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A discussion of the Buddhist beliefs about Buddha and Christian beliefs about Christ
Over the years different religions have come into existence and many have branched out into further denominations, even so there are many similarities between them. I have selected the two religions Buddhism and Christianity with which I will explore this idea and I will focus mainly on their founders, Buddha and Christ.
The first similarity between these two religions is that they have both adopted new names for their founders. The word Buddha literally means “enlightened one” and so this title was given to the Buddha only after he had become enlightened. Before his enlightenment the Buddha was known as Siddhartha Gautama. To non-believers the founder of Christianity is known as Jesus but to Christians he is known as Christ, “the anointed one”.
Although the facts about the two founder’s births and upbringings are different, there is a similarity in that they both have myths told regarding their births.
Everyone knows of the myth regarding Jesus’ birth that is popular at Christmas time. Matthew’s Gospel tells of the wise men from the east who asked, “Where is the baby born to be king of the Jews? We saw his star when it came up in the east, and we have come to worship him.”
King Herod called for the visitors and sent them to look for the child. When they were on their way they saw the same star and it went ahead of them until it came and stopped over the place where the child was. They went into the house, worshiped him and then opened their bags and offered him presents: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. God warned them in a dream not to go back to Herod; so they went back to their country by another road.
In the story of Siddhartha’s birth, Queen Maya, wife of Raja Shuddhodana of the Kingdom of Kapilavastu, dreamed that an elephant with six tusks and a head the colour of rubies came down from highest heaven to enter her womb through her right side. Queen Maya entered the garden at Lumbini and walked beneath a sala tree. The tree bent down and the queen took hold of it and looked up to the heavens. At that point Buddha was born out of her side as she stood beneath the tree. He then took seven steps towards each quarter of heaven, and at each of these steps a lotus flower sprung up. He then declared that he would have to experience no more births, that this was his last body and that he would pluck out by the roots the sorrow caused by birth and death.
Although some Christians may believe in every aspect of Jesus’ birth, I believe that the truth has been embellished to increase the symbolism in the story. The story of Siddhartha’s birth may also hold some truth as the Queen Maya may have had a caesarean, and this was exaggerated to signify the importance of the Buddha. Both myths serve the purpose of illustrating the value of the founder’s birth and symbolise that these men are not ordinary, but unique to our world.
Both founders came from very different backgrounds and therefore had a different start to life. Siddhartha was born into a rich family and given all he could ever want, while Jesus’ parents were quite poor.
It seems that Jesus had known for quite some time that he was the Son of God. When Jesus was twelve years old he was with his parents in Jerusalem for the annual Feast of Passover. When the days of the feast were over, his parents started back home but they did not know that Jesus had stayed behind in Jerusalem. After a day they realised that Jesus was not with them, so they went back to find him. On the third day they found him in the temple, and his mother said to him, “Son, why have you done this to us? Your father and I have been terribly worried trying to find you.”
He answered them, “Why did you have to look for me? Didn’t you know that I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Siddhartha, on the other hand, began life as a rich prince and his journey to enlightenment began when he was 29 years old. After 29 years of enjoying a luxurious lifestyle, Siddhartha is said to have grown dissatisfied. While riding out with his charioteer, he saw four things which changed his life:
1 An old man (everyone grows old)
2 A sick person (everyone may face disease)
3 A corpse (everyone has to die)
At this point, he is described as losing his taste for life. He was unable to enjoy luxuries since he knew that they could not protect him from old age, sickness or death.
4 A holy man (one who has devoted himself to the spiritual life: a Sadhu)
The last of the ‘four sights’ led him to decide that he too would leave home to become a Sadhu, in order to seek a cure for the world’s suffering.
Even though Siddhartha and Jesus began life in different ways, they both chose to dedicate their lives to what they believed in. Siddhartha left his home, rid himself of his fine clothes and set out to become a Sadhu in order to seek a cure for the worlds suffering. Jesus devoted his life to preaching and spreading the word of the Lord. The fact that they both chose to live humble lives links in with their teachings. Jesus told his disciples, “It is much harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.”
The Buddha’s teachings cover a range of topics. He said that you should always take the ‘middle path’ for everything, and this can also apply to wealth. You should not live in poverty so you can not feed yourself, clothe yourself etc but you should not indulge yourself either.
After Siddhartha had gained enlightenment and became a Buddha, he decided to teach others how to overcome the suffering that exists in the world as he has done. Both the teaching of Jesus and the Buddha was passed on by word of mouth for some period of time. Neither of the founders wrote down any of their own teachings.
The majority of records of the Buddha’s teaching start, logically, with his First Sermon (the Deer Park Sermon) on the Four Noble Truths. However, this sermon was given to five ascetic spiritual specialists and can occasionally give people the idea that Buddhism is somewhat depressing and complicated. When speaking to everyday people the Buddha did not begin with the Noble Truths but with “morality, giving, heavens and detachment”. He taught about karma, and how we could improve our and other people’s lives by living a moral and responsible life.
This is very comparable to how Jesus taught. His most famous sermon, The Sermon on the Mount, was spoken to his disciples and can also be quite hard to digest. Yet when preaching to ordinary citizens he often told stories or parables which were easy to listen to and understand, but which also had a meaning to them. Some of these stories were parables told in order to show God’s love and patience. Others were told in order to show our danger and our duty.
Many of the Buddha’s and Jesus’ teachings are very similar, even though everything Jesus teaches leads back to God, unlike Buddha’s teachings. Buddha says you can improve your life by not seeking happiness in transient material goods, and by unselfish kindness to all because much suffering is caused by the ignorance and selfishness of people, who are filled with greed for things that neither last nor bring real happiness, with hatred and with deluded beliefs.
Jesus speaks positively about not seeking happiness in transient material goods and to have unselfish kindness to all, but for different reasons. He said about material objects, “Do not save riches for yourselves here on earth, where moths and rust destroy, and robbers break in and steal. Instead, save riches for yourselves in heaven.” Jesus taught that the greatest laws were the simplest: love God and love your neighbour. He also said about loving others, “love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, so that you will become the sons of your Father in heaven.”
Although there are many varying moral guidelines, the basic attitude to life in both Buddhism and Christianity is not based on rules but on an unconditional love for all beings.
Christians believe that as Jesus travelled all over Galilee preaching, he also performed many miracles. There are numerous biblical stories of Jesus healing minds and bodies by the power of his love and faith. He healed people with evil spirits, the deaf, the dumb, the paralysed and plenty more. He also carried out other miracles such as calming a storm, walking on water and perhaps more famously fed five thousand people with only five loaves and two fish. He also set people free from their sins. Jesus himself claimed that the strange power his life showed was the power of God in action. The strange things that Jesus did were not intended to draw attention to himself, but instead to show that God’s Kingdom was a kingdom of peace and health.
Buddhists believe that Buddha also helped people and the Buddhist scriptures give many stories about the Buddha meeting people and the effect he had upon them. Many of them say that while Buddha was teaching someone would come to him with a problem. He then gave that person a teaching and they reacted by either returning to the same life but with a new insight, altering the way he or she was living, or even giving up everything and following the Buddha in his life of travelling and teaching.
After I had discovered many similarities between the two founder’s lives and their teachings, I decided to talk to a Christian and a Western Buddhist to see how they view their founder.
When I asked a Christian how she views Jesus she said, “Christ is perfection personified. He led a faultless life and I aspire to be exactly like him.”
I asked a Buddhist if he thought of Buddha that way and he replied, “I do not worship Buddha as Christians worship Jesus, but I try to do as Buddha did and my aim in life is to become enlightened.”
Not only are there similarities between the founders themselves, but there is also a likeness in how they are perceived by their followers. People from both religions see their founder as an ideal and model themselves on him.
I have found similarities between the two founders and also between the beliefs of their followers, but there are also some differences.
A striking difference between the two religions is how they view life after death. The main focus of Jesus’ teachings, and of the Christian religion, is God. All Christians believe that after death they will join God in heaven and their soul will continue to live on even though their body has died. The aim of life is to improve your soul by becoming a ‘child of God’. Buddhists have a very different view of life after death, however. Buddha changed the Hindu belief that we have an ‘Atman’, the part of you which gets reincarnated, and instead developed the idea of Karma. He believed, as do all Buddhists, that how you live your life, whether skilfully or unskilfully, had an effect on yourself and others around you. He did not believe in life after death or that any physical part of you carries on, but instead your Karma continues to have an effect after you die.
Buddhist and Christians also have dissimilar attitudes to suffering. To Buddhist, suffering is something that just has to be accepted and it is something that is in the mind but can be conquered by becoming enlightened and therefore overcoming desire. Suffering can be seen as a starting point for the religion, without suffering there would not be much point in becoming enlightened. Christians take a different view on suffering. They see it as something that is real, as opposed to being in the mind, and you can only escape it by following God and eventually entering heaven. They believe that God sent Jesus to die for human beings, suffer instead of us and to pay for our sins.
The last major difference between the two religions is how the two founders viewed themselves. Jesus claimed that he was the Son of God and that he should be followed and worshiped. Buddha, on the other hand, did not desire worship of any kind; he just wanted to pass his teachings on so that other people could learn how to conquer suffering.
At a glance Buddhism and Christianity seem to be extremely different religions, and the Buddhist beliefs about Buddha and the Christian beliefs about Christ do not appear to be connected in any way, and although there are a few differences I have found that there are more similarities between their founders than at first meets the eye.
* Collins Children’s Bible
* Buddhism by Denise Cush published by Hodder and Stoughton
* Buddhism A New Approach by Steve Clarke and Mel Thompson published by Hodder and Stoughton