Beyond Belief: a Buddhist Critique of Christianity
Fact and fiction in
the life of Jesus
Some of the most bizarre things about Jesus were the miracles he is
said to have performed. One of the most famous of these was
bringing Lazarus back from the dead. Lazarus had been dead for at
least four days and was presumably in heaven, while his family were
heartbroken and grieving. In raising him from the dead, Jesus
certainly demonstrated his power but what did Lazarus and his
family get out of it? Lazarus was removed from heaven and brought
back to "this vale of tears" only to have to die all over again some
time in the future while his family would also have to go through
grieving and distress all over again (Jn 11:1-44).
To the Buddhist this miracle, if it even really happened, seems to be
unnecessary, and even cruel. How much more practical and humane
was the Buddha's approach to death. On one occasion a young mother
named Kisagotami came to the Buddha with her dead son,
deranged with grief and pleading with the Buddha to give her son
medicine. Full of compassion the Buddha told her to go and get a
mustard seed from a house where no one had ever died. In the
process of looking for such a seed, Kisagotami gradually came to
realize that death is an integral part of life and she overcame her
grief (Dhammapada Atthakatta, Book 8,13). Jesus performed showy miracles which seemed to leave people much as they were, the
Buddha gently and skilfully led people to understanding. This is
what the Buddha meant when he said that education is the highest miracle (Digha Nikaya, Sutta No.11).
Another miracle where Jesus seems to have given little thought to
the consequences of what he was doing was the one he supposedlyperformed at Godara. A man
was possessed by devils, and just before Jesus exorcized them the devils asked
Jesus if he would send them into a nearby herd of pigs. Jesus obliged, sending the devils
into the pigs, which then rushed screaming down the side of a cliff
into a lake where they drowned (Mk 5:1-13). The man who had been
possessed by the devil must have been very grateful for this but one
wonders what the owners of the pigs would have thought. The loss
of their animals would have caused them great financial hardship. Not
surprisingly, we are told that after this incident the people from the
nearby village came to Jesus and begged him to leave their territory
(Mk 5:17). Note that Matthew tells this same story but he
exaggerates it, claiming the not one but two men were exorcized (Matt 8:28-32).
This supposed miracle also highlights Jesus' utter disregard for nature. He could simply have expelled the devils but instead he
chose to do it in a most cruel way by driving to their deaths a large
number of completely harmless and innocent animals. On another
occasion he used his miraculous powers to kill a fig tree simply
because it could not bear fruit (Matt 21:18-20). Apparently he
never considered that animals could have eaten its leaves, birds could have
nested in branches, travellers could have rested in its shade and its
roots would have helped prevent erosion of the soil by the rain and
the wind - which probably explains why the tree had been left
growing. No advantage at all came from killing the tree was little
more than an act of wanton vandalism.
While some of Jesus' miracles were pointless others seem to have
verged on the ridiculous. Once Jesus was invited to a wedding. After
some time there was Ii wine left to drink so Jesus turned several
large jars of water into wine (Jn 2:1-1l). No doubt the host must
have appreciated not having to go out to buy more alcohol but it
does seem a bit incongruous. that God should incarnate as a man,
come earth and use his powers just so that people wouldn't run out
of drinks at the parties.
What we have said above indicates that while some of Jesus'
teachings were good others were cruel, impractical, and in some
cases just silly. And perhaps it is not surprising that not only have
Christians often failed to practise Jesus' teachings, but he often also
failed to practise them himself. He taught that we should love our
neighbour but he seems to have problems doing this himself. He
believed that his teaching could lead people to heaven and yet he
specifically instructed his disciples not to preach the Gospel to
anyone but his own people, the Jews.
Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel (Matt 10:5-6).
When a poor distressed woman came to Jesus begging for help he
refused to help her simply because she was not Jewish. Teaching the
Gospel to Canaanites was, he said, like taking food from children
and throwing it to dogs.
A Canaanite woman from the vicinity came to him, crying out, "Lord, son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is suffering terribly from demon possession". Jesus did not answer a word. So his disciples came to him and urged him, "Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us". He answered: "I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel". The woman came and knelt before him, "Lord, help me!" she said. He replied, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to the dogs" (Matt 15:22-26).
It was only after strong urging from his disciples that Jesus finally
decided to help the woman. So much for loving one's neighbour.
Jesus taught that we should love our enemies, but again he seemed
to have difficulties doing this. When the Pharisees criticized him he
responded with a tirade of curses and insults (e.g. Jn 8:42-47, Matt 23:13-36).
Jesus said that we should not judge others (Matt 7:12) and claimed
that he himself judged no one (Jn 8:15). But despite this he was
constantly judging and condemning others, often in a harsh and
sweeping manner (Jn 8:42-47, Matt 23:13-16)
In conformity with the Old Testament Jesus taught that we must
honour our mother and father (Matt 19:19) but on other occasions he
taught and practised the exact opposite.
If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple (Lk 14:26).
This demand that to love Jesus we must be prepared to hate others,
even our own parents, seems to be very much at odds with the idea
of honouring parents - let alone with the idea of loving our
neighbour. Once Jesus' mother and brothers came to see him while
he was preaching only to be rudely rebuffed.
And his mother and brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. And a crowd was sitting about him, and they said to him, "Your mother and brothers are outside, asking for you". And he replied, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" And looking around on those who sat about him, he said, "Here are my mother and brothers!" (Mk 3:31-35).
Once when his mother spoke to him, he snapped at her: "0 woman,
what have you to do with me?" (Jn 2:4). And yet while he acted like
this to his parents he condemned the Pharisees for their supposed
hypocrisy over the law to honour mother and father (Matt 15:3-6, Mk 7:10-13).
In some instances, it is difficult to accuse Jesus of failing to practise
what he preached for the simple reason that he taught contradictory
things. Christians are used to thinking of him as "gentle Jesus meek
and mild", because of his command "to turn the other cheek" and to
"not resist an evil person" (Matt 5:39). And indeed Jesus seems to
have acted like this sometimes. But at other times he clearly saw his
role as a violent one.
Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace but the sword. I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law, a man's enemies will be the members of his own household (Matt 10:34-36).
Certainly he saw nothing wrong with using violence when he
thought it was necessary. When he saw the money changers in the
temple he lost his temper and lashed out with violence.
So he made a whip out of cords and drove all from the temple areas: he scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables (Jn 2:15).
Before his arrest Jesus was expecting trouble so he told his disciples to prepare themselves by getting weapons.
If you do not have a sword sell your cloak and buy one (Lk 22:36).
When he was arrested there was a fight during which "one of Jesus'
companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant
of the high priest, cutting off his ear" (Matt 26:51). It is very
difficult for the Buddhist to reconcile such behaviour with the idea
of being perfect. To retaliate against one's accusers, to lose one's
temper and to encourage others to carry weapons and use them seem
to negate the whole idea of moral perfection.
At this stage it might be good to point out that while most of Jesus'
teachings are inadequate and ill-conceived, some are excellent. His
teachings on love, forgiveness, humility and service to the sick and
poor are worthy of the highest praise. However, none of this is
unique. Such ideas are to be found, sometimes more fully, in the
teachings of the Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu, Mahavira, Guru Nanak
etc, most of whom lived centuries before Jesus. What is good in
Jesus' Teachings is not unique and what is unique is not particularly good.
Christians have great difficulty understanding why Buddhists and
other non-Christians cannot accept Jesus as the Lord and saviour as
they themselves do. But when we read the life and teachings of the
Buddha - a man who smiled at abuse, remained calm when provoked
and who always discouraged violence - the reason for their rejection becomes clear.
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