The Dhamma and the Gospel
What they named Their Teachings
Jesus never gave his teaching a name, almost certainly because he did not see it as something new but as a restatement of Judaism, a return to what he took to be the essence the ancient Jewish sacred law, combined with John the Baptist’s apocalyptic theology. He said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfil them.”1 He asked his followers to practise God’s law with even more zeal than the Pharisees did.2 Perhaps Jesus’ single most famous pronouncement, and one encapsulating an idea often assumed to be unique to him, “Love your neighbour as yourself”, actually comes from the book of Leviticus in the Old Testament, written some 500 years before his time.3 Jesus described his teaching as being euangelion, a Greek word meaning ‘good news’ and which has come into English as ‘gospel’.4 From an early period, Jesus’ followers were called Nazarenes or Christians although Jesus himself never used these term.5
The Buddha called his teachings Dhamma, a word meaning reality, the way things are, or actuality. Sometimes he called it the Instruction (Sāsana). He named the central conception of his Dhamma the Four Noble Truths. The fourth of these, the practical one, he called the Middle Way (Majjhima Patipadā) because he said it avoided the extremes of self-mortification on the one hand and sensual indulgence on the other.6 His first disciples called themselves or were called Gotama’s disciples (Gotama sāvaka) or scion of the Sakyan (Sakaya putta).7
It is frequently claimed, even in some academic publications, that Buddhism started as a branch or a reform of Hinduism or that it borrowed some of its central concepts from it. Such assertions needs to be clarified and then challenged. While many Indians during the Buddha’s time were probably animists, Brahmanism was the main formal religion, with a priesthood, a canon of scriptures, a liturgical language, and various codified rituals. It was based on the Vedas and its supreme god was Brahmā, or according to some versions Pajāpati. In the centuries after the Buddha, Brahmanism gradually evolved into what is now called and is recognisable as Hinduism. In the process, many Brahmanical doctrines and practices fell into abeyance or changed radically, so that while Brahmanism and Hinduism have much in common, they have distinct differences as well. Scholars sometimes distinguish between them by calling them Vedic Hinduism and Purāṇic Hinduism. The situation is similar in some ways to the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The latter grew out of the former, retaining some features and developing many new ideas, so that the two became distinct religions.
The two religious specialists during the Buddha’s time were the brahmans and the samaṇas. The brahmans were the hereditary priests of Brahmanism and considered the Vedas to be the ultimate spiritual authority. The samaṇas, on the other hand, were wandering ascetics who rejected the Vedas and most Brahmanical beliefs and practices, disregarded social norms and expectations and gave precedence to experience rather than dogma and scriptural authority. They experimented with meditation, self-mortification, yogic breathing, and fasting. They were also usually celibate, mendicant and itinerate. The Buddha said of the typical samaṇa that “having accepted sufficient alms he goes his way as a bird when it flies here or there taking nothing with it but its wings”.8 The samaṇas were sometimes also known as ford-makers (titthakara) because they were trying to find or claimed to have found a way to cross the raging river of conditioned existence. Likewise, they were sometimes called mendicants (bhikkhu) because they begged for their food, or tapassin because they exerted themselves. During the Buddha’s time, there were at least a dozen major fraternities or sects of samaṇas but the ones that attracted most attention were the Jains, called niganthas in the Tipitaka, meaning Bondless Ones, and the Buddha’s Saṅgha or monastic community.
The more orthodox followers of Brahmanism, particularly brahman priests, regarded samaṇas as rivals, heretics and on a par with outcastes because they ignored caste rules. The Tipitaka often records various brahmans referring to the Buddha or his monks as miserable ascetics (samaṇaka) and menials (ibbha).9 The antagonism between the two was highlighted by Patañjali (circa. 150 BCE), who wrote that samaṇas and brahmans were “like cat and mouse, dog and fox, snake and mongoose” meaning that they were polar opposites in both their lifestyles and their approaches to spirituality. He added that “the opposition between the two is eternal” (yeṣāṃ ca virodhah śāśvatikah).10 The Buddha was very much within the samaṇa tradition and throughout the Tipitaka he is addressed as the “samaṇa Gotama”. When he renounced the world, he did not seek out a brahman teacher to study the Vedas from but rather the two respected samaṇa gurus, Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta.11
Just as the Buddha rejected the Brahmanical approach to the religious life, he also rejected most of its doctrines. The central sacrament of Brahmanism was the worship of Agni, the god of fire, and the sacrifices (yāga) in which offerings (homa) were made to Agni and other gods. Agni is mentioned in the Vedas more than any other deity and the Vedas, the Samhitās, the Gṛhya Sūtras and the Brāhmaṇas describe in minute detail when and how these sacrifices were to be performed, their meaning, and their efficacy. The Buddha was highly critical of these rituals, particularly the sacrifices in which animals were slaughtered. To him the sacrifices were “not worth a sixteenth of having a calm mind”. He called the worship of Agni ineffective and dismissed it as “an outlet to failure” (apāyamukhānī). “If one were to sacrifice to the sacred fire for a hundred years in the forest or another were to honour someone who had developed himself that would be better than the hundred years of sacrifice.”12 Again: “Not fire worship, undergoing penance, chanting the sacred hymns, making oblations or conducting fire sacrifices can win immortality or purify one who has not gone beyond doubt.”13 The Buddha chose to itemise the three root mental defilements, greed, hatred and ignorance, (lobha, dosa and moha) and call them fires, to parallel and also contrast with the three sacred fires of Brahmanism.14 Brahmanism required that these three fires be tended and kept burning for all one’s life; the Buddha taught that one attained Awakening only by extinguishing the three fires. Of the several names the Buddha gave to the state of complete liberation, the most common was Nirvana, meaning ‘to blow out’, i.e. to blow out the burning mental defilements.
The Buddha also rejected in the strongest terms the caste system, the very cornerstone of the Brahminical social order. The only social division he recognized was that of householders (gahapati) and home-leavers (pabbajita), i.e. monks and nuns, and one could change from one to another. He taught that everyone was worthy of being considered a brahman if they were virtuous, turning on its head the Brahmanical notion that a brahman is someone born to brahman parents, who in turn had to be “of pure decent through at least seven generations”.15 He said: “I do not consider one a brahman simply by being born from, or emerged from the womb of a brahman mother. Such a one is just a chanter of the Vedic hymns.”16 “Whoever is friendly amidst the hostile, peaceful amidst the violent, content amidst the clinging, him I call a brahman.”17 “Even if one chants the sacred hymns, one born brahman is not one if he is internally rotten, soiled and supports himself by fraudulent means. Whether warrior caste, brahman caste, merchant caste, service caste, outcaste or scavenger, if one is energetic, determined and always makes an effort one can attain the highest purity. You should know that this is a fact.18 Once, hearing that the Buddha “teaches that all four castes are pure”, a brahman went to debate and refute him on this issue. When this brahman kept insisting that brahmans are pure because they are born from Brahmā’s mouth, the Buddha replied that it was an observable fact that they were born from their mother’s womb just like everyone else.19
Because the Buddha and his monks accepted food from and mixed with people of all castes, even outcastes, in the eyes of upper caste people they were as impure and contaminating as outcastes. When the Buddha approached the brahman Aggikabhāradvāja to beg for food he was rebuffed and insulted. “Stop there you shaveling, you miserable ascetic, you outcaste!”20 When he went to the brahman village of Thunā and the people saw him coming, they stuffed their well with grass and rice husks so he could not drink from and thereby pollute their water.22
For most people today caste would be considered an outdated custom or a matter of justice or equality, but to brahmans it was something quite different. It was the very foundation of their view of themselves, their role in society and the underpinning of the divinely created social order of which they were the pinnacle. The Buddha’s repudiation of the caste shocked the orthodox.
An important Brahmanical practice which the Buddha rejected was ritual bathing. He maintained that bathing in the Ganges or other sacred rivers could never wash away the evil a person had done, any more that the water in a village well could.23 Real pollution, he maintained, came from negative thoughts and immoral behaviour, and this could only be “cleaned” by changing one’s heart and one’s actions. He called this the “inner washing” (sināto antarena sinānena).24 For him, to live in austerity and moral purity was to be “washed without water” (sinānam anodakaṃ).25
Brahmanism was a strongly domestic religion. During the Buddha’s time people married for all the reasons they always have, but within Brahmanism marriage was imperative because some of its central rites could not be performed or even participated in by an unmarried man. The brahman who conducted a sacrifice had to be married and the wife of a man who sponsored a sacrifice had to be present during its performance, otherwise it would be ineffective. One of the four stages (catur āśrama) each person was supposed to pass through during their life was being married and raising a family.
An important Brahminical concept which centred on family and producing male progeny was the doctrine of the Threefold Debt (triṛṇa). According to this doctrine, as soon as a man is born he incurs three debts which must be repaid before he dies; studentship to teachers, sacrifices to gods, and producing a son. Having a son was not just to perpetuate the family line; it guaranteed immortality.26 Only a son could ignite his parent’s funeral pyre and only he could make the offerings that sustained his ancestors in the world of the fathers (pitṛloka). “The father who sees the face of his new-born son repays his debt and attains immortality…By means of a son a father crosses the mighty darkness…A wife is a friend, a daughter is grief but a son is a light in the highest heaven.” “Through your offspring i.e. son you are born again. That O mortal, is your immortality.” “By having a son a man gains the world; through a son he obtains immortality, and through a son’s grandson he attains the crest of the sun.”27 To become a celibate monk and thus never produce a son was, according to Brahmanism, to cease to exist after death, it amounted to annihilation.
For the Buddha as for Jesus and the first Christians, home life was problematic, a hindrance to spiritual aspirations. St. Paul’s words at 1 Cornthians.7.32-35 on this matter could have been spoken at least in part by the Buddha: “I would like you to be free from worries. An unmarried man concerns himself with the Lord’s work because he is trying to please the Lord. But a married man concerns himself with worldly matters, because he wants to please his wife, and so he is pulled in two directions…I am saying this because I want to help you. I am not trying to put restrictions on you. Instead, I want you to do what is right and proper, and to give yourselves completely to the Lord’s service without any reservations.” The Buddha put it this way: “The household life is confining and dusty while the homeless life is as free as the breeze. It is not easy living the household life, and also living the completely perfected holy life, purified and polished like a conch shell.”28 The Buddha said that “sons do not protect you” and that “one obsessed with getting sons or cattle will be carried away by death.”29 Other things the Buddha had to say about family life will be discussed below.
The Buddha did not teach that the goal of the religious life to go to heaven, what in Brahmanism was called the world of the fathers (pitṛloka). He considered the celestial state to be better than hell but distinctly inferior to Nirvana. For him, heaven, like all conditioned states, was impermanent and when one’s time there was over, one could well be reborn as a human again and be heir to all the travails of bodily existence. Thus “the wise are not interested in the glories of heaven”, and attaining even the first stage of Awakening “is better than going to heaven”.30 Related to this, there was no place in the Buddha’s Dhamma for a single supreme being, as will be shown below.
An important daily ritual in Brahmanism was the worship of the direction, sometimes the four cardinal ones, sometimes these four plus the nadir and the zenith, sometimes all six plus the intermediate directions. When the young man Sigāla told the Buddha that he worshipped the six directions at the request of his dying father the Buddha said that he too taught the worship of the directions but in a very different way. He explained that for each direction one should consider a known person – parent, spouse, friend, teacher, employee, etc., and “worship” them by treating them with respect and kindness.31
Even in unexpected and seemingly minor matters the evidence shows that the Buddha sort to distance his Dhamma from Brahmanism. The sacred language of Brahmanism was Sanskrit which was believed to be the language of the gods; primordial, pure and eternal. Sanskrit was the language of the Vedas but by the 6th century BCE it was no longer spoken and used only when chanting the Vedic hymns during sacrifices and other rituals. On one occasion two monks, both from a brahman background, suggested to the Buddha that all his teachings be rendered into chandas, metrical Sanskrit. The Buddha rebuked them saying: “How can you foolish men say such a thing. It would not be pleasing to those not yet pleased or increase the number of those already pleased. Rather, it would be unpleasing for those not yet pleased and also to those already pleased.” Then he added: “I want you to learn the Buddha’s teaching each in your own language.”32 There can be no doubt that the Buddha did not want his teachings to be associated with the Brahmanical priestly class and in a dead language that would not be accessible to the majority of people.
In later centuries Sanskrit became India’s language of the culture and learning and by about the 2nd century CE, bowing to the inevitable, monks translated the Buddha’s discourses into Sanskrit and started composing various works in that language.
It is true that the Buddha sometimes borrowed Brahmanical terminology and categories but he always gave them new, usually ethical, meanings. For example a brahman who had mastered the three Vedas and other sacred knowledge was given the honoured title Thrice-learned One (Tevijja) while the Buddha said it was attaining the three insights through meditation that made one a real Thrice-learned One.33
Thus the Buddha either criticised, rejected, ignored or reinterpreted almost every one of the essential doctrines and practices of Brahmanism. Likewise, the central principles of his Dhamma – the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the Three Characteristics of Existence, the doctrine of no-self, and Dependant Origination – are not found in the Vedas or in later Brahmanical texts. Neither do any of the Vedas mention kamma or rebirth, absolutely fundamental concepts in Buddhism, although they were later incorporated into Hinduism. In fact, the Buddha distinctly said that these and the other truths he had realised had “not been heard about before” (pubbe ananussutesu).
Given that the Buddha presented his Dhamma as an alternative to the prevailing religions, and that the brahman priests were all too aware of this, it is not surprising that the Tipitaka records numerous examples of brahman hostility towards the Buddha and his Dhamma. They disparaged Buddhist monks as “the black scrapings of our kinsmen’s foot” (ibbhā kiṇhā bandhupadāpaccā), equating them with outcastes who were supposedly created from Brahmā’s feet. Once some brahmans who had become the Buddha’s disciples commented to him that their fellow brahmans now “insult and abuse us. They do not hold back with their usual flood of insults”.34 When the brahman Akkosaka heard that a member of his clan had become a Buddhist he was outraged, he went to the Buddha and “abused and reviled him with rude harsh words”.35
Although meditation of various kinds would later become an important part of Hindu spirituality, there were no such practices in Brahmanism, and brahmans mocked and disparaged this aspect of Buddhism. “As a cat at a door post, a rubbish heap or a drain meditates, contemplates, ruminates, speculates, so these ascetics …claim, ‘We meditate, we are meditators!’ With their drooping shoulders, their heads hanging down, limp all over, they meditate…”36 Some of the Buddha’s disciples were not always prepared to take such abuse lying down. A group of young brahman students once encountered the senior monk Kaccāna in the forest and sniped that he and other monks were only given respect only by lowly menials (bhāratakā). Deciding not to let this insult pass Kaccāna replied: “Puffed up with pride… bathing at sunrise, chanting the three Vedas, reciting mantras, rules, vows and penance… hypocrisy, crooked staffs and ritual ablutions, these are the marks of brahmans. But it is by having a focused mind, clear and free from blemishes, and by being gentle towards all beings that is the way to Brahmā.”37
Brahmanism’s hostility towards and criticism of Buddhism, like that of Hinduism later, continued for centuries. The Maitri Upaniṣad says: “There are those who love to distract believers in the Vedas by the jugglery of false arguments, comparisons and parallelisms…The world is bewildered by a doctrine that denies the self (nairātmyavāda), by false comparisons and proofs, it does not discern the difference between the wisdom of the Vedas and other knowledge…Some say that there should be attention to Dhamma instead of the Vedas…But it is the Vedas that are true. The wise should base their lives on the Vedas. A brahman should only study what is in the Vedas.” This is obviously a criticism of the Buddhist doctrine of no self (anattā), of Buddhism’s rejection of the authority of the Vedas, and of the logical arguments Buddhists used to support their views. The Viṣṇu Purāṇa depicted the Buddha as a cunning seducer who used illusion and ignorance (māyāmoha) to wean people away from the truth. In his commentaries on the Vedanta Sūtras, Sankaracariya wrote: “The Buddha’s Dhamma must be completely rejected by all those who have regard for their own happiness.” Kumārila Bhaṭṭa’s Śloka-vārttika contained a detailed critique of Buddhism and concluded by dismissing it as suitable only for outcastes, foreigners and savages. The Prameyamālā saw Buddhism as being at odds with and a threat to Hinduism, stating: “The truth contained in the three Vedas is destroyed by the followers of Kaṇāda, by the Buddhists and by other heretics. Previously, it was protected by Viṣṇu with his trident.”
All this disagreement and disparagement would have been meaningless and unnecessary if Buddhism had been just a branch or a reform of Brahmanism or later Hinduism. The Buddha used the vernacular of the time which included some Brahmanical terminology, but he saw his Dhamma as distinct from Brahmanism and so did the Brahmanical philosophers and thinkers, both during his time and later.
Despite the Buddha’s criticism of Brahmanism and orthodox brahman hostility towards him, the two were sometimes on good terms with each other. The more open and liberal brahmans in particular could be curious about the Buddha and respectful towards his ideas, and would engage in polite dialogue with him. As mentioned above, a good number of them converted to Buddhism and even became monks.
Their Teaching Styles
The fact that the Dhamma and the Gospel took hold so firmly and spread so quickly was largely due to the teaching style of both the Buddha and Jesus. In Jesus’ case, this was even more remarkable given that his career was so short and initially met with considerable opposition. It is obvious that the two men were extremely effective communicators to their respective audiences.
Jesus addressed his message primarily to the simple Jewish peasants of Palestine and he spoke in a manner that appealed to them. It is quite likely that his words as preserved in the first three Gospels fairly accurately reflect his teaching style – interesting parables drawing mainly on elements from peasant life and the experiences of ordinary people, and short, memorable epigrams. According to most scholars, Jesus used about 40 parables. When his apostles asked him why he used parables to communicate with people he gave a rather perplexing answer. “The knowledge of the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven has been given to you but not to them…The reason I use parables in talking to them is that they look but do not see, and they listen but do not hear or understand… As for you, how fortunate you are! Your eyes see and your ears hear. I assure you that many prophets and many of God’s people wanted very much to see what you see, but they could not, and hear what you hear, but they did not.”38 This suggests that the purpose of the parables was to conceal something that was only revealed to the inner circle of apostles. Yet it is widely assumed, and it seems to be the case, that the parables were the main way Jesus got his message across.
A justly famous example of Jesus’ ability to effect positive change in people with a few simple words is what he said to a crowd who had assembled to stone a woman accused of adultery. Hoping to get Jesus to criticise the Old Testament sacred law which lays down stoning as a punishment for this offence (Deuteronomy 22,22-24), the presiding priests asked Jesus what he would do in this case. He paused for a moment, lent down and drew something on the ground with his finger, then stood up and said: “Let him amongst you who is without sin cast the first stone.” One by one the crowd dropped their stones and drifted away and when they had all gone Jesus asked the woman: “Is there no one left to condemn you?” When she answered “No” he said: “Then neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”39 A great deal is packed into these three short sentences. They prompted the crowd to think of their own shortcomings rather than the woman’s, they balanced mercy and forgiveness with a plea to the woman to change her behaviour, and at the same time subtly rebuked the priests for their scheming. This is a wonderful story and one of several examples of Jesus’ power as a teacher.
The popular perception of the Buddha, even by Buddhists themselves, is that he was a semi-recluse who spent most of his time alone in forest glades and mountain caves. This perception is not supported by the Tipitaka, which depicts him very much as an urbanite. He lived mainly within walking distance of large cities and towns: Rājagaha, Kosambi, Sāketa, Sāvatthī, Vesāli, Campa, Mathura, etc. Even when he went into rural areas or forest retreats he was always near a village or hamlet which he needed to get his food. This meant that while the Buddha’s audience came from all backgrounds, typically they were city-dwellers, often from the economic, religious and political class: merchants, ascetics of various sects, military men, occasionally even royalty. Sunidha and Vassakāra were both government ministers, Jīvaka was a physician, Sīha a general, Abhaya a prince, Mallikā a queen, and the many brahmans he dialogued with were the leaders of their clans and communities, and a significant number of them became monks. Others such as Anāthapiṇḍaka, Ghosita, Kukkuṭa, and Pāvārika were wealthy business magnates (seṭṭhi). Such people were often familiar with and interested in the various religious and philosophical theories that were being discussed at the time and homely parables, unsubstantiated claims and threats of hell for failing to believe would not have impressed them.
The Buddha often engaged in dialogues with one or more of the people who came to hear him or ask him questions, sometimes while people who accompanied the protagonist listened in. These encounters would take the form of the Buddha asking questions of the visitor who answered them, or the visitor doing the questioning and the Buddha the answering. Inevitably, towards the end of such a back and forth the Buddha would give his perspective. Some of these dialogues were quite long. They were usually conducted in a polite manner and only rarely became heated, as for example those with Ambaṭṭha, Assalāyana and Cankī.40
The Buddha sometimes used parables (upamākathā) in this teaching although he more often used similes (upamā).41 When explaining something he would sometimes say: “I shall give you a simile because some intelligent people understand better by means of a simile.”42 No one has ever counted all the Buddha’s similes and parables but there are some 165 in the Majjhima Nikāya, about 170 in the Saṃyutta Nikāya, and many more in the other books of the Tipitaka. These similes draw on a wide variety of elements ranging from natural phenomena to travelling, country life, business, animal taming, royalty, metallurgy, household articles and duties, to name but a few. Their richness, diversity and realism suggest a mind of a careful observer with wide experience.
One of the more famous of these is the Parable of the Raft. The Buddha saw his Dhamma mainly in utilitarian terms, as something used to accomplish a particular goal, i.e. Awakening, after which it would become redundant. To explain what he meant he told a story of a man who in the course of a journey came to a wide river and, knowing that the country on his side to be dangerous and the other side safe, was determined to cross over. With no ferry or bridge available he constructed a raft of grass, foliage and branches and using his hands and feet paddled to the further bank of the river. Having done this and thinking how useful the raft had been he decided to hoist it onto his head and carry it with him for the remainder of his journey. Then the Buddha asked his monks if they thought this was an intelligent thing for the man to do. They answered that it was not, and then the Buddha concluded by saying: “Monks, when you understand that the Dhamma is similar to a raft, you [eventually] let go of even good states, how much more so bad ones.”43
Another of the Buddha’s parables that used the image of crossing a river, although to make a different point, is this one. A man once asked the Buddha what he thought of those who claimed that liberation could be achieved through self-mortification. In answer to this the Buddha said; “Suppose a man wanting to cross a river were to take an axe, go into a forest and chop down a young, straight tree without any knots. He would lop off the crown, strip the foliage and branches off, shape the log with the axe, trim it with a adze, smoothed it with a scraper, then polished it with a stone ball, and having done so set out across the river. What do you think? Would he be able to cross that river?” The man answered: “No sir, he would not. Because although the log had been well shaped on the outside it had not been cleaned out on the inside.” The Buddha agreed and then said that unless someone had “cleaned the inside” by cultivating behavioural and psychological purity he or she would not be able to attain Awakening.44
Undoubtedly the Buddha’s most famous parable, and one that later spread throughout the world, is about the blind men and the elephant. The story’s appeal lays in how well it makes its point, its striking juxtaposition of man and beast, and its gentle humour. It has been used to illustrate different ideas or sometimes as just as an amusing tale, but the Buddha used it to highlight a specific point. Once some monks noticed a group of ascetics quarrelling with one another about some philosophical or theological issue. Later, they mentioned what they had seen to the Buddha and he said: “Ascetics of other sects are blind and unseeing. They don’t know the good and the bad, the true and the false. Consequently, they are always quarrelling, arguing and fighting, stabbing one another with the weapon of the tongue.” He then related the parable and having done so summed up its meaning: “Some ascetics and brahmans are attached to their views and having seized hold of them they wrangle, seeing as they do only one side of a thing.” So the point of the story is that seeing only one side of a thing (ekaṃga dassino) or having only some of the facts gives an incomplete or partial understanding, and that this leads to contention. One needs to take time assembling all the facts before drawing conclusions.45
An aspect of the Buddha’s approach to teaching which rarely gets mentioned it its humour. His discourses and dialogues contain numerous puns, humorous exaggerations, irony and occasional satire. None of these would cause guffaws or giggles but they could raise a smile. Unfortunately for the most part this humour is not apparent to the modern reader. Thanissaro Bhikkhu writes; “One of the reasons why the Canon’s humour goes unrecognized relates to its style, which is often subtle, deadpan, and dry. This style of humour can go right past readers in modern cultures where jokes are telegraphed well in advance, and humour tends to be broad. Another reason is that translators often miss the fact that a passage is meant to be humorous, and so render it in a flat, pedantic way.”46 By contrast the four Gospels seem to be devoid of lightness and humour which is in keeping with their general serious tenor. Of course Jesus’ message announcing “the good news” of the possibility of salvation was a positive one. But it was more likely evoke relief than smiles and jubilation because the alternative to being saved was no laughing matter.
Another way the Buddha communicated his Dhamma was by participating in the public debates that were a feature of the time. So popular were these events that some towns even had debating halls (kutūhala sālā)47 in which to hold them. The Tipitaka and other contemporary sources give a good idea of how these debates were conducted. If on being asked a legitimate question for a third time one could not answer, one was considered to have been defeated.48 Participants were expected to use recognised arguments and adhere to accepted procedures, and an adjudicator (pañhavīmaṁsakā) tried to make sure they did.49 To dodge a question by asking another question, change the subject or ridicule the questioner was considered improper. Likewise, to shout down an opponent, catch him up when he hesitated or interrupt from the sidelines were also unacceptable.50 A teacher who held his own in debate could win honour, patronage and disciples, while the defeated had to slink away in shame. There is a description of a participant in a debate with the Buddha “reduced to silence, his head lowered, his eyes downcast, at a loss, unable to make a reply” while the audience “assailed him on all sides with a torrent of abuse and poked fun at him…”51 Vague theologies and dreamy doctrines were soon subjected to hard reason, logical scrutiny and demands for evidence. Those that stood the test, like the Buddha’s Dhamma, flourished; those that did not faded away.
Debates could get heated and sometimes even end in blows and this was probably the reason that during the early part of his career, the Buddha avoided such assemblies. He observed: “Some debates are conducted in a spirit of hostility and some in a spirit of truth. Either way, the sage does not get involved.”52 As a consequence, at the beginning of his career the Buddha was accused of being unable to defend his ideas in the face of scrutiny. One critic said of him: “Who does the ascetic Gotama speak to? From whom does he get his lucidity of wisdom? His wisdom is destroyed by living in solitude, he is unused to discussions, he is no good at speaking, he is completely out of touch. Like an antelope that circles around and keeps to the edges, so does the ascetic Gotama.”53 It seems that for a long time the Buddha was content to let his Dhamma speak for itself. But as people began to seek deeper explanations of it and it began to be criticised and even misrepresented, he was compelled to participate in public debates and discussions. He soon earned a reputation for being able to explain his philosophy with great clarity and to defend it effectively against criticism. He also began to subject the doctrines of others to hard questioning.
What has been dubbed “the silence of the Buddha” has become almost proverbial and has been widely commented on in both academic and popular writings. Supposedly the Buddha characteristically responded to questions by maintaining an enigmatic silence, and that this was a significant aspect of his teaching style. Certainly the Buddha occasionally refused to answer questions he considered to be trivial or irreverent, but he would usually explain his reasons for doing so. Of the Buddha’s several thousand discourses, in only two did he decline to answer a question and just hold his silence.54
The Buddha’s aim was never to defeat an opponent, silence a critic or even to win disciples, but to lead people from ignorance to clarity and understanding. In one of the most heartfelt appeals he ever made he said: “I tell you this. Let an intelligent person who is sincere, honest and straightforward come to me and I will teach him Dhamma. If he practises as he is taught, within seven days and by his own knowledge and vision, he will attain that holy life and goal. Now you may think that I say this just to get disciples or to make you abandon your rules. But this is not so. Keep your teacher and continue to follow your rules. You may think that I say this so you will give up your way of life, follow things you consider bad or reject things you consider good. But this is not so. Live as you see fit and continue to reject things you consider bad and follow things you consider good. But there are states that are unskilful, defiled, leading to rebirth, fearful, causing distress and associated with birth, decay and death, and it is only for the overcoming of these things that I teach the Dhamma.”55
As much as being a great moral teacher, Jesus was also a man of miracles. His birth was miraculous, he performed numerous supernatural feats throughout his short career, marvels took place in his presence, and his earthly life was finished with a miracle, his resurrection. There were times when he refused to demonstrate his amazing powers as when the Devil tempted him or the Pharisees challenged him to do so. At other times he performed miracles almost casually. He caused a tree to wither and die because it had no fruit, it not being the right season. When all the wine at a wedding he was attending ran out he turned several jars of water into wine. On another occasion he caused some fishermen’s nets to be filled with fish. Making a coin appear in a fish’s mouth so it could be used to pay his and his apostles’ tax would seem to be another example of using extraordinary abilities for rather trivial ends.56
Jesus’ miraculous healing of the sick were of a different order in that they were obviously motivated by compassion. In some such cases Jesus did not have to pronounce a blessing, touch the afflicted person or even notice them for them to be healed. His clothes and even his body fluids somehow emanated a potent miraculous energy. A woman who had been ill for years was immediately cured simply by touching Jesus’ robe, and on another occasion he spat on the ground, mixed the spittle with the dust, applied the mud to a blind man’s eyes, and his sight was restored.57 Jesus promised that anyone who had faith in him could cure diseases just as he himself did, simply by laying their hands on the afflicted. But they could do more than that if they truly believed; they would be able to handle poison snakes and not get bitten and even drink any deadly poison and not die (Mk.16, 17-18).
According to the Gospels several miracles and signs occurred just as Jesus died; an earthquake, the curtain in the great temple tearing, and the sun going dark. This last occurrence has been interpreted as an eclipse. Astronomers know that a solar eclipse visible from Jerusalem took place at 11:05 on the 24th November in the year 29 CE. However, three of the Gospels are clear that Jesus died at the start of the Jewish festival of Passover which is celebrated in March/April. Further, this darkness is supposed to have continued for three hours, far longer than any solar eclipse. So whatever caused the Earth to go dark it was not a natural phenomenon.58 But surely the most astonishing miracle coinciding with Jesus’ death was a mass resurrection. It is claimed that numerous people who had recently died came out of their graves and walked around in Jerusalem so that “many people saw them”.59 Their loved ones, just getting over their grief, must have been speechless. The Romans took great interest in strange portents and signs and one could expect the Roman governor to have sent a report of it back to Rome. One could well imagine that at least one or two of these resurrected people would have written or got someone to write for them an account of their extraordinary experience. But inexplicably, other than in the Gospel of Matthew there is no record of this event in any documents of the time or even later. Stranger still, neither Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul or any of the other apostles thought it worthwhile to mention this astonishing event.
A curious thing about Jesus’ miraculous power is that it seemed to fluctuate or work only sometimes. When he attempted to heal a group of sick people in Nazareth his power only worked on a few of them, apparently somewhat embarrassing him.60 On another occasion he touched a blind man and then asked him if he could see. The man replied he could only make out vague shapes and movement. Jesus had to touch him a second time before the man’s vision was fully restored.61
Jesus’ miraculous powers were meant to be and were seen as proof that he had the favour of God or even that he was divine himself. He said: “Do not believe me unless I do what my Father does. But if I do it, even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father.”62 On another occasion Jesus claimed that a blind man he healed had been born with this affliction specifically so he could heal him and thus demonstrate that he, Jesus, was imbued with God’s power.63
Jesus’ exclusivist claims created a problem as far as his miracles were concerned. If he and he alone had God’s favour or was divine, and proof of this was that he or those acting in his name could do miracles, how could the miracles done by others, even pagans, be explained? The solution to this apparent quandary was to insist that any miracles done by others were actually the work of the Devil.64 In solving one problem this explanation only created another. If the Devil gave some people miraculous powers then perhaps Jesus’ powers came from the Devil too. In fact the Pharisees accused Jesus of exactly this. His rebuttal of this charge is, one must say, not very convincing.65
It is worth noting that Jesus was only one of many wonder workers in and around Palestine in the 1st century CE. Hanina ben Dosa, Vespasian before he became emperor, Simon Magus, and Theudas were all credited with having miraculous powers. Theudas is mentioned in several sources including the Bible (Act.5, 36-8) and so is another wonder-worker called the Egyptian who, according to Josephus, attracted crowds of up to 30,000. The miracles of Apollonius of Tyana especially were something of an embarrassment to the early Christians because they were so like those done by Jesus and so well attested. Interestingly, Apollonius’ disciples, and there were many of them, accused Jesus of using demonic power to do his miracles, just as the first Christians explained away Apollonius’s miracles by saying that they were just tricks or caused by the Devil.
Before examining the Buddha’s attitude to what are generally called miracles, it is necessary to clarify a few things. Miracles are usually thought of as being caused by or connected in some way with supernatural beings, in Christianity with either the Devil or God. The Devil performs miracles to mislead or seduce people, while God does them to demonstrate his power, punish the wicked or in answer to prayers. However, the Buddha understood ‘miracles’ (pāṭihāriya) to be an outcome or a by-product of mental development. Thus in the Buddhist context it is more appropriate to speak of psychic power (iddhi) than miracles. The Buddha freely acknowledged that some of the other ascetics of his time possessed psychic powers as a result of their spiritual practice. They might well misinterpret the significance of such powers or draw wrong conclusions from them, but he never accused them of being in league with the forces of evil.
It is also true that the Buddha generally had a cautious attitude towards all superhuman abilities. Someone once asked him to get one of his monks to “demonstrate a superhuman ability, a psychic feat or a miracle (uttari manussa dhamma iddhi pāṭihāra) so that even more people will have faith in you”. He replied that there were such abilities which thoughtful or sceptical people would have legitimate doubts about. However, there was one such power that everyone could have confidence in; what he called “the superhuman ability, the psychic feat, and the miracle of education” (anusāsani). This consisted, he said, of encouraging others with advice such as this: “Consider in this way, not in that. Direct your mind in this way, not in that. Give up this, cultivate that and persist with it.”66 In other words, rather than being bedazzled by apparent miracles, the Buddha thought it far better to encourage people to think, consider and behave in certain ways.
On another occasion a wealthy merchant had a valuable sandalwood bowl placed on the top of a bamboo pole, which was then erected in the centre of the town. Then he had a proclamation made to the effect that anyone who could rise to the top of the pole through psychic power could have the bowl. The monk Piṇḍola heard of this and having manifested the ability to levitate he took up the challenge and retrieved the bowl. When the Buddha came to hear of this he rebuked the monk in the strongest terms: “You are like a prostitute who lifts her dress for the sake of a miserable coin.”67 Then he made it an offence for monks or nuns to display any psychic abilities they might develop. What happened subsequent to Piṇḍola’s demonstration helps explain the Buddha’s reaction to it. “Noisy, excited crowds began following Piṇḍola around.” Undoubtedly the Buddha wanted people to respect him and his monks because of their virtue and wisdom, not because they manifested marvels and miracles. Buddhism has long pointed out that miraculous powers should not be taken as evidence of spiritual or even moral accomplishments. Devadatta had such powers and he caused the Buddha considerable problems; Judas could exorcise evil spirits and perform miraculous healings and he betrayed Jesus. As far as the Buddha was concerned, miracles were one thing and the Dhamma was something else entirely. He said: “Whether superhuman abilities, psychic feats or miracles are performed or not, my purpose in teaching the Dhamma is to lead whoever practises it to the complete freedom from suffering. In which case, what is the point of performing miracles?”68
Miraculous healings formed a significant part of Jesus’ ministry and were a major reason why people accepted his claims and his Gospel. He healed the blind, paralytics and lepers, he cast out demons and even brought the dead back to life. Interestingly, there are no examples from the Tipitaka of the Buddha or any of his disciples performing miraculous healings or exorcisms. This was partly for the reasons given above, but also because the Buddha saw his goal and purpose as solving the problem of human suffering at its most fundamental level. He saw sickness, decrepitude and death as inherent in embodied existence, as indeed they are. Thus for him, curing a sick person was no guarantee that they would not become sick again, and raising the dead simply meant that the revived person would have to die a second time later. Are miraculous healings impressive? Definitely! Are they sure to attract a following? Absolutely! However, from the Buddhist perspective they do not go to the heart of the problem.
It should not be taken from this that the Buddha lacked compassion for the sick or that he ignored their plight. He healed, helped and comforted them as any decent person would, although through normal means. He considered visiting and caring for the sick to be virtuous acts and out of compassion he did both, and he encouraged his disciples to do the same.69 After washing a monk who was suffering from diarrhoea and had been neglected by his fellows, the Buddha called the monks together, admonished them for their indifference to another monk and then concluded: “He who would nurse me, let him nurse the sick.” (Yo bhikkhave maṁ upaṭṭaheyya so gilānaṁ upaṭṭhahissati).70 One cannot fail to see a similarity between this exhortation and the one given by Jesus concerning helping and comforting the afflicted: “I tell you, whenever you did this for one of the least important of these followers of mine, you did it for me.”71
The Afterlife and the Soul
During Jesus’ time, Jewish theologians were split into two groups, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The former rejected belief in any type of afterlife and the latter taught that there was a life after death, although exactly in what form is not known.72 On the question of the afterlife, Jesus sided with the Pharisees. He believed in a heaven (ouranos), sometimes also called paradise (paradeisos), and a hell. He described heaven as a place of “eternal life” where the inhabitants “shine like the sun” and “see God”. Apparently the people in heaven would not marry. Whether they would retain their physical bodies was not clear, but as Jesus still had his body after the resurrection it seems likely that heavenly beings would have theirs too. The only spatial description Jesus gave of heaven was that it had rooms, perhaps meaning different levels or intensities of joy.73 Jesus used several words and phrases for hell; hades, the fiery furnace (kaminos tou pyrus), the outer darkness (exoteros skotos), and Gehennah, named after a ravine outside Jerusalem where rubbish was burned.74 He described hell as a place of extreme pain, mainly inflicted by fire and worms eating the flesh.
The Buddha taught that the individual was made up of a collection, literally ‘a heap’ (khanda) of parts, all of them interdependent and in a constant state of flux. The body was, he said, “bound up with consciousness and dependent on it” (ettha sitam ettha patibaddham).75 When an individual dies the body drops away, the consciousness re-establishes itself in another physical entity, animates it, and their next life begins. The Buddha called this process “existence after existence”, “moving from womb to womb” or more precisely, “re-becoming” (punabbhava).76 As he explained it, at death the consciousness “moves upwards” (uddhagāmi), then “descends” (avakkanti) into the womb i.e. a mother’s newly fertilised egg to find “a resting place” (patiṭṭthā) there, although these spatial description are probably only metaphorical.77 The circumstances of one’s present life are conditioned in part by one’s kamma from the previous life and kamma being created in the present, and the same process will continue in the next life; kamma being how one’s consciousness has been constructed and moulded by all one’s intentional thoughts, speech and actions. The word ‘conditioned’ is more appropriate here than ‘determined’ because the Buddha said that it is possible to modify one’s kamma, just as it is possible to change one’s thought patterns and behaviour.78
One of the most persistent misunderstandings about kamma is that it cannot be changed, that one’s future in either the present life or the next is determined by one’s past. Supposedly “you can never escape from your past kamma”. The Buddha called the idea that everything one experiences is due to kamma (pubbe hetu katha), one of the three false and pernicious views, the others being that everything is caused by an all-powerful god (issa, Sanskrit iśvara) and that everything is without specific cause, i.e. random.79 He taught that a series of positive actions subsequent to a negative one might well ‘dilute’ the kamma created by the negative action. To give an example, speaking harshly or rudely to someone, later feeling regretful about it and then making amends to them by sincerely apologising, may modify or perhaps even erase the negative kamma made earlier.80 Of course it goes the other way too; positive kamma created earlier could be diminished or even cancelled out by some stronger or equally strong negative action done now.
There are several spheres one can be born into, the most significant being the human, the heavenly and the purgatorial spheres. Most of the Buddha’s statements indicate that these spheres are spatial locations, but some things he said suggest that they are more experiences than places. For example: “Fools say that purgatory is under the sea. But I say that purgatory is really a name for painful experience.”81
The Buddha’s descriptions of heaven and purgatory were not that different from those of Jesus; heavenly beings would experience joy and happiness and purgatorial beings pain and distress. However, there the similarities end, and in several significant ways. For Jesus, heaven and hell were eternal; for the Buddha they lasted only for as long as one’s kamma had not played itself out. When it has, one will pass away and be reborn in another sphere. Thus, in the Buddhist context it is more appropriate to speak of purgatory than hell. Jesus’ understanding was that one’s fate in the afterlife depended on his or God’s judgment (krino);82 good and faithful individuals being assigned to heaven, sinners and unbelievers being condemned to hell. This examination and evaluation will take place on what Jesus called the Judgment Day (Imera tis krísis). In the case of sinners God will deliver his judgment against them with wrath (ogre) and fury (thumps) and without mercy (anoles).83
For the Buddha neither he nor a divine being decided a person’s post-mortem destiny, rather they created it themselves by how they chose to behave during their life, i.e. their kamma. It is a process of impersonal cause and effect. Consequently the Buddha did not see heaven, purgatory or a human existence as a reward or a punishment but as an outcome of specific causes, positive ones in the case of heaven and negative ones in the case of purgatory. For Jesus, heaven was a reward (mythos) granted by God and hell a punishment (kolas is) administered by him.84 The major difference between the two men’s vision of heaven is that Jesus considered it to be the ultimate goal whereas for the Buddha it was part of unsatisfactory conditioned existence; better than purgatory but inferior to Nirvana, complete transcendence.
All Christian churches assert as one of their central teachings that humans possess a soul; an incorporeal, immortal essence which is the real person, animated by God when he creates them and destined for everlasting heaven or hell after physical death. Despite its theological importance, Jesus said almost nothing about the soul. He used the word spirit (pneumatic or psyche) in several different contexts but only occasionally in the sense of a soul, as when he said “that which is born of flesh is flesh and that which is born of spirit is spirit” and “…into your hands I commit my spirit”.85 It was the early church fathers and later theologians who worked out the details.
Brahmanism and the Upanaṣadic sages who had just started coming into prominence during the Buddha’s time, had a wide range of ideas about what they called the self (ātman), the spirit (jīva) or the actual person (puruṣa), its nature and destiny. All these theories asserted in one way or another that the ātman was immortal and in some way related to the divine. In contrast to this, and indeed differing from nearly all other samaṇa teachers of the time, the Buddha taught that there was no self or soul. This was the central theme of his second sermon, the Discourse on the Sign of No-self (Anattalakkhaṇa Sutta). In it he said to understand that all compounded things are unsatisfactory (dukkha), impermanent (anicca) and without self (anattā) is a crucial step in attaining Awakening. “Body is not self, feelings are not self, perception is not self, mental constructs are not self and consciousness is not self…When one sees this, one becomes detached from these things, being detached, the passions fade, when the passions have faded one is free, and being free, one knows one is free.”86 For the Buddha the truth of no-self was not just a theory, the result of intellectual speculation, but the outcome of a profound investigative insight into the nature or reality.
When some people learn that the Buddha taught that there was no self and also that individuals were reborn, they ask how there can be personal continuity if there is nothing to pass from one life to the next. This problem is more apparent than real. Firstly, the Buddha did not teach that there was no empirical self, i.e. the sense of being distinct and separate from others, one’s orientation in space, remembrance of the past, imagining the future, and the feelings associated with all this. Clearly such experiences exist. He taught that there was no metaphysical self, no unchanging essence behind the appearance.
Using an analogy can help clarify what the Buddha meant. A mother might take out the family photo album and show her children photos of herself when she was a child. According to science not one cell in her body is the same as when she was young. Her thoughts, ideas and beliefs are all different from when she was a child. Even her facial features when young, although vaguely similar, are hardly recognisable to her children. Even so, when the curious children ask their mother, “Is that you mummy?”, and she answers “Yes”, no one would accuse her of lying. Despite the fact that both body and mind are continually changing, it is still valid to say that the person who is reborn is a continuation in some way of the person who died – not because any unchanging self has passed from one to another, but because identity persists in memories, dispositions, traits, mental habits and psychological tendencies. It is the consciousness which includes all these things that passes from one life to another, and that experiences in this life the vipāka of kamma done in the previous life.
Misapprehending the empirical self, the sense of self, as an eternal essence results in the ‘me’ notion which automatically gives rise the ‘mine’ idea – my car, my money, my spouse, my country, my political party, my religion. It is behind the longing for eternal life, the terror of annihilation at death, the desire to possess things to enhance the self, and all the consequent suffering this causes.
The Buddha started his quest for truth by giving up his life of ease and privilege and walking out on his family. Later, after his Awakening, he founded an order of men and women who followed his example. As the Buddha saw it, the encumbrances of home life, the demands and expectations of society, and the time, effort and trouble they required, made the attainment of Awakening that much more difficult. He acknowledged that married lay people could achieve Awakening and indeed some of them did, but for them it was more challenging.
As a result of this emphasis on renunciation, Buddhism has been characterised in the West as a “world-denying” religion as opposed to Christianity, which is supposedly “world-affirming”. This view is rather perplexing given that an examination of Jesus’ words as presented in the New Testament indicate that his world-denying theology is one of the few things he and the Buddha had in common. Jesus too advocated giving up one’s family: “And I assure you that anyone who leaves home or wife or brother or parents or children for the sake of the Kingdom of God will receive much more in the present age and eternal life in the age to come.”87 When his mother and brothers came looking for Jesus he left them standing outside and pointedly said to the disciples gathered around him that they were his only family. He stressed this repudiation of familial bonds still further by saying: “You must not call anyone here on earth ‘Father’, because you have only one father in heaven.” 88
The apostles understood Jesus to be saying that the things of the world are mere dust compared to God. “Do not love the world or anything that belongs to the world. If you love the world, you do not love the Father. Everything that belongs to the world – what is sinful self desires, what people see and want, and everything in this world that people are proud of – none of that comes from the Father; it comes from the world.”89 James put it like this: “Don’t you know that to be a friend of the world is to be an enemy of God. If you want to be the world’s friend you make yourself God’s enemy.” Peter urged Christians to be “strangers and refugees in this world”, and Paul asked them to “put to death all worldly desires”.90 To emphasise how Christians should feel about the world, Jesus even used the word miseo, meaning ‘to hate’ or ‘to detest’. “Those who love their own life will lose it; those who hate their own life in this world will keep it for life eternal.”91 And again: “Those who come to me cannot be my disciples unless they hate their father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters and themselves as well.”92
Some of this could have been spoken by the Buddha except that he would have refrained from such robust language and would not have countenanced hate for anyone or anything. He used terms equivalent to ‘renounce’ or ‘let go of’ or ‘be detached from’. Furthermore, he addressed such a message mainly to those intending to become monks and nuns, not to everyone. Concerning family life he had a great deal to say about loving conjugal, parental and filial relationships. He used generic words such as piya, pema and sineha for familial love but also the more specific terms such as maternal love (matteyya) and paternal love (petteyya). Being a boy and an only child the young Gotama was probably particularly cherished by his parents. Later he became a husband for more than a decade and very briefly a father. This, together with his penetrating understanding of human desires, needs and motivations allowed him to speak of familial relationships with insightfulness and sensitivity.
The parents’ role, apart from loving and caring for their offspring was, the Buddha said “to restrain them from wrong, encourage them to do good, give them an education, provide them with a suitable marriage partner and leave them an inheritance.”93 For children: “Love of one’s mother and love of one’s father is true happiness in the world” he said.94 Parents were particularly worthy of their children’s love, respect and gratitude the Buddha believed, “because they do much for their children; they bring them up, nourish them and introduce them to the world”.95 As if to underscore the blessing of this loving gratitude, he added that it was impossible to repay one’s parents for all they had done for one. Then he added this important proviso: “But whoever encourages their unbelieving parents to have faith, their immoral parents to become virtuous or their ignorant parents to become wise, such a one by so doing, does repay, does more than repay their parents.”96 The minds of parents who are so honoured and cherished have “beautiful thoughts and compassion (kalyāṇena manasā anukampanti) towards their offspring and wish them well saying: ‘May you live long!’.” 97
For the Buddha love, tenderness and mutual respect was the basis for a successful marriage, that is to say, a happy and enduring one. He reproached the brahmans for buying their wives rather than “coming together in harmony and out of mutual affection”,98 things he clearly considered made far better foundations for a lifetime partnership. As he commented in the Jātaka: “In this world, union without love is suffering.”99 He said that “cherishing one’s spouse and child is the greatest blessing”,100 that a loving wife was “the best friend one can have”,101 and that a couple who were following the Dhamma would “speak loving words to each other”,102 and live together “with joyful minds, of one heart and in harmony”.103
When two people love each other deeply they often have a strong feeling that their coming together was somehow “destined”. Scientists have tried to explain such feelings in terms of chemical changes in the body and they might be right, although the Buddha gave another possible explanation. He said that each person comes into the present life from an earlier one and if they have not attained Awakening will go on to a new one after they die. A person’s intentional thoughts, speech and actions (i.e. their kamma) will be a major factor in conditioning their experiences in each life. But beyond that, a strong identification with, connection or attachment to a particular location or culture may cause them to be reborn there. Likewise, a close bond or affinity with a particular person may draw them to that person in the next life.104
The ideal loving couple would be Nakulapitā and Nakulamātā, who were close disciples of the Buddha. Once Nakulamātā, devotedly nursed her husband through a long illness, encouraging and reassuring him all the while. When the Buddha came to know of this, he said to Nakulapitā: “You have benefited, good Sir, you have greatly benefited, in having your wife full of compassion for you, with love for your welfare, as your mentor and teacher.”105 From the Buddhist perspective, these qualities would be a recipe for an enduring and enriching relationship –faithfulness (anubatta), compassion (anukampikā) concern for one another’s welfare (atthakāmā) and being each other’s mentor and teacher (ovādikā anusasikā). On another occasion Nakulamātā and Nakulapitā came to the Buddha and said that since their marriage when they were young they had never been unfaithful to each other, not even in thought let alone in deed and that so close was their relationship that they wanted to be together in the next life just as they had been in this one. The Buddha replied: “If a both a husband and wife wish to see each other in the present life and the future lives and they have the same faith, the same virtue, the same generosity, and the same wisdom then they may see each other in this and in future lives.”106
Someone reading through the four Gospels to find practical advice and guidance for living in the world or for family life is likely to be disappointed. Concerning conjugal relationships the only thing Jesus ever taught on the subject was that one could divorce one’s wife only if she committed adultery.107
Returning to the subject at hand, the Buddha’s reason for advocating radical renunciation for his more committed disciples was quite different from that of Jesus. The Buddha believed that the world and its pleasures offered “meagre satisfaction and much pain and tribulation”108 and that a higher and more refined happiness was attainable, what he called Nirvana. “If by giving up a limited happiness one can experience a more expansive happiness, the wise person should forsake the limited and thus see the expansive happiness.”109 As we will see below, Jesus taught radical renunciation because he was convinced that the world was soon to pass away and be replaced by the Kingdom of God, where possessions, family relations, status, and personal achievements would count for nothing.
For most people today, it is Jesus’ teachings on kindness and love (agape) which attract most attention, often overshadowing many or even most of the other ideas he taught. This is not surprising; it is the most appealing thing about his Gospel. Jesus spoke of love often and in a heartfelt, almost passionate manner. Moved by this, his immediate disciples emphasised love just as much and on occasion with even more eloquence. Jesus never defined what he meant by love, but Paul did so with considerable success. “Love is patient and kind; it is not jealous, conceited or proud; love is not ill-mannered, selfish or irritable; love does not keep a record of wrongs; love is not happy with evil, but is happy with the truth. Love never gives up; and its faith, hope and patience never fail.”110 When asked how one could be saved, Jesus replied that one had to love God and one’s neighbour.111 Such ideas were not new. Jesus was quoting the Old Testament; Deuteronomy 6, 5 and Leviticus 19,9-18.
Jesus’ exhortation here indicates two focuses for love. For him, love towards God should be deep and felt “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind”.112 Love of one’s fellows should be expressed in kindness and patience, generosity and forgiveness, non-retaliation and even a preparedness to die for another should the need arise.113 John was echoing Jesus’ intent when he wrote: “If we are rich and see others in need, yet close our hearts against them, how can we claim that we love God? My children, love should not be just words and talk; it must be true love, which shows itself in action.”114 Again: “If we say we love God, but hate others, we are liars. For we cannot love God, who we have not seen, if we do not love others, who we have seen.”115 These are among the most powerful and moving words in all religious literature.
When Jesus said that to be saved one had to love God and one’s neighbour and was then asked who one’s neighbour was, he told the parable of the Good Samaritan. The meaning of the parable is clear; to love is to help anyone in need, whether they be a stranger or even an enemy.116 Jesus’ call for an almost unworldly love led the first Christians to believe that such a love could only have a divine origin that it “comes from God”.117 Paul said that it was God who “has poured out his love into our hearts.”118 “No one has ever seen God, but if we love one another, God lives in union with us, and his love is made perfect in us.”119 So as the early Christians understood it, love was not actually an initiative of man but something bestowed by God.
Having said all this, there would seem to be a quandary in Jesus’ understanding of love, whether it be human or divine. On one occasion he said: “If you obey my commandments you will remain in my love just as I have obeyed my Father’s commandments and remained in his love.”120 The suggestion here seems to be that if you do not follow Jesus’ commandments he will withdraw his love from you. This rather troubling idea is applied to God’s love too. Jesus saw God as a loving being but he also believed that if you did not love God in return by believing in him, he will condemn you to everlasting punishment. Jesus emphasised repeatedly that either he or God would judge each individual, i.e. review their record, make an assessment about them, on the Judgment Day and decide their fate. If they were found to be sinful, unrepentant or lacking faith, God would assign then to eternal hell. Jesus warned that on that day he would reward those who helped others when they were in distress, but those who failed to do so would be under God’s curse and he would say to them: “Away with you to the eternal fire that has been prepared by the Devil and his angels”.121 He reiterated: “Just as the weeds are gathered up and burned in a fire, so the same thing will happen at the end of the age; the Son of Man will send out his angels to gather up out of his Kingdom all those who cause people to sin and all others who do evil things, and they will throw them into the fiery furnace where they will cry and gnash their teeth.”122 For those who had not repented their sins or who did not believe in God or Jesus, there would be no forgiveness and no reprieve. “Whoever disobeys the Son will not have life, but will remain under God’s punishment,”123 “God will show no mercy when he judges the person who has not been merciful.”124 Any sin can be forgiven, according to Jesus, but not speaking against the Holy Spirit or saying something against the Son of Man “not now or ever”.125 So love as Jesus understood it, including God’s love, very definitely had its limits and its conditions.
It is interesting to compare the divine reaction to insult, criticism or even just honest scepticism, with that of an awakened human being such as the Buddha. “Should anyone speak disparagingly of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha, you should not get angry, resentful or upset because of that. For if you did, you would not be able recognise if what they said was true or not. Therefore, if others speak disparagingly of me, the Dhamma or the Saṅgha, you should explain whatever incorrect saying is: ‘This is not correct, that is not true, we do not do this that is not our way’.”126
Because the Buddha saw his Dhamma primarily as a way of overcoming suffering (dukkha), both physical and psychological, and because compassion is the most appropriate response to suffering, it is only natural that he should have spoken of compassion (karuṇā, anukampati or dayā) more than love. “Giving up ill-will and hatred, one abides with a mind of kindly compassion for all living beings and purifies the mind of that ill-will and hatred…Giving up the taking of life, and putting aside the stick and the sword, one lives with care, empathy and kindly compassion for all living beings.”127 The most noticeable feature of the Buddha’s personality was his compassion, and this was not just something he felt for others or what they felt in his presence; it was the motive for much of what he said and did. “What should be done out of compassion for his disciples by a teacher who cares about their welfare and out of compassion for them, I have done for you.”128 He visited and comforted the sick “out of compassion”,129 and he taught the Dhamma “out of compassion”130 Once, he went into the forest looking for a serial killer because he had compassion for the killer’s potential victims and also for the murderer himself.131 The Buddha’s compassion seems to have even transcended the bounds of time. He is described sometimes as doing or refraining from doing certain things “out of compassion for coming generations”.132 Once, he said his very reason for being was “for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the good and the happiness of gods and humans.”133
However, while laying great stress on compassion, the Buddha had plenty to say about love as well. He saw love (mettā) as an immeasurable or boundless (appamāna) state, part of an ensemble of four related states; the others being compassion, sympathetic joy (mudita) and equanimity (upekkhā), and called them “Brahmā-like abiding” (brahmavihāra). This was his advice on love to his disciples. “You should train yourselves like this: ‘Our minds shall not be perverted nor shall we speak evil speech but with kindness and compassion, we will live with a mind free from hatred and filled with love. We will live suffusing firstly one person with love and starting with them, suffuse the whole world with a love that is expansive, pervasive, immeasurable and utterly devoid of hatred or enmity.’ This is how you should train yourselves.”134 Love as the Buddha understood it had a strong nurturing component. “Just as a mother would protect her one and only child with her life, so should you cultivate an unbounded mind towards all beings and love towards the whole world.”135 Nor was there any place for retaliation or retribution in the Buddha’s love. “Even if low-down criminals were to cut you limb from limb with a double-handled saw, if you filled your mind with hatred you would not be practising my teachings.”136 This might be seen as an equivalent to Jesus’ call to “turn the other cheek”.
For the Buddha, having a loving heart was many times better than doing good with the intention of getting some personal advantage from it. “Just as the radiance of all stars is not worth a sixteenth part of the moon’s radiance; just as in the last month of the rainy season in the autumn, when the sky is clear and free from clouds, the sun rises into the sky and flashes, radiates and dispels all darkness; just as in the pre-dawn light the healing star shines, flashes and radiates; so too, whatever good deeds one might do for the purpose of a good rebirth, none of them are worth a sixteenth part of that love which frees the mind. It is this love that frees the mind and which illuminates, glows and shines, surpassing all those good deeds.”137 Likewise, performing various religious rituals was, for the Buddha, of little worth compared with having love,138 and he called upon his disciples to “live in concord, harmony and agreement, like milk and water mixed, looking upon each other with the eyes of love”.139 One should, he said, speak with love, share the Dhamma with love, and nurse the sick out of love for them.140
Perhaps most striking of all, the Buddha said that if one has a loving heart, one’s future in the present life and the hereafter need not be a cause for concern. “A noble disciple who is without longing or hatred, who is unconfused and has lucid awareness, dwells pervading the four directions with a mind filled with love and compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity. Above, below, across and everywhere, to all as to himself he dwells pervading the whole world with a mind filled with love and compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity that is expansive and pervasive, immeasurable and utterly devoid of hatred or enmity. Such a disciple can have these four confidences. He can think, ‘If there is an afterlife, if good and bad deeds have a result, then when my body disintegrates after death I will be reborn in a good place or in a heaven realm.’ This is the first confidence he can have. Or he can think, ‘Even if there is no afterlife and good and bad deeds have no result, nonetheless in this life I live devoid of hatred and enmity, happily and free from trouble.’ This is the second confidence he can have. Or he can think, ‘If one who is evil is repaid with evil then how can suffering come to me because I do no evil?’ This is the third confidence he can have. Or he can think, ‘If one who is evil is not repaid with evil I am pure nonetheless’.”141 So for the Buddha, an exalted afterlife is not dependant on “believing in the Buddha” or in a particular deity, but on being virtuous and loving. It is not determined on having the right object of one’s faith but on the quality of one’s heart.
While the reality of God is the biggest difference between the Buddha and Jesus, the nature and the importance of love is the most noticeable commonality between them. However, there are significant differences even here. For the Buddha, empathy, solicitude, compassion and love (mettā) were to have a universal focus and be extended to all sentient beings, not just to humans. Again, for him, the highest love would be incompatible with the notion of punishing even an evil person out of anger or vengeance, and especially punishing them for eternity. Furthermore, having a loving heart was sufficient to guarantee a positive afterlife, whatever one believed or declined to believe. And perhaps just as significantly, while the Buddha spoke of love as involving acts of kindness, he emphasised such active expressions of love less often than did Jesus. The Buddha spoke of love mainly in psychological terms, as a state of mind; Jesus saw it more in behavioural terms, as something done for and expressed in actions towards others. It is possible that how the Buddha spoke of love is the reason why Buddhist cultures have traditionally been less proactive in charitable endeavours and social engagement than Christian ones.
The Tipitaka tells of a young man who became a monk despite opposition from his parents, and some months later returned to his parents’ home while begging for alms. Still hoping to get him to change his mind, the parents invited him to a meal the next day and before he came they piled money and other valuables in the dining room to entice him to disrobe. When he came they showed him the money and told him that if he returned to being a layman all of it would be his. He replied: “If you take my advice, have this pile of money and valuables loaded into a cart, taken to the Ganges and dumped in.”142 A Christian version of this story would probably have the young man tell his parents to distribute the money amongst the poor.
Christian sects hold differing positions on the role of faith in their religion. Catholicism teaches that salvation depends on faith and good works; Protestantism that faith alone is sufficient. Whoever is right, Jesus taught that faith was an important, if not the most important, quality that bridged the chasm between humankind and God. “Whoever believes and is baptised will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” Again: “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not die but have eternal life.” And again: “You will die for your sins if you do not believe that ‘I Am Who I Am’.” And once more: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not have life, but will remain under God’s punishment.”143 When someone asked Jesus what must be done to please God he replied: “What God wants you to do is believe in the one he sent” i.e. Jesus. This same point was reiterated again and again by the apostles. “No one can please God without faith, for whoever comes to God must have faith that God exists and rewards those who seek him.” Again: “God puts people right through their faith in Jesus Christ.” And again: “It is by God’s grace that you have been saved through faith. It is not through your own efforts, but God’s gift.”144
From these and similar statements it can be seen that there are two objects of faith; God and Jesus. To have faith in God means to believe certain claims made about him; that he created everything, that he has three natures, that he has a son, that he sent his son to die for humankind, etc. To have faith in Jesus likewise means to believe that he was born of a virgin, he is the Son of God, that he was resurrected, that he will come again to judge the world, etc. Thus salvation depends on having no doubt, uncertainty or hesitation about certain ideas. “When you pray you must not doubt at all. Whoever doubts is like a wave in the sea which is driven and blown about by the wind. If you are like that, unable to make up your mind and undecided in all you do, you must not think that you will receive anything from the Lord.”145 God responds to this faith by saving the believer.
All the creeds of Christianity; the Apostles Creed, the Nicaean Creed, the Athanasian Creed, the Thirty Nine Articles, the Augsburg Confession, the Pillars of Adventism, the Methodist Articles of Religion, etc.- all itemise specific ideas about God and Jesus that must be believed to become a Christian and be saved. There is no suggestion that all these claims need be intellectually understood; to be convinced of them or to implicitly trust or hope that they are true is enough. Interestingly, none of these the creeds say anything about how to behave, mention anything about being loving or even mention the word love. Likewise, even the 15th chapter of 1 Corinthians, believed by many scholars to be the precursor to later Christian creeds only states and explains a set of ideas that must be believed and say nothing about how to act. For Jesus, the ideal faith was simple, trusting and unquestioning, like that of a child. As he said: “I assure you that unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.”146
Faith (saddhā) and confidence (pasāda) have an importance in the preliminary stages of a Buddhist’s journey towards Awakening. Thus the Buddha referred to faith as a seed (saddhā bījaṃ),147 meaning that one would not even start exploring the Dhamma or practising it without at least some initial faith or confidence that it might produce results. It is for this reason that doctrinal categories such as the Five Riches (pañca dhana), the Five Strengths (pañca bala), the Five Spiritual Faculties (pañca indriya), and the Seven Good States (satta saddgammehi)148 etc. all start with faith but culminate in wisdom. Likewise, the Transcendental Dependent Arising says that an awareness of the inadequate and unsatisfactory nature of conditioned existence (dukkha) leads to faith, which subsequently gives rise to higher and more important spiritual qualities; gladness (pāmojja), joy (pīti), tranquillity (passaddhi), happiness (sukha), etc.149
Buddhism distinguishes between reasoned faith (ākāravatī saddhā) and baseless faith (amūlikā saddhā). Reasoned faith grows out of a careful assessment of probabilities, inferences and facts. Baseless is that activated by a strong appeal to the emotions, by being awed by miracles, or accepting the first thing one encounters without considering alternatives. The Buddha’s preference for reasoned faith is well illustrated by his encounter with Upāli, a respected community leader and a follower of Jainism. After a discussion with the Buddha, Upāli decided to become his disciple “from this day onward for as long as life lasts”. Rather than accept Upāli’s avowal of faith, the Buddha asked him to take time to consider before deciding: “Make a careful investigation, Upāli. It is appropriate for well-known people like yourself to make a careful investigation first.”150 The Buddha’s advice here contrasts interestingly with Jesus’ comments to Thomas, who said he would only believe that Jesus had been resurrected if he had empirical evidence (to see and touch). “Jesus said to him, ‘Do you believe because you see me? How happy are those who believe without seeing!’.”151
According to the Buddha’s understanding, confidence becomes unshakable (aveccappasāda) only after one sees its transformational effects.152 It is only as one start experiencing the fruits of one’s practice that these inspire confidence in the Buddha so that one’s esteem for him becomes truly strong.153 For example, the Buddha actually asked his disciples to examine his behaviour to see if what he said about himself was true, to notice if there was a difference between his public persona and private behaviour, to watch if he practised what he preached, to observe if there were changes in his character as he became famous and esteemed. If a disciple did this over a period of time he would, the Buddha claimed, develop a faith in the Buddha that was “supported by reasons”.154
So for the Buddha, faith was a helpful psychological state which eventually had to be transmuted into understanding by personal experience. For Jesus it was a spiritual power that God responded to by saving the person who had it.155 Paradoxically, one only had this faith or wisdom or any other spiritual quality if it were granted by the grace of God.
The End of the World
For several centuries before the turn of the first millennium and for at least a century and a half after it, many Jews believed that because the world had become so wicked God was going to destroy it. There was a precedent for this when God wiped out almost all living things with a great flood. A hundred years before Jesus, a Jewish ascetic sect called the Essenes was teaching that the end was near. The idea can be found in a Jewish work called the Psalms of Solomon written in about 90 BCE. John the Baptist taught the same thing, Jesus did, so did his apostles after his death, and it was a major theme of preaching by the first several generations of Christians. The fiery John the Baptist harangued and no doubt terrified the crowds who came to hear him, warning them to repent because of “the punishment God is about to send”.156 “The axe is ready to cut down the tree at its roots; every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire.”157 It was a message that Jesus took to heart. He came to believe that he was the Son of Man sent by God to judge the world; the wicked being destroyed and the righteous rewarded. The poor and the humble were going to be exalted and the rich and powerful brought low. “The meek shall inherit the earth” Jesus promised.158 The time had come to love each other, to give to anyone who asked, forgive one’s enemies, turn the other cheek, and give no thought for tomorrow. The overthrow of the old world and its replacement by a new and perfect one was imminent.
The opening scene would be the sun and moon going dark, the stars falling from the heavens and the Son of Man coming through the clouds in glory. “There will be a shout of command, the archangel’s voice, the sound of God’s trumpet, and the Lord himself will come down from heaven. Those who have died believing in Christ will rise to life first, then we who are living at that time will be gathered up along with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will always be with the Lord.” This was going to happen quite unexpectedly, “like a thief in the night”, and very soon. “When people say, ‘Everything is quiet and safe’ then suddenly destruction will hit them! It will come as suddenly as the pains that come upon a woman in labour, and people will not escape.”159 Jesus told the Jewish high priest that he would “see the Son of Man sitting on the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.”160 On several other earlier occasions he also warned his audience that they would witness this dramatic end. “Remember that all these things will happen before the people now living have all died.”161 Again: “I tell you, there are some here who will not die until they have seen the Kingdom of God come with power.”162 Today those who believe such predictions tend to provoke ridicule or at least a knowing smile, but it is obvious that Jesus meant what he said and the first several generations of Christians took him very seriously. John promised his readers: “My children, the end is near! You were told that the Enemy of Christ would come, and now many enemies of Christ have already appeared, and so we know the end is near.”163 James asked “all God’s people scattered over the whole world” to “Keep your hopes high, for the day of the Lord’s coming is near”.164 Paul reminded people that “The Lord is coming soon”165 and warned them to be careful of their behaviour “for we live at a time when the end of the world is about to come”.166 When someone asked him for his advice on marriage he replied: “Have you got a wife? Then don’t try to get rid of her. Are you unmarried? Then don’t look for a wife…What I mean is this, my friends: there is not much time left and from now on married people should live as though they were not married…”167
The Buddha’s conception of the world, indeed of the whole universe, and its fate differed in almost every respect from that of Jesus. He did not accept the notion that the world or the universe were a divine creation but rather a phenomenon that had come into existence through a process of natural forces, causes and effects. Nor did the universe have a specific beginning in time, or an end. He saw what he called “world systems” (cakkavali) as going through an endless cycle of destruction and reformation taking place over aeons. “There comes a time when, sooner or later, after a vast duration, this universe contracts (samvattati)…Then there comes a time when, sooner or later, after a vast duration, this universe expands (vivattati).”168 When asked how long one of these periods of disintegration or reformation would be, he said it would take a kappa (Sanskrit kalpa). Asked how long a kappa was he replied: “It would not be easy to calculate by counting years, centuries or even millennia.” Then he gave this simile. “If once in a hundred years a man were to stroke the peak of a mighty rocky mountain once with a silk cloth, that mountain would be worn away before a kalpa had expired.”169 There is no suggestion in this or anything the Buddha said about the world or the cosmos that they were the outcome of a divine will, that a divine power was overlooking them or intervening in them, or that a divine being was going to destroy them.
Salvation and Awakening
The Kingdom of God which Jesus believed would replace the old world after it had been destroyed by God would be utopian one, an existence of abundant joy for eternity in the presence of God. Nonetheless, the vision of an apocalyptic destruction of the entire world, together with all its natural wonders and everything that humans have achieved and loved, is an overwhelmingly negative one. Adding to this grim vision is Jesus’ contention that very few would survive the apocalypse to be able to enjoy the Kingdom of God. “The gate to hell is wide and the road that leads to it is easy, and there are many who travel it. But the gate to life is narrow and the way that leads to it is hard, and there are few people who find it”,170 and further “…many will try to get through but will not be able.”171 Apparently, even believing in Jesus and his Gospel was no guarantee of salvation. “When the Day of Judgment comes, many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord! In your name we spoke God’s message, by your name we drove out many demons and performed many miracles!’ Then I will say to them, ‘I never knew you. Get away from me, you wicked people!’.”172 Peter, Jesus’ senior apostle and leader of the early church, went so far as to say this: “It is difficult for good people to be saved; what then will become of godless sinners?”173 God actually revealed to the apostle John the number who would be saved; some 144,000.174 As for the others, a terrible fate awaited them.
When the Buddha was asked how many people would realise Nirvana he refused to answer, one of only two times he ever did this, probably considering the question to be irrelevant. Thinking that the questioner might go away disappointed, Ānanda answered on the Buddha’s behalf. He said that if there were a city surrounded by a strong wall with only one gate, anyone who entered the city would have to go through that gate. He then said that anyone who realised Nirvana would do so by following the Noble Eightfold Path.175 While stating that his teaching “goes against the stream” and that there were “many with much dust in their eyes”, the Buddha also claimed that many thousands of his disciples had attained one or another of the stages that make complete Awakening inevitable.176 No doubt his feelings on the difficulty of attaining Nirvana was well summed up by the nun Sumedha when she said: “The Immortal has been attained by many and can still be attained even today by those who make an effort, but not by those who do not try.”177
While Jesus was sure that only a few would be saved, mainly the humble, the neglected and the lowly, he taught it would be virtually impossible for the rich. “My children, how hard it is to enter the Kingdom of God? It is much harder for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”178 He declared that his mission from God was specifically to the poor (echrisen me euangelisasthai ptochois).179 He was well aware that wealth could make people greedy, proud and contemptuous of their fellows and of spiritual pursuits, and he pointed this out on several occasions. However, Jesus’ attitude seemed to have gone beyond this to condemning the rich simply for being rich. It has been observed more than once that he reserved his harshest words firstly for hypocrites and then for the wealthy.
Jesus told a story of a rich man who died and went to hell, while the poor man who used to sit at his door hoping to get something to eat died and was carried to heaven by the angels. In hell and suffering terrible agony, the rich man begged for pity from Abraham and the poor man now sitting beside him in paradise even for a drop of water to ease his thirst. They refused. They even refused a plea from the man to send a message to his brothers warning them not to be neglectful of the poor as he had been.180 This is a troubling parable. There is no suggestion that the poor man was particularly virtuous; it seems that his saving grace was only that he was poor. The rich man for his part perhaps deserved to be rebuked for his callousness and neglect, even chastised for it, but did he deserve eternal punishment? Most troubling of all, the story lacks compassion; Abraham’s and the poor man’s response to the rich man’s pleas for mercy suggests spite and vengefulness. And what of that most attractive and important of virtues, forgiveness?
Several of Jesus’ other comments about the rich suggest the same thing. “How terrible for you who are rich now; you have had your easy life! How terrible for you who are full now; you will go hungry! How terrible for you who laugh now; you will mourn and weep!”181 His apostles took a similar stance. “And now you rich people, listen to me! Weep and wail over the miseries that are coming upon you! Your riches have rotted away, and your clothes have been eaten by moths. Your gold and silver are covered with rust, and this rust will be a witness against you and will eat up your flesh like fire. You have piled up riches in these last days.”182 Again: “Those Christians who are poor must be glad when God lifts them up, and the rich Christians must be glad when God brings them down. For the rich will pass away like a wild flower. The sun rises with its blazing heat and burns the plant, its flower falls off, and its beauty is destroyed. In the same way the rich will be destroyed while they go about their business.”183
God was said to love everyone but he had more for the poor than the rich and it seems Jesus and his apostles thought similarly. “Has not God chosen the poor people of this world to be rich in faith and to possess the Kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?”184 Mary, Jesus’ mother, said of God: “He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away with empty hands.”185 In an all-or-nothing approach characteristic of Jesus, he declared that there were only two choices – God or wealth.186 For him, the only riches worth striving for were heavenly ones. “Sell all your belongings and give the money to the poor. Provide yourself with purses that don’t wear out, and save your riches in heaven, where they will never decrease, because no thief can get them. For your heart will always be where your riches are.”187
On the one hand such teachings about the poor have been the template for the long Christian tradition of care and compassion for the disadvantaged, probably Christianity’s greatest contribution to the societies where it has flourished, and an example that others should follow. On the other hand it almost seems to fetishize poverty and the poor. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus said to invite the sick and the wrenched to your celebrations and other social events is more blessed than to invite the members of your family or your friends and neighbours.188 Quite apart from the fact that very few people ever do or ever have done this, is it really necessary to be thinking about the poor all the time, to include the poor in everything, to always favour them, to valorise the poor more than everyone else? Are not the poor as capable of greed and mean-spiritedness, selfishness, dishonesty and malice as others?
In accordance with these teachings about wealth, and in expectation of the imminent end of the world, the first Christians sold all their possessions, pooled the money and shared it out equally between them. “All the believers continued together in close fellowship and shared their belongings with one another. They would sell their property and possessions and distribute the money among all, according to what each one needed.”189 “None of them said that any of their belongings were their own, but they all shared with one another everything they had…There was no one in the group who was in need. Those who owned land or houses would sell them, bring the money received from the sale and hand it over to the apostles; and it would be distributed according to the needs of the people.”190
While the Buddha considered ordinary conditioned existence to be unsatisfactory (dukkha) and transcending it to be the most worthwhile of all endeavours, his teaching does not exhibit the intense sense of urgency characteristic of Jesus’ Gospel. For the Buddha, the world was not on the brink of destruction and his doctrine of rebirth meant that those who did not attain Awakening in this life would have a chance of doing so in the next one, and if not then then in the life after that. Accepting that many people were going to live “in the world” he took this into account in his Dhamma and offered sound, practical and realistic advice on how to do so righteously. Among the types of happiness he considered to be worthwhile and legitimate were the happiness of ownership (atthisukha), the happiness of wealth (bhogasukha) and the happiness of being free from debt (anaṇasukha).191
The Buddha said: “Take the case of the person who makes his wealth lawfully and without harming others and in doing so makes himself happy and fulfilled, shares it with others, does good works, makes use of it without greed, without infatuation, aware of its limitations and keeping in mind his own spiritual growth; that person is praiseworthy on all these counts.”192 Here the Buddha was saying that wealthy people could be praiseworthy (pāsaṁso) according how they made their wealth, how they utilised it, and their attitude towards it. An upright person should make his or her wealth lawfully (dhammena), without harming others (saṁvibhajati) and without infringing the norms and standards of society. Having earned their wealth, they should use it meaningfully and in ways that give them happiness and fulfilment (attānaṁ sukheti pīṇeti), rather than squandering it on frivolous pursuits or trite luxuries or never spending it at all. Even while enjoying themselves, they should never forget the many who do not have the blessings they do and share their wealth with others and support charities and religious institutions (puññāni karoti). On another occasion, the Buddha advised dividing one’s financial resources into four and using one part for living expenses, two parts for one’s work or investments and one part kept aside for future eventualities.193 Contrasting quite dramatically with this is Jesus’ Parable of the Rich Fool, a clear discouragement to the acquisition wealth, even just for the sake of basic security and comfort.194 Timothy makes this same point in his first epistle. “Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and are caught in the trap of many foolish and harmful desires which pull them down to ruin and destruction.”195
The Buddha was aware that being in debt or lacking sufficient financial resources could be a source of anxiety so he advised his disciples to maintain what he called a balanced lifestyle (samaṁ jīvikaṁ). “And what is a balanced lifestyle? One knows both one’s income and expenditure, and lives neither extravagantly nor miserly, knowing well that income after expenditure will stand at a particular amount and that expenditure not exceed income.”196 It is interesting to note that the first people to become disciples of the Buddha were two merchants197 and that Buddha’s teaching took root as quickly as it did due in part to the patronage it received from wealthy merchants, Anāthapiṇḍika being the best-known example.
Wealth has a tendency to make people proud and complacent, especially if it has been acquired suddenly or with little effort. The Buddha observed: “Few are the people in the world who, when they acquire great wealth, do not get carried away by it, become negligent, chase after sensual pleasures and mistreat others.”198 Remembering this caution, the Buddha said, thoughtful disciples should keep in mind the limitations of their wealth (ādīnavadassāvī). They should know that while it can give them so much in some areas, it cannot deliver some of the most important things in life, and this will encourage them to use their wealth without greed, infatuation or longing (amucchita). They should also understand that their wealth can have an even greater value if they use the time, freedom and opportunities it gives them to focus on their spiritual growth (nissaraṇapañña).
While praising wealth rightfully acquired and thoughtfully used, the Buddha always balanced this by pointing out another type of wealth, of greater value, that was accessible to everyone, that could never be stolen or lost, and that could be taken into the next life. “There are these five types of wealth. What five? The wealth of faith, the wealth of virtue, the wealth of learning, the wealth of generosity and the wealth of wisdom.”199 Whoever is ‘rich’ in these and other kinds of spiritual treasures “whether they be a man or a woman, they are not poor nor are their lives empty”.
Inclusiveness and Exclusiveness
The Buddha was apparently the first religious universalist in that he taught a vision of reality and a philosophy of life for all humankind, not for one particular caste, gender or ethnic group. He described himself as “a teacher of gods and humans” (satthā devamanussānaṁ) i.e. of all beings capable of reasoning and comprehension. Once he said rhetorically that even the trees would embrace the Dhamma if they had discernment, “how much more so human beings!”200 After he made his first disciples, he instructed them to proclaim the Dhamma for “the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world”.201 This universalism was especially noteworthy considering the particularism of the Brahmanism of the time, which excluded outcastes and foreigners (milakkha) from any place in the religion.
The nature of the Buddha’s Dhamma lends itself comfortably to religious inclusivity. The Buddha never claimed that the way he understood, formulated and presented the Dhamma was the only way to Awakening. Some have argued that his statement “There is no ascetic outside” (samaṇo natthi bāhire)202 suggests exclusivism because it means that outside (bāhira) Buddhism, no one can be a genuine seeker and therefore attain Awakening. However, all the statement actually says is that, other than the Buddha’s ordained disciples, no other monks or nuns qualified to be genuine ascetics, which may well have been the case at the time he said it.
An inquirer once asked the Buddha if the ascetics of other sects and religions had attained Awakening and he replied: “I do not say that all ascetics and brahmans are shrouded in birth and death. Whoever does not cling to sense experience or morality and rules, who has given up doubts, who is free from craving and defilements, I say that one has attained Nirvana.”203 Thus the Buddha’s answer was not a sweeping assertion that only within his Dhamma can someone attain final liberation, but rather an “it depends”. On another occasion when asked the same question, he replied: “I do not deny that others can become Awakened ones” (Na kho…arahattassa maccharāyāmi).204 In yet another discourse, he affirmed this stance even more clearly, saying that some individuals “attain the unalterable path” (okkamati niyāmaṃ) that leads to Awakening even if they have never seen him or heard his Dhamma.205
The reason for the Buddha’s open attitude towards other paths was not just because he was tolerant and well-informed about them, although he was, but because of his understanding of the nature of truth and the liberation it can impart. Attaining liberation, as the Buddha understood it, is not dependent on believing in, winning the approval of or receiving grace from a deity, but on realising certain natural truths, which everyone has the ability to do. Consequently, it is conceivable that even those who have never come into contact with the Dhamma could become Awakened. Having said that, an openness to the Buddha’s teaching makes an appreciation of it more likely. Appreciation of the teaching would make the desire to practise it stronger. Practising the Buddha’s teaching would make attaining Awakening many times more probable.
According to Jesus, we have only one earthly life and if we are not saved before death we will be damned forever. There are only these two possible destinies. The Buddha’s doctrine of rebirth means that if one has not attained Awakening in this life one always has the possibility of doing so in the next. Furthermore, linked to the doctrine of rebirth is the doctrine of kamma, the idea that intentional thoughts, speech and actions build one’s character and thereby condition one’s present and future; next week, next month, next year, and perhaps next life. Having the right conceptual or intellectual understanding (sammā diṭṭhi) is crucial, but one’s beliefs are only significant to the degree that they influence one’s behaviour and thereby one’s kamma. Thus an upright and virtuous person could have a positive rebirth no matter what his or her religious beliefs, or even if they have none. Certainly Buddhists will rejoice when someone embraces the Dhamma, but they can also be glad that someone is a genuine Hindu, a practicing Jew or a sincere Christian. Thus the need to assert superiority over other faiths and to be always looking for converts has not generally been characteristic of Buddhism.
To say that Christianity claims an exclusive legitimacy is not controversial. On this issue Jesus was unambiguous. “I am the way, the truth and the life; no one goes to the Father except by me”, and: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever disobeys the Son will not have life, but will remain under God’s punishment.”206 He presented the choices available simply and clearly: “Anyone who is not for me is really against me.”207 The apostles took these and similar statements at face value. “Salvation is to be found through him alone; in all the world there is no one else whom God has given who can save us.” And again: “For there is one God, and there is one who brings God and humans together, the man Jesus Christ.”208
There can be no doubt that the biggest, the most striking, the most fundamental difference between the Buddha and Jesus, and the one from which many of the other dissimilarities stem, is their ideas about God. Jesus believed implicitly in a personal God; the Buddha did not.
Jesus’ god had been worshipped for centuries. Called Yahweh, he was the national god of the Jews and had a distinctly Janus-like nature. One side of his nature was benign and nurturing, at least towards his votaries. In jarring contrast to this, he was also demanding, quick to anger, vengeful and terrifying when disobeyed. Even common English usage points to this other side. We refer to an upright, honest person as “God fearing” because ignoring God’s commandments can have frightful consequences. To scare someone is to “put the fear of God in them”. A huge natural catastrophe is often described as being “of biblical proportions” because it is thought to be remanisant of the plagues God visited on Egypt. Somewhere evoking happiness and delight is said to be “like heaven”, but a place where some atrocity has been or is being committed is commonly described as “hell on Earth”, because it is thought to resemble the place to which God condemns sinners and unbelievers.
Around the turn of the first millennium, great Jewish thinkers and theologians such as Hillel, Rabbi Avika and Simon the Just were giving more emphasis to God’s loving nature, and Jesus would be counted among these. Nonetheless, Jesus was quite aware of God’s other side and was not averse to reminding people of it. “Do not be afraid of those who can kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather be afraid of God, who can destroy both body and soul in hell.”209 This hell was, he warned, a place “where the fire never goes out”, a deep pit from which it is impossible to cross over into heaven, a state where “the worm that eats them never dies, and the fire that burns them is never extinguished”.210
The Brahmanism of the Buddha’s time and for centuries before him believed in innumerable gods; Yama, Suriya, Soma, Agni, Canda, Indra, Varuṇa, and Pajāpati being amongst the most popular. However, by the 7th/6th centuries BCE, the beginning of what would later evolve into a form of henotheism was starting to develop, at least amongst the more sophisticated mystics and theologians. Brahmā was emerging as preeminent. He was described as “All-Seeing, All-Powerful, the Lord, Maker, Creator and Ruler, Appointer and Controller, Father of All that Are and All that Shall Be”.211 He was said to “outshine all other gods in radiance”, and “when he appears, he assumes a grosser form because his natural appearance is not perceptible to the eye”.212 As well as having created everything, Brahmā was also thought of as a benign deity, loving and without anger or ill-will.213 Devotees praised him, called upon him for help and worshipped him with offerings and sacrifices. Their hope was to be guided and protected by him in this life and be in fellowship with him (Brahmasahavyatā)214 after death. Thus, minus the dark side, the Brahmā the Buddha was familiar with was equivalent to the supreme deity of the major theistic religions, including Christianity.
While the Buddha tactically acknowledged the reality of Brahmā, he cast doubts on nearly every claim made about him, thereby indirectly rendering worship of and devotion to him meaningless. Far from being immutable, the Buddha said, Brahmā was subject to changes and reverses (aññathattaṃ atthi vipariṇāmo) like everyone and everything else.215 Although Brahmā thought he had created everything he had misunderstood the facts; it all happened through natural forces, the Buddha said.216 When the Buddha asked those who believed in Brahmā’s creation to explain exactly how it came about, “they could not give a [convincing] answer” (te mayā puṭṭhā na sampāyanti).217 In fact, the Buddha said the belief that all happenings were due to the Lord (issara nimmānahetu) was false, like the belief that everything was due to past karma or without a cause or causes.218 Brahmā may have claimed to be omniscient but in his better moments admitted being ignorant of many things.219 Brahmā’s supposed omniscience was further diminished by the Buddha’s claim that Brahmā, would sometimes come to praise him or ask questions about things he did not know, especially concerning spiritual matters.220 Then there was the question of theodicy. The early Buddhists asked, as many have before and since, why if the Supreme Being is all-powerful and at the same time all-loving, he does nothing about the great evil and suffering in the world.“Why does Brahmā not straighten out the world? If he really is the Controller, the Highest, Lord of All Beings, why is the whole world in such a mess? Why did he not make the world happy? If he really is the Controller, the Highest, Lord of All Beings, why is there so much deceit and lies, pride and unrighteousness? If he really is the Controller, the Highest, Lord of All Beings, then he must be unrighteous and cruel himself because it was he who created everything.”221
Like Jesus, the Buddha was deeply moved by and concerned about human suffering. For Jesus, it all came back to God in one way or another. Sin and its consequent evil and suffering were the result of humankind disobeying God. For the Buddha, they had psychological roots; clinging and ignorance. For Jesus, the goal of the religious life was to live for eternity in the presence of God. For the Buddha, it was to attain Nirvana. Jesus believed salvation was attained by having a simple trusting faith in God. The Buddha taught that Awakening would come naturally as a result of developing clear-eyed “knowledge and vision of things as they really are” (yathā bhūta ñāṇa dassana).222 Jesus believed God’s purpose and will laid behind everything that happened. The Buddha related everything to the mind. The first words in the Dhammapada, the most widely known collections of all his sayings, is: “Mind precedes all things, they depend on mind, they are constructed by mind.”223 Some have claimed that the Buddha rarely talked about God “because the Divine is beyond words”. The reality is that he only addressed the subject occasionally because amongst the heterodox thinkers and intellectuals of which he was one, the subject was not considered important enough to warrant discussion.
1. Matt.5, 17; Lk.16, 17.
2. Matt.5, 17-20)
3. Lev.19:18; 19, 34.
4. Matt.4, 23.
5. Acts 24,5; 26:28; 1 Peter 4:16.
6. S.V, 421.
7. D.III, 64.
8. D.I, 71.
9. D.I, 90.
10. Mahābhāṣya II,4, 9.
11. M.I, 63-64.
12. Dhp.107; D.I, 9; A.IV,41 ff.
13. Sn. 249.
14. Vin.I, 35. The three sacred fires were the Āhavanīya, the Gārhapatya and the Dakṣiṇāgni.
15. D.I, 113.
18. S.I, 166. Outside the four castes were the so-called fifth group (pañcama); outcastes (caṇḍāla, hīnajacca), sub- humans (vasala), dog-eaters (sopāka), and scavengers (pukkusa), who were forced to do the most demeaning jobs and were completely beyond the pale of ordinary society.
19. M.II,147ff. The idea of the divine origin of the institution of caste can be found in Ṛg Veda X, 90, Atharvaveda XX.6,6, Bhagavad Gita IV,13 and several places in the Mahābhārata and the Purāṇas.
24. M.I,39. 25. S.I,43.
26. e.g. Manusmṛti 9,107; Taittirīya Saṃhita 6.3.10,5. For a fuller explanation of this doctrine see Saṃnyāsa Upaniṣads, translated by P. Olivelle, 1992, pp.47-50.
27. Aitareya Brahmaṇa 7.13; Manusmṛti 9,107; Taittirīya Saṃhita 6.3.10,5.
29. Dhp.288; 62; 174, 287.
30. Dhp. 187; 178
31. D.III,180 ff. On the different ways and reasons of worshiping the directions see e.g. Brhadāranyaka Upanisad 3.7,10, and Chāndogya Upaniṣad 1.3, 11; 5.6; 5.20,2. Sigāla was probably worshipping the directional gods as advocated at Gautama Dharmasūtra 5, 11.
32. Vin.II, 139. On the early Buddhist attitude to Sanskrit see Johannes Bronkhorst’s Buddhism in the Shadow of Brahmanism, 2011, p.122ff.
40. D.I, 87ff; MII,147ff; M.II,163ff.
41. e.g. A.III, 369-70; Vin.II,161-2.
42. S.II, 114
44. A.II, 200-201.
46. See Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s The Buddha’s Smile, Humour in the Pali Canon, 2015.
47. e.g. D.I,178; S.IV,398.
48. M.I, 231.
51. A.I, 187.
53. D.III, 38.
54. A.V, 194; S.IV,400.
55. Condensed, D.III, 55-6.
56. Mk.11, 12-14; Jn.2, 1-11; Lk.5.1-11; Matt. 17, 24-27.
57. Mk.5, 25-32; 8, 22-23.
58. Matt.27, 45; Mk.15, 33; Lk.23, 44-45.
59. Matt.27, 52-53.
60. Mk.6, 5-6.
61. Mk.8, 22-25.
62. Jn.10, 37-38.
63. Jn.9, 1-3.
64. Rev.16, 14.
65. Matt.12, 22-26.
66. D.I, 211 ff.
67. Vin.II, 110-111.
68. D.III, 4.
69. e.g. A.III,144; 295 ff; S.V,79-80; 381.
71. Matt.12, 31-40.
72. Acts.23, 7-9.
73. Matt.5,8; 13,43; 22, 30; Jn.14, 2;
74. Matt.11, 23; 5,22; 25,41.
75. D.I, 76.
76. Sn.1060; 278; D.II, 15.
77. D.II, 63; III,103; S.V,370.
78. A.I, 249; Dhp.173.
79. A.I, 173.
80. A.I, 249; Dhp.173.
81. S.IV, 206.
82. e.g.Matt. 5,21-22.
83. Matt.3, 7; Jn.3,36; Ja.2,13; Rev.14,10; 16,19.
84. e.g. Matt.5, 12; 6,5; 25,46; Lk.6,35.
85. Jn.3.6; Lk.23, 46.
87. Lk.18, 28.
88. Mk.3, 31-35; 23,9.
90.1 Pt.2, 11; Col.3, 5-6; J.4, 4.
91. Jn.12, 25.
92. Lk.14, 26.
93. D.III, 189.
95. A.II, 70.
96. A.II, 70.
99. lokismiṃ hi appiyasampayogo va dukkho, Ja.II,205.
101. bharyā va paramā sakhā, S.I,37.
102. aññamaññam piyamvādā, A.II,59.
103. pamodamānā ekacittā samaggavāsam, Ja.II,122.
104. A.II, 62.
105. A.III, 295-8.
106. A.II, 61-62.
107. Matt.5, 31-32; 19,1-9; Mk.10,1-5.
108. M.I, 130.
110. 1 Cor.13, 4-7.
111. Lk.10, 25-27. There is controversy as to whether ‘neighbour’ referred to fellow Jews or all humans. In his ‘The Distinction between Jews and Gentiles in Torah’ Rabbi David Bar Chaim quotes numerous ancient and medieval rabbis including Maimonides to show that it was always understood to refer only to Jews. See http://daatemet.org.il/en/torah-science-ethics/religion-ethics/gentiles-in-halacha/
114. 1 Jn. 3,17-18.
115. 1 Jn.4,20.
117. 1 Jn.4,1.
119. 1 Jn.4,12.
122. Matt.13,40-43; also Lk.12,49; 13,23-28; 2 Tim.4,1; Rev. 20,11-12.
123. Jn.3, 36; also Jn.8,24;11,25;12,47-48.
124. Ja.2, 13.
125. Matt.12, 31-32.
126. D.I, 1-3.
127. D.I, 63;71.
128. M.I, 46.
129. A.III, 379; S.V,344-345.
130. A.III, 168.
131. M.II, 98 ff.
132. M.I, 23.
133. A.II, 147.
134. M.I, 127.
136. M.I, 126.
138. A.IV, 151.
139. A.I, 243.
140. A.III,243-4; III,196; III,144.
143. Mk.16,16; Jn.3,16; 8,23-24; 3,36.
144. Jn.6, 29; Heb.11,6; Rom.3,22; Ep.2,8.
145. Ja.1, 6-8.
146. Matt.18, 3.
148(A.III, 53; M.I,356.
149. S.II, 30ff.
150. M.I, 379.
151. Jn.20, 24-29.
152. M.I, 37ff.
153. M.III, 11.
154. M.I, 318.
155. Eph.2, 8; Ja.I,5; 6,44; Rom.9,14-18.
156. Matt.3, 7.
157. Matt.3, 10.
158. Matt.5, 5.
159. 1 Thess. 4,16-17; 5, 3.
161. Matt. 24:34; Mark 13:30; Lk. 21:32. Paul make the same point at 1 Thessalonians 4. 16-18.
163. 1 Jn.2:18.
166. 1 Cor.10,11.
167. 1 Cor.27-29.
173. 1 Pt.4,18.
174. Rev.7,1-4, also 14,1-3.
180. Lk.16, 19-31.
181. Lk.6, 24-5.
182. Ja.5, 1-3.
183. Ja.1, 9-11.
184. Ja.2, 5.
185. Lk.1, 53.
186. Lk.16, 13.
187. Lk.32-34; Matt.6,19.
188. Acts 2, 44-45.
189. Act.4, 32-35.
190. A.II, 67-8.
191. A.V, 180-1.
192. D.III, 188.
193. A.IV, 282.
194. Lk.12, 16-21
195. Tim. 6 ,9
186. Lk.16, 13.
187. Matt.6, 19-21.
188. Lk.14, 7-14.
189. Acts 2, 44-45.
190. Act.4, 32-35.
191. A.II, 67-8.
192. A.V, 180-1.
193. D.III, 188.
194. Lk.12, 16-21
195. 1 Tim.6, 9
196. A.IV, 282.
197. Vin.I, 4.
206. Jn.14,6; 3,36.
208. Acts 4,12; 1 Tim.2,5.
210. Matt.13,42; Mk.9,43; Lk.16,26; Mk.9,48.
211. M.I, 327.
213. D.I, 247.
214. D.I, 235.
215. A.V, 60.
216. D.I, 18 ff.
217. D.III, 28.
218. A.I, 173.
219. D.I, 222.
220. M.I,168; 326; S.I,139;153.
220. Ja.VI, 208.
222. A.V, 1-2.