The Buddha was not really a savior at all, by his own description or that of any other knowledgeable observer, but it is still useful to think of him in such terms heuristically.
Use “savior” in the United States, where Christianity is the default religion and culturally hegemonic, and most people will assume you mean Jesus. According to official Christian doctrine, the omnipotent deity of Christian belief sent this Jesus guy, “his only begotten son,” to earth to live for a while, then die a horrible, grisly death to “redeem” us of our sins, whatever those were.
This whole story is grossly illogical from start to finish, and in the United States, heavily Protestant as it is, we have a seemingly infinite array of permutations on the basic story, but nearly everyone at least claims to believe some version of it.
To state the matter in political terms, one can map varieties of Christian belief by saying that, at the most liberal end are the Universalists, who believe that all humans will get the salvation Jesus promised, contending for souls against the highly conservative Calvinists, who, in the strictest version, believe that this omnipotent deity has already decided who gets on the up elevator and who on the down, and that humans can do nothing about it. Calvinists deplored Universalism because they feared that the absence of the threat of hell for eternity would lead to immorality.
One way the conservative position manifests in the modern United States is in the doctrine of justification by faith. According to this idea, faith in this Jesus as your savior is the sole necessary and sufficient means by which you gain salvation. A very old, no longer very interesting or relevant, debate has gone on among Christians for centuries over whether faith or “works,” human action, can bring about salvation. Believers in justification by faith excoriate the idea that works, or any human action, can bring salvation to any human.
Tibetan Buddhist master Chogyam Trungpa gave to one of his most famous books the title, Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. This is not at all what he meant, but we can regard the Buddha as playing the savior in the modern world by cutting through all the philosophical nonsense that is Christianity, and by giving us the message that we are responsible for our own “salvation,” although Buddhists do not use that word, and that meditation is the key.
Translating the Buddha’s teachings into a more modern idiom, we can say that heaven and hell are in your own mind, and you have the power to choose between the two. A well developed meditation practice makes the choice ever more easy and obvious.
Jesus is the easy savior in the sense that, apparently, all you have to do to win salvation from him is declare your faith in him. The problem with this, obvious in the modern world, is that far too many people declare their faith in Jesus, convince themselves of their own salvation, and continue to act in horrible ways, certain that Jesus has their back.
The Buddha is the hard savior in the sense that he tells us that the responsibility rests entirely with us and that we need to choose to spend some time pretty much daily working on our own “salvation”/awakening/ enlightenment, whatever you want to call it.
You can choose to find the heaven inside your own head, but it takes work.
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