Jesus and Buddha
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, January 12, 2003
“While helicopter gunships flew overhead and the war raged around us,” Borg wrote, “Buddha and Jesus stood there like brothers, expressing compassion and healing for all that would follow in their way.”
Such is, indeed, what might happen if Jesus met Buddha along the road…
Of course, they never did meet, these two ancient religious giants, these two great teachers, these great men of peace. Siddhartha Gautama, known as the Buddha, lived about five hundred years before Jesus of Nazareth. One was born in northern India; the other in Palestine in the Middle East. They emerged out of very different times and places, entirely different cultures and civilizations.
Yet, there are striking similarities—parallels—in their life stories—and in the myths that grew out of their historical lives. Even more striking, it seems to me, are the similarities of many of the ideals they taught—and even the way these ideals came to be expressed down through the ages.
These parallels are so amazing that scholars began comparing them over 100 years ago, long before the study of comparative religions was anywhere as extensive as it is today. There are even popular claims that, prior to his public ministry as chronicled in the gospels—during those fifteen or sixteen years where the gospel narrative says nothing about Jesus’s life—those years, roughly, between his argument with the elders in the Temple [at age 12] and his emergence as a rabbi in ancient Judea [somewhere in his late 20s, perhaps]—Jesus may have traveled to India (say some), or he may have, at least, studied Buddhism (say others), or he almost certainly hooked up with the Buddhist community that did, indeed, exist in Alexandria in Egypt two-thousand years ago (these claims seem the most plausible, though they, too, are still highly speculative).
While such speculation is fascinating, we’ll never really know the answer, unless someone unearths an exciting new document like Jesus’s credit card receipts from his trips to Alexandria, or his trip-tik for the route to India. All of which is rather doubtful, to say the least.
Besides that, too, whether or not it happened, it seems to me that it would be beside the point. What is even more fascinating, I think, is not whether Jesus had heard about the Buddha or had spoken with Buddhists—but rather, how strikingly different religious traditions—different teachers—different culture—different ages, really—could teach religious truths so astoundingly similar. For that’s the fact (and that is a fact) which gives me faith in the ultimate unity and universality that lies at the heart of the world’s religion. It demonstrates to me, once again, that God (to whom we bring so many names) speaks words of love and truth and faith and hope to humanity through many different prophetic voices.
We may be children of the Christian tradition, but there are so many marvelous religious ancestors from whom we can learn! As my colleague, Rev. George Kimmich Beach, has written:
We in this church are called to be connectors, it seems to me-- like the Cococunt Monk and his smiling Jesus and smiling Buddha on that hill in Vietnam.
Certainly, the words and lives of these two great teachers make it easy for us to find connections—unities and universalities—amidst different religious traditions. Let’s look at some of the similarities in these two great religious myths:
The birth narrative of the largest Buddhist tradition, the Mahayana, presents the Indian prince, Siddhartha Gautama, as a god who spent great deal of time in the heavens before coming to Earth. Compare that to the prologue of the Gospel of John, where Jesus (as Logos, the Word) was with God (his Father) before the beginning of all things.
Both Gautama and Jesus took human form as a result of divine intervention and virgin birth. Both human fathers, King Shuddodhana and Joseph, the carpenter were old men, well past middle age, and both learn of the coming of the child through divine revelation. We are told in Buddhist tradition that a “great and wondrous light” shone over the world at Gautama’s conception and birth. Likewise, the shepherds at the manger in Bethlehem are blinded by the light at the sight of the newborn Jesus, and don’t forget the brilliant star that accompanies the Three Wise Men.
Other amazing parallels follow the miraculous child through infancy:
Shortly after the birth of the Buddha, many wise men came and pronounced that the child would be a great leader, but one—Asita Kaladevala—looked upon the child and wept a long stream of tears. “What terrible thing have you seen?” asked the Buddha’s father anxiously. “No,” Asita answered, “I see no misfortune at all. I weep for myself, for I see that this child will…. penetrate the mysteries of the universe. And I will not live to hear his voice proclaim these truths.”
Soon after Jesus was born, Joseph and Mary take him to the Temple to be blessed, and a very old rabbi, Simeon, takes the baby into his hands and he proclaims to God: “My eyes have seen your salvation, a light for revelation, and a glory to your people, Israel!”
But these miraculous births both alarm a powerful enemy: Herod plots against Jesus; King Bimbarasa threatens to have Gautama killed.
A number of years later, both boys become separated from their parents during trips to large cities, and both are found discussing religious matters in temples.
Both Jesus and Buddha begin their ministries around the age of 30, with dramatic breaks from their families and communities. Both go off into the wilderness for a time of self-denial and fasting, during which both are tempted by the devil to abandon the spiritual path for a life of world indulgence.
Both Jesus and Buddha choose the life of an itinerant preacher, living off the hospitality of the villagers they encounter. Both associate with the lowly and marginalized of their societies, sometimes even with those considered “disreputable” or “immoral”. Both advocated living a simple life, a “middle way” away from the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. For this, both were attacked by the religious elites of their day as gluttons and hypocrites.
Both Jesus and Buddha perform miracles: they both feed a large crowd of people with a small amount of food (Buddha feeds 500; Jesus feeds 5000). They both walk on water; they both calm a raging tempest; they both return sight to a blind man, and heal the sick, and cause the lame to walk; they both appear to their followers, but are not recognized. Both ask for a drink of water from a ritually unclean woman, and both forgive the sins of a thief. Both employed metaphors, parables, and taught in ways that sometimes left the people around them scratching their heads, and asking, “Now, what exactly did he mean by that?” Both, seemingly, were fond of images of the “Way” or the “Path”, as well as of “Sight” and “Light”. Both told a story about a rich man with a prodigal son.
Both attracted a lot of attention and gather large crowds of “the curious” around them; but both travel, in the main, in the company of a small, closely-knit group of disciples. Each preached a memorable sermon on a hillside. Each had a disciple who plotted his master’s demise. Each instructed their followers to forgive the people who caused their deaths. The deaths of both the Buddha and Jesus were, in their respective traditions at least, followed by earthquakes. Neither had intended to found a new religion—but a new religion was founded in each of their names, and both were widely venerated as gods by their later followers.
That’s enough about their life stories. What of theirs teachings? Once again, more parallels abound!
“Whoever counters the malicious with malice can never be pure,” the Buddha taught. “Surmount hatred by not hating, surmount evil with good, surmount greed through generosity, surmount lies with truth, speak what is true, do not succumb to anger, give when you are asked.”
Now, listen to the words of Jesus in the gospels:
Or, more simply put—
Jesus said: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
To which the words of the Buddha echo: “Do not do to others what is unpleasant to yourself.”
And the Buddha said:
The Buddha said:
Of what’s really important in life, the Buddha said:
And Jesus said:
Both teachers are clear: Do not cling to the wealth of this material world; cherish those invisible, immutable treasures which give real value to life. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God,” Jesus taught. Likewise, the Buddha said: “Riches make people greedy, and so are like caravans on the road to hell.”
We are called to care for one another.
The Buddha said: “Just as a mother would protect her only child… so even cultivate a boundless heart toward all beings. Let your thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world.”
“This is my commandment,” Jesus taught, “that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
If somehow, the historical Jesus and the historical Buddha could meet each other along the road, and stand side by side like the Coconut Monk’s two fifty-foot statues, they would certainly have a lot to talk about. And they, too, would be amazed at the similarities in their stories. Like dear friends—soul mates—kindred spirits—they would embrace and smile and shake their heads in amazement at the wonders that usher forth from the Hand of the Spirit.
Thich Nhat Hanh, the deeply spiritual Vietnamese Buddhist monk exiled to the West in the 1960s, came to a keen appreciation of Christianity through his work with great souls like Martin Luther King and Daniel Berrigan and Thomas Merton. Eventually, he added a statue of Jesus to his personal altar; it stands there now, right on the side of his treasured Buddha. “Every time I light incense,” Thich Nhat Hanh writes, “I touch both of them as my spiritual ancestors.” And even more incisively, he says:
Even more important than asking what the Buddha and Jesus would say to one another were they to meet along the road is to ask how we will meet and greet the living buddhas—the living christs—we see each and every hour of our lives.
May we greet our brothers and sisters along the road of life as the christs and buddhas we truly are, and truly can become.
Namaste. Blessed be. Amen.