In this series, we’ve been comparing Buddha and Jesus in order to get into a better position to evaluate whether claims about their similarity hold up under scrutiny. So far, we’ve seen a few similarities, but mostly extreme differences, between their mothers and pre-ministry lives. In this post, we will look more closely at some general facts regarding their ministry, while mostly avoiding a comparison and analysis of their specific teachings. We’ll save that for later posts.
I think that in this post, it will be best to look at various aspects of the ministries of the Buddha and Jesus in parallel. We’ll consider five questions that will frame a holistic perspective for our analysis. The answers are given one after the other for easy comparison.
Five Questions About the Ministries of Buddha and Jesus
1. Who did they claim to be?
The Buddha did not claim to be a god, but instead stressed that he was a man that had gone through many lifetimes in various forms to reach his level of enlightenment.
It is important to recall the worldview from which the Buddha made his claim, however. He came from a Hindu heritage, and although he rejected some of the aspects of Hinduism in his teaching, his frame for understanding reality remained very similar. Both Hindu and Buddhist philosophies rely on the assumption that all beings—whether gods, men, or hellish beings—are related in substance. In reality, all is one. Separation is an illusion, caused by things such as ego and desire, which cloud our understanding of the truth. Thus, all beings are on a continuum of separation from perfection. Humans are rather high in ego and desire, and they are among the farthest beings from perfection.
A Buddha is different, however. A Buddha is “sent” to mankind as a messenger of the truth when too much truth has been forgotten. In Hinduism, a Buddha is actually an incarnation of the god Vishnu. The Buddha Siddhartha Gautama told many parables in which he revealed that he took various god-forms in previous lifetimes. Additionally, once Siddhartha Gautama became a Buddha, many gods worshiped him. Thus, for the Buddha to claim to be a man and not a god was more of a technicality than anything else. (Perhaps this is why there are statues of Buddha in every Buddhist region you can visit.)
Aside: Many Buddhists insist that Buddhism is an atheistic religion. Buddhism stresses personal discipline, which may be what makes it appealing to atheists like Sam Harris. Rather than debate this, I would like to draw out the implications. I find it interesting that interest in Buddhist philosophy in America rose once the theory of evolution started being taught in public schools. This correlation is not arbitrary. The two worldviews mesh together well. Although the theory of evolution technically refers only to analysis of the mechanisms by which creatures have changed over time through mutation and natural selection, it practically includes much more with it. I discuss this in a previous post. What I see is that the Buddhist worldview, combined with a “Naturalistic Evolutionary” worldview, leads to a redefinition of the divine rather than an elimination of it.
Jesus claimed to be divine on many occasions, in many ways. But what did those claims really imply? If we consider a limited number of quotes, we could make an argument that Jesus was divine in a similar way that the Buddha was divine (as in, divinely sent, or having divine attributes). Jesus said that he was the way, the truth, and the life. From such a claim, we could say that Jesus was divinely appointed, or “sent,” to teach mankind the way to enlightenment in a similar way as the Buddha was sent before him. We could also argue that both Jesus and the Buddha displayed high levels of spiritual (and other) ability that amazed the people around them, causing them both to be revered as gods. However, to consider Jesus’ claim on divinity to merely include divine commission and god-like abilities would miss the qualities that distinguish Jesus’ claim from that of others, including Buddha.
Followers of Jesus wrote about him that he was equal to God Himself (see Paul’s words in Philippians 2), and even that he was the eternal God in the flesh (see John’s words in John 1). Some modern voices have suggested that Jesus’ followers were misguided and exaggerated the claim of Jesus’ deity beyond what Jesus himself claimed. So were Jesus’ followers over-reaching? Did they perhaps have an ulterior motive beneath their reports?
To suggest that Jesus’ followers exaggerated the story of Jesus’ deity is to simply overlook (or discount) the evidence. Jesus, in one encounter with religious rulers of his day, said that “before Abraham was born, I am” (see John 8). Without understanding Jewish tradition, one may not see the significance of this statement. Why did the Jews pick up stones to stone Jesus after he said this? Was it because he was implying that he was thousands of years old? Was it because he was saying he was reincarnated and existed before Abraham? No, neither of these hypotheses make sense of the story. Jesus, raised a Jew, would know full well that his wording would remind the Jews of God’s words to Moses at the burning bush (see this verse). Without doubt, Jesus explicitly claimed to be God Himself through his statement.
The one other piece of evidence I’ll point out here is that Jesus accepts worship from his disciples, which would go against everything Jesus taught and believed unless he believed he was the eternal God.
2. Where and how did they get their spiritual revelation?
The Buddha received his revelation through isolated introspection. He had visited many brahmans and hermits to seek truth, but he rejected their teachings as worthless. Sitting under the Bodhi tree in deep meditation, he was able to grasp with clarity the ultimate truths about life and the universe.
Jesus was raised a Jew, and it was his custom to visit the synagogue regularly. He learned the Jewish scriptures well, and even as a child, his insight into the things of God amazed the rabbis. He did not reject the religion of the Jews as false, although he did offer points of correction in interpretation. Jesus indicated through such statements as, “I only do what I see my Father doing,” that Jesus received his revelation through his relationship with God. It is said of Jesus that he often went off by himself to pray, which reveals that his relationship with God was a priority for him.
3. What was their core message?
Suffering is samsara (the cycle of birth and rebirth). This suffering is caused by ignorance. The solution to this suffering, then, is for each being to neglect all desire and refine their intellect. To become acquainted with pure knowledge is to become enlightened, which is the way to reach nirvana (the highest state of consciousness where the Ego no longer exists, where the cycle of birth and rebirth is broken). The Buddha served as a model for others to follow in this regard. No one can save anyone else, as each person’s journey is their own. Anyone can pursue the path of knowledge, although it is not possible for everyone to reach enlightenment within the current lifetime.
Suffering results from a broken relationship with God. This brokenness is both individual and global, as the entire creation was subjected to suffering after the Fall (where the first humans decided to follow the advice of satan to pursue knowledge of good and evil rather than trust and obey God). The solution does not rest in broken humanity; rather, it is God alone who can remedy the condition of humanity and all creation. He offered the solution by entering the human condition (through Jesus), living a perfect life (resisting satan’s rule), sacrificing himself (taking upon himself the brokenness of humanity), and raising to life again (to defeat death and provide the path back to God for all humanity). Jesus served not only as a model for others to follow but also as the crucial component in God’s plan to redeem all things. No one can save himself or anyone else apart from the grace of God offered through Jesus. Anyone who accepts God’s grace (extended through Jesus) and repents from their broken ways is immediately restored in their relationship to God and empowered to spread God’s love to others.
4. To whom did they first go with the message?
After the Buddha attained enlightenment, he remained rather isolated for almost two months. He went on contemplative journeys, and he spent weeks meditating under the Bodhi tree. As he contemplated, he considered how subtle and hard to understand the knowledge was that he had discovered, and he concluded that his efforts would be wasted if he attempted to spread this knowledge to anyone. Brahma himself came down to earth and persuaded the Buddha to preach the message. The Buddha decided that he would have pity on mankind and preach the message. He started by teaching those whom he knew were virtuous, intelligent, energetic, and seeking the path already. He went first to his former disciples, and from there he preached to brahmans, a wealthy merchant, skilled musicians of the king’s court, and a king of a neighboring kingdom. Of all these first encounters, only men are mentioned.
The Buddha delivered his message to all sorts of people, in all economic classes, of both genders, and of many ages. However, it is important to note that his preference was to deliver the message to those who were already of spiritual, economic, or political status. Also, when the Buddha first started the order of monks, he intended to include only men. It was only after the women “proved” themselves to be able to be dedicated to the message that the Buddha allowed an order of female monks.
The Buddha’s preference for delivering and maintaining the knowledge of the path to enlightenment was based on his concept of the evolution of souls over multiple lifetimes. Those who were more devout, those who were in positions of power, and those who had riches were in those life situations because of the karma they had accrued in previous existences. Thus, those of “higher” status were proven as more virtuous, and therefore more trustworthy to carry forward the message. The Buddha also indicated that the male form was a “higher” form than the female, and that while males were capable of achieving enlightenment within their current lifetime, women were incapable of the same achievement because of their unresolved karma. The path to enlightenment is open to everyone, but the hope of attaining nirvana is farther off for some than for others.
Jesus first announced that he was the prophesied Messiah (the deliverer the Jews were expecting God to send them) after his ritual Scripture reading at the synagogue. After their initial amazement, the people quickly changed their mind about Jesus and determined to throw him off a cliff. Jesus evaded their attempt, and he immediately left to a neighboring town to begin preaching the good news of the kingdom to the common people. Among those he taught first were crowds including men, women, and children.
Jesus chose twelve men to carry the responsibility of spreading the message (and with this responsibility would come great sacrifice). Yet Jesus broke the cultural stereotypes by including women in his inner circle of friends and ministry. The Jews did not allow the Scriptures to be taught to women, and yet Jesus gave the primary learning position to women on multiple occasions. The testimony of women was not considered evidence in the Jewish courts, and yet Jesus empowered women to testify of what they had seen and heard. Jesus treated and regarded women and men (and children) as having equal importance and equal value. Anyone—male or female, young or old, rich or poor—had access to new life, grace to change, and the gift of the Holy Spirit (given after Jesus returned to heaven), conditioned not upon their efforts to improve themselves, but only upon their decision to follow God.
5. Were they popular?
The popularity of the Buddha is one of the major points of emphasis in the accounts of his life. (And this was the argument that the little girl I met in Cambodia made when comparing Buddha to Jesus.) From the time he was a child, Gautama Buddha was revered for his beauty, intellect, and skill. When he delivered his message to the people, the people were amazed and instantly gave up their previous lifestyle to follow the Buddha. Those who started skeptical of the Buddha were often convinced after only one short conversation with him. Any who hesitated to give the Buddha assistance (like passage across a river) mourned after the Buddha performed some miraculous work showing he did not need their assistance, as they realized they had missed out on a great opportunity for blessing. Those who directly opposed Buddha received judgement and punishment from Buddha. (In one of the first cases, the daughters of Mara tried to tempt the Buddha with their beauty, and Buddha struck them with a curse of old age, taking away their beauty. This caused them to mourn over what they had done, and the Buddha restored them after they acknowledged who he really was.) The Buddha generally met little to no resistance everywhere he went. This remained true until the day he died.
Jesus was as controversial as he was popular. He drew crowds with his teaching and healing miracles, and yet because of the same he was thrown out of cities. The religious rulers conspired to kill him. Many who followed him abandoned him when his teachings became difficult to understand. After three short years of ministry, he entered into the city of Jerusalem with the highest praises from ordinary Jewish people. And yet, one week later, those same crowds called out to the governor for Jesus to be crucified (the method of execution for the worst criminals in the Roman Empire). Even during these most extreme times of rejection and misjudgment, he never dealt out judgement or punishment to his opposers. Instead, he sought their good and extended forgiveness. Jesus met severe opposition, and yet he also gained loyal followers.
From this short comparison, we can see many differences between Jesus and the Buddha. Although there are some similarities, even those similarities are framed within contexts that give them different meanings. It is only after understanding these differences that we can properly compare the teachings of Jesus and the Buddha to see how similar they are, really.
The fact that details regarding the upbringing and ministries of the Buddha and Jesus are very different (even opposite at points) is uncontroversial. The real question is, what can we gather from these differences? Are these differences ultimately irrelevant? Do they indicate that one leader is more trustworthy than the other? How do we interact with people who follow these leaders, and how should we think of them? Are the followers of Jesus and the Buddha ultimately discovering the same spiritual truths and traveling on the same road toward enlightenment and self-improvement? We will consider these questions, and more, in articles to come.