The Lotus and the Cross

Ever wonder what Buddha would say to Jesus, and vice versa? In this slim little volume, Ravi Zacharias imagines what the founders of two of the world’s most powerful religions would say to one another on the pressing problem that every religion seeks to solve: the human condition.

Zacharias starts with a prologue telling the true story of a young woman named Priya who, at 17, was lured to the big city to work as a seamstress. She was raped only hours after her arrival, and within the next several years became a prostitute, eventually testing HIV positive. She needed the income from her profession, however, and continued to sell herself though she knew she was infecting each man who used her. Eventually the disease manifested itself and Priya began trying to kill herself. Finally she poisoned herself and set the house on fire. After her death, no one would even come near her remains for fear of infection.

What can Buddha and Jesus say to someone who has suffered so much? What hope can they offer to alleviate such stark misery? The differences between their answers are not theoretical exercises; they could mean life or death, joy or misery to someone like Priya. This is the real question that Zacharias is exploring: how are Buddhism and Christianity different, and which is true?

Zacharias is a well-known Christian apologist and author so it’s no surprise that his bias is toward Christianity, but he tries very hard to depict Buddhism accurately and respectfully. He writes that he spent “scores of hours in temples with monks and with instructors of students of Buddhist thought. The discussions I had were always cordial and delightful” (7).

The conversational format of the book makes it a particularly absorbing read, and I should add that it isn’t just between Buddha and Christ. Priya makes a third in the conversation, and the boatman Wat makes an occasional fourth. Priya’s character illustrates why the truth matters: our world is in desperate need of something, and both Buddha and Christ claim to have what we need. There is an immediacy to the narrative that a more traditional comparative survey of the two faiths could not capture.

Buddhism and Christianity could not be more different, and the idea of being a Buddhist Christian or a Christian Buddhist is a laughable one when you really look at the exclusive truth claims each religion makes. Buddhism denies the existence of the self, claiming that it and its desires are illusions that cause all human suffering, while Christianity says that the self exists and it is our selfishness, our sin that causes human suffering. Buddha offers enlightenment and the eradication of self and personal desires; Christ offers salvation and the redemption of self and personal desires. I am painting in broad strokes here, of course, and there are many subtleties of each faith that Zacharias highlights. But the point that Buddhism and Christianity are mutually exclusive faiths — and that it matters — is well made.

This title is part of Zacharias’s “Great Conversations” series that includes such provocative titles as The Lamb and the Führer: Jesus Talks with HitlerRebirth or New Birth: Jesus Talks with Krishna, and Sense and Sensuality: Jesus Talks with Oscar Wilde— all of which I hope to read soon. I found The Lotus and the Cross a highly readable book, and one that I would recommend to anyone seeking to understand the fundamental differences between the solutions Gautama Buddha and Jesus Christ offer to the world. (  )

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