Rembrandt - Christ with Hands Folded (Public Domain), and Nivedita, Sister - the Departure of Siddhartha

The Christ And The Buddha: How Can You Explain the Uncanny Similarities?

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Buddhism soon split into two different factions.  The oldest, Theravada, venerated the living Buddha with statues traditionally cast in one of three different positions.  The well-known lotus, or seated position, represents the founder in his enlightenment, the position of meditation.  The standing position represents Buddha the teacher.  The reclining position pictures Buddha entering Nirvana. 

Buddha statue in the well-known lotus position.

Buddha statue in the well-known lotus position. ( Public Domain )

This tradition parallels that of the traditional Catholic Church, which traces its ancestry back to the founder, Jesus.  He, too, is often pictured in three traditional postures: 

Sometimes he is praying, either alone in the desert or off in the mountains.  Sometimes artistic renderings portray him teaching the multitudes.  Other renditions show him ascending into heaven. 

Both Theravada and the Catholic church thus place a great deal of artistic emphasis on their founder's private spiritual lives, public teaching and eventual journey into Nirvana or Heaven.

Both Belief Systems Broke Apart

But just as the Protestant Reformers broke away from the Catholic church, forming denominations that differed from one another in matters of tradition and theology, Mahayana Buddhism broke off from Theravada and formed new offshoots, among them Tantric Buddhism, Zen, Pure Land and Nichiren.  Although these are not called "denominations," they formed in the same way many Protestant denominations did.  Someone had a new insight, a new way of living out the tradition, and others followed.

Restoration of T'ang dynasty Nestorian image of Jesus as Christ found in Cave 17 at Mo-kao Caves, Tunhwang. The original work dated back to 9th century.

Restoration of T'ang dynasty Nestorian image of Jesus as Christ found in Cave 17 at Mo-kao Caves, Tunhwang. The original work dated back to 9th century. ( Public Domain )

More Alike Than Different

To this day, both Buddhism and Christianity have a multitude of followers, each living out the tenants of their founders with great zeal while often declaring their particular interpretation to be, if not the only way, then certainly the best and most authentic tradition.  But given the similarities of the origin stories of the two world religions, one almost has to wonder if a hidden mythology is lurking unseen in the background — a central mythology that has shaped Buddhism and Christianity into the great forces they are today.   

Jim Willis is author of nine books on religion and spirituality, he has been an ordained minister for over forty years while working part-time as a carpenter, the host of his own drive-time radio show, an arts council director and adjunct college professor in the fields of World Religions and Instrumental Music. He is author of The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers.

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Top Image: Rembrandt - Christ with Hands Folded ( Public Domain ), and Nivedita, Sister - t he Departure of Siddhartha ( Public Domain );Deriv.

By Jim Willis

References

Ellwood, Robert S. and Barbara A. McGraw . Many Peoples, Many Faiths: Women and Men in the World Religions, 7 th Edition . Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentiss Hall, 2002.

Willis, Jim. The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints and Seers . Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press, 2004.

Comments

They were both reformers of the faiths into/under which they were born. The major difference between them was that Jesus was circumcised.

Jesus lived in Tibet as a Buddhist monk for many years as a teenager and then after his "death", when he resurrected there which explains the similarities between Buddhism and Christianity.

Given the dates each was active, it is possible that the Buddha, Zoroaster, Pythagoras and the prophet Daniel were all alive at the same time. And since some traditions have Pythagoras in Babylon at one time, it is possible that three of them could have met.

I think there has been some discussion of the influence of Greek thought on both Christianity and Buddhism. Certainly the ancient Greeks spread their empire(s) all the way to India and influenced thought and government right up to the middle ages. In Japan one can see Buddhist temples with greek influence. And it's thought that Greek sculpture influenced the realistic portrayals we see in historic Buddhist sculpture in the East. I think there is connection between all the religions that found their genesis in the area controlled by the Greeks during the thousand years from C.500 BC-C.600 AD. That connection is Greek civilization and thought.

Famous (former) atheist Anthony Flew also left his home and Methodist upbringing, faced opposition, spread teachings, and although he wasn't a priest he certainly had a system of views. (Which changed again when he became theist.)

I think these points in the article may be way too broad to draw useful parallels from.

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