In his book, Bible Myths and Their Parallels in Other Religions, Thomas WIlliam Doane states "The mythological portions of the histories of Buddha and Jesus are, without doubt, nearer in resemblance than that of any two characters of antiquity"
In the thirteenth century, international travelers, such as Giovanni de Piano Carpini and William of Ruysbroeck, sent back reports of Buddhism as a religion whose scriptures, doctrine, saints, monastic life, meditation practices, and rituals were comparable to those of Christianity and of Nestorian Christian communities in close proximity to traditionally Buddhist communities. When European Christians made more direct contact with Buddhism in the early 16th century many Catholic missionaries (e.g. Francis Xavier) sent home idyllic accounts of Buddhism. At the same time, however, Portuguese colonizers of Sri Lanka confiscated Buddhist properties across the country, with the full cooperation of the Christian missionaries. This repression of Buddhism in Sri Lanka continued during the rule of subsequently the Dutch and the English. Portuguese historian Diego De Conto reminded the Vatican that their Christian Saint Josaephat was actually the Buddha.
With the arrival of Sanskrit studies in European universities in the late eighteenth century, and the subsequent availability of Buddhist texts, a discussion began of a proper encounter with Buddhism. The esteem for its teachings and practices grew, and at the end of the 19th century the first Westerners (e.g. Sir Edwin Arnold and Henry Olcott) converted to Buddhism, and in the beginning of the 20th century the first westerners (e.g. Ananda Metteyya and Nyanatiloka) entered the Buddhist monastic life.
In the 20th century Christian monastics such as Thomas Merton, Wayne Teasdale, David Steindl-Rast and the former nun Karen Armstrong, and Buddhist monastics such as Ajahn Buddhadasa, Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama have put energy into Buddhist/Christian dialogue. They each see in the otherwise disparate teachings of Jesus and the Buddha a basic commonality of insight and purpose which offers the possibility of profound remedy to an ailing world. The historian of world culture Arnold Toynbee has speculated that in centuries to come the encounter between Christianity and Buddhism may come to be seen as the momentous event of the 20th century.
By the time of Jesus, the teachings of the Buddha had already spread through much of India and penetrated into Sri Lanka, Central Asia and China. They display certain similarities to Christian moral precepts of more than five centuries later; the sanctity of life, compassion for others, rejection of violence, confession and emphasis on charity and the practice of virtue.
Will Durant, noting that the Emperor Ashoka sent missionaries, not only to elsewhere in India and to Sri Lanka, but to Syria, Egypt and Greece, speculated in the 1930s that they may have helped prepare the ground for Christian teaching. Ranajit Pal, on the other hand writes that Buddhism rose in the north-west of India, not Nepal, and that the similarities between Buddhism and Christianity are only natural as both grew out of the crucible of Mitraism/Mithraism.
Ptolemy II Philadelphus, one of the monarchs Ashoka mentions in his edicts, is recorded by Pliny the Elder as having sent an ambassador named Dionysius to the Mauryan court at Pataliputra: "India has been treated of by several other Greek writers who resided at the courts of Indian kings, such, for instance, as Megasthenes, and by Dionysius, who was sent thither by Philadelphus, expressly for the purpose: all of whom have enlarged upon the power and vast resources of these nations."
Meanwhile, the Buddha's teachings had spread north-west, into Parthian territory. Buddhist stupa remains have been identified as distant as the Silk Road city of Merv. Russiqn archeological teams in Giaur Kala, near Merv, have uncovered a Buddhist monastery, complete with huge buddharupa. Parthian nobles such as An Shih Kao are known to have adopted Buddhism and were among those responsible for its further spread towards China.
Folklorist and historian Donald Alexander Mackenzie argued in his book, Buddhism in Pre-Christian Britain (1928) that Buddhism might have influenced pre-Christian Britain.
Some have suggested the Church Fathers were acquainted with Buddhist beliefs and practices.
Buddhist tradition records in the Milinda Panha that the 2nd century BCE Indo-Greek king Menander converted to the Buddhist faith and became an arhat.
The Christian theologian Clement of Alexandria states in the 2nd century BC:
"Thus philosophy, a thing of the highest utility, flourished in antiquity among the barbarians, shedding its light over the nations. And afterwards it came to Greece. First in its ranks were the prophets of the Egyptians; and the Chaldeans among the Assyrians; and the Druids among the Gauls; and the Sarmanas among the Bactrians ("Σαρμαναίοι Βάκτρων"); and the philosophers of the Celts; and the Magi of the Persians, who foretold the Saviour's birth, and came into the land of Judaea guided by a star. The Indian gymnosophists are also in the number, and the other barbarian philosophers. And of these there are two classes, some of them called Sramanas ("Σαρμάναι"), and others Brahmins (Βραφμαναι)."
—Clement of Alexandria "The Stromata or Miscellanies" Book I, Chapter XV
Clement writes of the Buddha:
"Among the Indians are those philosophers also who follow the precepts of Boutta, whom they honour as a god on account of his extraordinary sanctity."
— Clement of Alexandria, Stromata (Miscellanies), Book I, Chapter XV
Early 3rd-4th century Christian writers such as Hippolytus and Epiphanius write of one Scythianus who visited India around 50 CE, whence he brought the "doctrine of the Two Principles". Scythianus' pupil Terebinthus supposedly presented himself as a “Buddha” ("he called himself Buddas" Cyril of Jerusalem) and became well known in Judaea. The same author says his books and knowledge were taken over by Mani, and became the foundation of the Manichean doctrine.
"Terebinthus, his disciple in this wicked error, inherited his money and books and heresy, and came to Palestine, and becoming known and condemned in Judaea he resolved to pass into Persia: but lest he should be recognised there also by his name he changed it and called himself Buddas."
—Cyril of Jerusalem, Sixth Catechetical Lecture Chapter 22-24
Hippolytus, a Greek-speaking Christian in Rome, around 235 includes Indian ascetics among sources of heresy:
"There is ... among the Indians a heresy of those who philosophize among the Brahmins, who live a self-sufficient life, abstaining from (eating) living creatures and all cooked food . . . They say that God is light, not like the light one sees, nor like the sun nor fire, but to them God is discourse, not that which finds expression in articulate sounds, but that of knowledge (gnosis) through which the secret mysteries of nature are perceived by the wise."
The Syrian gnostic theologian Bar Daisan describes in the third century his exchanges with missions of holy men from India (Greek: Σαρμαναίοι, Sramanas), passing through Syria on their way to Elagabalus or another Severan dynasty Roman Emperor. His accounts are quoted by Porphyry (De abstin., iv, 17 ) and Stobaeus (Eccles., iii, 56, 141).
The Greek legend of Barlaam and Ioasaph, sometimes mistakenly attributed to the seventh century John of Damascus but first recorded by the Georgian monk Euthymius of Athos in the eleventh century, was ultimately derived, via Arabic and Georgian versions, from the life story of the Buddha. The king-turned-monk Ioasaph (Georgian Iodasaph, Arabic Yūdhasaf or Būdhasaf) also gets his name from the Sanskrit Bodhisattva, the term traditionally used to refer to Gautama before he becomes a buddha.
Barlaam and Ioasaph were placed in the Orthodox calendar of saints on 26 August, and in the Roman martyrology they were canonized (as "Barlaam and Josaphat") and assigned 27 November. The story was translated into Hebrew in the Middle Ages as "Ben-Hamelekh Vehanazir" ("The Prince and the Nazirite"). Thus the Buddhist story was turned into a Christian and Jewish legend.
In general there are two views regarding a possible connection between Buddhism and Christianity; 1.Buddhism borrowed from Christianity. 2. Christianity borrowed from Buddhism. Those who believe the former point to the many Buddhist/Christian parallels appearing in Mahayana literature which was developed around the same time as the gospels were. Some of those who believe the latter point to the many Pali, or Theravadin Buddhist/Christian parallels, and claim that the Buddhist legends circulating before the said of time of Jesus shows that the Buddha legend had no need for a selfless servant, as the early Jesus was portrayed.
Some scholars have suggested that the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas and the Nag Hammadi texts display Buddhist influence. Elaine Pagels in her widely noted The Gnostic Gospels (1979), and in Beyond Belief (2003), makes mention of such theories.
As far back as 1816 the historian George Faber in his book, The Origin of Pagan Idolatry Ascertained From Historical Testimony and Circumstantial Evidence, stated, "There is so strong a resemblance between the characters of Jesus and of Buddha, that it cannot have been purely accidental.”
In 1883, Max Müller, the pioneering scholar of comparative religion and orientalist, asserted in his India: What Can It Teach Us?: "That there are startling coincidences between Buddhism and Christianity cannot be denied, and it must likewise be admitted that Buddhism existed at least 400 years before Christianity. I go even further, and should feel extremely grateful if anybody would point out to me the historical channels through which Buddhism had influenced early Christianity." It is interesting to note that Muller himself, before examining the Buddhist/Christian copycat claims, stated that he intended to prove the priority of the Jesus gospels over the Buddhist texts.
In The Gospel of Jesus in relation to the Buddha Legend, and again, in 1897, in The Buddha Legend and the Life of Jesus, Professor Rudolf Seydel of the University of Leipzig noted around fifty similarities between Buddhist and Christian parables and teachings.
Much more recently, the historian Jerry H. Bentley notes "the possibility that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity" and that scholars "have drawn attention to many parallels concerning the births, lives, doctrines, and deaths of the Buddha and Jesus".
In his Buddhism Omnibus, Iqbal Singh similarly acknowledges the possibility of early interaction and, thus, influence of Buddhist teachings upon the Christian tradition in its formative period.
In 2004 Burkhard Scherer, Reader in Religious Studies at England's Canterbury Christ Church University has stated: "...it is very important to draw attention to the fact that there is [massive] Buddhist influence in the Gospels....Since more than a hundred years, Buddhist influence in the Gospels has been known and acknowledged by scholars from both sides." He adds: "Just recently, Duncan McDerret published his excellent The Bible and the Buddhist (Sardini, Bornato [Italy] 2001). With McDerret, I am convinced that there are many Buddhist narratives in the Gospels."
Thomas Tweed, Professor of Religious Studies at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, notes that between 1879 and 1907 there were a "number of impassioned discussions about parallels and possible historical influence between Buddhism and Christianity in ... a variety of periodicals". By 1906 interest waned somewhat. In the end, Albert Schweitzer's conclusion appears to have been favored: that, although some indirect influence through the wider culture was "not inherently impossible", the hypothesis that Jesus' novel ideas were borrowed directly from Buddhism was "unproved, unprovable and unthinkable."
Edward Conze and Elaine Pagels have suggested that gnosticism blends teachings like those attributed to Jesus Christ with teachings found in Eastern traditions.
Philip Jenkins writes that, since the mid-nineteenth century, new and fringe religious movements have often created images of Jesus, presenting him as a sage, philosopher and occult teacher, whose teachings are very similar to those of Asian religions. He asserts that the images generated by these religious movements share much in common with the images that increasingly dominate the mainstream critical scholarship of the New Testament, especially following the rediscovery of the Gnostic Gospels found at Nag Hammadi in Egypt in 1945. He alleges that, in modern scholarly writing, Jesus has become more of a Gnostic, Cynic or even a crypto-Buddhist than the traditional notion of the reformist Jewish rabbi.
Jenkins acknowledges that "the Jesus of the hidden gospels has many points of contact with the great spiritual traditions of Asia." Pagels has written that "one need only listen to the words of the Gospel of Thomas to hear how it resonates with the Buddhist tradition… these ancient gospels tend to point beyond faith toward a path of solitary searching to find understanding, or gnosis." She suggests that there is an explicitly Indian influence in the Gospel of Thomas, perhaps via the Christian communities in southern India, the so-called Thomas Christians.
It is believed by some that of all of the Nag Hammadi texts, the Gospel of Thomas has the most similarities with Pure Land Buddhism within it. Edward Conze has suggested that Hindu or Buddhist tradition may well have influenced Gnosticism. He points out that Buddhists were in contact with the Thomas Christians.
Elaine Pagels notes that the similarities between Gnosticism and Buddhism have prompted some scholars to question their interdependence and to wonder whether "...if the names were changed, the 'living Buddha' appropriately could say what the Gospel of Thomas attributes to the living Jesus. " However, she concludes that, although intriguing, the evidence is inconclusive, and she further concludes that these parallels might be coincidental since parallel traditions may emerge in different cultures without direct influence.[
The Therapeutae (known only from Philo) were mystics and ascetics who lived especially in the area around Alexandria, Philo described the Therapeutae in the beginning of the 1st century CE in De vita contemplativa ("On the contemplative life"), written ca. 10 CE. By that time, the origins of the Therapeutae were already lost in the past, and Philo was even unsure about the etymology of their name.
Philonian monachism has been seen as the forerunner of and the model for the Christian ascetic life. It has even been considered as the earliest description of Christian monasticism. This view was first espoused by Eusebius of Caesarea in his Ecclesiastical History.
According to the linguist Zacharias P. Thundy the name "Therapeutae" is simply an Hellenisation of the Pali term for the traditional Buddhist faith, "Theravada". The similarities between the monastic practices of the Therapeutae and Buddhist monastic practices have led to suggestions that the Therapeutae were in fact Buddhist monks who had reached Alexandria, descendants of Ashoka's emissaries to the West, and who influenced the early formation of Christianity. The evidence for this argument rests solely on the similarity of practices and the purported derivation of the name. There is no evidence from antiquity that supports this argument.
Asceticism can be seen as a common point between Buddhism and Christianity, and is in contrast to the absence of asceticism in Judaism:
"Asceticism is indigenous to the religions which posit as fundamental the wickedness of this life and the corruption under sin of the flesh. Buddhism, therefore, as well as Christianity, leads to ascetic practices. Monasteries are institutions of Buddhism no less than of Catholic Christianity. The assumption, found in the views of the Montanists and others, that concessions made to the natural appetites may be pardoned in those that are of a lower degree of holiness, while the perfectly holy will refuse to yield in the least to carnal needs and desires, is easily detected also in some of the teachings of Gautama Buddha. The ideal of holiness of both the Buddhist and the Christian saint culminates in poverty and chastity; i.e., celibacy. Fasting and other disciplinary methods are resorted to curb the flesh"
—The Jewish Encyclopedia
One tradition claims that Jesus traveled to India and Tibet during the "Lost years of Jesus" before the beginning of his public ministry. In 1887 a Russian war correspondent, Nicolas Notovitch, visited India and Tibet. He claimed that, at the lamasery or monastery of Hemis in Ladakh, he learned of the "Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men." His story, with a translated text of the "Life of Saint Issa," was published in French in 1894 as La vie inconnue de Jesus Christ. It was subsequently translated into English, German, Spanish, and Italian.
The "Life of Saint Issa, Best of the Sons of Men" purportedly recounts the travels of one known in the East as Saint Issa, whom Notovitch identified as Jesus. After initially doubting Notovitch, a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, Swami Abhedananda, journeyed to Tibet, investigated his claim, helped translate part of the document, and later championed his views.
Notovitch's writings were immediately controversial. The German orientalist Max Müller corresponded with the Hemis monastery that Notovitch claimed to have visited and Archibald Douglas visited Hemis Monastery. Neither found any evidence that Notovich (much less Jesus) had even been there himself, so they rejected his claims. The head of the Hemis community signed a document that denounced Notovitch as a liar.
Despite this contradictory evidence, a number of New Age or spiritualist authors have taken this information and have incorporated it into their own works. For example, in her book The Lost Years of Jesus: Documentary Evidence of Jesus' 17-Year Journey to the East, Elizabeth Clare Prophet asserts that Buddhist manuscripts provide evidence that Jesus traveled to India, Nepal, Ladakh and Tibet.
According to Jerry Bentley, "Scholars have often considered the possibility that Buddhism influenced the early development of Christianity. They have drawn attention to many parallels concerning the births, lives, doctrines, and deaths of the Buddha and Jesus"
Although the Buddha's birthday is celebrated in most traditions in May, which relates to the Buddha's mother Maya Devi, there is no early textual evidence to validate this birthday. Others, such as the author of The Angel-Messiah of Buddhists, Essenes, and Christians, claim, that based on the ancient Indian calendar in use around 600 b.c. the new year of the Indians was November 17, and so he concludes that since the Buddha was said to be born on the eighth day of the second month that the Buddha's birthday was December 25. This belief held by Buddhists is validated by certain ancient birth accounts of the Buddha, such as in the Asvaghosha-Kirita the Buddha is described as a descendent of solar kings, who was born when the sun retired; "There the sun, even although he had retired, was unable to scorn the moon-like faces of its women which put the lotuses to shame, and as if from the access of passion, hurried towards the western ocean to enter the (cooling) water". This Buddhist text also compares the birth of the Buddha to the constellation of the seven Rishis, which some have compared to the early Christian art depicting "seven-rays" coming out of a white dove. Others have linked this to the Pali text titled Seven Suns.
The administrative structures formed by Buddhism share the following similarities with those formed by Christianity:
- initiation into a holy trinity.
- monasticism and communal living for spiritual adherents which adhered to principles of practicing poverty and chastity.
- early Christian Councils reminiscent in organization to the Buddhist councils.
- missionaries and missions which were first organized and established by Buddhists, all predate the early Christian organizations in the same areas where Christianity was first established (Antioch, etc.).
It is agreed that the Buddha legend was known in the general western world and it has been asserted by Orientalist Samuel Beal that the story of the birth of the Buddha was well known in the West, and possibly influenced the story of the birth of Jesus.
Saint Jerome (4th century CE) mentions the birth of the Buddha, who he says "was born from the side of a virgin" (the Buddha was, according to Buddhist tradition, born from the hip of his mother). The story of the birth of the Buddha was also known: a fragment of Archelaos of Carrha (278 CE) mentions the Buddha's virgin-birth.
Scholars see strong parallels in both the myth and life of Buddha and Jesus. Buddha and his disciples traveling preachers going into homes and preaching gospels to those who hear, is one obvious parallel of a literary motif not found in other traditions. Jesus too pursues this form of preaching and teaching. Jesus speaks of himself as the 'the light' and the son of a great father while the Buddha proclaims himself to be a great father with sons of light (Bodhisattva). Jesus proclaims to come to convert the wicked while the Buddha proclaims that his main goal is to save those of noble character or 'those with little dust in their eyes' although in the Lotus sutra the Buddha claims to create an illusionary 'half-way point'for those who are wicked. Ernest De Bunsen states, "With the remarkable exception of the death of Jesus on the cross, and of the doctrine of atonement by vicarious suffering, which is absolutely excluded by Buddhism, the most ancient of the Buddhistic records known to us contain statements about the life and the doctrines of Gautama Buddha which correspond in a remarkable manner, and impossibly by mere chance, with the traditions recorded in the Gospels about the life and doctrines of Jesus Christ...."
T.W. Rhys Davids, British scholar of the Pāli language, was the earliest most energetic promoter of the Theravada tradition in the West. In 1878 he wrote of its northern counterpart: "Lamaism with its shaven priests, its bells and rosaries, its images and holy water, its popes and bishops, its abbots and monks of many grades, its processions and feast days, its confessional and purgatory, and its worship of the double Virgin, so strongly resembles Romanism that the first Catholic missionaries thought it must be an imitation by the devil of the religion of Christ."
It is believed use of rosaries spread from India to Western Europe during the Crusades via its Muslim version, the tasbih. Some, however, suggest an alternative route. A form of prayer rope appears to have been used in Eastern Christendom much earlier; so, it is argued, the Muslim tasbih may in fact originate at a Christian source. Both, it is pointed out, have 33 beads, corresponding to the years of Christ's life.
Prayer with the palms touching one another, the Añjali Mudrā, is a common form of greeting and prayer gesture in all Indian spiritual traditions, including the Buddhist. It is absent in Jewish traditions, whose scriptures specify raised or clasped hands. Prayer with the palms touching one another is, however, depicted in Christian art from the Middle Ages onwards.
In 1921 the Buddhist Scholar and diplomat Sir Charles Eliot, writing of apparent similarities between Christian practices and their counterparts in Buddhist tradition, expressed the view that: " When all allowance is made for similar causes and coincidences, it is hard to believe that a collection of such practices as clerical celibacy, confession, the veneration of relics, the use of the rosary and bells can have originated independently in both religions."
Although Greek rulers as far as the Mediterranean are mentioned as having received Buddhist missionaries, only in Bactria and the Kabul valley did Buddhism really take root. Also, the statement in the late Buddhist chronicle of the Mahavamsa, that among the Buddhists who came to the dedication of a great Stupa in Sri Lanka in the second century BCE, "were over thirty thousand monks from the vicinity of Alassada, the capital of the Yona country" is sometimes taken to suggest that long before the time of Christ, Alexandria in Egypt was the centre of flourishing Buddhist communities. Although it is true that Alassada is the Pali for Alexandria; but it is usually thought that the city meant here is not the ancient capital of Egypt, but as the text indicates, the chief city of the Yona country, the Yavana country of the rock-inscriptions: Bactria and vicinity. And so, the city referred to is most likely Alexandria of the Caucasus.
Also, there are various views on the origins of the oldest Buddhist teachings of the Pali Canon. The origin of the later teachings of Mahayana Buddhism are especially obscure. It is believed that most of the Mahayana sutras only appear in writing after 100 BC, and most did not reach their final form until much later, just as the Gospels would not reach a standard form until the Nicene version.
The earlier teachings of the Pali Canon and the Agamas however, are clearly up to four centuries older than Christianity. Although Buddhism is older than Christianity, and some Buddhist influence, such as Barlaam and Josaphat, is clearly evident.
Buddhist views of Jesus differ, since Jesus is not mentioned in any Buddhist text. Some Buddhists, including Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama regard Jesus as a bodhisattva who dedicated his life to the welfare of human beings. Both Jesus and Buddha advocated radical alterations in the common religious practices of the day. There are occasional similarities in language, such as the use of the common metaphor of a line of blind men to refer to religious authorities with whom they disagreed (DN 13.15, Matthew 15:14). Some believe there is a particularly close affinity between Buddhism (or Eastern spiritual thought generally) and the doctrine of Gnostic texts such as The Gospel of Thomas.
The 14th century Zen master Gasan Joseki indicated that the Gospels were written by an enlightened being:
"And why take ye thought for raiment? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin, and yet I say unto you that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these...Take therefore no thought for the morrow, for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself."
Gasan said: "Whoever uttered those words I consider an enlightened man."
The Sinologist Martin Palmer has commented on the similarity between the Blessed Virgin Mary and Guan Yin. The Tzu-Chi Foundation, a Taiwanese Buddhist organization, also noticing the similarity, commissioned a portrait of Guan Yin and a baby that resembles the typical Madonna and Child painting.
Some Chinese of the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic Philippines, in an act of syncretism, have identified Guan Yin with the Virgin Mary.
During the Edo Period in Japan, when Christianity was banned and punishable by death, some underground Christian groups venerated the Virgin Mary disguised as a statue of Kannon; such statues are known as Maria Kannon. Many had a cross hidden in an inconspicuous location.
In several Asian countries, Christian missionaries over the centuries have converted in many traditionally Buddhist communities. Buddhism in Sri Lanka was for several centuries heavily affected by Christian efforts to convert the population under subsequent Portuguese, Dutch and English colonizers. In the late 19th century a national Buddhist movement started, inspired by the American Buddhist Henry Steel Olcott, and empowered by the results of the Panadura debate between a Christian priest and the Buddhist monk Migettuwatte Gunananda Thera.
Significant Christian populations exist in South Korea. In countries like China, Thailand, Burma (also known as Myanmar) and Japan, Christianity is a small minority among other beliefs.