Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Charlotte County
"Was Jesus A Buddhist?"
Rev. Samuel A. Trumbore December 15th, 1996
B: O Let us live in joy, free of hatred, among the spiteful; among the spiteful let us live without hatred.
J: I am telling you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.
B: Whoever counters the malicious with malice can never be free, but one who feels no maliciousness pacifies those who hate. Hate brings misery to humanity so the wise man knows no hatred.
J: If someone slaps you on the cheek, offer your other cheek as well.
B: No matter what one does, whether one's deeds serve virtue or vice, nothing lacks importance. All actions bear a kind of fruit.
J: Are figs gathered from thorns, or grapes from thistles? Every tree is known by its fruit.
B: Whosoever has heard the law of virtue and vice is as one who has eyes and carries a lamp, seeing everything and will become completely wise.
J: The lamp of the body is the eye. If you eye is good your whole body will be full of light.
B: In this world the wise one holds onto confidence and wisdom. Those are the greatest treasures; all other riches are pushed aside
J: Seek after the treasure which does not perish, which endures in the place where no moth comes near to devour, and no worm ravages.
--- Words attributed to the Buddha and
Unitarianism and Universalism are part of a long standing religious tradition which has more interest in Jesus the teacher rather than Jesus the incarnation of God. Because we have always believed in at most one God, we look to Jesus as a source of moral guidance and character formation rather than as a source of redemptive salvation through acceptance of Jesus as a God-Man who rose from the dead. The believing Trinitarian Christian's primary concern in the task of putting one in right relationship with God is their personal relationship with Jesus as intermediary with God whereas the believing Unitarian Christian's primary concern is following the teachings, guidance and example of Jesus. For most faithful Trinitarians, the death and resurrection of the Christ matters the most. For Unitarian Christians, the life and example of Jesus matters the most. We have traditionally believed God wants us to concentrate on leading a moral life following Jesus rather than on idolatry and adulation of Jesus.
What our religious tradition particularly objects to is the distortions of Jesus' teaching by his most famous disciple, Saul of Tarsus who became St. Paul. Paul's primary mission was to take the words of an itinerant prophet and transform them into a missionary religion bent on converting the world. In the process, Paul added many distortions which we will see transformed a teacher of wisdom and self understanding into an apocalyptic prophet focused on the next world rather than this one.
From our historical Christian beginnings, Unitarian Universalism has had and continues to have a strong interest in the historical Jesus. Unfortunately we don't know very much about this fellow. Few modern biblical scholars take seriously the Christmas birth narratives we retell this time of year. There may be fragments of truth in the stories - no one can know for sure - but there is little independent historical evidence for the events laid down in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Before the baptism of Jesus, we know next to nothing about the life of the man called Jesus of Nazareth which is unlikely to have been his real name
. What we do know of his life and teaching is filtered through an oral tradition and the life and times of his followers as he left no written record. The four books we do have were written several generations after the time Jesus is commonly believed to have died around the year 33 of the common era. What many Bible literalists probably don't know is that there were a number of versions of Jesus' life and teaching in circulation as the religion spread across the Roman Empire. The Canon we inherit today was collected most strongly in the 27 book Latin Vulgate of Church Father Jerome and finally settled on in 397 at the Council of Carthage.
Biblical archeology over the past 50 years has uncovered new discoveries which have helped us understand the life and times of Jesus better. In particular the discovery in a grave by Egyptian peasants in 1945 of the text known as the Gospel of Thomas along with 48 other Coptic scrolls. Thomas is a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus. Dating of these texts seems to place them close to the time Jesus lived, perhaps even closer than the first gospel written.
Up until this discovery, the first book written about Jesus was assumed to have been the gospel of Mark about 30 to 40 years after the death of Jesus. What I've always found interesting is the lack of a resurrection story in what the Biblical scholars consider the original text. Matthew and Luke were written next perhaps another 10 to 20 years later. Analysis of these texts shows that both the authors had Mark as a source of their work but that agreement between Matthew and Luke in passages not in Mark suggest that they had another text at their disposal in the construction of their narratives lost to us today. This hypothetical source is commonly called `Q' from the German word quelle meaning source. Not having the original text hasn't stopped scholars from trying to work backwards to reconstruct it from the fragments we do seem to have in Matthew and Luke. The document they have come up is a collection of sayings of Jesus which has remarkable parallels with the Gospel of Thomas. If we take Thomas and earliest part of Q together, we begin to get a very interesting record of the words of a man who sounds remarkably like the Buddha.
Prince Siddhartha Gautama lived over 500 years before Jesus is thought to have been born. He is the founder of a religious tradition which proclaims salvation from suffering born of earthly existence by a middle path of ethical living and the development of self awareness and understanding free of theistic speculation. Upon his realization of fundamental principles of human existence, how they operated to make life difficult and the way to overcome the obstacles of craving, aversion and ignorance, he took the title, Buddha which literally means the awakened one. The Buddha's profound insight into human suffering and the way to overcome it caused him to want to spread it to all people so they too could attain freedom. Because this middle way between extreme asceticism and slavery to one's passions is challenging to practice, he organized men and women who wanted to practice his middle way into celibate communities who gave up their homes, worldly possessions and familial relationships to devote themselves to practice. These monks wandered the countryside teaching all who would listen about the middle path to freedom.
In the five hundred years before Jesus was born, the teachings of the Buddha did not stay localized to what is now northern India. Scholars speculate that some of the ideas of the Greek philosopher Pythagoras show remarkable parallels with Buddhist ideas. Alexander the Great's attempt to conquer the known world took him deep into India. Trade routes from India to the Middle East, Greece and Rome were quite active. The Greeks in particular were very eclectic taking in the cultures of the people they conquered. Jesus likely grew up in a Hellenistic world in which the philosophy and especially the stories of the east were likely shared. The more scholars analyze the mythology of the pre-Christian Europeans, the more connections are found to ancient Indian stories. The intermixing of cultures has gone on for a very long time.
Thus Jesus' familiarity with stories and ideas from the east should not surprise us given he grew up in an area of the world long known to be an active trading route that spread from Egypt to the Indus River valley. What then is remarkable are the many parallels between the sayings of the Buddha and Jesus.
The Buddha taught for about 40 years and after his death, his close followers came together to canonize his teaching. The way his teaching was systematically assembled and eventually recorded gives us a great degree of confidence in its transmission. One of these books of teachings was the sayings of the Buddha, pithy concise statements of the basic ideas of Buddhism called the Dhammapada. Comparing the sayings of the Buddha and the sayings of Jesus one finds fascinating parallels which suggest a strong affinity between these two teachers.
If you look again to your order of service, the meditation for this morning are excerpts from the sayings of the Buddha and the sayings of Jesus. Although the texts are not exact semantic parallels, the teaching of both are similar. As you can see from the text, the Buddha prefers speaking symbolically and what we might today call psychologically. Jesus on the other hand is the master of metaphor and illustration. Much of what we have of the Buddha's discourses were given to his students who were generally more sophisticated than the common person. Jesus on the other hand ministered to the man and woman in the street. Many of his parables even children can grasp as they learn right from wrong.
What were the central teachings that both the Buddha and Jesus share extracted from only the words we can most reliably attribute to them? Both teachers reject being worshipped as the personal source of salvation. They criticize their students who "worship them, but do not follow their teaching." Most central and the most misunderstood teaching of Jesus was the proclamation of the coming of the Kingdom of God. From the earliest sayings we see that Jesus was not primarily advocating an everlasting afterlife but rather what was possible in this world right now which was one with the reality beyond death. One of the most important ideas the Buddha spoke on again and again was release from the sorrows of this world while still living in it by ethical living and development of the mind. Belief and blind worship were if anything an obstacle to the student rather than an aid. The Buddha in particular did not ask his followers to have an unreasoned faith but encouraged them to develop their confidence based on their own experience and the example of others.
Both teachers declared that wealth and power were more of a hindrance than a help in developing a liberating awareness of the kingdom attainable right now. Do not store up treasures on earth, let awakening and wisdom be the treasure to be cherished. Both spoke of the many values of simple living which provided the energy, sharpness of mind and time for developing one's insight. The traditional centrality of the family for defining one's life was challenged by both teachers who advocated homelessness. A number of times Jesus puts his disciples mind at ease when they worry what they will wear or what they will eat. Buddhist monks live on donated food and are not allowed to prepare their own meals visiting the homes of people in the village seeking leftovers which will be discarded or thrown to the dogs.
Both teachers stressed the importance of loving free from judgment and full of mercy. Jesus often discouraged his disciples from judging people reserving this right only to God. Jesus extended the well known commandment to love thy neighbor to loving all people both Jew and Gentile. Jesus often found himself in the company of the despised of society lifting them up and loving them. The Buddha also spoke highly of the benefits of loving kindness to all and the harm hatred brought not just to relationships and to society but also to the individual who hates. The mind state of anger and ill will toward others creates a poisonous mental environment for spiritual practice as it disturbs the balance of the mind necessary to cultivate the experience of Nirvana or liberation. Loving kindness is both the fruit of practice and an aide in preparing the way for practice.
Elmar R. Gruber & Holgar Kersten in their excellent and engaging book, The Original Jesus, beautifully summarize these similarities in method and goal as: "loving understanding and a profound wish to awaken poor sleeping spirits so as to support their yearnings for liberating, redeeming realization."
Even though recent scholarship is building an interesting base to think of Jesus as a Buddhist teacher, we will always be a long way from proving it unless more ancient texts are uncovered which chronicle this period of history and the words of Jesus with more accuracy. I have hardly the time this morning to do anything but stimulate your interest in this area of scholarly research. I bring this theory before you this morning to expand your thinking about the world Jesus lived in and the diversity of ideas likely to have been circulating in Palestine. It seems clear that Buddhist ideas and stories were passed among the travelers and traders who journeyed through this part of the world and his exposure to them seems likely by the many similarities between the two teacher's earliest records. Not only were Buddhist ideas known but even more likely to be available were the Hellenized versions of these teachings as circulated and popularized by Greek Philosophers from Pythagoras to the Cynics to whom Jesus has been compared because of his asceticism and challenging of Pharisaic norms.
Whether or not Jesus had access to Buddhist teachers or texts, the connections between their teachings suggests if they met they would likely have much appreciation for each other. I believe Jesus and the Buddha were in touch with the same greater understanding of what is universally true about the nature of human existence. And the more we can see the parallels of the wisdom of the great religious teachers of the world, the more confidence we can have in the message they share.
This interfaith process of validation can also help us find a way back into the dominant religious tradition of our culture in Universalist terms. Though we may have much disagreement with many of the constructs of Trinitarian Christianity, we need not reject the life and teachings of Jesus. Engaging with the record of his teaching can yield much good fruit. A willingness to appreciate Jesus of Nazareth can be a bridge of dialogue with our Christian neighbors.
This is the greatness of what Unitarian Universalism can be. People pursuing universal truth free from the restrictions of culture and tradition but bound together in mutual respect sharing the truths we have found together. Those who have found truth in Christian teachings have much to share with us. Those who have found truth in Buddhist teachings have much to share with us. Those who have found truth in Pagan Goddesses have much to share as do those who understand truth through a scientific lens.
Each of us has our own unique path to walk toward truth. Unitarian Universalist Christianity following a Buddhist understanding of Jesus is one of those paths.