In this article, we consider the lives of the Buddha and Jesus with respect to: their initial self-denial, perfection, further self-denial (to free others), model lives, self-sacrifice, exaltation, and the aftermath of their deaths.
Initial Self Denial
The Buddha was born a prince. He lived in three palaces, according to the seasons, and was sheltered from the outside world (and existing religions) as a youth and a young man, by his father, a king. At the age of 29, he ventured outside his palaces and encountered the ravages of old age, sickness and death.[i] He renounced his royalty to become a wandering ascetic who begged for food and starved himself while practicing intensive, prolonged meditation in his search to find a way to end suffering.
Jesus: Before coming to earth, Jesus dwelled with God in heaven. Christ Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”[ii] Jesus, the Word, became flesh and dwelled among people.[iii] He was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary, who was betrothed to Joseph, a poor Jewish carpenter. He set aside many of his divine powers while on earth, but reassumed them after his ascension into heaven. Though equal with God, Jesus descended to earth and became a man, to help people to relate to God and to be reconciled to him.
The Buddha approached perfection entirely by self effort. He claimed to have attained it at the moment of his enlightenment,[iv] in his last reincarnation before entering nirvana.
Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life because he was God. He was the spotless lamb[v] who was sacrificed to atone for the sins of the whole world.
Further Self-Denial (to free others)
The Buddha, after becoming enlightened, considered keeping his findings to himself, but then chose to devote the rest of his life (another 45 years) to teaching it to others.[vi]
Jesus: “And being found in appearance as a man he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross.”[vii] He volunteered to be crucified. He was not a hapless victim of political tensions between Jewish priests and Rome. “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”[viii] “The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father.”[ix]
The Buddha modeled the process of becoming a rock (island). “Make thyself an island, work hard, be wise! When thy impurities are blown away, and thou art free from guilt, thou wilt enter into the heavenly world of the elect (Ariya).”[x] His goal was emotional detachment from any sentient beings, while thinking that all beings can attain their buddha-nature (a combination of emptiness and wisdom).
Jesus was a model servant to others, as exemplified by 1) his washing the feet of his disciples,[xi] 2) performing numerous healings and exorcisms out of compassion, 3) twice feeding multitudes of people,[xii] and 4) submission to God’s will in voluntarily submitting himself to be crucified.[xiii]
Self Sacrifice (Why?)
The Buddha taught that we must become dispassionate. “Those who are slaves to passions, run down with the stream (of desires), as a spider runs down the web which he has made himself; when they have cut this, at last, wise people leave the world free from cares, leaving all affection behind.”[xiv]
Jesus’ passion—volunteering to be tortured and crucified to provide a way for sinful people to be saved.[xv]
The Buddha “I have conquered all, I know all, in all conditions of life I am free from taint; I have left all, and through the destruction of thirst I am free; having learnt myself, whom shall I teach?”[xvi] “When the learned man drives away vanity by earnestness, he, the wise, climbing the terraced heights of wisdom, looks down upon the fools, serene he looks upon the toiling crowd, as one that stands on a mountain looks down upon them that stand upon the plain.”[xvii]
Jesus “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”[xviii]
Aftermath of Their Deaths
The Buddha died at age 80, claiming that he had succeeded in ending the cycle of reincarnation for himself and had attained nirvana (non-existence). “According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta of the Pali canon, at the age of 80, the Buddha announced that he would soon reach Parinirvana, or the final deathless state, and abandon his earthly body.”[xix]
Jesus rose from the dead on the third day after he died, and then he appeared to at least a dozen different groups of people before ascending into heaven before many witnesses. Besides appearing eight times to the disciples[xx] he also appeared to Mary Magdalene and other women when they visited the empty tomb.[xxi] He also appeared to a group of 500 men and women[xxii] and to those gathered as he ascended into heaven.[xxiii] And he appeared to Paul on the road to Damascus.[xxiv]
[i] His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Becoming Enlightened, translated by Jeffrey Hopkins (New York: Simon and Schuster, Atria Books, 2009), 216.
[ii] Philippians 2:6-7 (NIV).
[iii] John 1:14.
[v] 1 Peter 1:19.
[vii] Philippians 2:8 (NIV).
[viii] John 15:13 (NIV).
[ix] John 10:17-18 (NIV).
[x] Friedrich Max Muller, trans., The Dhammapada: A Collection of Verses, Being One of the Canonical Works of the Buddhists, in vol. 10, Part 1, The Sacred Books of the East, translated by Various Oriental Scholars, edited by F. Max Muller, available at “Dhammapada (Muller),” Wikisource, Dhammapada 236. Dhammapada_(Muller). This work is cited as “Dhammapada” hereafter. To save space, line breaks in quotations from the Dhammapada have not been retained.
[xi] John 13:3-5.
[xii] Jesus feeding the multitudes appears in Matthew 14:13-21 (more than 5,000 people) also found in Mark 6:30-44, Luke 9:1-13, and John 6:1-15; and Matthew 15:29-39 (more than 4,000 people) also found in Mark 8:1-13.
[xiii] Philippians 2:5-8.
[xiv] Dhammapada 347.
[xv] Matthew 26:36, Mark 14:32, John 18:1, John 10:17-18.
[xvi] Dhammapada 353.
[xvii] Ibid. 28.
[xviii] Philippians 2:9-11 (NIV).
[xx] Mark 16:12, Mark 16:14, Mark 16:15b, Luke 24:13-32, Luke 24:34, Luke 24:36-43, John 20:19-24. John 20:26-29, John 21:1-14, 1 Corinthians 15:3-5a, 1 Corinthians 15:6, 1 Corinthians 15:7.
[xxi] Matthew 28:8-10, Mark 16:9-11, John 20:11-18.
[xxii] John 21:15-23.
[xxiii] Acts 1:3-11.
[xxiv] 1 Corinthians 15:8.