The Gospel and the Dharma

Nirvana and God
Buddhist-Christian Parallels
The Dharma of the Buddha, the Gospel of the Christ
Christians and Buddhists
Buddha and St. Francis of Assisi
The Dharma and the Church
Recommended Reading
Monk at Adam’s Peak, Sri Lanka ©Buddha Dharma Education Association

God and the Unconditioned

At first glance, Buddhism seems vastly different from Christianity. Christianity is a religion about God, while the Absolute in Buddhism is never personalized, and seldom described, except as being beyond description. Most Christian denominations see the Bible as being of paramount importance (particularly in conservative Protestantism), while the vastly larger collection of Buddhist scriptures are seldom considered as an infallible authority except for a handful of smaller sects.

But delving deeper, the differences become much smaller. For instance, many of the early Church Fathers taught that in his true essence, God is unknowable and unfathomable, beyond all words and all descriptions. This inability to speak of the divine nature is known as apophatic (unspeakable) mysticism, which recognizes God is beyond all words and concepts, and anything we use to say what God is falls short. God’s essence (ousia), is within all things, but ever beyond all. Similarly, the Buddhist scriptures refer to the ultimate reality as “the Uncreated,” or “the Unmanifest,” an absolute Reality which is everywhere present, but beyond this perceived world, resulting from no cause, and limited by no conditions.

Buddhist-Christian Parallels

Parallel Beginnings
God the Unconditioned
Heaven Nirvana
(Yeshua of Nazareth)
(Siddartha Gautama)
Jewish founder of Christianity Hindu founder of Buddhism
virgin birth account virgin birth account
tempted by Satan tempted by Mara
Good News of the Kingdom of God the Dharma (law) of Liberation
Sermon on the Mount Sermon of “Turning the Wheel of Dharma”
taught in parables taught in parables
Feet kissed by Mary Magdalene Feet kissed by Pasanedi
Betrayed by Judas Betrayed by Devadatta
Crucified possibly poisoned
Ascension Parinirvana
the Anointed One (Messiah, Christ) the Awakened One (Buddha, Enlightened)
Savior Bodhisattva
Parallel developments
the Church the Sangha
Gospels Sutras
Bible Tripitaka, Prajna Paramita, and many other writings
Apostolic succession Lineage of dharma transmission
Faith promoted 300 years later by Emperor
Faith promoted 300 years later by Emperor
Church councils Buddhist councils
missionaries missionaries
monasteries monasteries
After flourishing in the Middle East, now
a minority religion in area of its birth
After flourishing in India, now a minority
religion in area of its birth
Parallel Paths
agape (spiritual love) maitri (lovingkindness)
the world samsara
Purification (Purgatory) Rebirth (Reincarnation)
hell hell realms
imago Dei (image of God) Buddha-nature
Christ within you Realizing your Buddha-nature
Theosis/Deification Awakening, Enlightenment
the Way the Dharma
chant chant
prayer candles prayer flags
saints buddhas, bodhisattvas
angels devas
demons demons
relics relics
Shroud of Turin Buddha’s Tooth
Four Spiritual Laws Four Noble Truths
10 Commandments Eightfold Path
rosaries rosaries (malas)
icons icons (thangkas)
statues statues
the “Jesus Prayer” nembutsu
Sign of the Cross Taking Refuge
contemplation meditation
New Jerusalem Western Paradise
sin dukkha (unsatisfactoriness)

The Dharma of the Buddha and the Gospel of the Christ

The teachings of the Buddha and the Christ go beyond the basic morality which is common to all religions. They both taught selfless love, a love that goes beyond family, friends, and countrymen, but even includes our enemies as well, no matter how difficult the circumstances.

“He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me”—those who dwell on such thoughts will never be free from hatred.
He was angry with me, he attacked me, he defeated me, he robbed me”—those who do not dwell on such thoughts will surely be free from hatred.
For hatred can never put an end to hatred. Love alone can. This is an unalterable law.
Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who treat you badly. . . . If you love those who love you, what thanks can you expect? Even sinners love those who love them. . . . Instead, love your enemies and do good, and lend without any hope of return. . . . You will be sons of the Most High, for he himself is kind to hate ungrateful and the wicked.

They taught that selfless love conquers the fear of death:

Him I call a brahmin who fears neither prison nor death. He has the power of love no army can conquer.

A man can have no greater love than to lay down his life for his friends.

They taught that selflessness entails a profound shift in the mind

Avoid all wrong,
Cultivate the good,
Purify the mind,
This is the teaching of all the Buddhas [awakened ones].
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength…

[Note: Jesus is quoting the Jewish Shema (Dt. 4:5) as the greatest commandment, but the words “all your mind” are his own addition.]

Entire books can be written on the similarity (and differences) between the recorded teachings of the Christ and the Buddha; it’s beyond the scope of this modest page. But if you’ve been interested enough to read this far, you might well want to explore it yourself.

Christians and Buddhism

Many Christians find Buddhism appealing because its mystical tradition is much better-known, and therefore more accessible. Indeed, in the 21st century, we have reached the point where the majority of Christians have no concept of Christian mysticism per se, as the union of the soul with God. However, since the overwhelming majority of Buddhist clergy lives in religious community (some exceptions in Japan and the United States), living religious life immersed in spiritual practices such as meditation, the mystical tradition of Buddhism is more visible to both Buddhists and Christians than the Christian contemplative tradition is. However, it is wrong to assume from this that all Buddhists are mystics or that even a majority are. Far from it. Just as a typical Christian life is to go to church on Sunday, pray, worship God, and try to live a more loving life, so the typical Buddhist pays homage to the Buddha, renews his bodhisattva vows, donates support for the sangha or temple, and tries to be a better person. Most lay Buddhists in Asia are not very deeply involved in spiritual practices like meditation anymore than most Christians. The difference is in the clergy’s practice. In modern Christianity, communal religious life and the contemplative tradition have been declining for centuries, and are virtually unknown in most Protestant denominations, while in most Buddhist cultures, it still thrives.

Another difference is that instruction in meditation often seems to be clearer in Buddhism than in Christianity. Although there is now a resurgence of interest in Christian meditation, from the Centering Prayer movement in the United States to the World Community for Christian Meditation, to Quaker methods and the practices of other Christian denominations, there is still far less on the Christian shelves compared to the Eastern shelves for the 21st-century American shopping at Borders. Buddhist instruction tends to be more explicit, whether it’s the “just sitting” of shikantaza, the conscious observing of Vipassana, the koan practice of Rinzai Zen, the compassion meditation of metta, etc. I’ve found that my experience at a ten-day Vipassana intensive was extremely helpful in my Christian contemplative practice. Beyond that, scores of meditation centers and retreats advertise in the variety of magazines in which Buddhist spirituality is addressed, such as Tricycle and Shambhala Sun.

Finally, the goal is often more clearly presented in Buddhism: the serious practitioner knows that he ultimately hopes for Awakening (Enlightenment); even when Christians are able to receive instruction in meditation, the ultimate goal—theosis—is seldom expressed in Christian circles outside of Orthodoxy.

Parallels between the Buddha and St. Francis of Assisi

The Buddha St. Francis
born Siddhartha Gotama born Giovanni Bernadone
thought his destiny was to become a king thought his destiny was to become a knight
privileged early life privileged early life
loved Yasodhara loved Clare
encounters with suffering led to rethinking his life (sick man, old man, corpse) encounters with suffering led to rethinking his life (POW in Perugia, kissing the leper, etc.
renounced world to live in joyful poverty and chastity renounced world to live joyful poverty and chastity
rejected excessive asceticism rejected excessive asceticism
noted for compassion for all creatures noted for compassion for all creatures
taught non-violence taught non-violence
opposed the caste system opposed the class system
received “marks of a Buddha” received stigmata after visitation
tamed the mad elephant tamed the wolf of Gubbio
founded a religious order with thousands of monks and nuns by the time of his death founded a religious order with thousands of friars and nuns by the time of his death
tried to stop a war by King Ajatasattu tried to stop a war by the Crusaders

Christian Teachers of the Dharma

Rev. Vernon Kitabu Turner, Roshi
Zen master, Protestant minister, and Dharma heir of Sant Keshavadas. Author of Soul Sword, founder of Soul Sword Zen Institute.
Fr. William Johnston SJ
Jesuit priest, author of many books on Christian spirituality including Christian Zen, and translator of a superb edition of The Cloud of Unknowing and The Book of Privy Counseling.
Fr. Thomas Merton OCSO
Renowned Trappist monk, mystic, and author of numerous books on Christian and Eastern spirituality.
Fr. Aelred Graham
Priest in Japan, author of Zen Catholicism.
Fr. Robert E. Kennedy, Roshi
Jesuit priest and Zen master, operates a meditation center in New York, author of Zen Spirit, Christian Spirit
John Malcomson
Moderator of Yahoo! Christian-Buddhist discussion group, and a facilitator and advocate for Christian Buddhists.
Srs. Rosalie McQuaide and Janet Richardson
Catholic nuns who run a Zen meditation center in Cockeysville, MD.
Chris Kreeger
Catholic lay minister and a director of Shambhala Meditation Centers.
Marcus Borg
Professor of Theology at Oregon State University, author of Jesus and Buddha, and numerous books on the historical Jesus.

Recommended Reading

The Dhammapada
This beautiful collection of short teachings in verse, which is ascribed to the Buddha himself, and about the size of the Gospel of Mark, is the most revered of all Buddhist Scriptures. The Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation (read it on-line) is especially beautiful and strives to capture the poetry of the Pali original.
The Way of the Bodhisattva (Bodhicaryavatara) by Shantideva
A magnificent poetic manifesto for those committed to saving the world. (Shambhala edition recommended.)
Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, compiled by Paul Reps, trans. Nyogen Senzaki
Several collections of wonderful Zen stories and koans which make a superb introduction to Zen.
Soul Sword: The Way and Mind of a Zen Warrior, by Vernon Kitabu Turner
A exploration of spiritual warriorship by a teacher who has lived the path.
The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching by Thich Nhat Hanh
A detailed and readable treatment of Buddha’s Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path
Buddha, by Karen Armstrong
The famous religious historian writes an enlightening [sorry!] biography of the Enlightened One.
What Would Buddha Do? by Franz Metcalf
101 short, funny, wise examples of practical wisdom from the Buddhist scriptures.
Saffron Days in L. A. by Walpola Piyananda
Delightful story of a Theravadin monk’s life in America, with good explanations of basic Buddhist concepts. An excellent antidote to academic essays on Buddhism.
Hardcore Zen: Punk Rock, Monster Movies, and the Truth about Reality, by Brad Warner
a de-romanticized look at Zen as the quest of knowing Reality.
Jesus and Buddha: the Parallel Sayings by Marcus Borg
Hundreds of very similar sayings of Jesus and the Buddha arranged side-by-side for reflection.