When Jesus met Buddha
There was a fascinating article in Sunday's Boston Globe about the largely forgotten cross-influences of Buddhism and Christianity on each other along the old Silk Road.
In a widely publicized open letter to Italian politician Marcello Pera, Pope Benedict declared that "an inter-religious dialogue in the strict sense of the term is not possible." By all means, he said, we should hold conversations with other cultures, but not in a way that acknowledges other religions as equally valid. While the Vatican does not of course see the Buddha as a demon, it does fear the prospect of syncretism, the dilution of Christian truth in an unholy mixture with other faiths.
Beyond doubt, this view places Benedict in a strong tradition of Christianity as it has developed in Europe since Roman times. But there is another, ancient tradition, which suggests a very different course. Europe's is not the only version of the Christian faith, nor is it necessarily the oldest heir of the ancient church. For more than 1,000 years, other quite separate branches of the church established thriving communities across Asia, and in their sheer numbers, these churches were comparable to anything Europe could muster at the time. These Christian bodies traced their ancestry back not through Rome, but directly to the original Jesus movement of ancient Palestine. They moved across India, Central Asia, and China, showing no hesitation to share - and learn from - the other great religions of the East....
When Nestorian Christians were pressing across Central Asia during the sixth and seventh centuries, they met the missionaries and saints of an equally confident and expansionist religion: Mahayana Buddhism. Buddhists too wanted to take their saving message to the world, and launched great missions from India's monasteries and temples. In this diverse world, Buddhist and Christian monasteries were likely to stand side by side, as neighbors and even, sometimes, as collaborators. Some historians believe that Nestorian missionaries influenced the religious practices of the Buddhist religion then developing in Tibet. Monks spoke to monks.
In presenting their faith, Christians naturally used the cultural forms that would be familiar to Asians. They told their stories in the forms of sutras, verse patterns already made famous by Buddhist missionaries and teachers. A stunning collection of Jesus Sutras was found in caves at Dunhuang, in northwest China. Some Nestorian writings draw heavily on Buddhist ideas, as they translate prayers and Christian services in ways that would make sense to Asian readers. In some texts, the Christian phrase "angels and archangels and hosts of heaven" is translated into the language of buddhas and devas....
One story in particular suggests an almost shocking degree of collaboration between the faiths. In 782, the Indian Buddhist missionary Prajna arrived in Chang'an, bearing rich treasures of sutras and other scriptures. Unfortunately, these were written in Indian languages. He consulted the local Nestorian bishop, Adam, who had already translated parts of the Bible into Chinese. Together, Buddhist and Christian scholars worked amiably together for some years to translate seven copious volumes of Buddhist wisdom. Probably, Adam did this as much from intellectual curiosity as from ecumenical good will, and we can only guess about the conversations that would have ensued: Do you really care more about relieving suffering than atoning for sin? And your monks meditate like ours do?
These efforts bore fruit far beyond China. Other residents of Chang'an at this very time included Japanese monks, who took these very translations back with them to their homeland. In Japan, these works became the founding texts of the great Buddhist schools of the Middle Ages. All the famous movements of later Japanese history, including Zen, can be traced to one of those ancient schools and, ultimately - incredibly - to the work of a Christian bishop....
Check it out. It's worth the read.