Are the teachings of Jesus compatible with Buddhism?

Over the last few decades, especially in Europe and North America, various groups encouraging study and dialogue, places of worship, and cultural centres have emerged that attempt to combine the teachings of Yeshua (Jesus) with Buddhism. Some individuals have magnified superficial similarities to the extent of syncretizing the two faiths.

This article will explore some key areas including Jesus and Buddha, suffering and desire, sin and salvation, first cause, the origin of the world and eternity. The subject area is so vast that many other areas could have been included. It is appreciated that there are many forms of Buddhism that haven’t been addressed specifically. I will aim to offer a constructive approach, reaching out to those who have adopted a ‘double belonging’.

Jesus and Buddha

There are some who maintain that the similarities between Jesus and Buddha are numerous and outweigh the differences.  Articles and books have been written to establish the same premise, even suggesting that Jesus and Buddha would recognise each other as spiritual brothers. These similarities are often presented in terms of parallel ethics or sayings rather than determining their actual meanings.

If a few points were selected about not killing, stealing or lying that may at first appear convincing. However, if ten points from both faiths were put side by side, it would be clarified that the first four Commandments are specifically in relation to God, whilst Buddhism is not concerned with trying to please or obey God. Jesus taught that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all you soul and all your mind (Matthew. 22:37-38; c.f. Deuteronomy. 6:5), which again is a summary of the first four of the Ten Commandments.

Someone may attempt to list similarities in that Jesus and Buddha encouraged individuals to be humble, compassionate, and merciful, not to judge others, to love your enemies and to observe the golden rule. Very long lists and apparently impressive comparisons can easily be compiled this way, including selected short passages where the context of the passage is not considered. The real question is whether that is actually significant?

Is the golden rule the test for everything?

A favourite illustration of the Universalist is to list a number of religions that observe the golden rule by selecting one short statement from each of the various canons from hundreds of pages that have actually been written. That is then stretched to make a superficial comparison of religions stating that because many religions affirm the basic idea of the golden rule, then they are basically the same.

When has the golden rule become the measuring tool for religious congruity? If someone made the effort to consider which God is being presented amongst the famous world faiths and examine the core teachings of those faiths, they would soon recognise that it would be like saying that all political parties are basically the same, or all cultures are basically the same, or all works of literature are basically the same.

Even though many apparent similarities could be listed and verses selected that, in isolation, appear to be stating a similar idea, if the respective texts were read either in context or entirety, it would soon become axiomatic that a biblical worldview compared with that of Buddhism are in stark contrast. The teachings of Jesus and Buddha teachings are not compatible. With large volumes of writing in circulation, one would expect to find plentiful similarities by means of a surface level comparison.

I remember having a discussion with a Buddhist Monk as I was making a case for the importance of having a faith that is historically reliable. I almost fell over when he calmly responded, “What difference does that make?” I replied that I needed to believe in something and someone that was supported by evidence, not just someone’s ideas or a philosophy.

Here are some points to consider:

  • Jesus made exclusive truth claims and claimed to be God, though Buddha never made such a claim.
  • Jesus prophesied but Buddha didn’t prophesy.
  • Jesus performed numerous miracles though Buddha performed no miracles.
  • Jesus was crucified and resurrected whereas Buddha died and was cremated.
  • Jesus is unique in that He was sinless and fulfilled scores of prophesies and was preceded by a messenger.

Suffering and Desire

The problem of suffering is pivotal in Buddhism. Buddha was largely sheltered from the sufferings in life until he left the Royal Palace of his upbringing and observed sickness, ageing and death. His four noble truths are focused around the problem and origin of suffering and how to eliminate the delusion to achieve nirvana through the destruction of desire. The fourth noble truth involves following the path that leads to the cessation of suffering, known as the eightfold path, through right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration.

Is the Buddhist motive or intention to eliminate desire actually a desire in itself?

Questions regarding suffering inevitably and constantly arise because we live in a broken world. It would be helpful to remember the experiences of Joseph, Job, Jeremiah and the Lord Jesus as the Man of sorrows, and that Jesus has conquered sin and that in heaven there will be no more death, sorrow, crying or pain (Revelation 21:4).

Concerning the destruction of desire, it could well be asked is the motive or intention to eliminate desire actually a desire in itself? Furthermore the elimination of desire seems to contribute little with respect of genuine love or altruism. If desire is to be destroyed, would it not follow that the desire to help the poor, or those suffering, or even to love someone would also be removed?

Sin and Salvation

Religious terminology such as God, sin, or holiness will inevitably mean something different to a Buddhist than a follower of Yeshua. For that reason it is necessary to define terms such as ‘new birth’, ‘rebirth’, regeneration’ or ‘born again’ when those points are discussed.

The Bible affirms that all have sinned and have inherited original sin from Adam (Psalm 51:5 Romans 5:12), and the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Messiah Jesus (Romans 6:23). We can only be saved by grace, through faith in the Lord Jesus, trusting in His substitutionary atonement (Ephesians 2:8-9). No amount of works can merit salvation. Only the sinless Saviour could redeem us. We have no righteousness of our own other than being united with Jesus and having His righteousness imputed to us (Isaiah 64:6; 2 Corinthians 5:21).

In contrast, neither sin nor original sin has any place within Buddhism. Moreover, there is no concept of a personal saviour. The Buddha is not a saviour, and it is not even within the power of Buddha to wash away the impurities of others .xiv Liberation of one’s self is one’s own responsibility, placing the emphasis on self-reliance, self-discipline and individual striving. xv Buddhists recognise that their reason for suffering is because of desire, and once this desire is removed, they will no longer be subject to rebirths and will cease to exist.

First Cause and the Origin of the World

The Bible affirms that God created the world and everything in it (Genesis 1:1; Colossians 1:15-17; Acts 17:24). By contrast, in Buddhism, the world operates by natural power and law, not by Divine command. xviii The Buddha never provided an explanation for the origin of the world, other than reasoning that through apparent lack of evidence it cannot be known. xix Scripture confirms that God has created us in His image and that His invisible attributes are clearly seen (Genesis 1:26; Romans 1:20).

A question worth asking is why is there something rather than nothing? xx Since it isn’t possible for nothing to create something, there must by necessity be a first cause. It therefore follows to ask, in addition to how the world began if God doesn’t exist, that if successive reincarnations are the result of deeds from a previous life, then how did the first reincarnation begin?

If human existence is only temporary and liberation from suffering by the ‘blowing out of human desire’ to achieve nirvana is the ultimate goal, this has serious implications regarding human value.

According to Buddhism, man is worthless, having temporary existence, though in Christianity man is of infinite worth, made in the image of God and will exist eternally. xxi

Interestingly in a general sense, the Buddhist view of human worth and the physical body isn’t far removed from some Gnostic groups who sought to be liberated from their physical bodies.

Eternity

Ultimately Buddhists are hoping that, as they strive to follow the way designated by Buddha through the Eightfold Path, they will eventually achieve nirvana, so that suffering and desire will be eradicated, and re-births will come to an end.

The disciple of Yeshua on the other hand has a sure and certain hope. The Lord Jesus is the way, the truth and the life (John 14:6). The believer recognises that of their own merit they could never achieve or even contribute to their salvation in a lifetime of lifetimes. They neither trust in nor rely upon themselves but wholly trust in God and rest in His promises and His unfailing faithfulness. They will have eternal life in God and will also be amongst innumerable believers in God’s Kingdom from every tribe, kindred and nation. Suffering will cease and there will be no more death.

End Notes:

xiii[1] Buddhism-Major Differences http://www.buddhanet.net/e-learning/snapshot01.htm (17.)

xiv[1] Ibid, (4.)

xv[1] Ibid, (5.)

xviii[1] Josh McDowell & Don Stewart Concise Guide to Today’s Religions (Scripture Press; Amersham-on-the-hill, 1992), p305

xix[1] Burnett, p37

Ibid, 45

xxi[1] McDowell & Stewart p306