Recently, during a conversation over dinner in Japan, a Buddhist scholar told me that he believes John Lennon’s song “Imagine” was inspired by Buddhism’s Heart Sutra. Lennon’s song reflects upon a world without heaven, countries, possessions, religion, and war. Perhaps the following lines from The Heart Sutra served as influences to Lennon in writing the song:
Therefore, in the void there are no forms and no feelings, conceptions, impulses and no consciousness: there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; there is no form, sound, smell, taste, touch or idea; no eye elements, until we come to no elements of consciousness; no ignorance and also no ending of ignorance, until we come to no old age and death; and no ending of old age and death.
Also, there is no truth of suffering, of the cause of suffering, of the cessation of suffering or of the path. There is no wisdom, and there is no attainment whatsoever. Because there is nothing to be attained, a Bodhisattva relying on Prajnaparamita has no obstruction in his heart. Because there is no obstruction he has no fear, and he passes far beyond all confused imagination and reaches Ultimate Nirvana.
According to Walpola Rahula in What the Buddha Taught, the historical Buddha known as Gotama (Gautama) discovered a freedom of thought that is not found anywhere else in the history of religions. Rahula claims that for the Buddha “man’s emancipation depends on his own realization of Truth, and not on the benevolent grace of a god or any external power as a reward for his obedient good behaviour.” Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, rev. ed., with a foreword by Paul Demiéville (New York: Grove Press, 1974), 2.
Having spoken briefly of the possible influence of Buddhism on Lennon’s song “Imagine,” let’s consider what kinds of songs the Bible might inspire? Songs about God’s deep love and benevolent grace? Imagine writing a song about a world without hatred and indifference and which are replaced by God in Christ’s unconditional forgiveness and gracious love. If Jesus had not come to earth, I could never imagine writing such a song.
Jesus came to earth to break through the cycle of sin involving indifference and hatred through his sacrificial life and death and resurrection from the dead. As he hung on the cross, Jesus beseeched his Father to forgive those responsible for his crucifixion passion and shame (Luke 23:33-35). Later, Jesus also reached out to Saul who persecuted him by persecuting his followers. The Lord made Saul an amazing ambassador of his reconciling love inside and outside the churches he founded (Acts 9:1-22).
I cannot imagine what it would be like to go through Jesus’ level of suffering and forgive. I find it hard to forgive anyone who has even slighted or ridiculed me inside and outside Christian circles. What kind of ambassador of God’s kingdom of love does that make me? And yet, Jesus has forgiven us in view of his Father’s loving embrace. Can we imagine what it must have been like for Jesus and his Father to forgive us of our sins? It’s so easy for us to trivialize our sins and make those of others paramount. Yet Paul (formerly Saul) tells us that when all of us were God’s enemies he forgave us (Romans 5:10). Only as we realize what it cost God to forgive and accept you and me can we ever be in a position to forgive and accept others (See Romans 15:7).
Jesus had never been in need of forgiveness. He was innocent of all wrongdoing. In his case alone, the righteous died for the unrighteous to bring us to God (1 Peter 3:18; Romans 5:6-8). I am grateful that Jesus does not operate by the law of eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth, as can be found in various places throughout the world (See Matthew 5:38-48). If he did, there would be no gracious forgiveness for us. Nor did Jesus call on us to operate by the law of karma. All we need to do is respond by faith to his mercy and grace poured out for us.
The Buddhist scholar with whom I chatted over dinner claimed to have rejected Amida Buddhism in favor of what he has taken to be the historical Buddha’s teaching. During our conversation, we spoke briefly about the connection between Amida Buddhism and Protestant Christianity. In Amida Buddhism, one is saved by chanting the name of Amida Buddha, the source of infinite compassion. This scholar claimed that in Amida Buddhism someone else ends up being responsible for one’s bad deeds. In contrast to this perspective, he favored what appeared to reflect the following account of karma:
The law of karma states, that every action performed in life creates another reaction which in turn produces a new counter action. Thus an endless chain of actions and reactions is produced which binds the living entity to his good and bad deeds. This is the way how karma works. It creates an action and another reaction simultaneously and this increases the chain of material activities, keeping the performer in material bondage. (See also pages 30-32 of Rahula’s work, What the Buddha Taught, for a Buddhist discussion of karma.)
On this view of things, can there ever truly be release from bondage? Moreover, can one ever speak of unconditional grace and forgiveness? If not, what will break the ongoing cycle of sin bound up with hate and indifference? In my estimation, it takes infinite compassion to break the cycle of hate and indifference. Only as we receive God’s forgiveness for our sins for which we can in no way atone can we break out of the perpetual cycle of hostility and extend forgiveness to others. Only by a life of faith in God’s sacrificial love can we live in a way that produces actions of love rather than those of indifference and hate. Only then is reconciliation truly possible in our homes, churches, and towns. It is not something we can produce on our own.
As a Protestant who affirms Paul’s and Luther’s teaching on grace, I appreciate what Amida Buddhism seeks to convey, contrary to the Japanese religion scholar previously noted. It is striking that Xavier, the Jesuit missionary to Japan in the sixteenth century, claimed to find in Amida Buddhism the Lutheran “heresy.” For all their significant differences from one another bound up with the respective identities of Jesus and Amida, both Lutheran and Amida Buddhist teachings emphasize a way out from the ongoing cycle of karmic relations through salvation by grace by faith.
Which world do you hope we would imagine and inhabit in our homes, churches and other religious centers, and towns? Would it be a world of living completely by the law of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth? Or in contrast to this perspective, would it be a world of living fully in view of a cycle of karma and what results from it that continues on until we are released through the extinction of thirst and the annihilation of the illusion of self? (See Rahula’s discussion of “The Third Noble Truth,” in What The Buddha Taught, pp. 35, 37) Or would it be a world of living totally in light of an unbroken cycle of infinite compassion and grace that breaks in and makes it possible for us to forgive again and again by faith as persons transformed by God’s love poured out in Christ through the Spirit? Something else? Something more? Imagine.
Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths and Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church. These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold. More information at Dr. Metzger’s work is available at paullouismetzger.com.