Book Review: “The Lotus and the Cross” by Ravi Zacharias (2001)

Buddhism is a well-thought-through belief that is bereft of God. More accurately, it’s a philosophy of hoe one can be good without God, pulling oneself up by one’s own moral bootstraps. Its allurement is obvious. In a very subtle way it is the ultimate crowning of the individual with total autonomy, while at the same time it declares that the self is illusion. (Ravi Zacharias, The Lotus and the Cross, 91)

I’ve been looking forward to this book for a long time, not only because it has been promising to give me greater insight into the ideology of Buddhism as it contrasts to Christianity, but also because it’s by the great author and thinker, Ravi Zacharias. The book disappoints only in its brevity, and after having finished it, I’m left with a lot to chew on.

The story follows an imaginary boat ride, a conversation between Jesus (the Messiah) and Gautama (the Buddha) over the fate of a young and dying prostitute named Priya, with occasional comic relief from the Boatman as they travel together slowly down The River of Kings. As a story, there’s not much plot, though it’s far from dull. As a taste of comparative religions, it’s more exciting than any textbook could ever hope to be.

The conversation flows differently than I had anticipated, for rather than seeing Buddha challenge Christ or His teaching proactively, we instead see Buddha relating his beliefs only to have Christ note its logical fallacies one-by-one, and then fill in the gaps with divine Truth. I wouldn’t call it a one-sided conversation, but nor would I call it a defense of Christianity as much as a report against the foundational tenets of Buddhism. Naturally, this stems from the very focus of their conversation, Priya, a Buddhist herself who’s placed her hope in the ultimately hopeless teachings of Buddhism. Take this concluding snippet for example:

Jesus: We come to the end of our discussion, Gautama. What would you offer Priya?
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. …
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 yourself. Desolation or communion. (83-84)

In flowing this way, this book is best meant as an extended Gospel tract for Buddhists who need to recognize the many logical holes and inconsistencies of their faith. In the book, Jesus summarizes the Buddha’s message this way:

First, you told them there is no God. Then you told them there is no self. You also told them there is no evil one to fear. You told them everything is only within themselves, even though those selves do not exist. You instructed them that there good deeds have to outweigh their bad deeds. You carved into their consciousness a huge debt. You gave them scores of rules to live by. You told them all desire is to be cut off. You told them you would cease to be, and, when they have paid, they will cease to be. (70)

While these issues can perfectly sow the seeds of doubt into the minds of followers of Buddhism, I have to admit that the “logical” argument towards Christianity suggested in the book would not likely have convinced the original Buddha of anything, though enslaved and hopeless Priya would have been a different matter. I have to say this, because in His arguments, Jesus appeals to His own identity as God, which are two things (identity and deity) that Gautama denied at the very outset of his search for “truth.” In considering the conversation this way, of course, I must then wonder which appeals, if any, a Christian could ever make to a person who denies both personal identity and God. But in reality, it’s a first-things-first situation: connect the cracks in the ideological foundation so the whole thing crumbles naturally, and then begin rebuilding with the Truth. This was Jesus’ fictional emphasis with Priya—along with that most powerful force, love—and it then must be one for us to consider as well. Illuminate without attack, show love not arrogance.

A final point I’d like to make about this book comes from a conversation I had recently with strong Christian lady. We were discussing the issue of “putting words into Jesus’ mouth,” and I used both this and Jesus Calling by Sarah Young as positive and negative examples. In Jesus Calling, Young “decided to be more attentive to the Savior’s voice and begin listening for what He was saying” by copying down “the words and Scriptures Jesus lovingly laid on her heart” (Thomas Nelson Publishers, emphasis added). Ravi Zacharias, on the other have, considers what Jesus might have said, were He placed in this imaginative scenario with Buddha and Priya. There are many opinions our there regarding how God “speaks” to His children, but only one of these two examples literally puts words into Jesus’ mouth, which if I’m not mistaken is in direct disobedience to the basic principle behind Revelation 22:18-19! Whereas I love Ravi Zacharias for his imaginative and thought-provoking discourse on what might have been, I cringe at and fear books like Jesus Calling which claim to record true messages from Christ which He has never literally uttered. Those are terrifyingly dangerous grounds, and the discerning believer had better start believing God over some human author, and they’d better start obeying the warnings of Scripture more than the recommendations of some Best Seller List.

The Lotus and the Cross is a powerful drama the pits Truth against error in a congenial, through-provoking way. For the Christian believer, this is an excellent tool for arming against that error; and for the Buddhist, this is an excellent tool for realizing that Truth.

©2016 E.T.

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