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Jesus and the Buddha

By
Matt Davies

Buddhism
Religion 380
Professor Bemis
December 2, 2007
Jesus and the Buddha

When people think about religions that focus on love, two religions come to mind:

Christianity and Buddhism. Christianity is a reformation of Judaism that started around

33 A.D. Buddhism is a reformation of Hinduism that started around 550 B.C. The two

main religious figures, Jesus and Siddhartha, came from different backgrounds, but

preached parallel messages. The parallel messages, however, does not allow for the

harmonization of the messages. “There may have been parallels, but they are mostly just

that: parallels, lines that never meet.” (Luz and Michaels xiii) Jesus and Buddha

preached parallel messages which led to two very different religions. The teachings of

Christianity and Buddhism are parallel.

Siddhartha Gautama belonged to the Sakya tribe. It was a tribe of royalty, ruling

over a small nation. He is considered to be the historical Buddha, which gives him the

title of “the Buddha.” The facts about the Buddha’s life are hard to verify. “Scarcely

anything of Buddha Gautama’s life can be historically tested; almost all of it is legendary.

There are no contemporary sources.” (Luz and Michaels 4) Siddhartha was born around

563 B.C. in Lumbini, Nepal. (Snelling 17) When the Buddha was born, he “firmly

[stood] [and] with even feet [went] firmly to the north with seven long steps, a while

parasol being held over him (by the gods). He [surveyed] all the quarters, and in a lordly

voice [said], ‘I am the chief in the world, I am the best in the world, I am the first in the

world. This is my last birth. There is now no existence again.’” (Snelling 18) His

mother died a week after his birth, leaving his father to care for him. It is interesting to

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note that legends talk about chastity by both his parents, yet nothing is said about a virgin

birth. (Luz and Michaels 10) Another legend says that he sat “in a jewel-covered casket

within his mother’s body.” (Luz and Michaels 10) These legends seem to protect

Siddhartha from the impurities of birth. Very little is known about the childhood of the

Buddha, but based on the legends of his later life, we can assume that he was very well

taken care of and protected from the outside world. In fact, the protections his father

gave him indirectly led to the Buddha becoming a monk. The legend suggests that after a

party, Siddhartha snuck out of the palace, leaving his wife and child behind, in order to

explore the real world. He made four trips outside the palace, seeing something different

each time. During the trips, he saw an old man, a sick man, a dead body being carried

away, and a monk. Since Siddhartha was protected his entire life from sickness and

death, the first three trips shocked him. He did not understand the suffering that was

happening inside the world. But once he saw the monk, he saw the sereneness of the

monk and realized that he wanted to pursue happiness and truth. It was a realization that

he made for himself. At midnight on the night that his son was born, Siddhartha got

dressed and left his family, embarking on his great spiritual quest. (Snelling 20) It is

believed that he was about 29 years old, due to the fact that this son was born when

Siddhartha was 29 and he left the night his son was born. (Snelling 19)

The beginnings of the life of Jesus are very different. Very few people would try

to challenge the existence of Jesus, although some people raise doubts. “The very idea

that Jesus is a myth is seldom entertained, let alone seriously considered.” (Martin 36)

However, Gordon Stein, a renowned atheist, says that, “In reality, it is a legitimate

question to ask whether a person was historical or mythical. True, at one point in time,

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the question of Jesus’ historicity was a much more popular one for discussion than it is

now, but the issue is far from resolved today.” (Martin 36) For the purposes of this

paper, we will assume that Jesus existed, just as we will assume that the Buddha existed.

Jesus was born in a manger and cloths, far from the royalty of Siddhartha. (Luke 2:12)

He also was born of a virgin, which is one of the most common facts of Christianity.

(Luke 1:31, 34) His father is not mentioned after the birth stories, leading to the

assumption that he died before Jesus’ death. Jesus was the son of a carpenter, not having

any riches or a high social standing. (Matthew 13:55) We also do not know much about

the childhood of Jesus, hearing only one story about Jesus inside the temple as a boy. It

is believed that Jesus started preaching around the age of thirty. (Luke 3:23) Jesus was

told that He was God before He ever started His ministry. John the Baptist recognized

Jesus as the Lamb of God before Jesus’ first miracle. (John 1:29) Right before Jesus’

first miracle, He also alluded to the fact that He knew His calling. When Mary went over

to Jesus to tell Him that the wine had run out, Jesus responded by saying, “My time has

not yet come.” (John 2:4)

We already see some parallels and some differences between the early life of

Jesus and of the Buddha. Although they were born into different social casts, they both

knew without a doubt what they were supposed to do. They started their ministries about

the same age, grew up in a one-parent household, and had an undocumented childhood.

Although Siddhartha had everything provided for him by his father, there is no mention

of that in Jesus’ life. There is another critical difference, however. Although these are

big differences, they were both necessary to start their teachings. The Buddha had to

realize the answer to life and, therefore, the essence of his teachings. He sought for the

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most respected teachers of his day, studying to find the answer to life. When this did not

work, Siddhartha began with the practice of asceticism, which is the rejection of material

goods. “He spent long periods of time living alone and naked in eerie forests and in

charnel grounds. He slept on beds of thorns. He burned in the heat of the midday sun

and suffered cold at night.” (Snelling 20) He realized, however, that he would eventually

die before finding the answer to his spiritual quest. He then decided to try meditation,

which eventually led his enlightenment. After reaching enlightenment, he could teach

others the path to enlightenment.

Jesus had a different route to take before He could begin His ministry. He did not

need to learn or realize anything before He began. The only childhood story we know of

Jesus says that He asked questions among the temple leaders and had amazing

understanding and answers. (Luke 2:46-47) Yet Luke has another crucial part of Jesus’

life before His ministry began. Jesus was first baptized so that He could be pure for His

ministry. Baptism was a ritual that priests had to go though before they could offer the

sacrifice inside the temple. It was a covenantal promise, similar to that of circumcision.

(CARM) After the baptism, Jesus went to the desert “to be tempted by the devil.”

(Matthew 4:1) He was tempted for forty days; during those days he did not eat anything.

(Luke 4:2) It wasn’t until the baptism and temptation of Jesus that He could begin His

ministry.

Although these two orientations are different, they existed for the same purpose.

“It is true that the Buddha is not central to the Buddhist mediation. Nevertheless, the

Buddha’s own path to enlightenment provides the guiding principle for Buddhist

contemplation.” (Luz and Michaels 141) The Buddha’s meditation shows us that it is

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possible to reach enlightenment using classical Buddhism. A Buddhist will use the

Buddha as a guide and light so that their meditation is accurate. It gives the Buddhist

hope. Jesus’ temptation gives Christians hope, as well. “Therefore, since we have a

great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold

firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to

sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way,

just as we are – yet was without sin.” (Hebrews 4:14-15) Christians look at the

temptation of Jesus as the hope that they can get through any problems. Since Jesus went

through every temptation, yet was sinless, Christians have hope that they can survive all

temptations as well.

What did the Buddha and Jesus actually teach? The messages are very similar

with different motivations behind them. The Buddha taught love and peace for all as a

way to improve ones own karma. Karma, however, is not the main issue in Buddhism.

“The heart of the matter is Nirvana or Emptiness. And until this is understood, there can

be no adequate understanding of the other topics either.” (Cobb 76) The end goal for

Buddhists is to reach nirvana and get out of samsara, the cycle of rebirth. The Buddha’s

main teachings include the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. “Buddhism begins

with the judgment that all life is suffering and proceeds to analyze why that is so and how

suffering can be overcome.” (Cobb 77) This is the essence of the Four Noble Truths.

They state the following: “Existence is unhappiness; unhappiness is caused by selfish

craving; selfish craving can be destroyed; and it can be destroyed by following the

eightfold path [sic]”. (Burtt 4) Buddhists learn that they must detach from selfish

cravings in order to achieve nirvana. This is extremely hard for most people to do. “The

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Buddhist demand is more radical than anything found in the West.” (Cobb 78) Why is

ridding oneself from attachments so radical? “One is completely free for all things

whatsoever because one is complete free from all things whatsoever. There is no

bondage, not even to Christ or Buddha. One regrets nothing and one hopes for nothing.

Therefore one is completely present, completely without guilt or anxiety, and completely

content.” (Cobb 80) In order to rid oneself of unhappiness, one must follow the Eightfold

Path. The Eightfold Path teaches us to have right ideas, speech, motivations, etc. This is

a restructuring of Hinduism. The Hindus believe that only the highest caste can reach

nirvana and, therefore, they believe in a very rigid structure. (Brians NP) Yet the Buddha

created the Eightfold Path so that anyone could reach nirvana. It did not matter which

caste system one was born into. The Eightfold Path allowed anyone to achieve

enlightenment, which led to millions of converts from Hinduism to Buddhism. (Brians

NP)

Jesus taught a similar message. Jesus brought the 10 Commandments to a whole

new level. The 10 Commandments were originally about the letter of the law. Only a

few people actually had the motivation to follow the whole law. They took the letter of

the law and shaped their spirituality around that. A ruler went up to Jesus and told Him

that he had followed all the commandments since he was a boy. Jesus told him that he

still lacked one thing. “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have

treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Luke 18:22) He said that we must get rid

of our possessions in order for us to perfect our spirituality. During the Sermon on the

Mount, Jesus further clarified what He meant. “‘You have heard that it was said to the

people long ago, “Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.”

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But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.’”

(Matthew 5:21-22a) Jesus used similar examples with adultery, divorce, oaths, and

vengeance. He took what seemed to be an impossible situation, similar to that of

Hinduism, and made it more plausible. Some might argue that Jesus made the law more

difficult, but He showed that it isn’t about what the law says. Everything is dependent on

ones motivation, similar to what is taught inside the Eightfold Path. Jesus also taught to

rid oneself of possessions. Along with the above passage, Jesus takes it to another level.

Jesus shocked the crowds by saying, “‘if anyone comes to me and does not hate his father

and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he

cannot be my disciple.’” (Luke 14:26) The context informs us that Jesus did not mean to

actually hate one’s parents or family. Yet He realized that one must be willing to give

everything up for the sake of reaching higher. He knew that unless one was willing to

reject everything, even their own life, they could not truly be a disciple. Jesus also

reiterated the essence of Buddhism, saying that we will have trouble in this world. (John

16:33)

We have described some of the similarities between Jesus’ and the Buddha’s

messages. They both advocated losing or the willingness to lose all possessions in order

to obtain higher spirituality. They both took a seemingly impossible set of rules from a

previous religion and reformed them into something pragmatic. And they both knew that

there was suffering in the world that people must overcome. Yet their answers to

overcome these problems are the first of the two main differences between Jesus and the

Buddha. The Buddha taught that one must follow the Eightfold Path in order to rid

oneself of suffering and reach nirvana. The Eightfold Path is all about fixing oneself and

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one’s life in order to get higher. “But he who has cleansed himself from sin, is well-

grounded in all virtues, and endowed also with temperance and truth: he is indeed worthy

of the yellow robe.” “If an earnest person has roused himself, if he is not forgetful, if his

deeds are pure, if he acts with consideration, if he restrains himself, and lives according

to law – then his glory will increase.” [sic] (Burtt 29, 30) These sayings from the Buddha

show that it is essential for a man to find their way on their own. He even stressed

individualism while searching for enlightenment. “…be ye lamps unto yourselves. Rely

on yourselves, and do not rely on external help…Those who, either now or after I am

dead, shall be a lamp unto themselves, relying upon themselves only and not relying upon

any external help, but holding fast to the truth as their lamp, and seeking their salvation in

the truth alone, shall not look for assistance to any one besides themselves, it is they…

who shall reach the very topmost height!” (Burtt 25-26) This is supposed to be an

individual journey towards enlightenment, based on one’s own actions and aspirations.

Jesus taught that one cannot do it on their own. Jesus said that He was “the gate;

whoever enters through me will be saved.” (John 10:9a) He also gives this answer to

various Jews in a crowd gathered around Him. “‘I tell you the truth, whoever hears my

word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has

crossed over from death to life.’” (John 5:24) Jesus obviously stresses that it is only

belief, not any works, which will lead people to their final goal. Earlier in Christian

writings, this idea is reiterated. “God’s kindness will lead you toward repentance”

(Romans 2:4b) and “Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in his sight by

observing the law…” (Romans 3:20a) reflect this thinking. “For we maintain that a man

is justified by faith apart from observing the law.” (Romans 3:28) Jesus plainly taught

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that one has to go through Him in order to reach heaven. If one tries to reach heaven by

following the law, then he will fail.

The second difference is less obvious, but is still present and important. The

Buddha taught the Eightfold Path as a way to reach nirvana, as previously discussed. But

one might challenged the motivations behind the Eightfold Path. The word “right”, as

used in the Eightfold Path, is generally meant to mean harmless to others. Only by being

harmless to others can one reach nirvana. The Buddha taught that “there should be no

loving, because that implies the expectation of a reign of God; rather, compassion is the

necessary consequence of a right spiritual attitude. (Luz and Michaels 85) This implies a

selfish reasoning behind being compassionate; one can only be compassionate by having

the right spiritual attitude. As a consequence of that, one will only have compassion for

others so that they can show that they are behaving in the right spiritual attitude.

Although Buddhists would deny this claim, it is an important one. A person can only

reach nirvana while following the Eightfold Path and, therefore, they will only do good in

order to reach it. Once they rid themselves of the desire for nirvana, the selfishness will

go away; yet during the original quest, selfishness is present.

Jesus taught that we should care for others as we care for ourselves not because it

is a requirement for salvation, but because we love Him. Jesus asked Peter if he loved

Him. After Peter answered yes, Jesus told him to feel Jesus’ lambs, which means His

church. Caring for others is something a Christian should do because they love Jesus, not

because it will get them into heaven. He even taught it as a personal challenge. “‘If you

love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love

them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even

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sinners do that…but love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without

expecting to get anything back…be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Luke 6:32-

33, 35-36) The motivation is significantly different inside these teachings. Obviously a

Christian can have selfish reasons and a Buddhist can have unselfish reasons, but the

underlying message inside the teachings still exist.

If Jesus and the Buddha both taught parallel messages, can a Buddhist be a

Christian or a Christian be a Buddhist? The Buddha “sought the salvation of all sentient

beings.” (Cobb 121) It is obvious that the Buddha would invite Christians to join in

meditation and the quest for nirvana. “…there are many religious systems that serve as

methods for achieving happiness for sentient beings, human and otherwise…they are all

similar in teaching that bad actions of speech, such as lying and divisiveness, and bad

physical actions, such as stealing and killing, are improper.” (Hopkins 18) The Dalai

Lama sees a similarity between all religions, mainly because they are pushing towards

eternal happiness. “I wish to offer my hopes and prayers that all religions unite to

achieve this purpose.” (Hopkins 18) So the Dalai Lama would make a strong case that

Christians can be Buddhists. In no way do the practices of Buddhism limit who can take

part; that was one of the crucial reasons behind his reformation of Hinduism.

Yet there are different standards for Christians. Jesus emitted an exclusive truth

claim by saying that “no one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6b) One

cannot use individualism as a way to get into heaven. The Buddha taught that we all

have Buddha-hood within us. “Human beings” can “become Buddhas” when they

embody the teachings of the Buddha. (Cobb 125) Part of Jesus’ teachings, however,

stresses that we have to go through Him. Earlier Christian writings reiterate this. Paul

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writes that “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

(Galatians 2:21) Buddhists are supposed to lose their clinging towards all objects or

people, including any deities and themselves. If a Buddhist clings to Jesus as Christians

are supposed to, they would never reach nirvana. Therefore, because of the exclusive

truth claim of Jesus and the major contradictions between the teachings, a Buddhist

cannot also be a Christian.

So what does all of this mean? Love, compassion, and happiness are universal

traits. If a religion preaches against these things, it would most likely be instantly

disregarded. Christianity and Buddhism teach parallel lifestyles for their respective

followers. One must show compassion and love for the poor, reject clinging to any

material object, and always strive for a higher state of spirituality. Yet Buddhism is more

universal than Christianity. The Buddha never used an exclusive truth claim so that

anyone, regardless of caste, could reach nirvana. Jesus used an exclusive truth claim, but

did not put any material requirements for having faith in Him. “It does mean that

Christians can gain further knowledge about Christ by studying what Buddhists have

learned about Amida. It means also that Buddhists can gain further knowledge about

Amida by studying what Christians have learned about Christ. Indeed, we should be able

to reflect together about many questions of concern to both of us.” (Cobb 128) However,

Christianity is an exclusive religion that practicing Buddhists cannot be apart of. A

religion is not legitimized merely by its teachings; one must look at the claims inside the

religion as well. Jesus claimed that He was God and we are not. The Buddha never

claimed deity but did state that we can all be Buddhas. Therefore, Christianity and

Buddhism are exclusive religions.

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Works Consulted

Brians, Paul. Buddhism and Hinduism Compared. Spring 2004. Dept. of History,
Washington State University. Nov. 26, 2007.
<http://www.wsu.edu/~wldciv/brians_syllabus/buddhind.html>.

Burtt, E.A. ed. The Teachings of the Compassionate Buddha: Early Discourses, the
Dhammapada and Later Basic Writings. New York: New American
Library, 2000.

CARM. Nov. 24, 2007. The Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry. Nov. 25, 2007
<http://www.carm.org>.

Cobb, John B. Beyond Dialogue: The Transformation of Christianity and Buddhism.


Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982.

The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan
Publishing House, 1996.

Hopkins, Jeffrey ed. The Buddhism of Tibet: The Dalai Lama. Ithaca, New York: Snow
Lion Publications, 1975.

Martin, Michael. The Case Against Christinity. Philadelphia: Temple University Press,
1991.

Polinska, Wioleta. "Christian-Buddhist Dialogue on Loving the Enemy." Buddhist-


Christian Studies 27(2007): 19.

Snelling, John. The Buddhist Handbook. Rochester, Vermont: Inner Traditions, 1998.

Ulz, Ulrich, and Michaels, Axel. Encountering Jesus and Buddha: Their Lives and
Teachings. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2006.

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