Buddhists and Christians have sometimes, in a search for common ground, pointed out some intriguing parallels between the "life stories" of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, and Siddartha Gautama, the Buddha. Jesus' mother Mary was visited by a divine being, Gabriel, who told her how she, a virgin, would conceive and give birth to the divine Son of God. Maya, Gautama's mother, had a dream vision in which a white elephant approached her and entered into her to emerge nine months later as the future enlightened one. The white elephant was a symbol of holiness. Jesus was born in a poor setting but his birth was attended by angels and kings. Buddha came into the world in a sacred garden. He emerged from his mother's side. His birth was attended by goddesses. His mother was herself a queen so the royalty angle was there too. Jesus was hailed by Simeon, an elderly devout man as the future savior when he was taken to the temple for circumcision. Similarly an elderly holy man came to visit the newborn prince Siddartha and burst into tears on meeting the boy.
He wept because Siddartha would grow up to end suffering in the world. Both Jesus and Siddartha deserted their families to seek their truths. Both spent time in the wilderness. Both had teachers who they followed for a while and who eventually came to follow them. Both were tempted by evil supernatural beings. Even some sayings of each bear similarities. These are interesting of themselves. Perhaps the stories are similar because one story influenced the other? More likely they are similar because they grow out of similar needs and questions. Perhaps as Joseph Campbell would point out they reflect the common mythic threads that run through the human unconscious.
Could the teaching of the Buddha have touched the life of Jesus? Actually yes, they could have, which is not the same as saying that they did. Jesus lived about five hundred years after Guatama and in an area thousands of miles removed. Jesus lived in a very different culture from Gautama and was of a different social standing. Yet he shared, it would seem, a thirst for truth with Gautama. Moreover, despite our image of Jesus as a poor man, that was not necessarily the case. In his time and place the term "carpenter" could refer to any skilled artisan including some fairly well compensated ones. Further we are given to understand from the Gospels that Mary was related to the temple priesthood Jesus could thus have grown up in an intellectually enriched atmosphere, one in which the deep questions were seriously explored. Far from being a simple peasant Jesus may well have been a well-educated theologically bent young man. What however does this have to do with Buddhism?
Well, the ancient world was not quite as benighted or as fragmented as we sometimes think. Ideas have a way of spreading out. Remember that Jesus' Israel was part, albeit reluctantly, of the great Roman Empire. The Empire maintained trading and cultural relations with the East and in particular India. India had been the goal of Alexander the Great's last aborted campaign. Cleopatra may have considered fleeing to India after Actiun. In short, India was far from an unknown place in Jesus' world. Some two and a half centuries before Jesus, a remarkable Emperor reigned in India. His name was Ashoka and he converted to Buddhism. Ashoka sent out missionaries to carry the Buddha's message far and wide. We know some of those missionaries made it as far west as Syria.
There is also a tradition that holds that Jesus traveled to the East in the years not discussed in the Bible. There are local traditions of Jesus' presence in Afghanistan, Iran, and even Pakistan and India. However there is no way to know when these traditions arose. Some stories go so far as to claim that Jesus survived crucifixion and returned to the East, dying in Kashmir many years later. However, all of these stories are based on little or no real evidence. We simply do not know what Jesus was doing before his ministry, nor is there any reason why we should expect there to be any records of those years.
The intriguing thing, however, is to realize the possibilities inherent in a much wider ancient world than we generally consider.
There are other points of similarity, of course. Jesus emphasized non-violence, turning the other cheek as did Gautama. Jesus lived simply as did Gautama. Jesus taught through parables as did Gautama. Jesus emphasized the need to be active in the world but to also be not of the world. Gautama taught the need for non-attachment.
But does all or any of this make Jesus a Buddhist? Of course not. It does point to similar spiritual needs among humans. However, there is far from enough historical evidence to be too very sure of the actual teachings of either man. there also seems no need for a strong Buddhist influence at work on Jesus. He does not do or say anything that is not understandable for a Jew. Most of all though there is the fact that the central teachings of Buddhism and Jesus are not in accord. Buddhism teaches that all apparent reality is transient and conditional; that nothing exists in and of itself. All is dependent in all. Nirvanah is the ultimate realization of the non-permanence, non-duality, and indeed non- existence of reality. It can not be described or even thought of. It can be grasped by the truly enlightened. Strongly allied with this is the concept of atatman, or "non-soul". No being has a soul; there is no unconditional eternal cause to any of us or any thing or to the universe itself.
Jesus on the other hand taught the Kingdom of God. This is also a difficult concept to grab rationally. In essence it teaches the dependence of all things in the Creator Father God and the emergence of that God's rule here on Earth. Jesus saw himself as an agent of the coming of this Kingdom. It does violence I feel to both concepts to try to identify The Kingdom with Nirvanah. Not that it stops people. The Kingdom centers on a personal deity; one whose being is the source and cause of all and to whom all is owed. Nirvanah is impersonal. Buddhism posits no non-created creator. In Buddhism divinities too are conditional beings, also transitory. Buddhists see no real need to talk much about God. For Jesus, God the Father was the only thing worth talking about. True happiness was in relationship with this God who he called "Abla", meaning "Daddy". Buddhism and Jesus may have points of agreement but here in their fundamental assumptions there could hardly be more difference.
What intrigues me is the time and energy people have spent trying to show otherwise. Just why would they want to do that? There has long been a movement to show that fundamentally all the world's religions are the same, that at heart they all teach the same lessons. Unitarian-Universalists have played no small part in all this. Recognizing the imperative of religion as both a motivating and dividing force in human history it has been a dream to harness that power in the cause of unity. To show that fundamentally our religions are all the same would go a long way to showing that fundamentally we are all the same. However it just does not work out that, does it?
It should come as no real surprise that there are points of similarity between faiths. All faiths seek to address the human condition, our awareness of our existence and of our mortality. So some insights will be shared. However it seems to me to require a selective blindness not to see the fundamental differences that also exist. Buddhism and Confucianism posit no Creator God. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam insist upon one. Hinduism has no central theology. Taoism believes in a central force that is impersonal in nature. Christianity insists on one true path through Jesus to God. Judaism claims a special relationship to the Universal God. Native American religions are closely tied to the physical world; Islam and Christianity seek to transcend that world. Islam and Christianity have sealed revelations - sacred texts that are eternally true. Shinto sees a continuous revelation in the flow of life. There is no way I can see to make all of these, and so many other faiths, at heart the same.
Nor is it necessarily a good aim to have. We do have similar needs and questions but we also have different responses. Different faiths point in different directions, cause us to explore different roads and different aspects. Because faiths differ they can dialog with me and others, revealing different insights. There is after all no point in talking to someone who agrees with you all the time. We learn nothing that way.
We also fail to see others as they truly are if we concentrate only on discovering our likeness. We can not understand another culture, country, or faith if we seek out only what we share. Down that road lies dangerous assumptions. Failing to appreciate differences leads us to assume we can act towards others as we would to "one of our own". We fail to see that we could cause offense or miss a key treasure because we looked past difference to sameness.
So Jesus might have been exposed to Buddhist ideas, It could be that some of Gautama's ideas were vaguely in the air of first century Palestine. Sort of a part of the marketplace of ideas, probably with the source long forgotten.
Yet it is to Jesus' ideas and life that Buddhists point when connecting the two traditions. On learning of Jesus and his life, many Buddhist monks and thinkers have identified him as a boddhisatva. In Buddhism a boddisatva is one who has achieved enlightenment but puts off leaving the plane of illusions, puts off entering into Nirvanah in order to help fellow beings. For Buddhists this is the greatest form of compassion and they see in Jesus' life and death an act of compassion. Like the compassion Gautama taught, Jesus' is non-attached. That is, it is directed towards all beings, not just those close to one. This is the Buddhist interpretation of the story of Jesus turning away from his family, much as Gautama had done.
Now as a UU I do make certain faith assumptions. I do assume the equal worth of all humans, that as humans we share a fundamental biological unity. However I also value the many ways we express that humanness. Just as it would be boring to live in a world where everyone agreed with my politics so it would be a very dull world if we all shared the same religious assumptions. It is the subtle interaction of our differences that leads us to growth.
Jesus was Jesus; he was not a Buddhist or a Hindu or anything else. He showed a common humanity with Gautama. But found his own expression of it. Both have inspired evolving traditions. It should be noted that each of those traditions have evolved many differing manifestations. Those who see a Buddhist in Jesus seek to find unity, to humanize traditions. Unity however for us humans can only come from an acceptance of, even a celebration of, differences as well as similarities. We are one but we are also each unique. We celebrate each vision, each dreamer.