My goal in this blog series is to compare the teachings of Buddha and Jesus in order to see how closely they align. Before I get into controversial waters, it is absolutely necessary to lay some uncontroversial groundwork regarding the context from which these teachers taught. Without a basic understanding of the back-story of each of these characters, there is more room for error in our comparison of them.
This week, we are going to look at the pre-ministry lives of the Buddha and Jesus side-by-side. You will see, as in our previous comparison of the mothers of these teachers, that there are more contrasts than parallels in the lives of these two men.
Okay, let’s dig in.
The Pre-Ministry Life of Siddhartha Gautama
For the sake of brevity, I will give you a snapshot of the early life of Siddhartha Gautama (pre-Buddha) that captures what I consider to be representative of his story. For an easy read with more detail, I recommend the adapted collection, The Life of Buddha, which you can read for free online at Sacred-Texts.com.
Siddhartha was born into a life of luxury. Those who saw him recognized that he was special because of the “markings of the gods” on his skin. He was presented gifts, from horses and elephants, to children’s toys suitable for his age. The entire kingdom was prosperous because of his presence. As the story is told, his mother, Queen Maya, died within days of childbirth, and her sister was given the task of raising the child. (Interestingly, Queen Maya’s death is not portrayed as a bad thing. Instead, it was “because of her bliss” that she passed on to the next life, where she ascended to a higher existence among the gods.)
The child’s Father, the King, ensured that all the prince knew was beauty. The prince lived a life confined within the walls of the royal grounds, including three palaces. Gold and jewels looked dull compared to his radiance. When it came time for the child to go to the temple, a path was cleared for him so that there were no poor, diseased, or old people within sight. When the child entered the temple, the statues of the gods came to life and sang a song of praise to him, prophesying that the world would be set free through him.
The best instructors in the land were recruited to be the child’s tutors, but Siddhartha surpassed them all in wisdom and knowledge.
The King, knowing of the prophecy that his son would one day leave for the woods to live an austere life, convinced his son to marry for the chance that the King might have a grandchild. Siddhartha considered the proposal. He reasoned that many men who sought wisdom before him had the company of women, so he agreed. If the King could find a woman that was pure, flawless in beauty, and perfect in virtue, then he would marry her. So, the King sent out the household brahman to find such a woman. After searching the kingdom, the brahman returned with news that a young woman named Gopa fit the prince’s qualifications.
Both Gopa and Siddhartha had to prove themselves worthy of one another. The King tested Gopa by inviting all the young women of the kingdom to receive a jewel from the prince. All had to turn their eyes away in shame because of Siddhartha’s brilliance, except Gopa. Additionally, she had no desire for the jeweled ring Siddhartha offered her. Gopa passed the test. Gopa’s father required that Siddhartha be proven worthy of his daughter. So, a contest was held in which all the skilled men of the land gathered to challenge Siddhartha in his knowledge and skill. Siddhartha surpassed them all with amazement in literature, mathematics, science, athletics, and wrestling. Siddhartha passed the test. Thus, Siddhartha married Gopa. And they indeed had a son.
The prince lived a life of pleasures (including the company of many women), but he became restless to know what lay outside the palace walls. The King cleared the area of all poverty, disease, and old age so that his son would not see these things. However, the gods played a trick on the King and appeared to Siddhartha in forms that acquainted him with all three. From that moment on, Siddhartha was not content to live a life of pleasure. It became his mission to discover the root of all suffering. When he was about 30 years old, he abandoned his palaces, riches, wife, and child for the pursuit of enlightenment. The horse that carried Siddhartha away from the palaces in the night was so saddened by the prince’s departure, and so rewarded for his faithfulness (as foretold by Siddhartha), that he died when he returned to the stables.
Siddhartha sought out hermits in the land who were teaching the law. He saw that their doctrine did not lead to deliverance, and so he departed from them. Siddhartha attracted the attention of a nearby King, as well as many gods who assisted him along his journey. He gained some followers, but they deserted him after Siddhartha began eating after days on end of meditation that did not lead to his enlightenment. After symbolic dreams and a miraculous sign involving a floating golden bowl, Siddhartha knew it was time for him to reach enlightenment and become a Buddha.
When Siddhartha sat under a tree to meditate, the evil one Mara became anxious. Mara came against Siddhartha with forces of nature, physical attacks, and sensual temptations to distract Siddhartha from his meditation. But none could overcome the dedication of Siddhartha. Mara was defeated. After relentless meditation, Siddhartha attained enlightenment and finally became a Buddha.
The Pre-Ministry Life of Jesus of Nazareth
For a more detailed account of the life of Jesus, consult any of the parallel accounts of the four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are available in multiple translations at BibleGateway.com. Though these accounts significantly overlap, each of them gives some unique insight and detail into the events surrounding the life of Jesus. I will pull details from all the accounts in my description.
Jesus was born in an animal stable. His parents were required to go to Bethlehem for a census, and the inns had no room for them. Angels appeared to shepherds (the lowest social-ranking profession) to announce that a Savior had been born. As such, shepherds and animals were the first to greet Jesus at birth.
Magi (astrologers, scientists, sorcerers) from the east saw a mysterious star appear in the sky. The Magi followed the star, understanding that this star was a sign for the birth of the King of the Jews. They told King Herod (the local ruler) when they passed through Jerusalem about the sign in the sky they had seen, and King Herod asked that they return to tell him where the child was. The Magi offered gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh to Jesus when they arrived. Warned in a dream, the Magi returned along a different path. King Herod, brewing with jealousy, ordered that all male boys in Bethlehem under age two be killed. Jesus’ father Joseph was warned in a dream, and they escaped to Egypt.
After several years, the family moved to Nazareth, in the northern part of Israel. Nazareth was not a prestigious place; rather, it was quite the opposite. Jesus grew up as a carpenter’s son, visiting the synagogue with his family regularly.
On one occasion, when his family made the journey to Jerusalem for the Passover festival, Jesus’ parents lost track of him. Jesus was twelve years old. After much searching, they found Jesus with the teachers of the law in the temple. He was “listening to them and asking questions.” All who heard him were amazed at his understanding. When Mary and Joseph questioned Jesus, he replied, “Didn’t you know that I must be in my Father’s house?”
When he was about 30 years old, Jesus went out to the desert to be baptized by the prophet John the Baptist. John insisted that he needed to be baptized by Jesus, but Jesus insisted that God’s law must be fulfilled. So, John baptized Jesus. The Spirit of God came upon Jesus as a dove, and God from heaven announced, “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”
Shortly afterward, Jesus went into the desert to fast and pray. He fasted 40 days and nights. At the end of the fast, Satan came to tempt Jesus. He tempted Jesus with food, with glory, and with fame. Satan set up the temptations to try to force Jesus to prove that he was truly God’s Son. “If you are the Son of God…”, then turn these stones into bread, or throw yourself down from this high point on the temple so that angels may catch you. Finally, Satan tempts Jesus by offering him all the kingdoms of the earth, if only Jesus would worship him. Jesus overcomes each temptation by quoting the Jewish Scriptures (the Old Testament in Christian Bibles), establishing his identity apart from Satan’s taunts, and showing his complete trust in God’s goodness and plan. Being defeated, Satan departed until the next opportune time arose.
Siddhartha Gautama and Jesus had very different upbringings. Siddhartha was born into riches, lived a life full of luxuries and pleasures, was married, and even had a child. Everyone adored him, and many who saw him commented on his divine appearance. When he encountered physical suffering for the first time, he abandoned all earthly pleasures to pursue a life of meditation so that he could find the truth that would set the world free. He considered the teachings of the brahmans and hermits worthless and futile. Finally, though Mara opposed him, nothing could deter his determination to find the truth.
Jesus, on the other hand, was born in a stable. The only people who suspected that he was special (besides his family) were some shepherds, who were visited by angels, and some Magi, who interpreted a sign in the sky. There was a threat on his life soon after he was born so that his family was forced to flee to a foreign country. Jesus honored the law and teachers in the synagogue. Jesus was never married. He insisted on being baptized so that He would fulfill the requirements of the law. Satan opposed him, questioning his identity and offering Jesus an “easier” path for winning over the kingdoms of the world. Despite Satan’s temptations, Jesus was secure in His identity as God’s Son and in God’s wisdom and goodness.
Next time, we will get a bird’s-eye view of the ministries of the Buddha and Jesus. From there, we will dive into a more controversial analysis of what these teachers taught and how similar (or dissimilar) it is.
Thanks for reading! I welcome your questions and comments.