Dialogue Ireland Logo Resources Services Information about Dialogue Ireland
A to Z index

Buddha and Christ - Johannes Aagaard

Buddha and Christ
The Formula of Refuge
The Relationship of the Buddha to Hinduism
Buddhism and Christianity -- two Missionary Religions
The Decisive Difference
The Suffering

This exposition does not primarily concern itself with Siddhartha and Jesus but specifically with Buddah and Christ. Siddhartha is the name of the figure who later became known as Buddah and who today is the center of Buddhism. Jesus is the name of the figure who later became known as Christ and who today is the center of Christianity. Actually, they were respectively known as the Buddha and the Messiah, that is Buddha and Christ with the definite article, because the two expressions are not names, as are Siddhartha and Jesus, but they indicate the significance of the two figures. Siddhartha became the Awakened, Jesus became the Anointed.

It is, however, true that the Buddha is often translated into the Enlightened "One," but this is a secondary expression which is even somewhat misleading since the state in which the Buddha lives is called Nirvana, and Nirvana describes the state of being burned out, burned out like when a candle light burns out. Burned out or extinct is not really the same as enlightened! It is much more meaningful to translate the Buddha into the Awakened, because the whole point is that the Buddha who , like every other human being lived in the nightmare of life, was lucky enough to wake up from his dream world and to acknowledge the true meaning of life. Jesus became Christ which is the Greek word for Messiah which means the Anointed. This expression was primarily used about the King who, as the Anointed, was appointed to reign and to bring justice to his people. At the anointing, he was entrusted with the power so that he could assume it without reservation.

Siddhartha is a linguistic composition of power and justice, and Jesus means salvation corresponding to the name of Joshua. These common names are the first indication that there is a difference, and yet there is a similarity, too, since salvation first and foremost means that there is a savior who has the power to administer justice! Siddhartha was born to be a king; Jesus was born the son of an artisan, a man of the people, crying for justice.

And yet it was Jesus who was proclaimed king as the Messiah, whereas the king's son was awakened and took up life as a voice who called people out from the nightmare of life.

Siddhartha, who left his palace, became the great seeker who eventually found the reality he sought. Jesus never sought because he was found from the very beginning and was able to nominate himself as the goal for all religious search.

One could go on and on, and one could describe the two historic figures in so many ways, and one could also very well contradict what has been said here since both these figures as historic figures no longer are historic. They died but, again, in very different ways. The Buddha died from eating roast pork gone rotten. He died an old man, about 80 years old, and his life was good and safe, that is to say that his life was good without exaggerations of either luxury or asceticism. Jesus, on the other hand, died the death of a criminal from torture and execution. And it happened in the prime of his life when he was bout 30 years old.

These relatively probable historical facts are not, however, the reason why we today see them as the center of the two most important world religions. Their history of effect is quite different from their history of origin.
The Formula of Refuge

In popular expositions produced from both Buddhist and Christian quarters one may hear or read that Buddhism teaches self-salvation or individual salvation, whereas Christianity teaches salvation through some other kind, i.e. salvation from outside. This is, however, not an understanding which proves to be correct. From the very outset, the formula of refuge or the ritual of refuge was a very central part of Buddhism and is so today. Buddhists seek refuge in "The Three Jewels": the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha, which, respectively, means in The Awakened himself, in his teachings, and in his society (of monks/nuns). It goes without saying that when one seeks refuge one does not expect to be left alone, or that one has to manage on one's own.

It is also obvious that immediately following the death of the Buddha, an emphasis on religious respect came about, a respect concerned with the worship of the ashes of the Buddha which were placed in a number of stupas in the country of Buddha of that time. Today, all the millions of stupas are in various ways manifestations of the presence of the Buddha. And the pious Buddhists pay respect to and in actual fact worship (as they pray to them) the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha when they kneel before the stupas, the sotobas, the dagobas, the pagodas, the chorten or whatever these shrines of relics are called around the world.

That the Buddhists use relics is an aspect they have in common with the Christians, and something which is in contrast to the Hindus, since both Buddhism and Christianity are historical religions which through respect for and love towards relics maintain their historical heritage. Relics are similar to the fact that people carry something with them which is a part of the cherished person to whom they have attached their life. One is mindful of the cherished person, and one is not least mindful of a cherished, deceased person in that one relates to something which represents the cherished person. It is the same in the religious world, if such religious figures exist. The Hindu divinities were never historical figures. When one refers to representations of Shiva, these representations are not relics but most often phenomena of nature, shaped like for instance a phallus or like an egg. The fear of comprehending the humanity of God in Islam is so strong that one is not allowed to possess relics at all. The fact that Muslims often do possess such relics, in particular from saints, is a different matter altogether.
The Relationship of the Buddha to Hinduism

The relationship of the Buddha to Hinduism is of the utmost importance in order not to confuse Buddhism with Hinduism. This is very easy to do as the two religions are very closely connected. And yet, because of the Buddha, they are completely separated. The original unity of Buddhism and Hinduism may be seen today in Nepal where there never has been enough room for the two to be separated from each other.

But the difference is just as important as the similarity. In Lahore in Pakistan, there is a very impressive statue of Siddhartha which represents the time when he sought for reality by experimenting with the Hindu yoga paths. He tortured his body to extremes and resembles a barely living skeleton. Shortly after this situation depicted by the stature, he renounced Hinduism and realized that there had to be some other way. His awakening was an awakening form the nightmare of Hinduism! Therefore Buddhism is incomprehensible if it is separated from Hinduism, but Buddhism, on the other hand, is only comprehensible as a break with Hinduism.

The way of Buddha was "the golden mean" and is in reality a return to life. According to some explanations he did in fact also return to his wife and son and to his everyday life as the king's son, and became a gentle revivalist preacher to whom people congregated because they had grown tired of the many Hindu or more precisely pre-Hindu schools and sects.

Jesus had the same relationship to Judaism as Buddha to Hinduism. Christianity is therefore incomprehensible, separated from Judaism, but Christianity is also incomprehensible if one does not realize that it is a complete renouncement of Judaism.

The way of Jesus was the way of the Gospel, and the Gospel was and is entirely different from the law. The way of Jesus invariably led to the Cross because without the Cross, Christianity would have been Judaism. It was the callousness which was the difference between them. Callousness was what separated those who believed in the unification by the Cross and those who was not able to believe.

The symbol of Christianity is therefore the cross. It is the key to the Christian faith, just as the wheel is the key to the Buddhist dharma.
Buddhism and Christianity—two Missionary Religions

Both Hinduism and Judaism were exclusively connected to a specific ethnic tradition. They were ethnic religions in which belief and religion, cult and culture merged with one another. In principle, Hinduism and Judaism are therefore not missionary religions. They may attract proselytes who convert to Hinduism as in Indian ethnic belief or Judaism as a Jewish ethnic belief. It is actually a self-contradiction that gentiles can become Jews or that non-Indians can become Hindus. There is a decisive element of religious apartheid inherent in both Hinduism and Judaism.

Buddhism and Christianity, on the other hand, are non-ethnic religions. As such, both are missionary religions. Both Buddha and Christ gave a missionary command. It was said from the lips of Buddha:
"Go forth in all the world, for the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, in compassion for the world. Preach the teaching, magnificent as it is in the beginning, magnificent as it is at the end. Preach a life of holiness, perfect and pure."
This missionary command is a true gem as it holds the essential part of Buddhism: the teaching and the compassion – to be shared with the many.

This was the way in which the Awakened had to speak for Him to awaken all the sleeping people who were exposed to the sufferings of life's nightmare.

The missionary command of the Resurrected has a different wording; it has, however, much in common with that of the Awakened. It is written in Matthew 28:18-20:
"Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age."
Again, the attention is brought to the teaching, but the teaching is given in another context. Here it is not the king's son who became a revivalist preacher, rather it is the revivalist preacher who became the king's son, the successor of full authority in heaven and on earth. And yet, in both situations the message is given for the many—all the nations. The whole thing is about a universal, even cosmic message.
The Decisive Difference

In the mission of the Buddha, it was and is the sympathy which is the center. In the mission of the Messiah compassion was the essence. To the Awakened kindness was the prime mover; to the Resurrected love was the motivation.

Again, there is in the midst of all which is common a decisive difference. The sympathy of the Buddha has an inherent element of passivity. One should in one's sympathy identify oneself with all living beings, but one should not get carried away. There is a certain amount of coolness connected to this sympathy, not coldness, but precisely a pleasant coolness. The sympathy does not lead to any active compassion, and it rarely leads to any compassionate work.

Love can never be cool, love is warm. To love, coolness is the same as lukewarmness. Compassion lets itself get carried away. Love laughs with the laughing and cries with the crying. Whenever Jesus invites to a marriage or a funeral, love wants to take part. Love suffers anything, tolerates anything, endures anything, because love is part of the game, love is always participating.

Just as there was a difference in the way the Buddha and Christ died, so are the lives of the Buddhists and the Christians different. True Buddhists are like a reflection of the Buddha's kind sympathy. True Christians reflect Christ's compassionate love. True Buddhists assume a distinctive stamp of cool friendliness; whereas true Christians assume a stamp of warm closeness.

It would be impossible to argue that one such approach to life is always better than the other. But they are very different, and different people will be attracted to one approach in some situations while others will prefer the other in different situations.
The Suffering

The fact is that Christians and Buddhists have a different approach to suffering, which is to be the last subject in this exposition. The Buddha's teaching about suffering concerns itself with the four noble truths about the suffering and correspondingly about the four truths about the world. To the Buddhist, the aim was and is to extinguish the suffering through the right means. Everything in Buddhism encourages this aim.

The teaching of Christ on suffering is different. He did not try to extinguish the suffering and he did not want to lead his disciples out of it. He entered the suffering and led his disciples into that same suffering. That is why the co-suffering, the compassion, is quite essential to Christians. But it can never be so to a Buddhist in the deep sense of compassion, i.e. suffering with.

The conclusion of these contemplations has to be that it naturally follows that Buddhism and Christianity inherently correspond to the Buddha and Christ in their interrelation. They cannot be united but they cannot be separated either, without losing their aim and distinctive features. They belong together precisely because they are so different.