“You can answer this however you like,” I said in a casual tone.
“Do you think Jesus was a buddha? I mean, as a Buddhist priest, if you had to guess, do you think he reached nirvana?” I asked.
Jurin furrowed his brow and put his beer down, clearly taking the question seriously. The rest of the Irish pub — staffed by trendy Japanese youths in colored hair and green polo shirts who probably couldn’t find Ireland on a map — continued bustling in the background of our corner conversation.
I went on, “Jesus taught that this world is nothing compared to the eternity of the afterlife — even if he was just a human and not God, he still only wanted to reach heaven and taught his followers to reject attachment to material objects and superficial desires.”
Jurin nodded. He never had formal education on Christianity, but he was familiar with its broad strokes. Years of Buddhist seminary and religious studies means you’ll run up against comparative religion at some point.
“No, he was not a buddha,” he said after several seconds of consideration. His tone was light and I could tell he was trying not to offend me. But the reality was he thought my God was totally wrong.
“He was not a buddha because he told his students to ask God for help — to ask God to fulfill their desires. Even if those desires were kind and selfless, it was still an incorrect idea of how heaven and earth work.”
I nodded, totally absorbed in his polite rejection of Christ.
“A buddha wants nothing, asks the universe for nothing,” he added. “So no, I don’t think he reached nirvana. He didn’t understand the nature of desire.”
“Don’t ask the universe to save loved ones from death. Don’t ask the universe to save the poor or the sick. A truly transcendent buddha asks nothing, only accepts and understands the world as it is.”
This conversation lingers in my mind as perhaps the most compelling and influential exchange I had during my time in Japan. Recreated here, it is infinitely more articulate than it was in reality. The real conversation jumped back and forth between Japanese and English, had a lot of hand gestures, and a couple consultations to Google Translate for theological vocabulary.
What can’t be captured in my retelling is the dignity and seriousness of our talk — two men who truly love and respect each other, both devout to their contrasting faiths, comparing and scrutinizing each other’s greatest teachers.
With all this in mind, I am, for the first time in my life, beginning to understand what Americans mean when they say they’re exploring Buddhism.
You know — Buddhism! The religion with the fat Asian guy! The one that’s chill and contemplative and makes you a better and more understanding person! You may have read about him in seminal works of theological exploration such as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance or Eat, Pray, Love.
You see the Buddha quoted endlessly on Instagram and Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest. The wisdom is beyond compare, and at the same time, eye-openingly close in content to the wall art purchasable at your local T.J. Maxx. Being yourself seems to be a key teaching. Fake friends and backstabbing is admonished frequently. Letting go of your past and embracing the moment is a sacrament.
Hearing my dear friend tell me that Jesus was not only a mere human being, but also not even particularly wise in his teachings, was jarring. He was… drawing a line? Sticking to some set of… concrete beliefs?
Weren’t Buddhists supposed to be more open-minded? More universalist? Live, laugh, love and all that?
Of course I knew that Buddhism was a complex and vibrant religion — I studied it in college briefly and was always fascinated by its many sects and creeds. In particular, Pure Land Buddhism and the concept of bodhisattvas enthralled me.
And because of this, I took those who identified as Buddhist or claimed to follow the Buddha seriously, regardless of circumstance, without a second thought.
For so many years, when someone told me that they were exploring Buddhism, I imagined white people shuffling into temples in New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Dallas. I assumed that average Americans were sitting in the lotus position, reading sutras and consulting sacred scripture.
And at the same time, I assumed that those hypothetical white people’s acceptance and passivity in the face of every social issue was a genuine and authentic expression of the Buddha’s teachings.
You know, go with the flow. Don’t get upset. Don’t pass judgment.
But Jurin’s simple and decisive rejection of Christ, his explanation of Buddhist morals, and his steadfast adherence to his sect’s orthodoxy was a reality check to my subconscious amalgamation of Buddhism.
Here’s the truth.
Much like any other culturally accepted and celebrated faith in the US, American Buddhism™ is not a spiritual creed, but more of an Instagram-able mindset. It’s a self-prescribed and self-certified carte blanche to do whatever you want, whenever you want.
When children of Buddhist families grow up studying the scriptures and reciting sutras, they have a concrete and historical understanding of Gautama Buddha. They scrutinize, question, and research his words. They spend their lives seeking a deeper appreciation and alignment with his divine vision of the universe’s structure.
As Jurin told me, the Buddha taught that the only way to transcend the hellish world we live in is to cut out our desires like a cancer, to release ourselves from attachments, and to give up all the superficial pleasures of this life.
That is Buddhism.
But Americans don’t grow up reading the Diamond Sutra. And they certainly don’t like structure. They hate moralistic guidelines and strict dogma.
So what purpose does declaring oneself a Buddhist serve in this country?
Here is how the Human Rights Campaign, an LGBT-advocacy group with massive sway in American politics, describes the fourth largest religion in the world, over which countless holy wars rage to this day:
“Buddhism is largely built on concepts that foster individual enlightenment and encourage personal responsibility. It is sometimes described more as a philosophy or psychology than a religion.”
“More of a philosophy or psychology than a religion.”
In America, we have a religion — the same one we’ve had since we were founded.
But our religion, it has expectations for us. And we know this because we’re reminded of it every time we pass a church or see “In God We Trust” on a banknote.
We know American Jesus. The Jesus of our parents and their parents.
Even the most secular among us know the basic gist of Christian rules. And we want to escape them, break free from the naughty corner, but we don’t want to lose our claim of enlightenment and spiritual awareness. We need to be able to do whatever we want, but still claim that we’re living the just and good life prescribed to us from heaven.
Jesus, who we never studied and never had a relationship with, said something about being married forever? There’s no escaping that stuff. No escaping the Ten Commandments, the Sermon on the Mount. It’s too ingrained in our zeitgeist, too well-trodden to argue and overturn or re-interpret.
But we want to have sex. We want to get head in our cars from a girl we met at the Young Democrats social as we drive down the Santa Monica freeway. We want to spend $22 on avocado toast. We want to fly to Cancun and have impoverished Mexican peasants deliver us our mojitos on time. We want to cheat on our wives with a Thai college student in a Seattle hotel, fly back home, divorce our spouse, and live in Miami snorting coke off a call girl’s butt cheek until the fentanyl catches up and we crash our Porsche into a preschool and go to heaven.
And we need God to give us a thumbs up the whole way through.
So people need a new Jesus — one that will sign off on their lives just the way they are and hold our beer while we sext our coworkers.
So how about Fat Asian Jesus? The made-up, moralistic therapeutic deity I created in my head and convinced myself is actually an ancient and inspired teacher of truth and justice.
He wants me to just chill out and enjoy myself.
Jesus had harsh rules, big expectations, and explicit boundaries for our conduct. But this Asian guy we learned about in history class for a week? He has his own religion, and I learned from a YouTube video that he was really accepting and forgiving.
In America, Buddhism means that you, the believer, are correct. In America, “personal enlightenment” means doubling down on the ideas and beliefs you already brought to the “faith.” Your opinions are validated, sanctified, and deified.
Jesus? My parents told me Jesus wanted me to wait until marriage to have sex. He also apparently is against casual hook-ups, and usury, and abortion. And expects me to donate to the poor. And he doesn’t support gay marriage. And he wants me to drink with temperance. And he wants me to be humble and kind and not buy the Gucci bag or the sportscar.
What am I supposed to do? Interrogate my own lifestyle? Feel guilty? Question my actions and recognize their consequences? No f*cking thank you.
But I can deal with chilling out and enjoying myself. In fact, that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, and now finally my Fantasy Asian Jesus Replacement has told me that actually I’ve been being pious and holy the whole time.
Now, do I actually attend a temple? No. Do I meditate? Kind of, if sitting on my couch and smoking weed and thinking about how we’re all brothers and sisters is meditation.
Have I read any of his teachings?
Yes! On Pinterest!
Senior monks in Japan historically committed the act of Sokushinbutsu — the process through which a living, breathing human being starved themselves to death by eating nothing but honey and pine needles.
They died chanting the sutras and contemplating the Buddha. Their bodies would shut down over the course of weeks, their organs constricting and their life slowly leaving their body. Eventually, their life would quietly evaporate from their corpse.
This was their final act of devotion and sacrifice — by literally killing themselves through hyper-temperance, they ensured their passage out of the world of attachments and desire.
Their lifeless, shriveled body would be left in the same meditative position, and their remains would sit for the rest of time as a testament to their commitment.
Jurin’s father died this year. His death was unexpected and tragic.
Now, Jurin is studying and training to become a full-fledged overseer of his family temple.
Unlike my retelling of the conversation we had in the bar, the following is the exact, word-for-word conversation we shared after he told me his father had passed — janky vocabulary and all.
“I knew he’d say goodbye someday, but I am so frustrated.”
“I can imagine. The death of a parent is a difficult thing. Him being such an important priest and teacher makes it more difficult.”
“Thank you, Timothy. I’m very sad, because he was still young. But, I realized that it is important to live no matter what. I understand again.“