From Human to Holy

You’ve probably heard about or watched video replays of the botched Fox News interview with Reza Aslan, Iranian-American scholar of religion who just published a new book on Jesus, so I won’t waste time going over that. Suffice it to say that the incident helped propel Aslan’s book to the #1 spot on the Amazon Best Seller list.

The book is called Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. I haven’t read it. I did read a review in the Los Angeles Times. Charlotte Allen says there isn’t much original or new about it. Ground already covered by many other scholars. That may be, but I like that the book’s message is reaching so many people.

What is the message? Basically, that the historical Jesus was not divine, and when he died, he stayed dead. Evidently, Aslan portrays Jesus as a Jewish revolutionary, who was not the half-man, half-god with a virgin birth, who preformed miracles, walked on water, and rose from the dead.

jesus-buddhaThere are many these days who like to draw parallels between Jesus and Buddha. For instance Thich Nhat Hanh’s popular book, Living Buddha, Living Christ, that according to Amazon, has them “walking, hand in hand, down the same path to salvation.” To me, that’s a bit of a stretch, as I see them walking in two radically different directions. Yes, they both taught about compassion, but that is a common religious teaching. In everything else Jesus points to a path that leads out of this world, while the Buddha’s path leads us within ourselves.

It’s when we strip away the layers of mythology from each man that we find real similarities. Like Jesus, Buddha was also a revolutionary. He rebelled against the Vedas, denied the authority of the Brahmin priests, opposed the caste system, and was pessimistic (at the very least) about the existence of gods and the efficacy of prayer.

Even more striking are the parallels in the history of their marketing. What I mean is how a king helped to elevate each of them to a status above that of common mortal.

In the case of Jesus, it was Constantine the Great, a warrior who murdered his way to the throne of Rome by killing the rightful Emperor, Maxentius, and his two sons. Constantine was a Sun God worshipper, who supposedly converted to Christianity, but in actuality never renounced his faith in Sol Invictus (“Unconquered Sun”). He convened the First Council of Nice in 325 CE (held in part to combat the Arian heresy), during which the human Jesus was transformed into the Jesus the god, or “Lord of Light,” the Sabbath was changed from Saturday to Sunday, and it was decided which books would be included in the Bible.

Similarly, the transformation of the human Gautama into the supermundane Buddha – with the miraculous birth and supernatural powers, who could perform miracles but refused to do so, etc. – was advanced significantly during the reign of the Indian king Ashoka, approximately two and a half centuries after the Buddha’s death. Ashoka was also a murderous warrior, who converted to a new religion, but unlike Constantine, the conversion seems to have taken hold, and Ashoka became a changed man. He, too, presided over a council, The Third Buddhist Council around 250 BCE. The details of what transpired during that event are not well-known but apparently it was convened in order to rid the Sangha of corruption and eliminate certain heresies. At any rate, it was during Ashoka’s rule, and due in no small part to his patronage and his propagation of Buddhism (through the “Rock Edicts”), that Buddha-dharma was established as a major sect in India, the Sangha evolved to the shape that we know it today, and the Buddha was elevated to almost god-like status.

I don’t know if Aslan’s book discusses the role Constantine played in the Jesus story or not. And frankly, how much truth resides any of the stories about Constantine or Ashoka, as in the case of Buddha and Jesus, is hard to determine.

I’m not aware of any biographies that attempt to demystify the Buddha, as Aslan and others have done with Jesus. I recently mentioned Trevor Ling’s The Buddha, which presents the most realistic portrait that I’ve read, but that only amounts to a relatively small section in a work largely devoted to a sociological study how Buddhism developed through succeeding centuries in India and Sri Lanka.

Buddhism has no real need for a central figure with extraordinary powers and super-consciousness. Buddhism works just fine without the mythological Buddha. In fact, Buddhism could survive without a historical Buddha. As Edward Conze once said, “The existence of the Gautama as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” That’s because Buddhism is about what the Buddha taught, not that he taught.

I wonder, though, if you take divinity away from Jesus, what survives in Christianity. The very essence of Christianity, as it stands today, is faith in Jesus as presented in the New Testament, the Son of God, the divine Messiah.

I also wonder about the folks reading Aslan’s book. Are they the atheistic and agnostic reading it to find loopholes in the Jesus story, perhaps to confirm suspicions they already harbor? Are they people of faith, who exposed to this information for the first time will take it seriously and reevaluate their beliefs, maybe precipitating a sort of mass revolution in Christian thinking? I’d like to think it is the latter, but I’m not willing to place any bets on it.

Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God, but let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about his being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.”

– C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity

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16 thoughts on “From Human to Holy

  1. I agree with much of what you said, and am sympathetic to the argument, but I think there are a couple of wrinkles.

    First, from a historical perspective– we need to remember that the “mythologization” of the Buddha was baked in from the very beginning. That’s not to say that it didn’t also develop in interesting ways over time: just that there is no early strata of texts that shows a human Buddha (for example.) The notion that the Buddha was “just a human” isn’t an early view– it is a very modern view.

    The second point relates to your point that “Buddhism has no real need for a central figure with extraordinary powers and super-consciousness. Buddhism works just fine without the mythological Buddha.”

    If the Buddha is the Buddha, he is fully awakened. That’s what it means to be the Buddha, after all. And “fully awakened” means having eradicated ignorance, i.e., being all-knowing, omniscient. The majority of the Buddha’s teaching claim to come from this super-mundane knowledge, not from things he hammered out using reason alone.

    In fact, the suttas are pretty explicit about what happens to those who argue the contrary:

    Sariputta, when I know and see thus, should anyone say of me: ‘The recluse Gotama does not have any superhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluse Gotama teaches a Dhamma (merely) hammered out by reasoning, following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him’ — unless he abandons that assertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as (surely as if he had been) carried off and put there he will wind up in hell. (MN 12)

    So, I think that the C.S. Lewis quote applies more closely to Buddhism than we’d like to admit. Either the Buddha was fully enlightened, or he was deluded, or he was so profoundly misunderstood by his immediate disciples that we have no idea what he actually taught at all.

    1. Michael, here is where you and I have a very different take. I always believe that the truth of history is far more mundane than what has been handed down to us. What I see in the early texts and even common perception of the Buddha today is a tension between the teacher who was not a god, a prophet or any kind of supernatural being and the “Awakened One” who was this all-knowing, omniscient being, and if the latter were actually the case then he would a supernatural being because it goes against all reason that any mortal person can know everything there is to know.

      The quote you offer is a good example, on one hand if a person does not accept that the Buddha has superhuman states he or she winds up in hell, which conflicts with the guidance of the Kalama Sutta to hammer things out by reason.

      We also differ on the nature of enlightenment. I don’t see it as some sort of earth-shaking, mind-blowing experience but as something far more subtle.

      1. I actually agree with you on many points; I’m just saying that the Buddhist texts and traditions don’t.

        I’m afraid I don’t see much of the “teacher who was not a …supernatural being” in any of the suttas or sutras. The texts are quite uniform when it comes to portraying the Buddha as significantly more than human. And they are also quite consistent in labeling him as “all-knowing”.

        And, the quote I offered doesn’t conflict with the Kalama Sutta, but agrees with it: the Kalama Sutta explicitly urges the Kalamas not go by “logical conjecture, by inference, by analogies, by agreement through pondering views”. In short, they should not use human reason, which is fallible and limited.

        I also agree that the view of full enlightenment given in the suttas and sutras is far from subtle– it is definitely portrayed as an all-or-nothing, mind-blowing experience. If one has it, one has permanently exited the wheel of rebirth, of suffering, and gains all kinds of superhuman abilities. This, too, is quite consistent in the texts.

        But, again, to be clear: I’m not talking about my view of the Buddha, or of enlightenment, but the view of the early texts.

        1. The fact we don’t see much of a teacher in the suttas and sutras who was not a supernatural being that there was a lot of mythology thrown into those texts. I don’t think there is much disagreement about the Mahayana sutras on that point, while in the case of the Pali suttas, it is debatable.

          The way I read the Kalama sutta is that he is saying don’t go by logical conjecture, inference, and so on, alone, or rather do not be unduly swayed by such things. He encourages his followers to test the teachings, to discover for themselves. Using reason is one way to do that, but not the only way.

          1. I think you’ll find that the more you read in the Pali suttas, the more you’ll see the Buddha as supermundane.

            As for the Kalama Sutta, it’s actually arguing against using reason at all— instead, it says that a (non-Buddhist) practitioner should examine the mental states that arise from practice, and see if they are full of greed, aversion and delusion or the opposite. So, one should discover for oneself the things that can be tested, but must trust the Buddha regarding those things that cannot be tested, such as rebirth. In fact, that’s what the last third of the Kalama Sutta is about.

          2. You’ll get no argument from me about the Pali suttas. I’m just saying that they should not be considered a realistic, accurate historical portrait of the Buddha. 🙂

            You’re referring to the four assurances or solaces, but I don’t recall any mention in the sutta that they fall under any heading of things that cannot be tested or that one has to trust the Buddha on those points. It just says that these things are found by a disciple who is freed from greed and hate, etc., but it’s rather vague about how these four are found.

  2. Michael, and David,

    Why question what Jesus, buddha, or any other is or is not.

    “If you wish to see the truth
    then hold no opinions for or against anything.
    To set up what you like against what you dislike
    is the disease of the mind.
    When the deep meaning of things is not understood
    the mind’s essential peace is disturbed to no avail.”
    Seng-Ts’an

    1. While I use this quote frequently myself, I am not sure it is applicable in this discussion. Seng-Ts’an is speaking from the ultimate truth, whereas this conversation has more to do with the conventional truth, at least to me. One point of view, albeit a modern one I suppose, might be that to confuse human beings for gods is a delusion that contributes to suffering.

      1. David

        What is the ultimate truth? Is it not the same as the conventional truth? To much discussion of things. Just pushing a wheelbarrow of words uphill.

          1. Nagarjuna says,

            The ultimate truth cannot be taught except in the context of the conventional truth, and unless the ultimate truth is comprehended, liberation is not possible.”

            Thanks David

  3. I think “faith” is what makes the difference here – it is not vital for us to believe that Buddha was an “all-knowing being” to maintain a buddhist way of life, as our modern experience with his teachings has demonstrated.
    On the other hand, doubting that Jesus was a supernatural being creates an enormous crisis in any christian’s mind.

    Portraing Buddha as someone “superior” was the way the ancients used to say “go there and listen to that guy, he’s got some interesting ideas”.

    Thanks for the post and the debate that followed it!

      1. Yes, and I wanted to say that I agree with you on the subject (my english failed me, sorry).
        There is no discussion (as far as I know) among western buddhists about the presence of women at relevant positions inside the religious community; on the other hand, in the christian churches that’s a very hot topic because they are so attached to the magical condition of Jesus (a male) and his early associates (all men). The christian message mixes itself up (evenly) with the faith that those people were diferente than the other human beings. Women don’t look like those magical beings, so we shouldn’t trust them when it comes to religious matters – that’s how they think.
        Pope John Paul II went once to Poland and participated in a radio show along with other guests. One of them, a woman, asked him why is it that women are not allowed to be priests/bishops/popes in the catholic church. John Paul answered “because there were no women present at the last supper”.
        The woman said then: “Well, there were no polaks either!”

        1. Ha! Very good.

          I think there is some discussion in the West about the role of women, and some progress as well. Within the Zen community, more and more women are being ordained as priests and leading sanghas. There is much more progress that needs to be made, and more discussion to be had.

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