Buddhists in Thailand honestly do not think very often about Christian Easter. But if they did how would it go?
Jesus died on a cross, was interred in a tomb, and then rose from the dead, after which he ascended into heaven. Easter is the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ after his death by crucifixion. Easter is the central observance of all Christians. It is a signal that the specter of death has been overcome.
This is a synopsis of the Christian Easter narrative. It addresses humankind’s deepest psychic trauma.
On the surface it has little in common with the story of the life and death of Gautama, the Buddha. Buddhist narrative has no Easter. The Buddha attained enlightened knowledge about the true nature of existence, keys to which he passed on to a rapidly expanding corps of disciples over the course of a long life, and then he died of natural causes and was cremated.
It’s a very different narrative from the Christian one, and results in very different types of religious observances. These differences are sometimes compounded into a sense of exclusivity. Without going into the issues of “only through Christ” or how Anicca prevents theism, I appeal to us in this approach to Easter to concentrate on its meaning and effect.
On the surface, Easter observances seem to have no equivalent in Thai Buddhism. However, beneath the surface there is more in common than is popularly acknowledged. In both Christianity and Buddhism, narratives of the ironic savior-hero are essential to a mythic thread that connects believers in our time to the primordial origins of life and creation as well as to death and consummation. In both the cases of Jesus and Gautama, the hero did something that reduced the specter of death and nullified its apparent results. What they did was central to all that is important about them. In the case of the Buddha, he discovered a way to enlightenment. Jesus conquered death in our behalf.
The narrative of the mythic thread goes on to tell how generations of believers have retained the essential truth and preserved keys for deriving the emotional benefits of realizing this truth. The thread speculates about what comes after this mortal life. In both Buddhism and Christianity there is tentativeness about the ultimate outcome, but for those who are blessed this includes a penultimate period of heavenly bliss after which the thread of events-in-time ends.
Both Christianity and Buddhism extract theological principles from these mythic narratives. There are prior, immediate and eventual consequences to the salvation from enslavement to death’s dark influences. The prior consequence of Easter for Christians is the organization of communities of believers throughout history to provide mutual support and to perpetuate awareness of the truth, Logos/ Word. Similarly the organization of communities of monks scattered among communities of laity is to provide mutual support and to perpetuate awareness of the truth, Dharma/ teaching for Buddhists.
For people in our time, the immediate consequence of Easter is eradication of the terror people have when anticipating death. This simultaneously releases us from any need to propitiate death or to obviate its effects (efforts that previously engrossed religious people). Christian effort can then be expended on expanding the influence of our reformed perspective about life and death to social, political, and cultural spheres. Christians call this “Kingdom building,” although Jesus’ discourses point to the Kingdom being the very antithesis of Empire to which the Church has tirelessly aspired.
The eventual consequences of fully realizing the Truth come after the tomb or the fire.
Thai Buddhists likewise try to navigate through life without being obstructed by overwhelming concern about death. Death, per se, is largely ignored, although presumed causes of death are dealt with expeditiously. Even funerals are interpreted as opportunities for the living to engage in mutual assistance as a community. Meritorious community action by Buddhists is identical to Christian Kingdom building except in nomenclature and with reference to the mythic thread that is its rationale.
This, then, puts Easter Sunday festivities into perspective. What a Christian worshiping group is trying to do is to re-enact a pivotal divine-human encounter. Many groups will draw all the diverse elements of Easter together in an elaborate festival of dramatic music and symbolic action. Other church groups will be more restrained, but the emotive force will be toward joy and celebration wherever Easter is Easter. Never far from consciousness is the notion that the Easter Sunday service of worship is a paradigm for every Sunday service.
If a Buddhist were to wander into an Easter service and ask, “What’s going on?” the answer would probably be, “an Easter worship service.” It would seem distinct from any Buddhist event, but that would be misleading. The basic effort is hardly any different from a Buddhist service, except for the language and trappings.
In every Buddhist or Christian worship event in Thailand the intent is to remember that death need not be the obstacle to a better outcome for life. We ought not to be distracted by the ominous portent of fire or tomb. They are gateways. We are brothers and sisters in all that counts in this life.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.