Sunday, December 13

Christian parallels with Buddhism

Both Buddha and Christ preached peaceful co–existence ; the amelioration of suffering by application of an expanded world view for compassion- to present similarities from markedly different cultures. Christ’s Jewish heritage was rooted in the Messianic expectation for the end of the world which leads to his eschatological message whilst Buddha’s concern was over indifference to suffering within a caste based societal system. There remain fundamental differences of substance between the two but personally, on a purely subjective note, I would proffer the view Christ’s sayings also have a distinctive Buddhist flavor to them. Certainly there has been a long history in contemplative Catholicism towards similarity in meditative practices, but I also think there is a tentative link to the way both respond to suffering.

The tenuous parallel link is evident in the expanded compassionate response to suffering. Christ’s ‘sermon on the mount’ was to establish a pacifist society, to end the eye for eye justification and to strive for a universal forgiveness by an active expanded role for compassion. In the Buddhist tradition the release from suffering through Nirvana – by ceasing to will, is the recognizable path to enlightenment. Christ’s account can best be understood by way of eschatology- to establish the spiritual kingdom for righteousness and expanded compassion. That love preached by Jesus was to be universal and to include all people, sufferers, oppressed, those sick, murderers, those found guilty or even your worst enemy. Buddha brought to all sentient creatures that same kindness, friendliness and sympathy but without a personal involvement of heart binded to earthly things.

However, just as the “historical Jesus ‘scarcely exists outside of the Biblical references – except for a fleeting historical reference - so the Buddha also is historically obscure or at least what is attributed to him remains a topic for debate by scholars. Both spent years of monastic contemplation- (Christ may have been a member of the Essenes) prior to a public ministry which attracted disciples and has subsequently spread throughout the world. Their first records and accounts were eventually written down by the disciples and followers. Many Buddhist traditions were orally maintained for over 400 years before any formalization took place. Buddhism may be considered a philosophy or a religion, but more so a religion in my view with Buddhist sacred scriptures and doctrines.

In China philosophical Taoism has influenced Buddhism, but religious Taoism has also been transformed by Buddhism; to include rebirth/ with systems of heavens and hells. (Ching Julia – from Kung Hans and Ching Julia. Christianity and Chinese religions. SCM Press, London 1989) Hans Kung also talks about a kind of Taoist church with priests, monks, cults, feasts, holy water, confession, penance, fasting, legends of saints and even a Taoist Pope. Importantly for both Taoist and Christian thought the innermost essence of Tao and God remains hidden from human beings. (Kung Hans and Ching Julia. Christianity and Chinese religions. SCM Press, London 1989)

Buddhism has been rediscovered in the west and gained popularity as an alternative to secular materialism in philosophy or fundamentalism in religion or for those whose spirituality sits uncomfortably with the various strands of Christianity. Such an interest might seem surprising given for the most part western rationalism which is unaccustomed to discussing such subjects as emptiness, karma, release from suffering through Nirvana – by ceasing to will, illusions of the mind and the idea of death simply taking on a different form of rebirth. But I think the reason Buddhism has gained popularity is it seems less authoritarian and, while its rationality may be debated it does suggest a rational pathway. However, when one examines the mystical bent of all religions and traditional ritual, richness in religious art and the vast body of canonized scripture held by both wisdom streams, I think we all read from the same hymn sheet; to listen to tunes set from fundamentally different cultures but who aspire to the same more positive outcomes.


arulba said...

Very interesting post, Lindsay. Thank you for putting this together!!!

I'm most familiar with Zen Buddhism which does not necessarily put forth a reincarnation theory as normally understood.

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Laura –
Thanks for your thoughts – Buddhist philosophy generally avoids using reincarnation –possibly since reincarnation might imply an existing immortal soul would be capable of transmigration which I gather is contrary to Buddhist thought but much more likely to feature in Hinduism.
I think you find that this is the case - but let me know what you think!
Here is what I understand to be the generally accepted meaning for rebirth.
Rebirth is a continuous metamorphosis through acts and forces arising from one energy source to another whose causes have collapsed. EG -Under Buddhism our previous cumulative Karma is instantly present in rebirths whose life wheels axis represents merits (ridding ourselves of desires and attachments) and demerits.
There are many more similarities once you dig down below the surface - as you would expect in any world religion but much more than I expected and which could include a huge detail in posting.
Best wishes

lindsaylobe said...

By way of example - The body of canonized Buddhist scripture is amazing – I understand it is 4 times the words contained in the Bible, but dwarfed by philosophical Taoism which successfully appropriated Indian Buddhism to represent a body of scripture encompassing over 1,000 volumes, with references to Buddhism, Manichean and Christian works with scholarly references to Confucius, alchemy, yoga and a combined divination manual

Best wishes

susan said...

As you know this is a very interesting subject for me since I've long been one of those spiritual seekers who was never quite comfortable with the Christian dogma presented to me as a child. Of course I loved the stories about Jesus (and the Psalms and the Song of Solomon) but the minister whose sermons I listened to when I was young was very enamoured of the Old Testament and that's where I balked.

I've studied religion for most of my adult life on a quest for understanding and comfort more than as an intellectual inquiry and eventually settled on a Christianized version of Tibetan Buddhism. I can't stray too far from my roots and, as you mentioned, the Sermon on the Mount is likely the most powerful speech ever made about the heart's own reason for love and compassion in the world.

Yes, there's very little information extant about either Jesus or the Buddha. In the case of the former it definitely has to do with the Roman as well as the orthodox suppression of the message. The Buddha was very much against the cult of personality and although he taught for many years and died of old age his followers respected his admonishments about seeing him as more than a man. Like Jesus he taught that we can make Heaven here on earth by practicing compassion. Nirvana is nothing other than a state of Grace. I do own a wonderful little book written by Karen Armstrong called Buddha. You might enjoy it too.

Buddhism is indeed a religion but one that doesn't acknowledge a personal singular God (at least that's how I understand it). There are stories of the million million Buddha Fields where practice and meditation are more amenable to reaching Enlightenment and stories too of the Boddhisattvas who return to this planet again and again having vowed to eschew Heaven until all sentient beings are Enlightened. It's a wonderful philosophy.

Thank you so much for posting about the subject.

Mercutio said...

The Baha'i teaching of progressive revelation holds that Jesus and Buddha (as well as others) are essentially the same.
Various religions were dispensed to man by God to serve the various needs of man at various points throughout history.
The religions remain in order to be of aid those of differing dispositions.
The path is all the same.
God is One. His are the most excellent of Names.

I wish you well on your journey.

gfid said...

"I think we all read from the same hymn sheet"

amen, brother. one difference that occurs to me, between Buddhism and most other religious philosophies, is the area of force. and of war. i don't know of any wars waged by Buddhists. and, though i know only a few people of this philosophy, they are, without exception, exceptionally gentle, respectful and thoughtful people.

most of my experience has been with Christians. i agree with and make an effort to honor the teachings of Christ. he was not the only one to teach these things. it is indeed a shared hymnal.

it seems a shame -even a crime- to me that self avowed practitioners of any faith teaching selfless service and love can so often lose sight of those roots. how is this transformed into the practice of violence and dogma as a way to bring about holiness?

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Susan, Mercutio, Granny Fiddler- Thank you for your thoughtful comments.

Susan- I will read that book you mentioned. Thanks for all of your insights.

Certainly the old Testament does have many wonderful stories as you mentioned but I'm sure you also agree all of the ancient texts are to be read in the context of the then existing culture.

The idea that "Thou Shalt Not Kill" was not to apply to gentiles so that a wholesale slaughter of gentiles was justified is a chilling reminder of ethnic cleansing or of religion perverted to justify war.

Given a literal fundamentalist acceptance of Deuteronomy 20:16-17 (New International Version – see below) - you can appreciate how this would come about.

However, in the cities of the nations the LORD your God, is giving you as an inheritance, do not leave alive anything that breathes. Completely destroy them—the Hittites, Amorites, Canaanites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites—as the LORD your God has commanded you.

One could proffer Christ preached strongly for a completely new order against all violence which was the reason he met with such public hostility from the zealous authorities at the time- and to which I think must necessarily incorporate the wonderful Buddhist philosophy which preceded him and to which you refer.


I have noticed that minority religion has suffered severe persecution in many countries where other religions dominate. Thanks for the reference.

Granny fiddler

Yes that is a good point – since the “holy wars" whose crusaders killed enemies of God, slaughtering innocent Muslims, immediately comes to mind whilst as you say Buddhism seems to remain peaceful.

But according to Brian Victoria, a Soto Zen priest and Lecturer from the University of Auckland, Zen leaders in Japan perverted Buddhism to support war from the 1800's until it reached its zenith in WW2 with mindless killing in total devotion to the Emperor.

The perversion was accomplished by the Zen masters who managed to transform Buddhist religion by replacing the Buddha with the Emperor, Japanese spirit and loyalty in lieu of the Dharma (body of teachings of Buddha) and the nation to replace Sangha- to help each other awaken authentically.

Victoria’s book goes on to talk about a ‘just war' and a 'holy war-as Japan became engaged in a “war of compassion” fought by bodhisattva soldiers (enlightened beings)against the enemies of Buddha.

Sadly I'm sure you would agree any religion can be perverted and twisted to support nationalism and in the quest to justify violence, just as has occurred throughout history and continues on in modern day atrocities.

There is evidence elsewhere in other Buddhist countries Buddhism has been perverted as an enabler to justify oppression or perpetrate structural violence.

I think the desire for power is what causes the distortion- and what better way is there than to use a distorted religion to justify violence, create fear and gain overall control ?

Best wishes

Mercutio said...

Pardon me, Lindsay, but I would like to comment on a previous comment. Actually, I do like these longer posts of yours, and I tend to print them to read them at my leisure. These tends to have several points that need to be fleshed out, and I like the manner in which you lay out the cards one by one to reveal the hand.

At any rate, this is a thing I have often heard, and so I feel inclined to respond. It is often the case that religion is called into question and the actions of believers given as evidence, typically in the case of horrific events such as war.
But this is inaccurate.
This is the rough equivalent of blaming the pot for the roast being overcooked.

Envision, if you will, the web of a spider, at the very point where one strand crosses another. If you press lightly with a finger or a stick or such at that very point, the rest of the web will distort in its shape as well.
No strand is greater than another, but all are a part of the whole.
In much the same manner, where pressure or an impetus of some sort is exerted in the mind of man, those points of connectives will gladly distort in tow, and even to the point of breaking. It happens effortlessly. We tend to think of religion as being something unchangeable and eternal, but it is so only to the point of those mutable and temporal beings which hold it at any given time.
And all of us do it all of the time in much smaller, less noticeable ways.
But this is not a failing of religion, mind you. This is only a faltering of the vessel that would hold the most perfect wine.
And were a few drops to be spilt, that which remains would stand no less perfect.

I hope that makes sense.

lindsaylobe said...

Mercutio - Thanks for your comment which makes perfect sense- I love your spider’s web analogy.
Best wishes

Seraphine said...

i love how you reason and how you present your thoughts, lindsay; they are beautifully expressed.

ahh suffering. it always comes back to that, doesn't it? why must we suffer?
i think compassion is an admirable human trait, shared by few other living beings. if being compassionate brings us closer to heaven or to nirvana, then i have hope for humankind.
maybe there is even hope for me?

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Sera- thanks for your comment.

So here’ s to wishing you a happy compassionate Christmas and also for the new year !

Best wishes

Zee said...

The story is quite simple really. Christ lived as a human for 30 years and then lived for an other 3 years as an imbued spiritual being.
Then he got crucified and his blood trenched the earth. It was basically the first time a "god being" sacrificed itself for the "karma" and betterment of the earth.

Rachael Byrnes said...

"Christian, Jew, Muslim, shaman, Zoroastrian, stone, ground, mountain, river, each has a secret way of being with the mystery, unique and not to be judged."
Rumi Quote

lindsaylobe said...

Hi Zee & Rachael
Thanks for your insightful comments- Best wishes