Jesus and Buddha as Stories?
By David Loy

The following text is from an email discussion on the Ernest Becker listserv [], addressing the topic 'God as projection'. It should not be taken as a complete presentation of my views on the topic, or as a final one.



    I much appreciate the thread on God as projection, which I think is an important one. I would like to supplement what Dan said, or perhaps express some of the same things in a different way. In addition to understanding the importance of god as a personal construct, I want to emphasize the value of god as a collective social construct -- that is, as our most important story.

    The main point is that our minds need stories just as much as our bodies need food. 'Story' in this case means the common denominator of all our mythologies, folktales, legends, epics, novels, philosophies, ideologies, etc., including of course our religious beliefs. Just like food builds and rebuilds our bodies, stories build and rebuild our minds (or spirits, if you prefer) because it is through them that we learn what the world is, who we are, what is important in this world, and how we are to live in it. A person without some such stories is almost inconceivable and could not be fully human. If we look at religion-stories from this perspective, we can appreciate them in a different way. In my view, the greatest religion-stories (for me, those of Jesus and the Buddha) are the greatest stories ever told, something not diminished by the fact that most of those narratives is probably fictitious, and that there is no objective or final way to distinguish what is fictitious from 'what really happened'.

    That they are our collective social constructs says something important about our collective ability to delude ourselves, as Becker and others show us; but also something valuable about how we humans create meaning in our lives by projecting something in order to be inspired by our own projections. There is a more positive side even to personal transference, as Freud and Ferenczi saw, for it is part of the way we create the larger reality we need to discover and develop ourselves. Rank concluded that 'projection is a necessary unburdening of the individual; man cannot live closed in upon himself and for himself.' If so, the question becomes how we are to choose between transference-objects: What is creative projection? Life-enhancing illusion? As Jung put it: What myth shall we live by? How do we ensure that our illusions are capable of correction, that they do not deteriorate into the problems that Dan described in his posting?

    This allows a more sympathetic view of religious faith than Freud, for example, had. Hegel pointed out that God is the perfect spiritual object -- I would say, the best story -- precisely because he/she/it is the most abstract. If the problem with transference is that it fetishizes our highest yearnings into the narrow compass of particular objects, one solution is to expand those strivings and feelings of awe to the greatest possible extent: into the cosmos as a whole. 'It also takes the problem of self-justification and removes it from the objects near at hand. We no longer have to please those around us, but the very source of creation.' (Denial of Death 202)

    Again, the crucial point of all this is: we need such stories. It's not a matter of getting rid of our illusions to see reality as it is, for all we can ever do is exchange one story for another -- and even mechanistic science is, essentially, a set of such stories, marvelous ones in many ways but quite poor when it comes to answering questions about meaning and the 'why' of things. Contrary to what some sociobiologists and Darwinists claim, it's not that science refutes any meaning or 'why' to the universe: rather, it is unable to answer those questions because its methodologies do not enable it to address those kinds of questions. Since those concerns are so essential to our human nature, however, scientists too become tempted to try to extract such conclusions from their research -- but then science becomes 'scientism', a type of religion although not a very good one. In sum, mechanistic science is a great story but by itself an incomplete one.

    The analogy between stories and food is actually quite a good one, I think. An occasional dose of fast food or junk food is usually not too bad for us, but a diet that consists only of Big Macs, fries and soda pop is unhealthy. Just as we need to eat something to sustain our bodies, so we need stories to provide the meaning-structure for our lives. One of the worst problems with our consumer culture is that, just as it encourages us to eat too much junk food, so it encourages us to watch and listen to too many junk stories, with simplistic and predictable plots focused on violence and sex, and with predictable effects on the lives of those devoted to them.

    Why are the Jesus and Buddha stories better ones? Here everyone can provide his or her own explanation; I'll just share some of my own thoughts. Part of what is fascinating about the Jesus story is that we know so little about him and what he really taught; which has made it so easy to project onto him our deepest spiritual needs and aspirations. The source of the cosmos becoming embodied in a human being, who loves all of us so much that he is willing to die for us; who empties himself completely in order to become a vehicle for the cosmic process, in the process modelling what each of us needs to do in our own lives; who has no need for money or fame or temporal power, but urges us to see through them as traps that only interfere with our higher spiritual destiny; who, most fundamentally, taught that the highest meaning of life is to love -- not merely those who love us or help us, but everyone, especially those who need our love the most, those in greatest need. My own life would be much the poorer without this great story, bereft of one of the focal points that enables me to focus my life (however imperfectly); it is a myth I want to live by. How much of it is factually 'true'? I am no longer sure how important that question is. What makes that myth truly religious is the claim that those who try to live in such a way find themselves assisted by a power greater than themselves; to put it another way, that the love we attempt to embody is realized to be not something that we have but something that we participate in. I am inclined to believe that, for it seems to me I have had some small experience of it; but in the end that is not the most important thing. In either case, it is a myth that inspires and empowers me. That is not to deny the dangers of this myth (and all others): the ways it can be perverted and institutionalized to justify patriarchy and other forms of social oppression, crusades and inquisitions. Myths can fossilize and lose their power to 'save' us; the solution to that, however, is not to reject the myth (at least, not the best ones) but to revivify it by returning to the essential core.

    The myth which inspires me most of all is the story of Shakyamuni Buddha. Although he lived about five hundred years before Jesus, we know a lot more about his teachings, but that does not obviate our need to distinguish what is fundamental and still living about his story from what is culture-bound, incidental, and just plain outmoded today (karma and rebirth understood literally?); for that process is unavoidable if a myth is to provide the creative meaning-structure we need. The core of the Buddha story is a search for wisdom about the nature of the world and our own essential nature. The Buddha's life-quest is elegant in its structure and deeply moving, because it forcefully reminds us not to repress awareness of the illness, old age and death that haunt our lives, but to use that awareness to motivate and energize our search for the meaning of our life and death. His awakening is described in various ways, and there even seems to be something intentionally ambiguous about it, but some essential points stand out: the understanding we need is not a conceptual one; we can resolve the anguish of our lives not by accumulating things but by overcoming the greed, ill-will and delusion of our own minds; this involves letting-go of the sense-of-self that makes me feel alienated from others in the world. The result is a personal freedom that is serene yet empowered because not afraid of pain and death. Is complete liberation really attainable? Again, the Buddhist tradition presents the Buddha as perfect, but twenty-five centuries after the fact we cannot know for certain how much is history and how much is hagiography. Yet from a mythic perspective that is not the important issue. At this point in time we must accept responsibility for the fact that the Buddha story, like the Christian one, is our construction, but none the less valuable for that, in my view.

    Expressed in that way, these two stories are wonderfully complementary, to the point that they can be said to imply each other: to be most effective, love requires wisdom and vice-versa. The curious history of the Bodhisattva story indicates perhaps the main danger in both religions. In Mahayana Buddhism the bodhisattva is a Buddha-to-be or a Buddha-in-training whose training involves overcoming self-preoccupation by helping other people. Within much of popular Buddhism, bodhisattvas are the ones we appeal to when we need help; but within Zen, for example, there is emphasis on the need for each of us to become bodhisattvas. There is the same duality in Christianity, between the popular belief that Jesus-as-son-of-God saves us, and the emphasis (stronger within Eastern Orthodoxy) that each of us should strive to emulate his example. In both cases the first approach fully deserves the critique that Becker and others have made, in my opinion: such transference is indeed a mystification that 'reflects some universal betrayal of man's own powers'; but the second approach is not: insofar as it is a projection (and our ambiguity about how much that is the case seems to be essential to the plot!), it is nonetheless a necessary one: not just for the weak who cannot stand too much reality, but for anyone who wants to do more than just passively yield to the chance possibilities that arise in our lives.

    Those who do not care for such religious stories should consider the alternative: the glorification of power and the emphasis on self (both individual and collective -- e.g., nationalism, racism, etc.). In place of the search for wisdom about the meaning of our own lives, today the predominant quest is the search for knowledge-as-power (and, through that, knowledge-as-profit). I prefer the Buddhist quest, because at this point in our history we need additional scientific knowledge less than wisdom about how to use that knowledge.

    It is not an accident, of course, that junk food and junk stories are so prevalent today. In both cases, our consumption patterns are molded by an advertising industry that finds promoting them highly profitable. This should be highly disturbing to all of us, I think, because both food and stories are so essential to our mental and physical well-being. It is scandalous that we allow our sophisticated technological media -- which have become a kind of national and international 'nervous system' for humanity -- to degrade them by using them as means for making money. In his last book 'Escape from Evil' Ernest Becker wrote about humankind's collective madness, and today that is one shocking example of it.


David R. Loy
Professor - Faculty of International Studies
Bunkyo University