Buddhism and Christianity

Planet Earth is home to 7.5 billion human beings, give or take a million or two, and 84% identify as religious. 84% of the world has chosen to put their faith into a supernatural deity, that all look, sound, and teach differently. The diversity of human beings is arguably shown most efficiently through the plethora of religions that exist in the world.

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But before we go further, what is the true definition of a deity? Is it simply a God? A divine teacher? The rich number of divine beings around the world in the nature of religion may cause some to look around and wonder to themselves: are all religions the same? How do I know which one is telling the truth? If you ask the Romanian Mircea Eliade, he would tell you that religion is simply a person’s response to “the sacred” or a transcendent reality that man becomes aware of because it will reveal itself to him. Of the sacred in this reality he explains further, “The history of religions-from the most primitive to the most highly developed-is constituted by a great number of hierophanies, by manifestations of sacred realities. . .In each case, we are confronted by the same mysterious act- the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural profane’ world” (Eliade 1959:11) (Oxtoby and Segal, 23). It is the idea that all religions in the world are given by the same “God”. But what makes them different, what makes them the same? What do they tell us about the people we are? Following this, my objective goal is to thoroughly compare and contrast two world beliefs: Buddhism and Christianity. My focus will be on the deity upheld in each religion, and what it teaches.

My recent points on the variety of beliefs in the multiplicity of worldviews, can be displayed no better than in the comparison of Buddhism and Christianity. 2,500 years ago there was extreme religious tension in Ancient India between believers of Brahmins, which are now known as Hinduism and another practice of spirituality called Ganges. The tension came from the different views on sacrifice. Brahmin priests were allowed to get married and to follow tradition participated in animal sacrifice, while the ascetic masters, one of them being Shakyamuni Buddha, practiced celibacy and saw sacrifice as wrong. Another difference was their belief when it came to deities. The brahmin were very devoted to their deities, and they gave them praise regularly, whereas deities played a very small role in acetic traditions and way of life. It was through this tension that Buddhism originated. Shakyamuni Buddha, who before his enlightenment was a prince named Siddhartha Gautama, would become the Buddha of the present age. Brahmin followers predicted after his birth that if he departs from this world, of reaches enlightenment, he will become Buddha, and if he stays in the world, he will be a great emperor. His father desires that his son become a great emperor and declares to keep him from renouncing the world and becoming a monk, he will keep the child away from suffering and death. Inevitably, he does see the sufferings of life through a sick man, a suffering elderly man, and a man who has died. He realizes in his own disgust and shock that all of these things will come for him one day, later in life saying “I too am subject to sickness, not safe from sickness, and so it cannot befit me to be shocked, humiliated, and disgusted on seeing another who is sick. When I considered this, the vanity of health entirely left me” (Anguttara Nikaya iii. 38; Nanamoli 1972:8). The suffering he sees frightens and humbles him, making him aware of his own vulnerable mortality and inevitable death. He then meets a monk who teaches him that there is a way to avoid the sorrows and bitterness of the world. The Buddha is not a God on earth, like the Christian God, but a human being who realized his full spiritual potential and the spiritual potential of every being on earth. It is the highest goal for a monk. Shakyamuni Buddha reached the state of enlightenment at 35, and goes from being a “Sattva” which means to strive for enlightenment, and preceded to spend the next 45 years of his life setting the wheel of dharma, or teaching, into motion. He told his sangha, or disciples, to take the dharma all over the world. What the buddha believes is that the way to achieving enlightenment can be taught. He is shunned by his friends when he first comes to them, because they believe he has abandoned the discipline they practice, similarly to how Christ was rejected by the people of Israel for not appearing as the messiah they had been promised.

During a feast with his disciples, an odd dish is brought to the table and Buddha prevents his followers from eating it, and he then falls very ill. When the Buddha died at the age of 80, his followers gave his leadership to the Dharma, or the second gem. It teaches to “Avoid doing evil all deeds, cultivate doing good deeds, and purify the mind-this is the teaching of all Buddhas” (Dhammapada 183) (Oxtoby and Segal, 384). Even as he was dying, he told his followers not to be mad at the host who had served him the dish. They follow the three main traditions of Buddhism, that all came from India: the Theravada, the Mahayana, and the Vajrayana. The Theravada is “the teaching of the elders” (Oxtoby and Segal, 434) and is an early Indian Buddhism that is most dominant in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. The Mahayana, “the greater vehicle” (Oxtoby and Segal, 431) is a form of Buddhism that emerged in India that spread to China, Korea, and Japan, that believes the Buddha to have three bodies, similar to the trinity in Christianity, and making the Buddha a more deity based force. The Vajrayana is “the tantric branch of Buddhism” (Oxtoby and Segal, 434) that was established in Tibet. All three teach that existence is suffering, impermanence, and no self, and they also value the teaching that all things are non absolute and not permanent. They use faith to find peace and refuge in these, which are under the dharma, which is among the three elements known as the “three jewels”. These three are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Having faith in Buddhism means to truly believe the teachings of Buddha. The value meditation and strive to achieve mental calmness and focus, while breaking themselves from the chains of their own egos and self absorption. Unlike Christian tradition, the commandments that they follow are moral rules that are taken up by a follower voluntarily. By setting the wheel of dharma ito motion, Shakyamuni began a new era and at one point or another the dharma will decrease and go into decline, and then a new buddha will put the wheel into motion again. Compared to Christianity, it can make the future appear before you in a very pessimistic light, as you are just waiting for the teachings and congregation to fall out of the world, only to be brought back in again.

The amount of Buddhists in the world roughly ranges between 200 and 300 million people, and is most prominent in South, East, and Southeast Asia, though there are followers in North America and Europe. Christians however, can be found in almost every part of the world. There are roughly 2 billion followers around the world and it remains the largest followed religion. Nearly ?…“ of the global population follows Christianity. The religious populations in Europe, the Americas, New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, and sub saharan Africa for the majority are Christian. More than a third of the population of Lebanon and a third of South Korea also identify with Christianity as their religion. Unlike the Buddhists who see their deity as a fully enlightened human and not a God, Christians believe that their deity is the son of God who exists in three persons, or the trinity, the father, son, and holy spirit. Jesus, the son of God, is believed to be fully God and fully human. It is taught in Christianity that 2000 years ago, 500 years after the origin of the first form of Buddhism, Jesus of Nazareth was born. The reason behind his birth was to bring a messiah to the Jewish people and to the world, and so he was born as a human to help humans overcome their own sin. His life is shown through the four gospels, Mark, Luke, Mathew, and John. The gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, also known as “The City of David.” Angels awoke a group of shepherds to tell them that the messiah had been born. This is significant because the very first people to greet the “King of the Jews” were considered very low in society, and it goes with the teachings that Jesus came for everyone. During his infancy, a priest lays eyes on him and proclaims that he is the messiah. This is similar to the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha, as he was said to be the next Buddha at his naming ceremony by Brahmin followers.

During his life Jesus preached regularly, one of his most famous being the Sermon on the Mount’ going against the Jewish teachings by telling the people “You have learned that they were told eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth’…but what I tell you is this: do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left. If a man wants to sue you for your shirt, let him have your coat as well. If a man in authority makes you go one mile, go with him two. Give when you are asked to give; and do not turn your back on a man who wants to borrow” (Matthew, 5:38-42). His teachings upset the religious authorities, as what he taught challenged their authority, and would later lead to his death. Israel at the time of the birth and life of Jesus was in political and religious turmoil, as Rome had taken full control of the nation. Both Jesus and Shakyamuni Buddha began their teachings at times when tension was arisen in their people. Similar to how the Buddha had his Sangha, Christ also had disciples. Jesus had 12 members of his inner circle that traveled with him as he taught. In the same way that Shakyamuni Buddha told his followers to go and spread the dharma to every corner of the world, Jesus tells his followers then and in the future to go and make disciples out of every nation. We can also draw similarities between John the Baptist and the monk that taught Shakyamuni Buddha about enlightenment. The monk was the last step the Buddha needed after seeing the suffering of the world to learn how to become fully enlightened, and Christ’s baptism gives him the full divine nature of his father.

Christians believe that after Christ’s baptism he spent 40 days in the desert, with no food or water to sustain him. During this time he was tempted by Satan, tempting him three times. The Buddha experiences something similar with Mara, the Lord of death. Mara plays a familiar role that can be compared to Satan. The Buddha has sat to meditate and promised not to rise back up until he has achieved nirvana, the ultimate enlightened state. Mara is determined to prevent his attempt to reach this state, just as Satan wanted to convince Jesus to betray his father. In the end, Mara and Satan both fail. When Jesus travels to Jerusalem, he has at this point developed a reputation among the people and the religious authorities. He arrives riding in on a donkey, and the crowds cry “Hosanna” as they believe he is the messiah, “the king in the line of David who brings deliverance” (Oxtoby and Segal, 145). In the gospel of Matthew, he starts his chapter with the lineage of Jesus which shows that he is a descendant of King David. He shares a long line of genealogy of a king declared by God, just as Shakyamuni Buddha was the most present Buddha in a long line of Buddha’s. In both the Buddha and Christs death, they share the same mercy for their followers. The Buddha preventing his disciples from eating the dish is easily comparable to Christ dying on the cross. Both knew that they were going to die. Both have the same message: don’t take them. Take me. Leave them alone and take me instead. Jesus on one hand was very young, perhaps 30, and the Buddha was nearly 80. Buddha tells his followers not to be angry at the host, for he meant well, and Jesus cried to his father to forgive those that had nailed him to the cross because they didn’t know what they were doing. Jesus was resurrected after three days in his tomb, and the Buddha will be reborn when the dharma has fallen out, similar to how it is said Christ will return to the earth again. However the goals of the two and their followers differ, Buddhist goal being to reach Nirvana and Christian being a relationship with Christ, however both are believed to end suffering. Buddhism is also more focused on the mind, while Christianity focuses on one’s heart. Both religions teach similar principles, telling their followers to avoid violence, the gospel Matthew having written “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). And then the Buddha teaching similarly in one of the three baskets, “Abandoning the taking of life, the ascetic Gautama dwells refraining from taking life, without stick or sword” (digha nikaya 1:1, 8).

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