He or Me

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there was a prince who was sheltered all his life from the outside world.  His father the King sought to protect him from the suffering and pain he might encounter, hoping that would be enough to insure his son would inherit his throne.  Prophets had come to him and predicted that the young prince would either one day become a great king or a great spiritual leader and the king wanted his son to follow him on the throne.  So he gave his son everything any man would want and more.  But the son became more and more curious about what was on the other side of the wall and one day he decided to go and explore.  He took his charioteer, Channa, with him and together they rode through the countryside.  As they were riding, they encountered an old man.  The prince was shocked, having never seen an elderly person before and he asked his charioteer, “Is this the fate of all people?”  “Yes,” Channa replied.  “All people suffer from aging.”  The prince had much to think about.  On their second journey, they encountered a man who was ill and sickly.  The prince asked his charioteer again, “Is this the fate of all people?”  “Yes,” Channa replied.  “All people suffer illness.”  And again, the prince had much to think about.  On their third journey, the prince saw a funeral procession.  It was the first time he had looked upon the body of a person who had died and he asked his charioteer, “Is this the fate of all people?”  And Channa replied, “Yes, all people eventually suffer from death.”  This created a lot of angst in the prince and he began contemplating the meaning of all this suffering.  He went out once more with his charioteer and on the way they encountered an ascetic monk who seemed quite at peace with the world and it gave the young prince hope.  He decided to leave his life of luxury and pursue the answers that would bring him the peace he saw in this monk and eventually became the great spiritual leader the prophets had predicted.

It sounds like a fairy tale, but this is the traditional story of how the Buddha began his quest.

Siddhartha Gautama was a great spiritual leader born about 500 years before Christ.  He was the son of a wealthy man, most say he was a king or at the very least a tribal leader.  But in the caste system of his day, Siddhartha was born into the warrior class, ranked just below the priests and holy men and in comparison he indeed led a life of luxury.  However, after venturing out among the people, Siddhartha was disturbed by the suffering he saw and felt compelled to find the answers to some of the questions we still seek today.  Why is there suffering in the world?  What purpose does it serve if any?  And so on the night of his son’s birth, he gave his newborn the name Rahula (which means “fettered”) and left his family for his spiritual quest.  He named him Rahula because he felt his son would become an attachment that would prevent him from understanding suffering.  Those journeys in the story that propelled him on his quest are called the Four Sights[1] and they were the beginning of what would eventually become Buddhism.  One common misconception is that the Buddha is worshipped by Buddhists.  He is not.  He is revered for his work and for his insight and he is thought to be a spiritual model for his followers, but he is not worshipped.  Buddhists do not worship anyone or anything.  It’s part of the centrality of their belief system.  Buddhism is the only major religion that is non-theistic meaning they neither confirm or deny the existence of God.  Buddhism is the only major religion that is non-theistic meaning they neither confirm or deny the existence of God.  Whether or not God exists is outside the scope of Buddhism because in the Buddhist scheme of things God doesn’t matter.   There may be a God, there may not be a God, but God has nothing to do with enlightenment.  Enlightenment comes from within one’s self. 

Despite their differences, Buddhism and Christianity share a lot in common.[2]

The Buddhist way of life is very similar to the Christian way of life.  They believe you shouldn’t lie, cheat, or steal; you shouldn’t covet what someone else has; and you shouldn’t take a life.  They believe you should be compassionate and kind.  That you should think before you speak to avoid saying something you would regret.  They believe human beings become too attached to the things of this world – money, fame, power, objects – and that by ridding ourselves of these things we can become the persons we were meant to be.  But there are some very big fundamental differences as well as we will see in our passage this morning.  This is the story of the rich man who comes to Jesus and asks him, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”  And Jesus responds by saying he must keep the commandments.  And the man says, “All these I have kept.  What do I still lack?”  And then Jesus responds with what we hear in our passage today. 

Love this image from 2words.co about this parable

21 Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

22 When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth.

23 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven. 24 Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

25 When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished and asked, “Who then can be saved?”

26 Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

27 Peter answered him, “We have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?”

28 Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. 29 And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife[e] or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30 But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”

This is the key phrase for us this morning and it’s what differentiates us the most from our Buddhist friends.  Humanity is not able to save itself.  We rely on the grace of God through the actions of Jesus Christ.  Buddhists believe that by meditation, following a series of precepts and paths, you can attain enlightenment by yourself and be free of the eternal cycle of samsara – life, death, and rebirth.  Christianity focuses on “He” and Buddhism focuses on “me.” Christianity focuses on “He” and Buddhism focuses on “me.”  In this passage, there is much that both religions would agree on.  Jesus tells the man to sell his possessions and give it to the poor.  He implies that it is his attachment to these material things that is holding him back and the Buddha would agree.  The Buddha would say that it is the attachment to things – all things – that holds us back.  When Jesus says that everyone who has left houses, family, and fields for the sake of Christ will receive a hundred times as much, the Buddha would agree, again saying that our attachments are what get in the way.  But in the way of what?  For us as Christians, the material things of this world keep us from really understanding God, and we see this as an essential part of our faith lives.  We believe as we grow closer to God, we are better able to live to our potential and be the kind of people God hoped for.  It’s not that God wants us to abandon our family and friends.  On the contrary, God calls us to live in community.  But in this passage, God is warning us that there will be many obstacles in life as we journey in faith and if we are unwilling to leave them behind, we’ll never receive the full reward that God has in store for us.  Not as punishment, but simply because there will always be a part of us that relies on something other than God.  For the Buddhist, the things of this world, ALL things including family and friends, can be impediments to our journey toward enlightenment.  Our fallacy, according to the Buddhist tradition, is that our faith on anything is false because all things are transient.  God.  The world.  Even the concept of “you.”  “You” do not exist.  “You” are simply a consciousness residing in a body that has experienced the world in a certain way based on your previous life experience.  But there is no real “you” out there.  Enlightenment comes from learning these things and accepting them as part of life.  Christians and Buddhists hold something in common.  We are both searching for the truth.  We are both searching for the Truth.  But we see truth very differently. Buddhists believe that the only truth is impermanence.  Impermanence.  That nothing lasts forever.  But isn’t a belief in the permanence of impermanence itself a contradiction?  Christians, however, believe that the truth lies in Jesus Christ who is the “same yesterday, today, and forever.”  We believe that God is eternal.  Many people believe that Christianity and Buddhism are very much alike, but our concepts of the world are very different. Buddhists believe in self-reliance.  Christians believe in reliance on God.

Cartoon from The Miami Herald

Maybe part of the appeal of Buddhism, especially in America is the idea we can do it ourselves.

There’s an element of control that you are the master of your own destiny, which appeals to people.  We like to feel in control.  We like to feel like we determine what happens to us despite the changes that occur in everyday life.  We have a hard time giving that up, to let go and to accept the fact that a great many things are out of our control.  We struggle with change.  We don’t like to rely on others.  And it’s hard for many of us to admit that we need help or that we cannot do it alone.  Think about all of the idioms we use in our lives.  “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.”  “Look out for #1.”  “To the victor goes the spoils.”  And the erroneous, “God helps those who help themselves.”  But we in fact believe the opposite.  We believe Christ came to save those who needed it the most.  He came for the lost, the sinners, and the hopeless.  And we thank God everyday for that.  Because we are those people.  We are the ones who need God.  And knowing God is in control and that God has a plan for our lives gives us a peace and joy that can only come from Him.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_sights – this is only one of many websites with the retelling of this ages old story.  A version of it appears in Adam Hamilton’s book Christianity and World Religions

[2] Other than Adam Hamilton’s book Christianity and World Religions some websites that have produced useful background information are www.buddha101.com, www.buddhanet.net, and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gautama_Buddha

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