Buddha and Jesus

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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89 Responses

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  1. boubi
    boubi February 12, 2013 at 6:41 am |

    Hi Michel
    —“The problem with Xtianity and other monotheistic religions is their totalitarian aspect. This aspect leads them to try to prove the historical existence of their gods and feats, as if it were necessary for the truth of it.”—

    Agree with you, but let’s not go all the opposite way pretending that all the rest is pure of anything we charge xtianity of.

    People are people, maybe being monotheistic makes them mentally stiffer, but no more stupid nor more cruel than others.

    In most of “buddhist” countries buddha is deified, people pray him to perform the same things that are asked to any deity (mono or not), and as in Thailand even go to the length to pretend that buddha was born in Thailand … hhmmm …

    Let’s not forget that the buddhism that we are refering to here is not the mainstream buddhism practiced by the majority of buddhists in Asia.

  2. Fred
    Fred February 12, 2013 at 6:49 am |

    “Even if kundalini, sushumna, and chakras do not exist, example #2 is still accurate and defensible.”

    Been there; done that.

    A vibratory force greater than an orgasm slowly moved up my pelvis and torso
    and vibrated my fucking head off.

    I call it “vibratingmyfuckingheadoff”

  3. Fred
    Fred February 12, 2013 at 6:57 am |

    The mysticism manifesting through this vessel expresses itself through no
    historical, cultural, religious or conditioned-semantical means.

  4. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote February 12, 2013 at 7:42 am |

    Proulx Michel, I’ve never heard of “our Lady of Sounds”, you make it sound like something I should know about. But then, I’m culturally deprived when it comes to the statues in a Catholic church, and the beliefs associated with them.

    Interesting about the vibrating the head, that’s one I’ve never had. Lots of people writing on Tao Bums that wound up with health problems, seems in many cases the reference is to some kind of coercive pelvic lock involving a person’s sexuality. Chen Man-Ching wrote that one must never use force, in moving the chi from the tan-t’ien to the tailbone, from whence it flows to the top of the head.


    Me, I’ve felt a stretch that reached my head-bones, but nothing teeth-rattling.

  5. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote February 12, 2013 at 7:51 am |

    sorry for the nonsequitar. Here’s another one:


    I was across the panhandle listening to it on the radio- “knocking on the dragon’s door” kills me, even now!

  6. boubi
    boubi February 12, 2013 at 8:19 am |

    To Fred

    — Been there; done that. —

    Interesting, can you tell more about it? Which school, how long it took, beholding the voidness, lasting experiences … no joke, i find it very interesting

    To Mark

    How many bloody books did you read?

  7. Fred
    Fred February 12, 2013 at 8:37 am |

    Boubi, this thing is just a side show. It isn’t the real deal, which some might say
    is just living an ordinary life awake.

    Iain, Lama Christie’s husband who died at Diamond Mountain, could sputter
    and shake while sitting in front of Roach.

    I think that the self can be aware that the voidness was beholden, but what
    was ” beholding the voidness” was the Void itself.

    Refer to Broken Yogi’s quotes above.

  8. boubi
    boubi February 12, 2013 at 11:42 am |

    From what i could have heard Kundalini yoga or Tummo is considered to a be a way (among many) to … to do whatever it is done to know the real nature of the mind.

    While a child i had sensations that i later found related to that kind of yoga, i still got faint remains of those sensations, so, that’s why i’m interested.

    What you called rightly “a side show” seems to me that it could also be translated also as “way” or “method”, koans, shintakaza, mantras etc etc etc, you name it …

    BTW talking about something else.

    I got the impression that Mahakasiapa was some kind of pre-aghori (branch of tantric), that at the time of Siddharta Gautama there was already a well established “tantric” practice.
    Mahakasiapa showed behaviors that are nowaday typical of the Agoris, and that we can find in the tantrics of old.
    Interesting, maybe the cross pollination between “siddhartism” and other ways to know the mind’s real nature started from the very “beginning” of buddhism.

  9. minkfoot
    minkfoot February 12, 2013 at 11:47 am |

    I was going to jump into the Grand Khru Canyon thing with an observation that they were talking apples and oranges. Andy’s analysis would have made that seem simple to the point of infantile. More aspects of that exchange than I really want to get into, but I am glad Khru offered an apology. Something to emulate.

    I do have something to offer on the topic of Jesus experiences.

    First, a Native American medicine man told a story about one of his teachers. The elder had a vision of Jesus the night before, and told my friend about it. Since my friend knew the elder had been Catholic in his youth, he said, “I suppose you’ll be going back to being a Christian again, then.”
    “Why would I do that? When the Spirit comes to us, it comes in the forms we know. Jesus is a form I know, but my grandfather might have seen a bear, or an eagle, or a snake.”

    As for myself, my family background is Russian Orthodox. My first exposure to a priest and not very appealing — he was one of those village tyrants common in Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia, and not what even a child would recognize as spiritual. Very early on, I embraced Catholicism, which gave a lot of philosophical meat to chew on. I was especially drawn to the promise of direct sacred experience offered by the Mystics. In time, the certainty Catholicism promised faded and I left mainstream Christianity by the time I was seventeen, but not with the animosity of many others of my age. By twenty, I felt I had discovered my true spiritual home in Zen. I began to see that every religion worth a damn had something in its core that I could recognize through the lens of Buddhism.

    After returning to my home state when I was thirty, my parents asked me to drive them to church, as their parish was deep in the city and public transportation not so easy. The new priest was an American. In his sermons, he presented Orthodox spirituality in a way I could appreciate, as a practice and mythic experience.

    Attending the long Orthodox Mass was conducive to my own personal practice. The senses were all engaged: lots of lit candles, beautiful art, shimmering vestments, theatrical gesturres, music by bell and voice of an unearthly beauty, the scent of incense and beeswax everywhere, the feel of gravity in the prostrations and the motion of the arms in the sign of the cross — though out of respect for the religion I never, as a formal Unbeliever, took the taste of the wine in the Eucharist. So easy to be mindful in the richness of this potent symbolism!

    I developed a mantra practice along with the mindfulness. It felt a bit odd and inappropriate to do the Kanzeon Sutra in a Christian house, so I decided to do the Trisagion in Old Slavonic:
    ??????? ?????, ??????? ????????, ??????? ????????????, ??????y? ?????.
    It sounds just like it looks.

    Sometime in the nineties, I attended a Holy Thursday service called the Twelve Gospels, a series of readings that lasted two or three hours. My Zen practice was rather intense at this period, so I was pretty sharp and attentive. As this was just before Easter, spiritual emotions were high. At a certain point in the liturgy, something began to happen. It was not a vision but I sensed a figure in the room off the sanctuary where the priests and acolytes donned their vestments. I did not see it, but it had a human form, filled with black void, in which points of light scintillated — much like the entity Eternity in Dr. Strange, but without a face. The most remarkable thing, though, was its *benevolence*! It was of a scale comparable to intergalactic gulfs. It scared me!

    This was, of course, Jesus. Sure surprised the hell out of me. What should I make of the experience? I don’t have to.

  10. minkfoot
    minkfoot February 12, 2013 at 11:49 am |

    Too bad the blog host can’t do Cyrillic.

  11. boubi
    boubi February 12, 2013 at 12:06 pm |

    Did you know the comic’s character before or after the experience?

  12. CosmicBrainz
    CosmicBrainz February 12, 2013 at 7:24 pm |

    The mythology surrounding Jesus was likely contrived by Saint Paul from Zoroastrian influence. There’s a good book about this topic called The Mythmaker by Bart Ehrman, who basically makes the argument that the religious influence in Saint Paul’s life showed in how Christianity was developed.

    Saint Paul never met the living Jesus, instead he supposedly had a “vision” of him, and then from that point Pauline Christianity developed contrary to Judaism.

    I recommend looking into the Ancient Iranian religions of Zoroastrianism (which is still extant today and has a strong following in places like Yazd in Iran), Manichaeism, and Mazdaeism.

  13. minkfoot
    minkfoot February 12, 2013 at 9:09 pm |

    boubi — many decades before, but I don’t believe it functioned as a template. The Jesus experience was remarkable in how utterly *unlike* anything else it was. Afterwards, I remembered the comic. Could it have influenced my mind? Sure. But all that fades in the face of the utterly Other-yet-not-other.

  14. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel February 13, 2013 at 12:21 am |

    To Mark Foote:
    “Our Lady of Sounds”, in Sanskrit would be Avalokiteshvari… Or Kanzeon in Japanese.

    1. anon 108
      anon 108 February 13, 2013 at 2:24 am |

      Passing pedants may find wiki’s comments on the etymology of Avalokiteshvara interesting. I’ve edited it a bit –

      “The name Avalokiteshvara is made of the following parts: the verbal prefix ava, which means “down”; lokita, a past participle of the verb lok (“to notice, behold, observe”), here used in an active sense (an occasional irregularity of Sanskrit grammar); and finally iishvara, “lord”, “ruler”, “sovereign” or “master”. In accordance with sandhi (Sanskrit rules of sound combination), ‘…a+iishvara’ becomes ‘…eshvara’. Combined, the parts mean “lord who gazes down (at the world)”. The word loka (“world” – not to be confused with the lok of ‘lokita’) is absent from the name, but the phrase is implied.

      It was initially thought that the Chinese mis-transliterated the word Avalokiteshvara as Avalokita-svara [s instead of sh]. However, according to recent research, the original form was indeed Avalokitasvara with the ending …svara (“sound, noise”), which means “sound perceiver”, literally “he who looks down upon sound” (i.e., the cries of sentient beings who need his help). This is the exact equivalent of the Chinese translation Gu?ny?n. This etymology was furthered in the Chinese by the tendency of some Chinese translators, notably Kumarajiva, to use the variant Gu?nshìy?n, literally “he who perceives the world’s lamentations”—wherein lok was read as simultaneously meaning both “to look” and “world”. This name was later supplanted by the form containing the ending -iishvara, which [form] does not occur in Sanskrit before the seventh century. The original form Avalokitasvara already appears in Sanskrit fragments of the fifth century.”


      1. anon 108
        anon 108 February 13, 2013 at 2:28 am |

        Gu?ny?n (ch.) = Guaanyiin. Long vowels.

  15. Proulx Michel
    Proulx Michel February 13, 2013 at 12:24 am |

    boubi wrote:

    “Agree with you, but let’s not go all the opposite way pretending that all the rest is pure of anything we charge xtianity of.”


  16. anon 108
    anon 108 February 13, 2013 at 2:43 am |

    And from wiki on Guanyin:

    “The reinterpretation presenting him as an iishvara [“lord, master, god”] shows a strong influence of Shaivism, as the term iishvara was usually connected to the Hindu notion of Shiva as a creator god and ruler of the world. Some attributes of such a god were transmitted to the bodhisattva…”

    Also: “In Japanese, Guanyin is pronounced Kannon (??), occasionally Kan’on, or more formally Kanzeon (???, the same characters as Guanshiyin); the spelling Kwannon, based on a pre-modern pronunciation, is sometimes seen. This rendition was used for an earlier spelling of the well-known camera manufacturer Canon, which was named for Guanyin.”


  17. boubi
    boubi February 13, 2013 at 2:43 am |

    To Proulx

    Speak english, it avoid me going to look for translations, kindly

    to all
    Let’s not talk too much about your experiences in your everyday life, lest you get pushed into a straight jacket and injected with some poison meant to blunt your faculties

  18. Fred
    Fred February 13, 2013 at 7:47 am |

    It would appear that a vision or a form comes from somewhere outside, but
    why would that happen.

    The practice re-affirms that we are already enlightened, and that No-self upon
    the Absolute exists within.

    The self that looks outside mistakes a sign for the path to liberation, when it
    needs to get out of the way, and let the
    backward step that turns the light and shines it inward, do its thing.

  19. Wedged
    Wedged February 13, 2013 at 9:30 am |

    I was so annoyed when i saw the subject of this blog. i was like “Jesus? really?” why the hell can’t i escape that subject? The fact that it bugs me so much sort of makes me curious. I grew up Catholic and hated every single second of it and never clicked with any of it. i go to church once a year at Xmas for my mom. i put my daughter in Sunday school to keep the peace…i hide the fact that i’m a Buddhist…emails from the church or anything “church’y” irritates me beyond belief. i don’t want to teach my kids about jesus because i don’t like it at all. Reading all these comments though has been fascinating. Hearing other Buddhists talk about Jesus seems crazy to me. Hearing Brad saying he’s a on a Jesus kick just boggles my mind. I sit with a Rinzai group and I remember one time the main teacher sent an email and in the first line he quoted Jesus and i though to myself “well…I’ll never commit to this guy”. I thought of taking a Reiki course another time and the teacher emailed me (after i told her i was Buddhist and only feel comfortable with Buddhsim) and in the first line quoted a story of Jesus…i dropped out.

    I mean all this with respect, i’m not trying to be negative or bash. it’s how i feel as it relates to me, to each their own. It must be from being dragged to church every week and being forced to read bible stuff when it did nothing for me. i became resentful then it turned to hate. When i see images it gives me the heebeegeebees. With the Budhha i feel at home, with Christianity i feel anger and depressed…guilt. Knowing i can’t hold on to anger i’m trying to deal with it.

    jesus without the religious BS…i guess. but why? what’s the point? I found a piece that fits perfectly with Buddhisim so i never want anything to do with Jesus. I’m only 2 years in so if i also run out of books to read it won’t be for another 20 years!

    You guys got me thinking though…some interessting and intelligent debates.

    Hopefully i get a visit someday from Dogen not Jesus. Like a scene from Star Wars…Dogen will tell me to “use the force”.

  20. seekingI
    seekingI February 13, 2013 at 9:33 am |

    Hey Brad, a popular internet talkshow The Young Turks made a video about Joshu Sasaki and zen buddhism. I just thought maybe you would like to response.


    1. seekingI
      seekingI February 13, 2013 at 9:37 am |

      Sorry I did submit a correct link, but it went to the first video on their playlist for some reason.

      The title of the correct video is “Zen Buddhist Leader Groped Female Followers”.

  21. Cloud Cave
    Cloud Cave February 13, 2013 at 10:31 am |

    There is a Muslim sect known as Amadhiyya that believes that Jesus was taken from the cross before he died and was rescued from the sepulcher. Then he was transported to Kashmir where he lived out a normal life, with wife and children. There is presently a temple in Kashmir built in his honor. Kashmir, by the way means “Paradise”, so yes, Jesus did depart for paradise from Calvary.

  22. Fred
    Fred February 13, 2013 at 11:33 am |

    “The number one thing they want to do is have sex with your wife.” – Young Turkey

  23. Alan Sailer
    Alan Sailer February 13, 2013 at 6:29 pm |


    I can really understand your reaction.

    I have had my issues with Christianity, although not as intense as yours sounds.

    At one point I got into a lengthy email argument with the owner of a local yoga studio that I was attending over her decision to have a christian yoga class. I boycotted the class (even though I really liked the instructor).

    It was a mistake.

    A really nice woman had to sit in an empty class because of my prejudice.

    The central issue for me was that I felt threatened by the actions of some of the more fundamentalist factions.

    For me, it helped to just notice that I was getting all wound up by things that really weren’t happening to me.

    At the same time, my strong feelings about Christianity slowly (years) started to fade.

    I am still far from wanting to read books about J.C, but it doesn’t bother me at all when my zen teacher quotes the bearded guy.

    I hope you can find some sort of accommodation with the subject.


  24. SoF
    SoF February 13, 2013 at 7:54 pm |

    Buddha born Thai…

    There is a vast collection of Buddhist folklore in the ilk of Judeo-Xtian-Islamic cultural borrowing traditions. Before the Xtians were the (perhaps Hebrews?) and before the (perhaps Hebrews?) were the Zoroastrians (e.g. Mithras), Akkadians, and Sumerians – not to forget India (Mitra), Egypt, the Sudan, and Ethiopia (all major players).

    None of these religions/philosophies sprang fully-formed like Athena- from the head of Zeus (Dios p’ter, Jupiter). They were each blended with ice in a cuisinart – flavored to the local taste in the course of time.

    What archaeology has shown for the Buddhist folklore – is support from the physical, historical scrap heap numbered 666 for the superstitious.


    There is not a shred of evidence in support of – for example – Salomon’s Temple – as far as Jerusalem is concerned. There IS a borrowed temple that parallel’s the fabled Jerusalem.

    see: “The New ‘Ain Dara Temple: Closest Solomonic Parallel” By John Monson.

    To curry favor, curry flavor.

  25. Wedged
    Wedged February 14, 2013 at 10:36 am |

    Alan Sailer – thx man…good points. and a good reminder for me to concentrate on my reactions vs subject matter.

  26. craigtechno
    craigtechno February 15, 2013 at 3:25 pm |

    Doesn’t all this stuff get you caught up in historical and metaphysical thorn patches ? It is interesting for what it is, but just bogs you down when it comes to the practice of freeing yourself and others from suffering and realising the universal truth right ? Do you guy’s see that with me ? Think with your hearts eh, sometimes.

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