Recently an intelligent and thoughtful person of my acquaintance posted on Facebook about some new and exciting connection between science and spirituality. I followed the link to this wondrous new thing, and it took me to a page about … Edgar Cayce?
You young folks may not have heard of him, but many people — usually the same people who took chain letters seriously — still believed in Edgar Cayce (1877-1945) when I was a young ‘un. Cayce was, basically, an upscale circus sideshow act. His shtick was to go into trances where he issued predictions for the future . Be advised that someday the earth’s poles will shift to somewhere along the equator. And 1933 will be a great year for the economy! Oh, wait …
I take it Cayce is making something of a comeback in New Age circles. Or perhaps he never really left. So much of what he went on about, such as the healing properties of crystals, out-of-body experiences, channeling knowledge from the dead and legends about the Lost Continent of Atlantis was the stuff 1960s and 1970s-era New Age was made of.
It can be argued that maybe crystals do have healing properties, and maybe someday we’ll find the remains of the Lost Continent of Atlantis. OK. But what would that have to do with spirituality? A grab bag of random beliefs is not a path, or a process, no matter how much those beliefs tickle our imagination.
Beliefs about mysterious happenings, ancient and recent, are shiny, sparkly things that are hard to ignore. I don’t know why that’s true. In Rethinking Religion I wrote a chapter called “True Believers and Mass Movements” that discusses why people cling so tightly to beliefs, including ridiculous ones, and can’t be talked out of them.
Our brains are wired to look for connections and meaning, and so we see connections and meaning whether they are there or not. Our experiences are framed by our personal, mythical (and usually self-flattering) narratives, not data. We feel emotions and impulses, generated in the subconscious, that we cannot explain, so we make up stories to explain them. We create our stories from our biases, however, not from objective fact, and that’s how we interpret the world. And we all do this, religious or not.
But why some fantastical stories are more shiny and sparkly than others, I can’t say.
One of the most persistent shiny, sparkly stories that people take seriously is that Jesus studied Buddhism in Tibet, or maybe China, or maybe India, during the years of his youth that were not recorded in the Bible. Possible?
James Ford discusses the origins of the Jesus-in-Tibet story on his blog, Monkey Mind. In the late 19th century a book titled The Life of Saint Issa was claimed to have been found in a monastery in Tibet. The book was about the life of Jesus — Saint Issa — and claimed that from the ages of 13 to 29 Jesus had gone off to India to study religions. He studied with the Jains and with the Hindus, but apparently he wasn’t satisfied until he found the Buddhists, and he spent his last six years before returning home learning the Pali Canon. And for many reasons that James Ford presents on his blog, the book clearly is a work of fiction.
Over the years I’ve run into a lot of people who fervently believe that Jesus studied Buddhism. The standard arguments for this claim are (a) Jesus taught things he could only have learned from Buddhism; and (b) some variation of the Life of Saint Issa story — somebody found a book or a scroll or an engraving in some temple or monastery, usually in Tibet or India, that proved Jesus had been there. A third argument that pops up occasionally is that some of Jesus’ parables were taken from older Buddhist sutras.
None of these claims holds water. In order:
First, if we assume Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels accurately reflect what he taught — and if they don’t, I don’t know what else might — there’s nothing in there that he only could have gotten from Buddhism. As James Ford (Unitarian Universalist minister, Zen priest and lineage holder, MA in religion) says,
While it would be an absolute delight for me to learn that Jesus studied Buddhism, the fact remains there was nothing in his teachings, as best a cool read of the normative texts give us, that wasn’t already contained within the Judaism of his day. Well, okay, that very late text John does offer a non-traditionally Jewish Jesus, but even that Jesus is easily contained with a rather more boring and obviously already there gnostic influence or reaction.
Indeed, the one incontrovertible thing you can say about Jesus is that he was a monotheist, through and through. Even a little Buddhist influence would have muted that, I think.
Second, the rumored archeological evidence of Jesus’ travels in the Much Further East can never be traced back to anything real. And as far as Tibet is concerned, Buddhism didn’t reach Tibet until the 7th century CE. Jesus would have had to wait.
One of the most inventive variations on the Jesus-in-Tibet story I ever heard was that the Three Wise Men were Tibetan monks who declared that Jesus was a reborn high lama. Not only were there no Tibetan Buddhists in Jesus’ day; the tradition of identifying the rebirths of high lamas didn’t begin until the 12th century.
Third, there are a few places in Buddhist scripture and commentary that seem to resemble something in the Gospels (such as the prodigal son story from the Lotus Sutra), but in every example I know of the Buddhist text was written at least a century or two after the life of Christ (including the Lotus Sutra).
There may have been some scriptural cross-pollination going on, but remember, the Silk Road was wide open. Merchants were traveling from the Far East to the Roman Empire all the time, and some of those routes went through places where early Christians lived.
For that matter, if Jesus had been so all-fired eager to study Buddhism, he only had to go as far as present-day Afghanistan. That was a Buddhist kingdom in his day. But I see no reason to think he did.
Postscript: Someone once asked Edgar Cayce, who was in a trance, if a reincarnation of Jesus was influential in the development of Buddhism and other religions. The answer, which you can read yourself, was word salad.