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July 24, 2011

Was Jesus a Buddhist (or a yogi, or whatever?)

Before the Jesus movement became the official state religion of the crumbling Roman Empire–when its adherents still called themselves “Followers of the Way” (identifying themselves with a spiritual path) rather than “Christians” (identifying themselves with an institution), it was a more supple, joyous affair than modern conservative Christians might make us think.

(Before St. Augustine, for example, many—possibly most–devotees of Jesus believed, not that non-believers were damned to eternal hellfire, but rather that all beings would eventually be reconciled to God.)

When the Church first entered the Babylonian exile of state sponsorship under the Roman emperor Constantine, many devout men and women fled to the Sinai wilderness in order to preserve the Gospel way of life untainted, becoming the holy hermits whom we know today as the Desert Fathers and Mothers. Today, in an effort to escape the narrow spiritual confines of a Gospel faith that has been too long entangled with political power and social privilege, many Christians (including myself and the good Rev. Roger Woolsey) have been turning to Yoga, Buddhism and even Paganism as a way of broadening the horizons of our faith.  At best, this exploration lights up for us aspects of the Gospel that had become obscured through de-emphasis or over-familiarity, so that “the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started, / And know the place for the first time.”[i] At worst, it leads to spiritual cafeterianism–and anyone who has ever been told not to meditate because it opens one up to evil spirits can decide for themselves whether that’s the worst thing that can happen.

I have also become aware of a great deal of knowledge of, and love for, Jesus outside of the churches, and for that I rejoice. When I read yogis’ and Buddhists’ interpretations of the life and teachings of Christ, I marvel at the incredible power of the Perennial Wisdom to be present to “every family, language, people and nation.”

But there is one thing that raises my eyebrows: the efforts of well-meaning non-Christians to redeem Jesus from Churchianity by turning Him into a yogi or a Buddhist–usually by suggesting that He traveled to India during the period of His life unaccounted-for in the Gospels.

While this notion seems well-intentioned on its face (look: Jesus was down with the Dharma, too!) the idea that the Jewish wisdom tradition that produced Rabbi Hillel, Hebrew prophecy and hand-washing couldn’t have produced Jesus without outsourcing is troubling on a number of levels.

Because it is all but impossible, in the absence of proof that something couldn’t have happened, to prove beyond doubt that it didn’t happen, I am not going to attempt it here. Neither am I going to argue that Buddhism or yoga came to Jesus via the Silk Road or anything of the sort. And it would be disingenuous for a Christian Yogi like me, who lives in both the harmony and tension between yogic thought and the Gospels, to try to refute the idea on the basis of philosophical content. Rather, I am going to take an Occam’s Razor approach, arguing that the whole idea is simply inelegant and superfluous.

First of all, great spiritual teachers tend not to see themselves as innovators, but rather as restorers of a hijacked tradition, generally calling for a return to roots.  Jesus, in the tradition of the Hebrew prophets’ call for social and economic justice, rebelled against the rigidities and class privilege of the Romano-Jewish religious and political ruling class; the Buddha reacted against the depredations of the Brahmins, and Rumi, Chaitanya and Francis of Assisi shook off traditions that had become so hidebound and academic that they had left ordinary people behind. Since Jesus said of Himself that He had “not come to abolish the law of Moses or the writings of the prophets,” but to “accomplish their purpose,” (Matthew 5:17) importing thought systems from another continent seems, at best, beside the point.[ii]

Second, recognition of a “perennial philosophy”–spiritual and philosophical truths that appear, essentially unchanged, throughout many epochs, cultures and locations–militates against the notion that, because a Jewish sage said something similar to what Indian sages said earlier, the former must have learned it from the latter. This is an example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, with which popular discourse is rife. If truth is eternal, then the Golden Rule wasn’t any newer when Confucious or Hillel formulated it than when Jesus did. As a Hellenized Jewish philosopher once said, “there is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes 1:9)

Finally–and this is my principle argument–what great spiritual teachers say is not of primary importance anyway, because it is not teachings, but teachers that attract devotees.

It was not Buddhism, but the Buddha Himself that attracted people and established the family of traditions that preserves his teachings today. If people hadn’t looked at Him after His awakening and mistaken him for a god, they may never have had occasion to listen to what He had to say. People didn’t chant kirtan with Chaitanya, or zikr with Rumi, because of the arguments they marshaled in favor of doing so, but because of the radiant divine joy that poured from them as they did so themselves.  And it wasn’t Christianity that drew people to Jesus–Jesus hadn’t yet done much teaching when He called His disciples­–but Jesus Himself. In Him, people encountered God in a way so radical and immediate that they were willing to defy the Empire and go to any of a number of horrible deaths to keep faith with that encounter. Whatever the nature of Jesus’ divinity­–both messiah and Son of God were terms used to describe Jewish kings and high priests before the Second Exile–it was that divine Presence that gave authority to Jesus’ teachings, and not the other way around. “I can find in the scriptures all the things you talk about,” said one of Sri Ramakrishna’s devotees, “but do you know why I come to you? I come to hear them from your mouth.” It is palpable spiritual authenticity, not the content of teaching, around which genuinely inspired (lit. “in-spirit-ed”) spiritual communities coalesce. Jesus told His disciples that the world would know them, not by what they taught, but because they loved one another.

“All the faithful are not called to the public ministry,” wrote the 18th-century Quaker John Woolman, “but whoever are, are called to minister of that which they have tasted and handled spiritually.” Without that first-hand encounter, would-be spiritual teachers can only dispense what one Elephant commenter called “unlived spirituality” that inspires no one. If divine revelation were meant to consist primarily in teachings, then Mary would have written a book instead of having a baby.

Of course, there are teachers who are past masters at faking it. “Watch out for false prophets,” Jesus warned; “they come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” The world being what it is, I suspect that many have a mixture of genuine inspiration and only-human charlatanism. But in any case, examples of spiritual teachers who attracted seekers primarily by dint of what they taught, rather than of who they were (or appeared to be) are thin on the ground.

So if Jesus had wanted to teach about the Eightfold Path, or anything else specific to Buddhism, I suppose He would have had to go to India first; but if He wanted to teach about the Kingdom of God as He had experienced it Himself, and of the astonishing love at the ground of all being, surely Galilee was as good a place as any to start from.


[i] Eliot, T.S. “Little Gidding,” from Four Quartets

[ii] While Francis did travel to North Africa and the Middle East, and does seem to have come into contact with Islamic thought, this occurred later in his life and ministry, and did not essentially change his core message.

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