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ព័ត៌មាននិងរឿងផ្សេងៗ

Redemptive Analogies: Jesus Christ and the Buddhist Bodhisattva

 

Nathan Martin

Nathan Martin served for ten years in Cambodia with OMF International. For eight of those years, Nathan and his family served on a rural church planting team in Snuol, Cambodia. Alongside ministries of visitation, Bible teaching, and church planting, the Martins worked closely with the Cambodia Department of Education to run a literacy and library project. The Martins moved back to the United States in 2019. Nathan is now a regional mobilization manager and coach for those considering long-term service in Cambodia with OMF. Nathan was initially trained at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and served as a pastor in Iowa. Nathan has been accepted into the Ph.D Intercultural Studies Program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

 

Mission Round Table 19:1 (Jan-Apr 2024): 33-39
To read articles in this edition, visit this post on Mission Round Table 19:1.

In the practice of mission, it is important to try and build bridges of understanding so that the gospel can be incarnated in new cultures and contexts. Humanity is culture-bound and God reveals himself within culture.[1] In Christian dialogue with Buddhism, one bridge that has been considered is to connect the concept of the Buddhist Bodhisattva and the Christian Messiah. To many, this comparison seems like a good idea because the Bodhisattva has similarities to Jesus Christ. However, upon closer examination, the bridge is found to be weak and misleading. While the similarities can be helpful, the worldviews of Buddhism and Christianity are so divergent that to call Jesus Christ a Bodhisattva creates even more problems for understanding Jesus’ identity and mission than if the bridge was not used. The comparison between Jesus and the Bodhisattva should be carefully distinguished because the Christian understanding of the incarnation does not find expression in the concept of the Bodhisattva. The purposes and goals of the Messiah in Christianity and the Bodhisattva in Buddhism head in opposite directions philosophically. Even so, there is an area where the Buddhist concept of the Bodhisattva has the potential to build a bridge. This is the open door to reconsider individualistic efforts as the only way out of the cycle of sin and suffering known as samsara.[2] And though the Buddhist concept of Bodhisattva falls terribly short as a comparison with Jesus Christ, it creates space for resonance and dissonance in talking about being redeemed versus redeeming oneself.

Redemptive analogies

In his book The Peace Child, Don Richardson introduces the idea of redemptive analogies. Reflecting on his work among the Sawi people of West Papua, Richardson admitted how incredibly difficult it was to communicate the gospel with them. Richardson writes:

Clearly, a great deal of groundwork has already been done to prepare the Hebrews to recognize their Messiah … and even when the gospel came to the Greeks, John the Apostle was able to introduce Christ to them as the Logos … it seemed that God had not troubled Himself to prepare the Sawi in any similar way for the coming of the gospel.[3]

The Sawi worldview was so different that the first time they heard Richardson share the story of Jesus Christ, the elders of one village thought Judas was the hero. After years of work learning language and culture, it was by witnessing a tribal peace process that Richardson found the redemptive analogy he was looking for to help the Sawi understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. Two tribes made peace by sending one of their children to be adopted by the other tribe. As long as the children lived, the two communities were bound to peace. “If a man would actually give his own son to his enemies, that man could be trusted,” notes Richardson about the “peace child”.[4] Richardson later presented Jesus as God’s peace child. It is through Jesus that God makes peace with humanity. Jesus is the sin-bearer, and the peace is permanent through the power of the resurrection. This analogy between Jesus and the peace child was a breakthrough moment for the Sawi people and over time many professed faith in Christ. Richardson comments: “from now on, any Sawi who rejects Christ would see himself not as denying an alien concept, but rather as rejecting the Fulfiller of the best in his own culture!”[5]

Is there potential for the Bodhisattva concept to help Buddhists better understand Jesus similar to the way the “peace child” concept was helpful for the Sawi people? Steve Cioccolanti is a pastor, evangelist, and speaker who grew up as a Buddhist in Southeast Asia and later converted to Christianity. In his book From Buddha to Jesus, Cioccolanti writes for a popular lay audience and seeks to illustrate connection points between Buddhism and Christianity as tools for evangelism. Much of the book encourages readers to look for cultural connections and then move to the gospel. In a chapter entitled, “The Last Words of Buddha,” Cioccolanti argues that a Buddhist prophecy about a coming Bodhisattva—the Maitreya—can also be used in dialogues with Buddhists to point them to Jesus. Many Buddhists are looking forward to the Maitreya as a final incarnation of the Buddha who will bodily appear at the end of this age.[6] Though he doesn’t state his sources, Cioccolanti suggests that a monk in Cambodia told him in reference to the Maitreya: “The Holy One will rescue the world and have scars on his hands and scars on his feet.”[7] Ciccolanti recommends that we can turn this hope to Jesus. This book is an example of a Southeast Asian seeking to use a Bodhisattva—the Maitreya—as an evangelistic strategy. Cioccolanti is not alone in seeking to make this connection. From a more academic perspective, three Christian and three Buddhist scholars wrestle with connections they see between the Christ and the Bodhisattva in The Christ and the Bodhisattva. The commonalities include the ideas of mutual compassion and beings who seek to help the suffering. The Maitreya is again selected as a connection point. For example, the Maitreya’s name means “loving-kindness”, the Maitreya is usually depicted standing or sitting in Western style instead of the lotus position, and the Maitreya is ready to enter the world and help take beings from suffering.[8]

At first glance, the idea sounds like an exciting way forward. The similarity between the Maitreya and Jesus Christ is that they both vicariously suffer for the good of others. The Bodhisattva approaches the brink of Nirvana and decides to turn back in order to transfer his merit and teaching energies to help other beings progress along the eightfold path to enlightenment.[9] The idea of the Bodhisattva is quite remarkable in Buddhism because the traditional Theravada Buddhist position is that no one can help anyone else with their karma. Only the person who committed a sin, or an evil deed, can pay for that sin.[10] “Each of us is responsible for our own lot in life. We each cause our own suffering, and each of us is ultimately responsible for our own liberation,” notes Buddhist scholar Jose Cabezon.[11] The development of vicarious suffering in Buddhism is important for Christianity because it opens a way to understand the vicarious suffering of Jesus. It is very hard for the Buddhist to understand the idea of Jesus dying for our sins if their worldview does not allow for one being to suffer for the benefit of another.

Despite this link, to call Jesus a Bodhisattva seriously confuses the worldviews of Buddhism and Christianity. To say that the Maitreya is really a prophecy about Jesus overflows with ontological problems for anyone who takes the worldviews of Buddhism and Christianity seriously. The Jesus of biblical Christianity must be allowed to engage with Buddhism at the crucial level of Jesus’ core identity. There are at least three major areas where the Buddhist doctrine of the Bodhisattva and a Christian understanding of Jesus Christ are incompatible: (1) the doctrine of the incarnation, (2) the doctrine of Jesus being without sin, and (3) the nature and purpose of salvation.

The doctrine of the incarnation and the Bodhisattva

One of the initial problems related to associating Jesus with a Buddhist Bodhisattva is the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. Christianity understands Jesus to be fully God and fully man, but the Bodhisattva is neither. When it comes to the concept of divinity, Buddhism and Christianity are not on the same page. They are not even in the same book. The Bodhisattva exists in a worldview that does not recognize anything like the monotheistic God of Christianity. As one example, the word for “god” in the Buddhist country of Cambodia is ព្រះ (preah). Preah can refer to anything from an idol to members of the royal family to a human with supernatural powers. By contrast, the Christian God of the Bible is unique, personal, self-existent, self-sufficient, eternal, immutable, transcendent, all-knowing, all-powerful, omnipresent, and the Creator of the cosmos.[12]

This overall picture of God is absolutely essential for a correct understanding of the person of Jesus. Jesus is a full member of the Trinitarian Godhead of Christianity. As Boice writes, “The Lord Jesus Christ is fully divine, being the second person of the Godhead who became man … There is but one living and true God who exists in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.”[13] Many biblical passages highlight Jesus’ identity as a full member of the Trinity from eternity. The introduction to the Gospel of John states:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made… And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:13–14 ESV).

The Apostle Paul similarly states, “There is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist (1 Cor 8:6 ESV).”

In Buddhism, the Bodhisattva becomes functionally “divine”, but no Bodhisattva is comparable to the Creator, Ruler, and Sustainer of the universe. Buddhism and Christianity are divided by a chasm between recognizing one God and countless “divine” beings. For example, in The Lotus Sutra, the Maitreya is pictured as a wise “divine” Bodhisattva, one of countless Bodhisattvas. The Lotus Sutra frequently talks of thousands of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. “Then there was another Buddha who was also named Sun Moon Bright, and then another Buddha also named Sun Moon Bright. There were 20,000 Buddhas like this, all with the same appellation …”[14] Likewise, in another passage, the Bodhisattva Maitreya states, “And some bodhisattvas numerous as the dust particles of a thousand minor worlds are assured that after eight more rebirths they will be able to complete the Buddha way.”[15]

The Maitreya is not pictured as having the attributes of the Christian God. Even a Buddha does not have the attributes of the Christian God, except for possibly an acquired omniscience.[16]  Most Buddhists would probably accept Jesus Christ as a Bodhisattva-type figure: a being who is very wise, able to work miracles, and a teacher of the right way. What is in dispute are Jesus’ attributes as the monotheistic Creator God of the Bible. Biblical Christianity identifies Jesus as the Creator God; Buddhism recognizes no such being. Boice, writing about Jesus from a Christian perspective, says: “For if Christ is not fully divine, then our salvation is neither accomplished nor assured. No being less than God himself, however exalted, is able to bear the full punishment for our sin.”[17] In contrast, Buddhist scholar Jose Cabezon writes, “There is no god who is the creator of the universe, who is originally pure and primordially perfected, who is omnipotent and who can will the salvation of beings. Jesus, therefore, cannot be the incarnation of such a God.…With what deity is Jesus then to be associated?”[18]

A Christian view of the incarnation doesn’t work if Jesus is accepted as a Bodhisattva or any other enlightened being in Buddhist thinking because the Bodhisattva is not analogous to the monotheistic God of Christianity. From a Christian viewpoint, Jesus is fully God; the Bodhisattva is not. Similarly, seeking to understand Jesus as a Bodhisattva fails because the Bodhisattva is not fully man. A Bodhisattva is in the process of becoming a Buddha and yet the Buddha “denies that he is a man or a god.”[19] Once Bodhisattvas become enlightened and gain “divine” characteristics, they enter a transcendent state, shedding their humanity.

According to Paul Williams, there are ten stages of ongoing perfection for the Bodhisattva. The first state requires insight into emptiness. From this stage, the Bodhisattva is able to control future rebirths and has multiplying “powers and attainments.” Subsequent stages add insight and supernatural powers like flying, clairvoyance, passing through objects, and appearing in various forms.[20] The final stages of the Bodhisattva include being immune from demon attack or evil, near omniscience, and the ability to “split his body into infinite forms, and … appear in the form of a Buddha if he wishes for the benefit of others.”[21] These manifestations are not “reality” as in the Christian doctrine of the incarnation. The Bodhisattva only appears to be human when visiting people. The Bodhisattva who appears as a human is using expedient means to help people move toward enlightenment. The Lotus Sutra comments:

When the Buddhas of the future make their appearance in the world, they too will use countless numbers of expedient means, various causes and conditions, and words of simile and parable in order to expound the doctrines for the sake of living beings.[22]

Hundreds of years of church history were spent clarifying the biblical doctrine of the incarnation. In opposition to groups like the Gnostics, the early Christians affirmed Jesus was fully human. The Apostles’ Creed made clear that Jesus cannot be understood as non-material. Likewise, the Council of Nicea affirmed that Jesus is fully divine. As Gonzalez says, Jesus is

the Son of God, the only-begotten of the Father, that is, from the substance of the Father, God of God, light of light, true God of true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made, both in heaven and earth, who for us humans and our salvation descended and became incarnate, becoming human, suffered and rose again on the third day, ascended to heaven, and will come to judge the living and the dead.[23]

Jesus did not become divine, and Jesus did not merely appear to be human. The concept of the Bodhisattva falls markedly short of these two truths that are foundational to Christian understandings of the incarnation. The fact that beings become Bodhisattvas completely distorts who Jesus is. The Bodhisattva gained his “divine” attributes, but Jesus was always God and did not become “divine”. Paul Williams writes, “Divinization, investing a being with divine attributes, was common in Ancient India, and by no means carried with it the dramatic implications which we assume in a monotheistic culture.”[24] In other words, if Jesus is thought of as a Bodhisattva, anyone can become Jesus, and Jesus is not at all unique! This idea of becoming like a “god” has no place in Christianity. The Buddhist worldview also allows countless Bodhisattvas, but Christians recognize only one Jesus. Furthermore, the Bodhisattvas needed other Bodhisattvas to guide them to enlightenment.[25] To suggest that Jesus Christ had to earn his “divinity” and that he needed the help of a Buddha or Bodhisattva to become enlightened is at odds with Jesus’ identity as outlined in Scripture. The uniqueness of the incarnation is irrelevant if Jesus is understood as a Bodhisattva through Buddhist lens. Jesus as anything less than both fully the Creator God and fully man destroys the heart of Christian faith. The importance of both of these aspects related to Christian salvation will be further discussed below.

The doctrine of Jesus as being without sin and the Bodhisattva

If Jesus is thought of as a Bodhisattva and Christian monotheism is not allowed to stand in contrast to the Buddhist worldview, additional problems readily surface concerning the origins of sin and the identity of Jesus Christ. To begin with, the Bodhisattva has his origins within the cycle of samsara. Even though he is working his way out of the cycle, he is still in samsara. Thus, the Bodhisattva is part of and inextricable from the cycle of suffering and sin. In a limited way, the Bodhisattva remains subject to suffering and evil until he realizes Nirvana. The point becomes clear when it is realized that since all Bodhisattvas originated in samsara, they all can be said to sin. They committed evil deeds in their past lives, which are overcome with their merit, through seeing the evil done in their past as illusory, and through developing compassion.[26]

The first stage of becoming a Bodhisattva has to do with meditations focused on compassion, on becoming a Buddha for the sake of all beings.[27] From a Christian perspective, the compassion of Jesus is inherent as an attribute of his being as Creator God, not as a goodness Jesus discovered on his journey. As Christians understand the concepts, Jesus never had karma. Jesus always had perfect merit. That Jesus subjected himself to suffering through the incarnation was his choice, not because he arose within samsara. It has been suggested that the vicarious suffering of the Bodhisattva in refusing Nirvana is actually a part of their striving to leave samsara. Therefore, even the good the Bodhisattva does in refusing Nirvana in order to serve others may be a part of earning merit to exit the Wheel of Samsara.[28] Jesus, on the other hand, comes from outside the evil and suffering of the world, and he does not gain any merit by denying himself and suffering for others. In Christianity, it is crucial to the incarnation and the atoning work of Jesus on the cross that Jesus never sinned. Hebrews 7:26–27 thus teaches about Jesus Christ:

For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. He has no need, like those high priests, to offer sacrifices daily, first for his own sins and then for those of the people, since he did this once for all when he offered up himself.

Jesus became human to identify with humanity and only as a sinless mediator between God and man was Jesus able to make propitiation[29] for human sin on the cross.

The nature and purpose of Christian salvation and the Bodhisattva

Comparing Jesus to the Bodhisattva distorts the identity of Jesus as fully God and fully man in the incarnation. The Bodhisattva’s origin in the Wheel of Samsara is also problematic for Christianity because Jesus is not on a journey out of suffering and sin. Thirdly, the nature and purpose of salvation in Christianity are distorted when the saving work of Jesus is likened to the saving work of the Bodhisattva. The Bodhisattva leads a person or persons along their own path of enlightenment. The goal of the Buddhas in appearing in the world, according to The Lotus Sutra, is “to cause living beings to awaken to the Buddha wisdom and enlighten them to it.”[30] As noted by Williams, the Bodhisattva had sin in past lives that held him back. The Boddhisattva overcomes samsara both through action and by seeing that evil deeds are “ultimately illusory and no real barrier to spiritual progress.”[31] In Christianity, people individually have souls, and the moral law describes the conditions and limits that the Creator God made for people. Going outside of these limits has consequences that cannot be overcome by changing one’s view of reality. In contrast, the reality of the soul and the nature of reality itself are impermanent and insubstantial in Buddhism.[32]

The end goal is important in considering the salvation path as well. The Bodhisattvas/Buddhas help people along the path to Nirvana, but what is Nirvana? Nirvana is certainly not a new heavens and a new earth in the presence of the resurrected Jesus Christ.[33] In Buddhism, there is a question over whether anyone really needs to be “saved”. The Buddhist doctrine of anatman teaches that there is no soul. Buddhist writings include the idea that the Bodhisattvas are seeking to save all, “knowing full well there is no one to save.”[34] As Walpola Rahula points out, “Nirvana is definitely no annihilation of self, because there is no self to annihilate.”[35] In Christianity, ethics and salvation are grounded in a personal God who revealed himself in Jesus Christ. Christianity similarly sees people as embodied souls. The Savior, Jesus Christ, has a resurrected body. Christians have the hope of resurrection as well and life forever with Jesus. In Buddhism, we don’t know where the path is headed or if anyone is really on it. Even the noble compassion of a Bodhisattva is potentially just a means to an end. The compassion is not rooted in any ultimate reality. In the introduction to The Christ and the Bodhisattva, the editors note these distinctions in “salvation” goals between Christianity and Buddhism.

Human beings are in bondage and in need of salvation by a savior who is both fully human and divine. The relationship of creator and creature requires mediation by Christ and requires that this mediation occur in history. In Buddhism, human suffering is a problem of ignorance, which is not ultimately real… The goal is not the establishment of a kingdom in history but liberation from the bonds of time, which bring with them suffering and death… There is no creator, there is no self.[36]

The purpose of Christ’s work is not compatible with the goals of the Bodhisattva. In the incarnation, Jesus leads people to a real and personal God and Jesus delivers people from suffering and evil that are not illusory, but real. Another difference is the scope of the work of the Bodhisattva and the work of Jesus Christ. The Bodhisattva reached his position to transfer merit to others by acquiring more merit than was needed to enter Nirvana. This is similar, in many ways, to the storehouse of merit that some in the Catholic Church understand to exist. Similar to the way saints can transfer some of the extra merit they have earned to help others exit purgatory sooner, the Bodhisattva helps the person who puts their faith in him by adding his good merit to theirs. In a sense, the Bodhisattva works along with people who are working to save themselves. Significantly, the Bodhisattva has a limited supply of merit to give. From a Buddhist perspective, if one could say Jesus defeated karma and the whole wheel of samara, we would be getting closer to a Christian understanding of salvation. However, from a Christian perspective, Jesus defeated sin, Satan, and death (1 Cor 15:55–57). He defeated “karma” by dying in our place. From a Christian perspective, Jesus took all the karma and the entire Wheel of Samsara on himself and died to pay for the evil things done by all beings. Through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ defeated evil and the hold karma has on all beings once and for all. Although Jesus never once did wrong, he took all the suffering we deserved upon himself and he transfers his perfect merit, his righteousness, to anyone who puts their faith and trust in him. Thus, Christians believe that they can do nothing to help their salvation other than having faith in Jesus Christ. Jesus as understood through the lens of the Bodhisattva would simply be a Jesus among many Bodhisattvas who offer limited merit to help a limited number of people.

Moreover, the people who put their faith in a Bodhisattva have it as their goal to become a Bodhisattva themselves. In many forms of Mahayana Buddhism, all beings are said to have the seed of Buddha, or the dharma-kaya, within them and the goal is to become fully enlightened Buddhas themselves.[37] Christians, by putting their faith in Jesus, never become elevated to the same status as Jesus Christ who is God incarnate. The purpose of Jesus’ life and ministry was not to help people become “gods”, but to bring people into fellowship with God.[38] While the Bodhisattvas attained their position through merit and through special knowledge, Jesus is in the position to save by nature of his identity from all eternity. The mission of Jesus is about restoring fellowship with the Creator God. Jesus accomplished this by removing the barrier of sin through his death on the cross so that faith and trust in God are all that are needed. The Buddhist seeks to become a Bodhisattva and then to realize Nirvana.[39] The Christian, through Jesus, seeks to come to God and, after death, to have fellowship with a personal God through all eternity.

At the heart of these salvation issues is the different understandings that Christianity and Buddhism have of reality. In Buddhism, neither the Bodhisattva, the Buddha, nor the people being helped are ultimately real. “Existence is illusion. Understand and go beyond. This is the way of clarity,” is one of the sayings attributed to the Buddha.[40] The Bodhisattva helps people escape the illusion of suffering and evil, but, in the end, there is no sufferer, no Bodhisattva, and only an empty destination, which was all that actually existed in the first place. In Mahayana Buddhism, the Bodhisattva and the people being “saved” are ultimately either emptiness or part of a storehouse of consciousness that projects itself into an illusory world through our “minds”. The result is the same: we experience suffering and evil and deliverance, but it is all emptiness, none of it is “real”. The Bodhisattva uses expedient means to guide people to the other side, but the means and the journey essentially don’t matter.

In the Buddhist school of Madhyamika, “all beings labor under the constant illusion of perceiving things where in fact there is only emptiness.”[41] From a Christian perspective, by contrast, the incarnation of Jesus Christ is historical and ultimately real. Neither Jesus Christ’s incarnation nor his death and resurrection can be viewed as expedient means to help people get to enlightenment. They are the only means through which a person can come into relationship with the holy Creator God. Enlightenment, as Christians understand it, is not connected to illusion. Enlightenment is about knowing and being known by a God who actually exists and is knowable. Jesus is the personal, real God who has existed forever. The people being saved are real, and the suffering and evil Jesus defeated are also real. Jesus delivers people from evil and sin that are not illusory and Jesus brings people into a relationship with a real, transcendent God.

In summary, the differences between the worldviews of Buddhism and Christianity cannot be adequately addressed by comparing Jesus to the concept of the Buddhist Bodhisattva. Adding Jesus to the list of Bodhisattvas is more amenable to the pluralistic worldview of Buddhism than it is to Christianity. If Jesus Christ can be interpreted through the lens of the Messianic Bodhisattva, then some foundational tenets of Christianity are nullified because Jesus, as Bodhisattva, would be just one of many teachers using expedient means to move people towards enlightenment. The Buddhist could even reinterpret Jesus’ statements, such as “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6 ESV) as expedient means that need not be taken literally. Christianity is grounded on the belief that Jesus is fully man and fully God in the incarnation, but the Messianic Bodhisattva is neither God nor man. Moreover, the Christian understanding of the purpose of Jesus’ incarnation and the goals of the Messianic Bodhisattva are at odds. Jesus was incarnated to decisively defeat suffering and evil and to reconcile people with a real and personal God. The Buddhist Bodhisattva, on the other hand, assists people in becoming Bodhisattvas and he leads them on the road to emptiness.

The Bodhisattva and the need for redemption

Even though a comparison of the Bodhisattva and Jesus Christ falls apart if orthodox Christian and Mahayana Buddhist worldviews are taken seriously, there is room for a connection on a more basic level. In Theravada Buddhism, each person pays for their own karma and only for their karma. The concept of the Bodhisattva gains traction for both an orthodox Christian and a Buddhist when wrestling with the idea of individualistic salvation. Traditionally, Buddhism claims that you are the only person who can save yourself. The concept of a compassionate Bodhisattva bends that idea.

Acts 17 serves as a kind of rubric for this type of connection. Acts 17:16 describes Paul walking around Athens while waiting for Silas and Timothy and says that his spirit was provoked by all the statues of gods and goddesses that he saw in the city. Paul is burdened by what, from his perspective, are false gods. Paul does not view these statues as expedient means to understanding deeper reality but as dangerous idols. Even with a strongly contrasting worldview about who is God, Paul’s address to the Athenians in Acts 17:22–31 begins by finding a smaller point of connection. In his speech, Paul builds resonance before he moves to dissonance with the Athenian worldview. Paul notes the statue to the unknown god and praises the Athenians for being very religious. After finding a point of resonance with the Athenians, Paul shows an area of dissonance between Athenian and Christian views on the statues he sees all over the city. Paul explains how one Creator God made all the cultures and languages and this Creator God does not live in what we make. This Creator God doesn’t need anything from humanity but is the One who supplies humanity with all they need. Paul then finds another point of resonance, quoting their own poets to show that they realized that “In him we live and move and have our being… For we are indeed his offspring” (Acts 17:28 ESV).” As Paul sees it, there is another point of contrast. “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man he has appointed: and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead” (Acts 17:30–31 ESV)The Athenians may have been wondering: “If this is all true, then why hasn’t this God judged us?” Paul’s answer is that God has been merciful and patient, but now calls all peoples and cultures to repent, by focusing on the man God raised from the dead—Jesus.

Using Paul’s approach in Acts 17 as a rubric, there are smaller connection points in the idea of the Bodhisattva and the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Paul did with the Athenians, the worldview of the gospel has both resonance and dissonance with the worldview of the Bodhisattva in the areas of sin and redemption. The first smaller connection is to recognize the common ground of concern about suffering in the world. The Bodhisattva is concerned about more than his own suffering, but the suffering and sin of others. The next connection point is the idea that someone could be helped with their burden of sin. There is a recognition that one may not be able to liberate oneself in looking and hoping for the help of a Bodhisattva. These connection points do not have to hold any more weight than recognizing suffering and sin is a heavy burden and people long for outside help for liberation.

The point of resonance with the idea of the Bodhisattva is that sin is a deep problem, too deep for each person to be dependent on only themselves for salvation. Following Paul’s example, a possible Christian response moves from connection to contrast. In Christianity, there is ultimate reality, and ethics are grounded solidly in an infinite and personal God who is himself the standard of right and wrong. The Bible teaches that God is perfect in every way. God is all-powerful, loving, good, merciful, just, compassionate, holy, and sovereign. It is God who created the heavens, spiritual beings, the world, animals, and people, and they were all created distinct and evaluated as being “good”. God’s evaluation is not that they are “good” in contrast to being “bad” or that they exude an “esthetic goodness,” but that they are “good” in that they do what God created them to do. From a biblical point of view, this means that they are not a passing illusion, but real and that they exhibit intrinsic value.

Paulus in Athen, unknown author (Public domain), via Wikimedia Commons.

People are special in that we are created in God’s image—like God in some ways though finite and separate from him. In Buddhism, the cycle of suffering arose and people arose as a part of that cycle. But in Christianity, people are actually real and they are created by God. Evil and its results—suffering and pain—entered the world through people who rebelled against God and sought to set themselves up as gods.[42] The Buddha teaches the value of detachment. The Creator God demonstrated his attachment to his creation in becoming human in the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus did this to rescue humanity out of a pit of sin too deep to climb out of. The Bodhisattva comes to help a few; Jesus came to help all humanity who will put their trust in him. The Bodhisattva relies on a limited store of merit and wisdom; Jesus, being fully God and never having sinned, has no limits on the extent of his perfection and ability to cover all sins of all people. It does not matter the weight of sin, because the weight of Jesus as holy God is greater. It does not matter the depth of sin, because the reach of Jesus as holy God is longer. Using Acts 17 as a guide, the final point of contrast is the historical death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Unlike the illusionary world of the Bodhisattva, the biblical concepts of salvation, liberation from sin, and the hope of resurrection all hinge on a single historical event. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are at the center of history and redemption for the Christian. His resurrection is not a philosophy, it is history. The resurrection of Jesus is the most important event in the history of the universe. Fully human and fully divine, Jesus fully defeated sin and evil in a single historical event.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the application of the Buddhist Bodhisattva to the person of Jesus Christ as a redemptive analogy is a dangerous distortion of the doctrine of the incarnation that will make it even harder for a Buddhist to understand true Christian belief. There is a need to clearly state the difference in identity between Christ and the Bodhisattva and the differing goals and purposes of their saving work. That being said, there is room for comparison of the weight of sin and hope of deliverance in the Buddhist concept of Bodhisattva and the Christian gospel. A smaller connection can be made in recognizing the common ground of suffering and sin and the hope of redemption outside one’s individual efforts. Connecting and contrasting their perspectives about Christ and the Bodhisattva is necessary for both Buddhists and Christians to engage one another at their core. Finding a point of resonance is important in dialogue. It is also important to honestly face the dissonance in religious worldviews for true dialogue. It is the opinion of this paper that the Bodhisattva fails to serve as a redemptive analogy along the lines of the “peace child”. Positively, from the Christian perspective, the concept of the Bodhisattva creates space for talking about the question of being saved versus saving oneself.

 


 

[1] Charles Kraft, Culture, Communication, and Christianity (Pasadena: William Carey, 2001), 35.

[2] Samsara is the Buddhist understanding of an eternal cycle of suffering, birth, death, and rebirth. This cycle is believed to have no beginning or end. Buddhism seeks a way out of this cycle of suffering. Jeff Wilson, “Saṃsāra and Rebirth,” Oxford Bibliographies, 18 August 2021, https://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/display/document/obo-9780195393521/obo-9780195393521-0141.xml (accessed 5 March 2024).

[3] Don Richardson, The Peace Child (Ventura, CA: Regal, 2005), 182.

[4] Richardson, The Peace Child, 206.

[5] Richardson, The Peace Child, 234.

[6] Timothy C. Tennent, Christianity at the Religious Round Table: Evangelicalism in Conversation with Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002), 94.

[7] Steve Cioccolanti, From Buddha to Jesus (Oxford: Monarch, 2010), 143–48.

[8] Steven Lopez and Donald Rockefeller, eds., The Christ and the Bodhisattva (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), 29.

[9] Tennent, Christianity at the Religious Round Table, 93.

[10] Buddhist and Christian concepts of “sin” are different at their roots. For example, while breaking the five precepts—killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and fermented drink—might have something in common with Christian ideas of “sin”, the basis of “sin” in Buddhism is ignorance and false views. In Christianity, the basis of good and evil is the character of God. Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught (New York: Grove, 1974), 3.

[11] Rita Gross and Terry Muck, eds., Buddhists Talk About Jesus, Christians Talk about the Buddha (New York: Continuum, 2000), 26–27.

[12] James Montgomery Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive and Readable Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 1986), 103, 105, 117, 134, 142, 162.

[13] Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, 113–14.

[14] Burton Watson, trans., The Lotus Sutra (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993), 14.

[15] Watson, The Lotus Sutra, 14, 235.

[16] Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations (London: Routledge, 1989), 212–13.

[17] Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, 114.

[18] Cabezon continues: “The most charitable alternative a Buddhist could offer is one that identifies Jesus as a nirmanakaya – that is the physical embodiment of an enlightened being.” In other words, at best, Jesus could be understood as a Buddha. Gross and Muck, Buddhists Talk About Jesus, 26.

[19] Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, 170.

[20] Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, 206–207.

[21] Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, 212.

[22] Watson, The Lotus Sutra, 31–32.

[23] Justo Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day (Peabody, MA: Prince, 1985), 164–65.

[24] Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, 169.

[25] Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, 177.

[26] Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, 167.

[27] Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, 203–204.

[28] Tennent, Christianity at the Religious Round Table, 127.

[29] Propitiation is Jesus Christ receiving the just wrath of God for humanity’s sin on the cross. Boice, Foundations of the Christian Faith, 290.

[30] Watson, The Lotus Sutra, 31.

[31] Williams, Mahayana Buddhism, 167.

[32] Laurence-Khantipalo Mills, Buddhism Explained (Chiang Mai, Silkworm, 1999), 71.

[33] See Revelation 21.

[34] Tennent, Christianity at the Religious Round Table, 125–26.

[35] Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 37.

[36] Lopez and Rockefeller, The Christ and the Bodhisattva, 39.

[37] Tennent, Christianity at the Religious Round Table, 99–100.

[38] See Revelation 20 and 21. The vision is God and people living together in a new creation, a new heavens and new earth, eternally free from sin, evil spirits, and death.

[39] Nirvana could be understood as emptiness and eternal truth. However, the concept is very difficult to nail down. Walpola Rahula writes, “Nirvana is beyond our conceptions of good and evil, right and wrong, existence and non-existence… Nirvana is beyond logic and reasoning.” Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 43–44

[40] Thomas Bryon, trans., Dhammapada: The Sayings of the Buddha (Boston: Shambhala, 1993), 74.

[41] William Theodore de Bary, ed., The Buddhist Tradition in India, China and Japan (New York: Vintage, 1969), 77–78.

[42] Paul Helm, The Providence of God: Contours of Christian Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993), 194.

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