The Sitting Buddha and the Crucified Christ

One of the most difficult, and therefore one of the most promising, topics that came up in my recent  conversations with Korean Buddhists a couple of weeks ago was embodied in the central images of our traditions: the Buddha sitting in quiet contemplation under the Bodhi tree and the Christ agonizing on the cross.  There are real differences here.  These images point to DISTINCTIVE, or defining, truths that were discovered, or revealed, in the life and experience of Gautama and of Jesus.

One could say much about what we Christians — especially we Christian activists or liberationists — have to learn from the Buddhist insistence that unless we spend time, lots of time, sitting under a Bodhi tree and seeking enlightenment, we’re not going to be able to really change the world and its structures.  That message came through again and again in my dialogues in Korea.  And I know I have not yet fully understood what it is telling me.

But I’m not sure whether the Buddhists I spoke with really grasped what I think is one of the DISTINCTIVE ingredients in what Jesus discovered about the Mystery he called God/Father.  It’s contained in the cross.

I recently came across a powerful expression of this distinctive message of Christianity in a book by Terry Eagleton, Trouble with Strangers: A Study of Ethics. (Wily-Blackwell, 2009):

If God is indeed in one sense utterly other, he is also made manifest [for Christians and for the world]  in the tortured body of a reviled political criminal … The ghastly good news of the gospel is that being done to death by the state for speaking up for love and justice is the status to which we must all aspire. The message of the New Testament is that if you don’t love you are dead, and if you do, they will kill you. Here, then, is your pie in the sky and your opium of the people. It is a message scandalous alike to the civilized liberal, the militant humanist and the wide-eyed progressive.  (p. 256)

Eagleton’s statement is strong.  I would change his “the status to which we all must aspire” to “for which we all must be ready.”  Still, his (and my) understanding of the Gospel as not only calling us to have compassion and love our neighbor (that the Buddhists would readily agree with) but to also confront the systemic powers that be (the state or the economic system) and be ready to accept the uncomfortable or deadly consequences — this is a message that the Korean Buddhists I talked with found difficult to comprehend.

Which means that “the sitting Buddha” and “the crucified Christ” have a lot to learn from each other.