Back to the main Christ and Buddha Page!

CONTRIBUTE TO OUR DISCUSSION FORUM!
Free Forums by Bravenet.com

Jesus and Buddha

Same message, different guise? Same guise, different messages?

by Stewart Redi with Karl-Heinz Milstein

Introduction

It’s probably a safe assumption that, on the surface, most people know the difference between Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, and Jesus, Son of Mary, the Messiah or Christ.  But some people say that the key to the above sentence lies in the phrase “on the surface,  and that, once you work your way through to a far deeper level, beyond the surface, quite a few similarities show up.

[By the way, you may know that some forms of Buddhism recognize many Buddhas.  Thus, it sometimes gets difficult to find your way around the names of all the important beings. Also, it can get a little cumbersome to isolate among that group the one historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in the 5th century B.C. Consequently, from here on out, we will frequently refer to him with the title that many Buddhists use to distinguish him from the others: "Shakyamuni," which means "the wise man, or sage, of the Shakya clan."]

A Little Information and a Lot of Silliness 

Here are some basic facts that people believe concerning the Buddha and Jesus.

Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha (Shakyamuni)

Jesus Christ, Son of Mary, the Messiah

Lived around the 5th century B.C. in north-eastern India

Lived in the first century A.D. in Palestine

Mother: Mahamaya; legal father: King Sudodana

Mother: Mary; legal father: Joseph, the Carpenter

Left home around the age of thirty.

Left home around the age of thirty.

Found enlightenment under the Bodhi Tree.

Was acknowledged by God as his Son when he was baptized.

Gathered disciples and spent many decades teaching.

Gathered disciples, did miracles, and spent 3 1/2 years teaching.

Taught that

we are caught in a seemingly never-ending cycle of suffering;

Taught that

we live in a state of condemnation, alienated from God.

 

the reason for our suffering lies in our attachment to an impermanent world;

 

the reason for our state lies in our sinfulness, viz., we fall short of God's glory and standards of righteousness.

 

we can escape suffering by letting go of the attachment;

 

we can be reconciled to God by Christ's death on the cross and his resurrection.

 

we can rid ourselves of attachment with the 8-fold path

 

he accepts anyone who comes to him and trusts him by faith.

 

people who have attained detachment are enlightened and will attain Nirvana.

 

he will return to earth after his ascent to heaven.

Lived to about age 80.

In his mid-thirties, he was crucified and resurrected.

 

So, there you have it!   There are some undeniable similarities. They both left home around the age of thirty, gathered disciples, and taught. If that parallel can be demonstrated to be true, couldn't it also count as evidence that maybe their teachings are similar and perhaps even that they are actually two instantiations of the same person?

Of course not! But I trust that you can see the fundamental point that I’m trying to make.  The same kind of illogic can be applied to any two entities: As long as you ignore the differences between them, they are the same.  Or, to put it slightly differently: If you’re convinced that two items which seem to be different, must actually be identical, you can make your point very easily, simply by declaring that the differences do not matter. 

As a matter of fact, there are people who argue for the similarity of Jesus and Buddha as persons and the  identity of their respective messages.  What we have tried to show with that silly example is that, in order for such a case to have any credibility, it will need a whole lot more work and rethinking than to find a few superficial similarities.

Finding the Answer You Want . . . or Finding the Answer?

The temptation in comparing Jesus and Shakyamuni is to come up with the answer that we want to be true, rather than to actually to look at their teachings and make some basic comparisons. Not surprisingly, many of those who are predisposed to seeing Jesus as a Buddha arrive at the answer that Jesus was a Buddha and taught the same things as Shakyamuni, and those who expect to see Jesus as unique, find the evidence adding up to the answer that Jesus is not a Buddha.  How do we escape giving as our own answer nothing more than our preference?  How do we avoid finding only what we want to find?  If we set aside the evidence and documents, our answer will become merely a matter of personal opinion, and though we usually respect our own opinions over those of others, if we are honest with ourselves we know that simply believing something does not make it true. Not even on 34th Street.

So, it is easy to say that an honest comparison of the content of their teachings will give us some sense of the objective truth on this question.  But such an avowal only postpones the question by one step—“How do we find the truth on this matter and be objective?”  How do we ensure that we are not bending the evidence to say what we want it to say? 

Too many people today look at such a conundrum, throw up their hands in intellectual despair, and decide that it impossible to come to any conclusions.  But, if we look at it a little further, we recognize that this kind of skepticism, which can disguise itself as intellectual modesty, is definitely unhelpful, possibly hypocritical, and perhaps even a sign of intellectual indolence.  It is not helpful for the obvious reason that giving up on looking for an answer is certainly not going to produce an answer.  It is possibly hypocritical because a lot of times when people refuse to deal with the evidence for a position (or the lack thereof), they’ve actually already adopted one side or the other and just don’t want to be bothered by checking out its validity.  Finally, it may be a sign of intellectual indolence because some folks just naturally shy away from pursuing a question that doesn’t have an immediate obvious answer because it would require more effort than they are prepared to invest in it.

Finding the right answer will require a person to do their homework. There is a price tag, namely that learning and understanding all the claims about Jesus and Buddha—are they same?, are they related?, etc.—will take some time for examination and some work.  If a person is to receive a fair trial in a criminal court, we do not assume that we can arrive at the truth of a case in a few minutes.  We assume that it will take judges, lawyers, witnesses, testimonies, evidence, and possibly many hours of deliberation.  However, the good news is that most of the time a fair verdict can be reached.

The question for this essay is also going to take some time and some work. You can’t simply read what someone else has written (this essay is included) and immediately have intuitive certainty on whether the authors are treating the texts and sources and data rightly or if they are merely cramming whatever supposed information suits them into their own viewpoint.  By reading some of the basic texts of the teachings of both Shakyamuni and Jesus you will have a basis for a fair judgment as you make the comparison. And in reality, this process of reading the primary sources of both persons and comparing their world views is not all that difficult to do; you don't have to be a scholar to understand the texts in an English translation. What stands in the way more often than not is 1) that it does take some time, and 2) that you might just arrive at an answer that seems to emerge from the evidence with a good amount of certainty, but that it is an answer that you don’t like because it goes counter to either internal or external pressures on you.  So, if you groan and moan about the subject, you may be giving away more than you think you are.  There are good, readable translations around these days of both the Bible and of various Buddhist sutras. You can find them in print and on the web.

The Issue

Common sense and common opinion tend to make a distinction between Jesus and Shakyamuni along with their respective teachings. Still, the publishing world and the internet are filled with claims of Jesus being identical not only with Buddha, but with Krishna as well as other religious teachers, and those claims then carry over into the further assertion that his teaching is the same as that of other religious leaders.  Eventually, a rational person cannot help but eliminate some of the most radical of these claims as being contradictory.  Jesus cannot be Sai Baba, Buddha, Pythagoras, Krishna, etc. all at the same time.  The list of those who say “Jesus is the same as…” gets downright absurd.  Eventually, most people will at least stop short of the billions of people who presently exist and have previously existed, though I suppose there may be even a few who believe in a sort of human pantheism where Jesus is God, and this God is in every individual who exists, a kind of corporate human “Atman is Brahman" (analogous to the Borg) taught by an enlightened Jesus. However, most people still hold to a semblance of a sense that the truth is being strait-jacketed when anyone can make Jesus to be anything or anyone, particularly when that sort of thinking can be made compatible with the actual teachings of Jesus only insofar as someone recently invented them.  The absurdity of the multiple claims about who Jesus is should be our first clue that we should hold firmly to a few guiding principles or ground rules for determining who this person is and be very careful in trying to assert that he is the same as {fill in the blank with your preference}1

No doubt any number of these sublimely positive identifications of Jesus stem from people who hold a pessimistic and negative views of the evidence concerning him, that is to say, those folks who question the veracity of the texts in the New Testament and those who grasp on to supposedly new writings as more authentic than the New Testament.  This pessimism is also applied to other religious texts (and, on the other side, the Pali Canon, is not an exception either), but fortunately people usually draw the line somewhere, even if it is pretty arbitrary, or we would be left without any history, whether religious or secular. In any event, you cannot derive reliable truth from dubious sources, and such skeptics would be would be correct in maintaining such a principle even if they misapplied it in this instance.

Now, one would think that if there is a good chunk of doubt with regard to the reliability of the New Testament records, the logical result would be an inclination to say as little as possible with conviction about who Jesus really is.  The less you think you can know, the less you should be able to assert with confidence.  Isn’t that common sense?  The less I know about astronomy, the more I should feel that I should say very little about the stars and planets.  However, some people look at the matter the other way around.  For them, the less that can be known and verified, the more freedom they give themselves to fill in the supposed empty holes with the products of their favorite fantasies.  Thus, the uncertainty claimed by some is not producing a reticence to say who Jesus actually is (or was), but rather a  brashness to make up whatever they want to say regardless of the lack of evidence.  For example, those who favor a feminist-Gnostic world view will claim that Jesus is not really the Jesus as portrayed in the New Testament, but that he is a feminist-Gnostic figure.  Those who believe in a New Age world view will hold that Jesus is not the Jesus of the New Testament, but actually a New Age enlightenment guru.

Just for the sake of argument, let us assume that a certain amount of pessimism concerning the New Testament texts is warranted. However, there are many ancient texts that, by the same standards, have far less reliability, and—unbelievably enough—the possible pessimism concerning the more reliable texts is more than made up for by a groundless optimism about these less certain texts. For example, there are texts supposedly found in Kashmir concerning the burial of Jesus, items supposedly written by Mary, the mother of Jesus, etc. But in comparison, the New Testament documents are in a far stronger position historically and textually, and the pessimistic assumption is simply not warranted. Documents of far less certainty are often hailed as more authentic because people are intrigued by the new, the bizarre, and the latest fads. It is as though someone claimed that all history books were highly dubious and supported Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy as more accurate history instead. 

On our present subject, the correlation between Jesus and the Buddha, we are encountering the same problem in a barely different guise.  The multiplication of views of who Jesus is continues. First, scholars dismiss the most reliable source concerning the identity of Jesus, the New Testament; nowadays, much of that kind of criticism has as its only criterion the fact that a book expresses a certain point of view. This rather flimsy process has been endowed by the academy with the allegedly respectable name of “deconstruction.” Then, having alleviated themselves of the need for evidence, they either turn to spurious sources without engaging in the same critical procedure of deconstruction or reach into the trove of their imagination to “reconstruct” the story under the heading of “what really happened.”

Let me set forward a few clear examples.  There simply is not space to do this with any sense of completeness.  Yet, a few examples will underscore the point and give a sense of how this is happening.  The Hare Krishna movement is one of the groups that claims Jesus is a manifestation of the Hindu god Krishna and, of course, teaches the same fundamental beliefs.

Many people often wonder what is the view of Lord Jesus Christ in the Krishna consciousness movement.
Srila Prabhupada, the foremost exponent of the Krishna consciousness movement explains that Jesus is Krishna's representative, son of God, and spiritual master. 2

 After lifting up all the critics and doubters of the New Testament, another site then poses the real answer to who Jesus is—with no further justification than the bare assurance of A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada.

Christianity has yet to discover the transcendental dimensions of God consciousness (or Krishna consciousness) possessed by Jesus, its founder3

There are sites that are even more aggressive and combine not only Jesus and Krishna or Jesus and Buddha, but move on to make the three equal to each other, or expanding the list to four or five or more religious leaders.

    This site presents the most significant for us (sic) sayings of Jesus Christ, Krishna, Buddha, Lao Tse, Babaji (from Indian Haidakhan), don (sic) Juan Matus, and Sathya Sai Baba. We can see that all They say (sic) about the same Truth.4

 Some claim that Jesus and Buddha are the same individual.  

In the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., Buddhism was founded by Siddhartha Gautama, also known as "the Buddha" (i.e., the Enlightened One), in southern Nepal. The title "the Buddha" is applied to Siddhartha Gautama in the same way that the title "the Christ" is applied to Jesus. The basic teachings and lives of the Buddha and the Christ are so remarkably similar that it is hard to believe they are not the same entity. This web page will present the case that Buddha was indeed a previous reincarnation of Jesus. 5

Given the number of opinions on the internet and the ease of putting out an opinion this way, we turn to books for a stricter sampling of what people are saying.  We do not find quite the same dizzying array of opinions, but we still have an array.  Books may give us a better sampling in that they may be more tried and tested opinions.  But our problem is not solved if we were to limit our scope to books, it is merely lessened a little.  A few examples of these are: Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers by Thich Nhat Hanh, Parables of Jesus and Buddha: Exegesis and Anomaly by Sthitaprajna, From Buddha to Jesus by Steve Cioccolanti, Jesus and Buddha - The Parallel Sayings by Marcus Borg, etc.              

This brief survey should be enough to convince anyone that there is an issue here.   As we said above,  one of the easiest responses is to throw up one’s hands and say, “No one can know!”  If the experts can’t guide us, who can?  How do we know who Siddhartha Gautama really was?  How do we know who Jesus really was?  Opinions will continue to proliferate.  Yet how can we reasonably hope to have an answer?

Still, only the strongest doubter would affirm that we can know nothing, and that would, of course, be a self-defeating position.  But why would we even think of coming to a conclusion until we have read the actual texts of the teachings of both Gautama and Jesus and compared them? Or, to put it more strongly: You are right now reading on the internet, and, in case you haven’t noticed, this site is different from most others.  For one thing, its appearance is not like that of a page torn out of an advertising magazine. That fact by itself should be a clue as to whether one is interested in truth or in propaganda.  For another, hopefully you will notice that this site focuses on content-in-context rather than ripping out slogans and catch phrases from various scriptures.  The authors of this site all study their subjects carefully and seriously, and we encourage you to study.  Why in the world would you trust your eternal destiny to authors of websites with content that would put street hawkers to shame and put forward aesthetic appeal on a level that would not even be accepted by the makers of bubble gum comics? So, get studying and reading, and then form your opinions.  Don’t base your conclusions on the opinions of people whose demeanor is that of a person who sells tickets for games of chance at a carnival! And please, if you sense a particular claim being promoted by someone on this site, you may very well be correct, but no one here expects you to accept any opinions as true until you have checked the data yourself.

 

The Text, the Lens, and the Level of Magnification

The Text

What are the ground rules for evaluating if Jesus and Buddha are the same?  Let me give a list of safe starting points.  First, we must take the most reliable written witnesses to these men seriously.  Second, we need to be forthright in letting everyone know the lens through which we are looking. Third, we need to ensure that we are looking for parallels at the correct level of magnification. Let me take each of these in order.

sourcesanim.gif 

First, we must find the most reliable witnesses for each.  Generally, the earlier the witness, the more reliable the witness.6 The usual historical tests can be applied to most of these early documents.  We are talking about historical events and people, not fiction novels or fantasy.  Events have a consistent tendency to leave a mark within history.  The records of who Jesus was and who Shakyamuni was are a part of history, and determining who they are and what they taught is a matter of historical examination.  There may be mythical elements included in these texts that may stretch the issue of historicity.  There may even be texts that are indeed mythical and not presented as historical, yet they are still presentations of views about a historical person, and they leave their historical trail.  For these texts, we should allow the view to stand and not deconstruct it because only in the version that is presented in these texts do we get the true picture of what people have traditionally believed.  Let us begin with what we most reasonably can know historically. In the case of Buddhism,  the earliest texts are the Pali Canon.  If there are competing views within Buddhism, we can try to take each school with its earliest reliable texts. Then we can compare them with the earliest witnesses of Jesus’ life.  On the Christian side of the question, there is general acceptance of the texts of the Bible for all Christians.  The earliest and most generally trustworthy texts on Jesus are the New Testament documents.  In spite of recent castigations of these texts by critics, they stand the historical tests of reliability, and even if they did not, they would still be the authority of what is entailed when making reference to the person of Jesus. From these texts we can begin to answer the question, “Are the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Buddha the same?”  So, they way to begin is to establish a base with the testimony of the earliest witnesses. 

 The Lens

lupeanim.gif 

The second issue in comparing Jesus and Siddhartha is the issue of the lens we look through.  Everyone comes to the issue of Jesus and Buddha with a world view.  This does not mean that we can’t find an answer and are merely lost in subjectivity.  It does mean that we will view things from different angles and perspectives.  A most helpful beginning step is to reveal our view point.  Doing so helps us and others to be more accountable, although it is admittedly a rather difficult process at times because in many surroundings, it is expected of people to declare that they don’t have a world view, and that they are speaking purely objectively. Between you and me, that kind of claim is unsustainable; no human beings can free themselves of all preconceptions and see the world without any lenses.  Still, for some people it takes a real struggle to be able to admit to having a world view.  Much of the time this difficulty arises because people believe that the only alternative to having a world view is to submit to total relativism and subjectivism, but that extreme also does not follow from having a way of seeing things in the world.  Let’s use a really simple example: in one sense when I see a mouse or when a cat sees a mouse, we see things rather differently, and the poor mouse certainly adds yet another dimension to seeing itself in those situations.  But everyone sees the mouse. 

Most people tend to misunderstand the story of the five blind persons who encountered an elephant and touched it in one single place: They respectively reported that an elephant is like a) a fan; b) a column; c) a wall; d) a snake; and e) a rope. Each of them experienced different things, but the real point of the story is that there was, indeed an elephant for them to explore.  Their subjective experiences did not count against the objective presence of the elephant. 

So, in taking this difficult step in assessing how your world view influences how you compare and contrast two figures, here are some questions that you need to keep in mind:

·        Does your world view lead you to erase the differences that might exist or to create differences that may not exist?  

·        Does your world view assume similarity in all things and between world views or does it assume contrast? 

Once we have stated our own world view, it helps others to see if we are merely operating within the confines of that world view, or if we are operating with some sense of objectivity.  To some degree, the lens a person chooses to look through will determine the answer to this question.  But by clearly announcing our world view, we are accountable and more visible in the process of our reasoning and arguments.  When it comes to the actual texts and teachings of Shakyamuni and Jesus, we must be accountable to hearing what they say and not deconstructing their words, ignoring their words, taking words out of context, dismissing certain things they say that go against what we want, etc.  These are all signs that we are patching data into the schematics already provided by our world view more than listening honestly to what they say.  Yes, your world view is always present and will influence you in some way.  No, that does not mean that you have, therefore, lost all objectivity.  The more aware you become of having a world view, and recognizing what this world view entails for your observations, the closer you will get to objectivity. 

My own view is Christian.  I believe that truth is singular and objectivity is possible.  I also believe that human beings are fallen and are easily misled, including myself.  Knowing that these are some of the principles that I see in my view should help you even as you follow this discussion.

If we do not take into account our own lens, we will too easily force our own view into the other world view. This is often done by importing a new meaning to a word or concept in the other world view and then colonizing this other world view.  Thich Nhat Hanh does this kind of “false transitive” reasoning over and over again in his book Living Buddha, Living Christ. This false reasoning starts with a term or idea in the other world view and some partial semblance of similarity with this word or idea, and then employing this to import an entire idea which is actually foreign to the world view being colonized.  An example of this approach is where he links Buddha and Jesus in their respective teachings against violence.  There is no doubt that both taught against some aspect of violence.  Jesus taught against murder and even suggested a person turn the other cheek when someone strikes them. Hanh then wrongly jumps to the conclusion that Jesus teaches a "gospel of nonviolence."7 Just because Jesus teaches against murder and teaches against personal revenge, does not mean he believes in the entire corpus of nonviolence (Ahimsa).

Hich Nhat Hanh does this as well with the Person of the Holy Spirit.  He links the Holy Spirit falling on Jesus to healing and the Buddhist concept of mindfulness.8 He says the Buddhist idea of mindfulness relieves suffering because it is filled with understanding and compassion. Then he makes the leap of saying that this loving-kindness and understanding displays the energy of the Holy Spirit. Because of these qualities of compassion and understanding that may be a part of a person having the Holy Spirit in the Christian teaching and experience, he then equates the idea of Buddhist mindfulness with the Christian possessing the Holy Spirit. Based on this vague similarity and imported meaning, he then identifies the two—1) mindfulness and 2) the Holy Spirit, as being the same.9 However, the Christian teaching of the Holy Spirit is not that he is a force or a practice or even a quality (mindfulness) that happens to align with Buddhism. He is actually God Himself, a personal being.

 The Level of Magnification

The third issue in asking this question of the identification of the teaching of Jesus and Buddha is the level or magnification we are looking at.  Let me give an example.  Let us say we are trying to determine if two dogs are the same.  A look at them reveals that two particular dogs are both black, both are large (about 60 pounds), and both have the same shape and look. You may then answer, “They are the same dog”  At one level you will be right.  At a very basic level they are indeed both dogs.  They are both similar in size, shape and color.  If you are looking at the casual and general level of this question, you could rightly answer that they are the same.  You could do the same with Jesus and Buddha.  They are both men from history who gained a following, who taught on issues of wisdom, and became religious figures.  You would be right.  At the level you are looking at them, they are the same.  But here is the crucial question—at what level should you compare them? 

Back to the example of the dogs.  The two dogs I have in mind are actually two dogs in my house.  They both appear very similar to each other.  People who do not know them well, often mistake them.  However, at a closer level of magnification, they are very different from each other.  One is a male, the other a female.  That makes a huge difference!  The female has had two litters of puppies, totaling 21 puppies!  The male could never do that.  The male is an English Labrador and the female is an American Field Labrador.  Additionally, the male is ¾ Labrador Retriever and ¼ Golden Retriever, while the female is a pure-bred Labrador Retriever.  This difference is very important.  The purchase price for the male was $75, but for the female it was $700.  Most people would count a difference of $625 a significant difference! What is happening here is that we are now looking at a greater  magnification level.  We are not only asking the general question if they are dogs, share the same color, etc., but are now getting to deeper questions.  The scientific levels of who these dogs are would look like this:  Kingdom: Animalia, Phylum: Chordata, Class: Mammalia, Order: Carnivora, Family: Canidae, Genus: Canis, Species: familiaris, Breed: Labrador Retreiver. The level at which you choose to do the comparison will largely determine the answer you give.  If you choose the species level, you will conclude rightly that they are the same.  If you choose the lower levels of breed, you will conclude rightly that they are different. 

In the same way, then, the question we have about comparing Jesus and Buddha can rightly have two different answers, depending at which level we are comparing them.  If we are comparing them simply as historical figures, as important people in history, we may conclude they are the same—they both gained a following that promoted a major world view.  They both embarked on their mission around age thirty. They both had disciples.  They both taught on a few similar topics. But if we are interested in the question at a deeper level—“As religious leaders, do they actually teach the same things?” we may get a different answer.  So now we must make the right choice of the correct level of comparison.  To say there is similarity does not mean much unless we are looking at the correct magnification.

 

 Examples: Two Cars, Two Mathematicians, and Two Teachers

The issue at hand for our search is to find substantive issues on which both Siddhartha Gautama and Jesus speak.  Let me give an example. If you are talking to someone about their car and wondering if they have the same make and model car as you do, you do not ask them, “Does your car have wheels?  It does!  Wow! So does mine!”  Most of the things about cars would be similar and would be parallel from bumper to bumper.  But our question is not if both are cars, rather if they are the same make (or brand) of car.  We determine the differences of the make and model of a car by recognizing the details of manufacturing, the particular engineering, and the specific "extras" each car has.  This is the level and the place to look to determine if the cars are made by the same company and are the same model.

Let's switch examples. If you were to compare two mathematicians and their theories to discover if they hold the same views, you would not end the search after finding some commonly accepted conclusions between them.  If one mathematician believes that 240 – 9 = 231, and the other one also holds this equation to be true, you would not stop and say, “They believe all of the same things!”  We should expect that mathematicians agree on many things.  Even a much longer listing, in which we included only the items on which they agreed, would neither end the search nor answer the question.

Of course, the same pattern continues if we enter the realm of spiritual or religious teachings. Please allow me take yet another fictional example. If we are to compare two teachers, we cannot merely assemble a list of parallels and assume therefore that they promote all of the same teachings.   Let us say that there is a teacher from Indonesia, whom we will call "Teacher Indo."  We are going to compare this teacher with another one from the Philippines, who is "Teacher Phili”.  (The choice of names and geographical locations do not carry any significance.) We can go on and assume that some of the content of what they teach is pretty similar.  It would be an error to expect that they would have to hold opposite views on everything in order to be teachers of different world views.  Let us assume that they address similar topics, and that some of their thoughts on some of those topics would be close to identical.  They might teach about the true nature of various topics, such as the purpose of life and death. Conceivably, they could both address pain, pleasure, and suffering. They might discourse on the essence of wisdom. Maybe both teachers would discuss human relationships in the family and in society, and they would express their views on our obligations to other people.  If Teacher Indo says about parents, “Parents are to be honored by their children,” we should not be surprised to find a similar statement from Teacher Phili.  If Teacher Phili says, “Death is an experience shared by all living beings,” we should not be surprised to find a similar statement on death from Teacher Indo. We can expect a great amount of similarity in their teachings. 

  • “Be careful what you say!"
  • “Don’t lie!" 
  • “Pursue wisdom and knowledge!"
  • “Be considerate of other people!"
  • “Don’t be anxious!"
  • “Teach other people the things I am teaching you!"
  • “Don’t be foolish!"
  • “Honor your parents!"
  • “Be gracious and kind!"

This list could keep growing and become quite substantial.

It should not surprise us as well if both teachers use similar methods in conveying their messages, particularly if they are addressing the same topics.  They might use parables, stories, questions, or proverbs on similar topics.  A good teacher knows that there are some topics for which some specific strategies of communication are more effective than others.  But again, to find two teachers using the same methods does not bring us to the conclusion they believe and teach the identical material. The similarities can even appear on a fairly detailed level. Let us say that both teachers are addressing an important issue, and that both of them have decided that it would be most useful to embody their point in a story. In that case, even some of the details included in the stories may be virtually the same.  

But we still do not know whether they are promoting the same answer, supported by similar premises, on the issue. Are they both using their stories to reach the same conclusion concerning the issue? Thus, despite all of the similarities that we have stipulated, we still do not have an answer to our question—do they believe and teach the same thing?  It is particularly true when people compare the popular sayings of famous religious leaders, that they reach the common, though false, conclusion that a handful of similarities in their teachings is evidence that they teach the same body of beliefs in its entirety.  They do, indeed, teach some of the same things.  No surprise. In fact, it would be a genuine surprise if they did not. You don't find too many (if any) popular religious leaders exhorting us to tell lies, kill children, be foolish, or think of our lives as nothing but opportunities to accrue wealth.

Here are some suggested "parallels" between the sayings of Jesus and Shakyamuni. Please note that I just enclosed the word parallels in quotation marks. What exactly constitutes a "parallel"? Many scholars would say that the list below already stretches the meaning of "parallel" too far. Does one really have a parallel in the teachings of two people if they both address the same topic, but support differing conclusions?  I would not count such an instance as a genuine parallel. To be a true parallel, the two teachers would not only have to address the same topic, but also come to rather similar conclusions.  [Just think of this silly example: St. Thomas Aquinas taught that God exists.  Bertrand Russell taught that God does not exist. They both addressed the topic of God's existence. But surely we can't conclude plausibly that, therefore, Thomas's and Russell's teachings on God parallel each other.]

Thus, I would not count it as a parallel when two teachers simply address the same topic.  I would count as parallel the same basic response on an issue raised by a shared topic.  For example, Marcus Borg labels these two statements as parallel sayings: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” (Luke 6:29) and “If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon any desires and utter no evil.” (Majjhima Nikaya 21.6).10   These are clearly similar topics: “If someone should strike you.”  

At that, it is certainly debatable if the advice is the same.  Jesus says to turn the other cheek, so as to be prepared to receive a second blow.  Shakyamuni says to abandon desires and say no evil words.  These are different responses, and in ordinary life--aside from the vague logic of various authors on religious topics--it would not even occur to us that they should be the same. Jesus mentions nothing about abandoning desires or speaking words, and Shakyamuni says nothing about the other cheek.  They both imply that you should not strike back.  Is this a parallel? It seems to me a stretch to call these parallel sayings. 

Take another example from Borg where he aligns the statement of Jesus in John 3:16-17:

    For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life.  Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

with the following:

    A certain Brahmin said to the Lord: “Reverend Gautama, it is as if a man were to seize someone by the hair who had stumbled and was falling into a pit, and to set him on the firm ground—just so, I, who was falling into the pit, have been saved by you!” (Diggha Nikaya).11

Clearly the topic is the same—.  Both of these accounts claim that there is salvation, either through Jesus or the Buddha.  The first account gives a clear statement of how this salvation happens, while the second account does not.  We are left with the only similarity being ‘something on salvation.’ This is not a parallel statement, merely a similar topic.  If one were to pursue what this salvation consists of and how one attains it, and it would turn out that the answers were the same, then I would say that we are looking at a true a parallel.

The main question in determining if the two teachers are bringing the same message is to get to the important issues that generally make up a world view.  We do not distinguish between different world views on the basis of minor details, but because they are separated on the larger or deeper questions of life.  Although there is no single overarching criterion that we can bring to an issue such as this one. We can use a set of more specific and pointed questions to reach an answer for our main quest,“Do they teach the same thing?”  These questions include,
      • What is the nature of the human person?
      • Who created humans and how were they created?
      • What is humanity's essential problem?
      • Why is there death in this world?
      • Is there something after death, and if so, what?
      • How do people deal with the problems of the world, and how should they?
      • Why do human beings suffer?
      • What is salvation?
      • What must one do to be saved? 
Assuming that we can get some good answers to these questions from religious leaders, we can supplement what we have learned with whatever information they give us as to their own nature and origin, as well as the role they play individually in constituting the answers. The bottom line is that, if we find agreement across these issues, then we can reasonably reach the conclusion that they do indeed teach the same thing.

    A fine example of a parallel in the teaching of Jesus and Buddha could be what is sometimes termed the “Golden Rule.”  Luke records this exhortation in the New Testament as, “Do to others as you would have them to do you.” (Luke 6:31).  The Dhammapada (Pali Canon) says, "Consider others as yourself."12 This is clearly a parallel saying.  This idea is unsurprisingly contained in others places by other teachers.  In the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, Vrihaspati tells Yudhishthira, “That man who regards all creatures as his own self, and behaves towards them as towards his own self…. One should never do that to another which one regards as injurious to one's own self.13 Whatever is disagreeable to yourself do not do to others.14   Without belaboring this common advice any further, the idea is present among other teachers and embraced by other world views.  These statements come from reliable sources, yet they are not at the correct substantive level to determine if the teachers who advocate these ideas teach the same overarching world view.  If finding this saying in the writings of any religion is cause enough to say that their teachings are identical, and if it is pretty much a universal expectation among all religions, then no religion is distinctive.  

     

    Religious teachers usually forbid stealing. Marcus Borg rightly includes this notion in his collection of parallel sayings of Jesus and Buddha.  He cites Mark 10:19 where Jesus says, “You know the commandments, ‘You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal…’” and gives the parallel from the Khuddakapatha 2, “Abstain from killing and from taking what is not given.”  Again, this similarity should not come as a surprise nor serve as a proof that Jesus and Buddha have the same world view.  Would you expect a great teacher to advocate theft?  Of course not!  This is not the correct level at which to determine equivalence or difference.

 Three Helpful Questions

    Here are some substantive questions, adjusted to the proper level of magnification, which will be much more helpful to determine if Jesus and Buddha taught the same thing.

    1.      What do they teach about themselves and who they are?

    2.     What do they say is the essential problem of humankind?

    3.     What do they say is the way by which one solves this problem?

Let us pursue these three basic questions.

First, what do they teach about themselves? I will start with Jesus in the New Testament.  Jesus makes very clear claims to be divine.  Here is the evidence. 

1.  First, there are statements by Jesus himself, as recorded in the Bible.

John 10:30 “I and the Father are one.”

      John 14:6  “Jesus answered, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”

      John 14:7 “If you really knew me you would know my Father as well.  From now on, you do know Him and have seen Him.”

      John 14:8-9 “Philip said, ‘Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.’  Jesus answered, ‘Don’t you know me, Philip, even after I have been among you such a long time?  Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.’”

2.  Secondly, there are the reactions of those listening to Jesus who openly stated he was claiming to be divine:

John 5:18 “For this reason the Jews tried all the harder to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own father, making himself equal with God.

John 8:58 “I tell you the truth, Jesus said, before Abraham was born, I am!”  At this, they picked up stones to stone him….”

3.  Thirdly, there are the inferences in the Bible that imply his divinity:
This is a sampling of the texts on this topic. It should be noted that there are many more. Clearly Jesus is claiming to be divine and equal to the Father (God).
        Next we look at Shakyamuni, the Buddha.  In Theravada Buddhism, Gautama is not divine, but only a human being (though certainly a very special one).  He was a teacher in a series of many Buddhas, but he is now no longer available to us personally. Although Theravada Buddhists have a very high regard for the Lord Buddha, they do not say that he was a god.  “For the Blessed One was the arouser of the unarisen path, the begetter of the unbegotten path, the expounder of the unexpounded path, the knower of the path, the expert with regard to the path, adept at the path. And now his disciples follow the path and become endowed with it after him."15   The Four Noble Truths give us the basic problem of life and the fourth one advocates the solution in the eightfold path: "And what is the way leading to the cessation of suffering? It is just this Noble Eightfold Path; that is right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration."16  Notice that Siddhartha Gautama is not the path itself, nor the necessary means of attaining the goal.  

        A summary of what Theravada Buddhists believe from Belief Net says, “The concept of a supreme Creator God is rejected or at least considered irrelevant to Theravada Buddhism.  Buddha, "the Awakened One," is revered above all--not as "God" but as supreme sage, model of a fully enlightened person."17   There is somewhat of a divide among some Buddhist schools as to how many Buddhas there are, and the relationship of human beings to these Buddhas.  Mahayana Buddhists do not hold to a Creator God or an ultimate ruling deity, even though they believe that individuals can attain Buddhahood and recognize that, in the final analysis, they are a part of Sunyata, the ultimate emptiness. One thing that is clear between the various schools of Buddhism and Christianity is that the idea of a Buddha and a monotheistic God who was incarnated in the person of Jesus are mutually exclusive.

        The second question is “What is the essential problem of humankind?”  

        The answer given from the Bible is that man has sinned and come short of God’s law or glory.  Romans 3:23 “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”  Matthew records that the purpose of the birth and coming of Jesus is to save his people from sin. (Matthew 1:21 “And she will bear a son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins”).  Sin is falling short of the demand of God and of his right law.  

        The question of the essential problem of humanity gets a very different answer from Siddhartha Gautama.  It is not difficult to find this answer, as it is clearly presented in the four noble truths: 1. Life means suffering. 2. The origin of suffering is attachment. 3. The cessation of suffering is attainable. 4. There is a path to the cessation of suffering.  It is clear that Siddhartha Gautama gives a different answer than Jesus does because he raises a different question.  Basic Buddhist teaching says suffering from attachment is the essential human problem.

        The solution for our problem as fallen human beings, according to Jesus, is to believe in Him as God’s provision for the atonement of sins.  An often-cited statement of Jesus on this comes from John 3:16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  

        The solution for the Buddhist has nothing to do with sins, but rather to the improving of karma by following a path of self-improvement or the eight-fold path.  Here we find some differences in the schools of Buddhism in the practice of these things. However, it is clear that none of the Buddhist schools claim that believing in Jesus to gain forgiveness of sins, or even believing in Gautama as God’s singular provision for sin is the answer to the human problem. When one states the distinction in this straight-forward form, it seems to be so obvious that one can hardly believe that it even needs to be said.  However, since so many people keep repeating the unanalyzed notion that Jesus and Buddha really brought the same message, it needs to be pointed out again and again.    
          Deity and Triadity

          On these essential questions of the content of what Jesus and Buddha actually taught we find that Jesus and Gautama taught very different beliefs. A question that remains would be whether there is an equivalence that arises within Mahayana Buddhism where the Buddhas are often thought of as divine beings, and so one could appeal to the fact that both Jesus and the Buddha are similar because they both have a divine nature.  However, it would not take very long to show that the differences vastly outweigh any purported similarity.  The Christian teaching on the incarnation is relatively straightforward.  It is not illogical, but it is definitely a mystery that we can never fully comprehend.  In simple terms, the second person of the Trinity, whom we call the "Son," has been God for all of eternity. In the incarnation he joined himself to a human nature so that there are two natures, one human and one divine side by side in his one person. He added a human nature to his divine one; he did not transform the divine nature into a human one. They interact with each other, but they don't coalesce into some kind of third nature either.  

          When we talk about a Buddha's divinity in Mahayana Buddhism, things get much more complex because now we have to take recourse to the idea of the Buddha having a "triple body" (trikaya), where only one of these bodies is real.  The three bodies are these:
          1. Nirmanakaya, the fading earthly body of those Buddhas who have attained enlightenment on earth. This body is obviously temporary.
          2. Sambogakaya, the blissful body of a Buddha once he has attained enlightenment and freed himself of all attachments. This body must also be temporary.  It manifests the benefit of being enlightened, but if it were permanent, then it would have to exist a permanent world, something that Mahayana Buddhism strenuously denies.
          3. Dharmakaya, the true, spiritual body of a Buddha, which is beyond reason and finite descriptions.
          Various people have attempted to find parallels between the trikaya and either the Christian Trinity or the incarnation.18 Once again, at an appropriate level of magnification of our lens, we find that there are serious differences.  According to Christian theology, Christ continues to exist in his incarnate form.  Although his physical body has been transformed into a glorious body with abilities that go far beyond our present bodies, his humanity is still just as real.  The two natures, the human and the divine complement each other; they do not exclude each other.  On the other hand, in the Buddhist doctrine of the trikaya, the first two bodies are not actually real, and the third, the dharmakaya only manifests itself with the other two as needed. 

          Please keep in  mind that our concern here is not which doctrine is superior, but whether we are looking at the same doctrine in both religions, only with some minor variations. And it turns out that the differences are too great to say that here is a clear case of parallel teaching.  When Christians say that Christ is God they are saying something very specific: he is a personal being of the same nature as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe, and his incarnation neither subtracts nor opposes his divine nature. Human nature in general, and Christ's human nature in particular was intended for direct communion with God. But when we think of a Buddha having a divine body (dharmakaya) in Mahayana, there is little substantial that can be said about its nature.  It is a word with very little tangible content, and whatever content there may be does not fit in with the Christian conception at all.  So, even though it is acceptable in many Mahayana contexts to think of the Buddhas as divine beings, and, thus, even to bring in the word "god," albeit ever-so-cautiously, the word "god" here does not refer to anything like the single infinite God of Judaism, Islam, or Christianity, nor even the multiple gods of polytheistic belief systems.

          Conclusion
          There are still some parallels that are of interest between Siddartha Gautama and Jesus.  Gautama was tempted by Mara, an evil being.19 He was tempted to abandon his journey and goal, but resisted.  Jesus was tempted for forty days in the desert by Satan.20 They both taught in parables.  What do we do with these parallels in the events of their lives?  They are certainly interesting.  However, the more notable thing of comparison between these two teachers is how they differ.  Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh, the same as the Father.  Buddha never claimed divinity.  Jesus claimed to actually be the Way to heaven; Siddhartha was only one who happened to find what he thought was enlightenment and recommended this same thing to others.  Jesus offered himself as the object of faith and a substitute for mans sins on a cross; Siddhartha recommended a path of self-improvement in the four noble truths and the eightfold path.
          In conclusion, we can confidently dismiss the possibility that Gautama and Jesus are in some reasonable sense the same person, based on the fact that their teachings on the key issues are quite different.  The small amount of overlap in wisdom teaching and the superficial similarity between a few events is hardly reason to set forth this idea with any seriousness, given the sharp contrast and differences in the teaching they set forth on essential matters.
            Notes
              1An apparent exception to this paragraph is Gulam Mirza Ahmadi, the nineteenth-century founder of the Amadiyya sects of Islam. A common saying attributed to him is that he claimed to be the Mahdi, the second coming of Christ, and Krishna. In fact, he did claim to be the Mahdi, but as to the other two, he limited himself to being the fulfillment for those who waited for either Christ or another Hindu avatar, not that he was identical with those persons.     Back to text.
                2Sanatana Dharma Foundation, Bhakta Handbook, chapter 27, "Krishna and Jesus Christ." URL: http://www.harekrishnatemple.com/bhakta/chapter27.html. Specifically, the site refers to a conversation between Prabhupada and the anarchic Alan Ginsberg, a person one should be hard-pressed to believe if he commented on the weather, let alone spiritual insight. Sane people would not have dreamt of leaving their children in the company of Alan Ginsberg because of views he expressed concerning the legitimacy of pedophilia, but, never mind the fact that his personal life was nothing, if not ugly, they defer to him as an authority concerning matters of eternal life. How could he have any trustworthiness when it comes to an evaluation what he believed of what Prabupadha knew? And even if Prabupada made such statement, with all due respect for his knowledge of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, why should he have deeper insight into Christ than Christ's own disciples?     Back to text.
                  3Prithu das Ahikary, Jesus and Krishna. URL:http://www.omjesus.net/     Back to text.
                    4http://www.godteachesus.org     Back to text.
                      5Jesus as Reincarnation of Buddha URL: http://www.near-death.com/experiences/origen045.html     Back to text.
                        6 For a more complete list of such criteria and a discussion of why they are appropriate to help us avoid skepticism, see W. Corduan, No Doubt About It (Nashville: Holman, 1997).     Back to text.
                          7 Nahn, Thich Nhat Living Buddha, Living Christ, A Riverhead Book, 1995, p. 72.     Back to text.
                            8 Ibid. Chapter Two.     Back to text.
                              9 Ibid., p. 30.     Back to text.
                                10Marcus Borg, Jesus and Buddha (Berkley, CA: Seastone, 1997) pp. 16-17.     Back to text.
                                  11 Ibid. pp. 118-119.     Back to text.
                                    12 Dhammapada 10.1.     Back to text.
                                      13 Mahabharata, translated by Kisari Mohan Ganguli [1883-1896], section 113.    Back to text.
                                        14 Shayast-na-Shayast 13:29.     Back to text.
                                          15 Majjhima Nikaya, 108.     Back to text.
                                            16 Majjhima Nikaya, 9,18.     Back to text.
                                              17 http://www.beliefnet.com/Faiths/2001/06/What-Theravada- Buddhists-Believe.aspx.     Back to text.
                                                18See "Trinity and the Trikaya" at "The Religious Roundtable." URL: http://religiousroundtable.blogspot.com/2007/07/trinity-and- trikaya.html    Back to text.
                                                  19 Sutta Nipata 425ff.     Back to text.
                                                    20 Mark 1:13    Back to text.
                                                      Sources
                                                        Quotes from the Bible are taken from the New International Version. Zondervan Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan
                                                          Quotes from the Dhammapada come from F. Max Mueller, ed., Sacred Books of the East. Web address for a digital version: http://www.sacred-texts.com