A friend of mine has a baby. He’s closing in on two years old, I think. He’s been raised around a lot of Buddhists. He’s spent time at San Francisco Zen Center and Tassajara. For a while now he’s called any sort of religious figure type item he comes across “Buddha.” He sees a statue of Buddha, he says, “Buddha!” He sees a fat Hotei figure, he says, “Buddha!” (just like most Americans). He sees an African ceremonial mask, he says, “Buddha!”
My friend also has a fundamentalist Christian mom who she’s visiting. Her baby saw a statue of Jesus at the house and pointed at it saying, “Buddha!” So my friend’s mom carries the baby over to my friend and says, “He has to learn the difference between Jesus and Buddha!”
This is especially funny to me because lately I, the world renowned Buddhist teacher (haw!), have been reading almost nothing but books about Jesus. This has been going on for quite a while. I’ve mentioned it here in this blog a number of times. But I find books about Jesus endlessly fascinating these days whereas most books about Buddha are sort of meh.
That being said, I have read a whole buttload of books about Buddha already. So it’s not really that Buddha’s story in and of itself is less interesting to me. It’s just that I steeped myself in it for a very long time and now I’m kinda done. Or at least I need a break.
But Jesus was my first religious inspiration, in the form of the movie Jesus Christ Superstar. That film got me wanting to know who this Jesus fellow was way back when I was ten years old. Recently I’ve gotten pretty deeply into scholarship about the historical Jesus, particularly the works of Bart Ehrman. His latest book, Did Jesus Exist, is really good. Although his interest in the matter of deliberate forgeries in the Christian canon is less fascinating to me. Still, it’s something that ought to be examined.
One of the most intriguing aspects of contemporary Christian scholarship is the application of the historical/critical method to the New Testament. This has been going on amongst scholars for around 200 years now but has only recently become a big topic of interest among non-scholars like me. The historical/critical method looks at the New Testament documents the way historians look at other documents and tries to see what we can learn of the real history behind the legends.
Unfortunately, there’s not a lot of this kind of stuff out there about Buddhism. There may be scholarship that I’m unaware of. But in terms of popular literature, there really doesn’t seem to be much. Most of what’s written in the Pali canon is taken by scholars in the West at face value. I’m not aware of anyone really digging into it in terms of history. Stephen Batchelor’s new book Confessions of a Buddhist Atheist does to some extent. And so does Hajime Nakammura’s two volume Gotama Buddha series and The Historical Buddha by H.W. Schuman. That’s about it as far as I know.
As for knowing the difference between Buddha and Jesus, this is another intriguing topic. Several authors have speculated that Jesus might have studied Buddhist philosophy. It’s not outside of the realm of possibility. There were Buddhist missionaries active in the Middle East during Jesus’ lifetime. And while India is a long, long way away from Palestine when traveling by foot or camel-back, some people did make that journey and it’s not impossible that Jesus was one of them. There do seem to be a lot of similar teachings in both religions. The similarities between the stories of Jesus’ temptation by Satan and Buddha’s temptation by Mara are particularly striking.
I remain unconvinced, though. I think that the aspects of Buddha’s teachings and Jesus’ teachings that are similar represent things that are just plain similar between human beings no matter where they come from. Jesus didn’t need to have studied Buddhism for him to come up with a lot of the same stuff.
Jesus’ story is fascinating because there are so many mysteries. The teachings and stories Buddha’s hundreds of followers left behind after he died filled up three big baskets. We have more information on Buddha than most people could ever even get through, let alone closely examine in detail. Jesus had just twelve close followers who left behind only a handful of books that leave out as many important aspects of his teachings and his life’s story as they contain. The biggest mystery concerning Buddha’s death is whether he died from eating spoiled pork or spoiled mushrooms. In the case of Jesus, the circumstances surrounding his death are so weird that plenty of people speculate he may have actually survived the crucifixion. People did survive being crucified. It was rare, but it happened. Then you’ve got the Da Vinci Code and all that nonsense. Buddhism really can’t compete with that kind of thing. Maybe he even traveled to Japan after being crucified! There really are people who believe that.
The big difference between Jesus and Buddha, I often feel, is that Jesus died so young. Buddha made it to age 85. Jesus was probably dead before he was 35. That’s fifty years. And Jesus died violently surrounded by people who reviled him while Buddha died as a popular and well-beloved celebrity. Buddha had it easy. His society was ready for him. Jesus had a very hard time among people who never really understood what he was trying to say to them.
The real person behind the New Testament stories was almost certainly not the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” of Sunday school mythology. He was very probably a troublemaker, a guy who got up the noses of the people in authority. Not even the ancient Romans nailed you to a cross for walking around barefoot cooing about peace and love. Jesus must have felt a sense of burning urgency to get his message through, like a lot of people do when they’re twenty-some years old. If he’d have lived longer he probably would have settled into it a bit and maybe been less inclined to be so forceful. Of course if he’d done that, history would most likely only remember him the way it remembers his contemporaries like Rabbi Hillel, perhaps as an important figure but probably not the founder of a world religion.
You can make a lot of money writing books about how similar Buddha and Jesus were. And they were. But there are also a lot of significant differences. Those are important to remember as well. So maybe my friend’s mom is right.
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