Posted: March 18th, 2023
Two of the worldâ€™s most important and magnificent religions share little in common on the surface. Yet as the Dalai Lamaâ€™s recent interfaith dialogues have shown, locating points of intersection between Christianity and Buddhism can be a more fruitful endeavor than focusing only on differences. Buddhism is older than Christianity, but only by about 500 years. From their points of origin, Buddhism and Christianity spread far and wide geographically: Buddhism to East Asia and Christianity to Europe. One of the things Christianity and Buddhism share in common most is that their respective faiths are not as entrenched in their places of origin as they are in the places that adopted these religions later. For instance, Christianity is more popular in the Americas, Africa, and Europe than in the Middle East, and Buddhism is more popular in the rest of Asia outside of India than in India, where the Gautama Buddha was born.
The founders of Christianity and Buddhism also worked within their own cultures and communities, not necessarily intending to start brand new religions, but more to reform or revitalize their own. Gautama Buddha â€œwas one of the many critics of the religious establishmentâ€ in his time: namely the Vedic religion that the world now knows as Hinduism (Violatti 1). Several centuries later, Jesus of Nazareth served a similarly disruptive role in his community, being leader to a movement that pushed for political change within the religious establishment of Judaism. The New Testament is filled with references to Jesus upsetting the Jewish religious order. Jesus says of the Pharisees, â€œSo you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach,â€ (Matthew 23:3). Unlike Jesus, Buddha did not have a core set of disciples that followed him around and write down his precise teachings. Therefore, less is known about what Siddhartha Gautama actually did to dismantle Vedic authorities, but the legends that sprouted up around this revolutionary figure do paint him as someone interested in solitary meditation and the pursuit of wisdom through the cultivation of the mind. Rather than ascribe to the rote rituals that dominated the Vedic traditions, the Buddha and his disciples sought a purer form of spiritual practice, which is what Jesus had also proposed to do, albeit in a completely different manner.
The source texts of Christianity and Buddhism were both written quite a long time after their founding fathers had taken their last breaths. Disciples of Jesus penned their own versions of their encounters with the man who they believed to be the â€œson of God,â€ and these gospels later became officially canonized and compiled into what is now known as the New Testament. Buddhist scripture was also inscribed into the collection of texts known as the sutras, but hundreds of years after Siddhartha Gautama lived. Unlike the Christian Bible, the sutras are not a standardized collection of texts. There are many different sutras, spanning hundreds of years of evolution in Buddhist thought. Just as the Christian Bible was written in several different languages like Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the Buddhist sutras were also written in the different tongues of the people of the Indian subcontinent and Himalayan regions including Pali and Sanskrit.
Neither Buddhism nor Christianity were widely accepted or practiced until they become official state religions. It took a single ruler to adopt the religion to totally transform its position in human society. For Buddhism, that historical ruler was the Emperor Ashoka. Ashoka established Buddhism as the official state religion of India, an affront to the Vedic Brahmans (Violatti 1). Buddhism did not remain the state religion of India for long; the torch would soon be carried far beyond the Himalayas, into China, Korea, Japan, and Southeast Asia. A number of sects of Buddhism then emerged, due in part to local worldviews, customs, and traditions, but also simply to the passage of time. Schisms within Buddhism often became violent, as was the case between the Mahayana schools in Tibet and Bhutan. Likewise, schisms in Christianity sometimes became violent and led to the Great Schism that divided the Eastern Orthodox from the Roman Catholic Churchesâ€”a divide that still remains extant today. A similar divide emerged later in Christianity when Martin Luther nailed his theses to the door of the church, demanding a reformation of corrupt Church power. As with Buddhism, the Christian religion became the official state religion hundreds of years after it was first established as a separate sect. The Caucasus region was the first to officially embrace Christianity, but the most powerful conversion was of Charlemagne, who initiated the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, Buddhism and Christianity both merged politics and religion in ways that had been done many times before in human history. The Code of Hammurabi, which predates both Christianity and Buddhism, exemplifies the ways that religion, politics, and the law have always been fused. Each sect of Buddhism will have its own religious or spiritual leaders, who often serve in de facto political positions like the Dalai Lama, just as various branches of Christianity have their religious leaders who serve in quasi-political roles like the Pope.
Buddhism is more a philosophy and system of practice than it is a religion, as it is absent of any reference to a deity. Unlike Christianity, Buddhism is more about personal practice, the nature of consciousness, and improving the human condition than it is about imaginary beings and an afterlife (Narada Maha Thera). Yet Buddhism and Christianity both do focus on death as a potential source of liberation. Buddhism also has elements of religious faith, particularly in some of its sects. Buddhism also lays forth for practitioners moral precepts, such as those embedded in the Eightfold Path. Christianity has always been an unabashedly theistic faith, with a strong and absolute belief in God and Jesus as the Son of God. These radically different ideologies have transformed the ways people in their respective societies form governments and social institutions.
Buddhist Scriptures: http://here-and-now.org/buddrel/Study_Aids.html#
Narada Maha Thera. â€œA Manual of Abhidhamma.â€ http://www.buddhanet.net/pdf_file/abhidhamma.pdf
Violatti, Christian. â€œBuddhism.â€ Ancient History Encyclopedia. https://www.ancient.eu/buddhism/
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