The line begins, “Surely he hath born our griefs, and carried our sorrows…” Guess what, it’s the Christmas season once again and for some that means more than shopping. Christmas can be one of those sacred times for many millions to remember and celebrate the birth of Jesus. The line continues, “He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him” (Isaiah 53:4-5). These verses are sung out in the second segment of Handel’s Messiah which plays this weekend and next at the Colorado Symphony Orchestra in Denver. As my wife and I sat peering over the nose-bleed balcony ledge this Friday in rapt awe at the beauty of Handel’s composition I thought not only about Jesus but also Buddha.
Shantideva wrote in his Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, “If I do not actually exchange my happiness for the sufferings of others, I shall not attain the state of Buddhahood and even in cyclic existence shall have no joy”. This statement echoes tones of the Christian faith, Christ chose to exchange his joy for the benefit of his fellow people. He believed the words he spoke would offer salvation to those who took them to heart. He believed this so much that he gave his own life. Similarly Shantideva saw a way to guide seekers through his own meditations and reflections – minus the martyrdom. As the Messiah played out I continually turned over in my head the similarities of the Bodhisattva path and the story of Jesus.
And then the differences. In our often All-One hopeful society we tend to overlook our diversity and our inherent variety of consciousness by attempting to meld all truths together. Perhaps Christ was a Bodhisattva, I could see him as such, but the Christian theology evoked in Handel as well as in a great deal of main-stream Christianity paints a far different picture. The bodhisattva sacrifices selflessly for the good of other beings and may even give his or her life for the sake of others, as Jesus did. The distinction seems to be, for the Christian, there exists an incalculable dept to Christ. The formation of original sin created the dynamic where humanity is by nature corrupted and therefore the notion of Jesus dying to forgive the sins of all humanity builds a myth that every soul is indebted to Christ for his actions, only through him can sin be expiated. For both the Buddhist on the Bodhisattva path and the devout Christian there is equally the responsibility to embody self abnegation for the sake of others. But, the Buddhist does not owe his or her salvation to the actions of Avalokiteshvara, Buddha, or any other salvific figure. If there is a dept owed it is in fact to humanity itself because through the existence of suffering one comes to realization and is provided the opportunity to act selflessly, however that is accomplished. There could also be an enormous debt to the world itself because it provides the resources necessary for human survival, allowing the cyclical drama of samsara to unfold. I look forward to this Christmas season because it offers the opportunity to remember and wrestle with the sufferings endowed to us by history and the contemporary turmoils of society e.g., take our unbridled materialist urges, shop-till-you-drop. It’s a time when many of us experience huge tensions and expectations and what better time to reflect on impermanence.