Buddhism and Christianity (2023)

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Analogies have been drawn betweenBuddhism and Christianity and Buddhism may have influenced early Christianity. Buddhist missionaries were sent by Emperor Ashoka of India to Syria, Egypt and Greece beginning in 250 BCE and may have helped prepare for the ethics of Christ. Others have noted the significant differences between the two religions beginning with monotheism‘s place at the core of Christianity, and Buddhism’s orientation towards non-theism (the lack of relevancy of the existence of a creator deity) which runs counter to teachings about God in Christianity; and extending to the importance of grace in Christianity against the rejection of interference with karma in Theravada Buddhism, etc.

Some early Christians were aware of Buddhism which was practiced in both the Greek and Roman Empires in the pre-Christian period. The majority of modern Christian scholarship has rejected any historical basis for the travels of Jesus to India or Tibet and has seen the attempts at parallel symbolism as cases of parallelomania which exaggerate resemblances.However, in the EastsyncretismbetweenNestorian Christianityand Buddhism was widespread along theSilk Roadin Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and was especially pronounced in the medievalChurch of the East in China, as evidenced by theJesus Sutras.

Buddhism and Christianity (1)

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Christian meditation, worship

Origins and early contacts

The history of Buddhism goes back to what is now Bodh Gaya, India almost six centuries before Christianity, making it one of the oldest religions still being practiced.

Buddhism and Christianity (2)

Bilingual edict (Greek and Aramaic) 3rd century BC by Indian Buddhist King Ashoka, see Edicts of Ashoka, from Kandahar. This edict advocates the adoption of “godliness” using the Greek term Eusebeia for Dharma. Kabul Museum.

The origins of Christianity go back to Roman Judea in the early first century. The four canonical gospels date from around 70–90 AD, the Pauline epistles having been written before them around 50–60 AD. By the early second century, post-apostolic Christian theology had taken shape, in the works of authors such as Irenaeus, although Christianity is seen as the fulfillment of Jewish prophecy regarding the “Messiah” which dates back much further.

Starting in the 1930s, authors such as Will Durant suggested that Greco-Buddhist representatives of Emperor Ashoka who traveled to Syria, Egypt and Greece may have helped prepare the ground for Christian teaching.Buddhism was prominent in the eastern Greek world (Greco-Buddhism) and became the official religion of the eastern Greek successor kingdoms toAlexander the Great’s empire (Greco-Bactrian Kingdom(250 BC – 125 BC) andIndo-Greek Kingdom(180 BC – 10 CE)). Several prominent Greek Buddhist missionaries are known (MahadharmaraksitaandDharmaraksita) and the Indo-Greek kingMenander Iconverted to Buddhism, and is regarded as one of the great patrons of Buddhism. (SeeMilinda Panha.) Some modern historians have suggested that the pre-Christian monastic order in Egypt of theTherapeutaeis possibly a deformation of the Pāli word “Theravāda”,a form of Buddhism, and the movement may have “almost entirely drawn (its) inspiration from the teaching and practices of Buddhist asceticism”. They may even have been descendants ofAsoka’s emissaries to the West.

Buddhist gravestones from the Ptolemaic period have been found in Alexandria in Egypt decorated with depictions of the dharma wheel, showing that the Buddhists were living in Hellenistic Egypt at the time Christianity began. The presence of Buddhists inAlexandriahas led one author to note: “It was later in this very place that some of the most active centers of Christianity were established.”Nevertheless, modern Christian scholars generally hold that there is no direct evidence of any influence of Buddhism on Christianity, and several scholarly theological works do not support these suggestions.However, some historians such asJerry H. Bentleysuggest that there is a real possibility that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity.

It is known that prominent early Christians were aware of Buddha and some Buddhist stories. Saint Jerome (4th century CE) mentions the birth of the Buddha, who he says “was born from the side of a virgin”; it has been suggested that this virgin birth legend of Buddhism influenced Christianity. The early church father Clement of Alexandria (died 215 AD) was also aware of Buddha, writing in his Stromata (Bk I, Ch XV): “The Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sarmanæ and others Brahmins. And those of the Sarmanæ who are called ‘Hylobii’ neither inhabit cities, nor have roofs over them, but are clothed in the bark of trees, feed on nuts, and drink water in their hands. Like those called Encratites in the present day, they know not marriage nor begetting of children. Some, too, of the Indians obey the precepts of Buddha (Βούττα) whom, on account of his extraordinary sanctity, they have raised to divine honours.”

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In the Middle Ages there was no trace of Buddhism in the West. In the 13th century, international travelers, such as Giovanni de Piano Carpini and William of Ruysbroeck, sent back reports of Buddhism to the West and noted some similarities with Nestorian Christian communities. Indeed, syncretism in the East between Nestorian Christianity and Buddhism existed along the Silk Road throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages, and was especially pronounced in the medieval Church of the East in China, as evidenced by the Jesus Sutras.

When European Christians made more direct contact with Buddhism in the early 16th century, Catholic missionaries such as St.Francis Xaviersent back accounts of Buddhist practices. With the arrival of Sanskrit studies in European universities in the late 18th century, and the subsequent availability of Buddhist texts, a discussion began of a proper encounter with Buddhism. In time, Buddhism gathered followers and at the end of the 19th century the first Westerners (e.g. Sir Edwin Arnold and Henry Olcott) converted to Buddhism, and in the beginning of the 20th century the first westerners (e.g. Ananda Metteyya and Nyanatiloka) entered the Buddhist monastic life.

Similarities and differences

Similarities

Main article:Comparison of Buddhism and Christianity

In the 19th century, some scholars began to perceive similarities between Buddhist and Christian practices, e.g. in 1878T.W. Rhys Davidswrote that the earliest missionaries to Tibet observed that similarities have been seen since the first known contact. In 1880 Ernest De Bunsen made similar observations in that with the exception of the death of Jesus on the cross, and of the Christian doctrine of atonement, the most ancient Buddhist records had similarities with the Christian traditions.

Late in the 20th century, historianJerry H. Bentleyalso wrote of similarities and stated that it is possible “that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity” and suggested “attention to many parallels concerning the births, lives, doctrines, and deaths of the Buddha and Jesus”. Some high level Buddhists have drawn analogies between Jesus and Buddhism, e.g. in 2001 the Dalai Lama stated that “Jesus Christ also lived previous lives”, and added that “So, you see, he reached a high state, either as a Bodhisattva, or an enlightened person, through Buddhist practice or something like that.” Thich Nhat Hanh affirmed core Christian beliefs such as the trinity, and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, in his bookLiving Buddha, Living Christ. Bokin Kim, similarly, sees Christ as the Buddha Dharmakaya, and Jesus as similar to Gautama who was just a historical manifestation of the transhistorical Buddha.

Differences

See also:God in BuddhismandGod in Christianity

There are inherent and fundamental differences between Buddhism and Christianity, one significant element being that while Christianity is at its core monotheistic and relies on a God as a Creator, Buddhism is generally non-theistic and rejects the notion of a Creator God which provides divine values for the world.

The Nicene Creed, currently the most widely used Christian creed, states that “We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible”. However, the notion of theistic creation is generally foreign to Buddhist thought, and the question of the existence of God is perhaps one of the most fundamental barriers between the teachings of Christianity and Buddhism. Although Mahayana Buddhism expresses belief in the saint-like state of a Bodhisattva, this is very different from the notion of Creator God in Christianity. While some variations of Buddhism believe in an impersonal eternal Buddha or trikaya, in general Buddhism sees empty space as eternal and without a starting point of creation. According to the Dalai Lama, belief in a Creator could be associated with the understanding of emptiness.

According to theOxford Handbook of Eschatology, there are inherent differences in the Christian and Buddhist beliefs regarding the End Times and eschatology.Jan Nattier states that while Buddhism has a notion of “relative eschatology” that refers to specific cycles of life, the term “Buddhist eschatology” does not relate to any “final things”, or that the world will end one day – Buddhist scripture routinely referring to the “beginninglessSaṃsāra” as a never ending cycle of birth and death with no starting point.However, Christian eschatology directly involves the concept of “end to all creation” at theLast Judgementwhen the world will reach its conclusion.

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There are other fundamental incompatibilities, e.g. whilegraceis part of the very fabric of Christian theology, inTheravada Buddhismno deity can interfere withkarma, and hence the notion of any type of grace is inadmissible within these teachings. Mahayana Buddhismhowever, differs on this issue.

Thecrucifixion of Jesusas a single event in history that acts for the atonement of sins is a central element of Christian belief. This, however, produces a strong difference between Christian and Buddhist teachings. Buddhist scholar Masao Abe pointed out that while “the event of the Cross” is central to Christianity, it is not possible for Buddhism to accept its importance. Buddhist philosopherD. T. Suzukistated that every time he saw a crucifixion scene it reminded him of the “gap that lies deep” between Christianity and Buddhism.

Buddhist influence on Christianity

Suggestions of influences

Main article:Buddhist influences on Christianity
See also:Buddhism and the Roman worldandBuddhism and Gnosticism

Suggestions have been made that Buddhism may have influenced early Christianity. Buddhist missionaries, sent by Emperor Ashoka of India to Sri Lanka, Syria, Egypt and Greece, may have helped prepare for the ethics of Christ. Gnostics (a small number of sects) are not considered part of mainstream Christianity and some have been declared heretical. However, Elaine Pagels proposes Buddhist influences on Gnosticism. Pagels suggested that there are parallels with teachings attributed to Jesus Christ and teachings found in Eastern traditions, but concludes that these parallels might be coincidental, since parallel traditions may emerge in different cultures without direct influence. Buddhist Jack McQuire has suggested that in the 4th century, Christian monasticism developed in Egypt, and it emerged with a corresponding structure comparable to the Buddhist monasticism of its time and place.

The suggestion that an adult Jesus traveled to India and was influenced by Buddhism before startinghis ministryinGalileewas first made byNicolas Notovitchin 1894 in the bookThe Unknown Life of Jesus Christ which was widely disseminated and became the basis of other theories.Notovitch’s theory was controversial from the beginning and was widely criticized.Once his story had been re-examined by historians, Notovitch confessed to having fabricated the evidence.

Rejection of influences

A number of scholars have stated that suggestions of an influence from Buddhism on Christianity, particularly Jesus’s alleged travels to Buddhist India, are fanciful and without any historical basis:

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  • Robert Van Voorststates that modern Christian scholarship has “almost unanimously agreed” that claims of the travels of Jesus to Tibet, Kashmir or India contain “nothing of value”.
  • Marcus Borgstates “Scholars have pointed out that Buddhist teachers lived in Alexandria, on the Mediterranean coast, by the first century. Some have posited that Jesus might have traveled there, or that Buddhist teachings may have reached cities of the Jewish homeland, including Sepphoris, a major city in Galilee only four miles from Nazareth. Popular speculation speaks of Jesus having traveled to India during “the missing years”, the decades before he emerged on the stage of history. There, it is suggested, he came in to contact with Buddhist teachings. But both explanations are unlikely and unnecessary. The similarities are not of the kind that suggest cultural borrowing”.
  • Leslie Houldenstates that although modern parallels between the teachings of Jesus and Buddha have been drawn, these comparisons emerged after missionary contacts in the 19th century and there is no historically reliable evidence of contacts between Buddhism and Jesus.
  • Paula Fredriksenstates that no serious scholarly work places Jesus outside the backdrop of 1st century Palestinian Judaism.
  • Eddy and Boyd state that there is no evidence of a historical influence by outside sources on the authors of the New Testament, and most scholars agree that any such historical influence on Christianity is entirely implausible given that first centurymonotheisticGalileanJews would not have been open to what they would have seen as pagan stories.

Christian influence on Buddhism

Christian influence on Buddhism in the 18th and 19th centuries was primarily by example of modern forms of religious education.During the last centuries, Christian missionaries have influenced many Buddhist groups such as the Buddhist nunCheng Yenwho, after being inspired by the humanitarian aid done by Catholic nuns, decided that Buddhists need “to do more than simply encourage the private cultivation of people’s souls”. Her works eventually led to the foundation ofTzu Chi, a non-profit humanitarian group in Asia.

Contemporary Buddhist–Christian exchange

Main articles:Buddhism in the WestandBuddhist modernism

Attempts at convergence

Buddhism has been gaining popularity in the west. Starting with a cultural and academic elite in the 19th century, it is now widespread in western culture, especially since the 1960s.

In the 20th century Christian monastics such as Thomas Merton, Wayne Teasdale, David Steindl-Rast and the former nun Karen Armstrong, and Buddhist monastics such as Ajahn Buddhadasa, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama have taken part in an interfaith dialogue about Buddhism and Christianity.This dialogue aims to shed light on the common ground between Buddhism and Christianity.

Although the prevalent romantic view on Buddhism sees it as an authentic and ancient practice, contemporary Buddhism is deeply influenced by the western culture. With the rise of western colonialism in the 19th century, Asian cultures and religions developed strategies to adapt to the western hegemony, without losing their own traditions. Western discourses were taken over, and western polemic styles were applied to defend indigenous traditions.

Rejection of convergence

In 1989 the Catholic Church, through theCongregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, rejected attempts at mixing some aspects of Christian and Buddhist practices, in a letter titled “Letter to the Bishops of theCatholic Churchon some aspects of Christian meditation”, generally known as theAspects of Christian meditation letter.

The document issues warnings on differences, and potential incompatibilities, between Christian meditation and the styles of meditation used in eastern religions such as Buddhism.Referring to some elements of Buddhism as “negative theology” the document states:

Still others do not hesitate to place that absolute without image or concepts, which is proper to Buddhist theory, on the same level as the majesty of God revealed in Christ, which towers above finite reality. To this end, they make use of a “negative theology”, which … denies that the things of this world can offer traces of the infinity of God.

Similar warnings were issued in 2003 inA Christian reflection on the New Age which also referred to Buddhism. TheSouthern Baptist Conventionexpressed agreement with those views.

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See also

  • Buddhism and Western Philosophy
  • Secular Buddhism

Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

FAQs

Buddhism and Christianity? ›

There are inherent and fundamental differences between Buddhism and Christianity, one significant element being that while Christianity is at its core monotheistic and relies on a God as a Creator, Buddhism is generally non-theistic and rejects the notion of a Creator God which provides divine values for the world.

Is Christianity compatible with Buddhism? ›

Christians preach of one God, creation and salvation, while Buddhists believe in reincarnation, enlightenment and nirvana. "The beliefs aren't compatible at all," said Stephen Lahey, an Episcopalian minister and religious studies professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Can you believe in God and Buddhism? ›

Buddhists do not believe in any kind of deity or god, although there are supernatural figures who can help or hinder people on the path towards enlightenment. Siddhartha Gautama was an Indian prince in the fifth century B.C.E. who, upon seeing people poor and dying, realized that human life is suffering.

Did Jesus and Buddha meet? ›

The evidence follows two independent lines—the first is historical, and the second is textual. Historical evidence indicates that Jesus was well acquainted with Buddhism.

Who is first Buddha or Jesus? ›

Christianity was founded by Jesus Christ approximately 1,971 (33CE) years ago. As for Buddhism, it was founded by an Indian Prince Siddhartha Gautama in approximately 566BCE (Before Common Era), about 2500 years ago. In fact, the oldest of the four main religions is Hinduism.

Was Jesus a Buddhist monk? ›

In the remote Himalayan land of Kashmir, Jesus (known then as "Issa") lived to a ripe old age as a Buddhist monk, according to Mr. Kersten. His tomb, he says, appears to be situated in the Kashmiri city of Srinagar, where, in point of fact, it is venerated to this day.

Do the Buddhist have a Bible? ›

There is one other reason that there is no Buddhist Bible. Many religions consider their scriptures to be the revealed word of God or gods. In Buddhism, however, it is understood that the scriptures are teachings of the historical Buddha - who was not a god - or other enlightened masters.

Is there heaven in Buddhism? ›

In Buddhism there are several heavens, all of which are still part of samsara (illusionary reality). Those who accumulate good karma may be reborn in one of them.

How is Buddha similar to Jesus? ›

They both advocate what has come to be called “The Golden Rule”—treat others as you would wish to be treated. They both urge followers to live a life of peace and love, returning love for hate and anger. They both promote what Buddha called “right action”—do not kill, steal, slander, etc.

What are the main similarities between Buddhism and Christianity? ›

Similarities Between Buddhism and Christianity. Founded by a spiritual Master who accepted disciples. Taught through the use of simple parables. Both Jesus Christ and the Buddha sought to reform existing social/religious practises which had denigrated into ritualistic forms with no spiritual meaning.

Is Buddha a Catholic saint? ›

Gautama Buddha is an official Catholic saint.

Is the Buddha a god? ›

The religion's founder, Buddha, is considered an extraordinary being, but not a god. The word Buddha means “enlightened.” The path to enlightenment is attained by utilizing morality, meditation and wisdom. Buddhists often meditate because they believe it helps awaken truth.

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