Saturday, November 17, 2007

"Buddha" or "the Buddha"?

Someone asked about aspects of Buddhist belief as against some Christian practices they have witnessed:

"I will list my main problems really quickly here and I would like if someone could tell me what Buddha says, if anything, about these things.

1) Banning of literature: ...................

2) Discrimination of Homosexuals: ............................ Does Buddha teach against them strongly?

3) Discrimination of Women: ................. What does Buddha say about sexism?"

Whilst the questions address matters of great importance, censorship, homophobia and sexism, I see a communication problem built into the very way in which the questions are asked. For me, it is summed up in the question: "What does Buddha say?" The question lacks the definite article, "the" whilst maintaining an initial capital.

To call Gotama Siddhartha "Buddha" rather than "the Buddha" reveals a cultural context based on different assumptions from the Buddhist..

* "What does Buddha say?" I was taught that buddha is a description and not a name, nor does it apply to a single individual in history. This may seem 'picky' but many Buddhist teachers, including Gotama Siddhartha, refer to hundred or thousands of Buddhas. Christians may understand, intellectually, that the word "Christ" is also an adjective rather than a noun or name. How many of us, however, have really assimilated the implications. "Buddha" can be translated in many ways: enlightened, awakened and so on. As I understand it, it is descriptive of anyone who has fully and permanently achieved that state. "Christ" means anointed and is descriptive of David, anointed by Samuel, and, by extension, the Messiah, anonited by the Shekinah. What has happened is that these descriptive terms have become attached to a single individual. There is a difference, however. In books about Buddhism it is not unusual to find Gotama Siddhartha described as "the Buddha Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha". Rarely do we find Jesus described in a similar way, as one among many 'anointed'. Uniqueness is stressed in Christianity, and the finality of a complete revelation is taught from the outset. Thus, Jesus is referred to as "Christ", without the definite article, whereas the designation "the Buddha" reminds us that Gotama was one among thousands and, at the same time, has a particular and special place as the Turner of the Wheel in our generations.

When children have been taught that there is ONE Christ and he was/is Jesus, they will tend to assume a single transmission by a specific individual. Perhaps monotheism demands this approach: the once-for-all individual or event, arising but not contingent, is the 'seal of authenticity'.

Perhaps the heart of the difference is that Buddhism holds the truth that all sentient beings are potential Buddhas, Saint Paul's teaching that all will become "children of God" and "co-heirs", i.e. Christs, tends to be interpreted differently, maintaining a patriarchal, possibly imperial, hierarchy with "Christ-nature" belonging to only one individual. My encounter with Buddhist thought has caused me to reflect that there is a more universal and inclusive reading Romans 8:14-17 (".... we are children of God. And if we are children we are heirs as well: heirs of God and coheirs with Christ, sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory") and Ephesians 3:6 ("pagans now share the same inheritance.")

(THINK-NOTE: "Sharing his sufferings so as to share his glory" seems to me another formulation of the Four Noble Truths: first, the truth of suffering; second the truth that we must see how we choose the suffering inherent in living; the third and fourth truths that suffering can be ended.

* "What does Buddha say"
Roman Catholicism acknowledges an unfolding revelation. Protestant Christianity tends to hold to a single 'deposit of faith" in the canonical scriptures. Buddhism has seen major development and re-directions as a result of many teachers over the millennia. Even today, a teacher like Thich Nhat Hanh is acknowledged as revealing new treasures, to borrow a Tibetan expression; the Buddhisms accept new 'revelations'. In the Christianities, new thinking, new approaches to the Gospel, new interpretations tend to be marginalised or 'excommunicated'. Modern examples would be the work of Cupitt or Matthew Fox who found that they were no longer welcome within the community.

This attitude towards new and original thinking, coupled with the canonisation of scriptural texts, leads the post-Christian to look for validation of beliefs or opinions in those texts deemed most 'original' or closest to words spoken by Gotama Siddhartha. Whilst Buddhists reserve great reverence for particular texts, it has to be noted that different branches of Buddhism revere different texts. There is no single definitive kerygma, other than, perhaps, the Four Noble Truths.

The difference with much of the more strident modern mainstream Christianity is that Buddhism has little or no problem with scientific theories such as cosmology or evolution. Scientific method is not seen as in any way inimical to Buddhist practice or beliefs. The Dalai Lama was asked in a BBC tv interview what he would do if science proved there was no rebirth. He replied that he would give up the belief but added a question: "And how are you going to prove it?" I have difficulty imagining a similar answer from a Christian leader about the Resurrection, unless it were Bishop Jenkins and his comments were generally condemned rather than examined with honest enquiry.