The Buddha and the Christ, Gautama and Yeshua Revised after comments from Ajahn Amaro Bhikkhu, abbot of Amaravati Buddhist Monastery. I have yet to receive comments from Christian friends. All errors however remain mine. 8-9-2017To compare and contrast the founders of the first two world religions is a daunting task raising many issues. This paper is a work in progress setting out how I currently see things and I remain really open to corrections and suggestions. I have found the process of comparison fascinating and challenging as elements in both traditions suddenly look rather different.
Why Gautama? Because that appears to have been the personal name of the man who became known as the Buddha, a title meaning The One Who Knows and who lived in northern India sometime around 450-500 BCE. Generally I will use Pali rather than Sanskrit words for I trust the Theravada tradition as being the closest to reporting the teachings and practices of the historical Gautama.
Yeshua As regards the Christian tradition I start by referring to the likely Aramaic/Hebrew name for Jesus as Yeshua as a way of talking about him as an historical person. This is because it seems to me that starting with Paul, who was subsequently followed by all the Gospel writers, translating Yeshua’s name into its Greek form, Jesus, brought with it a whole new dimension to the way he was understood.
YHWH. As regards the Jewish god I refer to YHWH as in the Hebrew Scriptures. Goy and plural goyim refers to non-Jews. Using this slightly derogatory term again emphasises the shift that took place when the disciples of Yeshua became largely non-Jewish.
Faced with my task of “comparing and contrasting” the problems start with any attempt to separate the “real historical Gautama” or “the real historical Yeshua” from the huge and various traditions they have both inspired. It is also the case that we have no contemporary evidence about either of them apart from what we can find in their respective scriptures, the Pali Canon and the New Testament and these are very different.
The Pali Canon the Pali Canon is a huge collection of texts divided into three “baskets” or sections. The first is the Vinaya Pitaka which relates to the renunciate or monastic training rules. The second is the Sutta Pitaka which consists of remembered addresses and sayings of the Buddha and the third is the Abhidhamma Pitika which consists of philosophical and psychological treatises exploring the Buddha’s teachings on mind as written down over a century after his death.
The whole canon scholars agree was however only committed to writing about 70 BCE. Before that Pitaka suttas were chanted communally from memory. Initially this may have been because India had not yet developed writing when Gautama was alive, though by the time of Ashoka (268-232 BCE) as can be seen from the pillars he erected, literacy was quite widespread. There was however another reason for chanting. This may have been because sacred teachings were considered too sacred to be written and were shown more respect if they were memorised. This also facilitated their use in meditation. Chanting thus affected the form they took which includes frequent repetition as is often found in songs. To hear them, sonorously and relentlessly chanted from memory in Pali, the language of Gautama’s day, is to experience something powerfully compelling. At the same time it is calming, peaceful, ordered, disciplined and inspiring.
The Buddhist emphasis on memorisation as a spiritual practice has also been strong in Judaism (Mishnah and Talmud) and in Islam where memorising the entire Koran is honoured. It has been less used in Christianity which has emphasised reading the written Word.
The Gospels and the Epistles of the New Testament These are something very different for they were not intended for memorisation, but primarily to be read aloud. (The dates I give are those generally accepted by NT scholars) The four gospels were written between 70 and 90 CE, that is around a generation after Yeshua’s death in about 33 CE. All were written in “koine” Greek to be read aloud to Greek speaking congregations in Christian worship. Scholars do not consider any to be the work of eye-witnesses. Mark was the first and known to all the others. Each gospel writer edited his own written and oral sources and what he gathered from reading one or more of the others. Each author developed an individual style and “theology” in his account, so they each read rather differently, particularly John. The result in each case is a vivid, dramatic and arresting story. It is a story which would have moved and transfixed its early readers as they followed the key events in Yeshua’s life, his teaching and the terrible and unjust end that awaited him and how he bore this. Mark ends with women finding the tomb empty and a messenger saying Jesus is risen and will appear in Galilee. The other gospels then end with different accounts of how Yeshua appeared alive to women or men disciples. These accounts which would have been read quite separately, fired their hearers to imagine the scene and feel his presence among them as they then went on to receive him symbolically in the bread and wine of the Eucharist.
The gospels however are not the earliest Christian scriptures. These are the letters ascribed to Paul. Seven of these on close analysis are considered by scholars to have been written by Paul himself between 50 and 57 CE. They were also written to be read aloud in the churches and scholars agree that Paul’s writings and thinking influenced all the gospels when they were written between 20 and 40 years later.
Different Attitudes to the Sources Scholars have subjected these sources, Christian and Buddhist to the most minute and systematic study. This continues, and unsurprisingly they come to different conclusions. Most have only looked at either the Buddhist or the Christian traditions, while some have set their study in a wider context of philosophy, religion studies, world history or anthropology. (Armstrong, Diamond, Harari) Some have concluded as regards both Gautama and Yeshua that it is impossible to separate out the man Gautama or the man Yeshua from the traditions that have grown up around them, concluding that both figures are hardly historical at all, but largely mythical constructs.
Believers in both traditions however include those who try hard to take as much of their own tradition and scripture to be “true” as possible – usually disregarding the other tradition entirely or writing it off as being in error. These we may call traditionalists or fundamentalists. For me neither complete scepticism nor fundamentalism, seem right. Following the lead of such scholars as Gombrich, Carrithers, Rahula and Armstrong as regards Gautama and Houlden and many others (Houlden Jesus, the Complete Guide and the Oxford guides to the Bible) as regards Yeshua, it seems to me that in both Gautama and Yeshua we have evidence that points to a life, a character and teaching which for all the problems the sources give us, present us with two of the most exceptional, challenging, original and intriguing men who have ever lived and that we have enough evidence to imagine for ourselves what they may have been like. We need remember however that what may seem plausible is not certain.
There are however three problem areas. 1. Subjectivity As regards character and actions it can seem or become very subjective as one picks out what in the story of each of them seems historically most plausible and what strikes one as being most significantly important and illuminating. 2. Believability In both traditions there are elements which from a secular, science influenced point of view are hardly or not believable. I think this raises more problems for Christianity than Buddhism, but it applies to both. I talk in the first place about the acceptance of belief in the miraculous, the inexplicable and the magical – often referred to as the supernatural, but also in the acceptance, widespread in Indian culture, of what has been called the paranormal; telepathy, levitation, powers of prediction and memories of past lives (rebirths and transmigration of the soul or personality)
My starting point is to assume firstly that no description of an event which cannot be given a scientifically plausible explanation should be regarded as historically likely or credible. Secondly, I assume that second or third hand “hearsay evidence” for a “naturally inexplicable event” does not establish good grounds for considering that any such event or “paranormal phenomenon” has in fact taken place. This means for me no water into wine, no raised Lazarus from the dead, no objective angels or demons and no levitation and a sceptical approach to anything similar in either tradition being “literal, objective fact” as opposed to subjective experience, symbol or metaphor however vividly expressed in an imaginable style. This means scepticism about accounts of previous lives of the Buddha and the resurrection of Jesus as objective events. 3. Interpretation Quite apart from such believability issues we are faced with difficulties which apply to both of them which also face the most conservative and fundamentalist interpretations of the traditions, and that is in working out just what was the meaning and plausibility of what they did and said. The meaning of such key words and teachings such as Tathagata, Son of Man, Kamma, Born again, Nibbana, Kingdom of Heaven, Anatta, Teacher of gods and men, Saviour of the World, Enlightenment, Atonement, the Four Noble Truths, The Sermon on the Mount, The Noble Eightfold Path. All of these teachings and texts can be and are interpreted in significantly different ways within and outside the Buddhist and Christian traditions. While I shall allude to some of them, this paper cannot explore them all and will inevitably reflect my point of view.
The place to start it seems to me is to look at the world views that Gautama first and Yeshua second, encountered
Gautama: World Views The India Gautama experienced was a time of change and urbanisation, of growing kingdoms involved in wars and of a society stratified into priests, a ruling nobility, merchants and workers on the land. The priests were the guardians of sacred rituals and the myths and traditions that went with them. This could involve them in animal sacrifice, astrology and the practice of divination. This took place in a context where popular religion involved the worship of many gods, acceptance of the intervening presence of good or bad devas, a high god who was not worshipped and a belief that each individual held a spark of divinity, an atman, the true self that was also the soul of the world. This was reborn a myriad times dependant on the accumulated merit acquired through good or bad actions. They saw time as circular and paid little attention to history or objectivity when it came to their poems and sagas. What mattered was how these affected the minds and emotions of devotees.
The existence and power of magic and actions by the gods and unseen powers and the extraordinary powers of some ascetics to levitate, be in two places at the same time, heal or curse were generally believed in and wondered at as they continue to be to this day. There was also a philosophically minded minority who rejected the existence of any gods and engaged in lively debate about what could be known. They however would still accept that much they encountered was strange and inexplicable.
Yeshua: World Views Yeshua was an Aramaic speaking Galilean Jew with knowledge of the Hebrew Scriptures and probably some Greek. He was a strict monotheist worshipping YHWH as the only real god – the One True God – of the Jewish patriarchs, prophets and their sacred Hebrew writings. This world view saw the Jews as the People of God with whom YHWH had made a Covenant and to whom He had given the Torah/Law. This provided them with an extensive sacred code of moral and ritual behaviour centred on the Ten Commandments. They also saw Palestine as their Promised Land (promised by YHWH) and Jerusalem as the place where they could worship YHWH and offer animal sacrifice in the (recently rebuilt and incredibly grand) Second Temple. Many also expected YHWH would anoint and send a Messiah = anointed one (Christ in Greek) to lead them to freedom from foreign rule in a more or less wonderful (apocalyptic) way.
Their view of time was linear, stretching from Creation to the end of the world and a Day of Judgement and this made them see historical events as important. There was however uncertainty and disagreement among them about this and the nature of the Day of Judgement, They also wondered if there was life after death or if there was a soul. Rebirth was not taught among the Jews but YHWH was seen as rewarding or punishing good or bad behaviour in this life as revealed in the Torah. The Jews however lived under the rule of the polytheistic Romans. Their religion was little different from that of the Greeks and not dissimilar to religion in India. The Greeks had ruled Palestine before the Romans came bringing their religion and language and they had earlier, under Alexander, reached India. Unlike the Romans the Greeks had attempted to destroy Jewish worship and impose their gods on the Jews leading to a bloody revolt. In addition to their gods, a belief in an immortal soul was not uncommon together with the practice and belief in magic and the need for animal sacrifice to propitiate the gods.
The Miraculous and The Magical for the Jews Despite their monotheism the Jews, as did those in Gautama’s world, also accepted the existence of magic, which is that a range of reported objective events are widely regarded as being inexplicable and unpredictable in any natural, ordinary sense, that is as being “miraculous” if good and initiated by YHWH or “demonic” if coming from anyone else. Again dreams and visions were taken very seriously as coming either from YHWH or from evil sources and were seen as providing insights and warnings about contemporary events or to provide predictions of the future. Such revelations if regarded as divinely inspired were written down and became the Jewish books of prophesy and the later Christian book of Revelation. This also applied to healings, many of which were seen as the exorcism of evil spirits. It could even extend to raising people from the dead. Miraculous magic could also bring about inexplicable natural phenomena such as storms, earthquakes, droughts and floods and their opposite, good weather and adequate rain. All these could then be seen as acts of YHWH.
Yeshua’s Apocalyptic World View Scholars are agreed that in addition Rabbi Yeshua inherited, inhabited and put his mark on a world-view that was common amongst both Jews and the goyim in his day which from a modern perspective comes across as particularly dark, alien and fanciful. Galilean Jews saw themselves as living on the edge of an apocalyptic catastrophe. (see p34 Oxford Companion to the Bible and Newport and Houlden in Jesus) inhabiting a cosmic battle zone and in the expectation that at any moment there could be a breaking through of divine or demonic powers into everyday life, but that after the wars, disasters and battles that seemed imminent, everyone would see the final victory of YHWH and his angels over Satan, his demons and the idolatrous pagan powers of darkness.
This then concludes our little tour of the different world views both of them experienced, except that it is worth remembering that all of them remain, for good or ill affecting or infecting religion and politics today and that belief in magic and the supernatural, in miracles and divine actions remain the default position for all but a very small minority of humanity. Now then we look at their lives.
Gautama What then of Gautama’s life story? No attempt was made to write this down until Ashvagosa composed an epic poem in the first century CE. This was because it was his teaching and training that was seen to be important, still, by gleaning details from the suttas and Vinaya and using more or less trustworthy traditions a widely used life story developed. The key elements are simple. Dating him accurately is impossible for he predates literacy in India. The scholarly estimates are between 563 and 480 BCE.
The story is he was born into the noble ruling warrior class of a small northern state ruled by his father. His mother it seems died soon after his birth and he was raised by her sister, his father’s second wife. He wanted for nothing but lasting happiness and was married young and provided with concubines, but on contemplating the inevitability that sickness, old age and death would sooner or later strike him down and all around him, despite his privileges, he became depressed. After seeing a homeless wanderer go by seeking truth in the Indian tradition, he chose to leave his grand family home to search for wisdom, hoping to find the key to a happy and fulfilled life that way. Apparently he did this leaving behind in the care of his family, not only a wife, Yasodara, but his new-born son, Rahula. He is not criticised for this in the accounts, but it takes special pleading not to see this behaviour as not being very depressed or self-centred.
After travelling around and listening and disputing with various sages, and finding none whose views satisfied him, he tried with five others to follow a path of extreme asceticism such as that promoted by the Jains. It did not work for him and he recognised the need for a way between that and the pursuit of pleasures. He accepted some rice porridge from a girl which angered his companions who left him and after regaining his health he set about meditating under a tree. There he had a dramatic experience described as his Enlightenment when he faced his tempting demons and it all came together and he knew joy, peace, calm, wisdom, happiness. Was this a turning point, a conversion experience, a recognition of the need for a middle way, a path between greeds and hatreds, or as the tradition tells it, an arrival at complete personal transformation? He then sought out the five, impressed and converted them by his teaching and demeanour and set about travelling across India, teaching “for the good of the many and the happiness of all”. He met a wide variety of people, visited his father, his family and his court, and saw his son who came with him as a novice, travelled widely across India and recruited many disciples before he died of inadvertent food poisoning, an old man of eighty.
The Buddhist Sasana or sphere of influence He engaged everyone he met, bankers, traders, courtesans, kings, peasant farmers, a murderer, a woman who had lost her child. His many disciples were drawn from right across society and from different backgrounds, social classes and livelihoods and included both men and women for he did not accept the current view that only those from the priestly or noble elite and only men could follow a truly spiritual path. These “householders” or lay disciples then adopted a life style based on generosity towards monastics, the extended family and those in need and the guidance of five moral precepts.
Gautama’s Teaching and Faith Gautama when he taught did not commend or expect blind, uncritical acceptance or the taking of his teaching “on faith” in that sense. In fact unlike what happened within the Christian tradition he did not see putting faith above reason as a virtue. Instead his emphasis was on reflecting and when in a balanced, calm state of mind, coming to see the truth for oneself. In fact he told his listeners not to accept something as true because it was in some ancient scripture, tradition or the words of some teacher, even himself, but only “when you know for yourself” that it is right and true. This is illustrated in his approach to the precepts.
The Five Precepts These he taught are not commandments given by him or any god, but point to a natural law, the Dhamma, the way things are, reality. They simply show key areas in life to be considered carefully by anyone seeking to live responsibly and well without causing hurt to oneself or others. He taught that on reflection they are simple and self-evident “to be seen by each wise person for him/her self”. Expressed as briefly as possible the five are: Abstain from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and substance abuse. Put positively they are: Respect life, human and animal, respect the property and work of others, stay faithful in marriage and honest in family life, religious life and business. Tell the truth without anger and take no substance or drink that reduces your ability to act responsibly. Exactly how these precepts should be applied is up to individual responsibility and judgement. (For example not all Buddhists are vegetarian.)
Mindfulness To build upon these he taught a simple system of mental training or meditation focused on the breath. This was in order to develop not some special mental state as the yogis did, but alert, clear, reflective awareness or mindfulness. This of course can be more difficult to achieve than at first it sounds, for it involves becoming aware of how the mind works, where false paths lie and how to gently face them down and replace them with useful ones. He then taught his disciples how to go about doing this as in mindfulness meditation training, something contemporary psychologists and psychiatrists have been exploring as highly valuable. He also taught for those who wished to go deeper into the workings of the mind how to achieve deep states of concentration – not something I have sought or experienced.
The Renunciate Monastic Life in a Symbiotic Community Aa a result of the challenge of his teaching and the attraction of his example many decided to focus on and explore his training more deeply and leave the “householder” life to live as renunciates. They undertook to live according to a comprehensive, highly demanding and prescriptive system of training of mind and body in a life-style which involves a complete ban on taking life, using money or holding personal property, complete celibacy, any individual assertion of having achieved a higher spiritual state, and complete dependence on lay disciples for food and material support. Thus Gautama founded a symbiotic community of householders/lay disciples and monastic renunciates all devoted to promoting insight, happiness and wellbeing in each other as they worked to develop his training on themselves.
The male renunciates thus constitute a monastic Order, the Bhikkhu Sangha. Gautama also founded at the insistence of his step mother a community for women, the Bhikkhuni Sangha. This kept going for fifteen hundred years before it sadly died out, but an Order of nuns known as Siladhara has been recently established. Sangha simply means “community” Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni meaning respectively a man or woman who lives on freely given alms and Siladhara one who lives by the rule.
By the time Gautama died the monastic Sangha was very well established as a self-regulating Order for the promotion and practice of his teaching and mental training with its many rules carefully arranged in order of seriousness. These make up the patimokkha. This was and is recited in a twice monthly meeting where monastics confess any of their shortcomings to each other and accept guidance. The Amazing Success of the Sangha Over two and a half thousand years the structure and discipline of this challenging life of the Sangha has survived despite some periods of weakness. It has then reformed itself to flourish anew demonstrating Gautama’s subtle and skilful understanding of human nature. He deliberately appointed no successor with authority to change its rules and it continues with fully trained monastics mentoring novices who seek temporary or more permanent ordination in an unbroken chain or lineage which stretches back to Gautama himself. (In a way similar to the Christian Apostolic Succession – though much older)
For simplicity, in the West where Christian monasticism is to an extent known about, bhikkhus and women siladhara are spoken of as Buddhist monks and nuns. This is useful but also misleading. Christian monasticism started some thousand years later and though it may have been influenced by the Buddhist example and challenges men and women in similar ways to give up owning property and to take on celibacy, there are considerable differences.
Buddhist monastics do not worship the Buddha or make declarations of belief. They take no vows. Rather the life is seen as a system of training which involves a commitment to live by a transforming rule and once trained over five years a bhikkhu is free to move to another monastery, live as a hermit or go by foot on a long journey. Relationships with family are encouraged to remain close. In countries where the Sangha has been active for centuries while a minority dedicate themselves to following the full rule for life, most Sangha members use their time as a temporary period of training and take a simplified form of the rule before either going further or returning to lay life, a career and family. There are other important differences. Suffice to say the full bhikkhu life-style while balanced and healthy for those who can handle it, is also extremely demanding and testing and is not an option for everyone.
Gautama then was spoken of as the Buddha, the one who knows, the truly enlightened one. Neither priest, prophet nor superhuman his teaching and the Order he founded spread steadily and peacefully, North through Afghanistan, then going West towards what after Alexander became the Hellenistic world and East along the Silk Road right across Tibet, Mongolia, China, Korea and Japan and South using their modern names into Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia and Vietnam. Not surprisingly it has developed different forms, the Theravada Way of the Elders in the South, The Mahayana Broad Path and the Vajrayana of the Tibetans in the North which also spread to China, Japan and Korea.
These last two (Mahayana and Vajrayana) and to a lesser extent the Theravada, have endowed the figure of Gautama with superhuman capacities as all seeing and all knowing. Mahayana Buddhism venerates many bodhisattvas who are not regarded as historical figures, but as beings who have delayed becoming a Buddha out of compassion for others. The Tibetan and Mahayana monks have slightly different rules and are able to grow food for themselves – like Christian monastics.
The Dhamma, the Teaching Gautama referred to himself as the Tatagatha, variously interpreted as “the one thus come or thus gone” “the one who knows the way things are, Reality.” So what had Gautama discovered? The suttas show Gautama had a clear and rigorously consistent mind. He believed he had uncovered the natural law that governs how things work in the world and in our minds. This he called the Dhamma, the Truth, the Teaching. He saw it as underlying everything. He observed the universality of change and the way all actions and thoughts have consequential ripples which go on and on. Recognising this provides the basis for morality, for seeking to do no harm to others and to treat them with compassion, and underlies the training we need to undertake to set ourselves free to build happier, better lives.
This means training the mind and body to break the addictive patterns of thought and behaviour we see in the many forms of positive craving, (greeds), and negative craving, (hates), that destroy our freedom and happiness when we become distracted, deluded and caught up chasing illusory, evanescent goals. Practicing reflective awareness or mindfulness can do this and help us walk aware, awake and on the Middle Way, balanced and free of craving, a taste of Release, Nibbana.
Gautama summarised the Dhamma in memorable formulae, the first being The Four Noble Truths. 1. Dukkha, suffering in its broad sense, permeates life. 2. The cause of this is the selfish cravings both negative and positive which destroy all balance. 3. It is possible to break this dependence on the illusory self and its cravings and find peace, balance, happiness Nibbana. 4. The way to do this is to follow the Noble Eightfold Path.
In his use of the word “noble” Gautama takes a term applied to ”top people” and uses it to refer to moral striving and so emphasises that nothing is more “noble” than following the Path. First by understanding the four truths, second by having the right compassionate attitudes, non-grasping, non-violent, third, fourth and fifth behaving in a responsible moral way as commended in the five precepts with the addition of adopting a worthwhile way of earning a living, and finally, sixth, seventh and eighth. The sixth being the developing of mental culture, that is habits of concentration, will, energy. The seventh being meditation training in right mindfulness and the eighth being right concentration, samadhi. This last one is difficult to understand and pin down. If one finds this confusing that is understandable for there is some overlap but it is also worth pointing out that few, myself included, can make any sense of meditation training just by reading about it. It needs be taught by someone who really practices it. Then it is a revelation.
Did Gautama expect everyone to achieve Nibanna, a position of perfect balance and cool insight? That certainly seems unlikely for we all start from such different places as regards ability and character, habits of thought and experience, but what the teaching and training certainly does offer is an opportunity for all to make a very significant improvement in our lives and to achieve an equilibrium that we never thought we could. Where this Dhamma law comes from is unknown and asking where it comes from Gautama declared is a speculative waste of time. He said, “If a surgeon is about to remove an arrow from a wounded man he would be foolish to ask first about who shot the arrow before he would receive the surgeon’s treatment.” In fact he drew up quite a list of questions it is pointless to ask in comparison with getting on with dealing with how screwed up one has become. Sidestepping Miracle, Magic and Speculation Gautama’s teaching was done in the context of an Indian world view that accepted supernatural, inexplicable and extraordinary events, processes and beings. All this he never denied and on occasion made use of it to illustrate a point or add colour to a story by bringing in references to Indian gods, devas or devils (Mara). Basically however he simply sidestepped all of this, emphasising that he taught “only the cause and cure of dukkha, (pain, mental and physical, anguish, alienation dissatisfaction).” He also never worshipped any god, forbad the bhikkhus from taking any part in animal sacrifice, telling fortunes or using astrology and perhaps most important of all when he was told that a bhikkhu was attracting followers by showing he could levitate he sent word that the man should not waste time on such things but rather stick to explaining “the cause and cure of dukkha.” As we shall see this denigration of miraculous events as being morally and religiously irrelevant or misleading sets him apart from what became Christian thinking which sees miracles as signs of the approval of YHWH. He also taught that human beings, not spirits or animals, could attain Enlightenment, and crucially he taught that when you ask where is the soul or atman, his answer was to analyse the person into five constituencies or khandhas and to show that each is in a process of continual change. This shows there is no such unchanging element – we are annata, without a restricted individual identity. So a bounded identity or self is an illusion. This difficult teaching has been differently interpreted by different schools and has aroused the interest of contemporary psychologists and philosophers.
The Life of Yeshua Let us now move on some five hundred years to Roman occupied Palestine. The Gospels tell us Yeshua was the son of Mary and born in Bethlehem but raised in Galilee North of Jerusalem. He is described as part of a family with an elder brother James and a father Joseph, though here the writers introduce such miraculous/magical events as a virgin birth and the appearance of angelic beings and astrologers from distant lands and other events like a trip to Egypt to escape massacre by Herod the Great which may have more to do with providing echoes or “typology” that fits with stories in the Jewish scriptures than what actually took place. They do however all contribute to a moving and dramatic narrative.
We then learn that Yeshua quickly rose to prominence in the shadow of another apocalyptic preacher, his relative John the Baptist. John was arrested after baptising Yeshua and then executed under bizarre conditions (at the request of Salome) by Herod the Roman appointed tetrarch who had arrested him for criticising his sexual behaviour. Like John Yeshua emerged as a charismatic preacher, a practitioner of a simple life and a person of ascetic self-discipline. His early life however, is unknown.
The Essenes It is reasonably speculated by some that he, and possibly John, spent time with the Essenes. They were an extreme apocalyptic Jewish sect who rejected Temple worship and the legitimacy of all Jewish authority (the priesthood and the rabbinate) except for themselves. They may have been based at Qumran on the edge of the desert and their texts show they lived communally in expectation of the coming of one or more Messiahs. Some were celibate, some married, they gave up private property and rejecting violence spent their time in prayer, manual work, meditation and the study of sacred Hebrew texts, which interestingly we are told they interpreted symbolically.
Josephus describes them as the third party in Judaism (after the Pharisees and Temple priesthood) living in houses spread across Judea. Interestingly Josephus, the Jewish exponent of Greco-Roman history (writing The Jewish War in 75CE) changed sides from being the Jewish commander in the war against Rome to servant and backer of Vespasian. His justification for doing so was the experience he had of a vision that came to him while hiding in a cave during the brutal siege of Jotapata. This shows he too was influenced by the apocalyptic world view and took the existence of naturally inexplicable events for granted.
The gospel tradition asserts that Yeshua started his ministry after a solitary forty day withdrawal into the desert after his baptism by John. There he faced temptation “from the Devil” to carry out deeds of theistic magic to illustrate his powers which he rejected. He also appointed twelve disciples to the symbolic role of Apostle, a way of saying that like Moses he was setting out to build a new People of Israel. (Twelve tribes) and this means he may have considered, as the Gospels all assert, that he saw himself as having a Messianic role.
Were there any Buddhist links? As well as possible links with the Essenes it also looks possible that Yeshua could have met travelling bhikkhus who together with Buddhist merchants since the time of Alexander and his Seleucid successors were known to have constantly used the “Silk Road” from India en route for Greece, Rome or Egypt . The leading NT scholar BH Streeter pointed out the parallels between the Sermon on the Mount and the teaching of the Buddha in 1932.
Certainly many who have explored both the Christian and the Buddhist traditions have been struck by the similarities between Yeshua’s teaching and practice and that of Gautama, particularly as regards moral behaviour and attitudes to others. It is reported there was a monastery in Alexandria run by a group called the Therapeutae and it is possible this is a misreading of Theraputta – sons of the Elders, (Theravadin) There is more acceptance by academic scholars (Including Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch of Oxford) that the Buddhist example of the Bhikkhu Sangha influenced the growth of the Christian monastic tradition in Syria and the desert. (Such minor things as shaving the head for monks and placing the hands together in greeting and prayer did not come from Judaism.)
Like missionary bhikkhus Yeshua engaged with all who crossed his path, regardless it seems of gender, religion, or moral character, and like them showed no subservience to social status or wealth. Like them Yeshua and his disciples dressed simply and depended on the alms of disciples and hearers. Like the bhikkhus he seems to have been celibate – a eunuch for the Kingdom of YHWH. He also showed himself a powerful healer of mental and physical distress with a message of compassion and openness to others and the poor which mirrors Gautama’s teaching on generosity, compassion and love (metta). He was a resolute promoter of forgiveness, and like Gautama emphasised non-violence.
Yeshua’s distinctive teaching and style contrasted with that of Gautama Whatever influence the Buddhist tradition did or did not have on Yeshua, his teaching and style while having moral and practical similarities was also very different and diverged from and did not address issues faced by Gautama. Jesus referred to himself ambiguously as “the son of man” or “the son of Adam”. Was this a claim for Messianic status or an assertion that he spoke of himself as Everyman i.e. as being no more and no less special than anyone else? Unlike Gautama he emphasised his relationship with YHWH, using the language of theism and a simple prayer to YHWH who he advocated should be addressed as Father not just of Jews but of goy as well. (Gautama emphasised our common humanity and rejected the worship or offering of prayer to any god and placed morality and the practice of mindfulness or reflective awareness through meditation as the key to developing insight) Yeshua operated within the then common Jewish apocalyptic world view. This was of course unknown to Gautama. Yeshua spoke of a Day of Judgment in apocalyptic and immediate terms. (Gautama spoke of kamma, that all thoughts and actions have inescapable consequences) Yeshua referred to eternal life as the quality of ultimately meaningful life experienced both here and after death in heaven or hell. (Gautama spoke of tasting Nibbana, enlightenment, freedom, happiness, peace in this life despite emphasising the inevitability of suffering and death and operated in a culture which used the language of multiple rebirths into different “realms”.). Yeshua’s followers have seen the magical miracles associated with him as signs that YHWH endorsed him despite his apparent rejection of doing such a thing. (Gautama, while never denying the existence of gods, devas and evil spirits or magic and stories which described him as having supernatural powers and doing battle with demons, rejected any endorsement from them and regarded any attempt to practice good or bad magic, astrology or levitation in order to promote his teachings as spiritually irrelevant to the task of concentrating on the basics, the cause and cure of pain, suffering, and alienation – dukkha.)
No Contact with Buddhism? It seems that few if any currant academic biblical scholars recognise evidence for contact with Buddhism which was by then a world religion some four hundred years old and some say if Yeshua had come across bhikkhus his world-view was so different from the Buddhist world-view as to be totally incompatible, so he would not have been influenced. These remarks come across as hostile from what I have read, but I think they ignore the growing awareness of the deep contacts in trade and culture there were between the Greco-Roman world and India and makes it seem that neither Buddhists nor Yeshua were capable of dialogue or capable of seeing areas of agreement – again something Buddhists encouraged and it seems Yeshua practised.
Yeshua’s moral teaching Yeshua’s teaching and example on love, forgiveness, non-violence and turning the other cheek, of seeking the spirit rather than the letter of the Torah can however be seen as being based upon his understanding of Judaism, particularly in the teaching of Rabbi Hillel. (d. 7CE) More generally it seems that while Yeshua found that for Jews “your neighbour” was your fellow Jew and following the Torah was then ( and often still is) a highly divisive and legalistic exercise, he came to see “your neighbour” in the poor, the sick, the outcast, the heretic, the child, non-Jewish goyim and of course women. For Yeshua following the Torah meant taking the risk of exercising the most compassionate action regardless of legal rulings. The teaching and example of Gautama which emphasises inner intention and universal compassion towards all sentient life, his teaching that the practice of generosity (dana) is the first step on a spiritual path together with his use of the five moral precepts (sila) – not as legalistic divine rules to obey but pointers to help us avoid causing suffering to others is very similar.
Yeshua, Gautama and Bhikkhu Training Whatever its origin the similarity in the morality commended by both Yeshua and Gautama also shows up an important difference. Jesus commended love of neighbour and the need to be forgiving and gave a powerful example in the way he behaved. He appointed twelve apostles as the symbolic start of a new community with Peter’s trust in him as the rock upon which this was built, but was never able to go further than that. Gautama had also commended love and compassion, but unlike Yeshua he also set up the finely tuned lay dependent monastic Sangha. He did this not only to pass on his teaching verbally, but to provide a school where it could be practiced not only by the renunciates but also by those who came to visit and support them. The “monastic” bhikkhu discipline while it is a voluntary system of training for developing greater insight and inner freedom for those who choose to adopt it, is at the same time obviously not intended as a code for all who would follow Gautama’s Middle Way. Marriage, trade and food-production continue to be essential for society. The patimokkha is a code for the training of dependent renunciates in a symbiotic relationship with their lay friends on the Path, it is not a blue-print for society (a shariah law)
As regards Buddhism and Hinduism, certainly by the time of Irenaeus (d 202CE) and Tertullian (d 225 CE) the teachings of holy men from India were seen as heretical and a distraction to be condemned, but given the way Christian theology and practice developed after Yeshua with its emphasis on orthodoxy and uniformity as promoted by Emperor Constantine, that is hardly surprising. Perhaps the Buddhist encounter with Yeshua has simply been written out of the story, as the influence of Nestorian Christianity has been written out of the history of China.
Conflict with the Jewish Establishment Whatever influences led Yeshua to teach and think as he did, it is pretty clear his approach to religious life was not acceptable to the religious and political Jewish leadership of that time. They saw him as a comparatively ill-educated rabble-rousing populist preacher with possible Messianic pretensions and odd views about Samaritans, women, (“fallen” and respectable) and non-Jewish goyim that could stir up the wrath of Rome and undermine their own religious and political authority. (He criticised the rabbinic Pharisees for legalistic hypocrisy and the commercialism of Temple sacrificial practice.)
Gautama, Rulers and other Teachers By comparison Gautama did not suffer from or come in conflict with the rulers of his day, but was invited to come and discuss and teach them and was treated with great respect as a holy man. He was however ready to be critical of them. He never supported war, suggesting that violence should be overcome by more skilful peaceful means. He also insisted that if invited to speak he or any bhikkhu should be given the highest seat that is he was indicating that he and his Order were subservient to no king. Centuries after his death the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka 268-232 BCE became a follower and promoted Buddhist values of tolerance and non-violence across India and sent Buddhist missionary monks to China and Greece. As regards other teachers he did not seek to win over their disciples and treated them with respect.
While Gautama if he had still been alive might not have been too surprised by Ashoka’s actions, it is hard to think of Yeshua visualising or expecting that under the Emperor Constantine 275-337 CE Christianity would soon become the official religion of the very Empire that had sanctioned his death and that the Emperor would convene a conference at Nicea to provide the Church with a single “orthodox” creed.
Yeshua’s Charisma and Character Any reading of the Gospels makes one thing quite clear. Yeshua was a brilliant speaker and a truly charismatic individual who travelled around Palestine attracting huge crowds. He also apparently healed many of physical or mental illness and denied that their conditions were a divine punishment. He had them captivated not by philosophical discourse, but by his use of memorable stories, witty comparisons, angry denunciations of religious hypocrisy and a collection of enigmatic aphorisms and “parables”. These created an unforgettable impression on those who heard him and have been remembered, quoted and misquoted ever since and which are both accessible and challenging to old and young, the educated and the illiterate. This is an amazing achievement bearing in mind how short his “ministry” (1-3 years) was, and that he wrote nothing down.
Yeshua died a young man and his time spent preaching was short, possibly no more than a year. He comes across as fiery, compassionate, sensitive towards women and children, poor people, mad and sick people, “tax collectors and sinners” and ready to share a drink with them. He was also an unflinching man with a mission who inspired fierce loyalty and wonder amongst his disciples who saw him as divinely inspired by YHWH. Gautama’s Character and Charisma Gautama died an old man, mature, seasoned, experienced as to what was happening in the society of his day and in his Order. He was widely respected. He appeared free from cravings, free from hatreds, supremely calm and self-confident, sympathetic, compassionate, content with the simplicity and dependence of the bhikkhu life. With modesty he skilfully fitted what he had to say to the interests and intelligence of his audience, whoever he was talking to. He showed in himself what it meant to be truly liberated and he must have been an awe-inspiring person to meet and he faced death in old age with equinamity. He had become someone who had broken through his own imperfections for some would know that once he had thought, and behaved very differently as a spoilt young prince who “had everything” and who had then, for possibly rather unthinking and selfish reasons, walked out on his wife and baby son. Now he could be seen as someone transformed who could train others to be transformed. As a result it seems some came to see him as omniscient and complete with a total memory of innumerable previous lives.
Yeshua and his Miracles Bearing in mind the excitement, enthusiasm and devotion he engendered and the probability that he was seen by many as a possible Messiah who in some mysterious way would lead the Jews to “freedom” it is not that surprising that eye-witnesses talking about him and attempting to convey the impact he had made on them resorted to tales of having seen amazing signs and healings. We need to bear in mind the feverish apocalyptic world-view current which took for granted an immanent cosmic battle. This makes it hardly surprising that stories of how he cast out demons, brought about spectacular healings, read minds, calmed storms, turned water into wine and even on occasion raised individuals from the dead became current. Some of these “events” however are clearly (by comparing different gospel versions) cases where a story or parable he told was recounted as something he had done or where the magic in the story was seen to have symbolic significance. (E.g. calming the storm)
First Century Attitudes to Miracles It is however probable that those who told and heard these stories did not think of them as just symbols or metaphors. They inhabited a world-view where magic, both theistic and demonic, operated as being both unusual and easily believable, and where dreams and visions were taken very seriously as giving us guidance about how to behave. They would simply regard what they heard as “true” in ways many “Pentecostal” and African Christians still do, and those both Catholic and Protestant who today continue to inhabit cultures or subcultures where similar styles of thinking at odds with Enlightenment thinking and contemporary secularism is strong. In such cultures almost anything is found believable, particularly when times are tough. Also let us not forget many others who appear “secularised “ today easily slip uncritically into such thinking particularly in stressful contexts and easily accept the claims of “faith healers”, “alternative health therapies”, astrologers and tarot card readers as worth taking seriously on the basis of some vague testimony or very little evidence.
Gautama, Magic and Miracle While the Pali texts reflect a culture which took the occurrence of wonders and supernatural events for granted, as is still the case for many in Asia, it is clear that Gautama saw any search for or resort to magic, worship of the gods, superstition, or sacrifice as a way of attaining happiness or knowledge as fundamentally flawed. This was best demonstrated not by criticising those who loved superstition, but by the example to be set by his own behaviour and that of the bhikkhus.
Yeshua’s Key Message I would however assert that Yeshua’s core message was not dependent on the acceptance of a world view like that common in his time or like the world view Gautama experienced or the world view demonstrated by Paul and the Gospel writers. Rather it was simply, “Wake up, be open to YHWH whose “kingdom” is within you and show compassion and forgiveness to all others as you expect YHWH to show compassion and forgiveness to you.” This is very close to the teaching of Gautama which can be summarised as saying, “Wake up, become mindfully aware of who you are and of your own mind and body. Wake up to the way things are around us and show compassion to everyone as you leave behind grasping, attachment and hatred.” The difference between them then it seems is focussed on Yeshua seeing the wake up as a call to relate to YHWH and Gautama sees the call to wake up and recognise the natural order of things, the Dhamma. Can this gulf be bridged and is it important? A big question. Yeshua however, also emphasised a coming imminent, magical/miraculous, apocalyptic catastrophe (See Mark 13) which is not something Gautama predicted. It is hard to think he would have been sympathetic to such ideas despite having seen wars. He did though fear the day would eventually come when his teaching would go unheeded in the face of the human capacity for greed, hatred and delusion. More broadly it seems his cyclical view of the universe saw universal destruction and re-creation as taking place aeon by aeon innumerable times.
Yeshua’s Death by Torture Despite his rejection of the Zealot path which sought armed revolt, Yeshua was regarded as a dangerous subversive and arrested on trumped up charges of fomenting violence against Rome. The Gospels unite in reporting that he was aware that his final trip to Jerusalem, his criticism of the Temple cult and the Messianic hopes he ignited in many could inevitably lead to his arrest, conviction and death and that he shared this premonition with his disciples in the course of a final meal. The gospels all then spend much of their space (in Mark’s case a third) describing how he was betrayed by one of his Twelve, arrested, unjustly tried and sentenced, flogged and crucified. His endurance and behaviour in the face of this revolting but not uncommon ordeal made an indelible impression on those who witnessed it, including on his women disciples. His last words were, according to Mark in Aramaic and Matthew (in Hebrew) were, “My YHWH, my YHWH, why have you forsaken me.” Other reported last words promised paradise for those who died with him, asked John to care for his mother and “Father forgive them for they know not what they do.”
Some, like Peter, despaired, and terrified in the face of Roman power, felt Yeshua’s life and mission had been a failure. Others did not and two were inspired to put their own lives at risk. The very senior member of the Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea, laid his own safety and reputation on the line by offering his tomb for the burial of Yeshua. For him Yeshua was no failure but an inspiration. He saw Yeshua revealing that to follow YHWH with honesty and integrity provided a new model for what it meant to be “chosen by God” the Messiah, not as a military leader but as a “suffering servant”. This John tells us was also true of the Pharisee Nicodemus, a member of a group Yeshua had often criticised for hypocrisy, but who spoke up for Yeshua and put his own reputation at risk after Yeshua’s death and delivered spices for his embalming.
After his death on a Friday at the end of the Shabbat the next day, the women disciples went to the tomb to embalm and clean the body – only to find the tomb empty. They ran away afraid and told the family and the male disciples. This event simply described by Mark was embellished by the other Gospel writers in miraculous/magical style to include encounters with angels and Jesus who is described as being seen alive again. Matthew goes so far as to say many others came out of their tombs and appeared to many. (Mt 27;52f)
His Body and His “Resurrection” So who took and what happened to the body? Quite simply and not surprisingly we will just never know – short of some dramatic archaeological find in a Jerusalem dig. Any idea that he did not actually die but was spirited away to be patched up strikes me as highly implausible. (The Ahmadiyya Movement considers he was finally buried in Kashmir) Jesus was executed by experienced Romans soldiers and it could have been either disciples or enemies who removed the body from Joseph’s tomb and buried or disposed of it somewhere else. It also seems to me that were his body to turn up in a dig nearby today it should make no difference to the validity of Christian faith in his “resurrection” just because so many have for so long accepted the theistic magic style of thinking the Gospel writers used.
Very soon however after the tomb was found to be empty the Gospels all describe in their different (and hard to reconcile) ways that the women and men disciples became convinced that Yeshua was in some special sense alive – with them and in them. Exactly what triggered the intensity of this experience in their hearts and minds may seem opaque to us now, but it was it seems something they shared when they met together to re-enact, as he had asked them to do, that last meal. That was when Yeshua’s words were remembered. In sharing bread and wine together he said they would be sharing his body and blood, identifying with his suffering and so in this way he was alive in them.
As the weeks passed it seems fair to suggest that at these meetings the disciples who had known Yeshua were asked to get up and tell their story again in order to inspire their hearers with a similar awareness. They also retold stories about his life, the things he had said and did, the people he had healed and the stories and parables he had told. So it was that building on the apocalyptic style they were used to they testified in a theistic magic way how they had come to “know” that Yeshua was “alive,” how he had revealed YHWH to them and how he had “appeared”.
Using this way of thinking they spoke powerfully and vividly, drawing no modern distinction between fact and imagination, history and symbol. They were not testifying to give evidence in a court, but in order to inspire their hearer’s to come to “know Christ.” This meant that with each telling their testimonies developed in ways that could be easily and dramatically imagined. This brought about for many who heard them an intense experience which they saw as a turning from darkness to light, from being “lost” to being “found” and of being “born again.” as they came to “know” Jesus.
It strikes me that the reality of the resurrection of Jesus is to be seen in this conversion process, this “coming to know the Lord” something which has continued throughout Christian history. The “resurrection” is the knowledge that “Jesus lives” that Jesus has become “known” in the hearts of believing Christians. Again as the history of the Church and current Pentecostal practice shows this can happen to individuals on their own, but more often in large emotional and compelling group worship settings. (Think Methodism and the Great Awakening)
The important point is that this “knowing” is not and never has been brought about by an historical analysis of documents and evidence, but crucially by an act of faith, of surrender and trust to a religious experience of Jesus’ presence. This faith is not a case of trusting the unbelievable, but in the individual reaching the point of following an intuition, a deep feeling that whatever the trigger, this is no shallow emotional experience, but something fundamental that should be trusted. It is more like falling in love than solving a puzzle and can be shattering and life-changing.
So today we have the Ecclesia and the Gospels which tell the Jesus story in a variety of slightly different ways, sometimes making different points, but all making use of this world-view with its elements of theistic magic miracles and supernaturalism. As regards what happened after his death these include the story of his “appearing” to Mary Magdalene after being mistaken for the gardener (echoes of Adam?), of his “appearing” in the breaking of the bread at Emmaus, (the Eucharist) of his “appearing” to the doubting Thomas. (Faith) Then there is his “appearing” to the disciples by the Sea of Galilee and causing a great catch of 153 fish, (Ixthus) and of his “appearing” to much larger groups of disciples, also in Galilee. (Think of the religious paintings of Salvador Dali whose surrealism is a good example of magical thinking expressed in a “realist” style)
Rabbi Saul and the Deification of Yeshua into Jesus the Christ, Son of God and Saviour So who triggered and brought about this movement of conviction that “Jesus Christ is alive and has been raised from the dead?” A most important “appearance” and by some years the earliest and only written account by one who had directly experienced it that we have (1 Corinthians 53CE) is that by the Rabbi Saul. He was the converted Pharisaic persecutor of Yeshua’s followers. Guilt ridden after his implication in the stoning of Stephen, (an early disciple who spoke out against the Jews for rejecting Yeshua as Messiah) he became a totally dedicated disciple. Despite never having met Yeshua he became a highly effective promoter of what rapidly became the new religion of Christianity. Saul experienced Yeshua’s “presence” after his death with such vividness that he claimed in the strongest of terms that he was an Apostle of Yeshua who he now called – using Greek – Jesus Christ, Son of God and Saviour. Taking the name Paul at his baptism he asserted he had divine authority to speak on Jesus’ behalf. Interestingly he never described in his letters exactly what happened to him to bring about this change, though Luke in Acts (Ch9) describes a miraculous conversion with his hearing the voice of Jesus and suffering temporary blindness on the road to Damascus. Luke was extremely keen on describing miraculous events as continuing to occur long after the death of Jesus, still surely it is hard not to conclude that what was being described was a religious experience, something that happened “in Paul’s head” and not an “objective” occurrence that triggered belief on the basis of something observed.
Paul then not only took for granted the existence of theistic miracles and magic but he shared in and accepted the general apocalyptic world view with a vengeance. In fact he developed and elaborated it giving Jesus the leading role as Messiah and apocalyptic divinised Son of God and Saviour of all who turned to him in faith. He did this without refering to Yeshua’s teachings, healings or parables or to any of the stories later included in the gospels describing a risen Jesus. The one quality he does refer to is Jesus’ agape – his love and compassion for a lost and sinful humanity, the lost and sinful including his guilty self. He then went further to assert in his death under torture that Jesus had born the sins of all humanity and of himself, Paul. He may have got this idea from reflecting on the Jewish practice of having a scape-goat.
Paul also spoke of Yeshua’s death as a sacrifice made to YHWH. (Romans 3:19-28) This was because all men (and women) are too evil and sinful, too incorrigible to earn any ‘merit” in the eyes of God. Rather they need recognise their fallen nature, be forgiving one of the other, repent and have faith in Christ as their Saviour. Jesus’ horrible crucifixion is seen by Paul as him bearing the punishment of YHWH for all the sins of humanity and so saving those who put their faith in him from the justifiably righteous wrath of God. They are put right, justified, by faith in Christ and not by accumulating a tally of meritorious good works.
This pessimistic view of human nature which went far beyond anything it seems that Yeshua taught and which also put in question free will, became generally accepted amongst Christians as Paul’s letters became authoritative in the Church. This highly emotional, difficult to understand emphasis on Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for sin has spawned a series of contradictory and morally questionable theories of “the atonement” by subsequent theologians. It also effectively triggered a deep spiritual/emotional response in many of his hearers. They imagined Jesus terrible suffering, woke up to and felt guilty about their own inadequacies and “sinfulness” and in turning to Jesus as their “saviour” felt they had been “born again” as they became members of “the body of Christ” the Ecclesia.
A Personal Reflection on the Passion of Yeshua Paul said, ”we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” The Jews expected a Messiah who would lead them to victory, one way or another, and the pagan Greeks could not see the death of Jesus as being anything but a pointless failure. The truth though is surely more terrible. No “reason” can justify what happened. Yeshua died broken after vicious sustained torture as sadly so many have done and continue to do today (Syria, Yemen, North Korea.) No-one deserves to die like that and Yeshua certainly did not and neither did those who died with him. YHWH did not come to their aid and Yeshua it appears died feeling totally abandoned by YHWH. No meditation training could have effectively alleviated the extreme suffering he went through or the extreme suffering so many have gone through and go through every day. Can there be any “resurrection” or “enlightenment” in this? The Church has asserted that he “ascended into Heaven.” Gautama is considered to have entered or achieved parinirvana which means an end of any rebirth and a disillusion of the skandhas. Does this mean a full-stop ending or the attainment of an unchanging immortality or is this a question that it is pointless to ask? Who knows? Some might say “heaven” or “a better rebirth” would be an adequate compensation for the sort of suffering Yeshua underwent. Really? I think we close our minds to the reality of how many suffer appallingly and I think the death of Yeshua is easily sentimentalised. If Son of Adam means he saw himself as representative of every man his words from the cross strike me as an inspiration for even if he despaired of YHWH he did not return hatred with hatred but with compassion for his torturers and concern for his mother. Was not that both enlightenment and resurrection? As Gautama taught “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world, it is appeased by compassion. This is an eternal law” (dhammapada 5)
Expecting immanent divine cataclysm Paul set out across Syria, Turkey, Greece, Palestine, Cyprus and Malta and on to Rome with Peter telling the story of Jesus’ suffering and execution, his Passion, until they also, at the hands of Nero, suffered a similar fate. His addresses had a mixed response in the synagogues being mainly rejected by his brother Jews but accepted by many goy “God-fearers” who also attended them and whose background and world view was more Greek than Jewish. They were ready to put their faith in and accept the “risen Christ” before the apocalypse arrived when everyone but them would die. What were they accepting? I suggest it was that they came to see that the Yeshua/Jesus Way remained true and to be practiced even in the face of the worst men can do. In short love of neighbour, forgiveness, generosity, honesty, in short the moral teaching shared with the Buddha Way remained and remains as true and important however dark things get. Is coming to a recognition of that “enlightenment” and “resurrection” and an acceptance of the Dhamma, the way things are?
Not only was Paul creative in the apocalyptic divinised role he assigned to his Jesus in the way he taught, wrote and preached, he also grasped the power of building Christian practice and experience around the two richly symbolic and dramatic ceremonies which are now called sacraments. These were celebrated with readings from the Hebrew Scriptures in Greek translation, particularly where they could be seen as in some sense prefiguring Jesus and his divinised Messianic role. We can be pretty sure they also included a public reading of his letters and the testimony of local disciples and eyewitnesses who were around and able to say what Jesus had done and said, and of course once they were written there were readings from the gospels.
Baptism, the Christian initiation ceremony, inspired by John the Baptiser but given a new twist, proved to be very powerful. The ceremony symbolises dying to the old life of selfishness (sin) under the rule of Satan and rising again to a new life “in Christ”. Undergone by adult converts it involved total immersion in a river or baptistery after a period of fasting and prayer, this was then and continues today to be an effective and deeply moving way of experiencing being “born again” as the candidates joined Jesus’ body, the Ecclesia to face what can be a harsh and uncertain world.
The “breaking of the bread” the Eucharist, became a weekly ceremonial thanksgiving meal uniting Jesus’ death and resurrection by it being celebrated not on Shabbat but on the first day of the week, Sunday. In this they partook of his body and blood in the bread and the wine to strengthen them to live as dedicated members of his body, his community the Ecclesia/Church, while they awaited Jesus’ immanent coming again “in power and great glory.”
Is Orthodox Christianity the Creation of Jesus or of Paul? If this is an accurate account of Paul’s teaching and work, his mark on the new religion, first known (like Gautama’s teaching) as The Way, is almost or perhaps as great as the teaching and example of Yeshua himself. Biblical scholars are agreed that Paul’s letters predate all the Gospels and that his views or “theology” influenced them all and that his letters quickly acquired the status of sacred scripture for Christians. In his emphasis on Jesus as the divine Son of God and Saviour of the World Paul influenced all four authors of the gospels to go far beyond seeing or describing Yeshua as simply a great rabbi or spiritual teacher, a prophet or even as a Messiah. No. for Paul Jesus is a unique being, the eternal Son of God, all knowing and sinless. This was to be part of the theology of all the gospels.
Christian Training and Monasticism In setting up what was to become the pattern for Christian organisation of the Church Paul did not seek to set up a long term organisation or school for the production of spiritually prepared Christians as Gautama had set up the Sangha. In fact Paul’s deification of Yeshua and promotion of him as “our Saviour Jesus Christ” for those who turned to him in faith as they rejected a world about to be destroyed went right against such an idea. Instead he suggested Church members should not even plan to get married, so imminent was the apocalypse. Of course this never happened. Still Paul’s letters show him grappling with how to order this new Christian community. Not surprisingly this was based on the Jewish synagogue model and involved a congregation with preaching, scripture study and weekly Sunday worship centred on the breaking of the bread. As with the Sangha where the training needed to be properly authorised, Christian congregations were expected to accept apostolic leadership from Paul, Peter or other apostles as regards what they taught and practiced if they were to be accepted as part of the Ecclesia that was being saved.
The Apocalypse is Postponed and the Monastics Move In Time passed and as it became ever clearer that the apocalypse had been “postponed,” the churches continued to grow, particularly in cities. The mood changed and the Roman Empire was under increasing threat of invasion and breakdown. In the early 4th century CE there were those (Pachomius in Egypt and Anthony in Syria) who yearned to go deeper and “imitate Christ” by leaving the towns for the desert to live very like bhikkhus on their own or in renunciate communities, there to do battle with their demons and receive simple sustenance from the Christian congregations who brought them food and supported them. Soon some of them set out on intrepid missionary journeys beyond the boundaries of the Empire such as to Cornwall, Wales and Ireland. So Christian monasticism was born and remarkably quickly it became a vital source for scholarship and leadership in the Church, operating in many ways similar to the Bhikkhu Sangha. There was however initially no single rule like the patimokkha but a variety based around particular saints. To identify themselves with the sufferings of Christ many of them also adopted quite extreme ascetic practices such as extended fasting, prayer sessions and meditation. These won them a reputation for holiness.
Faith, Orthodoxy and Tolerance Gautama in his perception of the Dhamma as essentially a natural law, did not claim to be the only one to have been enlightened by it. Quite the opposite. He taught that many had been enlightened before him and his aim was to help others towards enlightenment. He saw the Dhamma exercising a sphere of influence through the example, compassionate behaviour and teaching of those who followed it. He was also ready to recognise good teaching and practice in those who followed other paths. To force or threaten people to follow his way was anathema to him and though not perfect his followers have not initiated religious wars to gain converts. The Buddha Way spread gradually and peacefully. It is also the case that in all the rules of the patimokkha not one refers to belief. This means it is open to working with, alongside and in co-operation with those of different religions, ideologies, philosophies and ways of thinking. It is essentially open to what may be discerned as truth. This does not of course mean that there are no Buddhist “orthodoxies.” There are, but they refrain from conflict.
Yeshua sought to love YHWH and his neighbour and his neighbour as himself and it seems claimed to be very close to YHWH as his son and just as open to all he met, his neighbours, as YHWH’s sons and daughters. He may even have considered himself to have been sent by YHWH to lead all he met to accept YHWH. Are the words of John’s gospel those of Yeshua or simply the way John interpreted him? “All things were made by him and without him nothing was made.” Here Yeshua is seen as “the Way, the Truth and the Life” and “no one comes to the Father except by me.” This can be interpreted in either a universalist or in a condemnatory “us and them” way. If he saw his own identity as something shared with others, YHWH and the very universe itself this could be very close to the path of “the one who knows”.
Paul, however it would seem, and many Christians have divided humanity into “us” the ecclesia, and “them” everyone else, sinners on the way, and deservedly so, to the fires of Hell, and Christians, also all sinners, but baptised and dependant on the mercy of YHWH to be on track for Heaven. It is a sad fact, as Harari (Sapiens p 243) has pointed out that the three monotheisms have been particularly good at killing their opponents. Certainly it is only very recently in Christian history that tolerance, when it comes to matters of faith, has been seen as anything else but faithless weakness, let alone recognising truth in other traditions. “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus” for a long time said it all. However, this too can have a “hard” and a “soft” interpretation. See Archbishop Callistos Ware. “All the categorical strength and point of this aphorism lies in its tautology. Outside the Church there is no salvation, because salvation is the Church. There may be members of the Church who are not visibly such, but whose membership is known to God alone.” So the Buddhists may be Christians without knowing it and the good Christians on the Way of the Buddha without knowing it. Do I joke? Yes and no for it actually makes sense.
Some Reflections the Heart of Their Teaching. Compassion, Salvation, Enlightenment Quoting two Hebrew scriptures, Yeshua said, “You shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind and the second is like unto it. Love your neighbour as yourself.” And his answer to the question, “And who is my neighbour?” was his parable of the Good Samaritan, the unexpected and looked down on “heretic” who gave real help to a man in a crisis. Paul and Luke posed a different question. “What shall I do to be saved.” Saved from what? The answer they gave being “From sin, from guilt at the evil one has done and from the punishment one deserves and from death. Repent, turn to Christ in faith and the reward is eternal life with Christ in heaven.” Do these two answers fit naturally together? Perhaps. Perhaps hardly so. We already know Gautama’s answer to the question. It was, “I teach dhukkha and the ending of dhukkha.” Gautama, finding a sick Bhikkhu being ignored by his brothers proceeded to wash and nurse him and declared “If you do not tend to one another, then who is there to tend you? Whoever would tend me, he should tend the sick.” (See parallel Matthew 25;39) Here we have two men commending practical compassion to be acted on straight away in the present moment – and in recognition of what we share.
Deified and Supernaturalised Yes, like Yeshua, at times Gautama has come close to being deified or supernaturalised, turned into a figure to be worshipped or implored to for help, or even in the Theravada tradition endowed with total knowledge about everything, as the all seeing all knowing teacher of gods and men. Still even if the devotional path of Japanese Amida Buddhism – which turns the Buddha into a saviour figure who gives those who place their trust /faith in him access into a heaven – may have its place for those with a “devotional mentality”, this seems rather far from the Gautama of the Pali suttas. There his teaching points to the reality of the way things are right now and how we need to live and his Sangha inspires and helps train the minds of those who wish to be trained so we can see who we are more clearly and so we can seek that calm, cool, unattached happiness he commends.
What to Make of Paul The big problem however in contrasting Yeshua with Gautama is what to make of the work of Paul, self-appointed Apostle to the Gentiles? Is it Paul rather than Yeshua who turned a small reform movement inside Judaism into a world religion open to all goyim/gentiles? And what would Yeshua have thought were he to see how under Paul’s influence the new Greek speaking congregations of Asia Minor all saw him as on a par with YHWH – fully God and fully man and that he had died not just because he could not deny the truth as he saw it about YHWH’s love for all mankind and the value of every person, but because his death was a sacrifice offered to YHWH to atone for the sins of all mankind, including the sins of Paul. Is it the case that the successors of both Yeshua and Gautama in their attempt to honour their masters, may have diminished and misinterpreted them both? To make Gautama omniscient or to appear more than human, reduces his relevance and credibility for those who have a contemporary 21st century science based outlook. This is sad when increasingly his teaching and training is seen to be highly relevant as we try to stay calm, think straight and face our own troubled natures in this fractured and tumultuous world.
As regards the role of Paul and the creation of Christianity if Paul got it wrong and his characterisation of Jesus as the eternal Son of God and Saviour of Mankind is not something Rabbi Yeshua would have been able to recognise, then there is much uniting the Buddhist and Christian traditions in the shared goal of striving towards better lives more in harmony with the way things are and the world we live in. If on the other hand Paul got it right and Yeshua aspired to be seen as Son of God and Saviour of the World and that his view of mankind is the same as that of Paul, which is that we are all hopelessly corrupt and sinful and utterly dependant on the grace of God for any salvation we might aspire to, then between the two traditions there is quite a gulf. Going Further? Perhaps however a comparison between Gautama and Yeshua, the men and their teachings, is not enough. The comparison also needs to include something of the deified Jesus and the all-knowing Buddha and that in both cases we are faced with a deeper reality than two exceptional men and their legacies. Perhaps thinking only of the two “historical personalities” drops us into the trap of ignoring what the Buddha called annatta not self and what Jesus said when he declared “I and the Father are One” and “take, eat, this is my body which is given for you and this is my blood which is shed for you.” Both Gautama and Yeshua speak of self-centred egotism as the great misperception, the great error which distorts and twists our self-perception and behaviour. If we place a boundary around the self and introduce a line between what is me and mine and what is not me and not mine we are introducing a false dichotomy for no such hard line exists as we continuously react and interact with each other and the world of which we are a part .
Five Khandhas Gautama’s analysis of the self into five khandhas and his observation of the insubstantial, changing nature of them all and that identity cannot be reduced to any one of them shows in a way we can see that we have no bounded self. The universal compassion and love (agape, metta) which both teachers commend as the right attitude towards all beings makes sense because in loving “our neighbour” we are loving what we share as sentient beings. We certainly have such mental conventions as thinking of “my body”, “my consciousness” – but that is what they are, useful conventions. Where “my body” begins and ends and “separates” from “the world” that surrounds and infuses it –- is both ever changing and evanescent as we can see is quite literally the case when we practice anapanasati, the mindfulness of breathing. (For in breathing the line between me and not me simply melts) The same goes for the workings of “my” mind, perceptions, mental formations and consciousness, that is in all the khandhas.
Beyond the Historical Similarly if I think too hard about “the real historical Yeshua” or “the real Gautama” in the hope of extracting a truthful, simple story I may be deluding myself and my readers. On the one hand I may be creating useful accounts of them both and providing some clarifications, but I am also distorting what in both cases is something extremely complex and which in both cases includes all the influences, physical, historical, cultural, religious and genetic etc. of which they are made, together with over two thousand years of historical consequences and countless attempts to interpret them both afresh, together with the different results that have come about as a consequence.
The traditional stories surrounding both of them it would seem of many former births (Gautama) and long ancestry stretching back in time to Adam in Luke and creation in John (Yeshua) together with the state of the stars and the visions, dreams and wonderful events that have surrounded them may not be dross to be cleared away but pointers and reminders to us of the subtle complexity and awesome mystery of the way things are and how we are all linked together. Such colourful and dramatic ways of expressing the two traditions may also be frankly irreducible. Many millions around the world, and they are not only in Africa, India, Thailand, China and South America will never be involved with the thinking explored here. Ritual, ceremony, dramatic and wonderful stories, strong emotions, rallies, songs, processions, dreams, imaginings and social contacts will remain as they always have the way beliefs and values, religions and world views are formed and communicated for the many – as Pope Francis showed he knew when he blessed the crowds at football matches in Argentina.
In grasping for a hold on “the way things are” both traditions have resorted to threesomes. Buddhists turn for refuge to the “Triple Gem” The Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha. Christians sing of One Church, One Faith, One Lord, and of course have the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons in one God. In both the Triple Gem and the creeds (which I will refrain from quoting) Gautama and Yeshua are amplified into beings of universal significance and presence, omniscient, omnipresent, equally in us and in others. When I bow to the Buddha, the Dhamma and the Sangha I bow to that which is best and most knowing in myself as well as that most enlightened of beings and I bow to the truth he has shown and that I have seen and have yet to see and to the community of those who have followed and embody that truth in their lives and example, (regardless of their “religion” or lack of it.)
When the Christian makes the sign of the cross and bows it is to the mysterious ultimate Source, YHWH Father, Cosmic Originator who is revealed in the personality and work of Jesus and his saints, those in whom he has and does live empowered by his Spirit which permeates all and comes from the Source. Christians address YHWH as Father and speak to “him” in prayer. Buddhists sit and focus the mind – starting with the breath and the body. Is Christianity a form of human focused monotheism, and is Buddhism a form of transcendent humanism?
Christians meet Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharist and speak of being “in communion.” Buddhists sustain the living vehicle of the Buddha-Dhamma by placing food in the bowl of the Sangha so sustaining the community.
Views of Man and Society Gautama’s attitude towards all was compassionate – seeing people as usually holding wrong views which lead to giving in to the greeds, the hatreds and delusions which lead to misery and repetition, life after life, action after action, war after war and acts of repeated cruelty. He taught how people could break free of these by following his vision and teaching as they recognised its value for themselves. This shows an optimistic take on human nature, but one based on a realistic awareness of how difficult breaking established patterns of thought and behaviour can be and how inescapable sickening, aging and dying are. We are not trapped by our past, but can change ourselves and others if we stick at it.
Yeshua showed compassion towards all he met, including in the end his enemies and torturers, but also anger at hypocrisy and religious bigotry and he suffered for it. He saw the Torah not as a code to be rigidly obeyed, but as a useful guide to living a good life. It was the sprit, not the letter of its rules which he saw was important. He advocated people be prepared to forgive those who had wronged them, recognise their own imperfections and not judge others by higher standards than they should expect to be judged by themselves. Instead he emphasised that they should show compassion and good-will to all regardless of sex, status or religion. This is demanding, but he clearly saw people could be capable of responding to his call. It does however seem to be at odds with the pessimism of Paul.
For the moment I stop here. As I said at the start, this is a work in progress. Comments and criticisms will be acknowledged and welcomed.
John Baxter 22-8-2017