Gotama Buddha and Jesus of Nazareth are two of the most significant individuals in history. A hundred civilizations and countless millions of lives have been shaped by their ideas. Until recently, the meeting of Buddhism and Christianity was not a happy one. Christianity arrived in several traditional Buddhist lands in the wake of colonial armies and with a highly developed sense of superiority, and Buddhism was generally dismissed as empty idol worship. With a better understanding of Buddhism by Westerners in the second half of the 19th and the early 20th centuries, this stance became more difficult to maintain. The Buddha came to be regarded as a great teacher and his ethics were acknowledged to be as lofty as those of Christianity, at least by the more open-minded Westerners.1 Nonetheless, the overall assessment of Buddhism remained; it was inferior to Christianity. Today, amongst main-line and liberal churches, there is a willingness to engage with Buddhism in an open and respectful manner and on equal terms. This new openness has led to a desire for studies comparing the lives and teachings of the Buddha and Jesus. However, there are several obstacles which make an in-depth comparison between the two challenging, so few of the attempts done so far are of much value.
The first problem is that the Buddha lived at least 500 years before Jesus, when writing had probably not come into use in India. There are no contemporary written records of him or anyone else or of any event connected to him. There is a plethora of histories, letters, inscriptions and other texts from Jesus’ time although none of them mention him, which is curious given the Bible’s claim that he was very well-known. Nonetheless, the documents that are available amply fill out the background of Jesus’ career and sometimes even mention persons and events connected with him.
Then there is the problem of archaeology. This discipline actually began as a Christian endeavour in the 1830s, with Edward Robinson trying to find evidence for the Bible in the Levant. Since then biblical archaeology has been a major and on-going project. As a result, a huge amount of artefacts, inscriptions and even ancient manuscripts supplementing and in some cases verifying the information in the Bible have come to light, giving insight into the milieu of Jesus. In the second half of the 19th century, British archaeologists such as Alexander Cunningham, C.L.Carlleyle, Vincent Smith and others identified and excavated sites mentioned in the Buddhist scriptures, and since then other important discoveries have been made. However, there have been far fewer of these, and some have not been conducted or documented properly. A particularly unfortunate example of this is K. M. Srivastava’s excavation of Kapilavatthu, the Buddha’s hometown.
Another stumbling block to a balanced and in-depth comparison between Jesus and the Buddha is the texts preserving the latter’s words. The New Testament is relatively small, easy to read, and available in almost any bookstore or library and in almost every language. The Buddhist scriptures by contrast are huge and in a form and style awkwardly unfamiliar to the Western reader. Further, whereas Jesus characteristically spoke in epigrams often punctuated with striking parables and similes, the Buddha’s talks and dialogues are more like long philosophical treatises. As a result, those who write comparisons between the two great teachers are typically intimately acquainted with the New Testament while lacking an equally deep knowledge of the Buddhist scriptures. As a result, they rely more on secondary literature about Buddhism, which in turn is commonly based on secondary sources, usually written by academics rather than Buddhist insiders.
Related to this last problem is that many authors who write comparative studies of Buddhism and Christianity or of their founders, are unfamiliar with the school affiliations and ages of the Buddhist texts they use. There are studies explaining Buddhism or particular Buddhist doctrines using Pali text (6th-4th cent. BCE), the Divyāvadāna, (3th cent. CE?), the Caryapada (12th cent. CE) the sayings of Japanese Zen masters and the pronouncements of Tibet’s currant Dalai Lama, without explaining that Buddhism has evolved during its 2500 year history. This would be equivalent to writing an account of Christianity using the Bible, the Gospel of Thomas, the Legenda sanctorum, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost, the Book of Mormon and the Divine Principles of the Unification Church, and presenting it as representative of standard, mainline Christianity.
Another difficulty is social and cultural. Even when a more accurate and complete knowledge of Buddhism became available in the West, it was generally still disparaged as of little worth. In 1921 the Catholic Encyclopaedia acknowledged that the Buddha “may be credited with the qualities of a great and good man” but that “the fundamental tenets of Buddhism are marked by grave defects that not only betray its inadequacy to become a religion of enlightened humanity, but also bring into bold relief its inferiority to the religion of Jesus Christ.” Now the general tenor in Western society towards religions has changed from this traditional exclusiveness to a new and almost celebratory inclusiveness. Now, the emphasis is on “shared values” and “common ground”, almost to the degree that even a polite suggestion that different religions might be at odds on some matters is considered “unhelpful” or even “intolerant”.
The number of books now available claiming to show that Buddhism and Christianity are both pointing to the same truths is impressive. These range from popular titles such as Living Buddha Living Christ, A Good Heart: A Buddhist Perspective on the Teachings of Jesus and Two Masters One Message; to more scholarly works such as Compassion and Meditation: the Spiritual Dynamic between Buddhism and Christianity, Jesus and Buddha: Friends in Conversation, and Buddhist and Christian? An Exploration of Duel Belonging. Such works are usually sincere and well-meaning but just as often try too hard to see similarities and downplay differences, and the result is inauthenticity.
An unhappy example of such efforts is Jesus & Buddha, The Parallel Sayings, edited by New Testament scholar and theologian Marcus Borg, and which has been published several times since 1997. Borg presents a large number of passages from the New Testament and from a range of Buddhist texts which he sees as parallel. A few of the sayings are undoubtedly similar but most of them are not. In some cases the only shared feature is the similes used, the meaning and purpose of the simile being ignored. So on page 105, the account of Jesus walking on the water, taken as proof of his divinity, is paired with a brief extract of a long passage in which the Buddha describes some of the psychic powers a monk, Buddhist or non-Buddhist, could develop as a result of his meditation, including walking on the water. Apart from the mention of walking on water, these two passages have nothing in common.
Again, while Borg uses only the New Testament for the Christian examples, he sometimes parallels them with Buddhist texts from very disparate traditions and ages. Thus on more than 10 occasions2 he juxtaposes verses from the Gospels with Buddhist texts composed centuries after others he quotes. The passage on page 36 is a description of the layman Vimalakīrti, not the Buddha. The passages he quotes on pages 45 and 49 are from a literary work called Jātakamāla, composed more than 1000 years after the Buddha. Most perplexing are other texts which do not seem to have any connection with each other at all, or even contradict each other. On page 56, Matthew 7, 15, a warning against false prophets, is paired with a saying by the Buddha disparaging rigorous asceticism rather than inner transformation. Another example can be found on page 101 where Jesus says that after his death his disciples will see him because he will actually still be alive.3 The Buddhist passage supposedly similar to this says almost the exact opposite, that although the Buddha will no longer be accessible, his disciples will have his Dhamma to guide and inspire them.
When Borg discusses parallels between the lives of the Buddha and Jesus we encounter the same problem. He says that they “both had life-transforming experiences at around the age of 30”. Jesus was perhaps 29 or 30 when he was baptised and the Buddha attained awakening when he was 35, which would hardly qualify as an “impressive” similarity. Did the Buddha encounter “trouble with the ruling aristocracy” as Borg claims? He was on good terms with the four most powerful monarchs of the time, except Udena of Vaṃsa who had little interest in any religion. While some brahmans were hostile towards him, others had considerable respect for him, and a good number became his disciples. Jesus by contrast, provoked such strong reactions from the religious and political authorities that they had him executed. The Buddha’s single brief meeting with the courtesan Ambapāli and another with the murderer Angilimāla is, in Borg’s estimation, equivalent to Jesus’ frequent consorting with sinners and tax collectors. The Buddha accepted a meal from the courtesan Ambapāli as he would have done for anyone else; Jesus consorted with sinners because he believed they were more in need of salvation. Almost all parallels between the lives of Jesus and the Buddha presented by Borg are tenuous or inconsequential at best.
Because Borg is committed to the idea that Buddhism and Christianity share important features he has to ignore all the evidence that does not fit this preconception. Had he given himself the task of finding dissimilarities, he would have discovered many more and more cogent examples than those he has culled for this book.
In the 1960s, the eminent theologian Karl Rahner made the startling claim that there were Buddhists who were actually Christians without realising it, what he called “anonymous Christians”. Now some people are claiming they are fully conscious of being ‘Buddhist Christians’ or ‘Christian Buddhists’, presumably meaning that they live by and intellectually accept the tenets of both without any discordance. For example, Ross Thompson in his book Buddhist Christianity: A Passionate Openness, describes himself as a Buddhist Christian although curiously, his other books make it clear that he is very much a Christian, albeit an open and liberal one. One wonders also why he would ordain as and remain Anglican priest. The Catholic theologian Raimon Panikkar wrote: “I left Europe [for India] as a Christian, I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist, without ever having ceased to be a Christian.” However, when I read how Panikkar explanains his “Buddhism” much of it was unfamiliar to me, despite my 42 years as a Buddhist monk. Taking all these notions and claims to their logical conclusion, other theologians such as Lynn de Silva (The Problem of Self in Buddhism and Christianity), John Cobb (Beyond Dialogue. Towards Mutual Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism) and Hans Waldnfels (Absolute Nothingness. Foundations of Christian-Buddhist Dialogue) have advocated a kind of fusing of the two religions, supposedly for the mutual enrichment of both. And of course, by bowdlerising Buddhism and asserting a Christian theology almost completely divorced from its scriptural foundations and millennia of orthodoxy, it is possible to do this.
My book takes a different approach. It accepts that Buddhism does indeed have some interesting similarities with Christianity, particularly with its ethics, as it does with Jainism, some schools of Hinduism, Gnosticism, and the writings of Schopenhauer, Freud, Maslow, and many others. One could compare virtually any system of thought with another and find meeting points. However, to do this while papering over or ignoring fundamental differences is to rob each of their unique features and their contributions to the richness and diversity of human spirituality. It is well-meaning but it is also misleading.
One book that does not do this is Keith Yandell and Harold Netland’s Buddhism: A Christian Exploration and Appraisal. Even though the authors have serious misunderstandings of certain aspects of Buddhism, I concur with their general approach and intentions. “…Christianity and Buddhism have some similarities, and there is much to be gained by both Christians and Buddhists from listening carefully to the other. In a fragmented world in which – all too often – religion is used to sanction injustice and violence, it is crucial to find ways to bridge differences and work for peace. Surely Jesus and the Buddha would expect no less from their followers…Thus, even as we acknowledge areas of common ground and the need for respectful cooperation, honesty demands that we recognize the basic differences between the two visions of reality and how we are to live. Christianity affirms the reality of an eternal, omnipotent creator God. Buddhism denies this. Christianity maintains that in Jesus of Nazareth God became incarnate, and thus that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully human. There is nothing like this in Buddhism. Christian metaphysics entails the reality of individual souls and selves. Buddhism has traditionally denied this. Buddhism locates the source of suffering and the problems in our world in desire/craving and ignorance. Christian faith claims that it is not ignorance but sin against a holy and righteous God that is the root of all our problems. And so on.”4
My goal is to be honest; looking at the similarities, the differences and the contradictions too. And I respect Jesus and the Buddha enough to let them speak for themselves, that is, their words as presented in the respective sacred scriptures. After all, it is the words of each that are or are supposed to be the foundation (themelion) and the cornerstone (akrogoniaios) of the two religions, more so than those of the Pope or the Dalai Lama, Matthew Fox or Steven Batchelor. For Christianity, I will use the New Testament, mainly the 1994 revised edition of the Good News Bible, and for Buddhism the Pali Text Society’s edition of the Pāḷi Tipitaka with mostly my own translations. As the Pāḷi discourses often contain numerous repetitions, I have abbreviated some passages. Throughout, I will refer to Jesus by his given name rather than the title Christ, but because we do not actually know what the Buddha’s given name was, I will refer to him either by his clan name Gotama or by his title, Buddha. As there is considerable disagreement between scholars and even among Christians themselves concerning what Jesus meant by “the Kingdom of God”, “the Son of Man” and “Son of God”, I have avoided commenting on these subjects. For the same reason I have left others to decide whether Jesus really thought of himself as the Messiah and if so what he meant by it, and whether or not he was divine. Besides, there are enough other ideas and beliefs to compare and examine. The reader will notice that I have given considerably more space to the Buddha’s life than to that of Jesus. This is not simply because there is far less information about the former than the latter. The life of the Buddha, at least the earliest accounts of it, is so little known and so often conflated with legends that evolved sometimes centuries after his time that it deserves more detail. I have also given more space to explaining the Buddha’s teaching and for the same reasons.