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Terry C. Muck

Jesus Through Buddhist Eyes

Meet the bodhisattva from Nazareth

Who do you say I am?" Jesus asked his Jewish disciples. Peter responded with a Jewish answer: "You are the Messiah" (Matt. 16:15-16).

Christians over the centuries have continued to ask Jesus' question. As Jaroslav Pelikan shows us in Jesus Through the Centuries, we have continued to add richness and breadth and depth to the disciples' first answer: the Messiah Jesus is the Son of God, the Good Shepherd, the Lord of the Harvest, the Liberator.

Some modern Jewish scholars, who reject their brother Peter's assessment of Jesus as Messiah, have nevertheless seen Jesus as an important religious and historical figure: Jesus as everyday Jew, Jesus as rabbinical teacher. Muslim scholars see in Jesus a great prophet of Allah and accord him religious respect as a fundamental tenet of their religious tradition.

Given the plurality of religions in the United States today, it is perhaps inevitable that other religions, even those not historically connected to Christianity, would recognize the pivotal nature of Jesus of Nazareth for Christian faith and human history and comment on his life and times.

Recently three prominent Buddhists have written books assessing Jesus from a Buddhist point of view. These three books help us begin to articulate a complex and not always consistent answer to the question "Who do Buddhists think Jesus was?"


Arguably, the most famous Buddhist in the world is the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. In some ways it is both misleading and un-Buddhist that one man represent the world Buddhist community. Buddhism is much less hierarchically structured than Christianity, and one of its principle teachings, anatta or no-self, discourages individualism. Further, Tibetan Buddhism represents only one aspect of the world Buddhist community, and a smallish one at that.

In other ways the Dalai Lama's notoriety is understandable.

He represents an oppressed people—the Dalai Lama himself is in exile in India, driven out by the Chinese colonization of Tibet. The plight of Tibet has become a cause celebre among the Western intelligentsia and several Hollywood personalities. Further, the Dalai Lama is charismatic, dedicated, and wise. His celebrity is earned. So his book, The Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus, merits consideration by Christian readers.

The book itself is a collection of eight Bible studies on Jesus' words given by the Dalai Lama at a Buddhist-Christian interfaith conference. He reads the text, giving a Buddhist gloss on the content, and in the process, on Jesus himself. Each commentary is followed by a Christian respondent's thoughts on both the passage and the Dalai Lama's exegesis. Thus this is an exegetical approach to understanding the historical Jesus. Using Jesus' words, filtered through a Buddhist world-view, the Dalai Lama paints a biographical portrait.

The focus of the picture is on Jesus' teachings about mental attitude and Jesus' own mental attitude. For the Dalai Lama, Jesus is the model of a "spiritually mature, good, and warm hearted person." To emulate him, we should practice meditation.

The Dalai Lama freely acknowledges the philosophical differences between Christianity and Buddhism; he does not attempt to reduce the two religious systems to a lowest common denominator. But because each of these religions centers on the life and teachings of a single man, and because these exemplary teachers, Jesus and Buddha, showed their disciples how to develop "good hearts," Christians and Buddhists alike should be able to agree on the importance of the devotional life and realize the benefits of that particular focus—mutual good will.

Mutual good will means the two religions can practice mutual appreciation toward one another, recognizing their potentially complementary nature even as each fulfills its distinctive "missionary" calling through advocacy. The goal is freedom on both sides—freedom to champion the gospel of Jesus and the dhamma of Gautama without disparaging the other's path.

How can this be done in a world where cutthroat competition is the rule? The Dalai Lama begins by personifying this cooperative competition. He is very humble about his attempts to understand Jesus and his words—"this is my understanding of Christian theology," he says with a twinkle at one point. He is not apologetic about what he offers in the way of commentary; still, he never loses sight of the fact that he is dealing with the scriptures of another religious tradition. In the end, he defers to Christians' self-understandings where they might conflict with his own.

He obviously believes that others can learn this goodheartedness. He urges Buddhist and Christian scholars to meet and talk regularly. He is enthusiastic about the rich conversations already taking place among Buddhist monastic meditators and Christian monastics.

He promotes pilgrimages to one another's holy sites. All of these things, he believes, will deepen friendships among adherents of the two traditions.

The Jesus who emerges from this exegesis is a person remarkably similar to the Dalai Lama himself: someone able to hold passionate commitments about the religious life, to advocate those teachings to others, but to do so in a way that unifies people around their common humanness rather than destructively promoting division. The key to combining passionate commitment and unswerving openness is the good heart.


Thich Nhat Hanh presents a different vision of Jesus in Living Buddha, Living Christ. He too likes Jesus. He likes him very much indeed, and does not hesitate to tell readers, especially Christian readers, why. Yet his is a very different approach to Jesus from the one taken by the Dalai Lama.

If the Dalai Lama's approach could be likened to that of a biblical exegete (or more precisely, a Bible-study leader), Thich Nhat Hanh's resembles that of a philosopher of religion. He attempts to distill from what Christians say and believe about Jesus Christ a picture that comports well with a similar picture of Gautama Buddha—someone interested in the health and welfare of all sentient beings. This picture does not emerge from Jesus' meditative practice but from what Jesus taught and did in his public life.

There is a certain congruence between this picture of Jesus and the trajectory of Nhat Hanh's own life. He practices Zen Buddhism, but a Zen heavily influenced by a life of social activism. As chairman of the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation during the Vietnam War, he was nominated by Martin Luther King, Jr., for the Nobel Peace Prize. Today, like the Dalai Lama, he lives in exile from his home country. From his base in France he carries on his teachings of peaceful coexistence by writing, lecturing, and leading retreats.

Nhat Hanh is interested in emphasizing the activist side of Jesus' ministry, and that interest emerges in the descriptions he gives of how Buddhism, true Buddhism, and Christianity, true Christianity, relate to one another. He uses his philosophy-of-religion approach to demonstrate how congruent Buddhism and Christianity are on this point, and how congruent the life and teachings of Jesus and the life and teachings of Gautama are when it comes to their core messages: "I do not think there is that much difference between Christians and Buddhists."

Here the contrast between his approach and that of the Dalai Lama becomes sharper. First, Nhat Hanh is more interested in right understanding than in the good heart. By all accounts, mind you, Nhat Hanh has a good heart and endorses others' good hearts. But when it comes to establishing a base for cooperative action among Buddhists and Christians (and this is his goal), Jesus' casting the money changers out of the temple is the paradigmatic act, not the meditative reflectiveness of the Beatitudes.

Second, this understanding is not understanding for understanding's sake. It is understanding discovered in practice. This reflects both a core Zen focus on the importance of practice as the base of the religious life, but also extends the idea of practice, praxis, in a manner akin to Christian liberation theology. Traditionally when Zen masters say practice they mean mindful sitting, zazen. Practice, yes, but not social activism. Nhat Hanh extends the meaning without giving up on meditation.

Third, the content of this joint practice is what we together must do in order to address the injustices of human political and economic structures. That is not only Nhat Hanh's common ground, but, he argues, the essence of both religious traditions: "When Jesus said, 'I am the way,' he meant that to have a true relationship with God, you must practice his way. In the Acts of the Apostles, the early Christians always spoke of their faith as 'the Way.' To me, 'I am the way' is a better statement than 'I know the way.' "

In arguing his case, Nhat Hanh does not hesitate to tell Christians what the true core of Jesus' teachings is. He explains Christianity to Christians: "Jesus taught a gospel of nonviolence. Is the church today practicing the same by its presence and behavior?" He does not hesitate to exclude those who do not agree with his right understanding of Jesus' message. One suspects he would do the same to fellow Buddhists in reference to Gautama's teachings.

The implications of this approach for interreligious dialogue are profound. Whereas the Dalai Lama uses the concept of the good heart as a vehicle to promote interreligious harmony while continuing to recognize the differences between the two religious traditions, Nhat Hanh presses his argument about a common core to unite Christians and Buddhists who agree with his analysis while recognizing that some Buddhists and Christians don't see this analysis as central to the two traditions.

In other words, the key division is not between Buddhists and Christians per se, but between Buddhists/Christians who see human flourishing as the essence of the two traditions and Buddhists/Christians who don't. This approach is well illustrated by Thomas Merton's laudatory comment: "Thich Nhat Hanh is more my brother than many who are nearer to me in race and nationality, because he and I see things in exactly the same way."


In the Zen Teachings of Jesus, Kenneth S. Leong is neither exegete nor philosopher of religion. He is, first, a comparative religionist and, second, an apologist for Zen Buddhism, or more precisely, for a Zen way of apprehending the world. As comparative religionist he chooses a category from one religious tradition (in this case Zen Buddhism) and then traces affinities between that category and the teachings and practices of another religious tradition, in this case Christianity. He does not work toward a common ground amidst diversity (as did the Dalai Lama), nor does he seek out a dynamic equivalence between two traditions (as did Thich Nhat Hanh); rather, he argues for a recognition that "Zen is everywhere." In Leong's approach, it would be appropriate to call Jesus "an anonymous Zen Buddhist."

Just as the Jesus depicted by the Dalai Lama closely resembles the Tibetan spiritual leader, and the Jesus of Nhat Hanh bears a remarkable resemblance to the activist Vietnamese monk, so Leong's conception of Jesus reflects his own experience. Leong was converted from Christianity to Zen Buddhism as a teenager: "I left Jesus to search for the Tao when I was sixteen. Now I am forty and realize I could have found the Tao in Jesus." He now teaches Zen practice at Wainwright House in Rye, New York, encouraging Christians to reinterpret their religious tradition in light of Zen.

Most of the book details the nature of what can be found in Jesus that is so appropriate to Zen meditation. Leong is especially interested in discovering what he calls "the lost dimensions" of Jesus' spirituality. Leong especially emphasizes our failure to appreciate Jesus' sense of humor. We are far too serious about Jesus, he asserts, and this inhibits our ability to practice everyday spirituality, because seriousness is a sign of an overactive ego.

In order to unearth Jesus' Zen side, two things must be done. First, certain ways of apprehending the Christian Gospels must be seen for what they are: blocks to fully understanding the radical nature of Jesus' teachings and, in some cases, actual perversions of the teaching itself. In this category, Leong is especially critical of Western approaches to rationality and truth, which he calls absurd and tyrannical. He is also opposed to all forms of institutional religion, because institutional life filters out "soul competency," the ability to feel and intuit Jesus rather than rotely understand him.

The second task, the more positive side, is to give a Zen-style reading of Jesus' life and teachings. Leong begins by spending two chapters attempting to describe what Zen is: not a religion as much as a mental culture, a way of approaching life. Chapters 3 through 11 bring interesting Zen insights to bear on familiar gospel stories. A new picture of Jesus emerges from this reading, reminding us how much our understanding of Jesus is colored by the cultural world-view we bring to the reading.


Three different readings. In some ways, one can see the similarities, owing to the fact that all three authors are Buddhists and are unapologetic about letting their religious categories shape their readings. In other and equally important ways, one can see sharp differences in the way Jesus is portrayed. Still, we can make some common observations:

1. All three portraits are properly appreciative of what a great man Jesus was. All three recognize Jesus as a great teacher. Nhat Hanh "came to know Jesus as a great teacher" from his early friendship with Christians and his early contact with French missionaries in Vietnam, although this contact made appreciating some other elements of Christianity difficult. Leong's whole premise is that Jesus was a great, albeit unrecognized, teacher of Zen.

In addition, all three recognize in one way or another that Jesus was a pivotal figure in human history. Nhat Hanh perhaps pays him the highest compliment by pairing him with the Buddha as the two most pivotal figures in all human history. Leong considers Jesus the most famous person in human history.

They also recognize and appreciate Jesus' role as a spiritual figure, not just in the public sense, but in his essence. The Dalai Lama claims his reverence for Jesus stems from his understanding of Jesus as a fully enlightened human being, a bodhisattva. Although it is difficult to know just what he means by using this language, Leong says, "we can certainly see Jesus as Savior, Messiah, Son of God."

It may be only common sense that anyone who writes an entire book on a person will have a high regard for that person. Still, it is important to rehearse the answers, the positive affirmations given to Jesus. The answer to this question might help uncover any inappropriate religious or cultural biases being brought to the readings. All three authors pass this test. Although Hanh and Leong, especially, are critical of certain understandings of Jesus and certain types of followers of Jesus, neither is critical of Jesus himself.

2. They don't see Jesus the way confessing Christians see Jesus. Or put another way, when I read these descriptions as a confessing Christian, I found something missing. I am not sure it is "my" Jesus they are talking about. As we have seen, these authors are properly appreciative, but they are not confessionally committed to what Jesus stands for. So what is missing in these portraits?

Jean Luc Marion in God Without Being makes an interesting distinction between idols and icons, a distinction that might help us in answering this question. An idol acts like a mirror, reflecting our own understandings of a subject as much or more as it does the essence of the subject itself. An icon propels us toward the essence by encouraging us to look through and beyond the graphic representation, on toward the thing in itself.

We have already noted above the irony that Jesus turns out to be, in each author's description, a person interested in the very things the author is most interested in: Jesus the meditator par excellance for the Dalai Lama; Jesus the social activist for Thich Nhat Hanh; Jesus the Zen teacher for Kenneth Leong. These are idols, if we can use Marion's images, idols in the best sense. They are not simply inaccurate, and they are not meant to belittle Jesus by any means. But they mirror what these Buddhist authors see as important qualities, qualities they think we should endorse and emulate.

Christian descriptions of Jesus often have this mirror quality also, of course. But the best Christian theological and devotional writing has the ability to point us toward the transcendent reality of Jesus, the surplus of meaning, the mystery that we can only experience in our day-to-day walk with the risen Christ. As the Dalai Lama puts it, "[T]he meaning of the themes [that he highlights in Jesus' words] may be slightly different [from Christian meanings] because of the uniqueness that is accorded to Jesus as the Son of God."

3. All three authors appropriate Jesus for their own ends. And of course, those ends are Buddhist ends, although all three probably would want to make the case that those "Buddhist" ends coincide with more general human ends. Again we should not be surprised at this, nor should we assume it is sinister. As Christians, when we read the life story of the Buddha and contemplate his teachings, we naturally do so from a Christian point of view.

Still, the fact that such a reading is inevitable does not mean that we should accept such readings uncritically. The question is not really whether or not such authors appropriate Jesus for their own ends. Even Christian authors do that. The real question is how they do it. Basically there are three roads such an appropriation can take.

First, one can appropriate by reduction: limit Jesus to one aspect and claim that that is the key to understanding his person and work. Jesus is a great teacher of Zen principles, and that is the key to understanding him. Or one can reduce by leveling, by claiming that Jesus is just one of a general class of religious teachers/ leaders: he may not offer the only path to spiritual enlightenment, but he does offer one path.

All three authors, to some extent, practice this kind of reduction when it comes to Jesus. Leong sees in Jesus a Zen teacher and little more. He is a teacher of Zen but not the teacher who has inspired 2,000 years of Christian orthodoxy. The Dalai Lama wants to endorse Jesus' meditative practices without necessarily endorsing the logic and rationale behind those practices. By saying that we should not spend our life "tasting just one kind of fruit," Nhat Hanh seems to imply there are many religious fruits of equal value, and we should not be afraid to sample as many as we want, measuring them by how much they contribute to peace and justice.

Second, one can appropriate by changing the life and teachings of a religious founder in order to make them compatible with one's own world-view. None of these three authors does this. All work hard to understand Jesus as he truly was and as the Christian tradition has understood him. All three are well informed regarding the biblical record of Jesus' words and base their arguments on those words. We may disagree with some of their interpretations, but most of us disagree with a lot of Christian commentary on Jesus' life and times.

A great irony emerged as I read these three books. These Buddhist authors showed far more respect for the traditional historical Jesus and the devotional attachment Christians have for him than do the Christian exegetes who make up the Jesus Seminar. These Buddhists see Jesus as one of the world's great religious resources; the Jesus Seminar sees Jesus as a problem to solve, a cipher to get right. What the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Kenneth Leong lack in confessional commitment they balance by their goodhearted desire to see Jesus as Christians see Jesus.

Third, one can appropriate by using the lessons one learns from another religion or religious figure to augment the teachings of one's own religion. All three authors do this. They see the richness of Jesus' teaching as a mother lode of wisdom for their respective Buddhist constituencies. As we have noted, all three carry significant takeaways for their Buddhist lives because of their study of Jesus.

Their motives go deeper than that, however. They also think Christians can learn significant lessons, without ceasing to be Christians, from these Buddhist readings of Jesus. This is a truth that we need to be reminded of constantly. Christian theology has always developed out of missional settings, in contact with other religions and world-views. It is not a matter of simply comparing or leveling all religions. It is a matter of Christians reappropriating lessons learned from these Buddhist appropriations of our most sacred heart. How does the Dalai Lama's Buddhist understanding of Jesus' good heart enrich my Christian understanding of Jesus? How does Thich Nhat Hanh's Buddhist understanding of Jesus as human liberator deepen my Christian understanding of Jesus? How does Kenneth Leong's Buddhist understanding as Jesus as Zen master broaden my Christian understanding of Jesus?

Perhaps that is the way we should, in the end, view these fine books. We should not dismiss them out of hand as suspect, non-Christian poachings on themes more properly reserved for Christians alone. We should rejoice in the interest Jesus of Nazareth creates whenever people are made aware of his story. It is a powerful story.

As a graduate student at Northwestern University, I studied with a great Buddhist scholar from Sri Lanka, Walpola Rahula. After two years of study with him, I asked him one day at lunch, "Have you read the Bible?"

"I have read the Gospels," he replied.

"What did you think?" I asked.

"When I read the story of Jesus, I cried. He was a great, great man."

The story of Jesus, when read fairly by Christian and non-Christian alike, is a powerful story. The essence of Christianity is to share that story. We should rejoice to have these three excellent records of how it has affected three Buddhist readers. We can learn from them.

Terry C. Muck is professor of religion at Austin (Texas) Presbyterian Theological Seminary and editor of Buddhist Christian Studies.

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