Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings

Marcus Borg
Ulysses Press, 1997, 241pp
ISBN: 1-56975-121-8

review by Allen Gaborro

Revered as two of the greatest spiritual figures in the history of man, Jesus Christ and Buddha forged and articulated the precepts that would form the ideological foundations of the Christian and Buddhist religions. From what were austere beginnings, these visionary doctrines evolved over time into universal forces in their own right. Only a handful of other belief systems have influenced the lives of so vast a number of people throughout the world to the extent that these two great religions have.

In appreciating what Christianity and Buddhism stand for in the eyes of their followers, it is important to understand the doctrinal association that exists between the two faiths. Although Western scholarship has acknowledged the similarities that link some of the teachings and beliefs of Christianity with those of the two other monotheistic religions, Islam and Judaism, it has subordinated the notion of a fundamental relationship between those teachings and beliefs with their counterparts in Buddhism. Guilty perhaps, of what could be called shallow historiography or deliberate obscurantism, scholars in the West have channeled the gist of their attention and assent on the divisions that separate Buddhism and Christianity.

The book Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings however, runs against that scholarly tendency as it de-emphasizes the distinctions between Christianity and Buddhism and discerns a remarkable similitude in their teachings. Whereas previous scholarship attempted to minimize the amount of discourse on the subject, a meaningful correlation between the two religions is the essential proposition being tendered in Jesus and Buddha. Buddhist writer Jack Kornfield eloquently sums up this correspondence when he writes about the efficacy of Jesus’s and Buddha’s teachings in the book’s introduction: "When we listen deeply to their words, we find that in many ways, they speak with one heart."

Jesus and Buddha’s co-editor, Jesus scholar Marcus Borg, partitions the book—the main body of which is comprised of some of Jesus’s and Buddha’s most famous sayings—into twelve categories that conform with where the two prophets’ teachings appear to closely intersect. Borg maintains that the spiritual kinship shared between both men took shape before either one of them were even conceived to the world. In the Digha Nikaya (Collection of Long Discourses), one of the renowned texts of the Buddhist canon, some devas urge Queen Maya, after she had given birth to the infant Buddha, to celebrate for "a mighty son has been born to you." Along similar lines in the Gospel of Luke, the Angel Gabriel reveals to the Virgin Mary that she will give birth to the one "who will be called the Son of the Most High."

One of the categories in Jesus and Buddha is entitled "Materialism." We are reminded here of both men’s unwavering antipathy towards the material world. Gnostic in tone, the Buddha preached that an individual’s insatiable appetite for material wealth and physical pleasure must be purged before he or she can live a life of virtue, and therefore embark upon the path to nirvana. Buddha also says in the Jatakamala that "Riches make most people greedy, and so are like caravans lurching down the road to perdition." In an excerpt from the Udanavarga, Buddha cautions us to bear in mind that death is the great levelling force of the cosmos, as he declares that even "though one accumulates hundreds of thousands of worldly goods, one still succumbs to the spell of death."

Jesus’s sayings on materialism are certainly identical in spirit, if not in composition, with Buddha’s. As a champion of the poor, Jesus experienced firsthand what he perceived to be the hard-hearted, sacrilegious ethos of his time. Distressed by this cold reality, he formed an image of "personal enrichment" that was to be "found in heaven rather than in the marketplaces of the world." As written in the Gospel of Matthew and as indicated in Jesus and Buddha, Jesus taught that in order to become perfect, you must "sell your possessions, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven." These humanistic tenets—including the famous saying, "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God."—have great resonance in the world we live in today.

Both men also resemble each other a great deal in their respective teachings on love. Jesus and Buddha treats this category—entitled "Compassion"—as the most conspicuous area of convergence for Buddhist and Christian thought. As is written in the book, "Both teachers invoked the Golden Rule of treating others as you want them to treat you." Burnett Hillman Streeter, an Oxford scholar, is quoted in Jesus and Buddha as saying that "The moral teaching of Buddha…has a remarkable resemblance to the Sermon on the Mount."

The Sermon, a focal point in the life of the adult Jesus, is replete with sayings that appear to be a genuine reflection of what is put forth in Buddhism’s principal text, the Dhammapada ("Religious Sentences"). Jesus for example, is purported to have said in the Gospel of Luke to "Do to others as you would have them do to you." The comparison with the Dhammapada is extraordinary when we read that the Buddha, in like fashion, instructed his followers to "Consider others as yourself."

Although it is hardly Jesus and Buddha’s intent to do so, its proposition of a close doctrinal parallelism between Christianity and Buddhism gives rise to a hitherto devalued religio-historical controversy. The book directs us to a minority of scholars who posit that the doctrinal affinity between both religions is the result of "cultural borrowing." If any such borrowing truly took place, then, as Marcus Borg concedes, "the direction of borrowing would have been from the Buddha to Jesus," since the historical Buddha lived some five centuries before the birth of Christ.

To its editor’s credit (Borg after all, calls himself a "non-exclusivist Christian"), Jesus and Buddha makes several references to specific scholarly works that were written in defense of the idea that Jesus was influenced by what Thomas Cahill, the author of the bestselling How the Irish Saved Civilization, calls "the quiet refinements of Buddhism." Jesus and Buddha briefly discusses the theories broached in these scholarly works, which claim to resolve the question of how Jesus was exposed to an ideology that maturated thousands of miles away from his homeland of Palestine.

Curiously, Borg dismisses the concept of cultural borrowing as a viable explanation for the parallels in Christian and Buddhist thought. He chooses instead to attribute the parallels to a "commonality of religious experiences." By doing so, Borg conveniently sidesteps the possibility that Buddhist doctrines were transmitted to Palestine. That is to say, he rules out the possibility that Buddhist thought was physically conveyed across the great trans-continental distance that lies between Palestine and northern India, which is where Buddhism originated from. If true, it is more than likely that this transmission was conducted by various travelers who journeyed amidst the lands between the Middle East and the Indian subcontinent during ancient times, as well as during the time of Christ.

As an analogy, there is substantial evidence showing that the sources of some of Christianity’s most sacred beliefs, such as the Resurrection of Christ, are to be found in the pre-Islamic Persian religions of Mithraism and Zoroastrianism. It is believed that Mithraic and Zoroastrian doctrines were disseminated by wayfarers and traders from Persia in the Holy Land, where they were then incorporated into what was to become the Christian faith.

As much as the book Jesus and Buddha deals with issues that leave to chance how Christianity and Buddhism are rendered by the individual, collective, and historical imagination, it comes down to being a spiritual guide for those who seek moral instruction and inner strength from the best of what both religions have to offer. In coming together "in an encounter of the spirit in the West," as Jack Kornfield writes, Buddha’s and Jesus’s words are designed to lead the faithful on the same "path of liberation from our anxious grasping, resurrection into a new way of being, and transformation into the compassionate life."

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