Jesus and the Buddha – Kindred spirits or poles apart?


By Bhante Dhammika of Australia

The Buddha and Jesus were probably the two most influential religious figures in history. Their teachings have had a profound and positive effect on the cultures which adopted them. Until recently the followers of both generally claimed that their religion was unique and had little in common with all others. The Catholic Encyclopaedia itemizes a range of criticism of Buddhism, this being but one. "Another fatal defect of Buddhism is its false pessimism. A strong and healthy mind revolts against the morbid view that life is not worth living …Buddhism stands condemned by the voice of nature the dominant tone of which is hope and joy…The highest ambition of Buddhism is to destroy that perfection by bringing all living beings to the unconscious repose of Nirvana. Buddhism is thus guilty of a capital crime against nature, and in consequence does injustice to the individual." Nowadays, assessment couched in such language tends to be viewed with unease by many people. Today, if anything, the emphasis has moved to what some might consider as the opposite extreme - that the two religions are in complete harmony with each other and that the Buddha would have nodded in agreement when he heard the Gospel, and Jesus would done the same after listening to the Dhamma. Today, in some circles at least, "All religions are the same" is the new norm. It has become something of a hobby of writers to comb through the Bible and Buddhist sources to find sayings of the Buddha and Jesus that are similar, usually in order to prove that they both taught the same thing, or sometimes to show that Christianity was influenced by contact with Buddhism. The more well-known example of this is the beautifully produced and designed ‘Jesus & Buddha: The Parallel Sayings’ by Marcus Borg and Jack Kornfield, ‘Two Masters One Message’ by Roy Amore, and Jessica Durham-Gonder’s strictly light-weight ‘Jesus, Buddha and Love’.

As a former Christian and a Buddhist for 40 years I am perplexed by the conclusion of books like these, for several reasons. Firstly, it seems to me that you only have to read the teachings of both great teachers to see that in many respects they start from different standpoints, make different assumptions and proceed in different directions, and thus such conclusions, while perhaps comforting, do .not fit well with the facts. Secondly, they may hide or obscure the unique insights that both men may have contributed to humanity’s collective thought, ethics and spirituality. And lastly, if the only way we can tolerate other faiths is to try to convince ourselves that they are really exactly the same as our own, then that tolerance is built of shaky foundations. Hopefully, we should be mature enough to see differences and be respectful of them nonetheless, to accept that some people see things differently from how we do.

So, would the Buddha and Jesus have been kindred spirits or would they have been poles apart? Let us examine some of the evidence. A good place to start would be the two men’s lives. Both men became homeless, wandering teachers and both were skilled in using parables and stories to make their ideas understandable. The Buddha saw himself as the most recent in a line of enlightened Buddhas and Jesus believed himself to be a successor of the great Jewish prophets of old. They each attracted a band of disciples and sent them forth to spread their teachings. Both men had disciples towards whom they were particularly fond; Jesus, the unnamed young man he is said to have loved (John 21:20) and the Buddha his cousin Ananda. The unnamed disciple lent his head on Jesus’ lap during the Last Supper, and Ananda lent against the door post sobbing when he realized that the Buddha was dying. Seeing Ananda’s grief he called for him to come and proceeded to comforted him with these words. "For many a day you have been in the Tathagata’s presence with loving acts of body, with loving acts of speech and with loving acts of mind." Both these relationships underline the often overlooked fact that being a Samma Sambuddha or a Messiah need not cancel out emotional closeness.

Interestingly, the Buddha and Jesus shared a similar fate after their deaths in that both were eventually deified. On discovering that a certain monk was entranced by his physical appearance, the Buddha admonished him: "Why do you want to see this dirty body of mine? See the Dhamma and you will see me." Despite this, some participants in the Third Council asserted that the Buddha was so perfect that even his faeces was fragrant-smelling. The early Mahayana Lotus Sutra, (circa 1st century CE) claimed that the Buddha had existed since the beginning of time! When someone addressed Jesus as "good teacher" he immediately corrected them: "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone" (Luke 18,19). He also said: "The Father is greater than I." (John 14:28), a clear contrast between himself and God. Despite such pronouncements, within 20 years of Jesus’ death St. Paul was already claiming that Jesus was God incarnate. Whether Jesus actually made this claim himself is open to question, at least amongst biblical scholars, who point out that only in the latest Gospel, that of John, is Jesus reported to have said that he was divine. Apparently, he thought it unnecessary to mention his divinity to Matthew, Mark and Luke.

But, other aspects of the two men’s life, mission and influence differ. The Buddha was from a patrician family while Jesus was born into humble circumstances. Jesus never married; Prince Siddhartha, who became the Buddha, was a husband for at least two decades and a father if only briefly. Although the Buddha taught everyone, his message resonated most with the scholars and intellectuals of the day. Jesus directed his message mainly to simple folk who he exhorted to become "like little children" (Matthew 18: 3). The Buddha gave no special attention to his own clan and taught all clans, castes and classes. Jesus believed he "was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel" (Matthew 10,5-6; 15, 24), God’s chosen people. Jesus’ Gospel was at odds with that of the Jewish priests, and indeed he was at odds with them on a personal level too. To their faces he called them "evil", "hypocrites" and "a brood of vipers" (Matthew 23:33), not exactly words designed to build bridges. And sometimes his anger manifest itself physically, as when he threw the money-changers out of the Temple. The Buddha often contrasted his Dhamma with that of the Brahmans, the Hindu priests, but he was ready to engage them in friendly conversation and his criticism of them was usually measured and restrained. Only once did he use harsh language, when Devadatta tried to take over the Sangha and the Buddha called him"a wretch who should be coughed out like spittle" (khelapakassa). The Buddha lived in a time of relative peace and steered clear of politics, whereas Jesus’ mission was inextricably mixed up with the volatile politics of the day. Consequently, Jesus’ teaching, whether intended or not, provoked the religious and political powers and as a result he ended up being executed only two or perhaps three years into his ministry. The Buddha’s teaching certainly challenged the status quo but not in a way that provoked a crackdown, and he died peacefully at the age of 80.

There is no information whatsoever about Jesus’ appearance. He is usually portrayed as decidedly Western, bearded and with long hair. He was of course Semitic (Arabesque) and given St. Paul’s comment that "even Nature tells you that long hair on a man is a disgrace" (1 Corinthians 11:14) he almost certainly wore his hair short. He was called "sin-bearer" (1 Peter 2:24) and was equated with the "virdolorum", the Man of Sorrows (Isaiah 53,3). Given this, it is not surprising that many early Christian sources claim that Jesus never smiled. Except in Gandhara sculpture (2nd to 5th century CE) the Buddha has usually been depicted in a stylized manner rather than realistically. Even today in depictions of his Parinirvana he is always shown looking 25 or 30 at most, despite the fact that we know that he was an old man when he passed away.

But, tradition aside, the Tipitaka provides a great deal of interesting information about the Buddha’s physical appearance. In the Vinaya we are told that the Buddha was four finger-breadths taller than his strikingly handsome and younger half-brother Nanda, who was often mistaken for him from a distance. According to the Buddha’s own comment in the Majjhima Nikaya when young, before his renunciation, he had long black hair and a beard. Although statues of him always show the Buddha 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 regular as did all monks. All sources agree that the Buddha was particularly good-looking. The Sonanda described him as "handsome, of fine appearance, pleasant to see, with a good complexion and a beautiful form and countenance". These natural good looks were further enhanced by his deep inner calm. Another witness, Dona, said that he was "beautiful, inspiring confidence, calm, composed, with the dignity and presence of a perfectly tamed elephant". Concerning his complexion 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’scomplexion." However, like everyone else, the Buddha’s appearance declined with age. Ananda described him in old age like this: "The Lord’s complexion is no longer pure and bright, his limbs are flabby and wrinkled, his body is stooped, and his faculties have changed." 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."

Jesus’ and the Buddha’s teaching methods help to give us at least a glimpse into their respective personalities and backgrounds. Thirty three parables attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, not counting what are sometimes called proverbial expressions. Some of these are extremely creative and memorable. They are in fact one of the most celebrated parts of Jesus’ message. It is not clear if anyone has ever counted the parables the Buddha used but certainly there are at least several hundred, many of them as ingenious, relevant and memorable as those of Jesus. There are however interesting differences between the two. For example, Jesus’ parables are almost completely devoid of humour as are all his teaching. Some of the Buddha’s parables by contrast are specifically meant to raise a smile, if not a slight chuckle. An example of this would be when he said that trying to attain enlightenment without having right understanding would be like trying to get milk by pulling a cow’s horn rather than its teat. This is a good example of the well-known technique of creating a humorous effect by bringing together two related but incongruous things.There are other interesting contrast. Most of Jesus’ parables are drawn from peasant life; farming, baking, weeding, carpentry, fruit trees and crops, faithful servants, vineyard workers, a shepherd searching for a lost sheep, a poor woman trying to find an almost worthless coin, fishermen pulling their nets, etc. Such parables are indicative of Jesus’ humble background and would have been particularly meaningful to humble people. The Buddha’s parables reflect a wide knowledge of almost every aspect of life, from the highest to the most humble.

It is noticeable how often he used parables with a royal theme; the education of a prince, the administering of justice, the workings of a royal kitchen, the king’s chariot, the state elephant etc. No doubt this reflects the Buddha’s patrician background and education. But, just as many parables show a keen observation of the lives and labours of ordinary folk. In one discourse he compared the disciplining and purifying of the mind with the process of extracting gold from ore; panning it, separating it from sand and grit, smelting it and then working the metal; the accuracy of the details given show that the Buddha must have been familiar with such work. Others of the Buddha’s parables include elements of nature; plants and animals and their behaviour, no doubt reflecting the amount of time he spent in forest solitude.

There are numerous pronouncements of the Buddha and Jesus on morality that say the same thing although in different words. For example Dhammapada verse 394 says: "You fool! What is the use of your matted hair and your goat skin garment? There is a tangle on the inside and you clean the outside", while Luke 11:39-40 says: "You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You foolish people!" Again, SuttaNipata verse 242 says: Hurting, killing, cutting and binding, stealing, lying, cheating and tricking, twisting the scriptures and committing adultery; this makes one impure, not the eating of meat", while Matthew 15:19-20 says: "For out of the heart come evil, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony and slander. These are what make a man unclean; not eating with unwashed hands." There are even sayings where the two men use almost identical words for the same idea. For example, Jesus said: "No one has greater love than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15:13) and the Buddha said: "A loving friend (mittasuhada) will even give his life or his friend (Digha Nikaya III, 187).

Some Christian commentators have pointed out what they see as a certain narrowness in the Buddha’s Dhamma; e.g. specifically that it is mainly relevant to those who renounce the world, and that attaining Nirvana is very difficult. Some have even dubbed it a "life-denying" teaching. But a more careful reading of the Gospel shows that Jesus taught very similar things, although sometimes in more robust language than the Buddha did. "If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters - yes, even their own life - he cannot be my disciple" (Luke 14,26); "Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life" (Matthew 19,29); "But the gateway to life is very narrow and the road is difficult, and only a few ever find it"(Matthew 7,14). And some of his pronouncements could certainly qualify to be called "life-denying". For example: "Anyone who loves their life will lose it, while anyone who hates their life in this world will keep it for eternal life"(John 12,25); "Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in them"(1 John 2,15).

Despite these and other similarities there are dramatic differences between the Dhamma and the Gospel, and none more so than those concerning the nature of the Absolute of each. Jesus believed in a divine creator god and the Buddha did not. Jesus saw God as distinctly personal and human-like deity who intervened in people’s lives and responded to their prayer. He sometimes even addressed God as "Abba", meaning "father", suggesting a familial relationship with him. For the Buddha, the Absolute was a non-anthropomorphic "Unborn, Un-become, Unmade, Un-constructed." Following from this, Jesus prayed, projecting his requests outward to God while the Buddha meditated, directing his attention inward to his mind. For Jesus, humanity purpose was to be reborn in heaven into the presence of God; for the Buddha a heavenly rebirth was an end decidedly inferior to Nirvana. He said that a monk "should be disgusted, repelled and turned off" (attiyeyyatha, harayeyyatha, jiguccheyyatha) by the idea of practicing the Noble Eightfold Path for the purpose of being reborn in heaven. For the Buddha Nirvana was the transcending of all states of existence, even heavenly ones.

The Buddha tacitly accepted the existence of the supreme deity Brahma (sometimes also called Isvara) while denying almost every one of his attributes, thus rendering him meaningless in the spiritual domain. For him, it was not faith that led to liberation but mental clarity and understanding. However, the Buddha was prepared to admit that Brahma was primarily a benign being, filled with love and compassion, sympathetic joy and equanimity, something Jesus would have agreed with. But, even there the two men’s understanding differed. Jesus’ God could have also have a terrifying aspect and he gave this stark warning about God: "Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear Him who can destroy both body and soul in hell" (Matthew 10,28).

The recognition of this other side of God’s nature influenced how Jesus saw one’s state in the afterlife. For him heaven was glory and closeness to God, but hell was a place of eternal punishment, "a blazing furnace where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matthew 13:42). The Buddha affirmed the reality of hell too but with significant differences from what Jesus envisaged. A person was not condemned to hell as a result of a judgment made by an external agent (i.e. God or angles acting on his behalf); rather individuals created a hellish destiny for themselves by how they had thought, spoken and acted. For Jesus, a rejection of his Gospel and its offer of salvation guaranteed damnation for eternity. For the Buddha it is not unwavering faith in and undivided allegiance to a deity but morally flawed behaviour that created hell. All good people, no matter what their religion, could have a happy rebirth.

In several places in the scriptures, but particularly in the 22nd discourse of the Anguttara Nikaya’s Book of Threes, the Buddha affirmed that even if a person has never heard of him or his Dhamma they could still attain "the sure course" (okkamatiniyama) leading to enlightenment. This understanding gave Buddhism a universalist outlook and has had a positive influence on the attitude Buddhists have generally taken towards those of other religions. Just as importantly, for the Buddha hell was not eternal but a self-created unpleasant interlude, even if it be a very long interlude.

And what did Jesus and the Buddha have to say that might be relevant to the claim that all religions are the same or that they all lead to the same goal even though each knows it by a different name? It seems unarguable that Jesus believed that there was one and only one way to salvation, the way he taught. "I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me" (John 14,6). Someone once actually asked the Buddha if "all ascetics and brahmans teach the same doctrine, practice the same discipline, want the same thing, and quest for the same goal?" and he replied: "No, they do not. The world is made up of many and diverse elements and as such being the case beings adhere to one or another of these various things. Whatever they adhere to they become obsessed with and then assert ‘This alone is true and everything else is false.’ And therefore they do not teach the same doctrine, practice the same discipline, want the same thing, and quest for the same goal" (Sakkapanha Sutta).

Thus a deeper look at these two great teachers, the Buddha and Jesus, reveals intriguing similarities and distinct differences, commonalities and contrasts, both of which need to be acknowledged if we genuinely want to understand them, their teachings and the religions they founded.

But beyond doctrinal similarities and differences, is there anything Buddhists and Christians, indeed people of good-will of any faith, can agree on? I think there is. We would probably all agree that hatred, divisions, recriminations and mutual suspicion are bad for everyone concerned. I think we would all agree that mercy, kindness, forgiveness and good-neighbourliness are beneficial for all concerned. And both the Gospels and the Dhamma contain ample exhortations to shun the first and embrace the second. Could we not all agree with these words? "Renouncing ill-will and hatred, one should abide with a mind of kindly compassion for all living beings and purify the mind of that ill-will and hatred …Giving up the taking of life, and laying aside the stick and the sword, one should abide with care, kindness and compassion for all living beings."(Digha Nikaya I:63) "Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen." (1 John 4:20).

animated gif
Processing Request
Please Wait...