“Think Global, Act Local:  Lessons Learned from Jesus and Buddha”
Matthew 10: 26-33 and excerpts from Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings by Marcus Borg
By Don Ludwig, October 18, 2020

Story of Reincarnation

Two old Jewish characters, Moishe and Yonkel, had many conversations through their life about what heaven would be like. They had an agreement that whichever of them died first would make every effort to make contact with the one that was still living, and tell them what heaven was like.

Some time passed, and Moishe died. About a year later, Yonkel was living with the grief, waiting for that phone call. Sure enough, eventually the phone rang. Yonkel said, “Is that you, Moishe?” “Yes it is.” Yonkel was overjoyed, and said, “So, tell me, what is it like where you are?”

Moishe said, “This is wonderful. You wouldn’t believe what I am experiencing now. The most plentiful food and lush fields you have ever seen, I sleep in late, have a long luxurious breakfast, and then I go and make love. If it is a nice day I go out in the fields and make love some more. I come in and have a long lunch. I then go out into the fields again and make love all afternoon. I retire early in the evening.”  Yonkel responded, “Heaven sounds so amazing!” And Moishe said, “Heaven? Who said anything about heaven? I’m a rabbit in Minnesota!”

Which just goes to show that the Buddhists may have had it right, after all. Reincarnation sounds lovely doesn’t it?

Buddhist and Christain Images of Faith

One of the predominant images of Christianity has  been the man of sorrows, while one of the predominant images of Buddhism has been the laughing Buddha. Meanwhile, there is a wonderful image that comes from the Sufi tradition: Two giants in a tiny boat, bumping into each other, and laughing. That’s how they describe their relationship with God. Laughing, being human, bumping into each other, and rocking the boat. Isn’t that a beautiful image? I wonder whether you would consider adding that to your portrait of God?

What I want to do this morning is bring Christianity and Buddhism together and show that the essence of the two are one and the same.  But I want to focus on how both bring together laughter and sorrow, to the point where the boundaries between them are blurred.

In the book of Proverbs it says, “Even in laughter the heart is sad and the end of joy is grief.” I believe we could turn it around, and it would make just as much sense: “Even in sadness the heart is glad and the end of grief is joy.” Christianity, from the wisdom tradition, and in the teaching and life of Jesus, understood this bringing together of laughing and suffering.

Suffering in Buddhism

It’s ironic that people see Buddhism through the prominent image of the laughing Buddha,, because Buddhism at its core is a religion that addresses deep suffering. It’s all about suffering. The noble truths of Buddhism are: 

  1. Life is suffering. 
  2. Existence means to suffer. 
  3. The reason we suffer is because we are attached to a particular idea about the way life will carry out for us. 
  4. A lot of our suffering comes about because we expect not to suffer.

Suffering is the core truth of Buddhism. We expect things to go well, and when they don’t, we suffer. The truth of Buddhism is that when we drop our desire for life to be different than what it is, at least a lot of our suffering will disappear as well. Drop the attachments, and the suffering will be dropped as well. That’s the way to enlightenment in Buddhism. You hear in the core teachings of Buddhism the bringing together of laughter and suffering, laughter as an image for accepting everything as it is, as perfect just now, and sorrow as an image for wanting it to be more hopeful.

Laughter in Christianity

We hold those two things in balance all the time, and I believe the same is true in Christianity. Christianity is an attempt to hold together laughing and sorrow. You can’t have suffering without celebration and laughter. You can’t have celebration and laughter without suffering. 

Consider some of the teachings related to the laughing Jesus. For example, the gospel of Judas, some have described as the Sarcastic Gospel, which was discovered in the 1970’s, and believed by many to be compiled in the 4th century, around the same time as Constantine. Constantine was making Christianity very serious, very focused around beliefs and practices, and Judas, in contrast, was painting a picture of Jesus, in which Jesus was laughing.

One situation in the Gospel of Judas is that where Jesus bursts into laughter when he sees his disciples gathered around bread and cup. Here’s the scene in the Gospel of Judas on pages 32-33: “When he approached his disciples, gathered together, was seated and offered a prayer of thanksgiving over the bread, Jesus laughed. When the disciples ask him why he is laughing, he mocks their worship suggesting they are worshiping a false God.”

Whenever we take our beliefs and practices too seriously, we need someone to laugh at us, and remind us that they are only practices. Our beliefs and practices are simply a bridge. And yet, we often use our beliefs and practices to avoid going over the bridge. And to that type of religion, Jesus laughs. 

Laughter and Suffering as Humanizing Influence

Jesus also teaches us that laughter is a humanizing force―it brings us back to our humanity.

When I was in Cuba with our mission team many years ago, I was selected to represent our church in a dance contest.  I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.  Because of my disability, I dance the same way I do sing―awkwardly with very little finesse and no rhythm.  And so there I was, on the stage in front of hundreds of people from all over the world, tripping over myself and trying to look confident―pretending I wasn’t disabled. When I was done, the youth and I laughed at me for the rest of the trip.  We still laugh about it today.  It has become a life-time memory.  Looking back on it, I had so much fun―being laughed at and laughing at myself. It was a situation that brought me back to my humanity. I was in a tiny boat, bumping over myself and others, and laughing…  God was surely in our midst.

We all have limitations.  Both Jesus and Buddha teach us that until we know our limitations, and learn to laugh at them, we can’t go deep into our humanity.

Laughing and Suffering points to Resurrection

There is still another effect from laughing, and that is that we laugh in the face of the unthinkable. And by doing that we leave open the possibility for transformation and resurrection.  Let me share a story here. Four rabbis were gathered before the desecrated temple in Jerusalem in the first century. Three of them were weeping. The fourth, the mystic Akiva, was laughing uproariously. The three rabbis were shocked at his response and said, “Why do you laugh?” Akiva responded to them, “Why do you cry?” 

To that they said, “because this temple that we have adored has been burned to the ground by the Romans. Foxes now roam in the space where up to this point, only the most enlightened of all Jewish leaders could even tread. How can you laugh? All is lost.” And Akiva said to them “that is why I laugh because now I know the prophecy has been fulfilled. Until the temple is completely and utterly destroyed there will be no new temple. I laugh because I know the prophecy has been fulfilled.”  

He laughs because resurrection is just around the corner.  Over the next two weeks we begin the rollercoaster ride towards the elections.  May we remember that as people of faith, we are always on our journey of life to rebirth back to life again. As both Jesus and Buddha teach us, may we find glimpses of resurrection even in the suffering―even in the darkest, most desperate moments of pain, even in our political frustrations, even in our fear and anger―and may we also laugh and know that―all of it―is part of the nature of life and will lead us―one day―to Nirvana and rebuilding our own temple.