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An essay donated by Tom Drake-Brockman

Spiritual Humanism and the meaning of life:
Jesus, the Buddha, suffering and service to others.

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The teachings and life experiences of Jesus and the Buddha were remarkably aligned 1 -- so much so, it is possible to see them as twin incarnations of the same God, operating in different cultural settings.

Both Buddha and Jesus taught the purpose of our existence was to develop compassion for human suffering. For Buddha, this largely involved a meditative, spiritual process. Jesus however took a more dualist approach. For him, reducing suffering required a more robust, active commitment to helping the poor and oppressed and creating a more just world.

The major point of difference between Jesus and the Buddha is usually seen as the attitude of each to the relevance and even the existence of God. Buddha scarcely mentions God, while in the canonical gospels Jesus had an intimate, personal relationship with his divine ‘Father’. But as well as being our ‘father’, the God of the New Testament is also the ‘holy spirit’ of compassion and His ‘son’, the personification of human goodness. In the Gnostic gospels the concept of God is even more nuanced, a transcendent reality that we must strive to be at one with. Thus Christ’s ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ vision is not dissimilar to Buddha’s Nirvana and these spiritual goals both had an intensely humanist dimension: our growth towards this ‘oneness’ and our ultimate redemption lies in our own hands and we are effectively master of our own destinies.

Even in the canonical gospels, this robust humanism can be readily detected in Christ’s teachings. Despite the repeated appeals to faith, prayer etc. that appear there, such references should not be taken too literally. The chief purpose of the gospels was to popularize and entrench Christ's teachings by making them intelligible to the broad masses who could not think outside these ‘squares’. Christ’s attitude to prayer and faith is actually rather equivocal.

Prayer is sometimes deprecated as in Matt. 6:31–33:

"Therefore take no thought, saying, What shall we eat? or, What shall we drink? or, Wherewithal shall we be clothed? (For after all these things do the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knoweth that ye have need of all these things. But seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." (King James Bible)

Elsewhere prayer is commended primarily as a meditative spiritual exercise as in Matt 6:5-8:

"And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly. But when ye pray, use not vain repetitions, as the heathen do: for they think that they shall be heard for their much speaking. Be not ye therefore like unto them: for your Father knoweth what things ye have need of, before ye ask him."

He even suggests faith should be based on empirical evidence as in John 10:38:

"But if I do, though ye believe not me, believe the works: that ye may know, and believe, that the Father is in me, and I in him."

or as in Luke 14:28–32:

"For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish. Or what king, going to make war against another king, sitteth not down first, and consulteth whether he be able with ten thousand to meet him that cometh against him with twenty thousand? Or else, while the other is yet a great way off, he sendeth an ambassage, and desireth conditions of peace."

As for Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross to appease God, that is a primitive idea concocted by St Paul and gains little or no validation in the gospels.

Yet Jesus does insist that our ultimate goal is to have eternal life. So if not through faith in him or in God, then how do we achieve it?

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The overwhelming thrust of Christ's teachings and actions were concerned with the relief of human suffering. His mission was heavily directed at showing us how to develop and express authentic compassion through our care for others (especially children), selfless humility, reflexive forgiveness and a steadfast commitment to social justice. This was his vision of the Kingdom of Heaven breaking into our world and it brought him into acute conflict with the power elites who were then, as now, the chief source of human suffering. So how do we get ‘eternal life’ or ‘oneness with God? By following Christ’s example, expanding our compassionate awareness while striving to make this world more worthy of its Creator. But while Jesus may have established that as our life purpose, the perennial problem of Christianity and most religions still remains: why would God create a world with so much suffering in it?

Christ may have provided the answer to this enigma when he declared that compassionate relief of suffering brought “great glory” to God in: John 11:4:

"When Jesus heard that, he said, This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God might be glorified thereby."

and in John 15:8:

"Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples."

Perhaps the purpose of suffering is to fully actualize God’s goodness and that is why God was impelled to create life in the first place. But finite life is mortal and as such inevitably underpinned by self preservation -- which in turn gives rise to self-gratification or, as Buddha called it, ‘dukkha’, the basic source of human suffering. Thus both God’s impulse to create the universe and the rise of evil within it, may be regarded as inexorable. Like white without black, goodness cannot exist without evil and such ultimate realities are beyond the ambit of God’s omnipotence.

Christ partially confirms this in his parable of the farmer and his field in which he purports to “explain mysteries hidden since the dawn of time.” (Matt. 13:24–39):

"Another parable put he forth unto them, saying, The kingdom of heaven is likened unto a man which sowed good seed in his field: But while men slept, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat, and went his way. But when the blade was sprung up, and brought forth fruit, then appeared the tares also. So the servants of the householder came and said unto him, Sir, didst not thou sow good seed in thy field? from whence then hath it tares?  He said unto them, An enemy hath done this. The servants said unto him, Wilt thou then that we go and gather them up? But he said, Nay; lest while ye gather up the tares, ye root up also the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn. ..."

In stating that God and heaven were ‘asleep’ when evil first appeared in His creation, Jesus is effectively saying that this intrusion was not consciously willed or desired by God. Jesus then suggests that God was unable to eradicate this evil without upsetting the whole fabric of his creation. His implication seems to be that the evil must remain integral to our lives until we, as God’s children, grow towards spiritual maturity while striving to combat it.

Such a purpose for human existence may still seem problematic as Christ-like compassion is a rare commodity and humanity is clearly far from reaching this spiritual maturity. Indeed, for most people past and present, the process might not have even begun. For such a protracted goal to be feasible it is necessary to factor in the concept of reincarnation. Buddha certainly did so and there is now strong evidence to suggest that Christ also envisaged reincarnation. So here once again, the two great spiritual humanist leaders converge. And since Buddha distilled the essence of Hinduism as Jesus did of Judaism, their commonality potentially signifies the underlying unity of at least four of the five great religious traditions. Hopefully Islam can also tap into its humanist roots and complete this circle.

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Book references used:

  1. book cover image Elmar R. Gruber & Holger Kersten G., "The Original Jesus: the Buddhist sources of Christianity," Element Books, (1995). Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store.

  2. book cover image Tom Drake-Brockman, "Christian Humanism: the compassionate theology of a Jew called Jesus." (2012) Read reviews or order this book safely from online book store. It was our web site's recommended book for 2012-OCT.

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Originally posted: 2013-JAN-12
Latest update: 2013-JAN-12
Author:Tom Drake-Brockman.

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