The Subversive Wisdom of Jesus and Buddha

The Subversive Wisdom of Jesus and Buddha

We were talking about the spiritual benefits of doubt, and about a Buddhist teacher I once studied with who stressed the importance of keeping a “Don’t Know” mind.

Buddhist meditation is about emptying the mind to help us wake up and see another way of being. You may not realize it, but there is similar, albeit less well-trodden, path in the Christian tradition.

I stumbled upon that path while researching my last book, a group biography of the writer Aldous Huxley, the philosopher Gerald Heard, and Bill Wilson, the cofounder of Alcoholics Anonymous.

Back in the 1940s, Huxley and Wilson came to visit Heard at Trabuco College, an extraordinary interfaith retreat center Heard had just opened in the mountains southeast of Los Angeles. One course of study at Trabuco was a seminar on Christian mysticism featuring an anonymous 14th-century text titled The Cloud of Unknowing.

“And so I urge you, go after experience rather than knowledge,” the text reads. “On account of pride, knowledge may often deceive you. Knowledge tends to breed conceit, but love builds. Knowledge is full of labor, but love, full of rest.”

Nobody told me about The Cloud of Unknowing back in Sunday school, but I do seem to remember something about Jesus being “the only way.” That claim of exclusive salvation was one of the things that would later turn me off to the religion of my baptism.

I’d have to become a religion reporter for a major metropolitan newspaper before I ran across Christians with a more open-minded attitude toward keeping an open mind.

One of them was a Bible scholar named Marcus Borg, the author of many books and the editor of a fine collection titled Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings.

Borg, a self-described “non-exclusivist Christian,” points out that neither Buddha nor Jesus saw themselves as founders of a new religion. Rather, they were the leaders of renewal movements within Hinduism and Judaism.

“Jesus and Buddha were teachers of a world-subverting wisdom that undermined and challenged conventional ways of seeing and being in their time and every time,” writes Borg. “Their subversive wisdom was also an alternative wisdom. They taught a way or path of transformation.”

Reading Borg’s comments in the introduction to Jesus and Buddha reminds me of another encounter I had a two decades ago with a Christian teacher I’ve come to respect.

I met Brother David Steindl-Rast at the Immaculate Heart Hermitage at Big Sur. We were walking down a road overlooking a spectacular sunset along the rugged central California coast, talking about Jesus.

“When Jesus used scripture from the Hebrew Bible, it was not like the teachers of his time, who laboriously interpreted from the text—like the church does today,” Brother David told me. “Jesus talked about experience, about daily experience. That was such an enormous change in the history of religion—especially in a culture like that in Israel, where the idea of God was so strongly theistic.”

Brother David, an Austrian-born, Benedictine monk, sees a similar shift today. “The emphasis is moving from the institution to personal experience. It is happening in people’s lives on a very large scale, and it is absolutely irreversible.”

Is that shift to personal experience happening in your spiritual life? If so, please share you story.

Don Lattin’s most recent book is Distilled Spirits: Getting High, then Sober, with a Famous Writer, a Forgotten Philosopher, and a Hopeless Drunk. To learn more, visit

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