My latest post on the Safe For Work Suicide Girls blog is up now. It's called "Jesus is the Reason for the Season?" Read it by clicking on the link.
I'm at my sister's house in Knoxville, Tennessee to celebrate Christmas. My sister is a Christian and so is her daughter Skylar. Her son is a Jew. Most of the rest of the family are committed agnostics. It's very confusing!
Back when Westerners first started encountering Buddhists it used to be the thing to do to show Zen Masters the Bible and ask them to comment about Jesus. There are a few stories like this still in circulation. One of them has someone reading some old Zen Master the parable about the lilies of the field. The Zen Master claps his hands and says something like, "This fellow is very close to Enlightenment!"
I remember someone asking Nishijima Roshi what he thought about Jesus. Nishijima said, "I think he was a historical person." Meaning he thought of Jesus as a figure from history and not as God incarnated in the flesh. Other than that he didn't have any opinions on the man or his teachings.
People aren't quite as interested in what younger Western Zen teachers think of Jesus. But I have a lot of interest in the subject myself. I've recently been reading a stack of books on the subject. While I was at Tassajara this summer I read Scripting Jesus: The Gospels in Rewrite. I've also gone through several of Bart D. Ehrman's books, the best so far being Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, though I have yet to read his latest, Jesus, Interrupted: Revealing the Hidden Contradictions in the Bible (And Why We Don't Know About Them). But it kinda looks like it's the same book. I also took The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition out of the library, which is pretty good, though I haven't finished it.
It seems to me that Jesus was, indeed, a historical person. The evidence isn't enough to absolutely prove his existence. But it's convincing enough. It's hard, though, to know just what exactly this person did or said. It seems unlikely he claimed to be divine, or of he did make such claims, they were much inflated after he died.
There are stories of someone similar to Jesus studying at a Buddhist monastery in Norther India during what would have been the "lost years." This is based mainly on evidence presented in Nicolas Notovitch's 1894 book The Unknown Life Of Jesus Christ. But lately the sources of those stories have been examined and found to be highly questionable.
Some other theories for the missing years even place Jesus in Japan studying Shintoism! Here's a nice webpage that lists most of the major theories.
The idea that Jesus was influenced by Buddhism is an interesting one. It's certainly possible he traveled to India or met Buddhist missionaries who were active in the Middle East during his lifetime. But there's no real compelling evidence, so all of that is just speculation, and probably will remain speculation forever. It's tasty brain candy. Nothing more.
A number of Buddhist authors have turned out books that compare the sayings of Christ and Buddha. Some want to claim Jesus studied Buddhism. Others just want to show how their messages are basically the same. I've leafed through a few of those, but they didn't look compelling enough for me to want to take them home.
I don't think the parallels between the sayings of Buddha and Christ suggest necessarily that Buddhism influenced Christ. To me it more suggests certain universal truths that underlie what we call "Buddhism" and what we call "Christianity." Both of these philosophies have grown and developed over the course of history to become something different from what their founders began.
But it's Christmas I'm in Tennessee to celebrate. I'm a vegetarian. I started being a vegetarian maybe 6 months to a year before I started doing zazen. I'd been a half-assed vegetarian for maybe 4 years before that, basically all through high school. YOU try being a full-assed vegetarian as a teenager in Wadsworth, Ohio in the early 80s!
None of the rest of my family is vegetarian and I'm in Knoxville, Tennessee, which is hardly the easiest place to go meat-free. But I'm sure I'll survive.
When I got into Zen, I started hearing all the counter arguments against vegetarianism. And there are a lot of them. The most compelling one I've heard recently is that conscious meat consumption is less environmentally destructive and can be personally healthier than the kind of willy-nilly vegetarianism most of us veggies practice.
To give just one example, a lot of vegetarians refuse to buy leather. I did for a long time. I'd go to places like Payless to get imitation leather shoes instead. Then I realized I was probably supporting child labor and sweatshops through those purchases.
I'm far too lazy to get as deeply into this kind of stuff as some folks do. But it's just one example of how a decision to be mindful of the suffering of animals can lead you to create more suffering among people.
Anyway, when I started hearing stories about Buddhist masters who weren't vegetarians, I asked my teachers, both Tim & Nishijima, if I ought to drop the vegetarianism stuff. Neither of them are vegetarians.
They both encouraged me to keep being a vegetarian. So I still am. I think it's a good habit. I would only advise vegetarians not to be too full of themselves about how much better we are. Of course, we are better. We just need to not be so full of ourselves over it! Because we may not be as angelic as we think.