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However, just as the “historical Jesus ‘scarcely exists outside of the Biblical references – except for a fleeting historical reference - so the Buddha also is historically obscure or at least what is attributed to him remains a topic for debate by scholars.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.