The Buddha and Jesus: Teachers Above Forms

When we come to compare the Buddha and Christ we are struck by many resemblances of thought but also by great differences of circumstances and career. Both were truly spiritual teachers who rose above forms and codes: both accepted the current ideals of their time and strove to become the one a Buddha, the other Messiah. But at the age when Christ was executed Siddharta Gautama was still in quest of truth and still on the wrong track. He lived nearly fifty years longer and had ample opportunity of putting his ideas into practice.

Different Paths

So far as our meagre traditions allow us to trace the development of the two, the differences are even more fundamental. Peaceful as was the latter part of the Buddha's life, the beginning was a period of struggle and disillusion.

He broke away from worldly life to wear out his body with the severest mortification; that again he found to be vanity and only then did he attain to enlightenment. And though he offers salvation to all without distinction, he repeatedly says that it is difficult: with hard wrestling has he won the truth and it is hard for ordinary men to understand.

Troubled as was the life of Christ, it contains no struggle of this sort. As a youth he grew up in a poor family where the disenchantment of satiety was unknown: his genius first found expression in sermons delivered in the synagogue—the ordinary routine of Jewish ritual. The temptation, though it offers analogies to Gautama’s mental struggle and particularly to the legends about Mara, was not an internal revolution in which old beliefs were seen to be false and new knowledge arose from their ashes.

So far as we know, his inner life was continuous and undisturbed, and its final expression is emotional rather than intellectual. He gives no explanations and leaves no feeling that they are necessary. He is free in his use of metaphor and chary of definition. The teaching of the Buddha on the other hand is essentially intellectual. The nature and tastes of his audience were a sufficient justification for his style, but it indicates a temper far removed from the unquestioning and childlike faith of Christ.

Relationship with the World

Sick people naturally turned to Jesus: they were brought to him when he arrived in a town. Though the Buddha was occasionally kind to the sick, no such picture is drawn of the company about him and persons afflicted with certain diseases could not enter the order.

Christ teaches that the world is evil or, perhaps we should say, spoiled, but wishes to remove the evil and found the Kingdom of Heaven: the Buddha teaches that birth, sickness and death are necessary conditions of existence and that disease, which like everything else has its origin in Karma, can be destroyed only when the cause is destroyed.

The Buddha accepted invitations but he did not so much join in the life of the family which he visited as convert the entertainment offered to him into an edifying religious service. Yet in propaganda and controversy he was gracious and humane beyond the measure of all other teachers. He did not call the priests of his time a generation of vipers, though he laughed at their ceremonies and their pretensions to superior birth.

Though the Buddha passed through intellectual crises such as the biographies of Christ do not hint at, yet in other matters it is he rather than Christ who offers a picture and example of peace.

Christ enjoyed with a little band of friends an intimacy which the Hindu gave to none, but from the very commencement of his mission he is at enmity with what he calls the world. The world is evil and a great event is coming of double import, for it will bring disaster on the wicked as well as happiness for the good. "Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." He is angry with the world because it will not hear him. He declares that it hates him and the gospel according to St John even makes him say, "I pray not for the world, but for them which thou hast given me”.

The little towns of Galilee are worse in his eyes than the wicked cities of antiquity because they are not impressed by his miracles and Jerusalem which has slighted all the prophets and finally himself is to receive signal punishment. The shadow of impending death fell over the last period of his ministry and he felt that he was to be offered as a sacrifice. The Jews even seem to have thought at one time that he was unreasonably alarmed.

But the Buddha was not angry with the world. He thought of it as unsatisfactory and transitory rather than wicked, as ignorant rather than rebellious. He troubled little about people who would not listen. The calm and confidence which so many narratives attribute to him rarely failed to meet with the respect which they anticipated.

In his life there is no idea of sacrifice, no element of the tragic, no nervous irritability. In his previous existences, when preparing for Buddhahood, he had frequently given his life for others, not because it was any particular good to them but in order to perfect his character for his own great career and bring about the selflessness which is essential to a Buddha. When once he had attained enlightenment any idea of sacrifice, such as the shepherd laying down his life for the sheep, had no meaning.

Gautama instituted a religious order and lived long enough to see it grow out of infancy, but its organization was gradual and for a year or two it was simply a band of disciples not more bound by rules than the seventy whom Christ sent forth to preach.

Jesus’ maxims are the perfect expression of courtesy and good feeling with an occasional spice of paradox, such as the command to love one's enemies, yet the experience of nearly twenty centuries has shown that this morality is not for the citizens of the world.

The churches which give themselves his name preach with rare exceptions that soldiering, financing and the business of government—things about which he cared as little as do the birds and the lilies of the field—are the proper concern of Christian men and one wonders whether he would not, had his life been prolonged, have seen that many of his precepts, such as turning the other cheek and not resisting evil, are incompatible with ordinary institutions and have followed the example of the great Indian by founding a society in which they could be kept.

The Goals of the Teachers

There are many resemblances between the Gospels and the teaching of the Buddha but the bases of the two doctrines are different and, if the results are sometimes similar, this shows that the same destination can be reached by more than one road. It is perhaps the privilege of genius to see the goal by intuition: the road and the vehicle are subsidiary and may be varied to suit the minds of different nations.

Christ, being a Jew, took for his basis a refined form of the old Jewish theism. He purged Jehovah of his jealousy and prejudices and made him a spirit of pure benevolence who behaves to men as a loving father and bids them behave to one another as loving brethren.

Such ideas lie outside the sphere of Gautama's thought and he would probably have asked why on this hypothesis there is any evil in the world. That is a question which the Gospels are chary of discussing but they seem to indicate that the disobedience and sinfulness of mankind are the root of evil.

A godly world would be a happy world. But the Buddha would have said that though the world would be very much happier if all its inhabitants were moral and religious, yet the evils inherent in individual existence would still remain; it would still be impermanent and unsatisfactory.

Yet the Buddha and Christ are alike in points which are of considerable human interest, though they are not those emphasized by the Churches. Neither appears to have had much taste for theology or metaphysics. Christ ignored them: the Buddha said categorically that such speculations are vain.

Indeed it is probably a general law in religions that the theological phase does not begin until the second generation, when the successors of the founder try to interpret and harmonize his words. He himself sees clearly and says plainly what mankind ought to do.

Neither the Buddha, nor Christ, nor Mohammed cared for much beyond this, and such of their sayings as have reference to the whence, the whither and the why of the universe are obscure precisely because these questions do not fall within the field of religious genius and receive no illumination from its light.

Argumentative as the Buddhist suttas are, their aim is strictly practical, even when their language appears scholastic, and the burden of all their ratiocination is the same and very simple. Men are unhappy because of their foolish desires: to become happy they must make themselves a new heart and will and, perhaps the Buddha would have added, new eyes.

Neither the Buddha nor Christ thought it worth while to write anything and both of them ignored ceremonial and sacerdotal codes in a way which must have astounded their contemporaries. The law-books and sacrifices to which Brahmans and Pharisees devoted time and study are simply left on one side. The former are replaced by injunctions to cultivate a good habit of mind, such as is exemplified in the Eightfold Path and the Beatitudes, the latter by some observances of extreme simplicity, such as the Lord's Prayer.

In both cases subsequent generations felt that the provision made by the Founders was inadequate and the Buddhist and Christian Churches have multiplied ceremonies which, though not altogether unedifying, would certainly have astonished the Buddha and Christ.

For Christ the greatest commandments were that a man should love God and his neighbours. This summary is not in the manner of Gautama and though love has an important place in his teaching, it is rather an inseparable adjunct of a holy life than the force which creates and animates it. In other words the Buddha teaches that a saint must love his fellow men rather than that he who loves his fellow men is a saint.

The Christian nations of Europe are more inclined to action than the Buddhist nations of Asia, yet the Beatitudes do not indicate that the strenuous life is the road to happiness. Those declared blessed are the poor, the mourners, the meek, the hungry, the pure and the persecuted. Such men have just the virtues of the patient monk.

Christ's phrase about rendering unto Cesar the things that are Cesar's seems to dissociate his true followers (like the monks) from political life. Money and taxes are the affair of those who put their heads on coins; God and the things which concern him have quite another sphere.

Copyright © Buddhism Through Buddhist Eyes
Question or Comment? Do not doubt to contact me.
Template by bloggertheme