I can recommend the documentary Jesus and Buddha (subtitled “Practicing Across Traditions”) with one significant caveat: the title is misleading. The film is not really about Jesus and Buddha. And it’s not about practicing across traditions either. While there is a lot of talk about the Buddha in the film, Jesus and his teachings hardly make an appearance—certainly not in any form that I think would be recognizable to the Christians I know.
The documentary features a series of testimonials from two Mertonesque Christians and a third participant who calls herself a Buddhist Christian. One interviewee captures the thesis of the film early on: “Buddhism enabled me to see things about Jesus that I could never have been able to see without Buddha.”
The delightful teacher Chung Hyun Kyung, the featured “Buddhist Christian,” was raised in a third-generation Christian Korean family and says that Buddhism spoke to her suffering when she was going through a painful divorce. (Shades of Pema Chödrön!) Chung Hyun’s Buddhist teacher told her, “Life is suffering; why do you think you’re so special?” At first she was angry, but the compassion of her teacher’s presence woke her up to the true meaning behind his words, which freed her from her fixation on herself and allowed her to relax. She then proceeded gratefully on the Buddhist path. I would have liked to hear something about what it means to be a Buddhist Christian. The Buddha—unlike Jesus—was fully a human being, not a deity. Some discussion about this paradox would have been helpful.
Father Robert Kennedy, one of the Mertonesque Christians, quotes Jesus: “We must die to our very self,” adding that it may seem “impossible or cruel. It’s only later that we realize . . . the ‘self’ that we cling to doesn’t exist.” Kennedy, it’s worth pointing out, studied with roshis Yamada, Maezumi and Glassman. Of Yamada Roshi, he says: “The personality of Yamada Roshi touched me deeply.” He follows this by commenting that it remains a mystery to him how the deep quality of Yamada’s presence forced him to question his original faith: “I can’t explain that.” I know what he’s talking about. Like many students of Buddhism, I’ve encountered in my teacher ineffable, living qualities of dignity, spaciousness, fearlessness and compassion that I’ve never found in any other person. These qualities can’t be transmitted through books alone.
Paul Knitter, a professor of theology profiled in the film, talks about his discovery—thanks to the Buddha—that “you are Christ himself.” True and liberating as such thoughts may be, the film never mentions or discusses how statements like this might not go over so well with some Christians. Even the soundtrack of the film feels stacked in one direction: serene “Zen” shakuhachi flute flows in the background behind the dialogue without a hint of a beatific Christian choir.
One problem I have with this film—as I have with a lot of presentations of the spiritual path—is its niceness. Anyone who has done a lot of time on the cushion knows that it is at times quite painful and terrifying to experience the nonexistence of self that is spoken of so much by the film’s interviewees.
If, like me, you’re a Jew who has been practicing and studying Buddhism for many years, you’ll likely kvetch about some things in this documentary. Then you’ll label that kvetching thinking, and go back to your breath. But if you want to hear testimonials from progressive Christians whose discovery of a nontheistic Jesus has revitalized their spiritual lives, this short documentary may be just the ticket for you.