Similarities Between Buddha and Jesus


A number of recent books have proposed the idea that Buddha and Jesus are practically brothers. Close to the end of Living Buddha, Living Christ, Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh asserted, "When you are a truly happy Christian, you are also a Buddhist. And vice versa."1

In the controversial book Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings, New Testament scholar Marcus J. Borg claimed that both religious founders espoused a "world-subverting wisdom that undermined and challenged conventional ways of seeing and being in their time and in every time." Borg claimed that both were teachers of wisdom, not only regarding "moral behavior, but about the 'center,' the place from which moral perception and moral behavior flow." Both, according to Borg, "were teachers of the way less traveled. 'Way' or 'path' imagery is central to both bodies of teaching."2

And in a Catholic magazine devoted to apologetics called This Rock, authors Carl E. Olson and Anthony E. Clark, citing Thich Nhat Hanh's assertion, noted that "some Catholics agree." They cited as evidence that "Jesuit Father Robert E. Kennedy . . . holds Zen retreats at Morning Star Zendo in Jersey City." Further, "The St. Francis Chapel at Santa Clara University hosts the weekly practice of 'mindfulness and Zen meditation.' Indeed, the number of Buddhist retreats and workshops being held at Catholic monasteries and parishes is growing." Olson and Clark went on to point out serious differences between Buddhism and Christianity. The title of their article in The Rock was "Are Jesus and Buddha Brothers? If So, There's a Serious Family Feud."3

The article mentions Borg's Jesus and Buddha; another book by Thich Nhat Hanh, entitled Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers; and Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit: The Place of Zen in Christian Life, by Robert E. Kennedy, all of which espouse the viewpoint that Buddhism and Christianity are compatible.

Is it true that on a spiritual level Buddha and Jesus are quite similar? In this excerpt and the ones that follow, we will look at this question broadly, covering the areas of moral behavior, spirituality, and beliefs about the nature of reality, sin and evil, and God as well as the degree to which variations in the teachings of Buddha and Jesus could be acceptable (that is, compatible enough that a Buddhist could continue to maintain Buddhism while at the same time accepting Christianity, or vice versa). Were Buddha and Jesus almost identical in their ideas—spiritual brothers—or were they quite similar in some ways but very different in others? In other words, can someone be both fully Buddhist and fully Christian without sacrificing any of the tenets or beliefs of either religion?

We will first explore this question by comparing conservative Christianity and conservative (Theravada) Buddhism, in large part because these two systems are well known and reasonably well defined. Comparisons of liberal Christianity and other branches of Buddhism are covered in FAQs, where answers to frequently asked questions are provided. In this excerpt we will look at some obvious similarities between Buddha and Christ and the two religions they inspired.


Remarkable Similarities


It is not surprising to find speculation about Buddha and Jesus somehow being linked. There are, to be sure, many remarkable similarities between them. Both espoused altruism, emphasizing that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Both said that love is the best way to overcome hatred. Both taught the Golden Rule, and both urged their followers not to judge others.

Buddha urged people to lose self to gain nirvana; Jesus exhorted people to lose self to gain eternal life through a personal relationship with him. Buddha emphasized the importance of ceasing existence as an individual to escape suffering; Jesus offered the hope of a heaven where there would be no suffering.


Similarities in Ethics


In the area of ethics, it is quite easy to see many close parallels, because altruism is at the heart of the teachings of both Buddha and Christ.

Buddha Christ
"Consider others as yourself."4 "Treat others the same way you want them to treat you."5 "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."6
"If you do not tend to one another then who is there to tend to you? Whoever would tend me, he should tend the sick."7 "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me."8
"Just as a mother would protect her only child at the risk of her own life, even so, cultivate a boundless heart towards all beings. Let your thoughts of boundless love pervade the whole world."9 "This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one's life for one's friends."10
"Hard it is to understand: By giving away our food, we get more strength; by bestowing clothing on others, we gain more beauty; by founding abodes of purity and truth, we acquire great treasures. The charitable man has found the path of liberation. He is like the man who plants a sapling securing thereby the shade, the flowers and the fruit in future years. Even so is the result of charity, even so is the joy of him who helps those that are in need of assistance; even so is the great nirvana."11 "Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. . . . You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God."12
"The charitable man has found the path of liberation."13 "In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'"14
"The fault of others is easily perceived, but that of oneself is difficult to perceive; a man winnows his neighbour's faults like chaff, but his own fault he hides, as a cheat hides the bad die from the gambler."15 "Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother's eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, 'Let me remove the speck from your eye'; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."16
"Hatred does not ever cease in this world by hating, but by love; this is an eternal truth. . . . Overcome anger by love, overcome evil by good, overcome the miser by giving, overcome the liar by truth."17 "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you."18

"You have heard that it was said, 'Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.' But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you."19
"The world gives according to their faith or according to their pleasure: if a man frets about the food and the drink given to others, he will find no rest either by day or by night."20 "Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by men. I tell you the truth, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you."21
Lose self to gain nirvana and escape from suffering. Lose self to gain Christ and entrance into heaven, where there will be no suffering.


We can summarize the above by listing the following areas of close agreement between Buddha and Christ:
  • Altruism
  • The Golden Rule
  • Don't judge others
  • Love your enemies
  • Overcome hate with love
  • More blessed to give than to receive
  • Avoid being religious for show


Other Significant Parallels


Buddhism's Four Noble Truths and Noble Eightfold Path are composed almost entirely of elements that have parallels in Judaism and Christianity. To these we can add the fact that both Buddha and Jesus emphasized the very serious nature of sin and its consequences. For example, Buddha's proverbs include the following:
    He who inflicts pain on innocent and harmless persons, will soon come to one of these ten states: He will have cruel suffering, loss, injury of the body, heavy affliction, or loss of mind, or a misfortune coming from the king, or a fearful accusation, or loss of relations, or destruction of treasures, or lightning-fire will burn his houses; and when his body is destroyed, the fool will go to hell.22

Similarly, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said:
    You have heard that the ancients were told, "You shall not commit murder" and "Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court." But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, "You good-for-nothing," shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, "You fool," shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. Therefore if you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.23

There are also many parallels between Jesus and Christianity, on one hand, and Buddha and Buddhism, on the other, beyond the area of ethics, as summarized in the following chart.

Buddha/Buddhism Jesus/Christianity
Rejected parts of Hinduism while retaining some of its elements. Rejected parts of Judaism while retaining some of its elements.
Spread by Indian Emperor Ashoka after his conversion from Hinduism. Spread by Roman Emperor Constantine after his conversion to Christianity.
Some branches of Buddhism evolved into a highly ceremonial religion, with monks who withdrew from secular life (monasticism). Catholicism evolved into a highly ceremonial religion, with monks who withdrew from secular life (monasticism).
Primary activities are meditating, chanting, listening to teachings and mentoring. Primary activities are worship, singing, listening to sermons, and engaging in prayer (both group and individual), fellowship, Bible study, and discipleship.
Buddha said, "As the impurity which springs from the iron, when it springs from it, destroys it; thus do a transgressor's own works lead him to the evil path."24 "But those things which proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and they defile a man. For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies. These are the things which defile a man, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile a man."25
Buddha said, "Let the wise man guard his thoughts, for they are difficult to perceive, very artful, and they rush wherever they list: thoughts well guarded bring happiness."26 Part of being righteous is to watch over the mind. The apostle Paul urged people to bring "every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ."27


Ten Major Differences Reviewed

In view of all of the above, it would be easy to conclude that Buddha and Jesus were practically brothers. However, as we will see, there are ten areas of major difference between Buddhism and Christianity. And the opposing elements of each of these differences are basically irreconcilable.

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Footnotes


1Carl E. Olson and Anthony E. Clark, "Are Jesus and Buddha Brothers?" This Rock 16, no. 5 (May-June 2005), Catholic.com, retrieved February 17, 2011.
2Marcus Borg, ed., with coeditor Ray Riegert and an Introduction by Jack Kornfield, Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings (Berkeley: Ulysses Press, 1997), 8–9.
3Olson, "Are Jesus and Buddha Brothers?"
4Heartland Sangha American Buddhism, "Parallel Sayings of Buddha and Christ," HeartlandSangha.org, retrieved October 12, 2010.
5Luke 6:31 (NASB).
6Mark 12:31b (NASB).
7Heartland Sangha American Buddhism, "Parallel Sayings."
8Matthew 25:45b (NASB).
9Heartland Sangha American Buddhism, "Parallel Sayings."
10John 15:12–13 (NKJV).
11Exotic India, "Buddha and Christ: Two Gods on the Path to Humanity" (November 2003), ExoticIndiaArt.com, retrieved October 12, 2010.
122 Corinthians 9:6–8,11 (NIV).
13Exotic India, "Buddha and Christ."
14Acts 20:35 (NASB).
15Dhammapada 252.
16Matthew 7:1–5 (NKJV).
17Heartland Sangha American Buddhism, "Parallel Sayings."
18Luke 6:27–28 (NIV).
19Matthew 5:38–42 (NIV).
20Dhammapada 249.
21Matthew 6:1–4 (NIV).
22Dhammapada 137–140.
23Matthew 5:21–24 (NASB).
24Dhammapada 240.
25Matthew 15:18–20 (NKJV).
26Dhammapada 36.
272 Corinthians 10:5b (NKJV).


Dhammapada Reference


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. This work is cited as "Dhammapada" hereafter. To save space, line breaks in quotations from the Dhammapada have not been retained.


Scripture References


Scripture quotations marked (NASB) taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright ©1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. (www.Lockman.org).

Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.

Scripture quotations marked (NKJV) are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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