Jesus and the laughing Buddha

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We can learn a lot about what is missing in each religious tradition by looking at the religious art and icons in each tradition. Just close your eyes for a minute. Visualize three people: Jesus, Bodhidharma (an arhat and a famous Indian Buddhist saint) and Buddha. What do you see?

Jesus, in the popular imagination, tends to be always shown as a suffering savior — as the Jesus who is nailed on the cross. Bodhidharma may be an unfamiliar figure for some Westerners. According to legend, he is one of the first Indian masters who brought Buddhism from India to China. He is also the first patriarch of Chinese Ch’an (Zen) tradition. Bodhidharma is typically shown as a stern and fierce-looking Indian man. He is credited with the founding of Chinese martial arts at the Shaolin Temple. Bodhidharma is known to be an arhat (an enlightened sage). It is interesting to note that in Chinese Buddhist temples, the arhats are often portrayed as fighting tigers and riding wild beasts.

What about the image of Buddha? There are many different images of Buddha, depending on geographic location. Buddha is typically portrayed as a smiling figure in a meditation pose. In popular Chinese Buddhism, however, he is sometimes represented as a laughing man with a big belly. Why? In our modern society, to be portrayed as being fat is not complimentary. However, the big belly of the Chinese Buddha has a special meaning. It symbolizes acceptance, tolerance and a mild temperament. Because Buddha’s belly is big, it can contain contradictions and accept disagreements. The Chinese version of the Buddha is always laughing. His laughter symbolizes a cheerful attitude towards life. One faces all the ridiculous matters in the world with a smile.

I have always felt that our common attitude towards religion is too serious and solemn. When I wrote my book, The Zen Teachings of Jesus, I told my readers that I wanted to bring into the public’s attention certain key elements of spirituality — joy, humor and poetry. I called them the lost dimensions of Jesus. These qualities are seldom attributed to Jesus, due to a major disconnect between Jesus’s teachings and church teachings. In Christian icons, Jesus seems to always wear an expression of agony. Where is the joy in Christ?

I certainly see a laughing and dancing Jesus, just like Buddha. Didn’t the gospels say that Jesus loved little children? The following excerpt is from the Gospel of Mark:

People were bringing little children to Jesus for him to place his hands on them, but the disciples rebuked them. When Jesus saw this, he was indignant. He said to them, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.”

And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

(Mark 10: 13–16)

If you have any doubts about a joyful, playful Jesus, just imagine this scene of Jesus who welcomed little children. Do you see a stern Jesus? Joy is such a key element in spiritual life. This is why Jesus said that the kingdom of God belongs to little children. A Jesus playing with little children, dancing, making funny faces to make children laugh would be a perfect image of a Zen Jesus. This is a perfect example of Jesus teaching Zen, the art of living. Much of his teachings is non-verbal. He taught by his way of being and the company he kept.

In America, some people also think of the practice of Zen as a serious business. We connect it with images of practitioners sitting in upright meditation pose, in almost painful stillness, in complete silence. But Zen always contains a wild, unkempt and somewhat crazy element. You can catch a glimpse of this aspect of Zen in the legendary Chinese saint, Ji Gong. Ji Gong is a perfect representation of “crazy wisdom,” a synthesis of the Buddhist bodhisattva (who is full of compassion) and the Taoist immortal (who helps people in a playful manner). According to the legend, Ji Gong was a homeless monk who wandered around, using his supernatural powers to heal people and fight injustice. However, he also had an untamed side — he did not adhere to the precepts for Buddhist monks. He could often be seen drinking wine and eating meat.

One of my all-time favorite movies is The Karate Kid and its sequels. I have always been happily surprised by how deeply the script writer understood Japanese martial arts and the associated spirituality. There are four movies in this series. The last one, The Next Karate Kid, features a young woman as Mr. Miyagi’s new student. My favorite scene in this last sequel is where the usually solemn Japanese monks go dancing in their black robes. Surprised by the dancing monks, Julie, the girl student, makes the remark that monks are supposed to be spiritual leaders. Just like most people, Julie thinks of religion as something very solemn. Thus, she sees incongruity between a monk’s discipline and dancing. But Mr. Miyagi’s answer is equally surprising. “How can someone be a spiritual leader if he cannot dance?” he asks.

Many religious traditions create a separation between spiritual life and fun-making. But Zen, being a secular spirituality, does not make such artificial separation. In fact, being too serious can be a problem. How can one be spiritual and authentic if one is afraid of making a fool of oneself?

Perhaps one of the most precious lessons from Zen is that there is no separation between the sacred and the profane. I consider it an important spiritual practice to cultivate a sense of sacredness in our mundane life, in our fun-making.

I don’t see Jesus as someone always wearing a serious, no-nonsense look. I see him laughing and dancing with children.

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