Consider for a moment the differences between Christian and Buddhist iconography. The Buddha has spent centuries in cross-legged serenity, eyes closed, attention fixed inward, ready at any moment to slip into the contemplative oblivion of nirvana. All life is suffering, begins the Buddha’s catechism, and the goal of all right action is to escape its grip. For uncounted millions of devotees, the virtually oblivious Buddha has symbolized the goal of their most fervent quest – the transcendence of the finite and transitory world of woe (called “samsara”) through a titanic movement of inward detachment.

For just a few centuries less, Jesus has hung contorted upon his cross. “And the Logos became flesh,” says the oft-quoted Christian text, referring to this man of sorrows in all of his tear-stricken, pain-racked fleshiness. For yet other millions of devotees this broken figure has symbolized the essence of the Absolute—a love that empties itself eternally to embrace a suffering humanity.

On the surface, the cross-legged Buddha and the cross-stricken Christ suggest two radically different spiritual trajectories. The awakened Buddha cuts through the veil of pain with a piercing analysis of the human situation and leaves it behind. In an opposite movement, the humble Jesus is said to leave behind the transcendent world of deity and willingly immerse himself in the valley of death. Central in Buddhism is the doctrine of detachment by which the disciple follows in his master’s path by learning to dis-identify with the attachments that constitute the finite self and to dwell contemplatively in that interior place that transcends the traumatic transitoriness of mortal life. Central to Christianity is the doctrine of the Incarnation, in which the divine essence willingly attaches itself to the kaleidoscope of consciousness that is human personhood and comes to experience the cruelties and joys of a finite existence. For Siddhartha’s followers, suffering was the human predicament and salvation consisted in transcending it. For Christianity, a moral and ontological abyss between God and humankind was the dilemma, and salvation came through a tormented savior who willingly bridged it with an infinite embrace of the sorrows of finitude. What looked like a problem to Buddhism looked like the solution to Christianity.

From The Mirror of God: Christian Faith as Spiritual Practice—Lessons from Buddhism and Psychotherapy, © 2003 by James W. Jones. Reprinted with permission of Palgrave Macmillan.

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