Jesus and Buddha: spiritual friends?
One third of the world’s population is Christian, which makes it an important force to be understood, albeit somewhat superficially in the limited context of this article. The basic belief in Christianity is, of course, centered on the Person of Jesus Christ. As part of the Holy Trinity, He is considered God by Christians, along the Father and the rather ethereal Holy Spirit, or Ghost. As humans, we have veered from the will of God, and therefore are full of sins that propel us towards eternal damnation in Hell. Unless we turn to Jesus, that is, and to use a Buddhist term, take refuge in Him.
As God the Son, Jesus can forgive us our sins and raise us to a state of redemption that saves us from eternal punishment after death. Instead, those that He saves will be resurrected on the Day of Judgment - just has He was three days after being crucified - and either elevated to Heaven to live with God forever as one of the Elect, or live for Eternity on a perfected New Earth that God will construct for the purpose. Moreover, all this is made possible by the Passion of Christ on the cross, when he sacrificed His own (mortal) life for the sake of sinners, taking on their sin and purifying them in preparation for their salvation. As can be seen from this, the role of Jesus as Savior is central to the Christian religion, and therefore it is worth spending time on Jesus if we wish to understand Christianity a little better.
Jesus says, “I am the Truth, the Way, and the Life.” (John 14.6) By this, He emphasizes that it is only through Him that humans can be saved from their sins. By Truth, is meant the Truth of God, by Way is meant the way to God, and by Life is meant eternal existence in the afterlife. Reflecting on this from the Buddhist perspective, there are clear doctrinal differences between Christianity and Buddhism, such as the centrality of the Holy Trinity (God, that is) which goes against the Buddhist understanding of gods as either impermanent heavenly beings, or as psychological archetypes. Looking beyond literal and dogmatic interpretations of these basic Christian beliefs, can we find areas of convergence between the persons of the Buddha and Jesus Christ?
Jesus was born of a virgin, Mary, impregnated by the Holy Spirit, and the Buddha is said to have walked and talked immediately upon birth, both miraculous events preceded in dreams had by the mothers of both, predicting the extraordinary nature of their offspring. The life and teachings of Jesus are looked upon as a template for all Christians to take inspiration from. Similarly, the Buddha’s life and teachings are also used by Buddhists as objects of reflection and inspiration. Both men were peaceful in their dealings with others, and yet delivered uncompromising messages that challenged their listeners to go beyond their usual limitations and reach higher states of consciousness. In the case of the Buddha, this exalted state of mind was called enlightenment (bodhi) and indicated a penetration of the mysteries of existence, as well as the happiness of liberation from suffering. For those following Jesus, it is salvation that is the ultimate aim of this life, as indicated above. Salvation and enlightenment are worth spending a little more time on here, as they are so important to Christians and Buddhists respectively.
Jesus is savior whereas the Buddha is doctor. By doctor, we point to the Buddha’s role in pointing out the illness (suffering or dukkha), the cause (desire or tanha), the cure (nirodha or the end of desire and suffering), and the treatment (the Path or magga). This role of (enlightening) physician is arguably the main one of the historical Buddha, but there are other Buddhas with different attributes. The main one that comes to mind when reflecting on the role of savior is that of Amitabha Buddha. Followers of this Buddha are essentially devotees rather than students, as with the historical Buddha, and therefore have religious life based on faith and salvation rather than study and enlightenment. Not that the followers of Amitabha are said to not achieve enlightenment, but that this is usually realized after being reborn in Amitabha’s heaven, rather like many Christians who believe they will be resurrected after death into Heaven.
Returning to this idea of sin as being central to Christian theology, it is worthwhile considering this doctrine in relation to the Buddhist experience. In Genesis, the first book of the Bible, God creates the first two humans in the form one man and one woman, called Adam and Eve respectively. They lived in a kind of primeval paradise until their innocent enjoyment of life was ruined when they bit from an apple from the forbidden Tree of Knowledge. This was the Original Sin that was the cause for all subsequent sinfulness and suffering. The nearest thing to sin that we find in Buddhism is avijja, or ignorance, which lies at the heart of the unenlightened state that most beings find themselves in. And, just as salvation is the answer to the problem of sin, so enlightenment is the answer to the problem of ignorance for Buddhists.
Morality plays an important part in the Buddhist life just as does in the Christian one, something that is often glossed over by some modern Buddhists who wish their own libertine tendencies unhindered by challenging teachings such as the Five Precepts (which are not to kill, not to steal, not to commit sexual misconduct, not to lie, and not to take intoxicants). Just as the Ten Commandments influence Christians to behave in certain virtuous ways, so too Buddhists are encouraged to live a good life as an integral part of the Path to enlightenment. Being evil and believing in Jesus Christ are contradictory in their very nature, for Christianity teaches that to really believe in the Son of God and then receive His grace via the Holy Spirit is to live a new life, exemplified in the words of Paul: “I am crucified with Christ; the life I now live is not my life, but the life which Christ lives through me.” As with Buddhists being saved by Amitabha, Christians saved by Jesus are not free to do whatever they want, despite some occasionally hedonistic and unorthodox interpretations to the contrary within both traditions.
There is a fundamental difference between this life in which “Christ lives through me” and the Buddhist experience of enlightenment, which is, in essence, the perspective of the Buddha. Whilst the devout Christian remains essentially separate to Christ, no matter how devoted she or he may be, the awakened Buddhist is in complete union with the Buddha, for the realization of the two is identical: emptiness lies at the heart of all, and to live from the direct experience of this inner void is to be the very embodiment of bodhi (enlightenment). For the Christian, God remains God and devotee remains devotee, for neither is commonly perceived to be empty at heart. (For some Christian mystics such as Meister Eckhart, this is not necessarily the case, but they form a tiny minority of Christendom both historically and in the modern world, and have often been considered heretics. See a glimpse of their view of God and its relationship to the Buddha’s perspective below.)
Paul never claimed to be Christ; instead, he wrote that he had surrendered to the will of God in the form of Christ. All that he subsequently did in the name of God was done under the influence of his Savior, but not as that divine Person. When I gaze back and see the emptiness that is my True Nature, I am witnessing the very same empty clarity that the Buddha did, and am therefore identified with the awakened one. This is because there isn’t more than one emptiness; my emptiness is yours, and yours is the Buddha’s. In Christianity, however, the essence of Christ, God that is, is conceived as a particular being different and therefore separate to the Christian’s individual essence (the ‘soul’). From this perspective, there can be no complete union between God and man (or woman, for that matter). This is a crucial difference between the Christian ideal of the devout Christian and the Buddhist ideal of the enlightened one.
Going back to the subject of Christian mysticism and the Buddha, there are similarities to be found here, and such mystics as St. John of the Cross, Julian of Norwich and Meister Eckhart. Possibly with the notable exception of the latter, even such luminaries as these still retain the taste of dualism, with a subtle divide between God and devotee. Meister Eckhart is an interesting expression of Christian mysticism, however, when he says, “The eye by which I see God is the same eye by which God sees me.” For, while it may appear that separation remains with his reference to God and I, the two can be viewed as the Eckhartian equivalents of the Buddhist understanding of emptiness and form, but dressed in theistic language. And, as previously mentioned in the article Linji's True Eye, Eckhart describes the Godhead as ‘pure nothingness’ (ein bloss niht). Eckhart was forced by the Roman Catholic Church to recant some of his more unorthodox statements, revealing the gap between the viewpoint of the Buddha, based on enlightenment, and the mainstream Christian conception of God.
Christianity and the Buddha have much that divides them; the former’s dogmas involving the Trinity in contrast to the latter’s view of gods as impermanent beings; the Christian ultimate objective of eternal individual existence and the Buddhist goal of enlightenment; and, the ultimate separation of God and soul, as opposed with the Buddha’s vision of the interdependence and unity of existence. As for those aspects of Christianity that parallel the Buddha’s teachings, we can look at the centrality of the life and person of Jesus Christ and those of the Buddha; the importance of morality in both the Christian tradition and the precepts taught by the Buddha; and, finally, the emphasis put upon compassion and kindness by both Jesus and the Buddha. With the latter in mind, both Christians and Buddhists can endeavor to work together to make this world a better place to live. May all beings be happy!