In the Sutra of Cause, Effect, and Salvation, Jesus is presented as the incarnate soul of God. The gospel story is told as God putting on the Five Skandhas so that he can give us his karma and thereby liberate us from the punishment that would be ours, were we to rely on our own karma.
According to Buddhism, the Five Skandhas (also known as the “five aggregates,” the “five attributes,” or the “five heaps”) are what combine in an individual to create the illusion of self:
- Form (matter)
- Sensation (physical and emotional feelings)
- Perception (conceptualization, cognition, reasoning)
- Mental formations (volitional acts and predispositions)
- Consciousness (awareness)
We all experience the world through the Five Skandhas and, to a large degree, base our identity on them (we are what we look like, feel, think, and do). To Buddhists, this is not a good thing; to Buddhists, the Five Skandhas only bring about suffering (Mahavagga 1.6.19: “the five aggregates are suffering”), because they become objects of craving and attachment and perpetuate the false impression that everyone exists as his or her own separate entity. Buddhists believe that in order to attain liberation, you must stop clinging to the Five Skandhas. You must regard all five as empty and impermanent.
The Sutra of Cause, Effect, and Salvation describes Jesus as “the Visitor [who] brought the Five Skandas [sic—an alternate transliteration of the Sanskrit] and the soul together and dwelt in our world” (4:7). Even though “He existed before existing in His mother’s womb” (4:16), in a state of perfect, enlightened wholeness, he put on the Five Skandhas and entered into the world of forms, because “to change your karma, you must exist in this physical world” (4:17). In other words, God clothed himself in human flesh and human consciousness so that he, through his egolessness, could terminate the self-repeating loop of samsara—not for himself (he had always existed outside of samsara) but for all sentient beings. The cross aside, the Chinese would have recognized even the act of incarnation as a sacrificial one, for it meant putting on the fetters of the five aggregates in order to liberate others, even though he himself was already liberated.
And yet the Persian monks who wrote this sutra reshaped the concept of the Five Skandhas into a more positive one. Our bodies, thoughts, and behaviors aren’t something that are intrinsically “bad,” the sutras teach. They can cause pain and suffering, yes, and be misused, but they can also effect good and meaningful things if we use them to worship God. Chapter 5, verses 34 and 35 state, “The Five Skandas . . . all become strong and worship the One Sacred Spirit for their creation and for the image they have been made in.”
Christianity, in stark opposition to Buddhism, affirms the notion of an objectively real, essential self. God places a high value on the individual—our thoughts, emotions, and actions mean something to him. In Buddhism these things are considered empty, but in Christianity, thoughts, emotions, and actions are used to glorify our Creator-God, whose image we bear, and we can use concepts to try to know him better, communicate with him in prayer, and teach his truths to others. In contrast to Buddhism, Christianity teaches that there is such a thing as permanence—God and his Word are permanent, which is why we can trust them; the human soul is permanent, too, which is why we ought to attend to it with great care—and that this world is certainly not an illusion but very real and in need of our active engagement.
Regarding the Skandhas, the Sutra of Cause, Effect, and Salvation also teaches that those who follow Jesus will receive a new, pure, and perfect body when the day of resurrection comes: “The souls of the dead will once again be clothed by the Five Skandas. But this time the Five Skandas will be perfected, needing no food to sustain them nor clothing to cover them. The souls will exist in complete happiness, untouched by physical needs” (3:30-32). Jesus is described as bringing about the perfect union of body and soul. What was once old, corruptible, and fragmented is made new and whole, and incorruptible, by the power of his merit and grace.