Towards the Sun: The Cross and the Bodhi Tree

Only by searching for your own truth can you come to understand what the great religious leaders of the past were trying to tell us.  Consider these two images:
The differences are striking.  Besides being depictions of humans, these two religious icons seem to represent completely different ways of interpreting reality.  One seems to endorse suffering, while the other seems to endorse sitting (which can also be suffering, if you haven’t tried it).  Like any work of art, though, these images can’t be interpreted as the artist intended without the proper background.  Consider the following stories of Buddha and Jesus and then try looking at the images again.
After years of trying different meditation techniques and looking for the truth of his own reality, so the story goes, Gotama sat down at the foot of a Bodhi tree.  Let my body waste away and my bones be scattered across the ground, but I will not move from this spot until I am fully enlightened, he said (or something along those lines).  On the surface, this is merely a statement of great determination, but determination alone is not sufficient to become enlightened.  The reason Gotama was fully enlightened and became a Buddha in that spot was because his mind was finally ready.  He had come to an understanding – not just conceptually, but deep down, at the deepest level of his mind, and his determination arose from that understanding.  It was a pure determination, not clouded by denial or craving on any level.  It was because he was truthfully and honestly able to feel this way that his mind was able to become enlightened.  This understanding, perhaps, had something to do with the attachment to self, and the complete letting go of that attachment.  This is an idea that you can support conceptually, but to really and truthfully be free of attachment to yourself, requires – much more.
Perhaps the parallel with Christ is now clear.  Looking at the Christian gospels, we see that Jesus came to a similar understanding.  It is implied, more than once, that Jesus allowed himself to be captured willingly, knowing full well what would happen.  According to Luke, “when the time drew near for him to be taken up, Jesus resolutely set his face for Jerusalem.”  He knew the cross was his destiny, and this was a destiny that he sought out.  While on the cross, John relates that he says, “All that I am, the very breath of my being, the very center of my existence, I now give to you, Father.”  According to Fr. Himes (introduced in the previous post), “Jesus gives himself away completely, and because there is nothing left to give, he cannot exist.  The tomb cannot hold him.  If you give your life away, you will see it become everlasting life.”
Take a moment and consider the above images again.  Can you look at them and imagine that these two men are experiencing the same thing?  That although they went about it in different ways, they both came to the same truth?  Both of them are telling us that the truth of existence will be understood when you can completely give yourself away, but not just because you’re convinced that it’s a good idea.  Jesus accepts the worst suffering and humiliation imaginable.  In doing so, he demonstrates that merely having the idea is not enough.  No mere idea could motivate someone to endure the worst possible suffering – only a real, deep, true understanding that makes what would appear as suffering to be nothing of the sort.  While Buddha’s lesson is not as visually dramatic, it places more emphasis on the path to enlightenment.  Looking at Jesus on the cross, you think, what kind of mind must this person have to be able to accept such a thing gracefully?  Looking at Buddha, you see – oh, now I see – this is the kind of mind.
Both Buddhism and Catholicism seek the final goal of a complete giving over of self, but they place the emphasis on different aspects of the search.  A Buddhist focuses on observing this moment as it is, and thereby understanding reality.  As this occurs, the understanding of non-self slowly becomes apparent, and a natural compassion for all other living things arises steadily.  Giving up considerations of the self for the good of others is part of the Buddhist path, but it arises first from observation of reality.  A Catholic, on the other hand, will seek reality through the giving up of self in service.  The giving comes first, and the observation (through prayer and contemplation) second.  The learning is driven by external experiences rather than internal, although both necessarily play a role.  Buddhists are driven initially by the internal experience, while the external plays a necessary role.
Based on a given personality, one approach may be more suitable than the other.  But why keep them so separate?  Why teach our children that Buddhists believe in reincarnation, whereas Catholics believe in heaven and hell, and you just believe whichever one your parents told you?  Christ and Buddha show us the same thing in different ways, and we should accept both of them.  We should find the path that is best for us and understand that it may not be the best path for someone else.  But we should also see that our paths overlap a great deal and lead to the same place.  We can still journey together!  In this global community, we should let go of the superficial aspects of our traditions, and seek out the deeper meanings together.  We aren’t relativists.  We don’t say, you go your way and I’ll go mine, and we’ll just live on the same planet and be nice to each other.  We say, here is my perception of reality based on serious attempts to understand it, what’s yours and how did you get there?  There is only one sun, and as we approach it, we approach each other.
(I haven’t mentioned any other religions here because I’m not educated enough to discuss them meaningfully – but I suspect they’d fit in with this view as well, and probably help to illuminate even more perspectives.  Comments encouraged!)


About Trygve

I’m an aspiring physician currently in medical school in Cleveland. I grew up in North Carolina, the only child of a biomedical researcher and a music teacher. After college, I was in the US Army for 5 years, spending the final year in Baghdad as an advisor to the Iraq Army. I started meditating seriously about 3 years ago, and I've since come to realize very clearly that in order to understand reality and act skillfully, we need not only conceptual understanding, but actual eradication of all our mental impurities.
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