The Christian scholar G.W. Houston has written: “With Buddhism…the historical Buddha is not important. What is important is that there is a system to overcome suffering. If the Buddha had not discovered it, any yoga [sic] could have. The primary focus is not the Buddha, but what the Buddha taught. With Christianity … what is really important is not what Jesus taught, but what He did (at least to those who follow Christianity) and that is to die and be resurrected for all men. Buddhism points to a doctrine; Christianity points to a saviour. This is the real difference between the two religions in its most dramatic and condensed form.”1 Like Yandell and Netland’s comments quoted above, this goes to the heart of the distinctions between the two religions – except for one thing. Although the Buddha does not have the same role or importance in Buddhism as Jesus does in Christianity, the Buddha does has a vital one nonetheless. The veracity of what he taught is independent of the man himself, just as the law of gravity is independent of Newton. Each man discovered a particular phenomenon, formulated and explained it and presented it to the world. The Buddha put it like this: “Whether Tathāgatas appear in the world or not this order exists; the fixed nature of phenomena, their regular pattern, and their general conditionality. This the Tathāgata discovers and comprehends and having done so he points it out and teaches it, explains and establishes it, reveals, analyses and clarifies it and says ‘Look’.”2
Nevertheless, the Buddha’s life and example are important guideposts for Buddhists to follow and be inspired by. They add a human dimension to the truths the Buddha proclaimed and demonstrate the transformational effect of the Dhamma. This is why a person commences his or her journey on the Noble Eightfold Path by reciting and committing themselves to the Three Refuges, the first of which is; I take refuge in the Buddha (Buddhaṃ saranaṃ gacchāmi). To do this means that one accepts the human potential for Awakening and at the same time is inspired by the historical Buddha’s achievements and example and wishes to replicate them within oneself. When one starts to be transformed by the Dhamma the Buddha said: “he is near me and I am near him. And why? Because he sees the Dhamma and seeing the Dhamma he sees me.”3
Although there is wide agreement amongst scholars that both the Buddha and Jesus were real people, there is almost no direct evidence for the existence of either of them. This is not surprising in the case of the Buddha given that he lived nearly half a millennia before Jesus and in a region where writing did not come into use for at least another century. It is most surprising in the case of Jesus because so many documents from his time are available, in Latin and Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic. The evidence for some far less significant individuals of the time is often good. Pontius Pilate for example, the Roman governor who tried Jesus, is mentioned in a Latin inscription discovered in Israel in 1961 and also in the writings of the Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexander. The Jewish high priest Caiaphas who Jesus came before after his arrest, is mentioned in an inscription discovered in 2011. But Jesus, who the Bible says was very well-known, gets no mention in any contemporary records. The historian Josephus, writing about 60 years after Jesus’ death, made two brief references to him. But most scholars consider the second and longest of these to have been either added later or more likely to have been partly redacted by later Christians trying to ‘create’ evidence for the existence of Jesus. The earliest unimpeachable and independent evidence of Jesus is a brief reference to him in the writings of the Roman historian Tacitus dating from 116 CE, i.e. about 85 years after Jesus’ death.
The earliest direct evidence for the Buddha dates from the year 249 BCE, about 160 years after his passing. In that year, King Asoka erected a great stone pillar in the village of Lumbini, now situated in Nepal just a few kilometres across the border from India. The inscription on this pillar reads: “Twenty years after his coronation, Beloved-of-the-Gods, King Piyadasi (i.e. Asoka), visited this place and worshipped because here the Buddha, the sage of the Sakyans, was born. He had a stone figure and a pillar erected and because the Lord was born here, the village of Lumbini was exempted from tax and required to pay only one eighth of the produce.”
Their Social Backgrounds
The Buddha and Jesus lived far from each other in both time and space. The Buddha was born in about 563 BC although the exact date is not certain. Tradition says he was born decades before this while recent research suggests he may have been born decades later. However, there is no controversy concerning where he was born. The Tipitaka says this took place in a park or garden called Lumbini, somewhere between the town of Kapilavatthu and the town of Devadaha, and is confirmed by solid archaeological evidence, King Asoka’s Lumbini inscription.
Lumbini is on the northern edge of what was then called the Middle Land (Majjhima Desa), the broad shallow valley of the Ganges and Yamuna rivers. The Middle Land was the centre of India’s newly emerging civilisation. The first cities had only recently grown up, continental trade had started and it was a time of great social change. The Middle Land was made up of about a dozen countries, large and important monarchies such as Kosala, Magadha and Vaṃsā and several small principalities like Allakappa and Veṭhadīpaka. Several other countries such as the Koliyas of Devadaha and the Moriyas of Pipphalivana were ruled by elected leaders or councils. Within 100 years of the Buddha’s passing, Magadha had absorbed most of these countries and would go on to dominate almost all India.
Throughout the Bible, Jesus is referred to as “Jesus of Nazareth”, Nazareth being a town in what is now northern Israel. In Jesus’ time it was an obscure village in the province of Galilee, so insignificant that it is not mentioned in any Jewish sources until the 3rd century CE. Nazareth was Jesus’ ancestral home; his mother and father both lived there and he grew to adulthood there.4 However, the Bible maintains that he was not born there. According to Matthew, when King Herod heard a prophecy that a baby born in Nazareth would become king of the Jews he ordered his soldiers to kill every baby boy recently born in the village, fearing that the child would grow up and replace him or his heir. Being forewarned of this by an angel, Jesus’ parents fled to Egypt and on the way Jesus was born in a stable at the back of an inn in the small town of Bethlehem. This story is recounted in Matthew5 but not in the other three Gospels, nor is Herod’s massacre mentioned in any historical sources of the time. Nearly all Bible scholars consider this story to be fanciful. Centuries before Jesus, the Jewish scriptures (i.e. the Old Testament) prophesised that a great saviour, what they called a messiah, would be born in Bethlehem. Matthew believed Jesus to be that messiah and so he probably concocted the story about Jesus being born in Bethlehem to fit the prophecy. It seems much more probable that Jesus was born in Nazareth.
The horizon Jesus knew, the land the Jews considered sacred, had fallen under Roman domination, either direct rule or through proxies, several decades before his birth. The most important political divisions were Galilee, Samaria, Judea, and Syria. The Romans had introduced new laws, taxes and customs, which the Jews resented, and more importantly new gods, which the Jews hated fanatically. The whole land was simmering with social, political and religious tensions, and was often on the edge of rebellion. The Bible makes several references to these problems. Some 36 years after Jesus’ death, a major revolt against the Romans finally broke out only to end in defeat for the Jews, the sacking of their sacred city Jerusalem, and the total destruction of its great temple to God.
Although Jesus’ parents were humble folk, the Bible claims that Jesus had royal blood, being the descendant of the great Jewish hero King David. As this king lived nearly 1000 years before Jesus, it is highly unlikely that family records going back so long would have survived and Jesus would have known his ancestry. The gospels of Matthew and Luke have genealogies of Jesus but as both of these have almost nothing in common, they are probably fanciful.6
The Buddha was born in the Sakyan country, a small chiefdom named after the people who lived there, the Sakyans. It was on the outer edge the Middle Land situated between the much larger kingdom of Kosala and the confederacy of Vajjī. This corresponds to the north-east corner of the modern north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh and the lowlands of Nepal just across the border. The Sakyans claimed to be descendants of the sons of the semi-mythical King Okkāka, who had been driven into exile by the machinations of his second queen. Settling down in a forest of sāka trees, they became known as Sakyans.7 The sāka is the Indian Teak, Tectona grandis, prized for its durable beautiful wood. The Sakyans also claimed to be of the Ādicca linage, which supposedly went back to the Vedic sun god. As with the claims about Jesus’ royal ancestry, there is probably no basis to either of the Sakyans’ claims.
Their Families and Parents
Although nominally independent, the Sakyans were under the influence of their larger and more powerful neighbour Kosala which surrounded them on two sides. The Tipitaka says: “The Sakyans are vassals of the king of Kosala, they offer him humble service and salutation, do his bidding and pay him homage.”8 This explains why once the Buddha said that his homeland belonged to the king of Kosala.9 One text mentions this king being driven into Sakyan territory in his state carriage to the town of Medaḷumpa to meet the Buddha.10 It seems certain that he could only have done this because Sakya was subordinate to and a tributary of Kosala. Towards the end of the Buddha’s life, the Sakyan’s de jure independence came to an end when their lands were formerly absorbed into Kosala.
The Sakyans had a reputation for pride and impulsiveness, and were considered rustics by their neighbours.11A group of Sakyan youths are reported as saying of themselves: “We Sakyans are a proud people”,12 and Upāli, himself a Sakyan who became a disciple of the Buddha, described them as “a fierce people”.13 Taking a more positive stance, the Buddha said his kinsmen were “endowed with wealth and energy”.14 When the arrogant young brahman Ambaṭṭha complained to the Buddha that during a visit to Kapilavatthu the Sakyan did not give him due respect, the Buddha defended his kinsmen: “But Ambaṭṭha, even the quail, such a little bird, can talk as she likes in her own nest.”15
Despite S. Radhakrishnan’s unsubstantiated claim that the Buddha “was born, grew up and died a Hindu”16 we do not know what religion prevailed amongst the Sakyans and thus might have influenced the young Gotama. The only brahman who is reported of having visited Kapilavatthu was mocked by the youths of the clan. It is unlikely that Brahmanism, which had been slowly moving east into the Middle Land for the previous 200 years, had yet to established itself amongst the Sakyans. The only hint we have of the religious life of the Sakyans is the brief comment that Vappa, the Buddha’s uncle, was a follower of Jainism, suggesting that at least some of the Sakyan elite were attracted to the heterodox samaṇas. The majority of the people were probably what would now be called animists or worshippers of their local fertility spirits.
The Buddha’s father Suddhodana, a name meaning “pure rice”, was married to two sisters, Mahā Māya, the Buddha’s mother, and Mahāpajāpati Gotami, who became the Buddha’s step-mother. Legend claims that Suddhodana was a king of the Sakyans although this is not explicitly mentioned in the earliest records. Nowhere is the Buddha called a prince (rāja kumāra), nowhere is he or his family said to live in a palace, and only once is his father called rāja, a word usually translated as king. But in the 5th century BCE, the word rāja still retained its older meaning of ruler or chief without any regal connotations. Even in the very places where one would expect the Buddha to call his father a king he did not do so. For example, when asked by King Bimbisāra about his family and birth, the Buddha simply replied that he was from a Sakyan family.17 It is known that the Sakyans had a body of men called rājākattāro, ‘chief-makers’. This assembly most probably elected their leader, either for a set period or for as long as he had their confidence.18 Once the Buddha was invited to inaugurate a new council hall (santhāgāra) in Kapilavatthu, the kind of place where the chief-makers would have gathered to conduct business and the chief presided over their meetings as primus inter pares.19 Thus we can say that while the Buddha was from a patrician or ruling class family, he was not royalty in the sense that is understood today. It is also worth noting that Suddhodana gets only three brief references in the Tipitaka.20
The Buddha’s mother Mahā Māya died seven days after giving birth and thus the Tipitaka records no other information about her. It does however tell us a little more about the Buddha’s step-mother mother, Mahāpajāpati Gotami. “As his mother’s sister, she was his nurse, his step mother, the one who gave him milk. She suckled the Lord when his own mother died.”21 After Suddhodana passed away, the Buddha happened to be visiting Kapilavatthu and Mahāpajāpati asked him to allow her to become a nun, but he refused. Shortly afterwards, when he left for Vesāli, Mahāpajāpati and several other women who also wanted to become nuns decided to follow him. When they arrived, Ānanda saw Mahāpajāpati “her feet swollen, her limbs covered with dust and her face stained with tears” and decided to speak to the Buddha on the women’s behalf. Again the Buddha refused to ordain the women. Finally Ānanda asked him whether or not women were able to become saints (i.e. attain Awakening) like men and he replied: “Having renounced their home, women too are able to become saints.” Finally relenting, the Buddha gave permission for the establishment of a women’s monastic order.22 One is left with the feeling that he did this somewhat reluctantly, but also with the impression that Mahāpajāpati Gotami was a strong woman determined to get her way.
Something that may throw more light on the Sakyans and thus on the Buddha and his family is the only two references from the Tipitaka describing what Kapilavatthu, the main Sakyan population center, was like. In one place Kapilavatthu is called a village (gāma) and in another, one of its inhabitants described it as being “rich, prosperous, full of people, crowded and thickly populated” which seems to be describing something bigger than a mere village.23 The findings of archaeology can help resolve the apparent disparity between these two descriptions. In the 1980s archaeologists did an extensive survey of ancient settlement sites in the Kanpur district of Utter Pradesh dating from between the 7th to the 3rd century BCE. They found that of 99 sites 41 covered an area of less than one hectare and 40 between one and two hectares. Thus as many as 81 settlements were less than two hectares and it was calculated that these could have had a population of not more than 500 people. There were 14 settlements covering an area of between two and four hectares and these could have had a population of between 500 and 1000. Four settlements were more than four hectares and could have had a population of between 1,200 and 1,300.24 All these population centres were much smaller than the main cities of the time and they would qualify as large villages today. If Kapilavatthu had a population of a 1300 it would have been big enough to be described as bustling and crowded, especially if it was also a centre of commerce and the seat of government.
Excavations conducted at Kapilavatthu in the early 1970s confirm the impression that it was a modest place even by the standards of the time. They revealed that the area it took up was small, although the whole area could not be explored because much of it was under agriculture. All structures had mud walls and the only ones made of backed brick dated from well after the Buddha’s time.25 Kapilavatthu would have been nothing like Suddhodana’s grand royal capital as described in later Buddhist legend.
As with the Buddha’s father, Jesus’ father Joseph gets only scant mention in the Bible, very briefly in the gospels of Matthew, Luke and John, and not at all in Mark, the oldest Gospel, or in Paul’s epistles, the earliest of all Christian documents. In one place, Jesus is described as “the teckon’s son” thus giving us Joseph’s profession. The Greek word teckton is usually translated as carpenter but it actually means something like a fixer or a handyman. As was the custom of the time, Jesus probably followed his father’s trade.
Considering how important Jesus’ mother Mary was to become in later Christian theology, it is surprising how little attention she is given in the Bible. The gospel of John only refers to her twice without using her name26 and Mark, the oldest gospel, mentions her twice and names her just once.27 Matthew and Luke mention her a few times, mainly in relation to Jesus’ birth. The only significant detail about Mary is provided by Luke, who says she was already pregnant at her wedding When Joseph discovered this he decided to quietly divorce her until she told him that she had been impregnated by God.28
The Bible tells us that Jesus was the first child of what became a large family which would have been quite typical of the time. His brothers were James, Jose, Jude and Simon. He also had several of sisters although none of them are named.29 That Jesus was still unmarried when he was in his late 20s would have been most unusual, especially since his younger brothers were married.30 Other than this the Bible provides only three other fragments of information about Jesus’ siblings. While Jesus was teachings in Galilee his brothers tried to persuade him to go to Judea, apparently he was becoming an embracement to them and they did not believe the things he was teachings or the claims he was making.31 On another occasion when he was teaching to a large crowd his family tried to take him away, saying that he was mad or out of his mind (exeste).32 By the time Jesus died at least one brother, James, and perhaps Jude too, had changed their mind towards him, because James is mentioned as one of the leaders of the early church.33
Early tradition says that Gotama had half-brothers and several cousins of which only three are mentioned in the Tipitaka; Devadatta, Ananda and Nanda. As Nanda and Gotama shared a similar height and facial features this would strengthen the tradition that they were related.34
Matthew and Luke claim that Jesus’ conception took place miraculously, God having impregnated his mother Mary.35 Strangely, the two earliest Christian documents, the epistles of Paul and the Gospel of Mark, fail to mention this seemingly important detail.
There are two different accounts of the circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth. Luke says that Joseph and Mary did not leave Nazareth to avoid Herod’s intended massacre, but because the Romans were going to conduct a census, which would require everyone to return to the place of their birth. Bethlehem was Joseph’s ancestral home, the couple went there and that was where Jesus was born. It was not the three Magi guided by a star who paid homage to the child but a group of shepherds alerted to the birth by angels. None of the known Roman administrative records mention a census around the time of Jesus’ birth nor would a census have required many hundreds of thousands of people returning to their place of birth.
According to Matthew’s version, Mary was pregnant during the wedding and the kindly Joseph only married her to save her from public disgrace. While fleeing to Egypt, Jesus was born in a stable at the back of an inn where his parents were staying for the night. Guided to the inn by a star, the Magi, the so-called Three Wise Men, paid homage and made rich offerings to the child. After this brief visit they immediately returned to the East.
There has been much speculation about the star that guided the Magi. Guesses have ranged from Haley’s comet, which appeared in 12 BCE, to a supernova that was observed in 5 BCE. It would of course be impossible to be guided to a specific location, be it a house, town, district or even a country, by a star, comet or supernova; phenomena that can be seen for thousands of miles. Furthermore, Matthew specifically says that the “star” (aster) moved in front of the Magi and eventually stopped and hovered over the inn where Jesus and his parents were.36 So whatever it was, it could not have been any astronomical body known to science.
As for the Buddha’s birth, later legend maintains that his mother dreamed of a white elephant around the time of or during his conception, that she was a virgin when she gave birth, and that the Buddha was born from his mother’s right side rather than through the birth canal. None of these stories are mentioned in the Tipitaka, not even in the Acchariyābbhuta Sutta, an admittedly late discourse recounting several wondrous events that supposedly occurred during the Buddha’s birth.
One of these wondrous events mentioned in this sutta involves not a star but a light, and not a light identifying a particular location but one which made a particular outlook possible. “When the Bodhisattva descended into his mother’s womb, a great immeasurable light more radiant even than the light of the gods shone forth into the world. And even in the dark, gloomy spaces between the worlds where the light of our moon and sun, powerful and majestic though they be, cannot reach, even there did that light shine. And the beings that inhabit that darkness became aware of each other because of that light and thought: ‘Indeed there are other beings here’.”37 It would seem that this story is not meant to suggest that an actual light appeared when the Buddha was born. Rather, it is a literary device, a metaphor, a way of saying that the advent of an Awakened being would enable others beings to become aware of each other, making empathy and understanding between them more possible.
The term Buddha is the past participle of the noun bujjhati which means ‘realized’ or ‘awakened’ and when used in reference to a person means one who has realized or awakened to something. In the Tipitaka the Buddha is often referred to as a Buddha but he is never addresses by the term. He was referred to or addressed by his clan name Gotama meaning ‘best cow’, as good Gotama (bho Gotama), or as ascetic Gotama (samaṇa Gotama). The Gotama clan name reflects an earlier time in India when having many cattle was a measure of wealth and a source of pride. More formally the Buddha was called Lord (Bhagava), occasionally Kinsman of the Sun (Ādiccabhandu),38 a reference to the Sakyan Ādicca linage, and once as the Sakyan Sage (Sakyamuni). He often referred to himself as Tathāgata, a title of obscure origin meaning both ‘the thus come one’ and ‘the thus gone one’. Interestingly, never once is the Buddha called Siddhattha Gotama. In fact, the name Siddhattha occurs nowhere in the scriptures except it the Apadāna, a book included in the Tipitaka sometime after the 5th century CE. It may well have been his given name but it gets no mention in the earliest records.
The Bible says that Jesus’ father Joseph had a dream in which an angel told him to name his soon-to-be born son Jesus.39 This name is derived from the Greek lesous, the Greek rendering of the Hebrew Yehoshua. To the villagers and neighbours who knew Jesus he was “the son of Mary, brother of James, Jose, Judas, and Simon.40 He was also known simply as “Joseph’s son” or “the handyman’s son”.41 He was sometimes addressed as Christ from the Greek meaning ‘anointed one’, referring to someone who had been selected by God to do his work. He was also sometimes called rabbi, the Hebrew word for teacher, master (epistates) and Lord (kurios). This last title is equivalent to ‘Mister’ or ‘Sir’; wives could address their husbands as kuros, and even statues of gods were called kuros. Occasionally he was addressed as Son of David, a reference to his supposed relation to King David.42
Eight days after Jesus’ birth he was circumcised in accordance with Jewish sacred law.43 The Bible stipulates that a woman is impure for 40 days after giving birth and this period having elapsed, Jesus’ parents took him to the great temple in Jerusalem. There they encountered a holy man named Simon, who had been told by God that he would not die before he had seem the Messiah, the king promised by God to save the Jewish people. When Simon saw Jesus he was convinced that this boy was the promised and longed-for Messiah and he gave him a blessing.44
One incident in the Buddha’s childhood bears some resemblance to this encounter between Jesus and Simon. A hermit named Asita lived in a forest in the Sakyan country, and one day he noticed how jubilant the gods were. He asked them the reason for it and they replied: “A Bodhisattva, an excellent and incomparable jewel, has been born in the Sakyan town of Lumbini, for the welfare and happiness of the human world. This is why we are so happy.” Anxious to see this child, Asita went to Kapilavatthu where Suddhodana welcomed him and gave him the baby to hold. Being accomplished in the art of “signs and mantras” he examined the boy and proclaimed that he would attain complete Awakening (Sambodhi), reach “the ultimate purified vision” (parama visuddhidassa), and proclaim the Truth “out of compassion of the many” (bahujam hitanukampa). Then tears welled up in his eyes. Noticing this and alarmed by it, Suddhodana asked Asita if he had seen some misfortune in the boy’s future. The sage replied that he was sad because he knew that he would pass away before this all happened.45
Later elaborations of the Asita story, and there are several of them, each more detailed than the earlier ones, often say that Asita predicted that the baby would become either a universal monarch (cakkavattin) or a fully awakened sage (Buddha). This ‘either or’ prediction is not found in the Tipitaka account.
Jesus’ parents visited the temple every year to celebrate the Jewish holy day of Passover. When Jesus was 12 they went again, but on setting out to return home Joseph and Mary noticed that he was not with them and went back to the city to find him. After three days of frantic searching they found Jesus in the great temple listening to the priests and asking them questions. Onlookers were apparently surprised that one so young could speak with such confidence and intelligence. When Mary found him she scolded him for going missing but he replied: “Don’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?” meaning in God’s temple.46 These few scraps of information point to Jesus having a religious interest even at an early age. We are told that later, during his ministry, while on a return visit to Nazareth, he went to the local synagogue and read out a passage from the Old Testament.47 It would have been most unusual at that time for a person of his class and origins to be literate, although it is possible. More likely Jesus had learned several passages from the scriptures by heart and just quoted them from memory. Either way, it indicates that Jesus had some familiarity with the Old Testament.
Concerning the Buddha’s childhood and youth, we have only two brief pieces of information. Once in later life when reminiscing about his youth he said that he was “delicately brought up, most delicately brought up, exceptionally delicately brought up” in that he wore fine silks and perfumes, had a troupe of female musicians to entertain him, an umbrella-bearer to accompany him when he went out, and sumptuous food to eat. He also mentioned that he had three mansions to live in, one for each season; summer, winter and the monsoon.48 This confirms the impression that the Buddha’s family was wealthy. The other piece of information, again mentioned by the Buddha himself, is more significant. One day, while he sat in the shade of a tree watching his father work, he had what might now be called a mystical experience. Apparently quite spontaneously he fell into a meditative state which he later called jhāna.49 This experience was to have a profound influence on his Awakening years later.
None of the other stories about the Buddha’s youth; saving a goose from his cousin Devadatta, winning athletic and martial competitions, courting and then marrying Yasodharā, etc., appear in the Tipitaka. The Buddha’s encounter with the so-called Four Signs; an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a wandering ascetic, of which Joseph Campbell rightly said was “the most celebrated example of the call to adventure in the literature of the world”, is not in the Tipitaka either.50
Their Physical Appearances
There is no information whatsoever about Jesus’ appearance. He is nearly always portrayed in art as decidedly Western, bearded and with long hair. He was of course Semitic so he would have had a swarthy complexion and black hair. Given St. Paul’s comment that “even Nature tells you that long hair on a man is a disgrace”51 Jesus almost certainly wore his hair short and all the earliest depictions show him beardless and with short hair. Once, when Jesus mixed with a crowd in order to slip quietly away, no one noticed him, from which it can be inferred that there was little about his appearance that would stand out or attract attention.52 He was called “sin-bearer “and equated with the “virdolorum”, the Man of Sorrows mentioned in the Old Testament.47 For this reason several of the earliest non-canonical Christian sources claim that Jesus never smiled.
Early Christian writers were almost unanimous in declaring that Jesus was physically unattractive. Irenaeus (early 2nd cent.) described him as “a weak and inglorious man”. As evidence that he was ugly Origen (184-253) quoted this supposed prophecy about Jesus from the Old Testament: “He was so disfigured that he hardly looked human…He had no dignity or beauty to make us take notice of him. There was nothing attractive about him, nothing that would draw us to him…No one would even look at him.” The Acts of Peter (second half of 2nd cent.) states that “amongst us he appeared lowly and ill-favoured”. The Jewish historian Josephus (1st cent), probably drawing on Christian sources, described Jesus as “dark skinned, small stature, three cubits high, hunchbacked, with a long face, long nose, and meeting eyebrows, so that they who see him might be frightened, with scanty hair … and an undeveloped beard.” There seems no good reason for saying all this if it were not true. Of course it should be kept in mind that a person’s moral and spiritual stature has nothing to do with their physical appearance.
Except in the sculpture of Gandhara from the 2nd to 5th century CE, the Buddha has usually been depicted in a stylised rather than a realistic manner. Even today, in depictions of his final passing he is always shown looking 25 or 30 at most, although we know he was about 80 when he died. But tradition aside, the Tipitaka provides a great deal of interesting information about the Buddha’s physical appearance. We are told that he was four finger-breadth’s taller than his handsome and younger half-brother Nanda, who was often mistaken for him from a distance.53 According to the Buddha’s own comment, when young, before his renunciation, he had black hair, probably long, and a beard.54 Although statues of the Buddha always show him with hair, this is an iconographic convention and not historically accurate. After his renunciation, like all other monks, he “cut off his hair and beard” and there is no reason to doubt that he shaved his scalp and face regularly as did other monks.
All sources agree that the Buddha was particularly good-looking. Sonadaṇḍa described him as “handsome, of fine appearance, pleasant to see, with a good complexion and a beautiful form and countenance”.55 Another witness, Doṇa, said that he was “beautiful, inspiring confidence, calm, composed, with the dignity and presence of a perfectly tamed elephant”56 These natural good looks were enhanced by his deep inner calm. Another observer noted: “It is wonderful, truly marvellous how serene is the good Gotama’s presence, how clear and radiant is his complexion. Just as golden jujube fruit in the autumn is clear and radiant, so too is the good Gotama’s complexion.”57 However, like everyone else, the Buddha’s physical appearance declined with age. Ānanda said this of him in old age: “The Lord’s complexion is no longer pure and radiant, his limbs are flabby and wrinkled, his body stooped, and his faculties have changed.”58 In the last months of his life, the Buddha said of himself: “I am now old, aged, worn out, one who has traversed life’s path. Being about eighty, I am approaching the end of my life. Just as an old cart can only be kept going by being patched up, so too my body can only be kept going by being patched up.”59
It is not known what language the Buddha spoke, although it must have been a dialect used in the region where he spent his first decades, the borderland of north-eastern Kosala. After his Awakening, he travelled and taught widely so it is likely that he became proficient in several languages, and there is evidence that this is the case. In one discourse, the Buddha noted that different regions had different words for bowl, and then he listed eight of them; pāti, patta, vittha, serāva, dhāropa, pona, hana, and pisīla.60 This suggests that he had at least some proficiency in the languages and dialects then spoken in northern India. Nonetheless, we know little of what these languages were so we can only speculate what the Buddha’s mother tongue was.
Whatever the case, at some early date, possibly during the Third Council convened by King Asoka, everything the Buddha had said that had been remembered in different languages and dialects was rendered into Magadhi, now usually called Pāḷi, which seems to have been a lingua franca of the time. Shortly after this, the first Indian missionary monks arrived in Sri Lanka bringing the Tipitaka with them, either in their memories or in written form, and it has been preserved there in Pāḷi ever since. In India itself, the Buddha’s discourses were later translated into Sanskrit and then taken to China and translated into Chinese. These Chinese translations, although not complete, are substantially the same as those in Pāḷi. Sometimes difficulties in the Pāḷi texts can be resolved by referring to the Chinese translations.
Jesus and his immediate disciples spoke Aramaic, the language of the common people of Palestine. Greek and Latin were the languages of administration and learning throughout the Roman Empire, including Palestine. As nearly all Jesus’ words in the four gospels are in Greek, this means that they must be based on earlier Aramaic records.
There are four Aramaic words and phrases in the Bible which preserve Jesus’ own words in his mother tongue. When he healed a child he said: “Talitha cun” (Little girl, rise.); he commanded “Ephphatha!” (Be opened!); and he addressed God as Abba meaning ‘Father’. According to Matthew, his last words before dying were: “Eli Eli lema sabachthani” (My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?).61
The seminal experience in Jesus’ life prior to his teaching career was his meeting with John the Baptist. John was an ascetic itinerant preacher who “wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey”. He was a fierce critic of the Jewish priests, telling them that God would burn them in the unquenchable fire.62 He, like many others at the time, expected God to very soon visit his terrible judgment on humankind, and preached that people should prepare for this by undergoing baptism, a kind of ritual washing, to purify themselves of their sins.63 John also expected this event to be preceded by the appearance of someone greater than himself who would baptize people in the Holy Spirit (parakletos).64 Jesus seems to have become a disciple of John the Baptist or at least his admirer, and accepted his prediction about God’s impending destruction of the world. His baptism by John was probably the turning point in his life and the beginning of his ministry.
Legend says that the Buddha’s father feared that one day he would renounce the world and become either a great ruler or a great spiritual teacher. To make sure he would become the former rather than the latter, Suddhodana had him confined in a beautiful palace provided with all imaginable pleasures. However, one day, with the help of his charioteer Channa, Gotama managed to slip out of his palace and drive through the streets of Kapilavatthu. During this outing he encountered a man bent with age, a sick man, a corpse being taken for cremation, and a wandering ascetic, none of which he had ever seen before. It was these so-called Four Sights that first confronted him with the reality of life and aroused within him the desire to quest for a way to overcome them. The story of Gotama being confined in a palace and the dramatic and iconic one about the Four Sights are recounted in almost every biography of the Buddha, but they are just stories and are not found in the Tipitaka. However, it is easy to see how this legend evolved.
Once when the Buddha was reminiscing he said: “Before my Awakening, while I was still an unawakened bodhisattva, I too being subject to birth, ageing, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement, sought after that which likewise is subject to such things. But then I thought, ‘Why should I do this? Being myself subject to birth, ageing, sickness, death, sorrow and defilement and seeing the danger in them, I should seek after the unageing, unailing, non-dying, sorrowless and undefiled supreme security from bondage, Nirvana.’ Then later, while still young, with black hair, endowed with the blessings of youth, in the prime of life and despite the weeping and wailing of my parents, I shaved off my hair and beard, put on the yellow robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.”65 Clearly, at some later time, the phenomenon of ageing was personalized into an old man, sickness into a sick man, death into a corpse, and so on. It also suggests that Gotama’s decision to leave his home to search for the Truth was not an impulse triggered by a single event but that he had been contemplating it for some time.
After his baptism by John the Baptist, Jesus retreated into the Judean desert and fasted for 40 days. During this time he was ministered to by angels, which is usually taken to mean that these heavenly beings provided him with food and water. It was also during this time that the Devil appeared before him and tried to tempt him. Firstly, the Devil challenged him to perform a miracle, to turn stones into bread. Then he asked him to jump from a great height and trust the angels to break his fall. And finally he said that if Jesus would worship him he would give him sovereignty over the whole world.66 These three temptations are usually interpreted as attempts to appeal to Jesus’ pride, to test his faith, and to arouse in him a desire for worldly power. In each case Jesus calmly rejected the Devil’s offers.
A series of events in the Buddha’s life parallel Jesus’ temptation in some ways. During the second and final phase of his quest for Awakening, the Buddha practised exercises in self-mortification, which gradually became more and more extreme. These included maintaining uncomfortable postures for long periods, prolonged fasts and eating filth.67 When it looked as if he might perish from exhaustion and starvation, deva offered to feed him with divine food through the pores of his skin so he would not technically break his fast. The Buddha rejected this offer.68 Eventually, his body could take no more and he collapsed. Realising that such self-mortification was ineffective, he decided to eat normally again, rest, and regain his strength before trying another approach. 69 As he sat beneath the Bodhi Tree, Māra appeared. Initially Māra tried to get the Buddha to give up his quest, return to normal life and just be a good person by “making merit”. When this did not work he assembled his “army” around the Buddha and attacked him. The Buddha said that he overcame these attacks with insight and by sheer determination.70
There is little doubt that the authors of the Bible took the Devil to be an actual being; many millions of Christians still do. In the Tipitaka’s account of the Buddha’s temptation, Māra is a personification of the physical and psychological barriers to Awakening.71 This is clear from the constituents of Māra’s “army”; i.e. sensual pleasures, discontent, hunger and thirst, craving, sloth and torpor, fear, doubt, hypocrisy and obstinacy, gain, honour and fame, desire for reputation, and exalting oneself while disparaging others.72 In several other discourses there are references to Māra’s daughters and again their names point to them being personifications of negative mental states, not actual beings. The daughters are named Craving (Tanhā), Lust (Arati) and Desire (Ragā).73
Their Teaching Careers
It is not certain how long Jesus lived or his ministry lasted. Bible scholars are in general agreement that he was 30 or perhaps 31 when he was executed. Everything he did as recorded in the first three gospels could be fitted easily into a single year, although the Gospel of John, written last, says he celebrated three Passovers during his teaching career.
The Buddha said that he had renounced the world to become a wandering monk at the age of 29.74 It can be calculated that he attained Awakening when he was 35, although this is not directly mentioned in the Tipitaka. Just before he died, he commented that he had been a monk for “more than 50 years” (vassāni pannāsā samādhikāni) and that he was “around 80”,75 unusually long-lived for the time. From this, one can estimate that the Buddha’s mission lasted for at least 45 years.
It seems that Jesus was on the move almost continually during his ministry. From the 1st century BCE onwards the Romans built a network of roads throughout Palestine and these would have made Jesus’ wanderings relatively easy. Roman rule had also greatly improved security, and long-distance travel was fairly safe, but not everywhere and not all the time. In Jesus’ famous parable, the man who had been robbed, beaten and left for dead and who the Good Samaritan helped, had been travelling on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Presumably Jesus included this detail in his parable because such things sometimes happened even on a short, well-used road. The furthest north Jesus went was Sidon, the furthest south Jerusalem, and he only ventured a little east of the River Jordan and the Sea of Galilee. Consequently his mission would have covered about 7,600 square kilometres.
The region where the Buddha spent his life, the Middle Land, is roughly equivalent to the modern northern Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and is defined in the north by the Himalayan foothills. There is only one reference to the Buddha going into these hills, a passage saying that he once “sojourned in a forest hut in the Himalayan region”.76 The Mizrapur and the Rajmahal Hills and the Vindhyachal Range follow the southern edge of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar and it is unlikely that the Buddha ever went beyond these hills or even into them. The furthest east he went which can still be identified is the town of Kajaṅgla, now Kankjol near Rajmahal, and the furthest west is Mathura. These two places are about 1000 kilometres from each other.
It is hard to say how thoroughly the Buddha covered this area, but during 50 years of wayfaring he could have easily visited much of it. The Tipitaka names over 500 places that the Buddha visited or passed through; cities, towns, villages, hills, caves, rivers, and forests. Thus, he may well have covered at least 290,000 square kilometres.
The practice amongst the itinerate ascetics of the Buddha’s time was to remain in one place during the three months of the monsoon and spend the remaining nine months wayfaring. The Buddha adhered to this tradition, at least until about the last 20 years of his life when he spent more time in and around Sāvatthī, the capital of Kosala. The Tipitaka records some of the Buddha’s itineraries. For example, in the 12 months after his Awakening, he went from Uruvelā to Isipatana near Vārānasi, back to Uruvelā and from there to Rājagaha via Gayā and Laṭṭivana, a distance of about 315 kilometres. During another tour he went from Verañja to Benares via Soreyya, Saṅkassa, Kaṇṇakujja, crossing the Ganges at Payāga, the modern Allahabad. It is not possible to calculate how long this trip was because the location of Verañja has not been identified, but it would be more than 700 kilometers. The longest journeys recorded in the Tipitaka has him going from Rājagaha to Sāvatthī via Vesāli, and then back to Rājagaha on the alternative route by way of Kitagiri and Āḷavī, a trip of at least 920 kilometres. The Buddha’s final journey took him from Rājagaha, through Nāḷandā to Pāṭaligāma (modern Patna), then to Vesāli, where he spent the three months of the rainy season, and eventually to Kusinārā. This 275-kilometre trek must have been strenuous and trying for a man of about 80.77 How much time this and the Buddha’s other journeys took is hard to estimate.
There were important practical reasons to move from place to place. In a world without the communications that we take for granted, it allowed the Buddha to spread his teachings far and wide. He was also aware that some personal contact with him was important, especially for newly ordained monks and nuns, and this may have been a factor in determining which districts he visited and how often.78 During his wanderings he might visit a district, teach, make some disciples, even ordain a few monks or nuns, and then perhaps not come again for many years. If a monk from such a district wished to see him again he could simply set off to wherever the Buddha was staying at the time.
Soṇa Kuṭikaṇṇa was ordained by Mahā Kaccāna and about a year later developed the desire to meet the man whose teachings he had committed himself to. He said to his preceptor: “I have not yet met the Lord face to face. I have only heard about what he is like. If you give me permission I will travel to see the Lord, the Noble One, the Awakened Buddha.”79 For lay disciples with domestic obligations, undertaking a long journey to see the Buddha was more difficult and so they may have had to wait, perhaps many years, before they got to see him again. The Thapataya Sutta gives some idea of the excitement caused in an outlying district when its inhabitants heard that the Buddha might be on his way and how the anticipation increased as word of his gradual approach reached them.80 Elsewhere we read of people’s anxiousness for news from a visiting monk about the Buddha and of what he had been teaching.
Once while the Buddha was residing in Cātumā several hundred monks turned up to see him.81 However, with him moving around a lot, it was not always possible to know where he was at any one time. In the beautiful Pārāyana Vagga we read of the 16 disciples of the ascetic Bāvarī setting out from the Godāvarī, probably from where it flows through Maharashtra, for northern India in the hope of meeting the Buddha. First they heard that he was in Sāvatthī and so they headed there. They went through Kosambī and Sāketa and arrived in Sāvatthī only to find that the Buddha had left. They followed his route through Setavya, Kapilavatthu, Kusinārā, Pāvā, and Vesāli, finally catching up with him at the Pāsāṇaka Shrine, (in the Barabar Hills north of Gayā) “and like a thirsty man going for cool water… they quickly ascended the mountain”.82
The Buddha is often described as travelling with 500 monks, a conventional number meaning ‘many’, or simply with “a large group of monks”. At other times, without informing his attendant or companions, he would go off and wander by himself for a while.83 It seems that he went everywhere on foot except for when he had to cross major rivers such as at Payāga when he would have taken a ferry. When travelling he might sleep in a roadside rest house, a threshing floor, an old potter’s shed or, if nothing else were available, out in the open “on the leaf strewn ground”.84 Once, when he was in the Kuru country, he stayed in a small hut, “its floor carpeted with grass”.85 On a return visit to Kapilavatthu, his hometown, he could find no accommodation and had to make do in the simple hermitage of the ascetic Bharaṇḍu.86
The Buddha once told his monks that they should “wander forth 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. Teach the Dhamma which is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle and beautiful in the end. Explain both the letter and the spirit of the completely fulfilled and perfectly pure holy life.”87 In saying this, the Buddha was expressing the reason for his many long and arduous journeys; compassion for the world. He wanted as many people as possible to have the opportunity to hear his Dhamma.
Both the Buddha and Jesus collected around themselves a group of disciples. Jesus had 70 helpers, a number of devotees, many of them women,88 and a coterie of 12 close disciples, usually called the apostles. These twelve were selected because Jesus promised that each of them would rule over one of the 12 tribes of Israel after the world ended.89 The Bible depicts these apostles as an unpromising and rather lacklustre lot. Peter and John were “unlettered”90 meaning that they were illiterate, Simon Peter, James, and John were fishermen and must have been illiterate also. Matthew was a tax collector which, if he was at the level of record-keeper, means he would have been able to read and write. If he was just an enforcer, which is more likely, he too would have been illiterate. Either way, those connected with tax collecting were a despised group of men well-known for extortion and dishonesty. Luke was said to have been a doctor but whether this means he had trained in medicine or was just a local folk healer is unclear. At one point, Jesus found the apostles bickering with each other about which of them was the greatest, probably concerning their status when the Kingdom of Heaven was established. The apostles often failed to understand what Jesus was saying to them and he rebuked them as “men of little faith”.91 They also proved to be unreliable in a crisis. When Jesus asked them to keep watch while he prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, they fell asleep. After he was arrested Peter, the senior disciple, lied and denied ever having known him, and Judas used to steal money and eventually betrayed his master to the authorities.
Jesus sent the 12 apostles out to spread the teaching with distinct instructions: “Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go, proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near’. Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, and cast out demons. You received without payment so give without payment. Take no gold, silver or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, two tunics, sandals or a staff; for labourers deserve their food. Whatever town or village you enter, find out who in it is worthy, and stay there until you leave. As you enter the house, greet it. If the house is worthy, let your peace come upon it; but if it is not worthy, let your peace return to you. If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom and Gomorrah on the Day of Judgment Day for that town.” 92
This commission and several others Jesus gave his apostles bear interesting comparison with the Buddha’s instructions to his disciples. They were to go alone, in order to spread the Dhamma as widely as possible, whereas Jesus wanted his apostles to go in pairs.93 The former were to teach the Dhamma out of “compassion of the many” while Jesus’ were to teach for the benefit of the House of Israel (i.e. Jews) only, Gentiles (i.e. non-Jews) and Samaritans were to be ignored. The idea that the Gospel was primarily for Jews and not for others would have been in keeping with the Jewish exclusiveness of the time, and is in part confirmed by another incident recorded in the Gospels (see chapter 3 note 111). A Canaanite woman once came to Jesus and begged him to heal her daughter, who was possessed by a demon. Jesus ignored her pleas. When the apostles urged him to send the woman away he said to her: “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.” The desperate woman pleaded once more: “Lord, help me”. Jesus responded: “It is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” To this the woman replied: “Yes Lord, but even dogs eat crumbs that fall from the master’s table”. Jesus finally relented saying: “Woman you have great faith. Your request is granted” and the child was freed from the demon.94 It is not clear whether Jesus was simply testing this poor woman’s faith or had no intention of helping her but changed his mind. One is reminded of the Buddha’s reaction to Mahāpajāpati’s request, although there is a major difference between declining to allow a woman to become a nun and refusing to help a distraught mother with a sick child.
The Dhamma that the Buddha’s disciples were to teach was about “suffering and the end of suffering”. Jesus’ disciples were to warn that the end of the world was fast approaching. The former were only to teach the Dhamma, the latter to proclaim the Gospel but also to perform various miracles, specifically raising the dead, healing the sick and conducting exorcisms. Both the Buddha and Jesus expected their disciples to take with them the bare minimum for life; eight basic requisites for the monks and for the apostles even less, and neither were to expect any monetary return. The Buddha said to his monks: “One should not go about making a business out of the Dhamma.”95 Indeed, monks were told not even to touch money, i.e. gold and silver. Jesus’ instructions to his apostles end on a rather unattractive note absent from the Buddha’s. He told them that if anyone in any town ignored the message they were proclaiming or refused to believe it, they or the town would be cursed on the Judgment Day and suffer a fate worse than that of Sodom and Gomorrah, two cities God had punished by incinerating with sulphur and fire.96
Once, probably earlier in his career, the Buddha mentioned that he had “an order of hundreds”, while later he counted his disciples in thousands; monks and nuns, lay men and lay women, many of whom had attained one or another of the four stages leading to Awakening or Awakening itself. 97 While he asked them to look to him as their guide, example and inspiration, he still expected them all, ordained and lay, to be “accomplished and well-trained, learned and erudite, knowers of the Dhamma, living by Dhamma and walking the path of Dhamma, …and pass on to others what they have received from the Teacher, and teach it and proclaim it, establish it and explain it, promote it and clarify it, … so as to refute false teachings and impart this wondrous Dhamma”.98
The Buddha’s chief disciples were Sāriputta and Moggallāna, both brahmans, the first known for his wisdom and the second for his psychic abilities. Such was Sāriputta’s wisdom that the Buddha’ sometimes asked him to give a talk in his place. It seems that the Buddha had planned that either or both of these two disciples would lead the monastic order (Saṅgha) after his passing, but it was not to be. Both men predeceased him and another eminent disciple, Mahā Kassapa, took on the role. He it was who convened and chaired the First Council three months after the Buddha’s death. Sāriputta’s and Moggallāna’s deaths deeply saddened the Buddha as is clear from his comment at the time: “This assembly seems empty to me now that Moggallāna and Sāriputta have attained final Nirvana.” 99
Jesus had a particularly close relationship with one of his disciples. This individual is never named and is only ever referred to as “the disciple who Jesus loved”. It was this disciple who leaned his head on Jesus’ lap during the Last Supper.100 He may have also been the young man naked except for a linen cloth who was with Jesus on the night he was arrested.101 Exactly why someone so special to Jesus was kept anonymous and why an almost naked youth should be with him in the dark has never been explained.
The Buddha had a very close relationship with one of his disciples too, his cousin Ānanda. During the last 25 years of the Buddha’s life, Ānanda acted as his man-servant and assistant and the Buddha came to rely on him implicitly. If Sāriputta personified wisdom and Moggallāna personified psychic ability, then Ānanda certainly exemplified kindness, gentleness, warmth and love. The Buddha praised him for his “loving acts of body, loving acts of speech and loving acts of mind”, meaning that he was always ready to lend a helping hand, spoke kindly to people and thought well of others.102 The Buddha even said that Ānanda shared some of the very qualities he himself had – that people were delighted to see him, that they were delighted when he taught the Dhamma, and disappointed when he finished speaking.103 On the night the Buddha passed away, Ānanda lent against the door post sobbing at the thought that the Buddha’s end was near.
Judas and Devadatta
The most notorious of Jesus’ apostles was Judas Iscariot. Initially he, like the other apostles, had the power to exorcise evil spirits and perform miraculous healings,104 but for reasons that are not explained he gradually went bad. One of Judas’ jobs was to look after the money Jesus and the other apostles used for their needs and to distribute to the poor, but in fact he would help himself to it. Once when a female devotee poured expensive perfume over Jesus, Judas complained: “Why wasn’t this perfume sold for 300 silver coins and the money given to the poor?” The other apostles suspected that he did not really care about the poor but wanted to steal the money.105 Jesus knew or had a premonition that one of his apostles would eventually betray him and sensed that it would be Judas. This turned out to be right. After Jesus’ death Judas died also. There are two different accounts of how this happened; that he hanged himself, or that he fell over and his body tore open and his intestines spilled out. 106
If the Buddha had an equivalent to “the disciple that Jesus loved” then he also had an equivalent to Judas; Devadatta, the son of his father’s brother Suppabuddha. When the Buddha returned to Kapilavatthu for the first time after his Awakening, several young Sakyan men, including Devadatta, announced that they wanted to become monks.107 For years, Devadatta proved to be a sincere and diligent monk and in several places in the texts he is praised as such. 108 The Buddha named him together with several others as an exemplary disciple.109 But things were to change. Later the Buddha said of him: “Once Devadatta’s character was one way, now it is another way altogether.”110 This change began after Devadatta started to manifest psychic powers as a result of diligent meditation, and he gradually became arrogant and conceited. He came to feel that the Buddha had drifted too far from the traditional ascetic lifestyle and he was able to get some other monks to agree with him. Confronting the Buddha about this, Devadatta demanded that several acetic practices be made compulsory for all monks; that they live only in the forest, never accept invitations to eat at devotees’ homes but live only by begging, wear only rag robes, live in the open and not in a monastery, and that they be vegetarian. Perhaps trying to avoid a conflict, the Buddha said that monks could follow these practices if they wished to but that he would not to make them compulsory, so Devadatta and his supporters formed a splinter group. This was the greatest crisis the Buddha had to face during his 45-year ministry. The Vinaya even claims Devadatta tried to murder the Buddha on two occasions, although this may be an early attempt to make him look as bad as possible.111 There is no information in the Tipitaka itself about Devadatta’s eventual fate, but tradition says his supporters eventually abandoned him and returned to the Buddha and that he died discredited and alone.
It is claimed that both Jesus and the Buddha occasionally had visitations from heavenly beings. Once Jesus led his disciples to the top of a mountain and, as they looked on, his appearance gradually changed to a dazzling white. Then the ancient prophets Elijah and Moses appeared with him. The disciples were left speechless. Later Jesus instructed them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after he had died.112
A week after the Buddha’s Awakening, something similar happened to him. Realising that the truths he had discovered were “deep, difficult to see and understand …subtle and intelligible mainly to the wise” and that the world is “delighted only by sense pleasures”, he decided that he would not teach to others what he had realised. It would only be “tiresome and annoying” to him if they simply argued with him. Brahmā Sahampatī, one of the highest deities in the heaven of Brahmā, dismayed by the Buddha’s decision, appeared before him, bowed, and beseeched him to reconsider: “Before you, there has been an impure Dhamma in Magadha, devised by impure minds. So open the gate of the Immortal that all capable of hearing can respond to you, the Stainless One.” Thinking that few people would understand the Dhamma but there were some “with but little dust in their eyes” he decided to teach for their sake.113 In the following decades, various divine beings visited the Buddha often, usually to ask him questions on spiritual matters.
Some of the Buddha’s disciples had similar encounters with divine beings. Apparently, gods would sometimes manifest themselves to and converse with Ugga, one of the Buddha’s more advanced lay disciples. While others might have considered such divine visitations a sign of special favour or a great blessing, Ugga was quite unimpressed and unmoved. Anything of significance the gods could have told him, he had already learned from the Buddha.114
The Background to their Missions
Centuries before Jesus, the Jews had come to believe in a single deity named Yahweh, who had a special relationship with them, giving them laws to live by, receiving their sacrifices, and protecting them from their enemies. If and when they were invaded and occupied by neighbouring kingdoms who worshipped other gods, the Jews believed that Yahweh would send a king to drive the occupiers out and liberate them. Such a king would be called a messiah, meaning ‘anointed one’ because he would be consecrated and anointed by God for this task. The title Christ which Jesus was given, is from the Greek translation of the Hebrew māšîaḥ. It seems that anyone could qualify to be a messiah. Some 500 years before Jesus when the pagan Persian king Cyrus allowed the Jews who had been driven into exile to return to their homeland, the Bible hailed him as a messiah.115
By Jesus’ time, the Jews had been living under Roman domination, directly or indirectly, for decades and were longing for God to send a messiah to free them from their hated pagan overlords. The understanding of the nature and mission of a messiah evolved over the centuries but several things remained unchanged: that the messiah would be a human king, that he would be anointed and empowered by God, and that he would liberate the Jewish homeland from its enemies. It seems that Jesus came to believe that he was the long-awaited messiah.
Around the 6th century BCE in India, the notion had evolved that at some time in the future a universal monarch, a ‘wheel-turner’ (cakkavatin), would unite all of India, not through military might but through the power of his virtue, and establish a just and righteous society. The Buddha was familiar with the wheel-turner concept and mentioned it several times.116 However, he never claimed to be a wheel-turning monarch himself and none of his disciples ever considered him to be one.
Many of the wandering ascetics (samaṇa) of the time looked back to great spiritually accomplished masters who supposedly lived in the distant past. Such masters were called Buddhas, Jinas, Tathāgatas, Tīrthaṅkaras, Kevalins, Uttamapurisas, or Munis. The Jains for example, claimed that their religion had been founded by Pārśva, probably a real person who lived in about the 7th century BCE. Others may also have been real people whose names at least had been remembered; most were properly legendary or semi-legendary figures. The Buddha believed in such past Awakened masters, naming six of them,117 and considered himself to be the most recent of these. Such awakened beings were not sent by any deity, they would not come at any particular time, and they were not associated with any particular ethnic group, but would benefit anyone who would listen to them. The concept of past Buddhas was based on the idea that truth was eternal (dhammo sananto), that humans have a natural capacity to comprehend it, and that some individuals would sometimes do this.
Related to the belief in a messiah, many Jews at the time of Jesus also had apocalyptic expectations, i.e. the idea that the world, or at least the world as it was known, would soon end. The belief was that the world was a corrupt and evil place and an angry God was going to destroy it in a cataclysm of brimstone and fire, destroy the wicked, save the righteous and then establish a new and perfect world.
How Others Saw Them
Having been in the public arena for so long and proclaiming some ideas that challenged existing beliefs, the Buddha of course attracted opposition, criticism and sometimes even antipathy. Although unruffled by such reactions, he usually made attempts to justify his position by explaining himself more fully, and usually without attacking his critics on a personal level.
Within a year of his Awakening, the Buddha had made disciples of the three Kassapa brothers, the most well-known and esteemed samaṇas in Magadha, together with all their followers. Shortly after this, most of the followers of another samaṇa teacher, Sañjaya Belaṭṭhiputta, some 250 altogether, abandoned him to join the Buddha’s order also. These two events created great interest throughout Magadha and made the Buddha famous very early in his career. Soon numerous young men were requesting to become monks and the Buddha was happy to accept them all. But his readiness to ordain anyone who asked for it created problems. Soon ill-trained and unsupervised monks were wandering all over the place causing embarrassment. Also, so many youths and men abandoning their families created disquiet amongst the people affected by it and led to grumbling against the Buddha himself. People were saying: “The ascetic Gotama proceeds by making us childless, by making us widows, by breaking up families.” If the Buddha was concerned by this he did not show it. When informed of what people were saying about him he commented: “This noise will not last long, it will continue for seven days and then cease.”118 Only after this did the Buddha start laying down rules for vetting candidates and for ordaining and training monks. He had apparently not given sufficient thought to the proper organisation of his order before accepting large numbers of men into it.
Although the Buddha was situated firmly within the heterodox non-Vedic samaṇa tradition he disregarded some of its most basic assumptions, particularly the practice of painful austerities (tapa) and self-mortification (attakilmatha). For this he was sometimes criticised by other ascetics. When, after several years of undergoing such disciplines himself, he finally abandoned them and started washing and eating properly again, the five disciples who had attached themselves to him were outraged. They accused him of “reverting to the life of plenty” (āvatto bahullāya) and left him in disgust.119 The ascetic Kassapa repeated to the Buddha the accusation he had heard about him: “The ascetic Gotama disapproves of all austerities, he criticises and blames all those who live the hard life.” The Buddha denied this. He explained that he praised austerities that led to understanding and Awakening and criticised those that did not, implying that the first did not necessarily lead to the second.120 As shown above, the justification for Devadatta breaking with the Buddha and founding his own order was the Buddha’s de-emphasis of the value of austerity and self-mortification.
One interesting perception that many people had of the Buddha was that despite his relative youth he claimed to be fully Awakened, while most others making such claims were “long gone in years”. King Pasenadi asked the Buddha about this: “Even those ascetics and brahmans who are the head of orders and sects, well-known teachers, famous and considered so by the general public, even they do not claim to have attained the unsurpassed perfect Awakening. Therefore, why should you make such a claim when you are still so young and you have only recently become an ascetic?”121 The Buddha’s reply was that even though a king might be young, a snake only recently hatched, or a fire just ignited, they could still have an impact and that therefore careful note should be taken of them.122
As will be mentioned in more detail below, public discussions and debates on religious questions were a feature on Indian society during the Buddha’s time. For some, such events were a chance to learn about the new ideas being aired, while for a few they were an opportunity to promote themselves as clever and entertaining disputants. There were “certain learned nobles who are clever, well-versed in the doctrines of others, real hair-splitters, who go about demolishing the views of others with their sharp intelligence. When they hear that the ascetic Gotama will visit a certain village or town they formulate a question thinking, ‘We will go and ask him this question and if he answers like this we will say that, and if he answers like that we will say this, and thereby refute his Dhamma’… But when they go to the ascetic Gotama and he delights, uplifts, inspires, and gladdens them with talk on Dhamma they do not so much as ask their question, let alone refute his Dhamma.”123 As a result of the Buddha’s ability to disarm and impress such opponents and disputants, some people suspected him of doing so by occult means.124
Another criticism of the Buddha, and interestingly one that continues to be made even today, was that his concept of Nirvana and his doctrine of non-self amounted to a form of nihilism (uceddhavada). When accused of teaching this he responded: “There is a way of speaking truthfully that one could say I teach a doctrine of annihilation and train my disciples in it. I teach the annihilation of greed, hatred and delusion, I teach the annihilation of manifold evil and wrong mental states.”125 A few of the more extreme ascetics accused him of being careless with life. When the ascetic Māgandiya saw the grass spread out on the floor where the Buddha was sleeping he commented: “It is a truly sorry sight when we see the ascetic Gotama’s bed, that destroyer of growth.”126 It is not entirely certain what this criticism means but it is likely that Māgandiya accepted the common belief of the time that plants were sentient life and thus to pluck or cut them was tantamount to killing, something the more scrupulous ascetic would not do. Others condemned the Buddha for supposed indirect killing. The Jains, who were strict vegetarians, attacked the Buddha and his disciples for eating meat. “Many Jains went through the town, through the main roads and side streets, the alleys and the lanes, waving their arms and shouting, ‘The general Sīha has this very day slaughtered a large creature to feed to the ascetic Gotama and he is going to eat it knowing that it was slaughtered specifically for him’.”127
The Buddha did not respond to the charge that accepting from a donor and then eating a meal containing meat amounted to killing. However, he made it a rule for his monks and nuns that they should not accept such a meal if they saw, heard or suspected that the meat was from an animal that had been slaughtered specifically for them.128 It is widely believed that the Buddha taught vegetarianism but this is not correct, although the practice became common amongst some Buddhists in later centuries.129
At the end of a discussion with the Buddha, an interlocutor would often express his or her satisfaction with what the Buddha had said, but not always. Several weeks after his Awakening, the Buddha set off to find his five former disciples in order to teach them what he had realised. On the road between Uruvelā and Gayā he encountered an ascetic named Upaka. Even from a distance Upaka noticed and was impressed by the Buddha’s calm demeanour. When the two got to each other he said to the Buddha: “Your senses are clear and your complexion is pure and radiant. Who is your teacher?” The Buddha replied that he had no teachers, and that because he had attained complete Awakening no one was in a position to teach him anything. This reply may have been true but Upaka took it to be an outrageous boast. Shaking his head he walked off saying: “It may be so, your reverence.”130
After giving a talk to a group of his own monks at Ukkaṭṭhā, we are told that they were “not delighted by the Lord’s words”.131 On another occasion while on a visit to Kapilavatthu the Buddha met his mother’s brother Daṇḍapāni, who asked him to explain his Dhamma. After listening without comment until the Buddha had finished, the old man “shook his head, wagged his tongue, raised his eyebrows so that three wrinkles formed on his forehead and then walked off leaning on his stick”.132 Once during a talk with a brahman, the Buddha said that those brahmans who so confidently explained what the ancient sages taught while admitting that they themselves did not have their attainments were like a string of blind men. “The first one does not see, the middle one does not see and neither does the last”. At this, the brahman became “angry and displeased with this simile and he reviled, disparaged and criticised the Lord, saying, ‘The ascetic Gotama will be undone!’.”133 In this case, the discussion continued, the tension lessened, and eventually the brahman went on to develop some respect for the Buddha.
The Tipitaka also records a few examples where some of the Buddha’s disciples abandoned him. Sunakkhatta, who had been a monk for some time, was dissatisfied with the Dhamma and said to the Buddha: “Lord, I am leaving you. I am no longer living by your guidance.” The Buddha responded to this declaration by questioning Sunakkhatta. “Did I ever say to you, ‘Come, and live by my teachings’?”
“Then did you ever say to me that you wished to live by my teachings?”
“That being the case, who are you and what are you giving up, you foolish man?”134
Apparently Sunakkhatta had hoped to witness the Buddha perform a psychic feat or miracle and when this did not happen he became disappointed. More commonly though, those who dropped out of the monastic order maintained their commitment to the Dhamma. “Even those who fall from the monkhood and return to the lay life, still praise the Buddha, the Dhamma and the order. They blame themselves rather than others, saying, ‘We were unfortunate, we had scant merit, for although we became monks in a teaching such a well-proclaimed, we were unable to live the perfect and pure spiritual life for our whole lives.’ Having become monastery attendants or lay disciples they take and observe the Five Precepts.”135
The most disturbing event in the whole of the Buddha’s career happened during one of his sojourns in Vesāli. He had given a talk to an assembly of monks on a contemplation called asubhabhāvana. This practice involved contemplating the unpleasant aspects of physicality; the sometimes revolting bodily discharges that soon become apparent without regular washing. The purpose of this practice was to encourage detachment towards the body, to cool sexual impulses, and to balance the usual over-emphasis on physical attractiveness. After his talk, the Buddha announced that he wanted to go into a solitary retreat for half a month and that no one was to visit him except the monk who brought his food. While he was away the monks did this contemplation, with drastic results for some of them. The Tipitaka recounts that some 30 became so “repelled, disgusted and ashamed” of their bodies that they committed suicide, literally “took to the knife” (satthahārakam). When the Buddha returned from his retreat and noticed some of the monks missing, he asked where they were, and was told what had happened. The Tipitaka records that he then gave a talk on mindfulness of breathing, emphasising its ability to evoke tranquillity and calm, but it records nothing he had to say about this tragedy.136 It is also silent about what others might have said about it, although they would have been as deeply shocked as people today would be. It is often claimed that the Buddha was able to read a person’s mind or at least sense their abilities and inclinations, and present the Dhamma to them in such a way that it would appeal specifically to them. The Vesāli incident is evidence that he could not always do this.
Despite the occasional criticisms and negative assessments, the Buddha was the most respected teacher of his time, along with Mahāvīra, the Jain Tīrthaṅkara, who was senior to him by about a dozen years. People were attracted as much by what he said as how he acted. One admirer stated: “The Lord acts as he speaks, and he speaks as he acts. Other than him, we find no teacher as consistent as this, whether we survey the past or the present.”137 His penetrating wisdom and the persuasiveness with which he explained it are mentioned time and again as among his most noticeable abilities. The Tipitaka records this conversation between two brahmans. “At that time, the brahman Kāranapāli was constructing a building for the Licchavis. On seeing his fellow brahman Pingiyānī coming in the distance, he approached him and asked: ‘How now, Pingiyāni! From where are you coming so early in the day?’
‘I come from the presence of the ascetic Gotama.’
‘Well, what do you think of his clarity of wisdom? Do you think he is a wise man?’
‘But what am I compared to him? Who am I to judge his clarity? Only one like him who could judge the ascetic Gotama’s clarity of wisdom?’
‘High indeed is the praise that you give the ascetic Gotama.’
‘But what am I compared to him? Who am I to praise the ascetic Gotama? Truly he is praised by the praised. He is the highest amongst gods and humans’.”138
Once a monk who had spent the rainy season with the Buddha in Sāvatthī arrived in Kapilavatthu. When people heard where the monk had come from he found himself deluged with questions about the Buddha.139 On another occasion a group of brahmans from Kosala and Magadha who had arrived in Vesāli heard that the Buddha just happened to be in town and decided that the opportunity to meet him was too good to miss. The Buddha had apparently given his attendant instructions that he was not to be disturbed, while the brahmans were adamant that they would not leave until they got to meet the famous teacher. Seeing this impasse, the novice Sīha asked the attendant to tell the Buddha that there were three people waiting to see him. The attendant said he would not do this but he would not object if Sīha did. This was done, and the Buddha asked Sīha to put a mat outside his residence in the shade for him to sit on while he talked to the brahmans.140
Such was the Buddha’s Dhamma and the way he presented it that it could even have a noticeable effect on a person’s physical features. When Sāriputta met Nakulapitā and noticed how peaceful and composed he looked, he commented to him: “Householder, your senses are calmed, your complexion is clear and radiant, so I suppose today you have had a talk face to face with the Lord?” Nakulapitā replied: “How could it be otherwise, Sir? I have just now been sprinkled with the nectar of the Lord’s Dhamma.”141
People often expressed surprise by what was seen as the Buddha’s magnanimity and openness, particularly concerning religious matters. Once, on meeting a party of ascetics, their leader asked him to explain his Dhamma. He replied: “It is hard for you, having different opinions, inclinations and biases, and following a different teacher, to understand the doctrine I teach. Therefore let us discuss your teaching.” The ascetics were astonished by this. “It is wonderful, truly marvellous, how great are the powers of the acetic Gotama in that he holds back his own teaching and invites others to discuss theirs!”142
Some teachers would tell their disciples or admirers not to give any help to those of other religions. As will be pointed out below, while the Buddha could be critical of other doctrines he said of himself: “I analyse things first. I do not [necessarily] speak categorically” (Vibhajjavādo nāham ettha ekaṃsavādo).143 By this he meant that he refrained from making sweeping generalizations about other beliefs but would examine them and acknowledge any truths they might contain while also pointing out their weaknesses. Likewise, he was able to acknowledge that the followers of other religions might well be sincerely striving for truth and thus were worthy of encouragement. When Upāli, who had been a Jain, decided to follow the Buddha’s Dhamma instead, the Buddha said to him: “For a long time your family has supported the Jains so you should consider still giving them alms when they come to your house.”144 On another occasion someone said to the Buddha: “Good Gotama, I have heard it said that you teach that charity should only be given to you, not to others, to your disciples, not to the disciples of other teachers. Are those who say this representing your opinion without distorting it? Do they speak according to your teaching? For indeed good Gotama, I am anxious not to misrepresent you.” The Buddha replied: “Those who say this are not of my opinion, they misrepresent me and say something false. Truly, whoever discourages another from giving charity hinders in three ways. He hinders the giver from acquiring good, he hinders the receiver from receiving the charity, and he has already ruined himself through his own stinginess.”145 There is no record of what people thought about the Buddha’s openness towards and respect for others’ beliefs but it is likely that they considered it to be a welcome difference from the more common jealousy and competitiveness between most other sects of the time.
People also noticed and admired the Buddha’s love of silence. He said: “Learn this from the waters. In mountain clefts and chasms, loud gush the streamlets, but great rivers flow silently. Empty things make a noise while the full is always quiet. The fool is like a half-filled pot; the wise person is like a deep still pool.”146 He praised in particular, the maintenance of a dignified silence in the face of insults and false accusations. “Not to react to anger with angry words is to win a battle hard to win. It is to act for one’s own and the other’s welfare, although those who do not know the Dhamma will think you are a fool.”147 Despite the numerous accounts of the Buddha giving talks and engaging in dialogues and debates, he nonetheless spent a good deal of his time “meditating far into the night”, going into solitary retreat, sometimes for as long as three months,148 and frequently just sitting in silence. It was said of him that he “seeks lodgings in the forest, in the depth of the jungle, in quiet places with little noise, places far from the crowd, undisturbed by people and well suited for solitude”.149 Once a group of ascetics were sitting noisily talking and arguing when they saw the Buddha in the distance. One of them said to the others: “Quiet Sirs, make no noise. That ascetic Gotama is coming and he likes silence and speaks in praise of silence. If he sees that our group is quiet he might come and visit us.”150
Even people who met and listened to the Buddha without necessarily becoming his disciples would sometimes express their admiration for him. A good example of this is this comment by the leading brahman Soṇadaṇḍa. “The ascetic Gotama is well-born on both sides of his family, being of pure and unbroken descent for at least seven generations, irreproachable as far as his birth is concerned. He renounced a large kin group and gave up much gold and grain … He is virtuous, his virtue is wide and ever-widening. He is well-spoken, of pleasing speech, polite, his enunciation attractive, clear and to the point. He is the teacher of many. He has given up sensuality and vanity. He teaches action and the results of action and honours the blameless brahman traditions. He is a wandering ascetic of high birth, coming from a leading warrior caste family, one of great wealth and estate. People come from foreign kingdoms and lands to consult him… Many gods and humans are devoted to him and if he stays in some town or village that place is not troubled by malevolent spirits. He has a crowd of followers, he is a teacher of teachers, and even the heads or various sects come to discuss matters with him. Unlike some other ascetics and brahmans, his fame is based on his genuine attainment of unsurpassed knowledge and conduct. Even King Bimbisāra of Magadha has become his disciple, as has his son and wife, his courtiers and ministers. So has King Pasenadi of Kosala and the brahman Pokkharasāti too.”151 Soṇadaṇḍa’s accolade tells us something about the Buddha and also about the concerns and interests of the brahman class of the time, what they considered admirable.
The New Testament indicates that Jesus was a polarising figure, attracting both devotion, praise and blame in equal measure. Some were intrigued and impressed by him and thought he might be John the Baptist reborn; others believed that he was Elijah, or one of the other Old Testament prophets.152 Peter, his chief disciple, was among those who believed he was the long hoped-for messiah.153 Others were less impressed, saying: “Look at this man! He is a glutton and a drinker, a friend of tax collectors and other sinners.”154 When several priests saw Jesus in the house of a tax collector eating with a group of bad types, they asked him why he would mix with such people. He replied: “People who are well do not need a doctor, but only those who are sick. I have not come to call respectable people but sinners.”155 This explanation was perfectly reasonable, and underlined Jesus’ belief in a loving, caring God who wanted to save everyone, including people who others had given up on and shunned. Nevertheless, his actions were unconventional and seen as unworthy of a religious teacher. It may also have raised suspicions as to his private behaviour, just as it would today if a monk, priest or pastor mixed with petty thieves, prostitutes or gang members.
Jesus was able to attract large crowds, sometimes up to four or five thousand strong, sometimes so many that there would be a crush.156 It is certain that some in these crowds came to hear what he had to say but just as many came hoping to either witness a miracle or to be miraculously healed themselves. “News about him spread through the whole country of Syria so that people brought to him all those who were sick, suffering from all kinds of diseases and disorders: people with demons, epileptics, and paralytics, and Jesus healed them all. Large crowds followed him from Galilee and the Ten Towns, from Jerusalem, Judea, and the lands on the other side of the Jordan.”157 The evidence suggests that large crowds did not necessarily mean that they all accepted his Gospel or were even interested in it. “The people in the towns where he performed most of his miracles did not turn from their sins”158 and because of this Jesus had harsh words and threats for them: “You can be sure that on the Judgment Day, God will show more mercy to Sodom than to you!”159 The crowds who followed him over Lake Tiberius pointedly told him that he should show them a miracle.160 It was to discourage this very kind of thing that made the Buddha cautious about performing miracles and forbid his disciples to do so.
Whether liked or not, believed or not, there can be no doubt that there was something about Jesus which made people sit up and take notice of him. His miraculous abilities were part of it, so were the claims he made about himself, and his startling predictions about the end of the world. So too were some of the other things he taught. It is generally agreed that the pinnacle of Jesus’ Gospel was the Sermon on the Mount. Parts of this famous sermon, while continuing to be lauded, have almost never been put into practice and would not get assent today if they had been recommended by someone else. For example, few would believe that looking at a woman with lust should count as equivalent to actually committing adultery, or that calling someone a fool deserves being condemned to hell. The prohibition against divorce for any reason other than one partner being unfaithful has condemned millions to either a loveless marriage or the stigma of being an adulterer. Giving no thought for the future, of where one’s food and clothing will come from, might be possible for monks, but would be totally impractical for the vast majority of people. Someone who tried to live like this would be branded as irresponsible. Is it really advisable or even good “not resist an evil person?” And if someone sues you for a certain amount and wins, are you really going to give them more than the court awarded them? (Matthew, chapters 5, 6, and 7)
The advice to mutilate oneself to avoid committing sin is extreme by any standard, although many have claimed that this was hyperbole on the part of Jesus.161 It is interesting what the Buddha had to say about self-mutilation. Once a monk actually cut off his genitals in despair at being unable to control his sexual urges. When the Buddha was informed of this he commented: “This foolish man cut off one thing when he should have cut off another,” i.e. the desires and fantasies rather than the organ that responded to them. He then made it an offence to mutilate oneself for any reason.162
Despite this, other parts of the Sermon on the Mount are a timeless and universal call to virtue and holiness which those of any religion could agree with. Jesus declared that to be merciful, a peacemakers, of pure of heart, and to thirst for righteousness is to be blessed. He asked his audience to speak straightforwardly and honestly rather than taking oaths, to try to reconcile with an adversary instead of taking them to court, to refrain from judging others or retaliate against abuse, to love one’s enemies and sincerely pray for those who persecute you. He urged people to treat others as they would want to be treated themselves. He asked them to make sure their piety was unostentatious and their almsgiving unadvertised, and if while making an offering to God they remember that someone has something against them, to leave the offering on the altar, go and make up with that person and then return and make the offering. He asked them to pray to God with a humble gratitude for “your daily bread”.
It is not surprising that people were impressed by all this, not only its content but because of the simple, unfeigned sincerity with which he proclaimed. It was probably much more alive and personal than the dull, legalistic sermons of the Pharisees that people were used to. But other things Jesus taught, or perhaps the way he phrased them, disturbed people and they distanced themselves from him. Once he preached: “I am telling you the truth; if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in yourselves. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them to life on the last day. For my flesh is the real food; my blood is the real drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me and I live in them.”163 This was too much for his audience. “Because of this, many of Jesus’ followers turned back and would not go with him anymore.”164 Perhaps if he had taken the time to explain what he meant by these startling words he might have got a different reaction. However, at a time when consuming raw meat, let alone human flesh, was taboo, and even all blood had to be flushed from meat before being consumed in order to conform to the sacred dietary laws, it clearly shocked and repelled people.
When Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth and gave a talk in the town’s synagogue the locals were surprised that the country boy they has known, the handyman’s son, spoke with such eloquence and learning. Surprised but not impressed! They were cool towards him and what he had to say. Perhaps they thought he was getting above his station. Perhaps he said something that offended them or perhaps they had heard about his reputation of mixing with ne’r-do-wells. Whatever the case, being cold-shouldered by the folk he had grown up with seems to have shaken Jesus. He tried to heal some of the town’s sick but his miraculous powers failed him and only two or three were healed. Surprised that no one had faith in him, he left Nazareth and went to the surrounding villages.165
The Old Testament lays out all the laws that God gave to Moses for the Jews to live by. These include every aspect of life and all religious rituals that must be practiced. One of the most important of these laws is to rest on the Sabbath, the last day of the week. This was interpreted to mean refraining from virtually any activity, even the most simple. The criteria of a person’s piety was how strictly they practised all these laws.
While Jesus taught that people should follow the sacred laws more closely than the Pharisees did 166 he was actually committed to a less burdensome application of them, or at least some of them, and his critics were quick to point out this contradiction. They asked him why he did not fast as did the disciples of John the Baptist and other pious folk.167 When he offhandedly plucked a head of wheat he was accused of breaking the Sabbath. His rebuttal to this charge was a good one. “The Sabbath was made for the good of human beings; they were not made for the Sabbath.”168 It may well have been that some of the Pharisees were hypocritical nit-pickers when it came to following the law, but that was no good reason for Jesus to ignore it.
Once a group of Pharisees invited him to a meal, which may have been just a friendly gesture on their part or an attempt to get to know him better. When Jesus began eating, one of the Pharisees mentioned to him that he had not washed his hands first, something required by God’s law. This triggered a long angry tirade from Jesus against the Pharisees. Addressing him in a respectful manner they pleaded: “Teacher, when you say this you insult us too!” Nevertheless, Jesus continued to tar all Pharisees with the same brush.169 This and similar outbursts must have struck some people as incongruous given that Jesus taught one should not judge others. The Buddha was quite capable of being critical and he sometimes was towards aspects of Brahmanism and what he saw as the hypocrisy of some of its priests. He could chastise his monks when they misbehaved or did something foolish. In the Abayayrājakumāra Sutta however, he said that when he did criticised someone his rebuke was always based on fact, likely to be remedial, spoken at an appropriate time and always motivated by compassion.170
Their Last Days
The four accounts of Jesus’ last days agree in general while differing in detail. This is particularly so in the case of his trial, which is perhaps not surprising given that it would not have been open to the public. According to Matthew, Jesus remained silent throughout the proceedings, while John claims he both asked and answered questions.171 Rather than present the four versions it will be better to rely mainly on Mark’s account, the oldest we have.
Jesus’ last journey took him to Jerusalem, where he went to participate in the important feast of Passover. He entered the city riding on a donkey or a colt. Being already well-known, a crowd gathered to watch and welcome his arrival, some even laying their cloaks on the road for him to ride over. Other inhabitants had never heard of him and asked: “Who is this?”172 What happened next is somewhat confused. The first three Gospels say that Jesus went to the great temple and drove the money changers out, although John says this happened at the beginning of his ministry.
As a part of the Passover ritual participants had to sacrifice an animal. Coming from all over the land they could not bring an animal with them so there were arrangements for them to buy one in the temple. They could not buy an animal with Roman currency because it had an image of the emperor in it, anathema in such a holy place, so they had to change their Roman coins into special temple currency. This was the role of the money changers. Jesus was apparently outraged by all this and he knocked over the money changers’ tables, drove them out and blocked anyone carrying anything through the temple courtyard. 173 Disrupting the usual running of such a major institution must have alarmed the authorities. After this Jesus had a tense confrontation with the temple priests.174 Later, perhaps the next day, he gave talks in the temple which included yet another bitter condemnation of the priests. “Watch out for the teachers of the law, who like to walk around in their long robes and be greeted with respect in the marketplace, who choose the reserved seats in the synagogues and the best places at feasts. They take advantage of widows and rob them of their homes, and make a show of saying long prayers. Their punishment will be all the worse.”175 On this occasion Jesus, was addressing a crowd of ordinary folk but later he said even harsher things directly to the priests: “You snakes and children of snakes! How do you expect to escape from hell?” In a seemingly uncontrollable rage he even accused them of being murderers.176 In an earlier encounter with the priests he went beyond this, calling them children of the Devil.177
Such outbursts were more than tactless, they were inflammatory, and not surprisingly they made him no friends. His disruption in the temple must have worried the Romans, and his tirades against the temple priests must have lost him any sympathy they had for him. Jesus as depicted in the New Testament is sometimes markedly different from the “gentle Jesus meek and mild” of the famous hymn and of popular perception.
The Jewish priests knew only too well that if Jesus’ behaviour provoked the Romans to initiate a crackdown it would be bad for everyone, so they decided to get rid of him. They got help in this from a surprising quarter, one of Jesus’ own apostles, Judas. Why this apostle should turn against his master is something of a mystery. Was it nothing more than a desire for money as the New Testament maintains?178 Jesus had promised Judas that he would be amongst the 12 apostles to rule with him over the Kingdom of God once it was established.179 Had he ceased to believe this promise, or was it some other motive? Whatever the case, Jesus sensed that he was going to be arrested and that one of his disciples was going to have a hand in this. After sharing the Passover meal together180 he and the apostles went to the garden of Gethsemane, just beyond the walls of Jerusalem, while Judas snuck away by himself. Wanting to pray alone and in private, Jesus asked the apostles to keep watch while he did so. When he came back he found them asleep. This happened two more times and seemingly in exasperation Jesus scolded them: “Simon, are you asleep? Weren’t you able to stay awake for even an hour?”181 Just as he said this Judas and a crowd of armed men sent by the high priest arrived and seized Jesus.
There was a brief struggle during which Peter drew his sword and cut the ear off a servant of the high priest.182 This incident raises a few questions. Jesus had once said that he had not come “to bring peace on earth but the sword”,183 and before his arrest he had instructed his disciples to arm themselves. “Whoever does not have a sword must sell his coat and buy one.”184 He seemed to be expecting trouble and wanted his disciples to protect him, apparently by force if necessary. That the apostles understood this is evidenced by one of them shedding blood. Luke claims that in fact Jesus only wanted the disciples to have swords in order to fulfil a supposed prophesy about the Messiah from the Old Testament, in Isaiah. In fact, this prophesy says nothing about weapons or violence and it seems unlikely that the passage refers to Jesus. It mentions a messenger sent by God to free the Jewish people from enslavement by their neighbours. Further, it says: “There was nothing attractive about him, nothing that would draw us to him…He was placed in a grave with those who are evil, he was buried with the rich… He will see his descendants, he will live long.”185 None of this is applicable to or happened to Jesus.
Violence, the use of coercion or force, for any reason or by anyone, even violent language, is completely at odds with the most fundamental principles of the Buddha’s ethics. Many times he said that one should “put aside the stick and the sword and live with care, empathy and kindly compassion for all living beings”.186 He also said: “Putting aside the weapon towards all beings in the world, whether moving or still, one should not kill, get others to kill, or encourage killing”.187 King Pasenadi expressed amazement that the Buddha was able to train even undisciplined and unruly people “without stick or sword” (adaṇḍena asatthena).188 The Buddha referred to violent language as “stabbing others with the weapon of the tongue”189 and insisted that his followers should restrain themselves from such speech. Quite apart from using weapons, actual or even allegorical, the Buddha said that just to manufacture or sell them would be contrary to his teaching of Right Livelihood (Sammā Ājiva), the fifth step on his Noble Eightfold Path.190
After his arrest, Jesus was taken before the council of Jewish priests and elders but he refused to answer any of the charges they brought against him, and the witness statements were contradictory. Finally, the high priest asked him whether he was the Messiah, to which he replied: “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated on the right-hand of the Almighty and coming with the clouds of heaven.” Not for the first time Jesus was stating to the people he was addressing that they would be there when the Judgment Day arrived. However, it was not this claim that sealed his fate but the admission that he believed himself to be the Messiah. For this he was accused of blasphemy and the council voted to have him executed.191 The next morning he was put in chains and brought before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who alone had the right to order an execution. Having heard the priests’ accusations against Jesus, Pilate asked him: “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus replied: “So you say.” This is an unexpected answer for someone who had advised: “Let your ‘yes’ be ‘yes’ and your ‘no’ be ‘no’.”192 Pilate did not say he was the king of the Jews, he simply asked him if he claimed to be. After that, Jesus remained silent through the rest of the proceedings.
Because it was Passover, during which there was a tradition of reprieving any prisoner requested for by the public, Pilate asked the crowd gathered outside his palace whether they wanted Jesus released or another prisoner named Barabbas. The crowd cried out for the release of Barabbas and for Jesus they howled: “Crucify him!”193 Mark says that the high priest egged the crowd on to demand this. Only a few days before large crowds were welcoming Jesus into Jerusalem, laying their cloaks on the ground before him, crying out “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord” and later appreciative crowds were listening to him teach in the temple. Just how the public was so easily transformed from adulation to murderous condemnation is not clear. Whatever the case, Pilate ordered Jesus to be executed by crucifixion, a particularly ghastly form of capital punishment. He was handed over to the soldiers who beat, mocked and humiliated him then took him outside the walls of the city and crucified him.
The last months of the Buddha’s life are recounted in the Mahāparinibbāna Sutta, the longest discourse in the Tipitaka. It opens with the Buddha leaving Rājagaha, describes the events that took place during his journey north and then west, his death in Kusinārā and the disposal of his remains, and ends with the sharing out of his ashes. It is only necessary to relate the final days and anything previous relevant to them.
The Buddha foretold the time and place of his passing, saying that he would die three months hence in the small town of Kusinārā.194 That he had a premonition of when he would die and that it actually came true, is perhaps not surprising. People have occasionally been known to have the strange ability to predict the time of their death. That he accurately predicted where he would die seems less credible. A look at the map of the route the Buddha took during this last journey strongly suggests that he intended to make one final visit to his hometown Kapilavatthu and die there. As it happened, he was delayed by a serious illness and died in Kusinārā before reaching Kapilavatthu.
The Buddha, Ānanda and the party of monks accompanying them arrived in Vesāli just at the beginning of the monsoon and, in accordance with the tradition among ascetics, they found places to stay for the next three months. The Buddha took up lodgings in “the small village of Beluva”, one of the outer suburbs of the city. While there “he was attacked by a severe sickness, with sharp pains as if he was about to die. But he endured all this mindfully, clearly aware and without complaint”.195 Even today in India water-borne diseases are common during the monsoon. After the monsoon the party set off again, passing through Bhaṇḍagāma, Jambugāma, Bhoganagāma and eventually Pāvā, where they stayed in a mango orchard owned by a blacksmith named Cunda.196 Cunda welcomed them and invited them to a meal the next day. During the meal the Buddha was served and ate a dish called sūkaramaddva after which “he was attacked by a severe sickness with bloody diarrhoea (lohita pakkhandika) and sharp pain”.197
There has been a great deal of speculation and controversy around this incident. Sūkaramaddva literally means ‘boar’s softness’ although what it consisted of is unknown. It may have been a pork preparation of some kind, e.g. tender pork, but not necessarily. Then as now, culinary preparations can have names entirely unrelated to their ingredients. It has also been claimed that the Buddha died from eating poison mushrooms, from food poisoning or even that he was deliberately poisoned. The fact that his main symptom was exudative diarrhoea suggest that he suffered from either a gastroenteritis or some water borne disease, However, given that he had been sick while staying in Vesāli and that he was around 80, this points to his death being due to a continuation of this earlier sickness whatever it was, exacerbated by exhaustion. Earlier during his journey the Buddha had mentioned the only time he was physically comfortable was when he went into deep meditation.198 Interestingly, the belief that the Buddha died from food poisoning is a contemporary one, the ancients more correctly put it down to old age and bouts of sickness Written in about the 1st century CE the Milindapañha says: “It was not from food that the Lord become sick. It was the natural weakness of his body and the completion of his lifespan that his sickness became worse” (Mil.175).
Having recovered somewhat, the Buddha and the monks continued on their way but he grew increasingly frail and they had to stop, the Buddha asking Ānanda to fold a robe into four so he could rest at the foot of a tree. While resting they were approached by a man named Pukkusa, who had been a disciple of the Buddha’s old teacher Āḷāra Kālāma. Pukkusa offered the Buddha two cloth of gold robes. The Buddha accepted one and asked that the other be given to Ānanda. When Pukkusa left, Ānanda draped one robe over the Buddha and almost immediately his body was transfigured, becoming “radiant and glowing”, so much so that the cloth of gold robe appeared dull.199 When Ānanda mentioned this, the Buddha said that this phenomenon had only happened to him once before, on the night he attained Awakening. The account of the Buddha’s Awakening mentions that rays (raṁsi) of blue and yellow, red, white and orange light emanated from his body.200
The party moved on to the Kukuttha River, where they all bathed. The Buddha then asked Cundaka to fold a robe into four and place it on the ground so he could lie down and rest again. Cundaka did this and then sat watch beside the Buddha to attend to anything he might need. This devoted disciple kept awake the whole time. He had been attentive to the Buddha’s needs in the past as well. Once when the Buddha was sick, he had visited him and the two of them talked about the Dhamma. The texts suggest that the Buddha’s illness eased as a result of Cundaka’s presence.201
The party continued until they arrived at the sal grove on the outskirts of the Malla’s main town Kusinārā. The Buddha asked Ānanda to prepare a bed for him between two large sal trees. As he lay down, the tree spontaneously burst into blossom and flower petals showered down over his body. When Ānanda expressed his astonishment at this the Buddha took the opportunity to make an important point. “These sal trees have burst into blossom out of season. Never before has the Tathāgata been so honoured and revered, reverenced, esteemed and worshipped. But the monk or the nun, the layman or lay woman disciple who lives practising the Dhamma fully and perfectly fulfils the Dhamma way, it is they who truly honour Tathāgata, revere, reverence and worship him in the highest way.”202 This is yet another example of the Buddhist idea that miracles are of minor importance compared with living in accordance with the Dhamma.
Realising that the end was near the Buddha, gave some final advice and instructions. He encouraged every devotee to go on pilgrimage to the place where he was born, where he attained Awakening, where he proclaimed the Dhamma for the first time, and where he passed away. He warned monks not to become too familiar with women, and gave instructions of how his remains were to be disposed of. He thanked and praised Ānanda for his many years of selfless service, advised that the errant monk Channa be punished, and gave permission for any of the minor monastic rules to be changed if necessary. As a final encouragement he also said: “Ānanda, it may be that you think, ‘The Teacher guidance has ceased, and now we have no teacher.’ But this is not how you should see it. The Dhamma and training I have taught you, after I am gone let them be your teacher.”203
Their Last Words
Now the Buddha’s end had come. With the Mallas of Kusinārā, the monks who had accompanied him during his final journey and others gathered around, he uttered his final words. “Now monks I declare to you; all conditioned things are impermanent. Strive on with awareness (Vayadhammā saṅkārā. Appamādena sampādetha).”204
Because there are four different accounts of Jesus’ trial, execution and death, there are also four different versions of his final utterance. According to Matthew: “He gave a loud cry and breathed his last.” According to Mark he said: “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” Luke’s account gives this: “Jesus cried out in a loud voice, ‘Father! In your hands I place my spirit!’” According to John, he said “I am thirsty” and some cheap wine with bitter herb was lifted up to his lips. Then he uttered “It is finished” and died.205
While the Buddha’s passing evokes sadness and a sense of loss, such feelings are tempered by knowing that it came at the end of a long and fruitful life and that it was in keeping with the natural course of things. Some of those gathered around his deathbed broke into tears but others, understanding the nature of ordinary conditioned existence, remained calm and spent the rest of the night in silent meditation.206 The death of Jesus by contrast was tragic. In the prime of life he suffered the humiliation and brutality of the type still inflicted on the innocent in police stations and secret police dungeons around the world. Most Christians believe that Jesus’ death was a part of God’s plan, necessary to redeem humanity from sin, and that his subsequent resurrection was a triumph over mortality. Nonetheless, the accounts of his end can still move one to pity.
1.The Cross and the Lotus: Christianity and Buddhism in Dialogue,1985, p.2.2. S.II, 25.
5. Matt.2, 16-18.
6. Matt.I, 1-16; Lk.III,23-38.
7. D.I, 93. The name Sakya, sometimes Sākya, is actually derived from śak meaning to be able or capable.
8. D.III, 83.
10. M.II, 119.
11. D.I, 90; II,165; Sn.423.
12. Vin.II, 183.
15. D.I, 91.
16.2500 Years of Buddhism, edited by P. V. Bapat, 1956, p.ix.
17. Sn. 322-4.
18. D.II,233. On the election of rulers in early India see R. C. Majumdar’s Corporate Life in Ancient India, 1922, pp.97-112.
19. S.IV, 182.
20. D.II, 52; Sn.685; Vin.I,82.
21. M.III, 253.
22. Vin.II, 253 ff.
23. Sn. 683; S.V, 369.
24. See M. Lal, Settlement History and the Rise of Civilization in the Ganga-Yumuna Doab, 1984, and also by Lal, ‘Summary of Four Seasons of Exploration in Kanpur District, Uttar Pradesh’, in Man and Environment 8, 1984.
25. See K. M. Srivastava’s Discovery of Kapilavastu, 1986, p.62 ff.
26. Jn.2;1-12; 19;25-6.
27. Mk.6;3; 3,31-2.
29. Mk.6,3; Matt.13,55-56.
33. Gal.1,19; Jude.1,1.
35. Matt.1,18-25; Lk.1,26-38.
36. Matt.2, 9.
37. Condensed, M.III,120.
41. Lk.4,22; Matt.13,55.
50. The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 2008, p.46.
51. 1 Cor. 11:14.
53a. Is.53, 3.
53b. Vin.IV, 173.
54. M.I, 163.
55. D.I, 115.
56. A.II, 38.
57. A.I, 181.
58. S.V, 216.
59. D.II, 100.
60. M.III, 235.
61. Mk. 5, 41; 7, 34; 14, 36; 11, 9.
62. Matt.3, 7-12.
63. Mk.I, 4.
64. Matt.3, 11.
65. Condensed, M.I, 163.
66. Matt.4, 1-11; Lk.4, 1-13.
67. M.I, 77-81.
68. M.I, 245.
69. M.I, 247.
71. Sn.425, ff.
73. S.I, 124.
74. D.II, 151; M.I, 163.
75. D.II, 100.
76. S.I, 116.
77. D.II, 72-137.
78. S.III, 90.
80. S.V, 348-349.
81. M.I, 456.
83. S.III, 95.
84. M.I, 206; D.II, 131; A.I,136; M.III,238.
85. M.I, 501.
86. A.I, 276ff.
87. Vin.I, 20.
88. Lk.10, 1; 8,1-3.
89. Matt.19, 28; Lk.22,28-30.
90. Acts.4, 13.
91. Mk.9, 33-35; Mk.4,13; 6,52; 8,14-21; Matt.25-27.
93. Vin.I,21; Lk,10,1.
94. Matt.15,22-28; Mk.7,24-29.
96. Lk.9, 5, also 10,10-12.
97. D.III, 76; M.I, 490ff
98. Condensed, D.II,105.
99. S.V, 164.
101. Mk.14, 51-52.
102. D.II, 144.
103. D.II, 145.
104. Matt.10, 5-10; Lk.9-1.
105. Jn.12, 3-6.
106. Matt.27, 3-10; Act.1, 18-19.
108. A.IV, 402 ff; Vin.II, 189.
110. Vin.II, 189.
111. Vin.II, 190-94.
112. Mk.9, 2-9.
113. Vin.I, 4-6.
114. A.IV, 211.
115. Is.45, 1.
116. e.g. D.III, 58ff; A.I, 109ff.
117. Vīpassī, Sikhī, Vessabhū, Kakusanda, Koṇāgamana, and Kassapa, D.II,5; S.II,5. Later Buddhist tradition created many more.
118. Vin.I, 43.
119. Vin.I, 9.
120. D.I, 161ff.
121. S.I, 68.
122. S.I, 68-70.
123. M.I, 176.
124. M.I, 381.
125. Vin.I, 234-235.
126. M.I, 502.
127. A.IV, 187.
128. (M.I, 369.
129. See S. Dhammika To Eat or Not to Eat Meat, 2016.
131. M.I, 6.
132. M.I, 108-109.
133. M.II, 200.
134. D.III, 2-3.
135. M.II, 5.
136. S.V, 321-322.
137. D.I, 222.
138. A.III, 237.
139. S.V, 450.
140. D.I, 151.
141. S.III, 2.
142. D.III, 40.
143. M.II, 197.
144. M.I, 378-379.
145. A.I, 161.
147. S.I, 162.
148. S.V, 325-326.
149. D.III, 38.
150. D.I, 179.
151. Condensed, D.I, 119.
152. Mk.6, 14-15.
153. Mk.8, 27.
154. Matt, 11,19.
156. Mk.6, 30.
157. Matt, 4, 23-25.
158. Matt.11, 20.
161. Matt.5,5, 29-30; 18,9.
163. Jn.6, 55-56.
164. Jn.6, 66.
165. Mk.6, 1-6.
166. Matt.5, 17-20.
167. Matt.9, 14; Mk.2,18.
169. Lk.11, 37-52.
170. Matt.27, 11-14; Jn.18.33; 19,1-11.
168. Matt.21, 10-11.
169. Matt.21, 12-13; Mk.11,16.
170. Matt.23. 23-27.
171. Mk.12, 38-40.
172. Matt.23, 29-36.
173. Jn.8, 41-47.
174. Matt.26, 14-16.
175. Matt.19, 27-28.
176. Mk.14, 12-16.
177. Mk.14, 37.
178. Matt.26, 51; Mk.14,47.
179. Matt.10, 34.
180. Lk.22, 36.
181. Is.52, 7-15 to 53,1-12.
182. D.I, 4.
184. M.II, 122.
185. M.I, 320.
186. A.III, 208.
187. Mk.14, 53-65.
188. Matt.5, 37.
189. Mk.15, 1-15.
190. D.II, 120.
191. D.II, 99.
192. D.II,122-126) According to the archaeologist Dilip Chakrabarti, the large mound at Jharmatiya may be identified with Pāvā; Relating History to Land in Between Empires, Society in India 300 BC to 400 CE, edited by Patrick Olivelle, 2006.
193. D.II, 127.
194. D.II, 101.
195. D.II, 133
196. Vin.I, 25.
197. S.V, 81.
198. Condensed D.II, 137. The sal tree, Shorea robusta, has a mass of small jasmine-scented yellow flowers.
199. D.II, 154.
201. Matt.27,50; Mk.15,34; Lk.23,46; Jn.19,28-30.