Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Buddhist Sources of Christianity

Reviewed by N. S. Chandramouli (edited, originally in The Times of India)
Did Buddhism influence early Christianity?
Long before the word "missionary" came to be synonymous with Christianity, Buddhist monks [had been sent out by the Buddha and] were traveling across Asia, spreading their master's teachings along the Silk Route from Khotan in the East to Antioch in the West.

Indeed, many scholars hold that the religious traditions of the Silk Route regions, including the Levant, were significantly influenced by the Buddha's philosophy of compassion, his vision of Dharma (Pali, Dhamma), the eternal law that sustains the cosmos and manifests itself among humans as the moral law.

Against this historical backdrop. some scholars have posed an interesting question: Were the teachings of Jesus the Nazarene a continuation, in Palestine, of the philosophy that Siddhartha Gautama had taught beside the Ganges River 500 years earlier? In their book The Original Jesus (Element Books, Shaftesbury, 1995), Elmar R. Gruber, an eminent psychologist, and Holger Kersten, a specialist in religious history and author of the best-selling Jesus Lived in India, offer compelling evidence of extensive Buddhist influence on the life and teachings of Jesus.

Arguing that 2,000 years of Church history have hidden the real historical Jesus, the authors promise to peel away the varnish and uncover him. Very little is known about Jesus' early years -- in those years, Gruber and Kersten claim, Jesus was brought up by the Therapeutae [Theravada], teachers of the Buddhist Theravada school who were then living in the Bible lands. The Therapeutae had been sent by the Mauryan emperor Asoka on an embassy to Ptolemy II, king of Egypt, in 250 B.C.

On arriving in Alexandria -- Egypt's Hellenistic capital and a flourishing intellectual center -- the Therapeutae established themselves as a community. In his tract De Vita Contemplativa ["The Contemplative Life"] Philo Judaeus, a contemporary of Jesus, described the Therapeutae as recluses devoted to poverty, celibacy, good deeds, and compassion: such a religious brotherhood had no precedent in the Jewish world.

The eminent linguist Zacharias P. Thundy observes that the word "Therapeutae" is itself of Buddhist origin, being a Hellenization of the Pali word "Theravada."

Clearly, these Alexandrian Buddhists practised the Buddha's precept that his bhikshus ["recluses"] should minister both to soul and body: Buddhist thought does not divorce physical balance from the quest for enlightenment. Gruber and Kersten suggest that Jesus's spiritual development, begun under the Therapeutae, was continued by the Essenes. The Dutch researcher Ernest de Bunsen theorized that Buddhist ideas were introduced to the Essenes by Jews living abroad, and that they later influenced the shaping of Christian dogma.

Holger Kersten believes that the "original Jesus" was a Buddhist. In his book The Original Jesus, Kersten argues that the sayings and teachings of Jesus have little relation to Judaism but are strongly connected to Buddhist teachings. Kersten also wrote a book exploring Jesus' links to India, strongly connecting this with Jesus' survival off the cross and the Shroud of Turin in The Jesus Conspiracy. (See

The word "Essene" may derive from the Aramaic Yssyn, "healer": like the Therapeutae, the Essenes believed that holy conduct and the powers of healing belonged together. Close, striking parallels exist between the early Buddhist texts and what Bible scholars term the "Q" material -- the sayings of Jesus as recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. "Q" is shorthand for Quelle, the German for "source": Matthew and Luke are believed to have taken this material from the oldest corpus of Jesus' aphorisms in circulation among his followers.

The Buddha's most celebrated dictum is: "Hostility is never conquered by hostility in this world; hostility is conquered by love alone. This is an eternal law." Again, he says: "Surmount hatred by not hating, surmount evil with good; surmount greed through generosity, surmount lies with truth; speak what is true, do not succumb to anger, give when you are asked." Compare this with Jesus's advice in the New Testament: "... love your enemies, do good and without expecting anything in return. Your reward will be great, and you will be children of God" [Brahma-putra, i.e., reborn into the realm of "Brahma's Ministers"].

Again, Jesus's aphorism about how one ignores the beam in one's own eye while carping about the splinter in another's is in accord with the Buddha's observation, in the Dhammapada, that "the faults of others are more easily seen than one's own, but seeing one's own failings is difficult. The failings of others are winnowed like chaff in the wind, but one conceals one's own faults, like a cheating gambler."

Jesus's call to his close disciples [the trainees known as the Apostles] to break all ties expressed in such injunctions as "Leave the dead to bury their dead" and "No one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God" accords with the Buddha's prescription to the bhikshus: "Those who aspire are ever striving; they do not stay in one place. Like swans leaving a lake, they move from house to house. The only source of refuge for those who do not accumulate possessions and are careful about what they eat is unconditional freedom, knowing as they do the void of transience. Their way is difficult to follow like that of birds in the sky."

Jesus's statement, "He who wishes to follow me must know himself and bear my yoke," has a parallel in the Dhammapada: "When a mendicant [bhikshu], though still young, yokes himself to the Buddha's teachings, the world is illuminated like the moon freed of clouds."

Gruber and Kersten assert that the Church emphasized the duty of self-denial so as to consolidate its position of power by depriving the mass of believers of spiritual responsibility. The authors feel that such a Church, founded on power, had no use for those who took personal responsibility for their spiritual advancement. [This suggests that while Theravada Buddhism was in keeping with the Buddha's revolutionary message of striving for personal freedom, the popular Mahayana was conservative and in keeping with the powers that be. Jesus, like Theravada, preached a radical doctrine; however, "Christianity," Roman Catholicism in particular, taught a message that served empires far better than it served its original message.]

By contrast, Jesus had valued the acceptance of self-knowledge as a means to promote responsibility for one's own life, actions, and thinking. Like the Buddha, Jesus opposed the priests and theologians who barred the way to self-knowledge, to maintain their influence: "The Pharisees and the Scribes took the keys of knowledge and they hid them. Neither did they enter, nor did they allow those who wished to enter. But you become prudent as serpents [nagas, "royal dragons," human overlords], and innocent as doves."

Gerber and Kersten have made a valiant effort to prove that the historical Jesus lived the life of a Buddhist and taught Buddhist ideals to his disciples. Their work follows in the footsteps of the Oxford New Testament scholar' Barnett Hillman Streeter, who established as early as the 1930s that the moral teaching of the Buddha has a remarkable resemblance to the Sermon on the Mount."

And although it has not produced sufficient proof to clinch the issue, The Original Jesus may stimulate people towards fresh exploration. Whatever the Pauline theologians may contend, the Buddhist influence on early Christianity can no longer he denied.
Original article appearing May 1, 1997 in The Times of India was titled "Did Buddhism influence early Christianity?" (See

The youth generation sees no problem reconciling Buddhism and Christianity, two culturally-distinct but philosophically-similar religious traditions (

Rather than a scholarly study, Thich Nhat Hanh has taken a compassionate approach by inventing a conversation. This syncretic approach highlights the similarities in sentiment between the supposedly two great traditions, which are in fact rooted in the Mahayana school of ancient India. His book became a national bestseller.

"Exiled from Vietnam over thirty years ago, Thich Nhat Hanh has become known as a healer of the heart, a monk who shows us how the everyday world can both enrich and endanger our spiritual lives. In Going Home he shows us the relationship between Buddha and Jesus by presenting a conversation between the two" (Penguin Books).

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Here's a disturbing article on the smuggling of Buddhist relics in India I came across while I was googling.
Might interest you.