by Michael Maciel
Buddhism and Christianity mirror each other in many ways. And why not? Hinduism was around for 2,500 years before Christianity, and Buddhism sprang from Hinduism just as Christianity sprang from Judaism. It doesn’t take a lot of investigative work to detect the golden thread of truth that winds its way through both religions. Once we find it, we discover that the different accounts of the lives of Buddha and Jesus have striking similarities.
Here’s the premise: The lives of Buddha and Jesus are not particularly important as history. It’s not the historical accuracy of what these two individuals did that counts; it’s what their actions symbolize. Neither is it important whether the events actually occurred, because the point of their stories is to reveal the path we must all follow in our spiritual quest. We gain nothing in the way of spiritual development by believing in a literal translation of these stories.
Unless, of course, there is an entrance exam at the pearly gates, in which case, only scholars and blind believers will get in. And who would want to live in a place like that, especially for eternity!
Here’s an example of the symbolic value of a significant event in the lives of both Buddha and Jesus: As Buddha sat under the Bo Tree seeking enlightenment, Mara, the Lord of the Underworld, presented him with three temptations—sex, fear, and pride. First, he offered Siddhartha (Buddha) his three beautiful daughters, to which Siddhartha replied, “Hmph.” Un-phased. Next, Mara arrayed his army before him, and sent thousands of arrows straight at the head of Siddhartha. Again, “hmph,” and the arrows turned into blossoms, falling at his feet. Finally, Mara appealed to Siddhartha’s sense of civic duty (Siddhartha was heir to his father’s throne), but Siddhartha would not be lured by the promise of Earthly power.
Five hundred years later, Jesus, immediately following God’s famous proclamation—”This is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased”—at Jesus’ baptism by John in the River Jordan, Jesus underwent the same three temptations at the hand of the Lord of the Underworld, this time calling himself Satan. First was “turn these stones into bread”—not exactly sex, but an appeal to the physical appetites just the same. Jesus had been fasting for forty days, and bread had to have had a strong attraction. But, Jesus said, “Hmph.”
Next, Satan took Jesus to a high cliff and said, “Jump.” This was an attempt to provoke fear in Jesus, just as Mara wanted to see if he could make Siddhartha flinch at the sight of arrows. But, like Siddhartha, Jesus held steady.
Next came the big guns. Satan says to Jesus, “You think you’re so smart. Prove it. Worship me, and I will give you the chance to solve all the world’s problems. After all, who could be better suited for the task?” But Jesus knew that pride could only corrupt his soul, so he told Satan to beat it.
Both Buddha and Jesus had to first overcome the very same things we all have to overcome—physical appetites, fear, and pride—as we travel along the spiritual path.
This is a touchy one. Why? Because, who doesn’t love a baby? Or a baby’s mother. In Bhakti Yoga (the yoga of love), the first stage in the development of love is the love of a mother for her infant. This kind of love is pure—virginal you might say— devoid of eros and agape. It is one-focused. It’s a touchy subject, because…don’t you talk about my mother! Never has there been a subject as taboo as Mary’s sexuality. She has been and forever will be (apparently) a nun.
But, what about Buddha? Was his a virgin birth? Yes, although the particulars of his birth are a little more cryptic than those of Jesus. Buddha is said to have been born out of his mother’s side, not through her birth canal. Why out of her side? Because, he was born from the level of the Heart Chakra, not from the lower, Earth-centered chakras. In this way, his was a “heavenly birth,” just like Jesus.
Of course, both Buddha and Jesus were born in the normal way—in painful labor from a mother who was also in painful labor. Naturally. But, the point of the story is that our divine nature manifests itself in the world through the agency of our purified sub-conscious mind. This is the esoteric meaning of the Virgin Birth. Whether Mary had sexual intercourse is not even remotely relevant. As sentimental a notion as her virginity might be, we have to admit that this story has caused women nothing but trouble for over 2,000 years.
Isn’t it time we raised the story to a higher level?
Every spiritual teacher runs the risk of becoming God to his or her followers. It’s an occupational hazard. On the one hand, they have to let their students believe that as their teacher they can do no wrong. But, at the same time, they have to slowly but surely undermine that idea by redirecting their students’ devotion to the Almighty. After all, no one is perfect, not even spiritual teachers. As long as people inhabit a physical body, they are fallible. Sure, there’s that part of them that is never wrong, just as there is that part of all of us that’s never wrong. But, that part simply does not sit in the driver’s seat 24/7. Believing that it can or does has been nothing but trouble for men even longer than 2,000 years. A lot longer.
How did Buddha handle it? He said (referring to himself), “The finger pointing at the moon is not the moon.” When Buddha came into enlightenment, his first thought was, “This cannot be taught.” But, the gods asked him to teach it anyway, to which Buddha replied, “I cannot teach enlightenment. Instead, I will teach the way to enlightenment.” Quick thinking.
And Jesus? When the rich young man addressed him as “good Master,” Jesus cut him off abruptly, saying, “Why callest thou me good? There is only one who is good, my Father in heaven.” Also he said, “Through me shall you see the face of the Father.” He didn’t say, “I am the Father.” He did say that he had attained unity with God, but never did he claim to be God. That which is lesser can never comprehend that which is greater.
Only later did the Church fathers say that Jesus was equal to God. But, this was a political move, not a statement of existential fact. You can’t claim that your religion is the One True Religion unless it was founded by God himself—early branding at its best or worst, depending on which side you were on. Besides, equating Jesus with God made him permanently unattainable, thereby institutionalizing the authority of the clergy. They made themselves the gatekeepers, the sole brokers of heaven.
There are two types of religions, ethnic religions and religions of faith. Ethnic religions are those you have to be born into. Religions of faith require only that you believe in them. Buddhism came out of Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion. To be a Hindu, you must be born a Hindu. Not only that, you are born into a particular caste. The same goes for Judaism. To be a Jew, you must be born of a Jewish mother. No exceptions. And in the old days, Judaism had its own caste system, called the Twelve Tribes. Which tribe you were born into said a lot about your “ordained” place in Jewish society.
While it’s possible to convert to both Hinduism and Judaism, they’re just being polite. No one can actually be a member of the club unless they were born in the clubhouse. Those are the rules.
Buddhism and Christianity, on the other hand, welcome new members without pre-qualifications. Just sign here, and you’re in! They do not require that you be of a certain ethnicity. Membership requires only that you believe in the Way, the dharma.
When Nicodemus, “a Master of Israel,” as Jesus called him, came to Jesus saying he believed in him, Jesus said, “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” Astonished, Nicodemus said, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb, and be born?” Jesus replied, “Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.”
Nicodemus betrayed his belief in the ethnic nature of religion when he implied that to be saved, one must be born into the right ethnic group. Jesus disabused him of that notion when he told him that salvation comes by means of the Spirit, not by way of ethnicity. Simply being born a Jew does not save you. Neither does being born a Catholic move you to the front of the line at the Pearly Gates. Getting to heaven (realizing God) comes by living the Way, not by the religious affiliation listed on your birth certificate.
St. Paul was big on this, too. The Jews of the early Christian sect wanted to enforce Jewish law on all converts, effectively making them Jews (sort of). Their emphasis was on adherence to outward forms and rituals. Paul, however, understood what Jesus had said to Nicodemus. He knew that the Way is an inner path, not one of following the letter of the law. He knew that Christians are brothers in the Spirit, not members of a tribe.
Buddha also understood the ethnic nature of the caste system into which he was born. He actively set about dismantling it by doing such things as ordaining a servant before ordaining the servant’s master, thus putting the servant in authority over his master. He did this on purpose as a way to break down the old system.
Spiritual paths have a way of becoming encumbered by social law and order. They become the agents of a society’s maintenance program, a means by which to make their way of doing business appear to be sanctioned by God. They strongly believe in the Law of Karma, which says that your current station in life is a direct result of your own behavior. This belief justifies passing laws designed to keep you in your place.
Religions of faith, however, emphasize forgiveness and equality. All people are equal in the sight of God and are thus equally capable of obtaining a spiritual life—merit vs. entitlement, faith vs. works. Karma doesn’t play such an important role. Karma can be lifted; sins can be forgiven. In the ethnic religions, sins must be paid for, eked out, until the uttermost farthing is paid.
These questions are bigger than any one religion. In fact, religions are the continual search for the answers to these questions. We cannot understand our own religion if we think it was created in a vacuum. The ancient world was not as insular as many would have you believe. People got around back then, maybe not as much as we do today, but they were not ignorant of the religions of foreign lands. Israel was just as much a crossroads then as it is now, perhaps more so. When we look at Christianity through the eyes of Buddha, or Buddhism through the eyes of Jesus, we can learn a lot about our own religion.
When we realize that religions were invented for our sake and not the other way around, it’s easier not to identify with them. And the less we identify with our religion, the more tolerance we have for other people’s religions. Eventually, that tolerance turns into curiosity, and the more we find out about them, the more similarities we see. Then, our tolerance turns into acceptance. And that’s the object, isn’t it? Acceptance and respect, leading to universal peace and brotherhood.
“The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” – Mark 2:27