The Nazarene and Prince Siddhartha

What are the subjects we have all been told to avoid at cocktail parties (or wine tastings, take your pick): religion and politics, right? Perhaps this explains the predominance of these subjects in the blogosphere. It’s difficult to choose the more inflammatory of the two. On the one hand, we have a group of angry conservatives who are extremely fired up right now about such topics as universal healthcare and the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate. On the other hand, mega churches are on the rise, Muslims are fighting for their beliefs and the preservation of their culture, Jews remain justifiably incredulous and outraged by Holocaust deniers and fundamentalist terrorists, and Buddhists just want us all to get along.My intention is decidedly anti-inflammatory. I believe that interfaith ministry and education could one day play a major role in the reintroduction of religious discussions into party circuits everywhere. Wouldn’t that be cool in a Star Trek sort of way? Klingons, Vulcans and Humans working together for the good of the Federation…Until that future day dawns, I’d like to presently share some of my own spiritual inclinations and religious exploration.I was raised in a Protestant family in a predominantly Christian part of the world. I grew up around a good number of Christian fundamentalists and also a fair share of Reformers whose beliefs were often referred to as “watered-down”. Fortunately, the Bible thumpers kept their distance for the most part and I was raised on run-of-the-mill Sunday school lessons. I knew a fair number of Reformed Jews as well, and had one Hindu friend. That sums up my religious education until reaching college.The Eastern Philosophy course I took during the 1992 Summer Session was a true turning point in my life. I was fascinated by reading some of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, and particularly the teachings of one Prince Siddhartha Gautama, more correctly referred to as Buddha. While I had always feared and disdained fundamentalist religion in any form, I had believed in the divinity of Christ since early childhood. The Eastern spiritual teachings I read in college echoed much of what I loved about the teachings of Jesus. I went through one short phase where I actually believed that Krishna and Jesus were one and the same. I wondered if Jesus and Buddha may not have both been divine incarnations sent to our planet in different geographical locations and historical periods. I was filled with joy to learn that people around the world, from all generations, had been striving towards similar spiritual goals and I truly felt less isolated in my spiritual search.Obviously, Comparative Religion is its own rich subject matter and many a learned individual has written on the similarities between Buddha and Jesus. Instead of an attempt to reinvent the wheel on a well documented scholarly subject, this is a communication from my heart on what these two figures have imparted to me, and an affirmation of my belief that they hold valuable teachings for all of us.My earliest remembered experiences of Jesus are saying my bedtime prayers at night, “thank you for my parents, thank you for my toys, thank you for Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny” and singing, “Jesus loves me this I know”. As a toddler, I thought it sounded like happy news and I believed it. When I found out that Santa, the Bunny and Tooth Fairy did not exist, I prayed, “Jesus, I still have you”. As my childhood progressed, I did read my Bible lessons and received confirmation as a Christian at the age of 13. I was then allowed to take Communion. One of my parents went through a revival phase during my early adolescence, so I also got to enjoy singing modern praise songs that included a full band and tambourines for all. On Sundays, we would sing songs to God for an hour and dancing was encouraged. Some people would be embarrassed by this, but I have to say that I truly enjoyed it! I did my fair share of Bible reading and usually I would skip straight to the words written in red in the New Testament, which for those who may not know, are the words of Jesus himself as transcribed by his disciples. I contemplated those words and tried to get explanations to the parables. I prayed before taking tests in school and I found prayer to be a generally useful outlet to relax at bedtime, or in any time of crisis. I was a true believer. Some of my favorite verses were, “Seek and ye shall find” and “I can do anything through Christ who strengthens me”. I felt emboldened by my faith.In high school, in college, and certainly in adulthood, I learned of the many horrible atrocities committed throughout history in the name of Jesus. I learned about the evangelicals who smeared his name through their public displays of extramarital affairs, drug use, narcissism and many other things most of us would consider vices. I learned about the hatred of many Christians towards homosexuals. I met some homosexual Christians who were able to teach me a lot about unconditional love and what a truly radical approach Jesus did have to ancient Jewish law and Old Testament beliefs and practices. I met many other Jews and Muslims and heard their perspectives on Jesus and how he was perceived by those from other faiths. I met Buddhists who claimed to respect the teachings of Jesus and viewed him as a brother to Buddha.With time, and with the pressures of work and then child-rearing, faith took a back seat in my life. I recently experienced what could be called a spiritual revival after some Jewish friends recommended that I read and listen to the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, a revered Buddhist teacher. I then remembered that my father had given me the book, “Living Buddha, Living Christ” during my early adult years. Thich Nhat Hanh is a blessed soul who reignited my faith in the Divine and who re-energized my life. I then re-read the now classic, “Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying” by Sogyal Rinpoche. I re-read the Bhagavad Gita and I started reading the Bible again. I signed up for daily scripture through e-mail.After searching online, I found meditation classes that were offered in my area through the Kadampa Buddhist Center, an affiliate of the worldwide New Kadampa Tradition. I read The Meditation Handbook written by Geshe Kelsang Gyatso. For months, I meditated daily. I saw dramatic changes in my life, and with every new Buddhist teaching, I was able to make a new connection with Jesus. I finally started to understand some of those mysterious parables! So inspired was I by my newfound Buddhist meditation practice that I attended an actual Buddhist retreat at a temple in Glen Spey, New York.My visit to that Buddhist temple, as ironic as it may sound, finally convinced me that although I do have immense respect for Buddha, Jesus is my true spiritual master. After a day spent in that temple, singing, praying and listening to the teachings of peaceful Buddhist monks, I walked away feeling oddly empty. I am not referring to the blissful emptiness that Buddhists wish to achieve. I felt emotionally flat to the point of slight physical discomfort. Nothing felt right to me. I wandered out of the temple and away from the common dining tent where I was meant to enjoy dinner. I got into my car and experienced slight nausea. I couldn’t understand these feelings because during my time in the temple, I had been inspired by the beautiful statue of Buddha Shakyamuni and the other Buddhist deities. I had particularly enjoyed the singing and was pleased with myself at having committed many of the prayers to memory before the retreat. When I started my car and the radio came on, I heard a Phil Collins song, beginning to end: “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away”. I listened to each word while driving, as if transfixed. Tears poured down my face. For the first time in many years, I felt the presence of the one that I only know to call Jesus Christ. I felt that he was singing directly to me. I went back to my hotel, after picking up a giant cheeseburger and a bottle of wine, and packed up my belongings. I decided to skip the remainder of the retreat and I drove home that night. Since that time, when I meditate, I try to clear my mind first, and then I try to invite Jesus to sit with me for a little while. I have also asked him to answer my questions in dreams which I believe he has done.As a quick aside, I’d like to point out that at two other times in my life I felt that Jesus was singing directly to me in a pop song. The first time was after experiencing guilt following an encounter with some Evangelical Christian Fundamentalists. The song was, “I Love You Just the Way You Are”. You know, the one that makes you sing, “Don’t go changin’!” The second musical message was the Stevie Wonder song, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” after recovering from an illness and while going through a divorce. As with the Phil Collins song, I immediately felt a spiritual presence and the tears flowed freely!All in all, I feel that my spiritual progression over the past few years has been healing and transformative. I have experienced peaks and valleys, lulls and spurts. I now have a stronger sense of spiritual identity than I ever have, as I believe that our childhood religious beliefs are, on balance, more imposed than they are realized.I will continue to read, contemplate and benefit from the teachings of Buddha for the remainder of my life, so long as I retain my mental faculties. From Buddha, I think we can learn to gain mastery over anger, jealousy, obsessions, and many other forms of harmful attachments. Buddha can peacefully guide us to realize our interconnectedness and our collective progression on this Earth as a group of souls.Jesus will always be the one to whom I say, “Jesus, I still have you”. When I die, hopefully I will hold the hand of one of my loved ones and also feel the presence of Jesus leading me into the mystery that lies beyond our physical lives. Jesus offers to all of us the unique lesson of Grace and of strength perfected through weakness. Like Buddha, Jesus has a unique approach to illness. He said of many an illness that the purpose was not to destroy the body but to glorify God. When the apostle Paul asked Jesus for healing, Jesus did not heal him but answered instead, “My Grace is sufficient for you, for strength is perfected in weakness”. Jesus had a prostitute as a close friend and confidante. Jesus spoke to many women in his day and showed love and acceptance to a myriad of “sinners”. He was called out by the religious leaders of his day for his disdain of the law. He was said to have healed on the Sabbath. He asked one man to come and follow him, quite controversially on the day that this man was to bury his father. He said, “Let the dead bury their own dead”. Unlike Buddha, Jesus was reported to have shown anger on several occasions. He once cursed a fig tree because it had no fruit on it at the time. He once turned tables upside down in the temple in a fit of anger because he believed that God’s sacred place was not an appropriate venue for business transactions. Similarly to Buddha, Jesus was a radical when placed in the historical context of his generation. Perhaps his most radical quote was, “Before Abraham was, I am”.While I respect and admire any person attempting to follow a spiritual path, I identify with the voice of that radical, Jesus of Nazareth. I may not go to a church for a while. I do drink. I do swear, on occasion, and I have always loved to dance. I don’t have much use for Christian fundamentalism, or any religious fundamentalism for that matter. What I know that I know that I know, is that as Jesus says, “my sheep hear my voice” and I can proudly yell BAAAAA from my rooftop tonight or any night! Good night! And G-d Bless!

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