book report: The Lotus and the Cross by R. Zacharias (2001)


I really enjoy Ravi Zacharias when I hear him on the radio. I've read, and reviewed, one other book, edited by him, Beyond Opinion, that I also enjoyed. He has published a few dialog, style books, so I bought four of them. My wife and oldest daughter also read this book and the other ones, so I am late to the party. The Lotus and the Cross: Jesus talks with Buddha, is a brief, hypothetical discussion between Jesus and Buddha.

The book is barely 94 pages, but not every page has text more than one sentence, functioning as a call out. It's written to be read quickly, less than an hour, which is partly why my oldest daughter gave these book a shot. But, she warned me, Zacharias is not strong as a narrative writer. I have to agree with her, which surprises me, because he is a great story teller in the debates played on his radio show. He just doesn't sound like I hear Jesus in the gospels, who tends to answer questions with questions, and respond to questioners with something two layers deeper than the conversation started.

I think the subtitle would be more accurate, with diminished expectations, if it were, Ravi talks with Buddha. But, while the ambition did not meet with great success, I still learned plenty in this little book, but not until the end.

The Introduction to the book, by Zacharias, informs us that he sought out Buddhist monks, of many "denominations," to accurately represent Buddha in the narrative. In light of what I learned in Prothero's book, God is not One, review here, I appreciated this extra effort. Prothero portrayed Buddhism very positively and did not present much contrast to Christianity. But Zacharias pointed to two significant areas of contrast, that I will quote here. The first is of authority.
Buddha: Well, I gave my disciples no written world as an abiding authority.
Jesus: Now we're getting somewhere Gautama. Why didn't you give them an abiding authority?
Buddha: Because...everything is impermanent.
Jesus: Even that statement? Is that impermanent too?
Buddha: I think...I'll have to think on that. I have a terrible feeling I'm backing into a corner here.
Jesus: That's what I"m saying to you. Your followers have no final word to rely on. If there's no final world, how does one accuse another of "perversion"? In fact, some of your followers say that even if you had remained silent there would've been no loss of insight, as far as they're concerned.
There is no permanent truth if everything is impermanent. And even the statement that everything is impermanent is only impermanently true. Which means the absolute you posit become only relatively true. If it's only relatively true, it can no longer be stated as an absolute.
You see, you inadvertently proved that truth is asserted principally by words and can be tested by reason. How, then, do we know what is true if nothing is ever said or though in assertions? And you have no eternally binding word.
Buddha: But everything else I have taught hangs on that statement of impermanence. pp.76-77
Good question. How can one absolutely say there are no absolutes? Despite nothing being permanent, Zacharias delves into the abundant rules of Buddhism. He also covers the Christian theology that existed before Budda, in the early writings of the Old Testament.The discussion includes a young woman, Priya, who is dying of AIDS acquired from her life as a prostitute. The discussion pivots on what Jesus and Buddha have to offer her as her life begins to end, so young. Thus, the second significant issue is how do we prepare for our deaths?
Jesus: We come to the end of our discussion, Gautama. What would you offer Priay?
Buddha: She knows, I am sure. We call it the Triple Gem. The Buddha - enlightenment; the Dhamma - the teaching; and the Sangha - the community.
Jesus: Look at them one at a time, Gautama.
First, the Buddha. According to your teaching, you personally no longer exist, nor will she. Nonexistence is the first gem.
The Dhamma. The teaching has no eternal Word to preserve, no absolute to be guided by. That's the second gem.
The Sangha. The community consists of those who believe no self exists and move toward not desiring anything, including the friendship of others. That's the third gem.
You know Gautama, one day a man looking for precious pearls came upon a pearl of great price. He traded everything he had to obtain this pearl.
I am that Pearl of great price. Through me, Priya can bring the rule of God into her heart...I will give her the purity that she thinks she can never recover.
Priya: My choice, then, is the Triple Gem or the Pearl of great price?
Jesus: Your choice is either to obliterate your self or to find your self. Desolation of communion. pp. 83-84
Zacharias also covers the superstitions of Buddhism. I'm impressed how much is covered in so few pages. I also enjoy how many parables, like the pearl of great price, that Zacharias weaves into the dialog, without feeling compelled to footnote all the Bible references. I don't know if Zacharias unfairly represented Buddhism, but he came across as gentle in his criticism of it, despite being stark in pointing to the eternal consequences.

I'm sure I would benefit from another Zacharias book, Jesus among other gods, for a more in depth contrast. But for a quick compare and contrast between Jesus and Buddha, I recommend The Lotus and the Cross.
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