In Joseph Campbell’s, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he states:
“The Buddha’s enlightenment is the most important single moment in Oriental mythology, a counterpart of the Crucifixion of the West. The Buddha beneath the Tree of Enlightenment (the Bo Tree) and Christ on the Holy Rood (the Tree of Redemption) are analogous figures, incorporating an archetypal World Savior, World Tree motif, which is of immemorial antiquity.”
This is due to a fundamental set of similarities, and cultural differences, that have propelled these great myths to the solemn and sacred places they hold in hearts today.
The lives of Jesus Christ and Siddhartha Buddha follow many parallels, however the fundamental differences in their characters and purposes, create the diverging points, while their similarities are what make both figures meaningful.
Siddhartha Buddha was born a prince of a rich and powerful ruler in India, but at birth hismother died. He was brought before many Brahmin scholars who agreed he would become either a great king or a great religious man, and so, from birth, Siddhartha Buddha was supposed to be great.
Jesus Christ’s story begins by being born to the Virgin Mary, who was told she’d give birth to the son of god. And so begins our first parallel. In both cases, at birth, our two figures were told they were born into greatness, one a prince and a future great religious man, and the other the son of god, however, where one was born a rich prince, the other was born a humble peasant.
There’s little known of Jesus’ life growing up. The Bible does not specify his activity from the age of twelve to thirteen, though some believe he travelled to India and elsewhere.2 He worked as a humble carpenter for a time before he began his proselytizing, however, he was born with the knowledge that he was the son of god.
Siddhartha Buddha also grew up as a rich prince in his castle, shielded from the suffering of the world, however, in his case, he also knew that there was something more, though not as directly as Jesus Christ. Siddhartha Buddha, in popular myth, always knew there was more to life than the wealth and power of his youth. Eventually, despite his father’s attempts to shield him, Siddhartha Buddha left his palace and saw the poor, the weak, and the suffering. This was around the same age that Jesus Christ began his teachings. Soon after Siddhartha Buddha discovered suffering, he fled from the palace to live the life of an ascetic in order to understand suffering. During this time, Siddhartha Buddha sought to understand the suffering in the world, while Jesus Christ sought to dispel it, but they’re paths were similar. They both lived as humble peasants, travelling through the world.
Due to nearly starving, Siddhartha Buddha almost died and was saved by a young girl who offered him something to eat. He then stood beneath a Bo tree for forty days until he reached enlightenment, at which point her became the Buddha. And so we meet our final parallel in their lives. Where Buddha nearly died, and meditated beneath a tree until he was reborn as the Buddha, Jesus Christ was sent to death on a cross and was reborn to his father, ascending to heaven.
The primary difference comes from Jesus Christ’s rebirth ceased his teaching and lead him to a higher place, whereas Siddhartha Buddha’s rebirth began his teaching when it lead him to a higher place, in his case Nirvana.
The individual teachings of Jesus Christ and Siddhartha Buddha share many similarities, however the core of each teaching is where they differ. The basis of Jesus Christ’s teachings is giving yourself to the power of a higher being, God. The basis of Siddhartha Buddha’s teachings is reliance on your own power. According to Jesus Christ, a person can not save themself. According to Siddhartha Buddha, a person is the only one that can save themself.
Siddhartha Buddha’s teachings consist of four basic parts: the Middle way, the Four Noble Truths, The Noble Eightfold Path, and the Five Precepts.
Siddhartha Buddha live life in two extremes before actually becoming the Buddha, first born as a rich prince, living a life of decadence, then turned ascetic, living the life of a humble beggar. It was through these extremes that he found the path to enlightenment is in neither; it is in the Middle Way. A balance of moderation and pleasure. He found there is no need to suffer to enlightenment, in fact it was detrimental. He also felt that a life of decadence was equally pointless, as it causes equal suffering in its own way. And so he found the Middle Way, the basis of all his teachings.
Next came the Four Noble Truths. Each was understood along the path to enlightenment, and to fully comprehend all of them was to reach Nirvana, enlightenment. The first of the truths is the truth of suffering (dukkha), the second truth is the truth of the origin of suffering (samudaya), the truth of the cessation of suffering (nirodha), and the truth of the path leading to the cessation of suffering (magga). Each of these truths was to be understood over the journey to enlightenment.
The Noble Eightfold Path is where the most similarities with Jesus’ teachings come into play, but only if read deeply into. The Noble Eightfold Path is a means of approaching the world openly, with understanding, kindness, and self control. It consists of: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. Each of these has much more detail attributed to it than their simple names, but in essence, they follow the path of kindness, understanding, self control, and consideration.
The Five Precepts were five rules to be followed. Abstain from killing, do not take what is not given, abstain from sexual misconduct, abstain from false speech, abstain from mind altering substances. Most of these Jesus Christ himself spoke of in his teachings as well.
Jesus Christ’s teachings, however, were far less direct and clear. He did not have a set of rules and a direct path, rather, he had many edicts of righteous conduct, and spoke much of giving yourself to the lord. Jesus Christ made many comments on righteous behaviour in the Bible such as in Matthew 5:43-44: “Bless those who curse you.”, and: “Do good to those who hate you.”, or in Matthew 15:11: “Not what goes into the mouth defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” which is very similar to Siddhartha Buddha’s Right Speech.
The primary difference, however, can clearly be seen in the bible through such quotes as Matthew 10:33: “But whoever denies Me before men, him I will also deny before My Father who is in heaven.”, Matthew 9:9 “Follow me.”, and Matthew 7:21: “Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father in heaven.”. These all speak clearly that it is a faith of following a preset path, rather than one to find one’s own path.
Buddhism believes in a cycle of reincarnation, which allows you to keep trying until you reach Nirvana, however Christianity believes in following the lord perfectly on your first attempt, else you receive eternal damnation. Where Buddhism believes in persistence and finding one’s self, Christianity believes in perfection and following the path of those greater than yourself.
However, another striking similarity, is the splintering of various sects and basis on pre made cults. In The Rise of Christianity, it is stated:
“William Sims Bainbridge and I have distinguished between sect movements and cult movements. The former occur by schism with a conventional religious body when persons desiring a more otherworldly version of the faith break away to ‘restore’ the religion to a higher level of tension with its environment. This is the process of sect formation analyzed by H. Richard Niebuhr. Sociologists can cite both theory and considerable research to show that those who take part in sect movements are, if not the dispossessed, at least of lower social standing than those who stick with the parent body.
Cult movements on the other hand, are not simply new organizations of an old faith; they are new faiths, at least new in the society being examined. Cult movements always start small — someone has new religious ideas and begins to recruit others to the faith, or an alien religion is imported into a society where it then seeks recruits. In either case, as new faiths, cult movements violate prevailing religious norms and are often the torget of considerable hostility.”
Christianity began as a new sect of Judaism, and similarly, Buddhism had a large basis in Hinduism. With time, however, both became very distinct belief structures of their own, both of which inviting new followers by the simplicity of conversion. In both cases, following the beliefs taught was as simple as accepting them. Where Hinduism’s caste system and Judaism’s basis in ‘the chosen people’ restricted conversion and access, Buddhism and Christianity were both welcoming and open to any who wished to practice.
Also similarly, Christianity and Buddhism began as one distinct group, and soon after
their founding, splintered off to many different sects. In Buddhism, this divide came from the belief in Siddhartha Buddha as a god versus a wise teacher, however the splits in
Christianity have all been based in more subtle differences in belief.
In conclusion, it is my belief that despite the similarities in life path and teachings, the primary draw and teaching of Buddhism is self agency towards the path to understanding and happiness, where the primary draw and teaching of Christianity is external agency towards the path to happiness, where understanding does not play a part at all.