It is uncontroversial to propose 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 Christ’s revelation concerning the Kingdom of God have influenced billions of people across 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 a few interesting differences between these two figures of history. Also note that this entry is not intended to function as an apologetic piece attempting to demonstrate the superiority of any one of these two figures.
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 existence is not of a particular concern. So, whether Gautama actually lived as a historical person (which he very 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 Christ 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 Christ 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 Christ 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, Christ’s earthly existence is crucial and unlike Buddhism cannot survive without it.
It is very difficult to establish with certainty 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 strikingly legendary and mythological. The Buddha lived either from 566 to 486 BCE or from 448 to 368 BCE, but the earliest materials (consisting of teachings collected by his followers) on him 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 to Buddhists, although some Buddhists will argue that their texts are more truly representative of the Buddha’s original texts than some 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 Christ’s ministry. Historians have in their possession the biographical Gospels, the Pauline epistles, the inauthentic Pauline epistles, and the general epistles from the New Testament alone to work with. That is roughly a dozen or so authors who penned nearly thirty books within sixty years of Christ’s death. Beyond the New Testament historians find attestation in the apostolic church fathers, as well as extra-biblical Roman and Jewish historians, and the Apocrypha. For example, in terms of Roman and Jewish sources, there is Josephus Flavius, Pliny the Younger, Tacitus, Suetonius, and others, all writing well within a century of Christ’s death and referencing important details of early Christianity including the historical figure of Christ himself. As such, the gap of time between the purported events of Christ and when these texts were penned is negligible in comparison to most other religious founders of ancient history from Mahavira of Jainism, Laozi of Taoism, Confucius of Confucianism, and to the Buddha himself. The upshot of this is that it is unlikely that mythological fabrication and embellishment impugned the core historical data in the New Testament gospel and Pauline accounts. This is not to say that the gospels and the New Testament are absolutely accurate in everything they claim (I would argue that they are certainly not), but that the general historical memory of Christ and his ministry have not been lost to myth and legend. Time does not favour such a view. The Buddha cannot boast the same as many centuries elapsed before written texts appeared and many of the stories included in these are certainly fantastical.
There are some limitations we should note for both Christ and the Buddha in terms of our material. Regarding Christ, only a small sliver of his life is open to historical reconstruction. The gospel authors did not wish to fill in background details, so other than two birth narratives and an account of Christ in the temple at the age of twelve there is silence regarding the entirety of Christ’s youth and teenage years. We know next to nothing about what he did prior to his ministry. One can sketch a broader account 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. Through a number of attempts at extreme ascetic practice, to renounce the world and attachment to pleasure, the Buddha attained enlightenment and then begun 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.
The Buddha insisted that he was not divine and that his problem with life is attachment to the world that brings on 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 live a life of moderation and self-control. This would lead one time 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 the very purpose of attaining nirvana. Behaviours such as right living, right thoughts, right action, and so on are important to embrace should one wish to attain enlightenment.
Christ, 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 Christ’s preferred and most frequent self-reference in the gospels), is viewed as equal with God and given power, authority, and dominion over creation. Christ used this title frequently throughout his ministry and believed that he was on a divinely ordained mission to rescue human beings from sin. He wished to have human beings repent of sin and to 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.
Christ certainly differed. One of developments made by historians within the field historical Jesus Studies is to come to terms with Christ being first-and-foremost a first century Jew. Although Judaism, like any other tradition, is diverse, historians now know what they can safely assume the Jews of the first century Palestine, despite their diversity, would have agreed on. They would have 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. As such, this would have been the “mainstream” Judaism into which Christ was born and would have belonged. Clearly God featured in Christ’s worldview in a way that God or gods are absent in the Buddha’s. Christ spent much time praying to and pleading with God, and he also tried to get others to focus on the coming Kingdom of God. Christ believed that his mission on Earth was divinely ordained by God himself.
The emphasis on Christ’s miracles and their embeddedness within the historical tradition has been another great stride within historical Jesus studies. Most historians are now willing, despite the secular confines of the academy, to admit Christ was widely regarded as a miracle worker and exorcist. This feature to Christ’s ministry is so embedded within the source materials that if one were to reject them out of hand then she might as well throw out everything else she knows about him too. But scholars know that such an approach is unacceptable. The narratives in which Christ 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 to mine likely authentic data from them, and it 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.
Christ’s miracles are extraordinarily attested to in this regard. They are found in Q, 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 historian Josephus Flavius affirmed that Jesus was known for his wonders (see here for an analysis of Flavius’ account). Christ was clearly a reputed miracle worker and convinced many people he could heal through supernatural power. As one prominent New Testament historian comments: “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 purports 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 actually reach back to him. It is clear that legendary and mythological embellishments found their way into the oral traditions as the centuries passed by, and not only in the miracle stories but also in terms of biographical details of his life. Usually one can deduce legendary development when the story strikes one as overly 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. Miracles such as these evidence dramatization and are more likely to be legend and myth than actual history. There are some parallels to this in later texts mentioning Christ. In the apocryphal Infant Gospel of Thomas, Christ uses soft clay to make toy birds which then fly away. In this case, we know the author was trying to fill in the gap of Christ’s youth years that we know nothing about. In the Gospel of Peter, the entire resurrection story is accompanied by clear signs of embellishment not found in the simpler New Testament gospel texts. 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 teachings of the Buddha, human beings are each responsible for attaining their own liberation. The Buddha established his teaching which, if pursued, will help one attain liberation. Essentially what the Buddhist gets out of his or her worldview is what s/he puts into it. Tantric Buddhists choose to engage in elaborate dance and movements, Zen Buddhists prioritize meditation, and Pure Land Buddhists emphasize existing alongside Amitabha in the Pure Land as a means to attain liberation. No-one will do this for the Buddhist, she has to put into practice the Buddha’s teachings for her own good.
Christians view the role and the teachings of Christ quite differently. They claim that their religion teaches that all people are born into sin (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 him or herself by crossing this chasm. Christ was himself pessimistic concerning this condition. He viewed human beings as both helpless and hopeless before a holy God whose anger, holiness, and righteousness would exercise judgment upon them without Christ’s atoning death on the cross. The Christian message is that only through Christ’s atoning death can human beings be reunited with the God from whom they are 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).
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.