OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

New book looks at parallel sayings of Jesus, Buddha

03/16/1998

CORVALLIS, Ore. - The religious philosopher Siddhartha Gautama - better known as Buddha - once said, "The faults of others are easier to see than one's own."

Some 500 years later, Jesus uttered these words: "Why do you see the splinter in someone else's eye and never notice the log in your own?"

Coincidence? Perhaps. But a new book edited by an Oregon State University professor provides a look at a surprising number of similarities in sayings attributed to two of the world's most important religious figures. "Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings" was recently published by Ulysses Press.

"The primary purpose of this collection of essays and sayings was not to make a scholarly case for Jesus having known the teachings of Buddhism, or for cultural borrowing from Buddhism to Christianity," said Marcus Borg, the Hundere Professor of Religion and Culture at OSU, and editor of the book. "It is to provide an opportunity for reflection and meditation. These sayings illuminate each other."

The book raises the fascinating question: How could Jesus, living 500 years after Buddha and 3,000 miles away, embody teachings so similar in nature to his predecessor?

Borg said some historians believe that Buddhist principles had filtered through the Roman Empire by the time of Jesus. Still others suggest that Jesus may have visited India during "the missing years" - a period in his teens and early 20s when there was little documentation about his life.

A more likely explanation, Borg said, is that the similarity in their sayings mirrors the similarities in their experiences. The Buddha, after a six-year religious quest, had an enlightenment experience under the Bo tree; Jesus' quest led him to the wilderness and his spiritual mentor, John the Baptist. Both began renewal movements within their respective, inherited religious traditions - Hinduism and Judaism. And both were given an exalted, even divine status by the communities which grew up around them.

"The similarities of their wisdom teaching may flow out of the similarity of their religious experience," Borg said.

Some of their sayings are remarkably similar. Among them:

  • Buddha: "The avaricious do not go to heaven, the foolish to not extol charity. The wise one, however, rejoicing in charity, becomes thereby happy in the beyond." (Dhammapada 13.11)
  • Jesus: "If you wish to be perfect, go, sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." (Matthew 19.21)

 

  • Buddha: "Consider others as yourself." (Dhammapada 10.1)
  • Jesus: "Do to others as you would have them do to you." (Luke 6.31)

 

  • Buddha: "Let us live most happily, possessing nothing; let us feed on joy, like radiant gods." (Dhammapada 15.4)
  • Jesus: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." (Luke 6.20)

 

  • Buddha: "If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon any desires and utter no evil words." (Majjhima Nikaya 21.6)
  • Jesus: "If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also." (Luke 6.29)

 

  • Buddha: "During the six years that the Bodhisattva practiced austerities, the demon followed behind him step by step, seeking an opportunity to harm him. But he found no opportunity whatsoever and went away discouraged and discontent." (Lalitavistara Sutra 18)
  • Jesus: "When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time." (Luke 4.13)

"The Parallel Sayings" provides more than 100 examples of similarities between the teachings of Jesus and Buddha, including sayings about compassion, wisdom, materialism, inner life, temptation, salvation, the future, miracles, disciples, attributes and life stories.

There were differences between Jesus and Buddha, and not just in their backgrounds, the language they used or their imagery, Borg said.

"There is a social and political passion in Jesus we do not find in the Buddha," Borg said. "In the judgment of many Jesus scholars, in addition to being a wisdom teacher and healer, Jesus was a social prophet. He challenged the domination system of his day and its ruling elites, and affirmed an alternative social vision.

"Jesus' activity as a social prophet - as a voice of religious social protest - is the most likely reason his public activity was so brief compared to the Buddha's," Borg added. "It lasted only a year, or three or four years - according to the different Gospels - compared to Buddha's nearly 50 years of teaching. Jesus' early death was probably because of his social and political passion.

"If he had been simply a wisdom teacher and healer, I doubt that he would have been executed."

Jack Kornfield, best-selling author of several books on Buddhism, wrote an introduction to "The Parallel Sayings," in which he describes his view of Jesus and Buddha. Trained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, Burma and India, he visited a monastery in the Mekong Delta of Vietnam during the war.

"Then (the monks) took us to the end of the island where, on top of a hill, there was an enormous 50-foot tall statue of a standing Buddha," Kornfield wrote. "Next to Buddha stood an equally tall statue of Jesus. They had their arms around each others' shoulders, smiling. While helicopter gunships flew by overhead and the war raged around us, Buddha and Jesus stood there like brothers, expressing compassion and healing for all who would follow their way."