Saturday, January 24, 2015

Jesus and Buddha

The word "Buddha" means "Enlightened One." Like "Christ," it is not a name, but a title. For centuries, scholars have wondered whether early Christians knew about or perhaps even incorporated Buddhist concepts in their writings about Jesus. As a missionary religion, Buddhism had been expanding westward for several centuries by the time of Jesus. The trade route known as the Silk Road connected Palestine, India, and China and a number of cities along the route had Buddhist populations in the first century. And the parallels between the lives and teachings of Jesus and the Buddha are striking, as the late Marcus J. Borg pointed out. According to The Dalai Lama, Jesus was “either a fully enlightened being or a bodhisattva of a very high spiritual realization.” 

Jesus and the Buddha both taught nonviolence and compassion. Both seem to have had life-changing experiences. Both initiated renewal movements within their traditions. Both were exalted to divine status in the traditions that grew up around them. Both were teachers of wisdom. Both underwent "testing" prior to their public ministries. Both made enemies by their rejection of priestly authority. Both founded orders of disciples. And both taught non-attachment to the things of this world.

Jesus and Buddha both seem to have taken up the lifestyle of a traveling spiritual master, an ancient tradition in India. The wandering, ascetic holy man travels from village to village teaching and giving advice. He has few possessions and depends on the voluntary contributions of the villagers for his food. Some wandering holy men gathered disciples who looked to them for spiritual instruction. What are we to make of these similarities? 

Jesus was not a "Buddhist." There are significant differences between Judaism, Christianity, and Buddhism - whether it is Judeo-Christian monotheism vs. Buddhist non-theism, the exclusivity of Christian atonement theology vs. the peaceful death of the Buddha, or the doctrines of grace vs. karmaIt is a futile task to try and draw literary relationships between Buddhist teachings and the Gospels. But both were born into religious traditions characterized by an adherence to sacred scriptures, a sacrificial system, a priesthood that controlled religious authority, and a stratified social caste-system. 

In Jesus' case, his support for the marginalized and outcast challenged the social structures of traditional Jewish life, alarmed the priesthood, and seems to have ultimately cost him his life - making him an altogether very different kind of Bodhisattva in his brutal death on the cross. Jesus and the Buddha share striking similarities at the level of their teachings and practices, but their followers took their traditions in very different directions: Buddhists focused on the teachings of their Master while (most) Christians focused on their personal salvation via the death and resurrection of their Savior.

In Memoriam: Marcus J. Borg (March 11, 1942 - January 21, 2015)