventually one group won control of the Christian Church; but then the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other, dividing Christianity between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox. And then the Protestants and Catholics divided Christianity again into many denominations. There really has never been just one Christianity; there have always been many ways of understanding the path of Jesus.
My fundamentalist friends would stop me here and say, “But there is only one right way, and it’s our way. The Bible has the truth – when you interpret it the way we do.”
Well, even 300 years after the time of Jesus there still was no agreed-upon Christian Bible. They were still deciding: should the Gospel of Thomas be in or out? Out. How about the Book of Revelation? In. First Clement? Out. Epistle to the Hebrews? In. Judith? First and Second Maccabees? In for Catholics, out for Protestants. It took hundreds of years for fallible human beings to decide what would be in the Bible and what would be left out.
And even when we look at the Bible as it is now, we see that each of the Four Gospels gives a different interpretation of the life of Jesus. The Gospel attributed to John, especially, gives a strikingly different picture of Jesus, a Jesus who doesn’t cure lepers, doesn’t tell parables, doesn’t seem to suffer when he’s on the cross; a Jesus who has a different theology from anything in Matthew, Mark or Luke. And then the Epistles of Paul add yet another interpretation of Jesus and his message.
That is why there are so many different Christian denominations. Everyone finds something different, because the Bible says many different, and often contradictory, things. And so whatever you believe about Jesus, someone out there thinks you are wrong! Everyone is a heretic in someone else’s eyes.
Jesus and Non-attachment ~
And let’s remember that Christianity is a religion about Jesus, not the religion of Jesus. All his life Jesus never even met a single Christian. The Four Gospels are valuable; they tell us a lot, but they are not eyewitness accounts. They are second-or-third-hand. We have nothing written by Jesus himself, not even a grocery list. Even our best sources are interpretations of his life and teachings. And so I work with the best scholarship I can find, draw on my Methodist upbringing and our Unitarian Universalist traditions, and – realizing that much of the Bible was always meant as symbol and metaphor – put it all back together to see as best I can who Jesus was, and what his life means to me.
And, since Christianity is not the actual religion of Jesus – he was Jewish – and Christianity is really an interpretation of his message, I think it’s also legitimate to see how other faith traditions understand Jesus. I’ve been a Buddhist practitioner for more than a dozen years. And I see some interesting parallels between Siddhartha the Buddha and Jesus the Christ.
Here, then, is a Buddhist look at a familiar New Testament story: In Matthew 19:21 Jesus tells a rich young man to sell everything he owns, and give the money to the poor, before coming to follow the way. Buddhists would see this as an exercise in non-attachment.
What is “non-attachment”? Buddhists say that everything in the world is fleeting and impermanent. Everything changes. Tides wash in and wash out. We tear down buildings and build new ones. Automobiles wear out, computers become obsolete, and are replaced. We grow out of childhood and into adulthood and before we know it we are old and our friends and relatives are dead and gone. Even mountains and rivers change over time – in New Hampshire the ancient face of the “Old Man of the Mountain” fell off a few years ago.
Because everything changes, everything is impermanent, it makes sense to deal with this basic fact. Don’t try to cling to that which is changeable and transient, because someday it will all be gone. Rather, be mindful of this moment, and appreciate each unique moment of your life for what it is. To be a Buddhist is to cultivate detachment, to view wealth and fame and power and youth as fleeting and ultimately unimportant.
Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19-20). The Buddha said, “Let the wise person do righteousness: A treasure that others can not share, which no thief can steal, a treasure that does not pass away.” (Kuddakapatha 8:9)
These are lessons in non-attachment. Both Jesus the Christ and Siddhartha the Buddha realized that the riches of this world can interfere with our attempt to live a good life. The Buddha said we should detach ourselves from personal possessions in order to proceed on the path toward awakening. Jesus taught that riches are to be found in the kingdom of God, not in the temptations of this world. Although Siddartha was born rich, and Jesus was born poor, they would have agreed that true riches are to be found in a life of compassion and loving-kindness.
Buddhism teaches us to let go of the things that are impermanent so that we can appreciate each moment, this moment, for what it is. Maybe we say, “Wait until I get my degree. Then I will enjoy life.” So we finally get our degree, go out and get a job, and then we need a house and a car. Or we say, “If only I hadn’t lost that money when the stock market went down. If only I was younger. If only my sister hadn’t died.” All the while we are putting our life off. We’re not mindful of the present moment, because we are too busy accumulating things or clinging to things that have no permanence, things we can’t change or control. A new car and a big house and youth and wealth don’t create happiness. Those things all disappear some day. So happiness must be found within.
The kingdom of God ~
Jesus said that in order to enter the kingdom of God, we must be like little children (Matthew 19:12-13). Similarly, the Buddha taught that we need to cultivate the child-like mind, because a child sees the world with fresh eyes.
Children encounter each moment without judgment. Because children’s minds are not yet filled with theories, expectations or prejudices, they are able to experience the present moment just as it is. When we can be in the present moment without expectations, we are seeing the present with child-like eyes. This is what Buddhists call “mindfulness.”
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, writes, “When John the Baptist helped Jesus touch the Holy Spirit, the Heavens opened and the Holy Spirit descended like a dove and entered the person of Jesus [Mark 1:9-10, Matthew 3:16-17, Luke 3:21-22]. … Really hearing a bird sing or really seeing a blue sky, we touch the seed of the Holy Spirit within us. … Discussing God is not the best use of our energy. If we touch the Holy Spirit, we touch God not as a concept but as a living reality. … Living mindfully, shining the light of our awareness on everything we do, we touch the Buddha, and our mindfulness grows.”
This is helpful to me. It’s often hard to wrap my mind around the concept of God, but I can experience the presence of God’s Spirit in the beauty of the daffodil, the song of a bird, the warmth of the sun, the laughter of children, and the warmth of human kindness.
Christianity and Buddhism have differences, of course. Buddhism has little interest in God or gods; the Buddha said that, rather than worrying about gods, we should solve the human problem, the issue of suffering. And so Thich Nhat Hanh says, “Discussing God is not the best use of our energy.” After all, no one seems to have ever come up with a satisfactory definition of God. How can we discuss something when we can’t even define what we are talking about? But Thich Nhat Hanh leads us away from theory and back to practice when he says, “If we touch the Holy Spirit, we touch God not as a concept but as a living reality.”
The kingdom of God, Jesus taught us, is at hand (Mark 1:15). Jesus talked about the kingdom of God being immediate, not something we have to wait for after we die. It is available to us right now in every moment. According to the Gospel of Thomas, one of the Christian gospels rejected by those who won control of the Church, Jesus said, “If those who lead you say, ‘Look, the kingdom is in the sky,’ then the birds of the sky will get there first. If they say, ‘It is in the sea,’ then the fish will get there first. Rather, the Kingdom is inside of you.” Luke 17:22 (which did get into the Bible) agrees, “The kingdom of God is within you.” This resonates well with the Buddhist tradition – we must find it within ourselves, here and now, not wait for pie in the sky when we die by-and-by.
Rev. Marlin Lavenhar says he once saw a sign that said, “Those people who are waiting for the second coming of Jesus are waiting for themselves. For Jesus comes again every time we live out his teachings.” That’s a good message, for if we can’t find Jesus within ourselves, I think we won’t find him.
So, although Buddhism and Christianity certainly have differences – of course they do – I find Buddhism to be an important tool that helps save Jesus. I have no problem considering myself a Christian, a Buddhist, and a Humanist, all at the same time. Humanism urges us to heed the results of scientific inquiry, and is about the here-and-now, making this world a better place. Buddhism teaches us to be mindful of the present moment, and to may live lives of compassion and loving-kindness. Christianity says that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and that we should greet it with the spirit of a child. The love we long for in our hearts is here, right now, waiting to blossom….Amen.