World Religions: The Buddha and the Christ

Among the world’s great religious leaders, only two had such a profound impact that contemporaries inquired as to the very nature of their being.1 People wondered whether Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and Jesus of Nazareth (the Christ) were more than mere human beings. While both are known as great teachers and profound souls, the identity, mission, and message of these two men couldn’t be more different.

The Buddha

Like Christianity, the religion of Buddhism is traced to a single individual. That person is Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563–480 BC). While mixtures of myth and legend make it impossible to completely reconstruct the life of the Buddha, there is a historical core of information known about him.2

Siddhartha was born into the Indian Sakyas clan in the sixth century BC in Nepal, near its border with India. Siddhartha’s father was the feudal lord of the Sakyas people and created a life of luxury for his son. Siddhartha is said to have had three palaces with 40,000 dancing girls at his disposal. He received a cultured education that included studies in the arts, warfare (martial arts), and philosophy. He later married a neighboring princess and they had a son together.

Siddhartha gradually grew discontented with his life of affluence and hedonism. Upon taking a chariot ride into the city he encountered the “Four Passing Sights” (an old man, a diseased man, a dead man, and a monk). These sights represent Siddhartha’s first glimpse of human misery and they profoundly impacted him. For the first time he began to reflect upon the problem of suffering. At age 29, he renounced the pleasures of the princely life, left his family and privileged position behind, and became a truth-seeker. He wanted to uncover the causes and cure of the universal problem of human suffering.

Siddhartha’s search for enlightenment lasted six years and moved through three distinctive phases. First, he studied Hindu philosophy and meditation from the Indian Yogis. Second, he encountered some Jain monks (an offshoot of Hinduism) and adopted their extreme form of asceticism (self-denial). Nearly starving himself to death, he found asceticism no more revealing than his former life of affluence. Third, now fatigued and desperate for genuine enlightenment, he sat in the lotus position before the Bodhi tree in meditation. He decided that he would remain in this “immovable spot” until he was enlightened or dead of starvation. On the forty-ninth day, Siddhartha Gautama experienced the ultimate transformation of consciousness (“Nirvana”) and became “the Buddha”—the “enlightened one” or “awakened one.”

Nirvana is the supreme goal of Buddhism for it breaks the cycling of rebirths (reincarnation). The word “Nirvana” literally means “blowing out” the flame of passion (desire is eliminated). Understood as extinguishing the self (nothingness, the Void), some define Nirvana as continuation of consciousness in a mystical state.

This enlightened state allowed Buddha to understand the causes of, and solution to, the human cycle of suffering. The Buddha’s teaching core consisted of the Four Noble Truths.

Four Noble Truths

  1. Dukkha: The true nature of existence is suffering (sickness, pain, fear, death).
  2. Trishna: Misery is rooted in ignorant craving (Tanha: desire for attachment to the illusory world).
  3. Cessation: Eliminating the desire for attachment can abolish suffering (stop the desiring and the suffering stops).
  4. The Eightfold Path: Stop the desiring through concentrated effort (preparation for Nirvana). The Eightfold path consists of moral, intellectual, and spiritual development leading to enlightenment (transformed consciousness).

The Buddha subsequently conducted a 45-year missionary career of converting people to his religion of mystical enlightenment. He died around 80 years of age.

The Buddha and the Christ

The title “Buddha” means one who has awakened from an illusory state of consciousness. The title “Christ” is Greek for the Hebrew word “Messiah,” meaning the “anointed one”—the special one who would do God’s bidding.

Eight Ways Buddha and Christ Differ

  • History: While the life of the Buddha is wrapped in legend and evolving speculation, Christ is a historical figure whose life, death, and resurrection are rooted in facts of history.
  • Nature: Though the Buddha held an awakened state of consciousness, he was merely a human being, whereas the Christ reveals himself to be both God and man (a single person with both a divine and human nature).
  • Character: The Buddha, even with an enlightened consciousness, had moral weaknesses and limitations. Christ, on the other hand, was morally perfect.
  • Mission: The Buddha’s mission was to help others achieve Nirvana. Christ’s mission was to rescue sinners by providing a sacrifice for sin.
  • Role: The Buddha himself is not crucial to the essence of Buddhism (the Four Noble Truths are the heart of the Buddhist philosophy). On the other hand, historic Christianity is all about Christ (emphasizing his person, nature, life, death, and resurrection).
  • Suffering: The Buddha sought to eliminate suffering through resignation. Christ suffered with and for sinners in order to reconcile them to God.
  • Life: Buddha’s message is life denying. Christ’s message is life affirming.
  • Future: The Buddha offers many lives of suffering with the only hope being extinction (Nirvana). The Christ offers resurrection for the dead and eternal life with God.

Jesus Christ presents a vision of life and reality that is far superior to that of the Buddha. For the historic Christian world-and-life view is uniquely reasonable, testable, viable, workable, livable, and hopeful.

Some Major Tenets
Buddhism Christianity
Problem: Karma (attachment) Problem: Sin
Need: Emptiness Need: God-shaped hole
Solution: Resignation Solution: Faith and Repentance
Ultimate: Nirvana Ultimate: Personal Redemption
Assurance: No Assurance: Yes
Deity: Atheism, Polytheism Deity: Trinitarian Monotheism
Worldview Orientation
Buddhism Christianity
Worldview: Monism Worldview: Theism
Cosmos: No beginning/Endless Cosmos: Creation ex nihilo
Humans: No soul (anatman) Humans: Imago Dei
Knowledge: Mysticism Knowledge: Revelation
History: Cyclical History: Linear

Endnotes

  1. Huston Smith, The World’s Religions (San Francisco: Harper, 1991), 82.
  2. Winfried Corduan, Neighboring Faiths (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1998).

 

  One thought on “World Religions: The Buddha and the Christ

  1. April 7, 2015 at 3:52 am

    Reblogged this on Veracity and commented:
    Ken Samples is producing a series of posts on world religions as he writes a new book on the topic. This post compares Buddha to Christ. Read to the end to find links to related posts comparing other founders of world religions to Jesus Christ.

  2. April 7, 2015 at 5:32 am

    Although Buddhism may have been adopted by non-Christian religions its core is more of a practice rather than a religion. It gives us techniques in building mental strength in dealing with everyday problems. Many of its techniques have been successfully applied to psychology in helping people deal with mental disorders, and chronic pain. Some other parallels between Buddhism and Christianity are the idea that we are all in this together which leads to compassion for all life, gratitude for what we have, through awareness of the present moment. Siddhartha Gautama was also tempted by the devil during his fast under the Bodhi tree. Although his techniques are not a cure for diseases and pain, they do give one a tool that can alleviate the suffering through mind over matter. In Christian terms, Siddhartha provides tools that can be used in the war of our soul/spirit over our flesh. (see 1 Peter 1.13; 2.11) Now I might also mention that although Jesus Christ is central to Christianity, it is his teachings that “embody his being”, that is if we eat his flesh and drink his blood, we are doing what he taught, we are following him. (see John 6.56, 63) If we simply focus on his person without practicing what he taught, we are only burning incense to a bronze serpent on a pole, nothing more.(see 2 Kings 18.4)

    We never keep to the present. We recall the past; we anticipate the future as if we found it too slow in coming and were trying to hurry it up, or we recall the past as if to stay its too rapid flight. We are so unwise that we wander about in times that do not belong to us, and do not think of the only one that does; so vain that we dream of times that are not and blindly flee the only one that is. The fact is that the present usually hurts. We thrust it out of sight because it distresses us, and if we find it enjoyable, we are sorry to see it slip away. We try to give it the support of the future, and think how we are going to arrange things over which we have no control for a time we can never be sure of reaching.
    Let each of us examine his thoughts; he will find them wholly concerned with the past or the future. We almost never think of the present, and if we do think of it, it is only to see what light it throws on our plans for the future. The present is never our end. The past and the present are our means, the future alone our end. Thus we never actually live, but hope to live, and since we are always planning how to be happy, it is inevitable that we should never be so. (172)

    Blaise Pascal’s Pensées
    II Vanity thought 47
    translated by Dr A. J. Krailsheimer

    • April 7, 2015 at 4:39 pm

      Chris?

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      Theravada Buddhism is more about physical and mental practices than speculations concerning God. But even Theravada Buddhism makes metaphysical claims about the nature of reality (for example, all reality is impermanent) and makes claims about the human condition (humankind’s fundamental problem is ignorance instead of sin against a personal God).

      I agree there is common ground between Christians and Buddhists (particularly concerning certain practices and ethical values). But even the Dalai Lama has said that Buddhism’s metaphysical position of the impermanence of all things rules out the existence of a theistic God. Thus the two religions clash on such critically important issues as the nature of ultimate reality and salvation.

      It is true that Christians are to aspire to keep Christ’s commands and teachings. But historic Christianity is built upon who Jesus is ontologically (Incarnate God) and what he did on the cross (atonement). To put it in other words, Buddha points the way to Nirvana whereas Jesus is the door to eternal life.

      I appreciate the Pascal quote.

      Best regards.

      KS

      • April 8, 2015 at 6:32 am

        Yes, you can call me Chris, which is short for Christopher. I quoted the thought of Pascal because, as you must know, Buddhism is a form of mindfulness practice, although the end result is Nirvana. Pascal’s observation seems it might have been influenced by the practice, with a Christian perspective; however, he was likely influenced by contemplative monks, such as Meister Eckheart and the desert monks of the Philokalia. What I find amazing is the many parallels in other religions with Christianity, although not the Truth, there are elements of the Truth in them all. The question is, why? And it seems wise that we find these parallels, and prove why they exist.

        I disagree with this idea of building upon Christ as God first, rather, if Christ is God, and is alive, and is the Truth, he will reveal himself to anyone who truly seeks him, not by believing he is God but by practicing what he taught. (see John 14:15, 21, 23) If Christ can’t do this, he is as C.S. Lewis points out, just some dead lunatic, and as I have heard someone say, “a dead Jew on a stick”. He has commissioned his followers to be that revelation toward seekers and so his person should be seen in the Church. (see John 13:34-35, Mat 5:14) If the Church isn’t doing what he taught, then it is not going to be able to reveal to others God in the flesh. I propose that we must build from within ourselves first, on the foundational cornerstone, and then work out from there.

        On a historical note, as you can see there is no mention of the trinity or need to teach it in the Didache (/ˈdɪdəkiː/; Koine Greek: Διδαχή) or The Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (Didachē means “Teaching”). It is therefore no foundational even if it can be deduced from Scripture.

        The way of God, who disposes all things with gentleness, is to instill religion into our minds with reasoned arguments and into our hearts with grace, but attempting to instill it into hearts and minds with force and threats is to instill not religion but terror. 〖Terror rather than religion.〗(185)

        Blaise Pascal’s Pensées
        XIII. Submission and Use of Reason
        translated by Dr A. J. Krailsheimer

      • April 8, 2015 at 12:58 pm

        Chris:

        Just one response to your latest comment and then I need to get back to my latest book writing venture.

        All three branches of theologically conservative Christendom affirm the essential importance of the doctrine of the Trinity as is reflected in the universal Athanasian Creed. And as a Protestant Christian by conscience I must affirm all things taught in or derived from Scripture.

        Best regards,

        KS

  3. April 7, 2015 at 9:31 am

    Is not the desire to have no desire (Nirvana) a desire itself? Is not Buddhism, therefore, self refuting?

    • April 7, 2015 at 4:08 pm

      Gary:

      Some would say that desire of any kind even for Nirvana builds karma. So the system does not escape legitimate questions about logical coherence.

  4. Jason
    May 25, 2015 at 10:34 pm

    There are some fundamental (though common) misconceptions about Buddhism here. Resignation is NOT the answer, giving up attachments is. Buddhism is firmly against nihilism. The result of awakening is not extinction/life-denying, it is bliss and being according to our true nature. I personally find Christianity, a religion founded upon blood sacrifices and parental abuse, far more disturbing a paradigm.

    I don’t think Buddhism and Christianity can be fully reconciled, since Buddhism is based on reason (which denies the Christian/Jewish/Muslim type of god and soul) and Christianity on faith, but there are some more historical parallels missing. For instance, both men were social reformers challenging the establishment. Siddhartha denied the caste system, sacrificing living creatures, and other parts of the Hindu system he was in. Jesus played a similar role in Jewish society and perhaps even borrowed Buddhist teachings (given the similarity of some of the messages and that they would have been known in that area at the time), though there is no proof.

    The claim that Jesus is superior to Buddha because he was a god is an interesting one because in the Mahayana Buddhist view, a buddha is superior to gods and other sentient beings. In fact, the gods are subject to samsara and thus suffer, die, and undergo rebirth as do all other sentient beings (though they reside in a much more pleasant abode and live a lot longer) that haven’t attained buddhahood. By description, Jehovah/Allah/Yahweh would seem to be a “demi-god” by Mahayana Buddhist cosmology given his jealous, vengeful nature and I’ve wondered if perhaps his death or enlightenment is the reason for no longer influencing the world when the Old Testament has him interacting with the world quite a bit.

    The very stringent logical coherence is one of the main reasons I favor Buddhism. The answer to Gary Kurtz is an emphatic no, because you left that part out of the story. Giving up the ascetic lifestyle and eating some food was an important step to his enlightenment, because that is when he gave up his attachment to becoming enlightened. A good understanding of what attachment is took me quite a bit of contemplation to gain. Like karma, samsara, nirvana, and many of those eastern concepts, attachment is grossly misunderstood in the west. .

    Buddhism is the most logical and yet the most hopeful as the end point for all sentient beings is awakening and an end to suffering. Some will literally go through hells on the journey, but in Mahayana Buddhism there are people further along in the process (bodhisattvas) and those who’ve reached the destination (buddhas) to help guide us. One of the other reasons I prefer Buddhism over Christianity is that no one, not even a buddha, can do the work for you. You have to walk the path yourself. There is also no need of a savior because there’s nothing to be saved from (except maybe yourself…which only you can do).

    • May 26, 2015 at 7:05 pm

      Thich Nhat Hanh might not agree with your comparison. Have you read his book, “Living Buddha, Living Christ”?

      • May 28, 2015 at 5:35 pm

        Hello, Jason.

        Thank you for reading my article and for leaving your thoughtful comments.

        I do find Buddhism to be a reflective and interesting philosophy of life. Gautama was an extremely impressive person.

        There is a lot to respond to in your comments. Let me just respond to your statement that “Buddhism is the most logical” religion.

        I actually find a number of logical problems with the basic ideas of Buddhism. Consider these:

        Anicca (everything is impermanent, in change and flux):

        The Buddhist teaching that everything is impermanent and undergoes constant change and flux is logically inconsistent with other claimed Buddhist truths that are said to be permanent and unchangeable. Let’s look at three examples:

        First, the principle of anicca contradicts the principle of dukkha:

        • Life is impermanent (anicca). — Life is suffering (dukkha).

        The logical problem is that anicca applies to dukkha thus not even suffering is permanent.

        Second, the principle of anicca contradicts the principle of enlightenment:

        • Everything is impermanent (anicca). — The enlightened state is permanent (nirvana).

        The logical problem is that everything changes and not everything changes.

        Third, the principle of anicca contradicts the principles of the Eightfold Path:

        • Nothing is enduring (anicca). — Certain principles are enduring (Eightfold Path).

        Buddhism’s core teachings when analyzed carefully seem to be self-referentially absurd. There are other problems I have detected as well as I have studied Buddhism.

        So while I find a number of things in Buddhism that as a Christian I can agree with (e.g., seeking a moral life, self-discipline, compassion), I don’t think your claim that Buddhism is deeply logical passes the analysis test.

        We can converse further if you like. And thanks again for responding.

        Best regards,

        Ken Samples

      • May 28, 2015 at 5:40 pm

        Hello, Chris.

        I haven’t read the book you mentioned by I am aware that certain authors try to find strong similarities between Buddha and Christ. There are some similarities but there are also some deep differences. I’m working on a book where I compare Jesus to Buddha, Krishna, Confucius, and Muhammad.

        Best regards,

        Ken

      • May 28, 2015 at 7:32 pm

        It is not a very long read, and will increase your understanding as well as your approach in comparison. Blessed are the peace-makes, and among them very likely will be Thich Nhat Hanh.

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