Monday, 29 September 2008

Buddha on the Cross and Jesus under the Bodhi Tree

I was raised in a strict Catholic household and embodied with a strong sense of Christian tradition and culture. When I was about 8 years old, I remember this new student that came to our class, public school obviously, who was the son of some immigrants from Nepal. I made fast friends with the boy and before long we were talking and playing every day. I asked him which church he went to, to which he replied, none as he was Buddhist. He explained a little bit about this character Buddha to me and I just reckoned Buddha was a friend of Jesus.

Being 8 years old, I was prone to saying things in certain situations that were not, shall we say appropriate. One Sunday, after Mass, Father Cosby was greeting the congregation as they walked passed the doors to the parking lot. I tugged on Fathers gown and without hesitation I asked "Was Buddha there when Jesus was killed Father?" The smile on his face melted like an ice cube in an oven, his face turned blood red, and I swear I could feel his coal black eye's behind his coke bottle glasses eating a hole through my skull. I was ushered out the door quickly by my mother, and I never did get an answer from Father Cosby.

I spent the rest of the day relegated to my room and I sure was angry at this Buddha fellow.

Dr. Marcus Borg is a fairly controversial figure in the Christian community, considered a fairly liberal voice in the progressive Christian movement. Dr. Borg has made many comparisons between Christ and the Buddha and has attempted to show them as living traditions and bridge the gap between the two cultures.

Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings uncovers the shared wisdom of two of the greatest spiritual teachers of all time by placing quotations from their teachings side by side to illuminate their similarities. Let's start by talking about the historical parallels between the lives of Jesus and Buddha.

One of the big similarities is that both Jesus and Buddha, around age 30, have a dramatic religious experience that transforms them and launches them into their public lives as teachers and ultimately founders of religious traditions -- even though I do not see either one of them as seeking to found a religious tradition. For the Buddha, [this transformation] comes in the form of an enlightenment experience under the Bodhi Tree which is clearly a mystical experience of some kind. And for Jesus, it is his relationship with John the Baptizer who, according to authors of the New Testament, seems to have functioned essentially as the spiritual mentor of Jesus. Jesus undergoes what William James might have referred to as a "conversion experience" at age 30 -- not conversion from Judaism to something else -- but a conversion within a tradition where religious energies become the very center of your life. According to the Gospels, Jesus has a vision at his baptism which is a paranormal experience certainly and then goes on this wilderness quest which is a classic example of a vision quest or quest for enlightenment. Both Jesus and Buddha have transforming spiritual experiences that they each sought after. And ofcourse, the other huge parallel is that both Jesus and Buddha become teachers of an enlightenment wisdom.

The whole Article can be found here.

He isn't the only one to try and draw the traditions of the two spiritual men closer together. The famous Vietnamese Buddhist monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, in his book 'Living Buddha, Living Christ' attempts to persuade the two communities to come to some common spiritual ground. Hanh describes how the two religions are more alike than most think when pushed down to the core foundations of both.

To me, religious life is life. I do not seee any reason to spend one's whole life tasting just one kind of fruit. We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions. (pg.2)

It is good that an orange is an orange and a mango is a mango. The colors, the smells, and the tastes are different, but looking deeply, we see that they are both authentic fruits. Looking more deeply, we can see the sunshine, the rain, the minerals, and the earth in both of them...If religions are authentic, they contain the same elements of stability, joy, peace, understanding, and love. The similarities as well as the differences are there. They differ only in terms of emphasis. Glucoise and acid are in all fruits, but their degrees differ. We cannot say that one is a real fruit and the other is not.(pg.111)

Jesus told us to love our enemy. ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.’ This teaching helps us know how to look at the person we consider to be the cause of our suffering. If we practice looking deeply into his situation and the causes of how he came to be the way he is now, and if we visualize ourselves as being born in his condition, we may see that we could have become exactly like him. (pg. 83)

People kill and are killed because they cling too tightly to their own beliefs and ideologies. When we believe that ours is the only faith that contains the truth, violence and suffering will surely be the result.

THICH NHAT HANH, Living Buddha, Living Christ

I think, in our Western Buddhist tradition, it is important to cultivate these bridges between not only Christianity but all other religions that find at their core peace, understanding and the pursuit of truth. However, I think it is just as important that we as Buddhists do not let the fundamentals of our practice to become too diluted or distracted from our core teachings. The key is not conversion to either, but an understanding and respect for both.

I know this topic is not only controversial, but has been touched on by many others on both sides of the discussion. How do you see the modern Buddhist community reaching across the street into other religious communities?


  1. This is an interesting topic Kyle. I grew up as an atheist myself and technically I still am, but I've always been fascinated by religion and comparative religious experiences. I've written several posts about this on my personal blog a while back. I think I'll repost these here.

  2. Greetings, my fellow Buddhists.

    I have recently set up a blog to discuss Progressive Pure Land Buddhism. Please feel free to check it out! :)

    Namo Amitabha Buddha

  3. I lived almost fourteen years of my life as a fundamentalist Christian before I matured enough that I could no longer accept something on 'blind faith' alone. I went the other way and took a strong atheist stance (which I still do, but I am not so militant about it). Buddhism had interested me for a long time, but for some reason I never looked too deeply into it.

    This is a challenging post for me because I admit that I harbor some very strong feelings against Christianity. I do think that all people should strive to find common ground even in their religious beliefs and as Buddhists we should strive towards the bodhisattva ideals to end suffering. I have to admit that Buddha and Jesus (getting past whether they themselves really said it) do share some common teachings.

    My great-uncle, a Pentecostal preacher, gave me some words of wisdom when I was a young teenager. He said that with anything you read you have to learn to pick out the bones from the meat. Christianity does have a lot of 'bones' to spit out, but it also has a lot of good meat as well. I don't think that this means I need to be a Christian (sorry Dalai Lama) again.

    However, playing Mara's advocate, couldn't the same thing be said of Nazism? Were there any 'noble' things taught in Nazism that could be bridged? (for the record, I don't think so) So, how far should we go in this?

  4. Cpd, these are very good points. I'm not sure to what extent we can take these incorporated teachings.

    Personally, I think we must abide by our ultimate teacher, our experience. Even the Buddha made it quite clear that our path must be one not of faith but of investigation and understanding of our own accord.

    However, I think to maybe interest those out there who have a perhaps, passing interest in Buddhism, it is ok to be a little more abstract and incorporating.

    Like the old Zen saying, we need to just polish the tile.

  5. Dr Prabhat Tandon5 October 2008 at 08:52

    To me, religious life is life. I do not seee any reason to spend one's whole life tasting just one kind of fruit. We human beings can be nourished by the best values of many traditions.
    What a great thought ! Certainly this should be the essence of life. To me Buddhism is the way to lead the life , to understand the meaning of religion in relation to the modern science. I was born in a Hindu family but I am proud to say that my parents never imposed any kind of restrictions towards learning the best of other religions. As a atheist I feel Buddhism bridges the gap between atheism & religion .