In recent months I’ve been travelling around Western Europe and one thing you can’t help but notice over is how pervasive Christianity is in this part of the world. If we live in similar, modern societies then there’s no doubt we’ve also been exposed to this expansive religion, whether or not we ever went to church or a religious school
As a child I went to church for many years myself, and the school I attended was of a Christian denomination. However despite my exposure to Christianity throughout my upbringing, I must confess that it never particularly resonated with me
In more recent times however, I’ve been inspired by re-familiarising myself with quotes from Jesus’s teachings, and at times developed feelings of great joy and appreciation…. because the Buddhist teachings have helped illuminate them for me and they’ve also helped me to more deeply appreciate the Buddhist teachings themselves
This has come as somewhat as a surprise to me, given that I listened to many teachings from the bible growing up and never found them to be relevant to my own life, nor particularly engaging. However I am now of the belief that this wasn’t so much the fault of the teachings, but rather the limitation of the person attempting to interpret them
In fact if we think about the approach Venerable Geshe-la first took when he came from Tibet to teach in England, he had difficultly teaching Buddhism because they hadn’t been changed in any way to accommodate for the the new audience. Seeing how the teachings weren’t really resonating, he subsequently realised they would need to be re-presented to account for the substantial differences in culture and gained permission from his spiritual guide, Trijang Rinpoche, to do this
In this way we can understand that for us to fully ‘get’ the ancient wisdom arising from spiritual masters more than 2,000 years ago, it makes sense that they would need to be re-interpreted, not just at a superficial level, but in a way that resonates with. As demonstrated by Geshe-la, this is achieved by presenting them in a way that makes the teachings relevant to our own experience and understandings
So in the lead up to Christmas I’ve decided to write a couple of articles exploring how the teachings on Buddhism both overlap with and help to illuminate the teachings of Jesus Christ. Of course this is merely an interpretation, and if we don’t find it helpful or disagree then no problem. Ultimately it’s up to us how we decide to interpret everything that appears to our mind
However if we take a moment to contemplate how much the teachings of Jesus have been proliferated throughout the modern world, then I’m sure we can appreciate the potential benefits for both ourself and others of finding commonalities between these two religions
To give some more context regarding how I will be approaching this, in this first article I would like to explore some of the similarities between the spiritual fathers of each religion (Buddha Shakyamuni and Jesus Christ), and then building on this I will look at the relationship the teachings of Buddha may have, if any, with Jesus and his own teachings
Then in the second article I will be digging a bit deeper into Jesus’s teachings, specifically drawing on some quotes and surmising how they may in fact relate to and overlap with those found in the Buddhist teachings
The purpose of these articles isn’t so much to come to any definite conclusions, but rather by taking scriptural references from both religions, attempt to highlight the connection between Buddhism and the teachings of Jesus, with the hope that, just as I have, we may also develop a greater appreciation for both
Exploring the connection between two spiritual revolutionaries
Prince Siddhartha, who was to become the first Buddha in this world (known as Buddha Shakyamuni), was born over 400 years before Jesus, however there are similarities in the periods in which they entered this world. Both appeared during times of conflict and in societies where there were very clear divisions between the classes
Jesus was born during the reign of the Romans, who had a very distinct class system and one where wealth and power were celebrated. At the time Buddha appeared India had, and still does to this day, a seemingly oppressive class system that inevitably alienated many parts of society
There were prophecies surrounding the birth of both these future spiritual teachers and there were also similarities in the beginnings of their appearances in this world. Jesus’s mother Mary was known as ‘The Virgin’ due to the immaculate conception, whilst something miraculous was also said to surround that of Siddhartha’s birth, who was taken from the side of his mother during which she experienced no pain
Although there are also clear differences between the lives of these two beings, there do appear to be further similarities. Both grew up in religions in which there was fracturing and confusion. Based on some interpretations, we’re told that the church, which at the time adhered to the religion of Judaism, was self-serving and primarily interested in staying in control rather than bringing great benefit to the people
Siddhartha grew up as a Hindu, and not entirely dissimilar to the disharmony arising within Judaism at the time of Jesus, the increasing prevalence of asceticism was challenging the spiritual traditions of the day. This in turn caused great confusion regarding how one should progress on, and ultimately complete the path to end all suffering
Finally, both men ended up becoming spiritual revolutionaries, causing upheaval and radical development in the religious communities within which they arose. Due to the great presence and influence they had in their respective societies, they were feared, with plotting taking place by opponents to destroy them, as well as immensely revered and worshipped.
Ultimately and most meaningfully, they both sparked a great awakening amongst many spiritual practitioners of the time, and throughout the following centuries their followers have continued to realise the truth of what they came to share. Although the evidence of such realisations may be much clearer within the Buddhist tradition, it’s advisable to remain open-minded regarding the positive impact both Jesus and his teachings had on his disciples and followers
What connection does Jesus have with Buddhism?
It seems difficult to doubt that both Jesus Christ and the Buddha are the two most well known and recognised spiritual figures of this world. That’s not to say there haven’t been other people who have radically and positively influenced spirituality and religion, but for me these two stand out in particular
Despite where most of us are based geographically speaking, it’s likely that just going to our local town or city we’d be very likely to see a representation of either Buddha or Jesus; an indication of just how much they’ve become part of modern, mainstream society
When considering the relationship between Buddhism and the teachings of Jesus, it would be fair to say that there is no clear evidence of any such connection. In fact for most people, they probably wouldn’t really see any relationship between them at all and this would be a fair interpretation considering it’s apparent that indeed Christ was not a Buddhist
But although the arrival of Jesus was to trigger the beginnings of an entirely new religion, who’s to say that his immense presence wasn’t somehow related to the arrival of the Buddha 400 years earlier, who himself marked the beginnings of a spiritual revolution in this world
In fact, is it not possible that Jesus was somehow exposed to the teachings of the Buddha during his earlier years, as some academics have theorised. Or taking this one step further still, is it not possible he was an emanation of Buddha himself, sent to benefit the people of this world?
If we take a look inside the book Joyful Path of Good Fortune (a text translated from Buddha’s teachings and interpreted for the modern world), it might even be said that the following paragraph supports the view that an immensely well loved and iconic spiritual figure such as Jesus could indeed have been one of Buddha’s emanations:
‘Since Buddhas attain enlightenment for the sake of all living beings and not just to benefit Buddhists, they also manifest as teachers of other religions and give instructions in accordance with the needs and inclinations of different practitioners.’
If we believe that what is written here is true, then one has to wonder – if Buddha were to decide to appear as just one spiritual figure from a different religion, which one would it be? Assuming he would want to benefit as many people as possible, then it would seem logical he would choose to appear as the leader of the religion which was to arguably have the greatest influence in our world
If we choose to believe that Jesus was an emanation of Buddha, understanding this is simply a choice, then we’ll immediately start to feel much more connected with him and more open to his teachings. As a Buddhist we don’t necessarily need to worry about making any particular effort to do this, but chances are that living in society we will inevitably encounter statues and quotes of Christ, so if we’re open to doing this I would suggest we can potentially gain a great deal of benefit
That doesn’t mean to say we would be taking all of the teachings of Jesus literally or following them blindly, but if we feel confident to do so we can apply the filter of our own wisdom gained from Buddha’s teachings and take a new and deeper meaning into our hearts
Also if anyone reading these posts that is in fact a Christian, then I would also hope that they might potentially deepen their appreciation for the teachings of Jesus through some of the deeper meanings being illuminated. Of course it’s not that this hasn’t been done before, but just that it’s likely most people haven’t been exposed to such presentations
Continuing with this process of aiming to identify the connection between these two religions and spiritual teachers, in another book based on Buddha’s teachings, it actually suggests a possible relationship between Jesus and the teachings of Buddha. In How to Transform your Life it is written:
‘Faithful Buddhist practitioners believe that when their Spiritual Guide is ill, in reality he or she is taking on the suffering of others. Many Christians also believe that by allowing himself to be crucified Jesus was taking on the sufferings of human beings. It is quite possible that Jesus was practising taking while he was on the cross.’
I’ve always found this a very interesting reference to Jesus, and one has to wonder why it was included in a book based on the teachings of Buddha. Surely to suggest that Jesus may have been engaging in the practice of ‘taking the suffering of others’, would lead most people to the conclusion that indeed that must have been what he was doing!
It’s also quite possible that the author thought it more suitable to infer that Jesus was doing what’s commonly known as Buddhist practice, rather than stating it outright. Possibly because drawing such explicit links between Buddhism and Christianity may cause confusion for readers, most of whom would likely already have been exposed to a great deal of Jesus’s teachings, and would rather have been seeking to attain a clearer understanding of what the Buddha taught
Who exactly was Jesus?
It’s possible that we’ll never find a conclusive answer to this question, however what Buddhism teaches us to do is interpret whatever appears to us in the way that brings the greatest benefit. Such is the power of the teachings on emptiness, that with wisdom we can learn how to create our own reality and make rapid progress on our spiritual path
In The New Eight Steps To Happiness one of the renowned Buddhist pandits, Milarepa, is famously quoted as saying:
‘I don’t need to read books; everything that appears to my mind is a Dharma book.’
If we choose to follow in the footsteps of the great master Milarepa, then we will see from our own experience how beneficial it is to interpret everything we’re exposed to in the way that most powerfully fuels our own spiritual development.
For me, being open to doing this with regards to just a few of the Christian teachings has helped to enrich my understanding and appreciation of Buddhism. Of course there’s no particular need for anyone to do this and not doing it isn’t necessarily going to create any obstacles for us. Also it may be helpful to point out that for me personally, doing this hasn’t caused any confusion in case, as a practising Buddhist, that’s something we may be wary of
Also, it may be helpful to note that I haven’t particularly gone out of my way to personally revive Jesus’s teachings, but through having been organically exposed to them, and having made the decision to try and be open towards them, I can say it has added a new dimension to my spiritual life. I’d even suggest that by simply being open to reading and contemplating these two articles, this in itself should hopefully be enough exposure for us to deepen our appreciation of just a very small cross-section of what Jesus taught
If nothing else, hopefully this has given us some food for thought and we’re at least slightly open to the possibility that even just some of the teachings of Jesus may hold within them a great depth and profundity. Even though for many of us it may seem that such depth is more easily to be found within Buddhism, that doesn’t mean they’re not also to be discovered in the teachings of Christianity if we’re willing to be patient and open-minded
One thing I’m personally very appreciative of is the presentation of Buddhism I’ve been fortunate enough to study. It’s only through the kindness of Venerable Geshe-la, his study programmes and qualified teachers that has made understanding the teachings of Buddha so straight-forward and easy to understand. If it were not for his kindness, then for me it’s very likely these profound teachings would still be wrapped in a shroud of mystery
In the next article I want to explore a few well-known quotes of Jesus, to examine and hopefully demonstrate how they are related to and informed by the teachings of Buddhism. This in turn will help us come to our own conclusions as to whether or not it appears plausible, or possibly more importantly we could say beneficial, that Jesus was in fact an enlightened being