Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Buddha and Jesus

I found this image on the internet the other day. Artistically it is rather pleasing. Concerning the meaning it tries to convey I not quite sure. I notice that the pronouncements about the similarities between Buddhism and Christianity have become quite the fashion of late. There are even at least four books currently on the market devoted to this theme. The picture here seems to be a visual representation of the idea that the Buddha and Jesus would have seen each other as ‘brothers’ had they met. I have no idea what the Buddha would have thought about Jesus and his Gospel and I am not going to be so conceited as to put imaginary ideas into his head or words into his mouth. However, the Tipitaka might give some idea about the Buddha’s attitude to other teachers and their teachings. The Buddha and Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, known in the Tipitaka as Nigantha Nataputta, were contemporaries. Objectively, an examination of Buddhism and Jainism will show that these two religions are very similar, and not just in terminology but in ideas as well. I find it interesting that the two never met despite the fact that they both lived at the same time and in the same area. There is no record in the Tipitaka of the Buddha ever trying to meet Mahavira or regretting that he was unable to do so. I also find it interesting that on the several occasions that the Buddha met some of Mahavira’s disciples he proved to be highly critical of their beliefs and practices. See for exampleM.I,272-278. These criticisms are measured and politely stated but they are criticisms nonetheless. And all this despite or perhaps because the Buddha’s Dhamma and Mahavira’s Dharma have so much in common. No mutual hugs, no shared smiles, no exchanged complements, no ‘dialogue between men of living faiths’. Although I have not read them, I believe that the Jain scriptures likewise contain many criticisms of Buddhism.
What would have Jesus thought of the Buddha had he met him? I am pretty certain the would have been utterly horrified by the Buddha’s rejection of God and the soul. I think he would have found the idea dependent origination completely incomprehensible. And if they had had a chat together I think he would have been infuriated by the Buddha’s probing questions, his demand for evidence to back up his claims and his polite but firm refusal to surrender to a simple trusting faith. Jesus’ attitude to other religions and those who teach them is succinctly summed up by his claim, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except by me’
But just because the Buddha and Jesus would have found little to agree about this does not mean that we, their latter-day disciples, cannot have mutual respect and agreement on some matters. It does not mean that we cannot work together and help each other. True tolerance is not watering everything down until it all looks the same. It is respect and acceptance despite differences.
The Buddha and Jesus
The Buddha and Jesus were probably the two most influential figures in history. Their teachings have had a profound and positive effect on the cultures which adopted them. There are also interesting parallels between the two men. Both were homeless wandering teachers and both were skilled in using parables and stories to make their ideas understandable. They each attracted a band of disciples and sent them out to spread their teachings. The Buddha saw himself as the most recent in a line of enlightened Buddhas (S.II,106) and Jesus believed himself to be a successor of the great Jewish prophets of old. But it is in the two men’s ethical vision that we see the most important similarities. These similarities are well-known.
The Buddha and Jesus even 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’ (S.III,120). Nonetheless, during the third Council some participants asserted that the Buddha was so perfect that even his faeces was fragrant-smelling. The Saddharmapundrika Sutra, which dates from about the 1st century CE, claims that the Buddha has 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). Disregarding such evidence, within 20 years of Jesus' death Saint Paul was already claiming that he was God incarnate.
But despite these and other similarities, the lives and particularly the teachings of the Buddha and Jesus also differed in many respects. The Buddha was from the ruling-class family while Jesus was born into humble circumstances. Jesus never married; the Buddha was both a husband and a father. Although the Buddha taught everyone his message resonated most with scholars and intellectuals. Jesus directed his message mainly to simple folk. 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. The Buddha taught for 45 years, Jesus for a mere two or perhaps three.
The two men’s understanding of the wider reality has almost nothing in common. The Buddha did not believe in a creator God and Jesus did. For the Buddha, the Absolute was a non-anthropomorphic ‘Unborn, Un-become, Unmade, Un-constructed’ (Ud.80). Jesus saw God as distinctly personal and human-like; he sometimes even addressed him as ‘Abba,’ a term of affectionate intimacy equivalent to ‘Daddy.’ The Buddha saw his Dhamma as liberating from samsara; Jesus saw his Gospel as saving from hell. Following from this, the Buddha meditated, directing his attention inward to his mind while Jesus prayed, directing his requests outward to God. For Jesus, man’s ultimate goal was to be reborn in the presence of this God, for the Buddha heaven was an end decidedly inferior to Nirvana. The Buddha gave no special attention to his own tribe 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. While Jesus believed that God would soon destroy the world in an apocalypse of brimstone and fire (Matthew 10,23; 16,28), the Buddha had little interest in predicting the future and would have found Jesus’ grim prediction rather puzzling. Jesus felt he was justified in sometimes getting extremely angry, especially at those who doubted or scorned his message (Matthew 23,33-35; John 2,15). Such ‘righteous indignation’ would have raised eyebrows amongst those who knew the Buddha. Thus a complete look at these two great teachers reveals intriguing similarities and distinct differences, commonalities and contrasts, both of which need to be acknowledged if we genuinely want to understand these men and the religions they founded. Nonetheless, when Buddhists and Christians meet as friends, their encounters will be more harmonious and fruitful if they remember these words of the Buddha: ‘Those things about which there is no agreement, let us put aside. Those things about which there is agreement let the wise bring up, discuss and examine’ (D.I,164).

1 comment:

lucky said...

Excellent blog post. I agree with what you say.