As a person of Dharma, it pains me when I hear of Buddhist teachers and scholars misrepresenting other traditions (intentionally or unintentionally). Such misrepresentation does not reflect positively on Buddhism any more than the similar misrepresentations made by teachers and scholars of Western Religions reflect positively on their respective traditions.
A well-respected Buddhist scholar has written:
A major difference [between Buddhism and Western Religions] is the concept of Buddha which is radically different from the concept of God.
When I humbly reflect on this matter, I find that ‘Buddha’ and ‘God’ are simply word-concepts humans have employed as signifiers. These signifiers can be used technically (i.e. skillfully) to signify or point (quite specifically) to Ultimate Reality, or they can be applied popularly (i.e. unskillfully) to signify or point (rather vaguely) to just about anything. Accuracy in the usage of such signifiers depends upon the level of awareness of the individual assigning the label. Those who follow Western religions and those who follow Buddhism (and this applies to both monastic and lay followers) have sometimes mis-represented the terms of other traditions as well as the terms of their own tradition. This is perfectly understandable but it does create confusion.
In the text in question here (which we will not name so as not to sully the reputation of a revered member of the sangha), it is interesting to note that the author states that the term “‘‘God’ [has] multiple meanings…,” while forgetting to mention that this is also true of the term ‘Buddha’. However, at another point in the text, he declares:
There is another difficulty in understanding Buddhism, although it is of a different nature and on another level. This is the problem of popular Buddhism…
So, this would indicate that the author clearly understands the difference between popular and authentic forms of a tradition, so it is lamentable that allowance is made for “the problem of popular Buddhism” while no such allowance is made for the problem of popular versions of Western religions (of which we will use Christianity as an example in this post – only because it is more likely to be familiar to the majority of readers).
Again, it is rather important to keep in mind—when comparing and contrasting religions—that there is the technical and authentic usage of terms by competent exemplars of a given tradition, and there is the more-or-less sloppy and inaccurate usage of terms by popular believers and academic scholars.
There is a very human tendency of ordinary foolish beings (such as ourselves) to conflate popular versions of other religions—giving them equal status with authentic forms of those religions—in order to tip the scale of opinion in any comparison in favor of one’s own religion. As understandable as this is, intellectual honesty and philosophic rigor (not to mention compassion and respect) demand that things be compared using peer-to-peer relationships, not through the mixing of levels. That is, if one wishes to compare and contrast two religious traditions and one selects the ideal version of one’s own religion to use in the comparison, then one must compare this ideal version of one’s own religion with the ideal version of the other religion, and not with any form of populist belief or academic opinion regarding it.
Our author continues:
In the West, religion… rules out any possibility of man attaining the status of God. In contrast, Buddhism teaches that it is a human person that becomes a Buddha.
Here one finds the confusion of levels (whether intentional or accidental). The term ‘Buddha,’ as mentioned above, has multiple significances. It is accurately used to signify not only the Dharmakaya (the truth or reality beyond form, beyond thought, and beyond description), but also the Sambogakaya (the manifestation of supreme merit which serves also as an effective and expedient affective focus) and nirmanakaya (the spatio-temporal manifestation of a spiritually mature enlightened being, or Bodhisattva Mahasattva, in samsaric existence for the purpose of teaching and interacting as, and with, sentient beings.
In Christianity, the term ‘God-the-Father’ signifies only the Universal Reality (truth beyond form, beyond thought, beyond description), while the term ‘Christ’ (or, if you prefer, ‘God-the-Holy-Spirit’) properly relates to the manifestation of supreme merit, and the term ‘Jesus’ (or ‘God-the-Son’) properly relates only to the Incarnation (manifestation in history for the purpose of teaching).
To be completely accurate, both terms (i.e. ‘God’ and ‘Buddha’) can also refer to the three manifestations taken as a whole, as well as each aspect taken individually. It should also be stated, again to be accurate, that most contemporary Christians would not recognize this discussion at all – and would certainly not understand the relationship between ‘Christ’ and the ‘Holy Ghost’. However, the spiritually mature and enlightened Christian Laywoman, Lilian Staveley, wrote:
As the loving creature progresses, he will find himself ceasing to live in things, or thoughts of things or of persons, but his whole mind and heart will be concentrated upon the thought of God alone. Now Jesus, now the High Christ, now the Father, but never away from one of the aspects or personalities of God…
In the Christian scriptures, it is indicated that man is capable of unification with absolute reality (i.e. ‘God-the-Father’ as Dharmakaya or Ultimate Reality) through the proper application of the developmental praxis of the Christian tradition. Through such praxis one comes into intimate relation with the salvific other-power of the personal reflection of the Absolute (i.e. ‘Holy Ghost’ as upaya-Dharmakaya or Reality body of compassionate means, which is also related to the Samboghakaya – or ‘Christ’ in Christian parlance). One may also learn from the teaching, life and death of the historic exemplar (i.e. Jesus as Nirmakaya – or Incarnation for the purpose of teaching). A ‘Christian’ may not become ‘God’ (i.e. ‘God-the-Father’ as Dharrmakaya) per se, but he/she can become conscious of and participate in the life and light of ‘God’ in a non-dual relationship, just as a ‘Buddhist’ may realize and participate in the non-dual and uncreated nature of the light (Wisdom) and life (Compassion) of Buddha (as Dharmakaya).
The historical Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama Śākyamuni) in the Sammyuta Nikkaya declares:
Those who see the Dharma, see me; those who see me, see the Dharma.
Jesus likewise declared:
I and my Father are one
– (John 10:30)
If you know me, you will know my Father also.
– (John 14:7)
Jesus, also said:
If a man love me (i.e. Jesus as Nirmanakaya/Exemplar) he will keep my words (i.e. the Dharma/Teaching) and my Father (i.e. ‘God’ as Dharmakaya/Universal Reality) will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him.” (i.e such a one will realize the non-duality of self, Sambogakaya and Dharmakaya).
There really is not as much difference here as our author’s words incline one to believe, though, certainly, differences exist.
Our author continues:
Another significant difference concerns the questions of the existence of God and of Buddha. The existence of Buddha is self-evident for a person who has realized supreme enlightenment. This is the reason why…there is no attempt to give theoretical proofs for the existence of Buddha… it is not a matter of argument or proof. In contrast, the existence of God has been a problem for many in the West, requiring a variety of proofs for His existence.
This is another example of the confusion of levels and is almost surely a case of intentional disingenuousness. In this case we have a comparison of the needs and perceptions of Buddhists who have experienced “supreme enlightenment” with the needs and perceptions of normative or even nominal Christians. For, whereas it is self-evident to the enlightened Buddhist that Buddha (as Dharmakaya) exists, it is not at all self-evident for the as yet unenlightened Buddhist. In the latter case, the unenlightened individual can believe (or not) as they choose, or as their karma dictates. It is equally self-evident to enlightened Christians that ‘God’ (as Ultimate Reality) exists, while it is not at all self-evident for the as yet unenlightened Christian. The proofs for the existence of ‘God’ found in the literature of Christianity are directed at those ordinary foolish beings for whom that existence is not yet self-evident. To compare and contrast the perceptions and needs of the supremely enlightened of one religion, with those of the as yet unenlightened of another, is not likely to yield any sort of accuracy.
After much consideration, it has become clear to me that I, an ordinary foolish being, have been grasped by Amida‘s primal vow, never to be forsaken. If I should misrepresent my own religion, that is a matter for continuing education in that tradition (and who has not been guilty of this at one time or another). But to misrepresent someone else’s religion in order to point up my own would be both discourteous and divisive and will be guarded against to the extent I am able. Knowing that I once rudely and divisively attributed common errors of the conditioned human mind to a religious tradition not my own (I was very anti-Christian in my youth), and having been guilty (often) of intellectual dishonesty and pride, I am certainly not in any position to find fault with others who have—perhaps in a moment of extreme weakness—exhibited similar passions. We are all of us ordinary, foolish human beings filled with passion, and we are therefore far from perfect. Be that as it may, we can listen to the call of the Dharmakaya (Ultimate Reality) through the Sambogakaya (body of supreme merit) and the teachings of the Nirmanakaya (incarnated exemplar) via the Sutras (historically manifest Dharma) and realize Amida‘s gift of the mind of Shinjin (True Entrusting). Knowing that we have been grasped by Amida‘s primal vow, never to be abandoned, we cannot help but feel overwhelming gratitude as a matter of course. Feeling such gratitude, we are gradually transformed and we more and more come to realize the wisdom, compassion and universal availability of Buddha-Nature. Ultimately this manifests, all without self-effort, in the other-willed practice of the paramitas. As such, we become less and less ready, less and less willing and less and less able to think, speak or act from a position of individual or collective self-interest.
Namu Amida Butsu