‘Is there an affinity between the non-self of Christ on the cross and the non-self of the Buddha?’

Howard Grace makes common cause in the 'Thought for the week'

Close-up of ‘The Embrace of Jesus and Buddha’. | Photo: Painting by Francis Bennett.

On the face of it orthodox Christianity and Buddhism are irreconcilably different. But, in each case, does the human spirit go through the same transforming process? Is there an affinity between the non-self of Christ on the cross and the non-self of the Buddha as he reached for enlightenment? The Newbury Progressive Christianity Network group recently discussed this at our Meeting house. We were joined by a local Buddhist.

A Christian (or a Muslim) may feel that a relationship with God is fundamental to inner transformation. But maybe it is the belief in a loving creator God that is helpful to that process, rather than whether such a divine being actually exists. Equally, although Buddhists may not believe in a creator God, maybe the transformation they go through is given by the God they do not believe in.

The primary aim of the Buddha was to help people to overcome their inner struggles. He had a well-conceived understanding and developed various techniques to this purpose, somewhat similar to a modern-day psychologist. But the concept of God played no part in his approach – he was people-centred. Jesus, on the other hand, was primarily inspired by his devotion to God. This was in line with the Jewish worldview he grew up with. His actions and destiny were linked to God’s will.

But when one looks at Jesus’ life, it is apparent that for him too spiritual transformation and growth in people was fundamental. His challenge to the woman at the well was about her facing the mistakes in her life and changing. The same was true for the accusers of the woman caught in adultery, as well as for the woman herself. His way of dealing with these people was not necessarily derived from their religious beliefs. He challenged them to look at their selfish desires and to live differently; he also treated people with compassion, rather than judgement. In this sense, Jesus and the Buddha had the common aim of helping people to grow spiritually. Each did this within the culture and understanding of life they had been born into.

With this in mind it is worth asking again whether, despite the obvious differences in their theological understandings, the inner motivating experiences of Jesus and the Buddha were really at variance. Maybe, like all of us, both were seeking to access a reality or a divinity that is far beyond human beings’ ability to comprehend.

Our discussions led us to recognise that there are two levels, and not just one, with which humanity reaches out to the Ultimate Reality. One is with the mind; the other is with the heart and spirit. The first seems to predominate in traditional theology. But, when seeking an inspired way forward, we surely need to focus more on the second. Fostering compassion is a major component of our lives, and common to all of us.

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