Monday, January 9, 2012

David Marshall: "Buddha Walks the Silk Road"

I have three items for my write-up today on Chapter 7 of David Marshall’s True Son of Heaven: How Jesus Fulfills the Chinese Culture. This chapter is entitled “Buddha Walks the Silk Road”.

1. On page 82, Marshall critiques the Buddhist belief in reincarnation: “Buddha didn’t want to believe in rebirth. In [the movie Little Buddha], he called it a ‘curse.’ And of course, Buddha was right. Life has meaning as a story. But what if after every chapter, you forget the chapter you just finished? What if (to use another Little Buddha example) you make on false move and spend 500 lives as a goat? If the Asian view of reincarnation is correct, this world is like a slope in hell up which we each push our boulder, each time to have it crash down on us again.”

I agree with Marshall’s critique. But is the Christian doctrine of eternal torment in hell that much better? One problem I have with hell is that, as Marshall notes, life is a story. It just does not make sense to me for a person to live and to grow and to learn lessons and to love and to be loved and to suffer, and then to die and go to hell just because he failed to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Savior before his death. The story sounds incongruous, to say the least. Some people I know who believe in reincarnation (and these are not Easterners, but people from the West) think that reincarnation makes sense because it gives us opportunities to learn lessons that we may not have learned in a previous lifetime. I wonder how efficacious the lesson would be, though, if we cannot even remember the previous lifetimes, or even this lifetime after we die and become something else. But perhaps my Western friends who believe in reincarnation would respond that the lesson is still inside of us, even if we don’t remember the exact details of how we learned it, or what the lesson was.

2. On pages 87-90, Marshall critiques Buddhism because it undermines family bonds. After all, Buddhism began when Siddhartha left behind his family to seek Enlightenment! On page 89, Marshall comments on another scene in Little Buddha: “To kill desire for spiritual fellowship with beings who are external to ourselves and different is to kill our humanity. It is indeed like giving our children over to an ogre. Yet, in another scene this same monk showed how even trained Buddhists have too much of the image of God on their souls to fully give their hearts to the ogre called ‘detachment.’ The Old Master died and was buried, his successor found. The American boy was ready to go home. The Tibetan monk who brought him to India from America choked back tears as he said goodbye, saying to the boy’s father, ‘I’m afraid I’m not a very good example of Buddhist detachment.’”

Some of you reading this who did not see the movie may wonder what is going on. I won’t summarize the movie in this post, but you can read about it here. Essentially, the point that Marshall is making is that Buddhism promotes emotional detachment from friends and family, since attachment is what leads to suffering, but that even some Buddhists feel sad when somebody close to them dies, and that is because they have the image of God on their souls. I like Marshall’s appeal to the image of God—-the notion that none of us is far from knowing about God’s goodness, on some level, since God’s image is upon us. But what about the things in the Bible that offend people’s moral sensitivities—-the slaughter of women and children in the Conquest, for example? And, speaking of detachment, what about Jesus’ exhortations to his disciples to hate or to leave their families (Mark 10:29; Luke 14:26)?

I don’t think that Jesus in the Gospels was against family, in an overall sense. He raised a man from the dead and restored him to his mother (Luke 7:12-15). He told someone from whom he exorcised demons to go home and to tell his friends what God has done for him (Mark 5:19). He criticized Pharisees for dishonoring their parents (Mark 7), as well as lambasted divorce while presenting marriage as a life-long bond that no man can put asunder (Matthew 19).

Moreover, one reason that Jesus believed that the disciples should prefer him over their families was that he knew that many of them would be placed in a situation where they would have to choose, for families would be hostile towards Christianity and would even persecute it (Matthew 10:36; Luke 12:53). But it also appears to be the case that the disciples were expected to leave behind their families and to travel with Jesus. Jesus praises the disciples for doing so in Luke 14:26. When a man wants to follow Jesus but asks that he first be allowed to say farewell to his family, Jesus likens that to putting one’s hands to the plow and looking back. Perhaps Jesus was afraid that the family would persuade the man not to follow Jesus. Or maybe Jesus thought that the apocalypse was so urgent that there wasn’t time to dilly-dally by saying good-bye to one’s family. In any case, there is a sense in which Jesus promoted a sense of detachment from family, even though that’s far from being the whole story, for Jesus also affirmed family-ties—-in his healing ministry, in his teaching, in his example (at times), etc.

3. On page 85, Marshall talks about how the Taiwan Chinese have adapted Buddhism to their culture: “Taiwan Chinese have more temples per capita than anyone else in the world. Most Taiwanese answered my survey by telling me they went to the temples and believed in Buddhism. They had positive feelings toward Siddhartha: ‘With great compassion he saves people who are in distress.’ ‘(He was) a person who loved people.’ But, when asked the purpose of life, few if any said ‘to escape suffering’ to ‘to attain detachment.’ Almost no one believed in reincarnation. The only one of the Four Noble truths that seemed to have stuck in most minds was the idea of right conduct, thought and attitude, which in any case Chinese believed long before Buddhism came to China. If I were to pick an antonym for what the vast majority of Chinese really think, it might be ‘Buddhism.’”

Buddha promoted detachment as a way to alleviate suffering, which is consistent with monasticism. But many Chinese like marriage and family and happiness and prosperity, or fu. As a result, they have adapted Buddhism to their culture. This reminds me of what one of my commenters, Looney Fundamentalist, said under my post, “David Marshall: “The Pursuit of Happiness”", after I talked about Marshall’s statement that Buddhism is opposed to desire. Looney has Chinese relatives and lives in Taiwan, and he said the following:

“With all my Chinese relatives, the notes on the Eastern religions always bring in a disconnect. I had listened to several lectures on this subject recently from a western professor that reinforced this. The only thing I have ever heard prayed for by Buddhists is health, wealth and good grades. i.e. the prosperity gospel on steroids.”

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