One of my most memorable adventures as a cultural intermediary occurred about twelve years ago when I translated for a Christian colleague who was visiting the monastery in southern India where I was living. He was there working on a translation of a Buddhist text, and I volunteered my services as interpreter. One day, in the course of his conversations with one of the senior scholars of the monestary, it came up that he was a Christian, and my teacher asked him to share some of his beliefs. My friend chose to focus on Jesus’ identity as messiah. As I finished translating the words of my colleague, my teacher broke out in a fit of laughter, much to my embarrassment. He then proceeded to question his interlocutor in a kind of pointed and unabashedly adversarial way that is typical of the Tibetan monastic debate courtyard. There ensued a lively exchange, but when all was said and done, my teacher’s basic question was this: How can the death of one individual act as the direct and substantive cause for the salvation of others?
Behind this interreligious impasse there are of course operative several Buddhist doctrinal presuppositions that are in marked contrast (at times even in opposition) to those of traditional Christianity, not the least of which is the Buddhist vision of what constitutes liberation.
Several corollaries to the Buddhist view of liberation are especially relevant as responses to the Christian confession of Jesus as messiah. (1) Each of us is responsible for our own lot in life. We each cause our own suffering, and each of us is ultimately responsible for our own liberation. (2) Our salvation is not dependent on any one historical event. Specifically, our salvation is not dependent upon the appearance of any one personage in history. True, the actions of others can help us or hinder us on the way, but no action (or lack of action) on the part of another individual—whether human or divine—can seal our fate, either as regards salvation or damnation. (3) Soteriologically, there is no end to time, no time after which sentient beings will suffer, and thus long will there be the possibility of their liberation. (4) No being has the capacity to decide whether or not we will be saved. Salvation is not granted to us, or withheld from us, by some external force. It is self-earned. (5) No single action on our part can instantaneously cause our liberation. What brings about salvation is not mere belief or faith, even a faith that is sustained throughout en entire life. Certainly, it is not the instantaneous belief in something (e.g., the belief that Jesus is Lord) that brings about salvation, but the long and arduous process of radical mental transformation, which requires more than simply belief.22
Together these various tenants make it impossible for Buddhists to accept a messianic creed of the traditional Christian sort. Jesus may have been an extraordinary human being, a sage, an effective and charismatic teacher, and even the manifestation of a deity, but he cannot have been the messiah that most Christians believe him to have been.23 (Gross et. al. 2000, 27-28, José Ignacio Cabezón, A God, but Not a Savior, Iliff School of Theology.)
22 I am not unaware of the fact that in the history of Buddhism there have been movements that challenge this notion of the nature and path to salvation. Especially important to mention in this regard are certain schools of Japanese Pure Land Buddhism. But again, I remind my readers that I am speaking here principally from an Indo-Tibetan Buddhist doctrinal perspective.
23 Of course, if the Jesus Seminar is right, than Jesus did not make this claim of himself. See Funk et. al, The Five Gospels, pp. 32-34.
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It is well known within the comparative religious studies field that there exists a phenomena whereby a founder reveals a teaching of experience and after passing another teaching about the founder develops in the minds of those who are tasked with creating the social institutions that perpetuate the founder’s teachings. It is the teachings of the founder distinct from the teachings about the founder that are important and often lost in historical time until recovered through critical religious scholarship. This of vs. about distinction is important. The teachings of Jesus are distinct and separate from the teachings about Jesus that developed after his death. The atonement doctrine — which in light of modernity is nothing more than divine child abuse — was a doctrine developed after Jesus lived, taught, and died and is incompatible with the teachings of Jesus as he revealed them through his life and teachings as exemplified in his many parables. The same can is found in the life experience of Siddhārtha Gautama (Sanskrit/Devanagari: सिद्धार्थ गौतम Siddhārtha Gautama, c. 563/480 – c. 483/400 BCE) and many other religious teachers. Similarly the teaching of Honen Shonin were modified by Shinran Shonin’s teachings which were adapted by Rennyo Shonin’s teachings and so on it goes.
It may well seem to you that the gospel of Jesus did not include all that is high and holy in the Christian gospel as we know it. All those magnificent, transcendent, Christian beliefs seem absent from the original gospel of Jesus — his “gospel” may seem minimal by comparison with the gospel! Missing from his gospel are not only where he came from (“conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary”), but also what he came to do. Where, after all, is “the saving work of Christ”: dying for out sins, rising on the third day, appearing to the apostles resurrected from the dead? These are, after all, the gospel about Jesus, which you, understandably enough, believe and cherish. But if you really are committed to Jesus, then you should be committed to the gospel of Jesus, which is what I have written this book to try to help you see and understand: the “good news” Jesus offered people during his public ministry. (Robinson 2005: 225)— Robinson, James M. The Gospel of Jesus: In Search of the Original Good News. New York: HarperCollins; 2005; p. 225.