Questions that people have asked me recently prompted a new blog called “Curious Q”. This is a conversational cafe where thought-provoking questions on spirituality and meditation at the interface of Buddhism and Christianity can be explored. My inaugural essay is out, which I reproduce here.
In this essay, I aim to answer a question posed to me recently: “How do the thoughts and feelings of Buddhists towards the Buddha compare with the thoughts and feelings of Christians towards Christ?”
I will speak from my own experience, which may resonate with the wider Buddhist and Christian worlds to some degree (or not). My account is necessarily brief and somewhat selective. That said, I think there is much common ground between Buddhists and Christians in their relationships with their respective teachers/masters. In both their relationships, there would be sentiments of reverence, devotion, gratitude, love, respect, admiration, confidence, trust, faith and commitment. These are what I might call "wholesome spiritual states."
But the crucial difference is this: Buddhists relate to the Buddhas as their venerated and beloved teacher, not as saviour. Buddhists know that they have to do the hard work necessary to be liberated from suffering, albeit in reliance on the Buddha's excellent teachings. Christians relate to Christ as their Saviour and Lord. While Christians do follow Christ's teachings in their daily lives for sanctification, the primary focus of their relationship is that which obtains between a Creator and the created, Redeemer and the redeemed, Saviour and the saved. More than the previously mentioned sentiments, Christians would have attitudes of awe and worship, even fear and trembling directed to a numinous Other, as well as obedience and surrender. Buddhists may have a sense of surrender to the Buddha in so far as they completely entrust themselves to the ideal of awakening and the practice of the Dhamma for their awakening. But they would be unlikely to see the Buddha as their creator or saviour or a numinous Other.
Generally speaking, Buddhists would not "pray" to the Buddha for worldly blessings like healing or wealth or protection etc. But those who view the Buddha in a quasi-deified way, or who may not know the Dhamma well enough, may do so. Christians do pray to God (in Christ) for healing, provision, protection and so on. This is not surprising given that God is Creator and Saviour, and that Jesus did heal and provide in his earthly ministry. Obviously, Christians pray to God with an expected understanding of God's ultimate sovereignty in these matters. Christ is seen as both teacher and saviour. And Christ is worshipped as the Creator and Redeemer God.
That said, some Buddhists do have intense feelings of devotion and reverence for the Buddha, especially in the Pure Land schools and Tibetan Vajrayana lineages. In Pure Land Buddhism, the figure of Amitabha Buddha plays a central role and serves as the locus of Buddhist devotion. In Tibetan Vajrayana, the guru (or lama) becomes the central locus of devotion, where the guru is spiritually identified with the union of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in his very being. There is a complex Buddhology behind this but let's leave that aside for now. In any case, Buddhists of these traditions look to Amitabha or their Buddhicized guru to assist them in their transition from this life into the next—seen as a Buddha's pure land where ideal conditions obtain for a final practice sprint towards awakening. In rare cases, it is even possible for the transitional death process to lead to awakening if the practitioner is sufficiently matured. In these cases, Buddhist thoughts and feelings for the Buddha may take very similar forms to the ones that Christians have for Christ. In a religious sense, the Buddha may take on a quasi-deified position and role, albeit short of being a creator. To me, this demonstrates, at least in part, the God-shaped hole in every human heart that seeks God for final fulfilment.
A tangential comment: professed "Christians" of the prosperity hypergrace pseudo-gospel kind may relate to "Christ" in a more instrumental way than hitherto described. Hence, their "Jesus" is seen more like a genie or cosmic vending machine who is there to provide for their every whim and fancy. Toss a coin of "positive confession" of faith into the machine and out pops a healthy body, youthful looks, more money, position of influence, attractive boyfriend or girlfriend, a baby or two, a luxury or sports car, a bungalow, a private jet, gigantic audience for a celebrity preacher, and so on. In this case, the thoughts and feelings of such "Christians" would be probably dominated by covetousness, greed, lust, attachment of various kinds, and pride. Pride of one's privileged status in Christ is seen to confer them entitlement to all worldly and spiritual blessings that one can ever imagine, giving them the power to speak reality into being by their vocalized words of faith. In this case, the thoughts and feelings of "Christians" toward their "Christ" would be radically different from those of Buddhists towards the Buddha.
Delving more deeply into the nature of relational dynamics, I believe the crucial difference between Buddhist and Christian relationships viz-a-viz their respective masters is this: absence or presence of the intimacy of loving union and communion.
For Buddhists, the Buddha-Buddhist relationship is likely to be more distant, less personal and intimate, though reverential and devoted. There are individual variances, of course. Some do feel deeply connected to the person of the Buddha, as I do. But even then, I feel there is still a degree of relational ‘distance’, less personal warmth and deep intimacy, as compared to the range of possibilities available in a Christ-Christian relationship.
For Christians, the Christ-Christian relationship is likely to be close, intimate, warm, and unconcealed. There is total conversational and emotional honesty, even vulnerability right into our very depths. A sweet, loving, blissful union and communion of persons (empty, not inherent) is possible. Of course, this may vary across believers and in terms of their relational and spiritual maturity with/in the Lord.
The relative variance between the Buddha-Buddhist and Christ-Christian relationship can be arguably traced to this: a cosmic versus personal presence. We must be careful not to overdraw the difference between the two but it serves as a helpful map, nonetheless.
With the Buddha, his presence is predominantly a cosmic one—a sense of pervasive enlightened activity unconfined by space and time. He can be visualized as a person of course but there is a certain degree of contrivance here. This is because the Buddha has ‘nibbanized’ and should no longer be conceived as existing or not-existing, in personal or impersonal terms. This underlying meta-(buddho)logic renders any discourse of the “personal presence” of the Buddha highly problematic.
With Christ, his presence is intensely personal and intimate, warm and serene at the same time. Christ has a cosmic dimension too, but he is also irrevocably personal and in touch with every particle of dust on earth. There is a real sense of Someone (who can be empty of inherent existence yet ineffably present) who listens and responds, even to the most hidden cries of our hearts. Christ can be said to be nibbanic yet inconceivably here with us in a way that baffles our limited conceptual minds. The underlying meta-(theo)logic is that of Emmanuel or “God-with-us.”
That said, to me, the Buddha may well be either a pre-incarnate theophany of Christ or a divinely appointed and anointed human being sovereignly elected for a special purpose known only to God.