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.
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 Flavius, Pliny 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.
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.
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).
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.