What Are Some Differences Between The Buddha and Jesus Christ?

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It is uncontroversial to claim that the personalities and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and Jesus Christ have left footprints in the historical record equaled by very few others. The Buddha’s teachings on the Four Noble Truths and the eightfold path (the dhamma) and Jesus’ revelation concerning the Kingdom of God have influenced billions of people around the world. However, their teachings differ in some important ways and it might be in one’s interest to observe a few of these. Presented here are several interesting differences between these two figures of history.

The Meaningfulness of Their Existence

In 1960 a theologian by the name of Paul Tillich visited Japan and in conversation with some Buddhist scholars asked that “If some historian should make it probable that a man of the name Gautama never lived, what would be the consequence for Buddhism?” These Buddhist scholars responded that the question of the historicity of Gautama Buddha has never been an issue for Buddhism: “According to the doctrine of Buddhism, the dharma kaya [the body of truth] is eternal, and so it does not depend upon the historicity of Gautama” (1). That some modern historians, although a small minority, have questioned the Buddha’s historical existence is not of a particular concern. So, whether Gautama actually lived as a historical person (which he likely did) or if he never said and did what is recorded of him saying and doing, it does little to discredit Buddhism.

This scenario could not be more different for Christians. Christians will claim that the historicity of Jesus is absolutely foundational to their religion and that without him their faith will implode. The apostle Paul, the earliest Christian writer, in one of his letters emphasized this stating that if Jesus had not raised from the dead then the Christian faith is futile and useless, and human beings are still in their sins (1 Corinthians 15:14–19). To say that Jesus was raised from the dead by God is to suggest that a historical person died, was buried in a tomb, and later raised out of that tomb leaving it vacant. Paul’s claim would make no sense if this was not the case. In other words, Jesus’ earthly existence is crucial and cannot survive without it.

Their Historicity

It is very difficult to establish with certainty the events and teachings of the Buddha. Source materials used for reconstructive purposes are far removed from the time he lived, often by several centuries, and are strikingly legendary. The Buddha lived from 566 to 486 BCE or from 448 to 368 BCE, but the earliest materials (consisting of teachings collected by his followers) are found towards the end of the first century BCE in the three baskets. The Buddhacarita (an epic poem penned by Aśvaghoṣa) was authored around the second century CE and other texts such as the Lalitavistara Sūtra, Mahāvastu, and the Nidānakathā all fall within the first millennium CE. Again, as we noted above, this is likely to be of little concern for Buddhists, although some will argue that their texts are more truly representative of the Buddha’s original texts than are others.

Christians need not worry about the basic historical outline of their founder on the grounds that there are numerous sources, many of them independent and early, that can be used to reconstruct Jesus’ ministry. Historians have in their possession the biographical Gospels, the Pauline epistles, the inauthentic Pauline epistles, and the general epistles from the New Testament to work with. That is roughly a dozen or so authors who composed 27 works within sixty years of Jesus’ death. Beyond the New Testament historians find attestation in the apostolic church fathers, in extra-biblical Roman and Jewish historians, and in the Apocrypha. For example, in terms of Roman and Jewish sources, there is Josephus FlaviusPliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius, and others, all writing within a century of Jesus’ death and mentioning important details of early Christianity including the figure of Jesus himself. The gap of time between the events of Jesus and when these texts were composed is negligible in comparison to most other religious founders of ancient history including Mahavira of Jainism, Laozi of Taoism, Confucius of Confucianism, and the Buddha. It is unlikely that mythological embellishment impugned the core historical data in the New Testament gospels. It is likely that the general historical memory of Jesus has not been lost to myth and legend. The Buddha cannot boast the same given that many centuries elapsed before written texts appeared.

There are some limitations we should note for both Jesus and the Buddha in terms of our material. For Jesus, only a small section of his life is open to historical reconstruction. The gospel authors did not wish to fill in all the background details, so other than two birth narratives and an account of Jesus in the temple at the age of twelve there is silence regarding the entirety of his youth and teenage years. We know next to nothing about what Jesus did prior to his ministry. One can sketch a broader picture of the Buddha’s life by virtue of the amount of legendary material that has been produced on him over the centuries and millennia. Apparently, he was born after an elephant entered into the side of his mother, came from a royal background, was a prince who lived a life of luxury before becoming disillusioned with suffering and death, then fleeing from such an existence to live as an ascetic. Eventually the Buddha attained enlightenment and then began a ministry of teaching and growing a community of disciples. Although some of the teachings in Buddhism probably go back to a historical figure, the general outline of the Buddha’s life as noted here is far from certain.

Their Self-Concept

The Buddha insisted that he was not divine and that the problem in life is attachment to the world that brings pain and suffering. He taught that in order to eliminate suffering from one’s life, one had to let go of desire and in turn embrace an existence of moderation and self-control. This will lead one to a state of happiness and bliss (nirvana) where the person escapes the ceaseless, merciless cycle of birth-death-rebirth called samsara. The fourth truth of the Four Noble Truths establishes the eightfold path and functions as a guide for attaining nirvana. Behaviours such as right living, right thoughts, right action, and so on, are important to live out if one wishes to attain enlightenment like the Buddha.

Jesus, on the other hand, claimed to be the Messiah prophesied in Daniel 7. This figure, referred to as the “Son of Man” (the Son of Man being Jesus’ preferred self-reference in the gospels), is viewed as equal with God and given power, authority, and dominion over creation. Jesus used this title frequently throughout his ministry and believed that he was on a divinely ordained mission to rescue human beings from sin. He wanted human beings to repent of sin and turn to God.

Their Concept of God

The Buddha saw God or the gods as irrelevant to the purpose of obtaining nirvana and releasing oneself from suffering (2). According to one scholar of Buddhism, if by “God” we mean a Creator God then “the Buddha is an atheist and Buddhism in both its Theravada and Mahayana forms is atheistic… In denying that the universe is a product of a Personal God, who creates it in time and plans a consummation at the end of time, Buddhism is a form of atheism” (3). The Buddha made no claim to special inspiration or revelation from any divine source.

Jesus would not have agreed with the Buddha. One of the developments in the field historical Jesus Studies has been to view Jesus as a first century Jew. Although Judaism, like any other tradition, is diverse, historians are now aware of what they can safely assume first century Jews in Palestine would have agreed on. For example, they agreed on the basics such as belief in Yahweh (the one true God who had chosen his people Israel), the importance of circumcision, food laws, the Sabbath, the Jerusalem Temple, and the Mosaic Torah. This was the “mainstream” Judaism into which Jesus was born and belonged. Clearly God featured in Jesus’ worldview in a way that God or gods are absent in the Buddha’s. Jesus spent much time praying to and pleading with God, and he also tried to get others to focus on the coming Kingdom of God. Jesus believed that his mission on Earth was divinely ordained by God himself.

Their Miracles

The emphasis on Jesus’ miracles and their embeddedness in the historical tradition has been another development within historical Jesus studies. Most historians now acknowledge that Jesus was widely regarded as a miracle worker and exorcist. This feature is so embedded in the source materials that if one rejected them out of hand then she might as well throw out everything else she knows about Jesus too. The narratives in which Jesus is said to have healed the sick and lame enjoy early, multiple, and independent attestation. This is a criterion scholars use for vetting the New Testament sources that simply states that if a tradition appears in an early source and in another independent source, then not only is it early, but it is also unlikely to have been made up.

Jesus’ miracles are well attested in this regard. They are found in Q (a hypothetical source used by Matthew and Luke), L (special material for Luke), M (special material for Matthew), Mark, Matthew, Luke, John, and Paul. The “Signs Gospel” which the author of John used also contains several miracle narratives and the first century Jewish historian Josephus Flavius affirmed that Jesus was known for his wonders (see here for an analysis of Flavius’ account). Jesus was a reputed miracle worker and he convinced many people he could heal through supernatural power. One prominent New Testament historian remarks that “Whatever you think about the philosophical possibility of miracles of healing, it’s clear that Jesus was widely reputed to have done them” (4). Another scholar says that “Despite the difficulty which miracles pose for the modern mind, on historical grounds it is virtually indisputable that Jesus was a healer and exorcist” (5).

What of the Buddha and his miracles? It is far less likely that the miracles ascribed to the Buddha reach back to him given how late our sources are. Legendary and mythological embellishments chiseled their way into the oral traditions as the centuries went by. It is usually possible to point out legendary development when a story strikes one as fantastical. For example, when the Buddha was an infant anywhere he placed his feet a lotus flower blossomed. He also purportedly performed a miracle whereby he produced flames from the upper part of his body and streams of water from the lower part of his body, and after which he took three giant steps and arrived in the heaven of Tavatimsa. While there, the Buddha preached to his mother who had been reborn there as a Deva named Santussita. There are also other miracle accounts that are alleged to have happened such as his ability to multiply into a million and then return to normal, he could travel through space, he could make himself as big as a giant and then as small as an ant. These miracles seem likely to be legendary. We find similarly legendary miracles in some later texts mentioning Jesus. In the apocryphal Infancy Gospel of Thomas, Jesus uses soft clay to make toy birds that then fly away. In this case, we know the author was trying to fill in the gap of Jesus’ youth years and attributed to him miracles that seem to have little purpose. In the Gospel of Peter, the resurrection story of Jesus is accompanied by dramatic signs not found in the simpler New Testament gospel texts suggesting embellishment. Buddhist tradition also says that the Buddha once responded to a request for miracles by saying, “I dislike, reject and despise them,” and then refused to comply with the request (6).

Their Concept of Salvation 

According to the Buddha, human beings are each responsible for attaining their own liberation from suffering. What the Buddhist gets out of his worldview is what he puts into it. Tantric Buddhists choose to engage in elaborate dance and movements, Zen Buddhists prioritize meditation to empty the clutter from one’s mind, and Pure Land Buddhists emphasize existing alongside Amitabha in the Pure Land as a way to attain liberation. The Buddhist himself has to put into practice the Buddha’s teachings for his own benefit.

Christians view the role and the teachings of Jesus differently. They claim that their religion teaches that all people are born into sin (this is the doctrine of Original Sin) that continues to nurture and sustain the great, impassable chasm that exists between them and God. For the Christian, it is impossible for one to save himself by crossing this chasm. Jesus was pessimistic about this condition. He viewed human beings as helpless before a holy God whose anger, holiness, and righteousness would exercise judgment upon them without his atoning death on the cross. The Christian message is that only through Jesus’ atoning death can human beings be reunited with the God from whom they have been alienated. Buddhism does not teach this and as one scholar of Buddhism commented: “If the Buddha is to be called a ‘saviour’ at all, it is only in the sense that he discovered and showed the Path to Liberation, Nirvana. But we must tread the Path ourselves” (7).

References.

1. Robert, W. 1961. “Tillich Encounters Japan” in Japanese Religions 2. p. 48–71.

2. Nyanaponika, T. 1996. Buddhism and the God-idea. Available.

3. Jayatilleke, K. 1974. The Message of the Buddha. p. 105.

4. Ehrman, B. 1999. Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. p. 199.

5. Borg, M. 1987. Jesus, A New Vision. p. 61.

6. Walshe, M. 1995. The Long Discourses of the Buddha.

7. Walpola, R. 1974. What the Buddha Taught (2nd edition). p. 1-2.

 

17 comments

  1. One more, just for the sake of discussion….

    > Due to their earliness, abundance and multiple attestation the miracles of Jesus in the Gospel accounts surpass those ascribed to the Buddha.

    I take “earliness” refers to the earliest written descriptions of such act. So, all oral cultures describing events are in huge problem here, irrespective of the events they are describing!

    By “abundance” do you mean the number of miracles or number of testimony? I imagine it’s the second, so, how many exactly testify jesus miracles and how many testify the Buddha’s super natural acts?

    > So, the Buddha taught a philosophy and the other came as our saviour.

    Buddhists understand be free from suffering as the ultimate salvation. So that side-by-side comparison of presenting a philosophy (of what?) and presenting a salvation (from what?) is too vague to carry any meaning.

    > “It does not seem accidental that night […] (Zacharias, Ravi. ‘Why Suffering?’)

    Zacharias quote shows him moving away from Buddhism on the basis of biographical accounts of the Buddha — and accounts you yourself have argued against being factual, historically-wise. That’s not reasonable. Also, from the buddhology side, it’s generally accepted that much of the biographical accounts detailing the Buddha’s life (e.g. jakarta stories and other compositions), which are not present in the earliest volumes of the pali canon, are later compositions. So even buddhologists would not readily accept Zacharias descriptions of the Buddha’s life as authentic.

    > To this end the resurrection of Jesus sets him apart from the Buddha, and puts the Christian faith in a different category from Buddhism and other Eastern religions.

    How exactly?

    For the christians, coming to life again is not intrinsic to our nature, for buddhist it is. Jesus is said to be resurrected and Buddha is said to have attained final nirvana. From the buddhist perspective, that Jesus resurrected is unfortunate, not fortunate.

  2. Your research may right but who knows seeing is believing
    may be lord Jesus body was hidden by his follower because of the king
    in my point of view both are same
    send by the One who we call God

  3. In the end, They’re BOTH right. They both teach us to repent and carry your own cross. What comes around goes around, same as karma. They both want us to be at peace BUT it’s our OWN damn fault for sinning. How can a father show love to HIS son (s) if he doesn’t discipline us? Just because Jesus said I will save you from your sins, don’t mean let me do wrong Monday thru Saturday & repent on Sunday with Christ. That’s what we humans tend to do. Christ said to go ask for forgiveness to your brothers that YOU’VE sinned against before coming to my alter. Buddhism is not a religion, it’s a way of life. People, stop blaming and pointing fingers at others for YOUR choice of thinking….just saying

  4. I wonder, could any fellow Christians reach Jesus or any Buddhists reach the Buddha physically, to have a direct conversation with them?
    If not, how could we actually verify the truthfulness of the Bible or the Pali Canon?
    These scriptures might be historically authentic (or not), but that doesn’t indicate the truthfulness of the teachings. The writers, Jesus or the Buddha might have made false claims, intentionally (to deceive the audience) or otherwise. There is just no prove.

    If we could in no way prove that 1) the words in the scriptures are directly quoted from the speakers (Jesus for NT; Buddha for Pali Canon) without any alterations and 2) the speakers were being 100% truthful,
    but we still choose to believe in them, it is based not on facts but faith. Faiths are totally personal, and there is no point proving to others the reliability of one’s faith (: . We can choose to believe anything, isn’t it?

    And here’s a note for the author: Actually, according to the scriptures, Buddha didn’t teach about suppression of desires, but rather, understand desires by observing them. Since desires are the causes of suffering, understanding them naturally bring about letting go of them and subsequently the cessation of suffering.
    Have you never experienced loosing your grip on something negative (e.g. sadness, hatred, worry) when you truly understand it?

    • The Pali canon is a perfect example of a “telephone game” while the origin of the Bible is completely scrutinized. Buddhism came from man’s perspective (so as Hinduism), ONLY Christianity came from eye witnesses accounts.

      This is the origin of the Biblical canon:
      Early church fathers such as Clement of Rome & Ignatius of Antioch quote several gospels and epistles in the 1st century (meaning that gospel and letters already existed), but the collection of the Biblical canon begin within the first 2 centuries because there were several books around houses considered inspired without been authorized, and possible heresies could arise such as Marcion of Sinope did, by which he form part of the first canon by considering inspired the “Gospel of Luke” and “ten Paul’s epistles”, Marcion didn’t want to take the other gospels and other global epistles (including Revelation) because Marcion was angry with Jews thinking that the God of the Old Testament was a revenge God and everything that had Jews influence needs to be discard. Then the early church and holy preachers step in and this scrutinizing process took 6 centuries.

      Since there were around about 50 books of all sorts to choose from (such as Apollo’s epistles, a different gospel of Matthew, Nativity of the Virgin Mary, Gospel of Thomas, Epistle of Barnabas, The Diageo Didache was part of the inspired books that didn’t make it into the Bible), it was so complicated that the pilgrimage begun and to find out which books were inspires and which ones wasn’t, they used 3 different tests in which they end up selecting the 27 books of the New Testament:

      *1. That they were directly from an apostle or an apostolic origin (eyewitness) or someone that knew an eyewitness.
      *2. That all the books have a theological consistency or same theological root.
      *3. That the books had ecclesiastic usage and that it has an authority by the church (that the book was used before as authentic by church fathers (meaning apostle’s disciples (2nd generation))).

      It was such a great scrutinized job by which the first councils only canonize 20 books in the first 4 centuries and 7 didn’t qualify yet (2 Peter, 2 John, 3 John, Hebrews, Jude, James & Revelation), Revelation didn’t make it until the council of Toledo.

      The first 20 book are known as the protocanonical books of the New Testament and last 7 books are consider deuterocanonical books of the New Testament. The book of Revelation was a conflicted book to make it because it was hard to understand.

      The first 20 books already approved by the council of Hippo (393 A.D.) and their files were open to considering the rest of the books since the early church was fascinated by Revelation, by the book of James for the social work, Hebrew for the high priesthood of Christ. So the Hippo council take those as a possibility until the 3rd council of Carthage (397 A.D. (in Africa)) 6 more books were incorporated except Revelation until the 4th council of Carthage (419 A.D) finally made it (and the Alexandrian Canon (73 books) was officially accepted) but discomfort still existing, but those books still stumble until a more radical council, the 4th council of Toledo (633 A.D.) in Spain was presided by a great theologian Isidore of Seville, finally with him the canon was closed and the Alexandrian Canon was accepted, and they state that he who reject Revelation or James, will be considered anathema and will be excommunicated from the church. Then the Orthodox Church (Greek Church) approve it in the Quinisext Council ((Council of Trullo) 692 A.D.) approved the 27 books.

      The texts were so scrutinized that it went from Rome all the way from the Mediterranean Sea down to the Alexandria Egypt, all agreeing to an infinitesimal degree.

      That is why we have the Hebrew Canon (66 books) and the Alexandrian canon (73 books). That which some people call Catholic Bible (in reality is call Alexandrian canon) were apocryphal books from “Greek spoken Jews adding to the Tanakh after the council of Jamnia finish it, then conservative Hebrew spoken Jews reject them because they had a Greek influence. But those apocryphal books became the deuterocanonical book (second canon) of the Old Testament because they were really precious books that the deuterocanonical book such as the book Maccabees is consider by Jews not just historical but also a miracle because if Jews didn’t survive the time of Hanukkah, it wouldn’t be Christianity because Greeks were determined to exterminate the Jews and God rise Judas Maccabees and provoke an impressive rebellion, it was a clash between truth and Greek philosophical influence, so any Jews that doesn’t read Maccabees will not understand what is the Hanukkah and there is Spiritual richness among the deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament.

      Even Peter mention Paul’s letters in (2 Peter 3:16) as reliable. But the Bible is the most compelling collection of books from over 1500 years of textual scrutiny with over 5200 pieces of manuscripts, the Bible is not even close to being considered “corrupted”.

  5. Your understanding of Buddhism is limited to Buddha Gautama. There are three vehicles: Theravada (also called Hinayana), Mahayana and Vajrayana. Under Vajrayana teachings, there are many miracles performed by Vajrayana buddhists in the last 100 years. The most famous Vajrayana buddhist is Dalai Lama. Coincidentally, even though these three vehicles are stretched apart geographucally, they are not in conflict. Personally I believe in God and pray to God, a lot. Coincidentally, I have studied deeply into buddhism and experienced some miracles performed by Buddhist masters. So I repeat, your writing and understanding of buddhism is insufficient to make a thorough comparison.

  6. There is also a misconception that Buddha is just one person. Actually in Vajrayana text in The Lotus Sutra and Mahayana, the sutras mentions and names numerous Buddhas before this Eon. In fact, Buddha as in Prince Gautama is the 4th Buddha of this eon. Before this eon, there there countless of Buddhas in the previous eon. Hope this fact helps.

  7. Buddha can be understood only in the context of Vedism that was prevalent in his times. I am a Christian, deeply in love and honour Lord Jesus Christ. There is no comparison between Buddha and Christ. They both enrich us with their life and teachings.

  8. Definitely a worthwhile article, my favorite quote from it is “Whatever you think about the philosophical possibility of miracles of healing, it’s clear that Jesus was widely reputed to have done them”

    An important question is why did Christianity succeed?

    Its founder was killed only after 3 years of public ministry and itself was inside of devout community of several million Jews itself part of a greater Roman Empire of 60-100 million which had long established religions.

    For the first 300-400 years Christianity was at a severe disadvantage, followers being bullied, with many going the way of their founder, Jesus Christ, to their deaths. Yet by slow ascendancy, Christians and their ideals eventually ‘conquered” Rome; WITHOUT weapons.

    This PBS Frontline article discusses it was superior theology that did it.
    https://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/religion/why/starktheology.html

    While it is entirely politically incorrect to suggest that one religion has doctrines that are superior than another, let us examine for a moment reincarnation, an important component Buddhism (since this article is about Buddhism though the following can apply to other reincarnation religions as well).

    Suppose for a moment we accept the claims of Buddhism, that reincarnation is TRUE.
    Also suppose we accept the claims of Jesus is TRUE, that if a person accepts him as their Savior, they will dwell eternally in Heaven with those others who have accepted the sovereignty of Jesus Christ.

    According to Buddhism, one must continuously reincarnate lifetime after lifetime, trying to purify from bad karma from previous lifetimes and avoiding more bad karma in the present. And this, I understand, is to assume a person don’t get sidetracked during incarnations, forgetting in a lifetime what they are supposed to do in order to achieve Nirvana. And Nirvana itself is described as “a transcendent state in which there is neither suffering, desire, nor sense of self,” meaning among other things, one loses their personal identity.

    In exchange for devotion to him, Jesus offers eternal life at the end of THIS span, with full consciousness and identity. We need only to look to the Transfiguration where Jesus has his meeting with personages of ancient times, Elijah and Moses, to understand this. (Matthew 17:1–8, Mark 9:2–8, Luke 9:28–36)

    Why should one go through lifetime after lifetime trying to achieve Nirvana when what appears to be a far better alternative is available.. that can be given at the end of one’s CURRENT term?

  9. Well, the human predicament in Buddhism, is far more complicated than a “suppression of desire.” As a matter of fact, mere suppression would be considered useless in Buddhism. Most Westerners cannot dump their cultural baggage to the point that they can understand the Prajnaparamita and also apply it to their condition. Also it is a dubious claim that there is such concrete evidence for the existence of Jesus. I suppose it is easier to claim such evidence exists if we assume every religious source is objective and ignore confirmation bias. As for an historical Gautama? His remains have been verified by archaeologists. Nat Geo even did a watered down show on it for the masses. Other than that – why a “versus” paradigm? No true practitioner of either tradition would share in this spirit of competition and it honestly lowers the discourse to a sort of “my football team is better than yours” level.

  10. great article thank you. Im reading the book of giants now and it mentions Buddha as a disciple. Im wondering if this book was corrupted or just miss-translated.

  11. Both Buddha and Jesus we’re saints but human being all miracles in Bible and if any miracles by Buddha were seems to be unnatural against the law of nature thus look fakes

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