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Home / Globe / Ideas When Jesus met Buddha
Something remarkable happened when evangelists for two great religions crossed paths more than 1,000 years ago: they got along
In modern times, most mainstream churches would condemn such an amalgam as a betrayal of the Christian faith, an example of multiculturalism run wild. Yet concerns about syncretism did not bother these early Asian Christians, who called themselves Nasraye, Nazarenes, like Jesus's earliest followers. They were comfortable associating themselves with the other great monastic and mystical religion of the time, and moreover, they believed that both lotus and cross carried similar messages about the quest for light and salvation. If these Nazarenes could find meaning in the lotus-cross, then why can't modern Catholics, or other inheritors of the faith Jesus inspired
To understand this story, we need to reconfigure our mental maps. When we think of the growth of Christianity, we think above all of Europe. We visualize a movement growing west from Palestine and Syria and spreading into Greece and Italy, and gradually into northern regions. Europe is still the center of the Catholic Church, of course, but it was also the birthplace of the Protestant denominations that split from it. For most of us, even speaking of the "Eastern Church" refers to another group of Europeans, namely to the Orthodox believers who stem from the eastern parts of the continent. English Catholic thinker Hilaire Belloc once proclaimed that "Europe is the Faith; and the Faith is Europe."Continued...
But in the early centuries other Christians expanded east into Asia and south into Africa, and those other churches survived for the first 1,200 years or so of Christian history. Far from being fringe sects, these forgotten churches were firmly rooted in the oldest traditions of the apostolic church. Throughout their history, these Nazarenes used Syriac, which is close to Jesus' own language of Aramaic, and they followed Yeshua, not Jesus. No other church - not Roman Catholics, not Eastern Orthodox - has a stronger claim to a direct inheritance from the earliest Jesus movement.
The most stunningly successful of these eastern Christian bodies was the Church of the East, often called the Nestorian church. While the Western churches were expanding their influence within the framework of the Roman Empire, the Syriac-speaking churches colonized the vast Persian kingdom that ruled from Syria to Pakistan and the borders of China. From their bases in Mesopotamia - modern Iraq - Nestorian Christians carried out their vast missionary efforts along the Silk Route that crossed Central Asia. By the eighth century, the Church of the East had an extensive structure across most of central Asia and China, and in southern India. The church had senior clergy - metropolitans - in Samarkand and Bokhara, in Herat in Afghanistan. A bishop had his seat in Chang'an, the imperial capital of China, which was then the world's greatest superpower.
When Nestorian Christians were pressing across Central Asia during the sixth and seventh centuries, they met the missionaries and saints of an equally confident and expansionist religion: Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhists too wanted to take their saving message to the world, and launched great missions from India's monasteries and temples. In this diverse world, Buddhist and Christian monasteries were likely to stand side by side, as neighbors and even, sometimes, as collaborators. Some historians believe that Nestorian missionaries influenced the religious practices of the Buddhist religion then developing in Tibet. Monks spoke to monks.
In presenting their faith, Christians naturally used the cultural forms that would be familiar to Asians. They told their stories in the forms of sutras, verse patterns already made famous by Buddhist missionaries and teachers. A stunning collection of Jesus Sutras was found in caves at Dunhuang, in northwest China. Some Nestorian writings draw heavily on Buddhist ideas, as they translate prayers and Christian services in ways that would make sense to Asian readers. In some texts, the Christian phrase "angels and archangels and hosts of heaven" is translated into the language of buddhas and devas.
One story in particular suggests an almost shocking degree of collaboration between the faiths. In 782, the Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna arrived in Chang'an, bearing rich treasures of sutras and other scriptures. Unfortunately, these were written in Indian languages. He consulted the local Nestorian bishop, Adam, who had already translated parts of the Bible into Chinese. Together, Buddhist and Christian scholars worked amiably together for some years to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist wisdom. Probably, Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical good will, and we can only guess about the conversations that would have ensued: Do you really care more about relieving suffering than atoning for sin? And your monks meditate like ours do?
These efforts bore fruit far beyond China. Other residents of Chang'an at this very time included Japanese monks, who took these very translations back with them to their homeland. In Japan, these works became the founding texts of the great Buddhist schools of the Middle Ages. All the famous movements of later Japanese history, including Zen, can be traced to one of those ancient schools and, ultimately - incredibly - to the work of a Christian bishop.
By the 12th century, flourishing churches in China and southern India were using the lotus-cross. The lotus is a superbly beautiful flower that grows out of muck and slime. No symbol could better represent the rise of the soul from the material, the victory of enlightenment over ignorance, desire, and attachment. For 2,000 years, Buddhist artists have used the lotus to convey these messages in countless paintings and sculptures. The Christian cross, meanwhile, teaches a comparable lesson, of divine victory over sin and injustice, of the defeat of the world. Somewhere in Asia, Yeshua's forgotten followers made the daring decision to integrate the two emblems, which still today forces us to think about the parallels between the kinds of liberation and redemption offered by each faith.
Christianity, for much of its history, was just as much an Asian religion as Buddhism. Asia's Christian churches survived for more than a millennium, and not until the 10th century, halfway through Christian history, did the number of Christians in Europe exceed that in Asia.
What ultimately obliterated the Asian Christians were the Mongol invasions, which spread across Central Asia and the Middle East from the 1220s onward. From the late 13th century, too, the world entered a terrifying era of climate change, of global cooling, which severely cut food supplies and contributed to mass famine. The collapse of trade and commerce crippled cities, leaving the world much poorer and more vulnerable. Intolerant nationalism wiped out Christian communities in China, while a surging militant Islam destroyed the churches of Central Asia.
But awareness of this deep Christian history contributes powerfully to understanding the future of the religion, as much as its past. For long centuries, Asian Christians kept up neighborly relations with other faiths, which they saw not as deadly rivals but as fellow travelers on the road to enlightenment. Their worldview differed enormously from the norms that developed in Europe.
To take one example, we are used to the idea of Christianity operating as the official religion of powerful states, which were only too willing to impose a particular orthodoxy upon their subjects. Yet when we look at the African and Asian experience, we find millions of Christians whose normal experience was as minorities or even majorities within nations dominated by some other religion. Struggling to win hearts and minds, leading churches had no option but to frame the Christian message in the context of non-European intellectual traditions. Christian thinkers did present their message in the categories of Buddhism - and Taoism, and Confucianism - and there is no reason why they could not do so again. When modern scholars like Peter Phan try to place Christianity in an Asian and Buddhist context, they are resuming a task begun at least 1,500 years ago.
Perhaps, in fact, we are looking at our history upside down. Some day, future historians might look at the last few hundred years of Euro-American dominance within Christianity and regard it as an unnatural interlude in a much longer story of fruitful interchange between the great religions.
[edit on 19-1-2009 by whiteraven]
Originally posted by whiteraven
reply to post by noobfun
That makes perfect sense and one can draw parallels from scripture and Bhudda.
I am facinated that the early Zen practices closely match Pauline ideas.
I am an amatuer when it comes to Bhuddism and Christianity so I thank you for your input.
Originally posted by asmeone2
I was expecting some kind of "When Harry met Sally" joke, but thanks, this is intersting.
It is really interesting to me too how the Hindu trinity closely resemples the Chrisitan one, with the father/son/holy ghost loosely paralleling the creator/destroyer/sustainer.