Houston, we have a problem. Don’t worry. Your lunar landing gear is just fine; you’re not going to die. But you just might be imposing your interpretive categories on others in ways that don’t fit. While that won’t kill you, it does make you a bit of a jerk.
I’m talking, of course, about how we think of the Buddha, here.
In the west, we got a bug up our collective butt a number of years ago (about 200), namely, that any and all religious/spiritual leaders are revelations of God. If someone said something with a mediocre amount of wisdom, we slapped a UPS label on them and sent them straight to Ultimate Reality (an academic’s very uninteresting way in which to talk about God), where they were obviously from in the first place. Hence, it’s not difficult to see why we’d do the same with the Buddha: he’s kinda boss. But he ain’t Christian, and I think that our interpretation of him as a revelation of God stems from just that.
You see, this kind of thinking actually depends on a Trinitarian misconstrual called Spirit Christology. In spirit Christology, we take a good look at Jesus and, with all the old dead Mediterraneans of Christianity’s first years, we affirm him divine. We just won’t affirm Christ to be divine in any unique way; we simply say that Jesus had, for instance, a greater “awareness” of the divine, more God consciousness, which allowed him to then lead a ragtag but plucky group of disciples who would manage to take the bridge on the Rhine despite the odds against them.
I think I’m mixing stories here. Sorry.
What gives Christ this consciousness? The connectivity between God and world, which we call Spirit. Christ’s divinity depends on the Spirit and the Spirit’s manifestation of itself to Christ, but it doesn not depend on Christ’s very being as orthodox Christianity has affirmed.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander, and the gosling—and, maybe, even the geezer. According to Spirit Christology, Jesus is divine because the Spirit of God expresses itself to him. He’s a revelation of God because the Spirit expresses itself to him, and then he talks about God. Such a logic implies that any religious leader can be the same, especially the Buddha for us today. So we take the Buddha to be a Jesus-like figure who reveals to us something about God, which is obviously pot-based at least if I consider most of the persons I know who claim to think of Buddhism in this way. Here’s where the problem begins to emerge.
Now, I think there are awesome folks in religions other than my own whose divine spark and good will I will affirm in a heartbeat. The problem is that the only vocabulary we use to think of what “awesome” means is to convey it in the terms we’re most familiar with: revelatory and Christian. That’s totally fine if you own it. The Catholic Church does just this, proclaiming Christ the Truth and all other truths within other religions derivative truths, pointing back to Christ. You see, we don’t buy this crap about spirit Christology but rather proclaim Jesus the final and definitive revelation of God, and so we own our own beliefs in Catholic primacy like Timberlake owns his sexiness. To be totally honest, I think this is what any self-confessing and honest religiosity does: it believes itself to have a primary Truth and others to have truths-on-the-way.
But if you’re not willing to own your implied belief in your primacy, then don’t apply the idea to the Buddha, at least if you take the Buddha seriously in his own terms.
You see, when a young spiritual seeker approaches Buddha as the Buddha’s meditating, the seeker asks the Buddha whether there’s a God or whether there’s not a God, for all practical purposes. The Buddha remains silent in front of the spiritual seeker’s question. The seeker then asks the Buddha whether he prefers surf or turf, in light of which the Buddha also stays silent. The seeker leaves frustrated, to be sure, but the Buddha expresses to his disciples that he had compassion on the young man. Why?
The Buddha wants to free you from all desires and the attachments you develop through them, be these connected to Cards against Humanity or bourbon-soaked onion rings. He especially wants to free you from what we take to be the source of all desire and that in which all desires claim to find fulfillment: God. (If you want to learn more, check out chapter 6, “Leave the Buddhists Alone, Already” of my book The Homebrewed Christianity Guide to God.) Accordingly, the Buddha wasn’t willing to answer the young disciple’s question because he didn’t want to attach him to the idea of God, which the Buddha had detached himself. He didn’t want to attach him to pointless questions and impractical conversations, which is how the Buddha seems to think of questions about God.
In other words, the Buddha sees no point in your trying to say that he is or is not a revelation of God because your very attachment to God is part of the problem. So, let’s give the wise man his due and refrain from too categorically pressing this Christian category upon him and claiming him a revelation of the divine. Let him remain free from your spirit Christology-induced desires.