The Enlightened Christ
In the West, where the monotheistic and exclusive tradition of Christianity has long monopolized the religious forefront, most Eastern traditions appear as somewhat of a mystery to many people, Christians and non-Christians alike. Buddhism is, perhaps, one of the more difficult Eastern philosophies for Westerners to comprehend in theory. Whereas the Buddha is very much a Christ-like figure in attitude and teachings, many Christians cannot immediately see their similarities. They find comparisons between the two problematic or even blasphemous. After all, in the Christian tradition, no man or worldly being can be on par with Christ, the Messiah; such a suggestion sounds frighteningly sacrilegious. Through literary analysis, this paper will aim to illustrate many of the similarities between these two religious and historical characters and attempt to shed some light on the connection between the two.
There are several notable connections between the lives of Jesus and Siddharta Guatama, even at surface value, that are not philosophical assertions but that are interesting to note nonetheless. Both were of older religious traditions; Jesus of Judaism and the Buddha of Hinduism. Incorporating many beliefs and practices from the old traditions, they both still saw shortcomings in them and implemented new practices and ideas into their own philosophies. Both men’s lives are
enshrouded in myth, and tradition claims both were born of immaculate birth and of virgin mothers. And, both Jesus and Siddharta were killed by the folly of a disciple before the disciples themselves understood the ramifications of their actions. These astounding similarities in the birth, lives, actions, and death of these two men draw distinct parallels between their characters.
Yet, these analogous examples do not illustrate the true, philosophical parallels between these two men. This, rather, is witnessed in their teachings on life. It can be seen through their words that Jesus and Siddharta are both primarily concerned about the well-being of mankind. Jesus, as a youth, became interested in learning and began giving sermons on life and living. He saw the error of people’s ways and sought to correct these errors through compassion. He realized that he was acutely aware of the worldwide truth, and as such he must declare this truth to as many as he could. Christ would not be content in knowing this truth only for himself; his compassion was for all of humanity. Similarly, Siddharta Guatama, the son of a king, was kept from the outside world until he was old enough to resist. He too immediately found himself distraught with the suffering of the people outside of the kingdom. Upon witnessing famine, sickness, and death, he realized that he was not for the royal life and vowed to learn why there is suffering in the world. This leads to the story of the enlightenment of Siddharta as the Buddha, which means “awake”. Upon realizing the cause of suffering, the Buddha strove to teach those who sought the ways of escaping earthly suffering.
Not only did Christ and Buddha believe in saving humanity from the suffering they both witnessed; they prescribed incredibly similar techniques and guidelines for doing so. Both taught the idea of universal love and compassion. Whereas Jesus proclaimed, “Love one another as I have love you”, the Buddha spoke, “Cultivate your heart towards all beings.” Also, both men taught by Jesus, which has come to be known as the Golden Rule, says that we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. Buddha’s version has a notably Hindu slant: Consider yourself as others. This is an instance of the same teaching from different traditions. The Buddha is certainly referencing the Hindu belief in the Atman that is not unique or dissimilar from Brahma; we as individuals only suffer from the illusion that we are distinct entities, separate form the rest of the Universe. So to say you should consider yourself as others reflects this belief, but it also fundamentally teaches us the same lesson as the Golden Rule; we treat other as we would wish to be treated because we are all mankind, and we all suffer together in ignorance. This truly is an essential, elemental belief of both Buddhism and Christianity.
Even these examples alone exemplify the fundamental likenesses in not only what Christ and Buddha saw as truth, but also in their personalities. While Christianity often aims at excluding the teachings of other faiths, Christ and Buddha themselves would surely commend one another.
One key difference between the Buddha figure and the Christ figure is what defines their being; in other words, what makes them who they are, what makes them more than simply teachers of their philosophy. The difference is this: The primary defining factor of the Buddha is that he is the enlightened one, and the primary defining factor of Christ is that he
is the son of God. To a Christian, this is a fundamentally important key difference. While the Christian church may or may not recognize or appreciate the Buddha’s teachings, he is not the son of God; only Jesus holds such a title. But, in considering the similarities between these two men, it seems appropriate to consider what exactly it means that Jesus is the “Son of God”.
There is a story told of a Buddhist monk who had never before read form the Bible. He was first introduced to it by his student, who read to him from the Book of Matthew chapter six, verse twenty eight:
Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow;
They toil not, neither do they spin;
and yet, I say unto you,
that even Solomon in all his glory
was not arrayed like one of these.
The monk sat silent for a long time, then uttered, “Whoever spoke these words is an enlightened being. What you have read to me is the essence of everything I have been trying to teach you!”
Whether or not this story is true, it makes a profound point about the nature of Jesus Christ. And certainly it is not suggested that through rhetoric Christ’s enlightened state can be categorically reduced, but the monk makes a valid philosophical point about both Jesus’ character and nature. It is merely worth considering, if the Buddha is enlightened and Christ is the Son of God, could these not mean the same thing in different cultural contexts? Such an assertion, especially when considering Christ’s similarities with the Buddha, makes great sense, and also, if deeply considered, may turn many Christian concepts on their heads. Take, for example, one commonly cited Biblical passage, the words uttered by The Son:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the father except through me.”
But if Jesus is an enlightened being, what does this passage mean? By saying that “he” is the way, the truth, and the life, is he not saying that through becoming enlightened on may reach Heaven? And could speaking of Heaven, or coming to the Father, not mean escaping suffering, and as such, escaping the circle of samsara? Though it can initially seem a concept existential in nature, what is important to note is the vastly different cultural context of Christ’s time. Whereas ideas the Buddha spoke of were already somewhat familiar and accepted as truth, in Jesus’ cultural framework he was speaking to a Jewish community who believed in God and Heaven. Just as Siddharta Guatama could not have spoken of being the son of God, nor could Jesus speak of reincarnation or Enlightenment; in each man’s cultural context, they approach their similar aims in different, appropriate ways. Jesus Christ and Siddharta Guatama, the Buddha, play the role of the same person, only in different historical and cultural context.
Of course Siddharta and Jesus are not the same person, but in weighing their similarities in teaching, philosophy, and approach, their differences are practically negligible. Jesus Christ, a man with a cultivated heart-mind and who walked the Eight Fold path, is of Buddha nature. He was the figure of his time and region who taught as the Buddha taught, and what he taught. There is no duality in saying they both offer the Way.
It’s interesting that you posted this now, I’m currently reading some essays by Alan Watts about the nature of Zen, and he makes some similar points in bringing Zen into the context of the Western world and specifically that of the Christian tradition. I also just finished a book that was trying to reconcile science and religion, where the author states that we need to find what encapsulates all religions, not getting dragged down with specific dogma. This reconciliation of science and religion needs to come from a point of a non-fundmentalistic attitude, much in the same way that being able to look at the similarities between Siddharta and Jesus, with the necessary stepp of, at least momentarily, putting aside one’s own beliefs to allow room for discussion without trying to ‘win’ the theological discussion. I think that’s why so many arguments of this nature are doomed from the start, the participants cannot allow any give to their preconceived notions.
I still like to play with the idea that Jesus is a Buddhist monk/yogi that was in the East for a large portion of the period of his life not contained within the Bible.