Jesus and Buddha’s Paths of Peace
A sermon based on Marcus Borg’s book Jesus and Buddha the Parallel Sayings
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on August 7, 2015
by Rev. Scott Elliott
VOICE 1: Today’s message is based primarily on Marcus Borg’s book Jesus and Buddha the Parallel Sayings. 1 .
VOICE 2: We have mostly used Dr. Borg’s translations and wording in this message.
VOICE 1: If Buddha and Jesus were to meet,
VOICE 2: neither would try to convert the other—
VOICE 1: not because they would regard such an effort as hopeless,
VOICE 2 & VOICE 1: but because they would recognize one another in many ways.
VOICE 2: Both Jesus and the Buddha both had life-transforming experiences at around age thirty. After a six-year religious quest, the Buddha had his enlightenment experience under the Bo tree.
VOICE 1: Jesus’ religious quest led him to the wilderness and his spiritual mentor John the Baptist, culminating in the story of his vision at his baptism.
VOICE 2: Both Jesus and the Buddha began their public activity shortly thereafter.
VOICE 1: And both began renewal movements within their inherited religious traditions, Hinduism and Judaism. Neither saw himself as the founder of a new religion.
VOICE 2: Plus there are parallels in the religious traditions that grew up around them. Both were perceived as more than human, even though their humanity continued to be affirmed. Both were given an exalted—even divine—status.
VOICE 1: What happened to Jesus is well known in the Western world. Beginning in the decades after his death and climaxing in the Nicene Creed of the fourth century, the early Christian movement spoke of him as the incarnation of God: the Word and Wisdom of God made flesh, the only Son of God begotten of the Virgin Mary, and ultimately as “very God of very God.”
VOICE 2: What happened to the Buddha is less well known in the West. Stories of supernatural conception emerged, and even a notion similar to the Christian notion of incarnation. Gautama—the “historical” Buddha—was the manifestation on earth of the heavenly or cosmic Buddha. In some Buddhist literature, he is even called “God of gods.”
VOICE 1: As individuals, Jesus and the Buddha would not have recognized themselves in this exalted language.
VOICE 2: Indeed, both rejected even mild forms of it.
VOICE 1: The Gospels contain a story of Jesus objecting even to being called “good”;
VOICE 2: a Buddhist story reports that the Buddha similarly rejected grand estimates of him.
VOICE 1: Jesus and the Buddha were teachers of a world-subverting wisdom that undermined and challenged conventional ways of seeing and being in their time and in every time. Their subversive wisdom was also an alternative wisdom: they taught a way or path of transformation.
VOICE 2: Thus both were teachers of the way less traveled. “Way” or “path” imagery is central to both bodies of teaching. The way of the Buddha is enshrined in the four noble truths of Buddhism, the fourth of which is “the eightfold path.”
VOICE 1: Jesus spoke regularly of “the way.” Moreover, according to the book of Acts, the earliest name for the Jesus movement was “the Way.” The Gospel of John thus only takes this image one step further in speaking of Jesus as the incarnation of “the way.”
VOICE 2: What Jesus and the Buddha said about “the way” is remarkably similar.
VOICE 2 & VOICE 1: [I]n both cases, it involves a new way of seeing.
VOICE 1: Sayings about seeing, sight, and light are central to Jesus’ teaching. Moreover, the forms of Jesus’ teaching—his aphorisms and parables—most commonly functioned to invite a new way of seeing.
VOICE 2: So also for the Buddha. Indeed, the common description of him as “the enlightened one” points to the centrality of a new way of seeing. Enlightenment means seeing differently. Both Jesus and the Buddha sought to bring about in their hearers a radical perceptual shift—a new way of seeing life.
VOICE 1: The familiar line from a Christian hymn expresses an emphasis common to both: “I once was blind, but now I see.”
VOICE 2: [B]oth paths or ways also involve a similar psychological and spiritual process of transformation. The way of the Buddha entails a reorientation of one’s life from “grasping” (the cause of suffering) to “letting go” of grasping (the path of liberation from suffering). The Buddha invited his followers to see that life is not about grasping but about letting go, and then to embark on the path of letting go. Though Jesus did not generate a systematic set of “noble truths” as the Buddha did, the images running through his teaching point to the same path.
VOICE 1: On Jesus Way [t]hose who empty themselves will be exalted, and those who exalt themselves will be emptied; those who make themselves last will be first, and the first last. To become as a child means to relinquish one’s worldly importance. The path of discipleship involves “taking up one’s cross,” understood as a symbol for the internal process of dying to an old way of being and entering a new way of being. Such was the experience of Paul, the first Christian writer: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” At the earliest stage of the Christianity to which we have access, dying to an old way of being was central to the movement.
VOICE 2 & VOICE 1: Buddhist “letting go” and Christian “dying” are similar processes.
VOICE 2: Dying is the ultimate letting go—of the world and of one’s self. The world as the center of one’s identity and security and the self as the center of one’s preoccupation pass away. This “letting go” is liberation from an old way of being and resurrection into a new way of being.
VOICE 1: There is thus a Buddhist “born again” experience as well as a Christian “liberation through enlightenment” experience.
VOICE 2 & VOICE 1: [T]he ethical fruit of this internal transformation is the same for both the way of Jesus and Buddha.
VOICE 2: The
VOICE 1: fruit
VOICE 2: is
VOICE 1: becoming
VOICE 2: a
VOICE 1: more
VOICE 2 & VOICE 1: compassionate being.
VOICE 2: The Buddha is often called “the compassionate one,” and the central characteristic of a bodhisattva (roughly, a Buddhist saint) is compassion.
VOICE 1: So also for Jesus. When he crystallized with one word the life that would result from following his way, the word was compassion: “Be compassionate, as God is compassionate.” Paul’s word for compassion is love, and he spoke of love as the primary fruit of the Spirit and the greatest of the spiritual gifts.
VOICE 2: Indeed, one might even say that becoming a bodhisattva is the goal of the fully developed Christian life.
VOICE 1: As Paul put it, “We are being transformed from one degree of glory to another into the likeness of Christ.”
VOICE 2 & VOICE 1: The striking similarities between the Buddha and Jesus do not mean
VOICE 1: that Christianity
VOICE 2: and Buddhism are identical or nearly so. Each religion is not only profoundly shaped by the culture in which it emerges, but also becomes a culture with its own language (including images, myths, stories, and the rituals and practices which embody them).
VOICE 1: Buddhism and Christianity are thus as different as the cultural-linguistic traditions in which they are embedded.
VOICE 2: Yet . . . we can see a strong connection between these traditions and religious experience. [E]ach religion, understood as a cultural-linguistic tradition, as both a response to the experience of the sacred, and as a mediator of such experiences.
VOICE 1: So different as Buddhism and Christianity are,
VOICE 2: [B]oth can be understood as having their origin in experiences of the sacred,
VOICE 2 & VOICE 1: especially those of the “founders,” Jesus and the Buddha.
VOICE 1: seeing the parallels between the wisdom teaching of Jesus and the Buddha adds to the credibility of both.
VOICE 2: Although there are dozens of similar sayings. We are going to just look at a few of the remarkably parallel sayings. I will read the Buddha’s sayings
VOICE 1: And I will read Jesus’ sayings
VOICE 2: Perhaps [m]ost striking of all the parallels between Jesus and Buddha are those dealing with love.
VOICE 1: Both teachers invoked
VOICE 2: the Golden Rule of treating others as you want them to treat you.
VOICE 1: Jesus said “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”
VOICE 2: Buddha said “Consider others as yourself.”
VOICE 2 & VOICE 1: The many similar ideas—spoken by teachers
VOICE 1: separated by five hundred years,
VOICE 2: three thousand miles,
VOICE 1: and two drastically different cultures
VOICE 2 & VOICE 1: are identical.
VOICE 1: “Give to anyone who requests it.”
VOICE 2: “Give when you are asked.”
VOICE 1: Many of Jesus’ most famous sayings—turning the other cheek, loving your enemies, and the idea that one who lives by the sword will die by it—
VOICE 2: are mirrored in the words of the Buddha . . .
VOICE 1: “If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also.” LUKE 6.29
VOICE 2: “If anyone should give you a blow with his hand, with a stick, or with a knife, you should abandon any desires and utter no evil words.” MAJJHIMA NIKAYA 21.6
VOICE 1: “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” MATTHEW 25.45
VOICE 2: “ If you do not tend one another, then who is there to tend you? Whoever would tend me, he should tend the sick.” VINAYA, MAHAVAGGA 8.26.3
VOICE 1: “ Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” MATTHEW 26.52
VOICE 2: “ Abandoning the taking of life, the ascetic Gautama dwells refraining from taking life, without stick or sword.” DIGHA NIKAYA 1.1.8
VOICE 1: “You know the commandments: “You shall not murder; you shall not commit adultery; you shall not steal; you shall not bear false witness; you shall not defraud; honor your father and mother.” MARK 10.19
VOICE 2: “ Abstain from killing and from taking what is not given. Abstain from unchastity and from speaking falsely. Do not accept gold and silver.” KHUDDAKAPATHA 2
VOICE 1: Both have similar sayings . . .
VOICE 2: about finding faults in others . . .
VOICE 1: “ Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, “Friend, let me take the speck out of your eye,” when you yourself do not see the log in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. LUKE 6.41-42
VOICE 2: “The faults of others are easier to see than one’s own; the faults of others are easily seen, for they are sifted like chaff, but one’s own faults are hard to see. This is like the cheat who hides his dice and shows the dice of his opponent, calling attention to the other’s shortcomings, continually thinking of accusing him.” UDANAVARGA 27.1
VOICE 1: And both have the
VOICE 2: very same ideas about wasting this life for material gain
VOICE 1: “ [Jesus] told them a parable: “The land of a rich man produced abundantly. And he thought to himself, ‘What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?’ Then he said, ‘I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. 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 with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich towards God.” LUKE 12.13-21
VOICE 2: “These children and riches are mine”; thinking thus the fool is troubled. Since no one even owns himself, what is the sense in “my children and riches”? Verily, it is the law of humanity that though one accumulates hundreds of thousands of worldly goods, one still succumbs to the spell of death. 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
VOICE 1: As we said
VOICE 2: We’ve just mentioned a few of the most amazing parallel sayings of Buddha.
VOICE 1: And Jesus.
VOICE 2: There’s debate and speculation about how they could be so similar
VOICE 1: Some folks imagine Jesus learned of Buddha in undocumented travels during his young adulthood.
VOICE 2: But we,
VOICE 1: like Marcus Borg
VOICE 2: Think the similarities
VOICE 1: are due
VOICE 2: not to cultural borrowing, but commonality of religious experience.
VOICE 1: Both Jesus and the Buddha had life-transforming experiences of “the sacred.”
VOICE 2: Those experiences
VOICE 1: and expressions of them
VOICE 2: have their
VOICE 1: origin in
VOICE 2: response to
VOICE 2 & VOICE 1: The Sacred
VOICE 1: All that
VOICE 2: we live and move
VOICE 2 & VOICE 1: and have our being in.
VOICE 1: May each of us
VOICE 2: and all of us
VOICE 2 & VOICE 1: experience the Sacred too. Through the words and Ways
VOICE 2: of Buddha
VOICE 1: and Christ.
VOICE 2 & VOICE 1: Amen.
1. Borg, Marcus , Jesus and Buddha: The Parallel Sayings , Ulysses Press. Kindle Edition (1999). The italicized and bracketed words are mine, the rest is from Dr. Borg’s book.