19 December 2007

Deceitful polemic against Buddhism and Buddhists from the perspective of an absolutist and exclusivist Christianity

The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus Talks with Buddha
Ravi Zacaharias
Multnomah, 2001

I read this book at the urging of a friend. He figured that as an instructor of comparative and Asian religion and someone who is involved in Buddhist-Christian dialogue, I would find the book to be of interest.

I did find the book interesting, but probably not for the same reasons as my friend. Author Ravi Zacharias and many of his reviewers claim that the book is a dialogue meant to explore these two traditions, specifically how their teachings relate to the suffering of a prostitute dying of AIDS. Unfortunately, as the author makes quite clear in his introductory words, the book is not an objective look at the two traditions, or even a work of Christian apologetics, but is instead a thinly veiled polemic against the Buddhist religion from the perspective of an absolutist and exclusivist Christianity.

Let's dispel the idea once and for all that this book is somehow non-biased or objective. One reviewer asserts that Zacharias does not "unfairly tilt this conversation in Jesus' favor" due to his Christian faith, yet the author himself readily admits that his "conclusions must be in keeping with the Truth that can be tested," which is to say, the Christian gospel. He also says, when discussing the possible slant that the book could take, that "some fundamental ideas are inescapable and must be engaged." Some of these fundamental ideas are that "Jesus and Buddha cannot both be right" and that "behind the two symbols [of Christianity and Buddhism] stand two diametrically opposed faiths" (all Zacharias' quotes here are from p.8). These ideas are assumed in the introduction---accordingly, the "dialogue" that makes up the bulk of the book merely demonstrates its author's assumptions. Zacharias is neither interested in looking at these two traditions on their own terms and in examining their commonalities as well as differences nor does he intend to create an authentic dialogue, where both parties come to the table as equals, each with wisdom to share with the other. Rather, he already knows the "Truth" about the situation, and merely stages a faux-dialogue as a way of demonstrating the assumed superiority of one religion over the other. Perhaps the reason Zacharias finds it "difficult to highlight the deep differences between Buddhism and Christianity and not bring offense" (p.7) is because he is not merely highlighting these differences, but applying an a priori value judgment to them as well. (Although the honesty in his introduction is welcome, his use of the dialogue format is disingenuous; Zacharias hopes to evoke an open, objective feeling while selectively putting words into the mouths of Jesus and the Buddha in order to support his polemical agenda.)

One also needs to address the "research" that Zacharias put into the book. According to him he spent "scores" of hours interviewing monks and teachers from different Buddhist traditions. One reviewer asserts that the "hours and hours of interviews" the author has conducted with monks from different locales afford Zacharias the opportunity to convey "real Buddhism" to the reader, as opposed to the "watered down, American Buddhism that is more a combination of Star Trek and Hallmark than anything that the Buddha ever taught" (this reviewer obviously harbored no reservations about offending!). Another reviewer argues that Zacharias' "representations of Jesus and Buddha are based on the best historical documents of their teachings, and not on modern interpretations or practices." Yet scores of hours of interviews with a handful of monks would no more convey an accurate and complete picture of Buddhism---a 2,500 year old religion with different traditions in dozens of Asian countries---than interviews with a dozen Franciscans and Cistercians would encapsulate the definitive essence of Christianity. And one must ask how these reviewers speak with such certainty of "real" or "historical" Buddhism without explaining their criteria for evaluating "real" vs. "watered-down" or "historical" vs. "modern interpretations." My guess is that "real" Buddhism comprises those elements that support Zacharias' polemic, while "watered-down" Buddhism constitutes anything that would make his case more problematic. (As well, Zacharias' account seems more "historical" because it is in line with the late 19th-century misrepresentations of Buddhism that contemporary Buddhist studies have done much to dispel, with little success. These misrepresentations include the image of the Buddha as a hyper-rational logician or rule-obsessed moralist, nirvana described as "oblivion," etc.)

Finally, the dialogue itself rings false to someone who has spent fifteen years engaged in the academic study of Christianity, Buddhism, and religion in general. Zacharias misrepresents the Buddha and Buddhism throughout the "dialogues"; he frames Buddhist ideas in evangelical Christian terms without acknowledging it, he points out apparent inconcistencies without then allowing the Buddha to respond to his criticisms (hardly fair in a real dialogue, but in this one Zacharias got to write all the parts), and he relies on outdated Western interpretations of Buddhist thought that are, quite simply, incorrect.

While insisting that the two traditions are diametrically opposed, Zacharias repeatedly demonstrates parallels between the two. On pg. 16, Jesus says, "time isn't just a fleeting thing. It never moves forward without engraving its mark upon the heart...[it] always [leaves] an imprint." This is a lovely restatement of the Buddhist doctrine of karma, in which the results of each thought and action leave impressions (bijas or "seeds") in the mind. These impressions condition subsequent thoughts and actions, which in turn leave more impressions, and so on. Again, on p.18, Jesus says that "when the imagination is beguiled--which is where it all begins--and the will succumbs, the mind is unwittingly taken prisoner." Compare this to the Buddhist understanding of samsara, cyclic existence, in which the ignorant mind is unwittingly taken prisoner after it grasps onto that with which it comes into contact.

In Zacharias' book, the Buddha discusses karma, not in terms of impressions left on the mind or as the consequences of prior thoughts and actions, but as a debt that needs to be repaid. The metaphor of debts and repayment is a foreign one in my study of Buddhism, but it is quite familiar within Christianity wherein all are sinners, indebted beyond our ability to repay, and Jesus is the one who makes restitution. I suspect that Zacharias used this metaphor deliberately, in order to set Buddhist "works" against the Christian gospel of "grace." My hunch is supported by Jesus' response--"How does one pay? With what does one pay? And to whom does one pay?" The Buddha cannot answer these questions, not because he has no answers, but because karma is not understood as a debt that one must pay; rather, it is a moral law of cause and effect, more akin to Newton's laws of motion than to an accountant's ledgers. The words that Zacharias puts into the mouth of the Buddha in response to Jesus' questions reveal precisely how little the author actually understands about this religion: "But I just didn't arbitrarily make up this philosophy. Years of thought went into it." As any Buddhist will tell you, the Buddha did not make up the idea of karma out of whole cloth, nor was it a philosophy that he thought out over a long period of time. Instead, the doctrine of karma came from his recognition of a moral law of cause and effect, one that the Apostle Paul also understood: "As you sow, so shall you reap."

On page 23, Zacharias brings up a slightly thorny issue for Buddhism, the question of how to reconcile the doctrine of rebirth with the doctrine of anatman, "selflessness." In other words, if there is no essential self, then what precisely is reborn? This is a good question, and one that Buddhist thinkers have wrestled with for 2,500 years. Yet Zacharias simply acts as if he were the first person to think of the question and does very little to explore the substantial answers that Buddhists have given. In fact, on the following page, he brings up the Buddhist idea of "dependent origination" and summarily dismisses it as a "technical term" that's "far too complex to go into." This is ludicrous! The Buddha insisted that understanding the admittedly difficult doctrine of dependent origination (and understanding here means getting it in more than an intellectual way) was the same as understanding the whole of the Buddha's teachings. To write this off in a book that purports to be an honest exploration of Buddhism is akin to blowing off a discussion of the Trinity in a book on Christianity, because the doctrine is "far too complex" to talk about.

I won't even go into the Buddha's petulant complaint about Jesus' insistence on using his birth name, Gautama, rather than the honorific "Awakened One," other than to remind the reader that this is Zacharias, and not Shakyamuni Buddha, who is speaking. Similarly, the discussion between Jesus and the Buddha over which came first is absurd. Jesus' assertion that he predated the Buddha because he was present at the creation of the universe is cute ("So time ought not to be a factor of seniority here, if you don't mind. Those who define truth by the calendar run afoul of Him who created time" p. 29), but no matter how much Zacharias doth protest, the fact of the matter remains that the Buddhist religion is 500 years older than Christianity. This by itself means little, but Zacharias' attempt to refute historical fact seems to be an example of protesting too much. Additionally, Jesus' "argument" will convince many Christians of his temporal primacy, but the Buddha would have dismissed Jesus' claims to have created the universe as nonsensical--for Buddhism, time and the cosmos are beginningless.

Zacharias fills the remainder of his "dialogue" with similar mischaracterizations of the Buddha and of his teachings on karma, suffering, desire, nirvana, prayer, devotion, effort, the spiritual path, selflessness, etc. If this is as much as you will ever read about Buddhism, then Jesus' (i.e., Zacharias') questions and criticisms may indeed be difficult to rebut, and he does not make much of an effort to accurately represent the Buddhist responses to these questions and criticisms. If you study Buddhism, though, you will find that every question that Zacharias raises has been addressed, repeatedly, for thousands of years.

In short, this is a book that seeks to provide just enough information on Buddhism to remind the convinced Christian that they are right and the poor deluded Buddhists are wrong. As Zacharias himself says on p. 31, albeit in a different context, "When you mix falsehood with truth, you create a more destructive lie." A similar book on Christianity--showing its apparent inconsistencies and illogical elements--could be written just as easily, but for the most part, the Buddhists who write about the two religions try to find common ground instead of lording the superiority of their faith over that of benighted Christians. For those looking for more honest and engaging books on Christianity and Buddhism, I recommend Living Buddha, Living Christ by Thich Nhat Hanh, The Ground We Share by Robert Aitken Roshi and Br. David Steindl-Rast, and the works of Ruben Habito. Those looking for an introduction to the teachings of the Buddha would do well to read What the Buddha Taught by Walpola Rahula.

Sadly, for those looking to confirm their own sense of spiritual superiority, this is a good place to start.

(This review was originally written on June 30, 2006.)

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