Similarities and Contrasts
A number of recent books have proposed the idea that Buddha and Christ are brothers in spirit. Close to the end of Living Buddha, Living Christ, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh asserted, "When you are a truly happy Christian, you are also a Buddhist. And vice versa."
In his controversial book, Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, New Testament scholar Marcus J. Borg asserted that both religious founders espoused a "world-subverting wisdom that undermined and challenged conventional ways of seeing and being in their time and in every time." Borg claims that both were teachers of wisdom, not only regarding "moral behavior, but about the 'center,' the place from which moral perception and moral behavior flow." Both, according to Borg, "were teachers of the way less traveled. 'Way' or 'path' imagery is central to both bodies of teaching."
In their article, "Are Jesus and Buddha Brothers?", by Carl E. Olson and Anthony E. Clark (This Rock, Volume 16, Number 5, May-June 2005), the authors note that Jesuit Father Robert E. Kennedy . . . holds Zen retreats at Morning Star Zendo in Jersey City. Further, "the St. Francis Chapel at Santa Clara University hosts the weekly practice of 'mindfulness and Zen meditation.' Indeed, the number of Buddhist retreats and workshops being held at Catholic monasteries and parishes is growing." The article also mentions additional books espousing this viewpoint:
- Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit
- The Place of Zen in Christian Life
- Going Home: Jesus and Buddha As Brothers.
On a spiritual level are Jesus and Buddha quite similar? In this article we will look at this question broadly, covering the areas of moral behavior, spirituality, beliefs about the nature of reality and of God, the illusion/reality of sin and evil, and the degree to which variations from their teachings could be acceptable. Were Buddha and Christ quite similar in some of these areas but very different in others?
We will first look at this by comparing conservative Christianity and conservative (Theravada) Buddhism, in large part because these two systems are well-known and reasonably well-defined. Comparisons of liberal Christianity and other branches of Buddhism, covered in an appendix providing answers to frequently asked questions, will be presented in the next digest.
There are many remarkable similarities between the teaching of Buddha and Christ, causing speculation that these two great religious leaders were somehow closely linked. Both espoused altruism, emphasizing that it is more blessed to give than to receive and that love is the best way to overcome hatred. Both taught the Golden Rule, and urged followers not to judge others.
There are also many intriguing parallels. Buddha reformed Hinduism; Jesus reformed Judaism. Each religion spread far more successfully outside their home country (India and Judea). Some branches of Buddhism evolved over centuries to become a highly ceremonial religion, with monks who withdrew from secular life, much like in Catholic monasticism.
Buddha urged people to lose self to gain Nirvana; Jesus exhorted people to lose self to gain eternal life through a personal relationship with him. Buddha emphasized the importance of ceasing existence as an individual to escape suffering; Christ offered the hope of a heaven where there would be no suffering.
Yet, for all of the above similarities, dramatic differences exist that seem insurmountable:
- To Buddha, the existence or non-existence of God was not relevant to true spirituality. He avoided the question. Foremost in Jesus' teaching was that real faith in an omnipotent, omniscient, personal God was essential to receiving salvation.
- Christ asserted his own divinity (i.e., equality with God). Buddha denied such divinity, seeing himself as simply being one of many enlightened ones. Christ asserted his own uniqueness and spiritual supremacy over all people and spiritual beings.
- To Buddha many paths to eliminating the self were beneficial. Jesus claimed the only way to God was through him.
- Buddha introduced a method for attaining enlightenment, by systematic, persistent effort. Jesus offered a personal relationship with himself, through faith in him, apart from works. Buddha claimed the highest goal was the elimination of suffering, while Jesus saw the highest goal as developing a love relationship with God and other people. Buddha asserted that man does not have a soul, while Jesus emphasized that the eternal soul of each person is of great value to a personal God. Buddha assumed reincarnation and many past lives, Christ proclaimed resurrection to eternal life after one life on earth. Buddha saw people as being the products of good and bad karma from their various past lives. Christ taught that each person was created by God to be a special person with a unique purpose and direction in life.
- Jesus taught dualism (i.e., that reality consists of two opposite natures. He believed in the reality of good vs. evil, virtue vs. sin, and heaven vs. hell. Buddha taught that any appearance of dualism is an illusion, and is not part of ultimate reality, which he claimed had only one nature.
- Buddha claimed that all sentient beings (i.e., people and animals) were nearly equal, except that people are capable of attaining enlightenment, whereas animals are not. Jesus emphasized a clear hierarchy among beings: God the Creator, then angels and demons, then people, then animals and plants, and finally, inanimate matter.
- Buddha taught that truth lies within each person, while Jesus claimed that he was the truth. Jesus also believed that, since the Fall in the Garden of Eden, every person has a strongly ingrained lower nature that rebels against God and seeks its own way.
- Buddha taught that all language is inherently inadequate. Jesus emphasized that the Word of God is powerfully relevant to all parts of life.
- Buddha emphasized the disciplines of the mind and heart. Jesus advocated the gentle supremacy of the Spirit of God over each person's mind and heart.
Given all these dramatic differences, sincere efforts to follow both religions simultaneously are not truly feasible. If they are true to their beliefs, however, both Buddhists and Christians should treat one another as the Golden Rule would dictate: as each would prefer to be treated themselves—with mutual respect, empathy and compassion, and a desire to focus on mutual interests.
Answers to the following frequently asked questions will be provided in the next issue of the Digest:
- What elements of Christianity are similar to Buddhism’s Four Noble Truths and The Noble Eightfold Path?
- What are the primary differences between Liberal (Mahayana) and Conservative (Theravada) Buddhists?
- What are the key differences between Liberal and Conservative Christians?
- Can a Liberal Christian also be a Buddhist?
- In what ways is hypocrisy a problem for Buddhists and Christians?
- The type of Christianity described in this comparison is quite different from what I have observed to be, a religion based on rules and guilt. Have I missed something?
- How does Christ Consciousness differ from the Jesus portrayed in the Bible? Is it compatible with Buddhism?
- What does God think about someone being a Buddhist and a Christian at the same time?
Our goals in preparing this comparison of Buddha and Christ are: (1) to maintain a positive tone regarding each religion, whenever possible; (2) to reduce ignorance by fostering understanding; and (3) to encourage tolerance and compassion toward people with beliefs different than our own. Buddhism and Christianity are deep and comprehensive religions, and followers of each could stand to learn much from one another, regardless of whether or not they are trying to somehow merge the two in practice. For example, most Christians could stand to benefit from the example of Buddhists in terms of:
- A more tolerant, respectful attitude toward those with different beliefs.
- A range of proven practices in meditation.
- A deeper respect for the Earth, and
- A commitment to practicing self-denial.
Similarities in Ethics
In the area of ethics, it is quite easy to see many close parallels, because altruism is at the heart of the teachings of both Buddha and Christ.
Sources for the above Buddha quotes are:
A list of general references appears at the end of this article.
We can summarize the above by listing the following areas of close agreement between Buddha and Christ:
- The Golden Rule
- Don't judge others
- Love your enemies
- Overcome hate with love
- More blessed to give than to receive
- Avoid being religious for show
- Avoid dull repetition
Buddhism's Noble Eightfold Path includes a number of elements that are very similar to comparable parts of Christianity:
- Right Speech: Do not lie or bear false witness. Do not use harsh or idle words.
- Right Action: Do not harm anyone or steal from them. Abstain from sexual misconduct. Do not drink enough to become intoxicated.
- Right Livelihood: Only engage in legal and peaceful ways of making a living. Do not be associated with prostitution or selling intoxicants or poisons.
- Right Effort: Devote your mental energy to wholesome goals and activities.
- Right Mindfulness: Try to see things objectively without jumping to conclusions.
- Right Concentration: Be single-minded.
As additional areas of similarity, both denounced the emptiness of secular life, and advocated "a way less traveled," as Marcus J. Borg had noted. There are also many parallels between Buddha and Christ beyond the field of ethics, as summarized in the following chart.
There are many critical areas where the beliefs of conservative Buddhists and conservative Christians are essentially opposite. It is because of these areas that a substantive synergy of these two religions is inherently not possible. In the discussion below, these areas have been broken down into separate topics, including Ethics, Spirituality, The Nature of Reality (Metaphysics), Theology, Sin and Evil, Liberation, Accessibility to All, One Way or Many Paths?, and Views of One Another.
In this analysis, every effort has been made to present each religion in a positive light, consistent with the beliefs of conservative practitioners of that religion. When it comes to the problem of hypocrisy, however, the phenomenon cannot be described in a positive light regarding any religion.
Once a clear picture has been drawn of the beliefs of conservative Christians and Theravada (conservative) Buddhists, ways that liberal Christians differ from Buddhists are discussed.
While there are many ways ethics taught by Buddha and Christ are very similar, there are areas where there are clear differences.
The spiritual emphases of conservative adherents are quite different.
The Nature of Reality (Metaphysics)
The basic views about the nature of reality of conservative practitioners of these two religions appear to be irreconcilable.
Dualism or non-dualism (monism)? Each person's view on this determines where they will look for truth. Dualists look for truth outside of themselves, to a sacred book, or to a specific church, or by direct appeal to a personal God far superior to themselves. Those who are not dualists look for truth within themselves, since they believe they are part of a universal whole.
The life and worship of a dualist is rich and varied. It involves the interaction of a human being with a soul and personality and a personal God who loves them and desires to be positively involved in their life. Often, though, the extent of that interaction is dramatically reduced because God normally interrelates with each person only to the extent that they desire His presence.
If someone who is not a dualist believes in God, that God is impersonal. Hence the degree of richness of religion as an exercise of man relating to God is much greater for the dualist than for the non-dualist, much as life in a world with both men and women is much richer than one in a society consisting only of men or only of women. The apostle Paul referred to the church as the bride of Christ. (Ephesians 5:23-32)
Buddhism has not inspired great works of music, such as Handel's Messiah or Bach's B Minor Mass, or the large body of hymns and songs of worship present within Christianity. Such works are expressions of the interaction of people with personality and a personal God. The chants and meditations of Buddhists are designed to help them to transcend self, and to diminish personal identity.
The basic beliefs of conservative Christians and Buddhists regarding the existence and nature of God are fundamentally at odds.
Sin and Evil
The central beliefs of conservative practitioners of each religion about the existence and nature of sin and evil are radically different.
Though there are many parallels in their views of the need for liberation and the way(s) to achieve it, in each aspect of this there are substantial differences as well.
Accessibility to Liberation
One Way or Many Paths?
The degree to which variations from orthodox teachings could be acceptable is strikingly different.
For many people, the notion that there is only one valid way to God is upsetting. It seems strikingly narrow, so it should be rejected on that basis alone. On the other hand, the majority of human beings believe that there is only one true God—since this belief is common to Jews, Christians and Muslims. If there is only one true God, it would hardly be unnatural for God to provide just one way to know Him. After all, there is only one version of the laws of physics, and they apply without variation throughout the entire universe. So the real problem is people believing that their religion provides the one true way, while also having an attitude of judging people following other religions. If Christianity brings people into relationship with the one true God, then it should make Christians very humble and compassionate toward people with different beliefs. Many Christians are like that, yet they are not the ones that are highlighted in the media and press. Instead, people who dislike Christianity and its "one way" claim often take the opportunity to portray Christians as hypocrites, rather than drawing attention to a Mother Teresa or common, humble Christians.
How could the humble Jesus be so arrogant as to claim to be the only way to God? This is a very troubling saying, unless Jesus was God himself and he was just stating the truth succinctly. According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus claimed to be God many times, precluding the option that he was just a great teacher or prophet. Instead, we are left with two choices: he was either who he said he was, or he was insane. And so, each person is confronted with deciding which of these is true, unless one takes the view that early Christians were conspiring to put words inaccurately into the mouth of Jesus as they were finalizing the New Testament. If that were what had occurred, however, it is very unlikely that such conspirators would have died defending their faith in the divinity of Christ, when they could have been spared from death by renouncing him.
Views of One Another
How do Buddhists typically view Christians and vice versa?
While both religions teach love and compassion for those with different beliefs, this can be difficult to achieve, given the substantial differences between Buddhism and Christianity.
Who Was Jesus?
Jesus as Buddhists view him is dramatically different than the Jesus that Christians believe in.
Summary of Key Differences
In summary, the areas of greatest substantive contrast between conservative Buddhists and Christians are:
If all that is important is ethics, where both religions emphasize altruism, then one can simultaneously be both a Buddhist and a Christian. However, each of the above differences can be sources of considerable tension and likely disagreement, making reconciliation quite problematic.
In addition to the sources listed below the Similarities in Ethics table, the following general sources were drawn upon heavily in preparing this analysis:
Borg, Marcus J., ed., et al. 1997. Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings. Berkeley: Ulysses Press.
Chambers, Oswald. 1992. My Utmost for His Highest. Grand Rapids, MI: Discovery House Pub. October 5 reading.
Christ versus Buddha. This Rock. Vol. 16, Num. 5, May-June 2005.
Hanh, Thich Nhat. 1997. Living Buddha, Living Christ. New York: Riverhead Books.
Olsen, Carl E., and Anthony E. Clark. 2005. Are Jesus and Buddha Brothers? If so, there’s a serious family feud. This Rock. Vol. 16, Num. 5, May-June 2005.
Smith, Huston. 1958. The Religions of Man. New York: Harper & Row
Valea, Ernest. Are all religions heading toward the same goal? ComparativeReligion.com
Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NKJV) are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright ©1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Scripture quotations marked (NASB) taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org)
Wikipedia articles on the topics of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, Theravada, Mahayana, Nirvana, Enlightenment and Meditation.
Finally, all commentary about Buddhism was reviewed by a Buddhist lama (who shall remain anonymous) for its fairness and accuracy.
Frequently Asked Questions (Buddhism and Christianity)
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