Review Essay: Buddhists Talk about Jesus, Christians Talk about the Buddha. (Essays)

Article excerpt

Buddhists have been talking about Jesus and Christians have been talking about the Buddha from the earliest times of Buddhist-Christian encounter in the first century. (l) My educated guess is that until 1980, most of the talk was monological rather than dialogical for cultural and historical reasons peculiar to both traditions. But after the first "East-West Religions in Encounter" meeting, organized by David Chappell in the summer of 1980 at the University of Hawai'i, the nature of Buddhist-Christian conversation changed from a monologue to a systematic twenty-year dialogue. The initial "East-West Religions in Encounter" conference has now evolved into the Society for Buddhist-Christian Studies. The publication in the society's journal, Buddhist-Christian Studies, of a series of essays and responses edited by the journal's coeditors, Rita M. Gross and Terry C. Muck, entitled "Jesus Christ Through Buddhist Eyes and Gautama the Buddha Through Christian Eyes" is evidence of just how far Buddhist-Christian dial ogue has evolved since 1980. (2) These same essays were republished by Continuum Publications under the title, Buddhists Talk About Jesus, Christians Talk About the Buddha. (3)

The selection of the contributors was guided by a common editorial conviction. In Gross's words:

We are convinced that, just as meaningful inter-religious dialogue cannot be a covert missionary enterprise, in which each partner in the pseudo-dialogue tries to convince the other of the superiority of her or his own religion, so also meaningful inter-religious dialogue must be more than a polite mutual admiration society. . . . Therefore, there must be something about the other tradition that troubles us or that we do not find personally convincing. We believe that Buddhist-Christian dialogue has reached a level of trust and respect that warrants discussing these troubling dimensions of the other tradition openly. (4)

The editors' assumption is shared by the essayists: four practicing Buddhists (Jose Ignacio Cabezon, Rita M. Gross, Bokin Kim, and Soho Michida) writing about Jesus, and four Christian "scholar-practitioners" (Elizabeth J. Harris, Terry C. Muck, Donald K. Swearer, and Bonnie Thurston) writing about the Buddha. Two prominent veterans of the Jesus Seminar (Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan) were asked to respond to the four Buddhist essays about Jesus, while two Buddhist scholars (Grace G. Burford and Taitetsu Unno) were asked to respond to the four Christian essays about the Buddha. In the Continuum publication, Muck concludes the dialogue with a critical discussion of three recent books written about Jesus by three Buddhists (the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hahn, and Kenneth S. Leong).

Three themes emerged from the Buddhist talk about Jesus and the Christian talk about the Buddha, tweaked differently, of course, by each author. First, all of the Buddhist writers had great difficulty with Christian theological claims about Jesus, even as they expressed admiration for the historical Jesus based on their varied readings of the four New Testament gospels. Not unexpectedly, the most often expressed difficulty focused on Christian claims of Jesus' divinity and uniqueness and the Christian assertion of the necessity of Jesus for the salvation for all human beings.

Second, while the Christians who wrote about the Buddha do not even raise the issue of Jesus' uniqueness and universal relevance, they do have a deep and abiding admiration for the Buddha. For each of them, faith in Jesus as the Christ--not, be it noted, simply the historical Jesus--does not originate as an abstract a priori assertion that the historical Jesus is indispensable for the salvation of all persons, but from their own individual experiences as practicing Christians. Their claim is that the historical Jesus as the Christ is necessary for them, not that the historical Jesus is necessary for the salvation of everyone. Accordingly, for the Christian writers, Christian faith does nor imply exclusivist attitudes toward non-Christian understandings of reality, meaning "the way things really are. …