The Christ And The Buddha: How Can You Explain the Uncanny Similarities?
Buddhism and Christianity arose independently of each other, separated as they were by almost 3,000 miles and at least 500 years. In terms of religious belief systems they are even farther apart. Many Buddhists, for instance, don't believe in a supreme being. Christianity is based on such a belief. The Buddha was careful to reject any efforts to label him a deity. Christ claimed to be one with God. The Buddha taught his followers to find the Middle Way between poles of opposites such as good and evil. Christ encouraged his disciples to choose the good and reject the evil.
But despite the differences there exists an uncanny similarity in how an underlying mythology shaped the stories of the founders of these two world religions. We can't help but wonder if writers shaped their origin story to fit a mythological pattern of some kind. The principle texts of both religions were written down only after decades, and in some cases centuries, had passed since the founder's death, leaving plenty of time to organize oral tradition into familiar and acceptable frameworks. How else can we explain such an uncanny similarity?
Both Left Home & Faced Down Evil
Consider the following:
Both Siddhartha Gautama, who was to become the Buddha, and Jesus of Nazareth, who was to become the Christ, are said to have left their homes in the prime of their lives, seeking truths that exist beyond the scope of most people's interest. Both were eventually led into a wilderness where, alone, they faced the devil and his traditional three temptations.
Scene of the Buddha's Great Departure from palatial life. Gandahara 1-2nd century. Guimet Museum. Personal photograph 2005. This scene depicts the "Great Departure" predestined being, he appears here surrounded by a halo, and accompanied by numerous guards, mithuna loving couples, and devata, come to pay homage. (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Siddhartha sat beneath the Bo tree where Mara, an old Hindu god and devil figure, confronted him.
Mara depicted in the Burmese style, attempting to tempt Buddha (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Jesus, in the wilderness, faced Satan, the fallen angel formerly known as Lucifer.
Lucifer depicted in The Temptation of Christ, by Ary Scheffer, 1854. (Public Domain)
It’s believed that both were tempted by the cravings of the flesh, the spirit, and worldly pride. Both emerged from that experience with a new teaching and immediately proclaimed their insights.
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Both Spread Teachings
The Buddha's first order of business was to deliver the famous Deer Park Discourse. Here he put forth the teaching that was to become the bedrock of Buddhism: The Four Noble Truths.
The Buddha teaching the Four Noble Truths. Sanskrit manuscript. Nālandā, Bihar, India. (Public Domain)
Jesus preached what has come to be known as the Sermon on the Mount, wherein he outlined, in the Beatitudes, a model for Christian life. Both sermons detailed, in systematic fashion, how followers were to live out the precepts of the founders.
Both then selected a group of twelve disciples—one of whom was to later become a betrayer. Although the Buddha lived on into old life, both men eventually died at the hands of another man, who they each forgave before succumbing to death.
Kiss of Judas (1304–06), fresco by Giotto, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua, Italy (Public Domain)
Even the final words of the Buddha are echoed by the proclamations of Christianity.
The Buddha said, "Be ye lamps unto yourselves." Jesus said almost the same thing: "Ye are the light of the world."
The Buddha declared all matter in this world to be transitory. Jesus said: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away."
The Buddha's last words are said to be, "Work out your own salvation with diligence." The Apostle Paul, speaking for Jesus, said, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling."
Both Founders Had Priesthoods and Symbolic Postures
The traditions that followed both men are equally interesting. Both developed a system of priesthood, complete with rules and regulations for men who ascended to positions of leadership.
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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. (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. (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.
By Jim Willis
Ellwood, Robert S. and Barbara A. McGraw . Many Peoples, Many Faiths: Women and Men in the World Religions, 7th Edition . Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentiss Hall, 2002.
Willis, Jim. The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints and Seers. Detroit, MI: Visible Ink Press, 2004.