How Buddhism Helped me to See Jesus in a New Way
I bear no anger towards the simple evangelical Christianity that nurtured my spiritual needs as a youth. My faith helped me to survive the physical and emotional trauma I endured while growing up in an abusive environment.
By the time I reached my late teens, I began to feel that God was calling me towards a clerical profession. To that end, I enrolled in a small Christian college in Toccoa, Georgia beginning in January 1985.
Toccoa is a tiny hamlet tucked into the mountainous northeastern corner of the Peach State. Rich in scenic beauty and rural solitude, it seemed like the perfect place to nurture my budding faith.
My first couple of semesters were by far the most fruitful. The professors were surprisingly broad-minded — within the limits of their spiritual tradition, of course. They encouraged me to develop to develop my intellectual skills through study and reflection.
Theological debate was not only welcomed but encouraged. My fellow students and I wrangled over issues like biblical inerrancy, the role of women in the church, and God’s attitude towards non-Christian religions.
By the end of my sophomore year, I felt confident, not only in my relationship with God, but in my ability to reason things out for myself. I looked towards the future with excitement and anticipation, sure that I had found my place in the world.
Then came 1988, when everything began to change.
A Book I Was Never Supposed to See
The Bible is to American evangelicals as the US Constitution is to hard-core patriots. It’s the ultimate, unquestionable authority, the inerrant, infallible word of God. A single verse can settle disputes with the finality of a hammer blow to the head.
For Bible-believing evangelicals and fundamentalists, this means that Cain slew Abel, Moses parted the Red Sea, Solomon had 700 wives, and Jesus turned water into wine and raised the dead. Literally.
Little wonder, then, that the words I read in a book I found in a public library in the late 80s disturbed me to no end. Its author, a prominent Biblical archaeologist, had the gall to say that many of the Old Testament stories were nothing more than pious fables unsupported by hard data.
Even more disturbing for me was the reaction of my Old Testament professor when I asked him about the book. I expected him to produce mountains of reassuring evidence to allay my fears.
He did no such thing. Instead, he said that “absence of evidence is not the same as evidence of absence.” He told me to pray about the matter and assured me that my faith was on solid ground.
Even in my early 20s, I could recognize spin doctoring when I saw it. My eyes open, I continued my independent studies, away from the watchful eyes of the ecclesiastical authorities.
The more I learned, the more obvious it became that many of my beliefs could not withstand critical inquiry. Like a structure built on a foundation of sand, the faith which had sustained me for years was beginning to crumble.
Then along came the Religious Right to deal a second blow to my worldview.
When I Learned that Jesus is a Republican
My concerns about Christianity were amplified by the growing influence of secular politics on evangelicals in the late 1980s. Prior to the Reagan revolution, it was perfectly okay to be a Christian and a Democrat the same time. President Jimmy Carter was a prime example.
By 1988, this was no longer the case. One could either be a conservative Republican or a scion of Satan, take your pick.
My parents were traditional Southern Democrats, old enough to remember how FDR’s New Deal had kept them and countless other Southerners from starving during the Great Depression. I could not accept that the Social Security which sustained them in their old age was a socialist plot to overthrow America.
For me, the breaking point came during a campus chapel service, in which a guest speaker proclaimed that George HW. Bush, the 1988 Republican presidential candidate, was “God’s man for the hour.”
The only thing that disturbed me more than his words was the riotous applause that erupted among my fellow students. As they cheered, I lowered my head and kept my silence.
"Her Death was a Blessing from God"
My faith might have survived the twin shocks of archaeological investigation and political prostitution, had it not been for a tragedy that still haunts me to this day. One of the college administrators had a 17-year-old teenage daughter who was involved in a head-on automotive collision in spring of 1989. For purposes of this post, let’s say her name was Carolyn Seeger.
Carolyn hovered between life and death for weeks, as the campus community prayed fervently for her full recovery. We believed that our prayers were answered when we heard that her prognosis was excellent. Her doctors said she was well on her way to full recovery.
24 hours later, Carolyn was in a coma. The crash had weakened a blood vessel in her brain. It burst soon after her doctors issued their glowing report. She held on for several days, until her parents made the heartrending decision to take her off of life support.
The shock this sent through our close-knit community was a grievous burden to bear all by itself. What made it doubly despairing for me was the endless rationalizations that assaulted my ears in the days following:
“God’s ways are not our ways. We must trust in his divine will.”
“Carolyn was known to drink beer and date non-Christian boys. This was God’s judgment upon her.”
“The accident was God’s way of calling her home.”
These miserable excuses for God’s inaction sickened me. But worst of all was the comment I heard from one student shortly after the funeral:
“I just learned that three precious souls have accepted Christ since hearing about Carolyn’s passing. How wonderful! Her death was a blessing from God. Praise the Lord! His goodness never fails!”
I wanted to punch the guy who said those inane words. I wanted to rip his balls off and shut them down his throat.
But I did neither of those things. I just went about my business, trying to put his offensive ignorance out of my head.
That night I sat with some friends in my dorm room, talking about the whole sad affair. Like me, they were disgusted by the pathetic attempts to put a happy smiley face on a senseless tragedy.
The discussion wore on and all of us grew tired. Sometime after midnight, I spoke up and said, “you know the real reason why Carolyn died? Because her skull smashed into a windshield at 60 miles an hour.”
My fellow students looked at me in stone-faced silence. I continued, my anger overwhelming my acquiescence to the tribal narrative.
“That’s all there was to it,” I blurted out, tears welling up in my eyes. “No divine judgment, no hidden meaning, no glorious plan from our so-called ‘loving Heavenly Father.’ A 17-year-old girl, with her whole life ahead of her, is now dead. Meanwhile, we invent excuses to get God off the hook. End of story.”
After a while, one of my friends spoke up and said, “you know, Bill? You’re absolutely right.”
Our conversation ended, we all went to bed.
A Handful of Ashes, a Heart Full of Pain
There’s a simile used to describe someone who tries desperately to rescue victory from the jaws of certain defeat. They say that “he’s running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
That phrase describes my mindset in the late 80s and early 90s. I tried again and again to piece together the fragments of my shattered faith. I poured through the Bible. I talked to ministers. I argued with theologians. I prayed throughout the night and into the next day.
Somewhere along the way I finished college, after taking a couple of years off to earn money and get my head together. But the achievement rang hollow. The simple, heartfelt faith that led me to pursue a ministerial career had vanished. I had a degree in biblical studies and not a damn thing to do with it.
Things got worse as the 1990s wore on. I suffered through six years of a miserable marriage. I worked a series of dead-end jobs. My health deteriorated and I developed type II diabetes.
Only a handful of my former classmates went on to become professional clergymen. One of them, who was among my closest friends in college, graduated with honors and became the pastor of a Canadian church.
He was arrested in the early 2000s for soliciting sex from children and spent time in prison. A few years ago he reached out to me on social media. I said some very nasty things to him and blocked him from contacting me ever again. I have no regrets about that decision.
Another graduate, who won the prestigious “preacher of the year” award for his homiletical skills, took a job at a nursing home. He was fired for ogling the genitals of a hermaphroditic patient.
Yet another graduate, a pretty redhead from the Midwest, threw herself out of a fifth story window one bright spring day. In her suicide note, she said that she was sick of life and wanted to meet Jesus face to face.
I attended her memorial service. We wept as we scattered her ashes. I don’t know if she ever met Jesus or not.
The End of One Journey, the Beginning of Another
My curiosity about Buddhism began in the late 1990s. By that point, Eastern philosophy was no longer the sole province of crystal-eyed mystics and California hippies. It was beginning to take root in mainstream America, even making inroads into the Bible Belt, where I still lived.
I knew as much about Buddhism then as I do about marine biology now; not a single damn thing, in other words. Fortunately, there was a newfangled invention called the Internet that was becoming quite popular around the turn-of-the-century.
The Internet was little more than a high-tech ham radio in those days. Still, it was robust enough to empower my exploration of new ideas. Thus, I made my first contact with the ancient faith that the modern world calls Buddhism.
There’s something about the Buddha’s frank appraisal of the human condition that resonated with me as soon as I heard it. He begins by acknowledging the simple fact that life is filled with pain and suffering.
He offers no excuses, no rationalizations, not even a thoroughgoing explanation for this state of affairs. Things are the way they are because that’s the way the world is; end of explanation.
With that out of the way, he offers a prescription for living that imposes no metaphysical gymnastics. There’s no God to demand unquestioning obedience, no need to make excuses for the Almighty’s apathy. Simply a path that leads to peace.
The Buddha’s advice is simple, it’s elegant, it’s practical.
Above all, it’s authentic — a refreshing change from the plastic, platitude-laden spirituality I endured during my years as a Christian.
A Simple Path
Becoming a Buddhist is a straightforward process. It involves affirming a simple three-part statement of intention:
I go for refuge to the Buddha
I go for refuge to the dharma (the Buddha’s teachings)
I go for refuge to the sangha (the Buddhist version of the local church)
From that point on, the person models his or her life on the Buddha’s teachings and example. The foundation of the practice is mindfulness meditation, which induces a state of deep relaxation and calm contemplation. This is accompanied by a set of simple and wholesome life disciplines that foster compassion, self-control, and deep insight.
The Buddhist idea of reincarnation is, in my view, infinitely superior to the standard Christian conception of the afterlife. Each of us gets as many chances as we need to put our house in order. If we screw up, we admit it honestly and try to do better next time.
When all is said and done, we will enter a state of eternal bliss in which the eons of suffering and rebirth finally come to an end. This is known as Nirvana.
Nirvana is not the extinction of consciousness. To the contrary, it’s the attainment of universal consciousness. It’s both the goal of life and its starting point.
Buddhism gave me a middle way between the despair of nihilism and the unsolvable dilemmas of traditional theism. Even better, it kept me from killing myself. What else do I need?
Breaking Up is Hard to Do, Especially When One of the Partners Is All-Powerful
The Buddha was a pragmatist. He ignored the arcane issues that have occupied theological minds for the past 6000 years. “I teach only one thing,” he said, “the path that leads to the cessation of suffering.” Agnosticism is a perfectly respectable option. Thus, God is neither denied nor affirmed.
Buddhism brought me the answers that eluded me during my years of wandering through the labyrinthine layers of Christian theology. But it also created a thorny dilemma as well. Breaking up with an old love is never easy. It’s harder still when the beloved is the only-begotten Son of God.
I wanted to have my spiritual cake and eat it too, you see. The question was whether I could continue my new relationship with the Buddha while hooking up with Jesus on the side.
To answer that question, I did something I had not done in more than 20 years. I read the Bible, this time without any doctrinal straitjackets to get in the way. What I discovered gave me a new way to honor and appreciate the twin faith traditions which have guided my life.
Reading the Bible Without Blinders
The Bible is the most abused book in human history. It’s treated as a good luck charm, a science textbook, a collection of magick spells, and a club to beat people over the head.
In truth, it’s none of those things. It’s not even a book. It’s a collection of 66 books between two covers.
The Bible’s primary character is God, but not the God that most Christians are taught to believe in. The biblical God is a tribute to Darwin; he evolves throughout the text. The early Old Testament deity is a tempestuous entity obsessed with moral perfection. He loves, hates, dispenses mercy, declares war, and changes his mind.
His love interest is the nation Israel, whom he regards as his wife. She is bound to him through a covenant that outlines an arduous set of rules on her part. God is supposed to reciprocate by ensuring that she always has plenty to eat and protection from her national enemies.
Israel is a fickle lover indeed, according to the biblical text. She is continually straying from the chaste and true path, in the process enraging her wrathful husband. In Numbers 14:11–20, for example, God loses his patience completely and threatens to annihilate the entire nation. He only relents after Moses reminds him that he has a reputation to uphold.
I kid you not. You can read the text for yourself.
The bible is literature. It should be read with that in mind. It’s immensely rich, with multiple layers of meaning behind every story. It’s basic message, so far as I could tell, is that virtue can never flower at the point of a gun. Moral and spiritual transformation must begin from within the human heart.
But how is this change to be accomplished? Jesus thought he had the answer. His struggle to redeem humanity is the theme of the New Testament.
Seeing Jesus through Buddhist Eyes
From external appearances, Jesus and the Buddha have little in common. The Buddha grew up wealthy, the son of the king. Jesus was from a working-class background, the son of a carpenter. Jesus died as a young man. The Buddha lived into his 80s. One lived in the Middle East, the other in what is now India. They were separated in time by 500 years.
Still, there are many striking similarities between the two figures when we look a little deeper. Like the Buddha, Jesus was tempted by a satanic figure on the eve of his ministry. The sacred stories tell us that each of them was the fulfillment of earlier prophecies.
Each underwent a transformative event at age 30. For the Buddha, it was the evening he gained enlightenment under the bodhi tree. For Jesus, it was the day he was baptized and the Spirit of God descended upon him.
The primary difference I see between the two characters is Jesus’s temperament. He was passionate where the Buddha was placid. The Gospels are filled with stories of him confronting corrupt religious leaders, driving merchants from the Jerusalem temple with a whip, and cursing fig trees.
Jesus was not a perfect man. He could be coarse, even rude at times. Yet he was also remarkably compassionate. He loved those who existed on the fringes of society, especially the poor. Social status and external wealth were meaningless to him. Like the Buddha, he focused on the individual’s character and intentions.
Jesus was a social revolutionary, albeit a nonviolent one. He rightly recognized that the foundation of any society is its value system. The dominant values in first century Israel were those of the conquering Romans, who worshiped power above all.
Roman society was a rigid hierarchy in which the weak existed to serve the strong. This expressed itself in every aspect of their approach to government. Men ruled over women, fathers over children, masters over slaves, and Caesar over everyone else. The modern concept of universal human rights was unknown.
Jesus turned these values on their head. This becomes clear when the text is read within its historical context and without a pre-existing theological agenda. Consider how sayings like these would have affected Jesus’s listeners:
Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you.
As you would have others do to you, do to them likewise.
The Sermon on the Mount is more than a pleasant homily about the virtues of humility. It’s a declaration of war on the Roman way of life. It’s little wonder that the Romans eventually executed him. They saw him as an existential threat to their empire. They were right.
Jesus's Prescription for the Perennial Human Problem: a Long, Honest Look in the Mirror
Jesus understood that the central problem underlying the Hebrew Scriptures was the need for internal moral and spiritual transformation. His prescription was a thorough and unflinching course of self-examination. When we look past our status symbols and our external displays of piety and virtue, we realize that we’re all pretty much the same.
That is why Jesus chose a Samaritan, who was a despised member of an outcast group, as the hero of his most famous story. He wasn’t just making a point about charity. He was reminding his hearers that God regards all human beings equally.
The New Testament says that Jesus rose from the dead three days after his crucifixion. Whether this account is fact or faith is a matter of opinion. There were no bystanders standing around his grave with their iPhones ready to record.
In one sense, however, the resurrection story is undeniably true. The life of Jesus reflects the highest moral and spiritual ideas attainable to human beings.
This fact alone males Jesus immortal. We see in him the divine potential that exists in all of us.
To my mind, this is what makes him a Buddha, someone who has seen the Ultimate Reality face-to-face. His gospel, like the Buddhist dharma, is a way to salvation for anyone who is willing to follow the path he trod during his 33 years on earth.
Of Buddhas and Beatific Visions
St. Thomas Aquinas is rightly regarded as the greatest theologian and philosopher in Christian history. His works are masterpieces of logical precision and careful analysis. Anyone who thinks that Christianity is inherently irrational should read his words.
This doesn’t mean that the doctrines he teaches are necessarily true, of course. It simply means that they’re worthy of reflection.
Yet there is a story which says that Aquinas experienced a beatific vision near the end of his life. Afterwards, he referred to his writings as “straw,” a colloquial term that means “trivial, useless, no better than dung.”
Descriptions of the beatific vision are remarkably similar to the Buddha’s experience of enlightenment. The shadows of illusion and suffering fall away, and the universe is revealed in all its complexity and beauty. Despair is dispelled forever in the light of wondrous and final truth.
Enlightenment is the central purpose of Buddhism, just as the beatific vision is the supreme goal of Christian mystics.
To my mind, both terms refer to the same essential thing. Each is an attempt to describe something which is beyond description. Words, concepts, doctrines, dogmas — these are all human efforts to label something that defies labels.
Jesus understood this fact, as did the Buddha. Yet words and ideas were the only tools at hand. Jesus could not simply toss out the theological traditions within which his society worked. Neither could the Buddha dispense with the Vedic traditions that preceded him.
Thus, both Jesus and the Buddha used the existing cultural frameworks to communicate their messages. Not for their own sake, but for that of others — for our sake.
True spirituality is medicine for a suffering soul. But the most potent medicine on earth is useless without a means of delivery. Religion and theology are like the hypodermic needles used by doctors to transmit vaccines and other life-saving compounds.
Alone, they’re useless. But, together with the medication, they’re essential for saving and transforming lives.
I spent the first half of my life obsessing over the form of truth while disregarding its substance. I hope to spend the second half of my life doing just the opposite. Like Saint Aquinas, I long for the beatific vision. Like the Buddha, my objective is enlightenment.
Will I achieve my goal? God only knows. But I appreciate any thoughts, prayers, and good wishes you may wish to offer as I make the attempt. I offer you the same.
Thank you for reading my words. Hopefully, all of us can reach that distant shore, where Jesus, the Buddha, and the saints and sages from history are waiting for us, happy to welcome us home.