Jesus Talks with Buddha
By Ravi Zacharias
Ravi Zacharias was born in India, became a Christian minister, and has lectured at major universities worldwide. The title of his book relies on the fact that the lotus is the symbol of Buddhism, and the cross, of course, of Christianity. In The Lotus and The Cross (L&C), he engages Jesus and Buddha in a mock debate of sorts, following the debate-style of the Hindu scripture, Baghavad Gita, and others. A debate requires people of different views on opposite sides; however, since only RZ, a devout Christian, speaks for both sides (when he could have engaged a scholarly Buddhist to do so), he selectively quotes or paraphrases what Buddhist monks told him and slants the answers to support his conclusions; thus, he writes a totally one-sided debate; he thus has Jesus lecture an almost mute and childlike Buddha. In RZ’s L&C Introduction, he states that he traveled to Malaysia, Thailand, India and Singapore and spent scores of hours in temples with monks and with instructors of Buddhist thought. They discussed life’s deepest questions and contrasting answers. RZ notes that “even the answers the monks gave to my questions were not always the same depending upon which school of Buddhism they represented.” This should come as no surprise. Many Christians and their myriad sects disagree on many things. Equally distorted are the facets of the two religions that he allows his spokesmen to debate: that is, substantially all of the subject matter or topics deal with Jesus’ attack on Buddhism, but, conveniently, he nowhere allows Buddha to attack Christianity. (Buddha likely would not have done so, anyway, but his followers might.)
As stated in A Buddhist Bible (perhaps the best known, truncated version of Buddhism, as edited by Dwight Goddard and first published in 1932), Buddha did not consider himself divine or even “religious”, as most define the word; that is, he did not seek followers or a temple nor did he even refer to deities as a general rule; Buddha was concerned with human conduct, love most of all, and he used meditation and asceticism to optimize good conduct; he was not obsessed with a “god” per se. Buddha had nothing to “sell” to anyone. Like Jesus, he earned nothing and had only what others shared with him. Yet, he attracted followers like moths to a flame. He volunteered nothing; he gave no “Sermon on the Mount”; Buddha simply answered questions (and only when pressed). He wrote nothing nor did he ask anyone to record anything that he said. He asked his followers not to call him “Lord” or Buddha (“the Enlightened One”). Buddha was not boastful; he never claimed, “I am that I am,” or said, “I created time.” (See L&C, p. 29.) Zacharias doesn’t even allow his version of Buddha to challenge Jesus’ conclusions. Thus, Zacharias doesn’t permit debate; he simply offers result-oriented monologues, treating Buddha much as Edgar Bergen treated his Mortimer Snerd. (Jesus was surely a humble and loving man, much like Buddha, but parts of the Bible, and of RZ’s text, sadly misrepresent Jesus as a boastful and self-important.)
If there had ever been a conversation between Buddha and Jesus, Buddha would have attacked The Question: “Was there a Creator? Who created the creator? Which came first, the gases that caused the Big Bang or some Designer who created the gases? If the Creator has always existed, why couldn’t the gases have always existed?” Zacharias conveniently ignores these fundamental questions and focuses on what he pontificates as the flaws of Buddha’s philosophy. Zacharias has Jesus speaking “down” to Buddha, like his teacher or father, and he has Buddha responding as if he were in awe of Jesus. This would never have happened, nor would there have been only one sided-questioning, where Jesus poses questions and simply gives conclusions as absolutes. Buddha’s questions are never asked by Zacharias.
Even worse, Zacharias misrepresents key principles of Buddhism; he is either ignorant of them or intentionally distorts them to serve his own cause. To wit, he repeatedly attacks Buddha for concluding that “There is no self,” and, then, mocking Buddha by querying, “So, if there is no self, who is speaking?” This silly distortion falsely presents Buddha’s belief: Buddha didn’t believe that there is no “self”; rather, he didn’t believe in “matter”, i.e., the tangible physical manifestations of self; he believed in soul, the intangible self. (Some scientists today hold that even atoms may be empty.) Buddha viewed the body as a garment that was simply discarded at death.
RZ also has Jesus mocking Buddhists as “idolaters”, but, in fact, Buddhists do not worship idols any more than Christians “worship” the cross or images of Mary, the alleged virgin. The statues of Buddha are not “gods”, nor are they worshipped as such; they represent certain qualities and beliefs and serve as reminders of same, as do images of Jesus nailed to the cross. RZ seems, thus, disingenuous and intellectually chicanerous in accusing Buddhists of idolatry. (Admittedly, there are countless sects within Buddhism and Christianity, and there may be idolaters in both, but such is not the rule and RZ surely knows it.)
To elevate his elementary dialogue, RZ salts his text with pretentious quotes to impress the reader with his profundity, but he serves only to reveal his egg-headed ability to obfuscate his lack of credible answers and of his unwillingness to even address the key issues. He queries, “How can time argue with eternity?” How’s that? Time doesn’t need to argue with anything nor does time speak (argue) at all; RZ used the wrong verb; he meant to say, “How can time limit eternity?” But that, too, ignores the more basic issue, “What is eternal?” RZ doesn’t define his key terms (e.g., time, eternity, God). He glosses, superficially, over these weighty terms, leaping to endless conclusions: “Those who define truth by the calendar run afoul of Him [Jesus] who created time,” but nowhere does he support his claim to have “created time”, nor does he define which “truth” he is addressing in his pedantic quote. RZ’s Jesus “wins” his arguments by simply claiming to be omniscient and omnipotent. However convenient this is for RZ, it hardly proves any of his conclusions. He adds, “When you mix falsehood with truth, you create a more destructive lie,” but he ignores the fact that all scriptures mix falsehoods (unsupported claims of miracles, virgin births, talking snakes, burning bushes, parting seas, arcs containing two of all animal-species, resurrections, ascensions, etc.) with truth (reality). Fairy tales, however endlessly alleged to be “The [infallible] Word” of any creator, remain nothing more than unsupported claims of the human-claimants (and of the scribes who recorded them eons later or of the countless other scribes who thousands of copies, replete with clerical errors, and inserted their own slants and, then, of the myriad religious committees who repeatedly rewrote “The Word”, adding and deleting entire books, to suit their then tastes and beliefs) – all of which is now rewritten by endless Christian sects and ministers (like Jimmy Swaggart who now charges $125 for his version), using more friendly contemporary language, i.e., the spin of current author.
L&C offers soothing grist for Christians who want to believe that their faith is The Faith but who are not willing to read source-texts (Buddhist scriptures) and/or do their own thinking, and, most of all, it is for Christians who do not want to rethink, much less challenge, their core beliefs. These followers seek affirmation rather than the arresting disquiet of insoluble questions. L&C one-man-mock-debate insults Buddhists and logicians, and, worse, it totally ignores the key issues between Buddhism and Christianity. Both have much good to offer, and there need be no contest between them. Indeed, unlike Christians and Muslims, neither Buddhists nor Hindus are given to proselytizing (or debate). They are comfortable in their views and see nothing to prove and no need to convert the world to their way of thinking.