Jesus, Buddha and Social Concern

“Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

There are two different paths in Buddhism — the Arahant’s Path and the Bodhisattva’s Path. The two paths are somewhat different. But they are not mutually exclusive and can be practiced together. The Arahant’s Path focuses more on self-cultivation and the development of wisdom. The Bodhisattva’s Path focuses more on alleviating suffering in the world and serving all sentient beings. We may think of the former as a path of the head and the latter as a path of the heart. Very clearly, we need both in order to lead a balanced and holistic spiritual life. How can a person live if either the head or the heart stop functioning? If you try to do good without wisdom, what you may commit atrocity without knowing it.

In religious icons, the Buddha is typically portrayed in meditation position, with a smile and an expression of serenity on his face. Jesus, however, is typically portrayed as someone nailed to the cross, with a tortured expression on his face. It is traditional church teaching that Jesus suffered for the sins of the world. But each of these portrayals is incomplete. Each of them misses something important in the Master’s spirituality. The Buddha was not always smiling. After all, he was also a bodhisattva. In the Vimalakirti Sutra, an important sutra in the Mahayana tradition, it is said that the bodhisattva becomes sick because the world is sick. The Buddha clearly felt the suffering of the world. If not, why would he devote most of his life teaching people the way to end suffering? Similarly, it is misleading to portray Jesus as always serious and solemn. In the gospels, Jesus is said to enjoy the company of small children. In addition, on one occasion, he is said to turn water into wine at a wedding banquet. Can we seriously imagine Jesus to be someone who always wear a tortured look?!

There is often a big disconnect between what Jesus taught and what the Church teaches. Even among the “biblical Christians,” I discovered that people often do not listen carefully to what Jesus had to say. Many Christians read the Bible through the lens of church doctrines. As such, much of Jesus’s vital message is lost. In the 90s, I published a book on Jesus’s teachings after reading the gospels afresh. It is important to read the text with a “beginner’s mind,” without any predisposition. I wanted to show the world the “lost dimensions” of Jesus — joy, humor and poetry. The world did not know very much about the Jesus who laughed, danced and enjoyed wine. I presented to my readers a Taoist Jesus. When I think about Jesus giving his Sermon on the Mount, I picture him as a Taoist immortal, with a certain lightness of being. This is the naturalist Jesus. Didn’t he ask us to “look at the birds” and “consider the lilies”? I have had some success in getting this message across.

That is fine. But what about the prophetic dimension of Jesus? We may think of a prophet as a bodhisattva who is perpetually concerned about the sickness and suffering of the world. Wasn’t Jesus also full of compassion and social concern? Wasn’t Jesus socially and politically engaged? Genuine spirituality is not a kind of escapism. Zen is not just about the pursuit of inner peace and equanimity. If we avoid looking at the reality of poverty, social inequity and all sorts of human suffering due to the abuse of power, our spirituality would be very shallow. The practice of Zen is not about becoming an unfeeling stone Buddha.

Jesus was a teacher of the art and joy of living. But he was also a prophet who cared deeply about human suffering. How can we reconcile the Taoist Jesus with Jesus the prophet? The connection of Zen with social activism and social engagement is this — Zen is the practice of non-attachment. Someone who has developed a deep understanding of the nature of happiness will not be attached to money, fame, and other worldly possessions. Hence, the Zen Jesus will not be a greedy capitalist whose sole purpose of life is to accumulate profits and material wealth.

Today, some Christian churches preach the “prosperity gospel.” This has strayed far from Jesus’s original teaching. True spirituality requires renunciation. Jesus said, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of man hath not where to lay his head.” To have no place to lay one’s head is to be “homeless.” This spiritual homelessness is a state of renunciation. Someone who is still attached to any form of ego object such as wealth and pleasure cannot renunciate. It is only when one is enlightened about the true source of happiness and sorrow that one can renunciate. A true renunciate is willing to give. There is a very touching story in the gospels about the importance of renunciation. It is a story about a sincere and law-abiding young man that Jesus loved. To the best of my knowledge, the gospels have not mentioned any other person that Jesus was so fond of. Yet, Jesus was unable to help him enter God’s kingdom:

As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. “Good teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good — except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal, you shall not give false testimony, you shall not defraud, honor your father and mother.’”

“Teacher,” he declared, “all these I have kept since I was a boy.”

Jesus looked at him and loved him. “One thing you lack,” he said. “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.

Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God!”

Mark 10: 17–23

In a following verse, Jesus said that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Let us be clear about this — the rich are not being discriminated against by God or some other deity. There is no supernatural power or intervention from God involved. Rather, the rich are excluded from the kingdom of God because of their own greed, just like monkeys can be trapped by a cookie jar, just because they are not willing to let go of the goodies to save themselves. A sad commentary on the human and primate condition!

So, this is the bridge between the Arahant’s Path and the Bodhisattva’s Path. The Arahant attains liberation through his renunciation and non-attachment. Because the Arahant has no ego-attachment, he is more able to be generous and give to others. Such a person would also be more courageous and more willing to criticize those in power and fight for social justice. In the gospels, we see a vivid picture of Jesus storming into the temple, overturning the tables of the money changers. That is the image of Jesus the prophet. It is also the image of Jesus, the fearless bodhisattva.

What Jesus said about the need to get rid of one’s possessions and become “homeless” still applies today. I don’t understand how Christians can conveniently ignore this teaching of Jesus. It is painful for me to see that the “Prosperity Gospel” has replaced Jesus’s gospel. There is a close relationship between non-attachment and compassion for others. There is also a close relationship between renunciation and giving. The rich is just a metaphor for someone who has many attachments and possessions. Someone who has overcome his attachments is in a good position to become a prophet and a bodhisattva. He or she becomes genuinely fearless.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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