The personalities and teachings of Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and Jesus Christ have left footprints in the historical recorded equaled by 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 in the world. However, their teachings clearly differ, and one might wish to note some of these differences which is why presented here are a few interesting differences between these two great 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, he 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 by saying 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).
So, whether Gautama actually lived as a historical person, or if he never said and did what is recorded of him saying and doing, it does little to discredit Buddhism. However, such would not cohere with the Christian religion. The historicity of Christ is foundation to the Christian faith. The apostle Paul in one of his epistles 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). For Christians, Christ’s atoning death on the cross for the salvation of humankind requires that he was a historical figure who actually died on a cross and was then resurrected.
It is 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. The Buddha lived either from 566 to 486 BC or from 448 to 368 BC, and the earliest materials (consisting of teachings collected by his followers) on him are found towards the end of the 1st century BC. The Buddhacarita (an epic poem penned by Aśvaghoṣa) was authored around the 2nd century AD while the Pali Canon, penned in Sri Lanka, is just shy of half a millennium removed from the Buddha’s life. Other texts such as the Lalitavistara Sūtra, Mahāvastu, and the Nidānakathā all fall within the first millennium AD.
Christians need not worry about the basic historicity of Christ. There are numerous sources, many of them independent and early, that can be used to reconstruct Christ’s ministry, namely the biographical Gospels, the Pauline epistles, the inauthentic Pauline epistles, and the general epistles. That rounds to roughly a dozen or so authors who penned nearly 30 books within 60 years of Christ’s life. This is just from the New Testament and does not take into consideration the apostolic church fathers, and Roman and Jewish historians. The time span 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 and Loazi to the Buddha. The upshot of this is that it is unlikely that mythological fabrications and embellishments impugned the historical data in the gospel and Pauline accounts. The Buddha cannot boast the same as many centuries elapsed before written texts appear. It is also important to note that only a small sliver of Christ’s life is open to historical reconstruction. The gospel author 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 12 there is silence regarding the entirety of Christ’s teenage years and what he did prior to his ministry toward the end of his life.
The Buddha insisted that he was not divine, and that his problem with life was suffering of people and even animals (as taught in his sermon on the four noble truths). 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 samsara (the cycle of birth-death-rebirth). The fourth truth of the four noble truth establishes the eightfold path. This consists of eight principles (such as right living, right thoughts, right action etc.) that people are to live out in their lives should they wish to obtain enlightenment.
Christ, on the other hand, claimed to be the Messiah prophesied in Daniel 7. This figure, referred to as the “Son of Man,” is viewed as equal with God, and given power, authority, and dominion over creation. Christ uses 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 relieving 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 differs to the Buddha for as a Jew he was a monotheist (he believed in one God), and believed in the God the prophets of Old Testament did. He also claimed equal status with God, and convinced witnesses of this through his supernatural feats, teachings, and resurrection from the dead.
Christ’s miracles, in which he is said to have healed the sick and lame, enjoy early, multiple, and independent attestation. 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 Jewish-Roman 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 clear that legendary and mythological embellishments found their way into the oral traditions as the centuries passed by. For example, when he was a baby anywhere the Buddha 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 Tavatimsa. When he was there the Buddha preached the Abhidharma 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 which bear such dramatization are likely evidence of legend and myth. They seem analogous to the mythological embellishments found in the late Gnostic texts on Christ which speak of him making birds from clay, cursing a playmate and killing him, and cursing some parents whom then become blind. 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).
Salvation versus Liberation
According to the teachings of the Buddha human beings are each responsible for attaining their own liberation. This differs to the teaching of Christ which said that human beings are unable to save themselves from the divide that separates them from God. The Buddha established the dharma (the way) which, if pursued, will result in liberation. However, it is still up to the individual to grasp this truth and live it out in order to attain nirvana. As one scholar of Buddhism comments: “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). However, Christ is far more pessimistic concerning the human condition, and viewed human beings as both helpless and hopeless before a holy God without his atoning death on the cross.
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.
8. Craig, W. 2013. Accounting for the Empty Tomb. Available.