Looking For the Buddha In the Bible, or How NOT To Make Spinach Soufflé (Part 2 of A 13-Part Series)
As discussed in my previous post, the Dhamma has at its heart certain themes (aniccata being only one of them) that make it problematic for anyone with a theistic worldview, whether Jewish or Christian or Muslim. Even if he is attracted to the Buddha’s Teaching, the theist will inevitably misconstrue it; more likely, he will simply reject it. Much to his credit, Mr. MacPherson has not done the latter. He has, however, done the former.
Mr. MacPherson’s primary thesis is that the Buddha’s teaching, its Four Noble Truths in their entirety, can be discovered within the Biblical tradition. To prove this he first describes the Buddha’s teaching (the First Noble Truth, the Second, the Third etc.) and then attempts to show how what he just described is also described by passages in the Bible. For this approach to be successful, he must accurately describe the Dhamma, then find Biblical correlates that not only fit their Buddhist counterparts, but do so with the same purpose. This last point is vital, for a mere collection of resemblances, if they are not organized and motivated by a purpose similar to that which you find in the Dhamma, are then nothing but a collection of resemblances, whose intention or outcome may be anything at all. In other words, purpose in thought and practice is just as important—perhaps more important—than the actual thoughts and practices themselves.
Mr. MacPherson, however, is unsuccessful on both points. First, he does not accurately represent the Buddha’s Teaching. Second, he never demonstrates any common, overarching purpose to the catalogue of resemblances he describes. It is this second point that I wish now to take up, and which brings me to the subject of…spinach soufflé.
Imagine you have a thousand page cookbook entitled The World of Soufflé. You’re trying to figure out what to eat one night and happen upon the following recipe for spinach soufflé:
1/3 cup 1% milk
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon crushed garlic
salt and pepper to taste
2 (10 ounce) packages frozen chopped spinach, thawed and drained
Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
In a medium bowl whisk together egg, milk, cheese, garlic, salt and pepper. Fold in spinach. Place in a small casserole dish.
Bake in preheated oven for 20 minutes, or until lightly set.
NOTE: If you are in a hurry, use a microwave safe casserole dish, cover with plastic wrap, and cook on high for 3 minutes. Release the steam, recover, and cook on high for another 3 minutes. Enjoy!
It looks easy enough—only six or seven ingredients and six steps. You are promised that by using just these ingredients, in just this order and in just this way, you will get spinach soufflé, and not (hopefully) lemon meringue or baklava.
Now consider this: how many other recipes use these same ingredients—maybe more, but not less—and also follow these steps—not necessarily in this exact order, and perhaps adding a few, but not subtracting any either? In other words, think of the above ingredients and directions as the least common denominator; how many recipes are there in your book, in the world, with those ingredients and directions at minimum? I would wager hundreds, maybe thousands. And if you combed through enough books you might cook all sorts of things, delicious things, using these ingredients and these steps—but unless you did it in exactly these proportions and in the correct order, you would not make spinach soufflé. In other words, an overlap of parts and processes does not imply identity of purpose. It does not imply identical, even compatible outcomes. Herein lies Mr. MacPherson’s chief error.
As will be demonstrated in the following posts, he has noted many similarities between Biblical teachings and Buddhist. I will not argue against their similarities, but where he misconstrues Dhamma the similarities are of no import, and even when the meanings are correctly understood, the mere fact that Dhamma point A is similar to Biblical point B does not mean anything if the intentions, motivations and expected outcomes are at odds with one another. The truth is, that in the case of these two traditions, their goals could not be more dissimilar.