A Pluralist Paradigm of the Cross (book excerpt)

Jesus as Bodhisattva

There is the centuries-old legend that between the age of 12 and 30, Jesus traveled to India and learned about Buddhism. These lost years were spent studying and practicing the Buddhist dharma. Jesus internalized the dharma on the basis of his own cultural-religious background. He returned to Palestine and taught a kind of Buddhist-Judaism.

There is no historical evidence for this. Yet there are groups of Indians and Tibetans who hold to it. That the story continues to be sincerely believed around the world itself says a lot. Many of us would like to believe it! And it is an interesting idea to consider.

One thing is for sure, what Christ taught was often very buddhistic. Jesus’ teaching, whether knowingly or not, tapped into buddhistic notions such as Jesus’ teachings on righteous self-emptying; righteous effort amid suffering; the exaltation of the poor and the vulnerable; and the focus on the imminence of truth and the practice of compassion. Marcus Borg’s wonderful book, Jesus and Buddha: Parallel Sayings, gives scriptural examples of the interconnections between the two religious founder’s teaching. He presents some profound and undeniable affinities between the 2,500 old Buddha and the 2,000 old Christ.

More than just his teaching, which is highly underestimated and overlooked in especially conservative Christian circles, Jesus’ life exemplifies the practice of compassion. Righteous speech, actions, livelihood, and effort, the Eightfold Path’s “compassion practices,” are all embodied in Jesus’ life.

Jesus, According to Buddhists

The Dalai Lama in his book The Good Heart calls Jesus a bodhisattva. Thich Nhat Hanh states Jesus is part of his spiritual ancestry and that Jesus and Buddha are brothers. Buddhadasa points to Jesus as an enlightened teacher whose Sermon on the Mount is enough to enlighten if comprehended deeply. Masao Abe points to Jesus as the exemplar of dynamic Shunyata. So Jesus has some Buddhist “street-cred,” at least to some of the most important Buddhist teachers to the West.

The Dalai Lama’s description of Jesus as a Bodhisattva is especially powerful and significant. It should be noted, many other Buddhists see Jesus as a Bodhisattva. The reason this is so is that the Bodhisattva concept contains notions of sacrifice for the salvation of others and even stories of rising up from the realm of death. A Bodhisattva is one who is essentially equal in nature to a Buddha, but considers Nirvana as something not to be grasped onto, especially when others suffer. She, the Bodhisattva, hears the cries of the world and sees the suffering and cannot turn away. So she lets go of Nirvana to re-enter the world in order to bring others with her to the Light of Nirvana. The parallels to Jesus are unmistakable.

Comparing Jesus as Bodhisattva to a more modern version of a historical bodhisattva, might be helpful.

Bodhisattva Against the Machine

Professor of Religion Diana Pasulka tells a remarkable story involving a class she regularly teaches titled “Buddhism in Popular Culture.” Following a lecture in this class, she encountered a student who revealed a tattoo of Thich Quang Duc, the Vietnamese Buddhist monk who in 1963 famously immolated himself as a protest against the state of things in Vietnam and was famously photographed engulfed in flames. The student got his inspiration for the tattoo from a well-known CD cover. The band Rage Against the Machine used the provocative image for their eponymous 1992 record. Knowing the student was a self-proclaimed Christian, Pasulka was surprised by the tattoo. She asked the student “how he came to have the monk on his back, where did he learn of the story?” Pasulka gives his interesting reply and her own internal response:

He didn’t know who the monk was, just that he had seen him on the cover of the Rage Against the Machine CD, thought it was an image that cohered with the meaning of the crucified Christ, which was the other visible image on his arm. I was too surprised to ask if the student thought that Thich Quang Duc was resurrected in the same manner as Christ. . . In time, I have come to believe that this is precisely what motivated the student to tattoo the monk’s image in the first place. He must understand Thich Quang Duc as virtually resurrected due to his violent death for a noble cause, and most important, through his ongoing incarnations in culture. Although the student never stated this directly, his actions, especially his correlation of the monk with the image of the resurrected Jesus, suggests it.[1]

As for his own culture’s view of him, Thich Quang Duc is considered and revered by Vietnamese Buddhists as a Bodhisattva. You see images of him at temples throughout Vietnam. Offerings are given to him regularly.

With Thich Quang Duc’s veneration as a bodhisattva in mind, the paralleling of Jesus and Quang Duc is even more telling. Jesus had similar political motivations when he willingly asserted himself in a way he knew would get him killed. When Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, he did so for the distinct purpose of cleansing his society of greed and the power-lust behind it. He knew this would cause a stir.

His provocative act led to his Crucifixion which he did not resist. Nor did he call for his many followers to resist. In fact, his death on the cross was an act of civil disobedience to point to the injustice and collective harm of Roman occupation and religious appeasement. Tibetan monk in China who have similarly self-immolated themselves in protest are another, more recent parallel to Jesus in Ancient Palestine. Definitely, bodhisattvic actions.

Saving Ones

The most popular example of a Bodhisattva is Kuan-Yin. In China, Taiwan, and in some parts of Japan and South Korea, devotion to Kuan-yin is unparalleled. Stories of Kuan-yin abound. The most prominent of these stories in China and Taiwan involve the legend of Miao-shan who is believed to be a historic figure but whose tales are “based on a true story.” Included in the tales of Miao-shan’s life are narratives of how she, though perfectly blameless and virtuous, is wrongly killed and how in death she takes on the karmic guilt of others. She even goes into the hell realm to bring beings back to earth and then into heaven upon her resurrection. Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

There is profound resonance experienced in stories of such selfless sacrifice. We feel a real sense of humanity, humility, and compassion when we hear of someone selflessly giving themselves up to protect another. Holidays throughout the world, such as our Memorial Day, honor veterans who have fallen. On days like 9/11, we remember firefighters and first responders who gave their all, including their lives, in the work of protecting other. These memorials are extra poignant and powerful because we feel such selflessness deep in our bones. We feel it to such an extent that gratitude naturally exudes from us.

That the Christian story has divine selflessness as its central theme explains why Christianity continues to grow in the world. Jesus, God in the flesh, lays down his self and his life for friends and forgives enemies in the process – this offers universal relevance and allure.

There is even more to the story. We see in Jesus’ sacrifice and in the world’s response to it even deeper significance. For we can see Jesus’ sacrifice as embodying all examples of compassion throughout time. We look at this next.

The Universal Cross?

As someone who holds to the doctrine of universal restoration, I believe deep in my heart that all in the end God, who is love personified, will reconcile and restore all of creation back to God’s self. Salvation will be universal, applying to all.

Christians holding to universalist restoration believe Christ is absolutely pivotal. Christ is actually the pivot that makes the end of hell a future reality.

However, a central question arises. Even if I am a Muslim or a Jew or a Buddhist in this life, in the end is it Christ and Christ alone I must go through to get to the “no more suffering” of heaven? Is Christ the only sufficient mediator and bridge to God? Traditional Universalists say, yes, Christ is the only means to the restoration of all of Creation.

Still, in a pluralistic and diverse society, what do we do with the significant example of exclusivism that says only Christ reconciles, Christian and non-Christian alike? How do I on one hand say “only Christ” yet on the other hand completely affirm non-Christians and their faith tradition?

I actually ask myself this question a lot. As a pluralistic Christ-follower, I indeed want to honor my non-Christian brothers and sisters. Is it possible to be a pluralist yet still see Christ as pivotal? Being a pluralist and seeing Christ as pivotal seems mutually exclusive. I believe they are not. But how?

In the Beginning, Love...

I begin with the beginning. In the beginning, Love was. God as Love is defined by two overarching realities: a universe-wide humility and a universe-wide compassion. These two realities are united in a creative reality many people, myself included, call God.

God as love unfolded in a flourish of creativity, and the universe expanded and evolved into what it is now. And the universe continues to expand and evolve.

For you trinitarians out there, in the creative beginning, the self-enclosed yet infinite love of the Trinity – an infinite love undergirding the primordial family of Father God, Mother Spirit, and Offspring Logos – flowed over and was cast in the long arc of time.

The Turn at Compassion

At the pinnacle, the peak, the climax of that arc was an ultimate act of compassion, the event of Christ on the cross.

On the cross, Jesus, the man of constant sorrow, gives away self, sparing his disciples deemed friends the same fate, sparing their blood shed with his own blood shed. A nonviolent Jesus accepts and endures a violent death alone as a criminal to save lives, namely his friends and followers. In the process, he forgives. In Christ on the cross, we see the ultimate exemplification of divine self-emptying compassion.

Through this particular event – the event of the cross where Jesus saves his disciples from death and forgives his enemies of their injustice – comes a universal application and reach.

The particular event of the cross led to the Resurrection’s victory over grief and the Pentecost’s birth of the church. The particular event of the cross eventually led to the nonviolent overthrow of the Roman Empire some 300 years later. In turn, time was divided into a before and after.

Time becomes measured by BC, Before Christ” and AD, “anno domini” (which we might translate as the victory of compassion). Time itself is split and eventually this split in time is applied universally, worldwide. While Common Era (CE) and Before Common Era (BCE) have replaced AD and BC, the figure of Jesus still represents the dividing line.

For me, it is Christ’s act on the cross that matters most. His act, his selfless and compassionate act born out of love for his disciples and a commitment to nonviolence, reveals and represents perfect compassion. It is this compassion that measures, that is the benchmark of time.

The Pivot of the Cross

That benchmark of Christ serves also as a pivot. Compassion, as perfected on the cross, is the pivot point where Creation moves back to its center, to God. That pivot point is what God’s unfolding of creation led to and it is what pivots Creation in its folding back to God, in Creation’s return and restoration to God.

We can use the renowned, universal parable of the prodigal son to help us understand this idea. In the story, there is a loving father which represents God. And there is the son, the prodigal son, who takes his father’s gifts and runs away and wastes those gifts. The prodigal pictures for us here the world as a whole. The world took its many gifts and left its divinity, its connection to God.

But there was a pivot-point in time, a pivot-point where humanity, moved by complete humility and compassion, realized the error of “his” ways. The prodigal world turned back toward God and began the return to God.

That pivot, that turning point, is Christ on the cross, the moment when complete selflessness and compassion is perfectly pictured and made real.

Christ as Universal Compassion

A key question is can we separate the compassion embodied on the cross from Christ? In one sense, the answer is no, we cannot separate compassion from its embodiment. Without embodiment, compassion is meaningless. Embodiment of compassion is necessary for compassion to be experienced all ways around, from the receiver of compassion to the giver of compassion.

The seminal question then remains. Does Christ alone embody compassion?

Certainly, there are many if not countless examples of selflessness and compassion lived-out. There are examples in our various religions – from the Buddha’s graciously and selflessly teaching mercy and compassion to examples of saints sacrificing themselves for the benefit of others.

There are examples in everyday life too. Neighbors showing humility and kindness toward their neighbors. Parents embodying godly love by selflessly loving and caring for their children and others’ children.

A modern example of embodied selflessness and compassion especially resonates. The firefighter on September 11, 2001 climbed up staircase after staircase, scaling the Twin Towers. They had no idea what was going on. They surely must have sensed the danger and risk. But they kept ascending anyway.

These many examples of embodied self-emptying compassion, before and after Christ, all tap into and participate in that same perfect love that Christ embodied on the cross. In fact, I believe all examples of selflessness and compassion before and after Christ are themselves pictured in, included in, participating in, and enfolded into that pivotal event of Christ on the cross.

Christ on the cross is a microcosm of all instances of self-emptying compassion in time.

Forward and Backward Looking Faith

When I was a boy growing up in church, a big question I had was what about those who lived before Jesus who were not mentioned in the Old Testament. How were they saved when Christ on the cross hadn’t happened yet? The answer I got was that those before Jesus faithfully looked ahead to the day Jesus would come; those after Jesus faithfully looked (and look) back.

Applying this intriguing idea, before Christ, examples of self-emptying compassion throughout the world faithfully looked ahead to the compassion of Christ on the cross. After Christ, examples of self-emptying compassion throughout the world faithfully look back to the compassion of Christ on the cross. We might use the image of a mirror. Examples of self-emptying compassion before Christ and after Christ faithfully mirror Christ’s self-emptying compassion. How could they not? Self-emptying compassion are innate to and in Christ. Examples of self-emptying compassion tap into what is innate in Christ.

I go one step further. Examples of self-emptying compassion across time are embedded in the compassion of Christ on the cross. Again, the cross is a microcosm of all real examples of self-emptying compassion throughout time.

He Became Compassion

In church as a kid I learned that the sins of humankind were placed on Christ’s shoulders on the cross as he paid the penalty of sin. The idea is that Jesus became sin for us. I don’t think gets at the full magnitude of the cross. With Jesus as all sin, we don’t get the complete picture nor the true power of Christ’s compassion.

I believe all acts of sincere self-emptying compassion throughout time were embodied in Christ’s self-emptying compassion on the cross. In Christ’s heart we have the heart of humility and compassion, the same heart that moved the countless examples of love in history. In Christ on the cross, we have represented all examples of altruistic love throughout time and space. Christ on the cross relinquishes sin with compassion.

There is an archetype in literature and film known as the Everyman.  The Everyman represents the ordinary man or woman confronting an extraordinary situation that he wants but cannot avoid. We have a lot of examples of this. Gary Cooper in the film High Noon is a perfect example. Cooper is the sheriff, volunteered for the job by some of the town’s citizens. He accepts it thinking it’s such a peaceful town and a quiet time. When crime and criminals come to the town one day, everything changed. He is forced to face it all alone, despite his fear and vulnerability and lack of experience with things like outlaws. He rises to the occasion as an Everyman.

Jesus on the cross is a real, live Everyman. And in Jesus on the cross, we purely see, in a tragic and magnified way, every act of self-emptying compassion. 

On the cross, the sin of fallen humanity was conquered by the compassion of God’s image in humanity. Sin died on the cross with “It is finished.” Compassion lived-on.

And the good news is that this self-emptying compassion seen in the microcosm of Christ on the cross, this self-emptying compassion saves us. Christ’s compassion on the cross, and the compassion reflected and refracted in the countless of examples of love and compassion all around us and in time, saves us. Self-emptying compassion – Love – saves us! And in the end Love will save us all.

[1] Diana Pasulka, "Virtual Religion: Popular Culture and the Digital World,” 329


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