The publisher of my new book Earth is a School is in the process of arranging some potential radio interviews on spiritual channels to promote it. To support this I was asked to provide a list of talking points, and some of the programme hosts have queried my belief that Jesus Christ stands above all other spiritual teachers and that both his work and his person are qualitatively different to anything that went before, or has come after for that matter. Now, I think of myself as a Christian but I understand and can sympathise with this position. I have almost (though never completely) shared it myself in the past. It is very reasonable. The spiritual is the spiritual, is it not? Truth is truth. There can only be one truth, especially if we are talking about mystical realisation.
Well, yes and no. There is, of course, only one Truth but more and more of it can be unveiled. This is what infinite and eternal means. I realise that many would say that the Buddha went beyond all veils, penetrated to the unborn, undying absolute behind the world of relativities and I don't argue with that, but did he lose something in the process? Did he lose his human personality? The fact is that before Jesus all the great sages (and note they were sages not saints) taught that God, spirit, whatever it was, could only be attained by complete detachment from phenomenal being. The resulting state of spiritual realisation brought compassion but it did not bring love for it effectively rejected the individual for the universal. Love needs individuals. It is meaningless in terms of Nirvana. Despite what you might have been told, love is not possible for those who seek liberation for what is liberation if not liberation from identification with the self and not just my self but anyone else's self?
Before the Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension the serious spiritual goal was Nirvana, to escape matter completely, but Christ healed the split between Heaven and Earth, spirit and matter, being and the phenomenal world, and enabled a loving marriage between them rather than a divorce. He returned the creation (potentially for we, individual souls, still have to accept his offer) to what it would have been like before the Fall. The idea of the Fall, by the way, exists in Buddhism too though it is not known by that name. But its effects are what prompted Siddhartha to go on his journey, causing him to abandon his wife and child, an action that rather brings out the difference between the two saviours. It is symbolic of his renunciation of the world but it must also be regarded as wrong from the point of view that sees the personal, and therefore personal responsibility, as real.
People can be confused by the assertion that Christ goes further and reveals something more than any other teacher by the fact that most of his teachings are not really that different to those of other spiritual teachers. But why would they be? He did not come to destroy the law or the prophets but to fulfil them. There are, however, some significant differences. For example, the Christian emphasis on the individual and on love. This did not exist, certainly not to the fullest degree, before and it points to the healing of the self rather than its destruction or transcendence or seeing as unreal if you prefer those words though it amounts to the same thing.
But the most important difference was the person of Christ himself. When he says "I am the Way, the Truth and the Life" he gives us a teaching that goes far beyond anything that had come before. The Buddha, who I am taking here as the pre-eminent universal spiritual teacher both before and after Christ which he was, could potentially have said this but he would have been speaking in an abstract sense as in 'the I AM'. Christ, however, was speaking quite literally of himself and to know this, really know it, is to be given a spiritual teaching on a much higher level than any other theory or practise for this is a teaching that speaks to the soul rather than the mind or intellect.
Jesus said he did not come to bring peace but a sword. This is a strange thing for a spiritual teacher to say but it should make us consider whether there might not be something valuable in duality, that bugbear of universalistic spiritual teachings. Is it just something to overcome in consciousness or does it actually contain a truth to which we should pay attention? The spiritual path gives us two options and we can take either. Faced with the fact of the self and the world we can turn aside from both as unreal/false/the result of ignorance or we can incorporate both in an understanding that sees them as currently diseased but curable. The cure is in the love that is embodied in Christ. Is the personal the blot on existence or is it the whole point of existence?
I know that people may tell me that other religions contain teachings that incorporate the value of the personal. I would suggest that all these come from after the time of Christ and are due to him operating through those religions, imparting something of a Christian flavour to them, using the word Christian here to refer to Christ himself not the Christian religion specifically. Therefore salvation may be found in all religions that are open to this influence. But it is Christ that works here, his influence, his being. For religion has evolved and the religion that has its centre in the living personal God is of a higher order than one that prioritises impersonal, abstract being. Union with God goes beyond Nirvana, liberation, enlightenment because it includes all there is to that and adds relationship or love.
The last words of the Buddha were along these lines. "All individual things pass away, work out your salvation with diligence." This is profound advice, albeit somewhat remote. The last recorded words of Jesus according to St Matthew were "I am with you always, even unto the end of the world." For me this draws out the difference between the two saviours and please note that I do call the Buddha a saviour for such he was in the context of his time and for centuries after, even for many today. Nevertheless, this does not alter the fact that Jesus goes further for he brought a higher truth to this world, the truth of divine love.
I was born a Christian then went away from ordinary Christianity and explored many other spiritual philosophies. I believe that has given me a better understanding of the truths of Christianity itself. I am not saying everyone has to do this but it has benefitted me. My intuition has always been that Christ is qualitatively different to every other teacher but it has not always been easy to articulate how and why. The essence of this, though, is in the word redemption.
I have a final point to make on this subject and it relates to my experience with the Masters. Given the emphasis on the personal in this analysis that seems appropriate. It's possible that the reason I feel obliged to talk about this matter is that ties in with a mistake I myself made at one time. This is an extract from a conversation I had with the Masters. It was about the need for humility, a virtue, incidentally, that makes no sense if the self is not real anymore than love does.
The Master Jesus and all the Masters of old had preached humility and demonstrated it too. They knew that they were as nothing and that all they were came from the Creator.
From the Creator. God exists. He is not something to go beyond, rise above, see through, transcend. At the same time, we ourselves also exist. We are not nothing. We are as nothing but that is not being nothing and is only said to remind us that everything does indeed come from the Creator. Buddhism correctly teaches the ephemeral nature of the phenomenal self. But behind this phenomenal self there is a real individual soul. We must certainly die to the phenomenal self but that is not so we are reabsorbed into the whole. It is so that the risen soul may unite in love with God, and this union has been made possible through Christ, his birth, life on Earth and self-sacrifice. It is open to all.