To try to compare Buddhism and Christianity as religions is hardly possible at this point in time. Each has become a categorical label for a multitude of sectarian subsets that differ so widely that they are barely recognizable to one another. Rather than even attempt to relate to the myriad of institutional versions of these two ancient traditions, I propose a much simpler exercise. How do Jesus and Buddha compare to one another in what they personally taught?
This is feasible because in each case we have what we believe are their original teachings or at least what their earliest chroniclers heard them say. Jesus’ words and actions are narrated in the gospels and the Buddha’s preaching and doctrine are documented in the Pali Canon. Granted that in each case there is really no absolute guarantee of accuracy and completeness, If we accept those documents and the consensus on what they mean, I believe we can get a pretty good idea of what these two extraordinary people were saying.
The first thing is the historical context into which they were born; in each case I believe it is determinative. It explains what they were reacting to, and what choices they decided to make given the options that were available to them.
In Jesus’ case it was a nationalist Judaism, besieged in the first century of the common era by the Roman empire, perceived as just one more of the oppressive regimes the Jews suffered under throughout their history. Jesus, following Job and the prophets, interpreted Israel’s “kingdom” promised by Yahweh as spiritual and moral, not political and physical. His view ran counter to his contemporaries’ expectations. Hopes for an eventual Jewish ascendancy motivated the collaboration of the Jewish leadership with the Roman occupation authority. Jesus’ demurral from the mainstream view eventually revealed the latent subversive import of his message: to follow Jesus meant to reject the pursuit of wealth and power — therefore, by implication, collaboration with Roman domination. Once the Romans got the idea that Jesus posed a threat to their power, they wasted no time in eliminating him. The central place of Jesus’ assassination ― the cross ― in the Christian program was a direct result of that historical context.
In the case of Buddha, the background was an elite Brahmin Hinduism that had created a draconian caste system protecting the status of a nobility that ruled a myriad of kingdoms in northern India. Siddhartha himself was born a member of that ruling elite, in line to be king of a small domain at the foothills of the Himalayas. He rejected the entire worldview represented by that social structure much as Jesus did. But, unlike Jesus, he invited his followers to withdraw from it and form separate communities that were dedicated to meditation and personal transformation. These monasteries did not threaten the ruling class; to the contrary the powerful found it was in their interests to support the movement. While many elites may have withdrawn from conventional life to follow the Buddha, his teaching did not openly challenge the status quo.
Despite these differences, what is immediately common to both these teachers is their focus on the present world and human behavior here and now. Jesus’ may have contemplated the possibility of life after death, but by no means embraced it as an established fact, much less as the principal motivation for his counsels. Regardless of what may have come later, Jesus’ own vision was riveted on this world. It must be clearly acknowledged: in Jesus’ message any mention that one’s moral behavior might be significant for life after death in another world was anecdotal, as in the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Gehenna was a kind of an overstated background myth that served to illustrate his moral teaching. That someone would burn in hell for not having compassion on the poor was hardly your conventional morality. This was poetic hyperbole intended to communicate how important the issue was in Jesus’ view of life. Many passages in the Dhammapada show a similar use of traditional myth.
This same communication style is also evident in the gospel of Matthew. The way Jesus is reported speaking indicates that he was well aware of the extraordinary nature of what he was saying.
“You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire.
This teaching of Jesus is gathered by the author of “Matthew” with other sayings that are considered to be upgrades to the commandments and are pictured as part of the “Sermon on the Mount” ― a deliberate evocation of Mount Sinai. The reference back to the original Decalogue is quite explicit and expressed repeatedly in the segments that follow in that same chapter 5. Also the final symbolism of hellfire corroborates this clear intention; it was a threat used either by Jesus himself or inserted by the community of his earliest followers. As written it seems clearly a poetic image designed to make the demand emphatic much like the story of Lazarus and the rich man and similar allusions found in Buddha’s teaching; it was not presented as the reason for not calling your brother a fool. This was a new law, a new commandment meant to evoke the same awe and unquestioning surrender as the original decrees of Sinai with the same punitive consequences for failure to comply. Hellfire was simply part of that picture.
But, Armageddon was not: there is no suggestion of an imminent “end of the world,” which some have suggested explains Jesus’ radical ethics. If that were central to Jesus worldview and determined his morality, it would have emerged clearly here. But what is unmistakable is that Jesus is portrayed as so conscious of the category of commandment as the principal act of God’s rulership of “the kingdom” and obedience as the principal response to God’s will, that he presented his teaching in precisely those terms along with its punishment. This highlights the background of Jesus’ message and illustrates the unmistakable direction of his teaching.
Jesus was a Jew, speaking to Jews. The very structure of cosmic reality was conceived by these people to be the result of a personal choice by “God” to create the universe and then to elect the Jewish people as his own special family ― the agents of his will and the mirrors of his moral character. The intimate dimension here ― personal and paternal ― dominates the entire picture. There is no way to imagine a call to a serious change in behavior and attitude for Jews without characterizing it as a surrender to the will of Yahweh. This is precisely what Jesus was portrayed by Matthew as doing, and he did it because for his context there was no other option. Jesus was not preaching to the world. He was a Jew talking to Jews.
Now the Buddha also made a similar appeal which we can assume came from an insight into the human condition that he shared with Jesus. These are the very first words of the Dhammapada:
ALL THAT we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.
All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.
“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease.
“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.
For hatred does not cease by hatred at any time: hatred ceases by love — this is an old rule.
Both Jesus and Buddha are calling for their followers not only to avoid killing other people, but to refuse even to think negatively about them. And each is explicit about the connection between hateful thoughts and what they may lead to. But notice a key difference: Jesus presents his teaching as a commandment. The Buddha offers it as advice. Jesus’ focus is on obeying the will of “God,” now newly understood in terms of love and forgiveness not an eye for an eye, but nevertheless a commandment. Buddha also calls for forgiveness and compassion, but not because some outside divine force, person or obligation demands it, but because it is good for you and your people. It puts you in sync with the Dharma, the natural order. To forego vengeance is to end hatred; hatred causes suffering for you and your people. The Buddha explicitly declared that the purpose of his teaching was to end human suffering. There is no reference to “God.”
While both appear to be calling for exactly the same thing in terms of a counter-intuitive change in attitude and behavior, the personal dynamics required for compliance are contrary to one another. Buddha makes no reference to anything outside the human beings and the natural order to which they belong. What motivates you to change is yourself ― your well-being, your happiness, and that of the people you live with ― which comes from synchronizing with the natural order. This transformation is so important, as a matter of fact, that it is worth working at even if it takes a long time to achieve. The Buddha offers meditation and continual mindfulness as a way of incrementally changing the habitual thinking that lies at the base of negative living. It’s not a command. He recognizes you are not immediately capable of compliance. You have to slowly build the ability to reach your goal. Jesus’ is a command that is to be obeyed immediately.
In Jesus’ case, it is “God’s” will, his perfections, that are being served by the obedience of the human being. The admonition, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect …” is also found in that same chapter 5. The focus is “God.” “If you call your brother Racca, you will be liable to hellfire.” The only human benefit mentioned is the avoidance of eternal torment.
Notice also, Jesus’ “law” like all law is absolute and self-contained. It is not relative to some other “good.” You are not to call your brother Racca, period. His mention of murder is not explicitly connected with negative thoughts except to set up the parallelism in the commandments. “Just as the fifth commandment is a commandment, this new requirement is equally a commandment.” Buddha’s injunction, however, set as it is as an illustration of the opening of the Dhammapada which identifies thinking as the target of Buddhist meditative practice, negative thoughts about your brother are recognized as the initiation of a chain of thinking that leads to other more violent things. Thus in order to change violent behavior you first have to change your thinking. The two are not just equally mandated, they are organically linked as cause and effect. Despite the evocation of the commandment not to kill, Jesus does not explicitate the causative connection between calling your brother a fool and being prepared to kill him. Once again, in the way Jesus is portrayed by Matthew, what is omitted is that this advice is meant for your happiness, and as an invitation to begin a process; it is presented rather as the will of “God” requiring immediate compliance.
Yahweh vs Brahma
The contrast here is due directly to the divergent worldviews of each of these teachers. Jesus worldview was dominated by a Jewish paternal monotheism that derives ultimately from the patriarchal Semitic culture to which the Hebrews owed their origins.
While India was invaded by Aryan tribes that were of the same hunting origins as the Semites, the settled matriarchal/fertility culture of the Indus valley that preceded their arrival seems to have exerted a moderating influence on the male-dominant and warlike character of the resulting culture. Buddha was born into that culture as a member of the warrior class. The gods of the Hindu amalgam were not unlike the Jewish Yahweh who was a humanoid warrior-god; but an underlying cosmological vision that seems to have originated in the earlier matriarchal times continued alongside it. In that vision the ground of all things was a universal, non-personal, sub-conscious force known as Brahma, called Atman, which means Self, whose suffusive consciousness was recapitulated in the individual conscious human being who was also called atman ― a microcosm of the Great Force that pervades the world. To synchronize with it was to live by the Dharma, the natural order. This was similar to the “divine fire” of the pre-Platonic Greeks ― LIFE ― which seems to have been what the author of the NT letters of John had in mind when attempting to describe the divine spark alive in Jesus.
Buddha conspicuously refused to acknowledge any personhood to the natural order, and likewise rejected claims for permanent personhood for the human individual. The insistence on the evanescence of the human being was not a culture shock for his time and place. For at no point was Buddha confronted with a contradiction between the impersonal, and transitory nature of experienced phenomena, which was the heart of his practical vision, and a personal, choosing, miracle-working “God”-Self. The very foundations of the Indian worldview were consistent with the ephemeral nature of lived experience. In such a context it was no great innovation on the part of Buddha to have rejected the belief that humans were permanent separate persons ― souls ― who would live forever. Buddha simply emphasized what was clearly evident everywhere: that nothing is permanent, a view that has been corroborated by modern science. Belief in one’s permanence was a delusional projection that spilled over into the way human beings attempted to create permanent satisfactions in this world that were impossible. Buddha’s insights did not involve swimming against the current of his culture; whereas, in Jesus’ case, to insist that the contract with Yahweh did not really include national wealth and dominion ― not now or ever ― was considered a repudiation of Israel’s identity and Yahweh’s reality. As portrayed by the gospels, the Jewish leaders were as threatened by Jesus’ message as the Romans.
Jesus and the Jews were predisposed by their belief in Yahweh as a personal creator-Self, and national savior-Self, to see things as selected, rational and personally planned. Hence they were inclined to interpret random events and fortuitous composites as “God’s” will, personally and even eternally chosen as elements of a universal Divine “providence.” This also explains why Matthew’s Jesus would couch the most innovative, untraditional and humanizing elements of his message in terms of an alienating obedience sanctioned by a quid pro quo reward-or-punishment. It kept the ancient Jewish relationship to Yahweh intact. The transposition of quid pro quo from this world to the next, a defining feature of later Christian doctrine, was a natural and perhaps even inevitable consequence.
There was so much suffering in life, and so much political abasement for the Jews, that it rendered the “promises” of Yahweh little more than a verbal formality ― a mirage limited to the words on a page of ancient poetry, but never actually occurring in reality. One can easily understand the lamentations of the psalmists that Yahweh was “asleep.” But it also created a sense of national failure and desperation among believing Jews. For according to the traditional view of the “contract,” if Yahweh was faithful, the only explanation for the Jews’ subjugation had to be their sins. That supposedly inescapable logic is what convinced Augustine, 400 years later, that there had to have been an original universal “sin” inherited by all of humankind that left us permanently alienated from “God.” What else could explain such suffering and death even after the redemptive victory of Christ.
The Jews, as was evident, were certainly not the beneficiaries of Yahweh’s promises of prosperity and universal dominion. If any people were, it was the Romans. Augustine was deluded by that as well. He believed in a literal micro-managed “providence” and claimed that Roman supremacy had to be the will of “God.” If you accept that as a premise, all manifestations of wealth and power come to be accepted as a proof of “blessings” and divine favor. Those are the inevitable fruits of such a delusional belief. That alone should be enough to undermine, once and for all, the credibility of the entire worldview that the universe is created and micro-managed by a personal humanoid “God.”
For the Jews or for anyone else, there never were any miracles. The human penchant for taking the ups and downs of a changing, impermanent reality modulating through time, and mis-interpreting them as the will of “God,” punishing and rewarding, keeps us forever enslaved to our nightmarish projections about reality. We are addicted to having a hovering parent to guarantee that “all’s right with the world” and in order to keep that fiction alive, we are willing to believe that “God” also chooses to impose on us all the evils we suffer. Therefore, in our mythic view, “God” must despise us. But since he’s “God” that means we must deserve it; it’s our own fault. Hence we hate ourselves. The nightmare is endless. The liberation of humankind from self-loathing and the self-inflicted violence that inevitably follows in its train depends on our withdrawal from these delusions. We are composite biological organisms whose material coherence dissipates over time and we decompose. It’s called entropy. That’s the way matter behaves; it’s also why it evolves. Those are the conditions of existence for material composites. We die because we are made of matter, not because we are being punished.
Matthew’s Jesus is no more to blame for this state of affairs than Paul, the Pharisee. They were all Jews, and the imagery of a humanoid, consciously choosing “God,” who actively enters into human history, was their common legacy. We have to have compassion on our forebears and understand the horizons of their view of the universe, even as, with the help of Buddha and the minority strains of our own Christian mystical tradition, we move toward an appreciation of the sacred that concurs with the discoveries of modern science.
 Lk 16: 19-31
 Mt 5: 21-22, New RSV
 Müller, F. Max. Wisdom of the Buddha: The Unabridged Dhammapada (Dover Thrift Editions) (Kindle Locations 62-64). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.