Reviews > Culture

Buddhism's suffering saviors

Culture

Issue: "Lord of the Rings," Dec. 20, 2003

It also seems that Christianity affected Buddhism. Early Buddhism was for monks only, and the classic goal was to achieve nirvana-union with the ultimate cosmic force -through ascetic self-effort based on monastic vows. Buddhists were to detach themselves from sensual and impure desires, replace those with a meditative state of concentration and joy, and become indifferent to everything, moving beyond any sense of satisfaction, pain, or serenity.

That appealed to some intellectuals, but most people were not ready to leave behind their lives and their loves. Besides, even those who made spiritual progress were supposed to realize that how far they could go toward nirvana would depend on what had transpired in previous lives-and even a person who grasped Buddhist truth would still need seven rebirths. This faith had limited appeal.

And yet, some Buddhists at around a.d. 100 began emphasizing the concept of bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who could have attained nirvana but purposefully chose to put it off in order to help others reach nirvana far more quickly than they otherwise would. Bodhisattvas could do that because they supposedly had so much accumulated merit that they could give great amounts to others and thus let them move up.

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Some Buddhists stuck with classic Buddhism, but others said that bodhisattvas take vows such as as this one: "I take upon myself ... the deeds of all beings ... I take their suffering upon me ... I give myself in exchange. I redeem the universe ... from the realm of death." A.L. Basham, in The Wonder That Was India, a standard text, noted that "the idea of the Suffering Savior might have existed in some form in the Middle East before Christianity, but features like this are not attested in Buddhism until after the beginning of the Christian era. The Suffering Bodhisattva so closely resembles the Christian conception of the God who gives his life as a ransom for many that we cannot dismiss the possibility that the doctrine was borrowed by Buddhism from Christianity."

"Cannot dismiss the possibility"-but can't prove it either. Other historians, such as Romila Tharpar, have said the same. The bodhisattva concept has some obvious flaws, one being that a bodhisattva is only an imagined savior, not a real person like Jesus who lived at a specific time. But the popularity of the doctrine, now upheld by a majority of Buddhists, may be one more indication of how Christ changed everything.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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