Buddhist - Christian Parallels

There is an old French proverb, which when translated says: "The more things change, the more they are the same." It struck me that when it comes to comparing Buddhism and Christianity, which, to begin with could not seem more unlike, the more the two religions, especially in their histories, resemble each other in surprising ways.

To begin with, the ideas of God held by the two religions could not seem to be more unlike. In fact, strictly speaking, Buddhism is "atheistic", at least in the sense that it claims no knowledge of a personal Creator of any sort. For Buddhists, all that happens is a result of "dependent origination" more or less random combinations of causes and effects in a universe which has always existed and always will exist. Thus, we are but momentary existences within an eternally recycling universe. In fact, according to the teachings of Siddartha Gautama (the original Buddha or "enlightened one") the belief in a permanent "self" or "soul" is only the result of an illusion, a spell that must be broken before we can achieve "Nirvana" perfect peace or enlightenment.

In practice, however, things have turned out very different. Among most Buddhists, the ancient belief in successive reincarnations of the self remains unaffected by these teachings. In fact, the Buddha himself, far from being simply a wise man and a teacher, has been, especially in the various Mahayana or "Great Vehicle" sects of Buddhism, gradually turned into the incarnation of ultimate wisdom, is prayed to as a savior, and is even given the kind of worship due to God.

Not only that, even their histories show strange parallels. While both movements began with individuals who were engaged in reforming or purifying their own ancestral faiths (Hinduism and Judaism respectively) both movements were eventually favored by political rulers (King Ashoka in India and Emperor Constantine in the West) each of whom attempted to spread them throughout their empires, or in the case of Ashoka, into foreign realms. Yet, in the end, both religions have all but disappeared from the land in which each began.

Finally, both religions have undergone radical reform movements. In Buddhism this happened very early on when the "Theravedins" meaning those who follow "the teaching of the elders", attempted to bring Buddhism back to what Gautama actually taught. They succeeded only in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and in a few small countries in southeast Asia. And because of that, the Theraveda Buddhists are rather derisively called "Hinayana" (the followers of "the lesser vehicle") by the Mahayana Buddhists everywhere else.

So too, in the West, although we had the Reformation, it prevailed only among the northern Europeans and in the colonies settled by them. But in doing so, it developed theologies and religious establishments every bit as complex as that found in Orthodoxy and in Catholicism. Nevertheless, today perhaps more than ever, there are biblical scholars, both Catholic and Protestant, who like the ancient Theravedin monks who insisted that only the authentic teachings of Gautama be taken as the norm, are busily engaged in trying to determine what Jesus actually said and did.

One can only wonder, from all this, what it is in the human mind that causes this ceaseless struggle between the tendency to expand the claims of religious doctrines, and the opposite tendency to purify and simplify the teaching back to what was to begin with. I suspect that what we are seeing in all this is really the struggle in our own minds between the way we'd like things to be, and the way they really are. But I also suspect that in this contest, it is generally going to be the popularizers, the ones who preach what most people want to hear, rather than what they really need to hear, who are going to win.

R W Kropf 4/3/07 Parallels.doc 07-04-03.html