In part 1 of my Take on Jesus, the first half of this discussion, I got as far as his birth. So in this installment I will endeavor to discuss the remaining approximately 100% of his life, and what I suppose are the main points of what he tried to teach. Remember, this is all hypothetical, essentially my best guess; although much of it, possibly most of it, is backed up by the best guesses of Christian biblical scholars.
For reasons touched upon in the first part I hypothesize that Jesus of Nazareth was born in Galilee to a human father and a mother who, although probably very respectable, was no longer a virgin. According to Mark 6:3, he had at least four brothers and at least two sisters, and before he was a spiritual teacher he was a carpenter by profession. It is also possible, considering some archeological evidence which came to light around 1980, that, as was reportedly the case with Gotama Buddha also, he was married and had at least one child—but I will return to this point later on.
Though he started out as a carpenter, there can be no doubt that he was much more spiritually inclined than the average carpenter, or the average human being. This does not at all mean that, as many people suppose nowadays, Jesus traveled to India or Tibet and studied Buddhism or other Eastern spiritual systems there. I consider this extremely unlikely, as well as unnecessary. He may, however, have been exposed to some of the Greek philosophies such as Cynicism: The hellenized town of Sepphoris was only five miles from Nazareth, and is known to have been a center for Cynic philosophers. I doubt that Jesus himself was a Cynic, as some have hypothesized, but he was probably a restless seeker, and may well have been exposed to Greek ideas. At any rate, his spirit was too deep to be satisfied living an ordinary, worldly life as a carpenter in a small town, so eventually, as a young man, he left his home and went to the spiritual camp, or “retreat center,” of John the Baptist, in the wilderness near the River Jordan. It is likely that he became a disciple of John, who was an important figure in Judaism at that time, and may himself have belonged to an ascetic, mystical, messianic sect of Judaism called the Essenes (and to this day there is at least one religious group in the Middle East, called the Mandaeans, who revere John, but not Jesus, as their founder). It was while staying with John as his disciple that Jesus had his experience of transcendence which resulted in his founding the new movement of Christianity.
It is impossible to say what really happened when the sky opened over the River Jordan, or what Jesus really attained. The Bible asserts that almost immediately John considered Jesus to be his spiritual superior, and the attainment was as simple as the spirit of the LORD descending upon Jesus like a dove as soon as he was baptized; but I would assume that it happened more the way it usually does when a person has a spiritual awakening, starting with more or less prolonged spiritual practice under a more experienced teacher (in this case John). But it might just be that he was “ripe,” and that the emotional intensity of baptism was enough to trigger whatever happened. Who knows.
Using Buddhist terminology, was Jesus fully enlightened? Was he an Arahant? Some would guess Yes, although staunch, more or less orthodox Theravada Buddhists could argue that he couldn’t be enlightened because he still harbored the wrong view of self, of an immortal soul. But I’m not quite so orthodox as to rule out the possibility that Jesus, or anyone with “wrong view,” could be enlightened. But in Jesus’s case I find insurmountable problems even to making an educated guess.
From a samsaric point of view, that is, a point of view that can be explained with words or understood with thoughts, true “enlightenment” simply does not exist. It is completely Off the Scale. Just as Nirvana cannot be grasped by the thinking mind, regardless of any neat formulae that one may cook up to account for it, by the very same token enlightenment also cannot be grasped. So we couldn’t be sure if Jesus was enlightened (or the Buddha either for that matter) even if he were standing right in front of us; and the fact that he died 20 centuries ago renders the task doubly impossible. At least doubly.
And to make matters worse, it is pretty clear that Jesus was way ahead of his surrounding culture, and that most of his followers, including most if not all of his closest apostles, and most if not all of the people who wrote the New Testament, did not understand him. (This would be easily understandable if his closest disciples were fishermen and tax collectors.) Instead of trying to be like him, early Christians promptly declared him the Messiah and eventually deified him. Many of his most important teachings were downplayed and largely replaced by the notion that Jesus died for our sins, and all we really have to do is believe in him (or Him) as our savior. The stuff about “You must make yourselves perfect, just as your Father in Heaven is perfect” was generally ignored, and replaced by the bumper sticker motto “Christians aren’t perfect, they’re just forgiven”; and there is no telling what Jesus taught that just never made it at all into the New Testament. Almost everything that John the Baptist taught is lost to us as well. I have read that the official position of the Vatican, and thereby of the Roman Catholic Church, is that no more than about 20% of the words attributed to Jesus in the gospels is likely to be authentic. I once told this to a Roman Catholic priest, and his reply was, “It’s probably less than that.” Most of the inauthentic 80% may come from a single gospel—John—which Bible scholars admit was written with the intention of using John’s own theories to refute Gnostic sects which had arisen by the beginning of the second century CE. To make matters more worse, early Christian beliefs are derived as much from Paul of Tarsus as from Jesus himself, despite the fact that Paul never met him, unless it was a supernatural meeting after Jesus died, and he didn’t even meet with anyone who had been Jesus’s disciple until after he had worked out his own theory of what Christianity is all about. He appears to have had a falling out with the apostles who actually knew Jesus and knew what he actually taught, more or less, and to have gone his own way. It is unfortunate that James, author of the Epistle of James and probably a brother of Jesus, whose single contribution to the Bible is one of the wisest and most “dharmic,” coming fairly close to Buddhism in some respects, had so little of his teachings recorded. I suspect that he understood Jesus a heck of a lot better than Paul did. So anyway, understanding exactly how spiritually advanced Jesus was, let alone whether he was enlightened or not, is pretty much hopeless. The best we can do is make some educated guesses, while not forgetting that they are just guesses.
One central aspect of the legend which most modern materialists reject out of hand, including some modern Christians, is the ability of Jesus to perform what are vulgarly called “miracles,” which in more Buddhistic language would be called the exercise of “psychic powers.” Partly because it is so central to the legend, and to what Jesus apparently really taught, and partly because I am abnormally open-minded with regard to such matters, emphatically not being a materialist, I consider it likely that Jesus really did acquire the ability to break the so-called “laws of physics” in some respects. In fact I consider this ability to be what caused Jesus himself to believe he was the chosen Messiah—not the Christian one, mind you, but the Jewish one, as predicted by the apocalyptic literature and as feverishly expected by the Jewish people at large. Oddly, it was only after reading a book by Mary Baker Eddy, the 19th-century founder of Christian Science, that I could appreciate this aspect of Jesus: Mrs. Eddy herself was a kind of minor, latter-day Jesus. Both of them, apparently, found themselves with the ability to heal the sick mainly through nothing more than clearly seeing that healing the sick with a touch, and practically anything else imaginable, is possible; and they were so blown away by this astonishing ability that they easily came to the conclusion that they were specially chosen by God to share it with the world. As an aspect of likely teachings of Jesus of Nazareth I will discuss this more a little later on, but for now I will point out that the possibility and reality of miracles was a major factor in what he had to say, and a major cause of hysterical crowds following him wherever he went, and believing him to be the Messiah.
Before getting back to the spiritual camp at the River Jordan, I will mention that, although Jesus apparently considered himself to be the Messiah also, he did not consider himself to be God. The Jews didn’t believe that their Messiah was going to be an avatar of God anyway. That part was added by non-Jewish Christians later on, with a bit of help from the Greek-influenced author of the Gospel of John, who declared Jesus to be the Logos, “the Word,” the cosmic Creative Force. There is one awkward verse in the Bible, Mark 10:18, in which, after a man calls him “Good Teacher,” Jesus replies, “Why do you call me good? There is none good except God alone.” This is hardly likely to be a bogus quote inserted into the gospel later on, as it is rather an embarrassment to the later, established system; in fact it is a tenet of textual critical analysis that such embarrassments are likely to be authentic, since later propagandists wouldn’t dream of adding them. So it would appear that Jesus not only didn’t consider himself to be God; he didn’t even consider himself to be all that good. This might be seen as a small bit of evidence that he was not fully enlightened. Miracle-working or psychic power are not indicative of full enlightenment; for example, according to Buddhist tradition Devadatta, the Buddhist villain and “Judas,” had powerful psychic abilities and then went to hell.
So anyway, at the time of his Awakening, or whatever it was that he experienced, Jesus was probably a spiritual disciple of John the Baptist; and some Christian scholars speculate that he had become John’s second in command who became leader of the group after John was arrested and imprisoned. As was already touched upon, the Gospel According to John is generally the least reliable of the four gospels with regard to accurately representing what Jesus actually taught; yet it may be most reliable with regard to the beginning and end of Jesus’s career as a spiritual teacher; and according to the author of that gospel, Jesus’s first apostles were also originally followers of John the Baptist. It does make more sense that Simon Peter and his brother Andrew, for instance, came from the same spiritual camp, and were not simply fishermen mending their nets when they decided to leave their homes and follow Jesus. At any rate, Jesus and John the Baptist had different methods of teaching; it may be that after considering himself to be the (Jewish) Messiah, Jesus decided to go directly to the people rather than letting a few of them trickle into a remote spiritual camp in the wilderness. So that’s what he did.
Before diving into a discussion of what Jesus was teaching, or trying to teach, to the Jewish people (and not to the Samaritans or Gentiles), I will skip directly to the end of his earthly career, the crucifixion. The fact that he was crucified by Roman authorities indicates that he was a political criminal, and not a religious one. Crucifixion was a particularly icky way of executing the worst rebels and traitors, as well as other scum of the earth like pirates, bandits, and renegade slaves. The Romans, being the forerunners of the modern West, were relatively indifferent to religious claims, and would care little if someone called himself the son of some obscure Jewish deity—in fact many of the Roman aristocracy traced their own ancestry to this or that god or goddess. But Jesus was believed by many to be the Jewish Messiah, who, it may be remembered, was considered to be a political leader first, and maybe a spiritual one second. So according to the Gospel of John, the little sign nailed to his cross declared Jesus KING OF THE JEWS. Challenges to their political authority the Romans would not tolerate.
For their Messiah to be executed in the most humiliating manner as the most despicable of criminals, before ever leading his nation to greatness, was a huge embarrassment to the earliest Christians. For Jesus to have cried out, while nailed to the cross, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” is another awkward embarrassment, which for obvious reasons is rather unlikely to have been spuriously added to the Bible by later propagandizing evangelists. (John, probably the least reliable gospel with regard to what Jesus actually said, simply omits it, or otherwise fails to mention it, since John’s Jesus is the Logos Himself, the Creator of the universe.) Christians over the centuries have put forth so many theories to account for this exclamation, a whole spectrum of explanations ranging from the ridiculous to the sublime, that an entire book could be written cataloguing them…and I assume such books have already been written. I haven’t read them, though I have come across several theories. My own theory, a very non-Christian one, is that Jesus finally realized that he wasn’t the Messiah, at least not in a political sense. He was so obviously favored by God…and it all came to this. His bitter disappointment had some obvious justification to it. If this interpretation is correct, however, then it would be another bit of evidence that Jesus was not a fully enlightened being, assuming that Arahants do not cry out in anguish, even under such extremely anguish-inducing circumstances.
The Jewish people experienced a somewhat similar messianic fiasco in the mid to late 17th century, with regard to the self-proclaimed Messiah Shabbetai Zevi. Shabbetai was an extremely charismatic Jewish mystic well versed in Kabbalah, who for a time actually signed his correspondence “I am the Lord your God, Shabbetai Zevi.” He lived in the Ottoman Turkish Empire, but was ecstatically supported by Jews throughout the Jewish world, and he proclaimed, among other things, that the Day of the Lord and redemption were at hand. He caused such a commotion that he was arrested by Turkish officials and was eventually brought before the Sultan. The Sultan gave him the choice of conversion to Islam or death…and to the dismayed horror of his devoted followers, he chose Islam, and spent the rest of his life as a well-behaved Muslim. Karen Armstrong in her book A History of God described what followed, as follows:
Astonishing as it may seem, many Jews remained loyal to their Messiah, despite the scandal of his apostasy. The experience of redemption had been so profound that they could not believe that God had allowed them to be deluded. It is one of the most striking instances of the religious experience of salvation taking precedence over mere facts and reason. Faced with the choice of abandoning their newfound hope or accepting an apostate Messiah, a surprising number of Jews of all classes refused to submit to the hard facts of history. Nathan of Gaza devoted the rest of his life to preaching the mystery of Shabbetai: by converting to Islam, he had continued his lifelong battle with the forces of evil. Yet again, he had been impelled to violate the deepest sanctities of his people in order to descend into the realm of darkness to liberate the kelipoth. He had accepted the tragic burden of his mission and descended to the lowest depths to conquer the world of Godlessness from within.
Jesus in all likelihood was much more spiritually advanced than was Shabbetai, although there are some nevertheless pretty obvious parallels between the earliest Christians and the later Sabbatarians. The believers felt their faith to be such a life-changing blessing that they just couldn’t let it go. And so, despite the debacle of Jesus, their king, being executed with maximum ignominy, like a pirate or a slave, the early Christians worked it into the system, and even had their version of Jesus know it would happen in advance. They also came up with the belief that Jesus rose from the dead and eventually ascended bodily into Heaven, a point to which I will eventually return, “God willing.”
Now I arrive at the discussion of what Jesus, probably, actually taught. I may as well start off by getting another fiasco out of the way.
One thing that Jesus, and apparently all of the authors of the New Testament, firmly believed was that the end of the world would happen soon. As was already mentioned, this was a common belief in Judaism at that time, and Jesus and many of his followers were much influenced by apocalyptic literature such as the Book of Daniel and the Book of Enoch, the latter being a non-canonical apocalypse quoted in the Epistle of Jude. Apocalyptic fervor was a prominent characteristic of early Christianity, and even nowadays it still hasn’t entirely faded out. Jesus is coming, or so they say. But after the first few hundred years the world’s failure to end was becoming yet another embarrassment; and the impending Day of Judgement eventually was downplayed in favor of other plausible reasons for being a good Christian. But even if Jesus really did believe that the world would come to an end within a few decades of his own time, as he evidently did, that is not necessarily a sign of foolishness. Even very wise people can be wrong sometimes, especially with regard to conventional truth, as opposed to ultimate truth. It may be that a fully enlightened being sees ultimate truth clearly enough, but that it is qualitatively different from what common worldlings consider to be empirical fact. As far as the average person is concerned, ultimate truth is completely off the scale, and may as well not exist at all. And all that remains is mutually-agreed-upon mass delusion, with which an enlightened being might not agree.
One teaching attributed to Jesus which many, including Karen Armstrong, consider not to be authentic is the repeated, vitriolic denunciations of the hypocrisy of Pharisees. Judging from the narratives in the gospels he seems to have gotten along with Pharisees fairly well; and after all the Pharisees were for the most part seriously, devoutly religious people. The anti-Jewish, anti-establishment sentiments crept into Christianity largely due to the success of Paul at converting non-Jews to the new religion, and also due to the early Christians distancing themselves from a rebellious nation that was continually punished and persecuted by the Roman government—although they eventually came to be persecuted even more themselves.
And although Jesus, it seems to me, apparently really did consider himself to be the (Jewish) Messiah, the message of “You must believe in me…I am the only Way…Believe in me…Believe in me…” which is almost the only teaching of Jesus given in the Gospel of John, is probably a later invention of well-intentioned religious propagandists. It has already been pointed out that Jesus, in all likelihood, did not consider himself to be God, the only begotten Son of God, or even outstandingly good. He was trying to teach people some things that he considered to be very important, but worshiping him was very probably not one of them.
One thing he probably did consider to be very important is the miraculous power of faith. In fact it appears to be central to his message, or very near the center, as, according to my hypothesis, it was pretty much what inspired him to consider himself the Messiah in the first place, and for others to believe likewise. It is my impression that it is not necessarily a case of our faith “of a grain of mustard seed” causing God to, say, heal a sick person or cast a mountain into the sea as a reward for that faith; but rather our own faith, including of course the belief that anything is possible, which does it—ultimately, we create our own reality. Buddhism teaches something similar, but with very different terminology. By unlocking this secret, based on his own experience (though interpreting it in Jewish terms), and sharing it with others, Jesus thought that he was acting as a kind of “seed crystal” for a new way of being in this world, that is, the Kingdom of Heaven. This was apparently another failed prediction, based largely upon an overestimation of the wisdom of the human race, but it is not necessarily an embarrassing fiasco. At least he had a high opinion of us. But the faith of a grain of mustard seed is extremely rare nowadays, even among devout Christians, more rare than it was in his day. Now the primary mode of faith is in the so-called Laws of Physics, and in the idea that they can’t be broken. But modern science itself is starting to move away from that rigid attitude. The Laws of Physics as we know them may be just one of an infinite number of possible stable configurations.
One teaching of his that may have had more of a lasting impact than any of the others is the emphasis on compassion and love—love not just for God or for family, but for everybody, including enemies. Christians over the centuries have demonstrated some outstanding lack of love and compassion, but nevertheless, this message of Christianity seems to have wrought a subtle revolution in Western civilization, resulting in what may be, using some Yogic terminology, the first substantial stirrings of the “heart chakra” in the mainstream of the West. People in classical antiquity, though very sophisticated in certain ways, could be extremely cold and ruthless in comparison with the people of later centuries. Lately it seems to be love of money (or basing one’s life upon it) more than anything else which is causing some return to that former ruthlessness. Again, it appears that Jesus overestimated the human race, thus far.
Which leads, sort of, to the ideas, apparently endorsed by Jesus and repeated again and again in the New Testament, that physical poverty and even mental suffering are of great value in the spiritual life. The very second sentence of the Sermon on the Mount (which itself appears to be a kind of compilation of various sayings, or “greatest hits,” with many of the same teachings scattered here and there in the other gospels, not assembled into a single discourse) says “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Traditional Buddhism accepts the value of poverty and asceticism, yet actual suffering is seen as something to be avoided if possible. The sacredness of grief may be a peculiarly Jewish idea which caught on for a long while in Christianity also. In a well-known parable in Luke’s Gospel a Pharisee stands up front at the Temple and says, essentially, “Thank you God for not making me like other people, especially including that tax collector standing back there. I keep all the observances and fasts, and I give one tenth of my income for the maintenance of the Temple and the priests.” Meanwhile, a lowly tax collector stands in the back; he doesn’t dare to approach the altar, and doesn’t dare even to look up at it. He stands in the back, head down, beating his breast and begging God to have mercy on him, a sinner. After describing this situation Jesus says that it is the tax collector who goes home having found more favor with God. As a Buddhist, however, I think it might be best of all not to adopt either extreme, but simply to sit quietly and meditate somewhere in the middle.
Many times I have wondered why Jesus would have endorsed misery. The Christian idea that it is to help Christians to cultivate compassion seems not to receive much support in the Bible; for example this is evidently not the point of the tax collector’s misery finding divine favor. My old theory was that it was a kind of tradeoff: some worldly suffering now in exchange for some heavenly bliss later. But the exchange strikes me as completely lopsided and unrealistic, a very unbalanced equation: a few decades of sorrow is not an equitable, realistic trade for an eternity of bliss. But then again, the same holds true of eternal salvation and eternal damnation—how could anything we do in the course of a single lifetime warrant either? Again, it could just be a Jewish thing. And maybe Jesus never even taught it. But my latest hypothesis is that if the value of earthly suffering can be justified, it may be along the lines of the old saying, “Man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” Very unpleasant circumstances can dislodge attachments to worldly life, and even to unwholesome aspects of one’s own personality; breaking attachments is a virtual necessity, and can be very unpleasant, even excruciating, while it is happening, even though it may lead to much greater happiness in the long run. So being “triggered” and upset can be very useful as a spiritual vehicle or catalyst, and it may be that this was what Jesus was trying to say, and maybe it was misunderstood. But that’s only a guess. It could be just a Jewish thing.
Suffering can also lead to humility, which appears to be another key factor in the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. Very early Christianity placed much emphasis on unselfishness and the effacement of “self,” regardless of any doctrinal assertions of the existence of an eternal soul.
There are other themes which may have been significant ingredients in the gospel of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, such as the importance of keeping one’s good works a secret, and using incessant prayer as a way of essentially pestering God into granting one’s wishes; but there is just one more that I would like to discuss here, one which ties together many of the others: that is, the idea that one should stop worrying or caring how one will survive, and just surrender completely to God in the faith that He will give us exactly what we need. Give no thought for tomorrow, what you will eat or where you will sleep…consider the lilies of the field…and all that. God will provide. (The Buddha taught something very similar, although of course his explanation did not include God.) It pretty much requires the aforementioned poverty and austerity; it requires faith—not theological belief, but a trusting, wide-open surrender to Divinity—since it is faith that provides the courage actually to go through with it; and it also requires love, in the sense of acceptance, acceptance of whatever happens to us, and of whoever makes it happen to us. It seems to have been essential to Jesus’s message, even if it has gone over like the proverbial lead balloon and come to be almost universally ignored by Christians. How many Christians give no thought for tomorrow and gather not up their treasures upon the earth? Not many, especially lately. Not unless they have no choice, anyway. He apparently overestimated us humans again; but he apparently foresaw that it wouldn’t catch on with the majority anyhow.
Nevertheless, it is a very intriguing concept for me, because on the one hand I consider it to be true, but on the other I admit that it takes great courage and a complete leap of faith into the unknown. I experimented with it when I first came back to America in 2011: I didn’t know even where I would sleep on the night of my arrival; I wasn’t even sure if someone would meet me at the airport. I just flung myself into the unknown…and I must admit that it worked better than trying to plan things out. It’s the closest I’ve ever come to being supported, as a monk, by an American community. But, showing up uninvited and essentially embarrassing people into not letting me starve is a rough road to follow. I did make some friends who supported me generously, but they were too few to make it work out very well, and I eventually took Jesus’s advice and cleared out, shaking the dust of the place from my sandals, so to speak. Maybe the situation faltered because my faith faltered, preferring some sort of “security.” Anyway, I still think letting go and flinging oneself into the unknown is a profound method which really works, even works miraculously, but it requires an almost superhuman level of courage or faith, especially in a relatively faithless world. It is a central teaching of Jesus, and of Buddha, which is much more important than people realize.
A few times already I have briefly mentioned a kind of “scandal” which has arisen with regard to Jesus relatively recently; and since it is the biggest breaking news involving him recently, and since you may be unaware of it, I may as well briefly describe what happened. In 1980 some construction workers in Jerusalem accidentally broke into an ancient family tomb containing several ossuaries—small sarcophagi containing the bones of deceased Jewish people. (This form of preserving the remains of the dead was common in the time of Jesus.) When authorities were notified and archeologists investigated the site, nine ossuaries were found, along with evidence that at least one more had already been removed. One ossuary bore the inscription “Yeshua bar Yosef,” or Jesus son of Joseph. Others bore the names Maria (“Mary”), Yosa (the biblical “Joses,” the name of a brother of Jesus in the Bible), and Yehuda bar Yeshua, i.e. Jude, son of Jesus. The authenticity of the ossuaries was not in question; but the names are so common, with the exception of Yosa, that it was considered very unlikely to be a burial vault for the family of the biblical Jesus. But then a collector of antiquities came forth with another ossuary bearing the inscription Yaakov ben Yosef akhui diYeshua, or “James son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” It was claimed by some that this was an ossuary removed from the family vault before archeologists arrived at the site. The ossuary itself was considered genuine, but the inscription, particularly the last part about the brother of Jesus, evoked a years-long controversy and fraud trial in Israel. But analysis of the patina on the ossuary, composed of mineral residues and microbial film, indicate that the patina inside the inscription is as old as the ossuary itself—and very recently this same analysis of the patina has determined that the mineral residue matches what is found in the family burial vault, and no other known source of ossuaries. So it appears probable now that the ossuary of James came from the same place, which further increases the odds of the Yeshua ossuary representing the actual remains of the biblical Jesus to well above 50%, just going with the statistical odds of finding all the names in the right familial combinations. Anyway, if this turns out to be the case, then of course Jesus did not ascend bodily into heaven after dying on the cross, his body didn’t really disappear from the tomb, and furthermore he probably had a wife and child—although the romantic stuff about Mary Magdalene, as one may have seen in The DaVinci Code, etc., may still be untrue. His family, like Gotama Buddha’s family, may have predated his career as a spiritual leader. So even if Jesus did have a wife and son, and even if he didn’t rise from the dead and appear bodily before his disciples (and it is significant that some of his disciples didn’t recognize him when he did appear before them), then it still doesn’t amount to much of a “scandal” as far as I am concerned, as it doesn’t necessarily diminish the essential profundity of what he experienced, and tried to teach, at all. Or maybe it does diminish it, but only for a traditionalist Christian, which I am not.
Bearing this in mind, is Jesus up there in heaven hearing prayers? Does he still love us members of the struggling human race? Well, from a Buddhist point of view, if he was fully enlightened, then probably not. He left the scene, and is no longer existing within the context of the delusion. But if he weren’t enlightened, which is probably what most Buddhists would be willing to allow anyway, then maybe. He could have become a powerful deva after his execution on the cross, in which case he could really be in heaven right now, possibly even beaming metta at us as we sit here. Who knows?
Although I have mentioned Gotama Buddha a few times during the course of this discussion, some Buddhist readers may wonder, maybe with some impatience, why I would bother to discuss Jesus at all. Well, aside from the possibility of becoming more bahussuta, or “having heard much” with regard to comparative religion, and of understanding one aspect of the Western mind a little better, there is also the situation than the Buddha himself is considered by some to be a Roman Catholic saint. He goes by the name of Saint Josephat (not Jehosephat, as in Jumping Jehosephat—just Josephat). His feast day is November 27th, and I’ve been told by a Roman Catholic priest that he has two churches dedicated to his honor—one in Sicily and the other, if I remember correctly, in southern France. The same Catholic priest told me that at a monastery in Germany in which each of the saints has his or her own shrine, the shrine to Saint Josephat has upon it a statue of the Buddha in meditation. So there is evidently a peculiar connection here between Jesus Christ and Gotama Buddha, or at least between the Pope and Gotama Buddha.
The way it happened was initially by Jataka stories, tales of the Buddha’s previous lives, becoming very popular in India and eventually being translated into Persian in the early Middle Ages. The Sanskrit term “bodhisattva” was rendered as “buddsaf.” When the Muslims conquered the area they liked the stories too, and had them translated into Arabic, in which “buddsaf” became “budasaf,” which eventually was corrupted into the name “Yudasaf,” this with regard to a virtuous prince in one of the tales. The stories, including the popular fable of Kitab Bilawhar wa-Yudasaf, traveled west along caravan routes until it reached Christian countries such as Greece. In Greek the name was further corrupted to Ioasaph, which, when inevitably translated into Latin in the 11th century, became Josaphatus, the English progenitor of Josaphat. As with the party game wherein one person whispers a story into another person’s ear, and then that person whispers it to another, and so on down a long line, so that the final version is laughably different from the original, the story of Barlaam and Josephat in Europe had little resemblance to the original Jataka story (which itself may have been a corruption of a yet earlier legend): The story eventually went that a certain King Abenner of India persecuted Christians. When astrologers predicted that his own son, Prince Josaphat, would become a Christian too, the King put him into a seclusion not so different from the seclusion Prince Siddhattha was put into by his own father in a more Buddhist legend. Eventually, though, Prince Josaphat met a Christian hermit, Saint Barlaam, who converted him to the holy faith. King Abenner himself eventually converted, handed over the kingdom to his son, and retired into a wilderness to be a religious hermit. Josaphat also abdicated after awhile, and went into the wilderness with his revered teacher Saint Barlaam. I’m not sure what the original Jataka story was even about. But the medieval Catholics were so impressed by the wisdom and saintliness of Josephat that he was considered to be a true Christian, and he was eventually canonized. He’s a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church also.
Unfortunately, however, neither great Christian church endorses the doctrine of rebirth, and the original story was not about the Buddha himself, but a former “incarnation.” If I were, say, a Baptist minister in a past life, that is not the same as saying that I myself am a Baptist minister. And if there is no rebirth at all, then all the more reason why I’m not a Baptist minister. So from a Christian point of view, which is what really is at issue here, the Buddha and Saint Josaphat were never really the same guy. It’s kind of a shame actually, since it would be nice to be able to call myself a Catholic monk: Brother Paññobhása of the Order of Saint Josephat (discalced).