Buddha and Christ

by Michael G. McKimmy, PhD.


These are titles. Either alone so over determined with meaning upon meaning. Each invokes a name and history, both sacred and secular. And then the “and.” Over the centuries, in the tone of many authors and in the response of many readers there seems a subtle anxiety to hurry towards a particular “and.” For instance: Buddha and Jesus- they share much, they said much the same thing, wanted the same legacy, they had the same destiny, a harmony of their teachings can be systematized, two roads to the same truth - all betray an anxiety imposing a “they” to the beginning of every exploration. They are the same. Ultimately no difference.

Yet for others, the “and” must lead to a hierarchy in which one is universal or complete and the other a respected inferior. For instance: Buddha said in advance what Jesus would later establish in detail, Jesus studied during the “lost years” what the Buddha had taught and brought it back in a form the west could understand, or Jesus was right, the Buddha was wrong, the Buddha a faint light, the Christ the Light in person. The harmony of the two is the dominance of one. An anxiety to keep them at a distance, an acceptable dissonance. No “they,” in the “and.” Ultimately no difference.

Siddharta Gautama, the Buddha “The Enlightened”/ Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ “The Messiah.” Where can we stand to say these two - four - possibly these six - names with an awareness of where anxiety might lead us, or alternately why anxiety is lacking in us while present in so many? We stand each of us simply where we stand, but never still, “standing” seems a trope for looking back, really we walk. We are always walking, even when we look back, even as we sleep.

So many narratives and dogmas constitute distinct traditions flowing from these sets of names. Complicating our thinking about them is our being embedded in such a long history of contact between these two traditions. We can trace the Western tradition and see at times the idealizing of the East as speaking a pure and single pre-Babel language,. At other moments- the Theosophical Society, or the Eastern influence on the Romantic poets, the 60’s public intellectuals and writers, the current New Age or the early 20th century New Thought. With the Theosophical Society we now switch to mention examples of the West influencing the East, as well as with William James and Suzuki, translations of Heidegger in Japan, and now postmodern thought.

In this present time of mutual influence and shifting perspectives I will isolate in a somewhat arbitrary way, two moments in the traditions. Both early and related to each founder. Both inaugural moments- first, the context the most common narratives depict at the moment of birth for

Siddhartha Gautama and for Jesus, “Joshua” of Nazareth, second, the first sayings those same narratives attribute to them. Siddharta was born in 566 BCE (was it a hundred years earlier- or later?) Jesus was born in 4 CE (four years after what?) Narratives of their lives both speak of them being born into static religious contexts. Brahmanism could be perhaps the oldest religious expression of human beings. It begins in the rich and enigmatic Vedic literature and the Upanishads through the Bhagavad Gita and beyond. Brahman is what is ultimate and inexpressible. The source of all and filling all, being all.

Though the Upanishads give many different interpretations of this notion, they share the celebration of sat reality chit mind and ananda bliss. What is real is intelligent and joyful beyond knowing. Buddhist thought enters this ancient narrative of exploration into the nature of reality through thought and meditation as it speaks of the cultural situation in which Siddharta Gautama was born. A time in which this insight into the nature of existence had been joined with the doctrine of karma into a rigid and oppressive religion in which none but the most enlightened might be liberated.

India had been through many migrations, many political changes. Scholars differ as to the parties, the dates, even the victors of some moments in the evolution of India, but it seems clear that in a time when clans were merging into cities, one northern clan remained intact. Siddharta Gautuama’s father appears to have been the patriarch of the Shakya clan. The Buddhist narratives around the birth and early life of the Buddha speak of a time of dead religion and social hierarchy. While his father sought to protect his son from the outside, it was inevitable. Gautama eventually saw illness, old age, death and rebirth. If these narratives betray the cultural norms more than a single father’s fears, then the message is that some experiences caused him to wonder about the very questions that were avoided by his culture- why do we suffer? - why do we die? - what does it mean that we live and die? Society made these questions a property of the elite, and answering these ultimate questions of existence and meaning by making them the property of that elite provided no answer at all.

The Buddha- the “enlightened one- long before the enlightenment, followed his dissatisfaction beyond social convention. Marriage had not been enough. A son had not been enough. They are kissed and left and breaking all convention, Sidhartha journeys for six years among teachers and students that have left the main stream religion and sought enlightenment by extreme measures such as sensory depravation, unsanctioned meditative techniques, and more. The stories tell us he tried, he almost died. Then he went apart from everyone- even the outcasts- and determined to be alone until the answer came. It came slowly and with many temptations. He stayed focused in his meditation beyond his senses, beyond his life, through his pervious lives, back to the experience of the final emptiness from which all things come.

Though at this very moment the universe rejoices because a Buddha for this epoch has emerged, Siddartha himself has a time of hesitation. Who will believe him? Who will hear him? He is encouraged, he perseveres, he gathers again disciples from the time of his exploration and gives to them what is called in these narratives, the “First Sermon” or the “Four Noble Truths.” It is simple, yet it is difficult to understand and when even one does understand it craving can be horrific in its consequences or beautiful. The Truth: We suffer because we crave. To not suffer, we must stop craving. To stop craving we must let go of the extremes of craving and avoiding and follow a middle path of behavior.

At a time of pessimism and social stratification of the promise of enlightenment, the Buddha offered a path open to everyone, yet not easy for anyone. Every human can stop craving- it is so difficult for anyone of us to identify what craving might be, when not craving itself becomes a kind of craving. But so it is with the birth of Siddhartha, the birth of Buddhism.

The narratives about the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ, talk of a time of deadness and social stratification. The Torah narrates the beginning of monotheism. Liberation comes in the recognition that rather than a world born in utter chaos or clashes between opposite forces, the universe is the plan of a being beyond comprehension, yet ultimately personal and available. This insight leads to a national identity. That identity leads to the sense of ownership of a land even this moment in dispute. It is an insight alive and challenging. It topples empires. The Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord Your God is one God.” Perhaps, for a while, this belief includes the possibility that other gods truly exist, but the god of Israel, “Yahweh” is the most powerful. This transitions, long before Jesus or Christianity, into a genuine monotheism. There is no other God. All other gods are either illusions or demons.

When Jesus is born, the controversial and powerful message has undergone a number of challenges and changes. The land Israel claims as the “promised land” - promised by God, has been gained and lost again and again. The narratives announce Jesus coming into a culture occupied by a foreign and pagan Roman army. A puppet government in control and a class of priests claiming sole right to rule the moral and ritual lives of the Jews and mediate between society and God. Relating to God means relating to the priests.

Jesus enters and seems originally to be a part of the tradition. But he emerges in the narratives of the New Testament early and briefly showing his superiority to the priests, but then disappears until his adulthood. His differences show quickly. He is shown to us as unique- a category of one. He joins the outcasts of his culture, the prophet not accepted but feared- John the Baptist. After joining with them, after his baptism, he is separate from them. Not six years, but forty days he seeks and suffers in a desert. It is described as a time of temptation. Tempted to turn away from a task and role, tempted to redefine that role. He also hesitates. He also wonders who can hear his message.

One by one, Jesus seeks out his future disciples and tells them- proclaims (kerygma) to them that the time for a change, the time for a fulfillment of prophecies in the Torah has arrived. The messiah is here, though not as expected. The kingdom of God has arrived in a teacher, not a warrior. God is speaking to you in your weakness telling you that you are the means by which universal change will be announced. It is a message to you, and you will tell it to others. Isaiah’s suffering servant seeking fellow servants. Though confused or ambivalent or misunderstanding, they follow. A message from the Father. A message they find irresistible. The message says to them that God is among them. No priesthood has a monopoly on monotheism. Every individual is responsible for his/her relationship to God. God is good- the source of everything good, and offers a relationship that changes lives and offers salvation- liberation- by coming into an awareness of this relationship with God. The priest class had rarely used the name “father” to speak of God. they hear Jesus not only called God “father,” in his instruction on how to pray, there he called God “abba” which translates as an infantile name for a parent- “dada” perhaps.

But such intimacy with the Absolute is both liberating and terrifying. God at a distance is a god that might not always be sensed. A silent foundation, but never a loving parent. In this new age of divine parenting, how should we think, how can we make moral decisions- wait for a voice? perhaps new tablets from a new Moses? A new life, but newness means an unpredictability to the future and a remoteness to the familiar past. Social ostracism is a given. This “daddy” definition of God seems to inviting yet so unstable in bringing the Absolute home and into every room that makes a home. Kitchen, living room, bedroom. So new that it seems beyond characteristics other than “new.” The glow of Moses’ face descending Sinai after meeting Yahweh, the Shekinah glory. A blinding glare, but nothing more. Glaring unforgiving light of forgiveness. This austere God is after all a loving father that has not deserted his children. This God will deliver his people and usher in a new age that will transform the world. At once “daddy” and universal Lord. All this he tells or implies to his new disciples, and then sent them out to tell others.


How do these two accounts of four inaugural events sound when read together? What seems similar and what different? For those readers raised from birth in either tradition the evocation of that specific set of narratives might be at least nostalgia- and at most refusal of the comparison, in between might lie discomfort or a settled compromise. The narratives are so different. One speaks of speculation and searching, the other of morality and fidelity. The “Eastern” accent on meditation and the condition of the mind. The “Western” accent on the fate of particular individuals in a singular unfolding history. The traditions have extraordinary differences- and extraordinary similarities. The question posed at the beginning asks about how to think about these traditions and the anxiety between them. I have briefly talked about the inaugural moments in both, let me now suggest a few possible moments of meeting or connection. This does not suggest that there is a common goal, or a hierarchy, or even an answer. Moments of connection. Touching. Walking together and apart.

Truth is hard to hear, easy to avoid. Both the Buddha and the Christ hesitated before speaking. Both wondered if anyone could hear a message of hope that sounded like death to their own culture. But they spoke and some heard and they also spoke. The game of “Telephone” with an audience, and politics, and life and death. The followers said what they heard but each was slightly different. In each we read a desire to follow but also a desire to lead. Sariputra seeks to maintain the teachings of the Buddha, but limit how far those teachings may grow. He might not accept his role listening to Avalokethishvara in the Heart Sutra. Instructed in compassion. Detachment or compassion- what to hear, what to avoid? For Peter and other of the original twelve disciples, the message was for Israel, therefore those that heard the message of the Christ must come into the original religion of the Messiah. For Paul, the message was broader, anyone who heard could accept it and by that truth be changed without any ritual. Then followed the dissent ion, the factions, the violence. Killing in the name of salvation.

The truth is, it is hard to hear the truth. Hard to hear that what is most true in our world and our individual lives is also the most fragile. Hard to keep hearing, always easy to avoid. We might avoid it by taming it, or changing it, often by fighting for one version of it against others. Perhaps this is the greatest paradox of all- what is most real is also most fragile. We glimpse it in moments of insight or desperation, but then quickly lose it. The avoidance becomes the norm. So predictable and dependable. Avoidance becomes truth as we seek the familiar and our lives together as a family or culture involves this mutual recognition of the familiar. The truth is, it is hard to hear the truth.

Life lived without awareness is addictive and blinding. Both Christ and Buddha talked of the temptation- one so subtle and pervasive- to simply live by unreflective reaction to the world around us. It is enough to get by today and tomorrow, a reality every human knows without being taught it. Perhaps the truth is hard to hear because avoiding it seems to involve no decision at all. Unaware of consequences and contexts, we simply respond to cravings and to cultural norms. The kingdom of God is among us and within us, Christ preached. But it took a Christ to tell the world what was already true. He called the world blind, as did the Buddha.

A blindness caused by addiction. In the New Testament, Jesus tells the parable (Luke 12:13-21)

At the rich fool. He has much, he seems surprised by his good fortune. He decides he must build new buildings to hold all that he has. He speaks to himself, and God answers-

“’And I will say to my soul, Soul- you have ample goods laid up for many years relax, eat, drink, be merry.’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is (Jesus says) with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.”

Things seduce. Addicted, we are blind to our mortality, blind to the consequences of our actions, blind to what is greater than us. Notice here the Buddha also listens in to the self talk of the satisfied soul to make the same point:

“’These children and riches are mine’; thinking thus the fool is troubled. Since no one owns even himself, what is the sense in ‘my children and riches’? ....All hoardings will be dispersed, whatever rises will be cast down, all meetings must end in separation, life must finally end in death.” (Udanavarga 1:20-22)

Perhaps this is not the same point. The Buddha is more terse and less linear. The perspective on life lived without awareness seems still to speak of a self focus that blinds. It is a life in which possessions promise immortality. Things will always be as they are. The promise and conviction might not be voiced, even to oneself in anything but a whisper, but the blindness to what is greater than us seems the condition into which we are born.

In part they seem to say that this blindness is that the success of gaining a possession gives a sense of omnipotence, when it was only a single battle that was won in a war destined to be lost. We could be aware of that destiny. In part it is that satisfaction of a need that allows us to stay within ourselves, confident in the timelessness of a need met. We could be aware that needs return, and satisfaction fades, being as temporal as we are. Things, objects, wealth, are solid and tangible. The idea that they fade and that we fade is invisible and easily dismissed. Things seduce and blind.

We become unaware that the daily decision to not choose awareness is itself a decision.

Liberation is self transcendence. Before either spoke to others, they faced the temptation within themselves. The stories of there journey to personifying the divine seem to tell anyone who decides to read them that it is not a matter of arcane ritual or esoteric knowledge. The self is the great enemy of the self. We distance ourselves from what will change us. We delay, we remain in the familiar. Salvation is a kind of death because it is deliverance from the insular and myopic self that fears and denies. To this fearful self, both Jesus and Siddhartha said, “hear.” It is by listening -- hearing what is new, that we are free. Opening outward to the other (Other). This is never a single event, nor linear process. But it is a way of opening to a truth, detaching from things and self, without seeking a secure place for the self. The Son of Man has no home. The boddhisattva forsakes nirvana. In other words, it is not a matter of moving ourselves intact from one position to another without changing the self that moves. In fact, it is the change in the self that is experienced as a new place more than any geographical or cultural change that defines salvation. We are always walking, even when we look back, even when we sleep.


When we hear either or both, we face again the original anxiety of the “and.” Buddha and Christ are easily titles rendered secondary to that “and.” Christ and Buddha. I have nothing more to say about the relationship between the titles, names and histories. Can more be said to reduce the anxiety that leads to answers? I have considered three statements both thinkers made. They did not make them in the same way, they did not have the same cosmology. But they said what they said. Perhaps we take with us, not a complete map through life, but a few markers on the way. Our paths may be quite different, but don’t stop too soon, first- listen to the whispers you hear as you act and decide and love and lose, also- don’t be fooled by what you see, and finally- think about how you talk to yourself about what you see. The talk is what you see.

Useful to know as we keep walking. Risky, though.